Copleston–Russell debate

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The Copleston–Russell debate is a dispute concerning the existence of God between Frederick Copleston and Bertrand Russell in a 1948 BBC broadcast. The debate between Copleston and Russel would typify the arguments presented between theists and atheists in the later half of the 20th century, with Russell's approach often used by atheists in the late 20th century.[1] The debate centers on two points: the metaphysical and moral arguments on the existence of God.[2]


In the 1948 BBC Radio Debate between Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston, Russell chose to assume the position of an agnostic as he thought that the non-existence of God cannot be proved. Whether he was an agnostic or atheist is a question he had addressed before; while technically agnostic with regard to the Christian God, as with the Greek Gods, to all intents and purposes he can be considered an atheist.[2][3]

Copleston argued that the existence of God can be proved from contingency, and thought that only the existence of God would make sense of human's moral and religious experience:[4]

First, that the existence of God can be philosophically proved by a metaphysical argument; secondly, that it is only the existence of God that will make sense of man's moral experience and of religious experience. [...] As regards the metaphysical argument, we are apparently in agreement that what we call the world consists simply of contingent beings. That is, of beings no one of which can account for its own existence. You say that the series of events needs no explanation: I say that if there were no necessary being, no being which must exist and cannot not-exist, nothing would exist. The infinity of the series of contingent beings, even if proved, would be irrelevant. Something does exist; therefore, there must be something which accounts for this fact, a being which is outside the series of contingent beings. If you had admitted this, we could then have discussed whether that being is personal, good, and so on. [...] the problem of God's existence is an existential problem whereas logical analysis does not deal directly with problems of existence.

Russell however found both arguments unconvincing. He contended that Copleston's argument from contingency is a fallacy, and that there are better explanations for our moral and religious experience:

First, as to the metaphysical argument: I don't admit the connotations of such a term as "contingent" or the possibility of explanation in Father Copleston's sense. I think the word "contingent" inevitably suggests the possibility of something that wouldn't have this what you might call accidental character of just being there, and I don't think is true except in the purely causal sense. You can sometimes give a causal explanation of one thing as being the effect of something else, but that is merely referring one thing to another thing and there's no—to my mind—explanation in Father Copleston's sense of anything at all, nor is there any meaning in calling things "contingent" because there isn't anything else they could be. [...] I cannot attribute a Divine origin to this sense of moral obligation, which I think is quite easily accounted for in quite other ways.


  1. ^ Graham Oppy, N. N. Trakakis. Twentieth-Century Philosophy of Religion : The History of Western Philosophy of Religion, Volume 5. Routledge. pp. 301&ndash, 302. ISBN 9781317546399.
  2. ^ a b Mike Springer (14 November 2012). "Bertrand Russell and F.C. Copleston Debate the Existence of God, 1948". Open Culture.
  3. ^ Russell, Bertrand (1947). "Am I An Atheist or an Agnostic?". Encyclopedia of Things. Archived from the original on 22 June 2005.
  4. ^ "Transcript of the Russell/Copleston radio debate". Philosophy of Religion.

External links[edit]

A Debate on the Existence of God: The Cosmological Argument -- F. C. Copleston vs. Bertrand Russell on YouTube