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Do you agree that religious morality "comes down from savage ages" like Bertrand Russell said in this interview?

While listening to the latest Freethought Radio podcast, I was caught by something Bertrand Russell said in a portion of an interview they aired from 1959.

TV Interviewer: "I was thinking of those people who find that some kind of religious code helps them to live their lives — it gives them a very strict set of rules — the rights and the wrongs."

Bertrand Russell: "People are generally quite mistaken. Great many of them do more harm than good and they would probably be able to find rational morality that they could live by if they drop this irrational traditional taboo morality that comes down from savage ages."

Why aren't we using this phrase when confronted with lawmakers wanting to base our modern rights and wrongs on biblical values?

About the 22 - 23 minute mark on the podcast, is where this passage is. It's the show dated Thursday May 12, 2022 - titled "The Wonder of Science"

The whole podcast of course is delightful, especially the interview with Sasha Sagan, but my purpose in posting is just this one particular passage by Bertrand Russell - and the point he was making that religious values come down from "savage ages" which I thought is an interesting term and makes a good point. I personally agree with him on this.

If you don't subscribe to the podcast, you can listen to it here:


Julie808 8 May 13

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Interesting as I just read this morning the Sasha Sagan and her mother's, Ann Druyan, speech in the latest FFRF newsletter. I am thinking of looking into Ms. Sagan's book "For Small Creatures, Such as We." Seems our library has two copies in the overdrive book section.

I listened to "For Small Creatures, Such as We" several months ago on Audible. I enjoyed it. I hope she does write the type of book she mentioned was in her mind at some time in the future too!


There are two fallacies I see here:

  1. one, that because we have many examples of religious thinking causing harm, and purportedly few examples of secular thinking causing harm, then secular thinking should be embraced. But the fallacy here is that is nothing more than claiming that because white is good, then black must be bad. Not to mention that Bertrand is making that from the basis of his logical understanding, not a survey of the totality of good versus the totality of bad that religious and secular thinking have caused.

  2. the second fallacy I see him committing is in claiming that it comes from the Savage ages, he is basically saying that because these thoughts come from the far past, then they must be invalid. But that again is fallacious given that just because something was thought of thousands of years ago doesn't necessarily imply that it still isn't relevant today. After all, it's not like humans have changed so much physically in the last thousand years so as to claim that are emotional and spiritual imperatives can be, or must be, subdued

So why isn't this being used more in politics question the answer is clear when one considers that being an atheist is not good politics. But even if it were, the fact that you cannot legitimately claim that secular thinking is better than religious thinking... Nonwithstanding the difficulty in pinning down and I isolating secular and religious thinking from the myriad of other factors that go into any decision... Makes any claim that "my belief is better than yours" fall on deaf rational ears as far as I'm concerned

Well I think the point Bertrand Russell was making in the rest of the interview was that he felt being practical was more useful than being nostalgic, that using facts is more useful than using religious beliefs.

The writers of the bible were ignorant of several facts, and much of the bible celebrates fear and hatred. So, I don't think he's talking about just the fact that it was written a long time ago, but that it is based on fallacies long since proven wrong and new facts are available for better decisions.

Many things uttered by people centuries ago were very wise and helpful for humanity - and some things were not helpful to humanity. It's important to make the distinction.

Secular thinking is better in at least one way, if it is good secular thinking at least. And that is that there is an intrinsic honesty not found in religious thinking. Which is that when an idea in secular thinking has to be supported by a belief, or beliefs, then it has to be plainly stated that it is supported by that one belief or set of beliefs. Whereas religious thinking makes the claim that all beliefs are dependent upon each other, and that therefore dismissing one means dismissing all beliefs.

As in. If I make the secular claim that I do not think it is good to promote gambling, then I may make a justification, giving the idea that gambling can be addictive and destructive to happiness. ( All morals must depend ultimately upon a belief, which I term a prerequisite, since it is not possible to derive them just by logic alone. )The belief supporting which idea is, my belief that it is better to live in a world which is more happy.

While if a religious person makes the same claim that, they do not think it is good to promote gambling, then make a justification, giving the idea that gambling can be addictive and destructive to happiness. The belief supporting which is, their belief that it is better to live in a world which is more happy. There then follows, that creating a more happy world is not just a personal choice of belief, but is supported by their god, and their belief in that god, and is justified by, holy scripture and tradition etc. Meaning that a whole set of fake authorities must be rejected along with it, if you reject the first belief.

And that is fine, if you are dealing with what would generally be thought of as a good idea, such as not advertising gambling to children say. But what if the idea is a bad one, such as racism, that blue people are vastly better and more valuable humans than green ones say. This is why religion is so beloved of those who would promote bad ideas, because they have no need to expose the basic belief behind the conclusion to scrutiny, but can claim the whole belief system, and that rejecting one part is rejecting all morality completely.


I tend to equate savage ages with (as George Lakoff suggests ) the 'strict father' mental framework, rather than the 'nurturant parent' model. Both 'men' and so-called 'women' succumb to the 'strict father' idolatry. As I've seen it played out by people both in my family and others outside my nuclear family, I've found that a paternalistic mentality does far more harm over multiple, entire lifetimes via its paternalistic judgments which culminate in scattered untruths, half-baked confusion, and repeated lies that the original untruths begun decades ago managed to perpetuate like cancer. The untruths are like invasive wars fabricated against countless innocent lives whose only fault is a desire to love and be loved, yet those innocent lives often get swept aside as if they are 'guilty' of the crime of being born, and as if life has to be an 'act of god'. Whereas the 'strict father' breaks down the goodness and strength in others, the 'nurturant parent' does not put up barriers to open communication, and thus fosters courage, honesty, hope, strength, and a will to nurture others. Climate change is taking lives daily in the form of pandemics, ecosystem destruction, drought, hunger, homelessness, brutal wars, overpopulation, and yet, who has a handle on how to solve all these problems? The answer is we all do, and must do anything we can do. Without seeking the remedies purposefully, humans will leave our reason to be, or our eventual extinction, up to random 'acts of god' ... otherwise known as the 'strict father' limited view of morality, as Bertrand Russell put it: "irrational traditional taboo morality that comes down from savage ages". It is as though we are reliving the savage ages, because societies often allow the same historical patterns to replay. To explain the meaning of savage ages bluntly, Carl Sagan said: "Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”

Yes, the authoritarian husband and father doesn't fit in well with the nurturing goal our modern family structure. "The man is always right" is what I was taught as a child. That did me no favors growing up nor throughout my marriage. Had I been raised by a nurturing father, my life would have turned out much differently, for sure, as would many other men and women who grew up in authoritarian households.

Yes ... authoritarianism is a sad fact of the times we in which we find ourselves in America and in many unfortunate places around the globe.

The authoritarian impulse in humans had been tamed in pre-agricultural societies. They were fiercely egalitarian - not by nature, but by culturally modifying their nature. Agriculture and sedentary civilization were accomplished by hierarchical organization. It is built into the very structure of civilization. But it has devastating side effects, and I believe could be engineered out. But in order to do so we have to see and acknowledge its evolutionary roots. It won’t be an easy job.


If you want to be an ultra conservative, or promote views based on a prejudice so bad that you can not find rational arguments, then your last resort is God. Whose mixed up scriptures and revelations are easily mined to support any view you wish.


“Savage Ages” is a term no scientist or historian would use today. It’s considered offensive. It’s more of a value judgement than a descriptive term, and that value judgement may be far from historically accurate.

Everything we have, religion and science alike, is built on what came before it, so it’s kind of a non-statement. But the idea that pre-literate societies were savages and we are now all made out of peace and civility is not only an outdated idea, as many of Russell’s thoughts are, but so obviously wrong as to be laughable.

Russell makes the same mistake here so many smart people do - the assumption that if I can think my way through complicated moral and emotional challenges, then everyone one else can too. And that’s simply not the case.

There are many people, as the interviewer suggests, who simply don’t have highly developed rational skills, and do need some kind of guidance in order to function in modern society.

Add to that the problem that so many of the lawmakers, and the people who support them, that are trying to push laws in the direction of their understanding of Biblical principles, have actually turned many of the Biblical teachings upside down to fit their personal superstitions and prejudices. Often the Bible says just the opposite of what they seem to think it does.

Most of the laws we all accept as good already are consistent with, and inspired by, Biblical principles. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. And of course, pre-literate societies were working these rules out for themselves long before writing (including the Bible) was even invented.

What Russell calls “irrational traditional taboo morality” is actually not, for the most part, a true reflection of the great religious wisdom traditions, but a reflection of the fact that ignorance and instinct will overtake any establishment that tries to refine them, inhabit their halls, wear their symbols, take their names, usurp their power, and redirect their momentum to suit their animal nature.

The enemy is not religion, but religious imposters. Everything we have today came from the past - both our evolved animal nature, and our ever-evolving cultural efforts to refine it.

The solution is not to abandon the effort to refine our animal instincts just because people have corrupted our traditions. We need to realize that religious reform will be a never-ending maintenance task. We will always need institutions that teach our not-so-rationally-astute majority how to live in the artificial environment we have created for ourselves.

skado Level 9 May 14, 2022

If you set up fake sources of authority, such as scriptures, tradition, or even the supernatural, they will always be open to abuse by the criminally inclined. In part because they are bound to become degraded over time, and therefore mixed up to the extent that they will stand any interpretation you wish to place on them. And in part, because any fake authority is only needed by the criminally inclined, since good morality can, and does, find its own justifications. If you want to be an ultra conservative, or promote views based on a prejudice so bad that you can not find rational arguments, then your last resort is God. Whose mixed up scriptures and revelations degraded over time, are easily mined to support any view you wish.

It is moreover a bad mistake to assume that "scripture" and inherited religion, were made in the first place only by the morally most advanced and thoughtful people of their time, any time. Just as much of the scripture would have been written in the past by those with less than prefect intentions, as is written into the media today, by political propagandists and prejudiced hacks. The bible which is a very bloody book, spends far more time promoting crimes such as, genocide, theft by force, rape , racism, and zenophobia than it does moral codes such as "Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Don’t lie." being a perfect example.

Religious reform is a never ending maintenance task yes, and the foremost form of religious reform, is to abandon the old long corrupted forms of religion, like theist religions, which are now only of interest to religious imposters, in favour of improved and yet to be corrupted religions, such as human rights, environmentalism and democracy, for just three examples of many, ( Which do exist and are to some degree religious), continuing to give excessive respect to the old, merely because it is old, only sharpens the weapons of the criminal for them, and downgrades the moral debate of the current age.

And I am sorry but Russell does not make. "the same mistake here so many smart people do - the assumption that if I can think my way through complicated moral and emotional challenges, then everyone one else can too." Humans do not vary greatly in basic levels of intelligence, however much snobs may like to think they do. And the basic priciples of morality are not complicated, not rocket science, indeed they are not even, anything like as difficult as the maths of long division, which most people manage at school. The basics of morality are very simple, what makes them complicated and difficult, is trying to teach many conflicting moralities derived from many different sources, like biblical, all at the same time, instead of teaching basic principles and encouraging the asking of basic questions. Which is like trying to teach long division, while using several different number systems, languages and writting forms all at the same time.

I find many of the tales in the bible to be savage. I also find a lot of the history from the centuries around biblical times to be savage. I just had never thought about it before today.

It's my understanding that Bertrand Russell was a philosopher, not a scientist or a historian, but I might be wrong about that.

I didn't understand the interviewer's question to mean most people aren't capable of determining rational morals, but nonetheless I think Russell's answer was meant to encourage more critical thinking and rational thought, rather than just believing in things because one is told to.

I'm of the thought that religious values were created in and for very different times than we have now and either need to be adaptable or tossed out in favor of a better story and more pertinent values for contemporary society.

I think that as far as biblical values, they are so far away from where we are, that they are pretty much of no use to many of us. I think there is a growing number of people who think like me. Apparently you are not one of them, and that's okay. That's why I asked the question. Thanks for your response.

The idea of "savage ages", certainly is now considered politically incorrect, and would not be used today. But it would also be a very strange idea to think that morality was the only field of human life, in which there has been no progress or advancement in thousands of years. That would be to take a view much further towards the opposite extreme, and probably far more doubtful one than the one that I am sure Russell intended. While to critic a person in a different age, merely for using the language of his own age, is a very extreme ad hom indeed.

All great reasons for reform.
Religion needs to include training in scientific thinking. Science and religion make much better allies than enemies.

The scientifically conducted polls that I am ware of indicate that, world wide, there are a diminishing number of people who think like you. We are evolutionarily predisposed to religious thought. We can’t wish that away. Our only choices are to succumb to the lowest of our animal instincts or to fight the good fight of constantly upgrading the cultural counterbalance to those instincts. We can call that counter-effort whatever we like, but historically it has been called religion.

@Fernapple Yes, I think it was the word "savage" that struck me, as it's a word that has been applied by Christians to the native inhabitants of many lands they have invaded who simply had a different way of life.

For example, the missionaries considered the inhabitants of Hawaii to be savages, though they had a fairly peaceful way of life, except for some punishments doled out to breakers of the kapu, and not even those punishments were as harsh as nailing someone to a cross, or burning someone alive at the stake for imagining they are a witch, or cutting down a whole community for not believing a particular religion brought in from a different place and so on.

The word savage seems to have been co-opted and used almost like projection by religionists, who don't want to think of the basis of their own religion to have come from troubled times.

I wonder if Russell was right in his usage at that time, and if so why not now?

Maybe religionists need to hear that description of the times during the origins of their faith and compare it to its use when describing others outside their faith. A look in the mirror so to speak.


The morals and values the bible uses were established by communities to promote peaceful coexistence long before the invention of any god/s.

Betty Level 7 May 13, 2022

Yep, such as the "golden rule" and those mores and values existed before and without religion, though religion and myths can amplify those messages, we do need to take stock once in a while and see if they still hold value for us in the modern world.

But some of the laws, such as dietary rules, may have had some reason to follow them during those times, because of animal diseases or what-have-you, but those rules aren't followed now.

Biblical rules that seem patriarchal nowadays do not track well in an egalitarian society, when they were created in a time, or to create/preserve an era of gender oppression. There were egalitarian societies before biblical times, where women may have been revered even, but the bible smashed that outlook toward equality.

@Julie808 Agree. Just as we evolve so do our morals and values.

@Betty Thanks Betty. So many do not get this but look at swim suits form 1900 til now and you see it in action. It is obvious that no bible ever gave us morals and neither did any god.


I think Russel correctly identified the origin of so-called religious morality. If he could see what is going on today in Ukraine and Yemen and in the halls of the US Congress, I think he might agree that we are still living in savage ages.


I find Bertrand Russell to be a keen observer of the human condition as well as a man who was well ahead of his time.

Yes, his book "Why I am not a Christian" was the first book that caught my eye and I read fully through when I realized I was atheist. Thankfully many more books followed, but many of his statements still hold true to me. I think that's where I first read "If God made everything, then who made God?" I still use that reasoning, when confronted with dogmatic folks.

He was ahead of his time… but is now behind ours. The leading edge of science, anthropology, philosophy, and indeed, theology, now know a lot more than he ever did.


Religious morality? That's a huge oxymoron!


Rational people have been saying this for quite literally hundreds of years. Okay, thousands.

The irrational believers cling to their delusions. They refuse to accept that their ways don't apply to everyone.
They stubbornly insist that everyone must live how they believe they should.

I'm sick of their bullshit.
We need to ramp up the pushback.
Big time.
We need to quit screwing around with these assholes.

Good point, while the words "comes down from savage ages." are powerful, they are no fix-all, and my view is that given we are vastly outnumbered, those who sit on the sidelines, or hide their views under a rug are doing nothing whatsoever to help . . . . these theists must be confronted directly . . . . these people have hordes of indoctrinators who go out of their way to lead others astray, while people who do not buy into the bullshit are unwilling to step up to the plate, and that is why the world is what it is today.

If we be not bold dragon-slayers, we end up being the slain dragon.

@Archeus_Lore I've been taking a lot of heat for calling out the thumpers when I am confronted with them.
I don't care.
I'm not backing down anymore.
I'm not going to play nice while these assholes try to run my life with their bullshit.
Fuck. That. Shit.

@KKGator Exactly, these people will get all offended if you call their 2000 year old book a book of bullshit, but I am just as offended that they think it is some holy, sacred, "word of god". So far these "end times" assholes are doing their best to self-fulfill their stupid, self-destructive beliefs.

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