By Peter HarrisonSeptember 2, 2020
Unbelievers by Alec Ryrie
There is no shortage of explanations. It is not uncommon still to hear tired repetitions of the 19th-century idea that the abandonment of religious belief is a sign that humanity is at last growing up. Human societies, on this view, are destined to progress through stages that culminate in the secular and scientific. The West, of course, is ahead of the rest, which conveniently explains the somewhat uneven pattern of global secularization.
A close relation to the inexorable progress story is the thesis that attributes unbelief to the rise of the natural sciences and the triumph of reason. The findings of science have not only made specific religious beliefs implausible, it is proposed, but its methods offer the only path to reliable knowledge. These narratives are comforting to those who consider themselves too clever to be religious, but suffer from the disadvantage of being difficult to square with the historical facts and patterns of secularization (and de-secularization) beyond the boundaries of the West.
More historically plausible are suggestions that secularization takes place not through hostile conquest or the displacement of religion by something outside it (after all, where would this outside thing come from?), but as the consequence of tendencies latent within Christianity itself. The development of late medieval nominalism and the move to univocal accounts of God have been singled out by numerous authors as self-inflicted wounds from which Western Christendom has never recovered. For Max Weber, secularization was partly the consequence of desacralizing and “these worldly” aspects of versions of Protestantism (and, indeed, Judaism). Marcel Gauchet has since run a similar line, describing Christianity as “the religion of the end of religion.” Brad Gregory sees modern unbelief as the unintended outcome of the Reformation in which confessional hostilities led to a mutually assured destruction. Most recently, Dominic Erdozain has persuasively argued that the decline of traditional Christianity was a consequence of its own moral standards being deployed against it.
In Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, the distinguished British historian Alec Ryrie sets out a line of argument that sits broadly within this second group of explanations. He proposes that modern unbelief arose less as a consequence of the external assaults of science and reason, and more from doubts that arose among the faithful themselves. In offering an emotional history of doubt, Ryrie’s further claim is that the internal destabilization of Christianity was driven by the impulses of anger and anxiety which were first felt by ordinary people. These were precipitated not by worries about the problem of evil, the challenges of a naturalistic science, or the corrosive consequences of biblical criticism — formal philosophical justifications of unbelief came later. Anxiety and anger arose as individuals agonized about their eternal destiny and directed their anger against God and corrupt ecclesiastical institutions.
Writing an account that focuses on emotion, heterodox belief, and the mental lives of the general populace throws up significant challenges for the researcher. Affect is more difficult to identify in the historical record than argument. Heterodox sentiment is liable to attract unwelcome attention and is not typically expressed in the most forthright manner. Ordinary folk cannot be relied upon to publish systematic accounts of their innermost feelings. Ryrie rises to these challenges admirably. Focusing primarily on the early modern period, he draws widely from diaries, autobiographies, correspondence, sermons, and books of spiritual advice to build his case. He also ranges widely across some of the lesser known and obscure religious sects of the period — Familists, Spiritualists, Muggletonians, Ranters, and Seekers.
We learn of the soldier-turned-schoolmaster Noël Journet, who ridiculed the Bible as a catalog of “fables … dreams, and lies.” New England Puritan Michael Wigglesworth wondered how, given the challenges of translation, the Bible could be infallible. Mary Gunter, a convert from Catholicism, had doubts about whether the Bible was a hoax promoted for political ends. Anticipating John Lennon by several centuries, the young lawyer Samuel Sewall dreamed that there might not be a heaven, while London teenager Sarah Wight pondered whether hell existed only in her fevered imagination. The severity of hell’s torments was a major preoccupation, leading godly gentlewoman Dionys Fitzherbert to question the justice of God. Hannah Allen, too, over the course of several years of spiritual agonies, was tempted to have “hard thoughts of [her] dearest Lord” whose wrath seemed incommensurable with divine love. Others sought simply to make the best of it. Gentlewoman Mrs. Drake, assured of her damnation, resolved to spend her time in “all jollity and merriment.” But it was more common for those with profound anxieties about their eternal destination to be moved variously to doubt, unbelief, and even suicidal despair.
Ryrie is at his most persuasive when describing the plight of these ordinary, early modern Christian doubters. We do hear from most of the usual suspects — Machiavelli, Montaigne, Spinoza, and others. But Ryrie implies that to the extent that their arguments gained purchase, they did so only because they provided justifications for the emotionally grounded reservations about organized religion that had already been quietly entertained by a silent minority.
The shadow of the Protestant Reformation looms large in the background of the religious anxieties expressed by the 16th- and 17th-century figures that Ryrie introduces us to. In the 16th century, the inhabitants of Christendom were for the first time confronted with an array of religious options, each of which claimed to offer an exclusive path to eternal salvation. Raising the stakes considerably was the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination — God chooses from eternity who will be saved and who will be damned. The dogma that Calvin admitted was “unfathomable” others found unconscionable. The eternity of torment that awaited those chosen by God for damnation not only generated anxiety for those uncertain of their elect status but was also morally repugnant to others bold enough to hold the Deity to account according to their own judgments of right and wrong. Personal anxieties could escalate into anger against an unjust God.
Anger was also directed against God’s earthly representatives. The hypocrisy of the priesthood was a common complaint. “Ridiculous dull preachers,” complained one Englishman, were responsible for the “scornful Sect of Atheists.” It was also alleged that the clergy were simply agents of social control, tasked with keeping the populace in place with stories of heaven and hell. Again, these charges of “priestcraft” gained considerable traction from the Reformers’ challenges to the special status of the Catholic clergy and their councils.
Ryrie, who locates himself in the camp of the believers, offers a sensitive and sympathetic account of those on the other side. He wears his learning lightly, letting the actors speak for themselves. Unbelief, in his diverse range of subjects, is not unthinking or perverse, but the outcome of genuine and profound struggles of conscience. The book does a wonderful job of bringing these previously unheard voices to our attention, and in doing so adds a vital new dimension to our understanding of the origins of modern unbelief.
I wonder, though, whether the scope of Ryrie’s study — he focuses primarily on the English context and the 16th and 17th centuries — might limit the generalizability of his thesis. At the beginning of the book, he suggests that “unbelief clearly existed in practice […] before it existed in theory.” What he means is that personal doubts preceded theoretical atheism and its rational justifications. He is surely right about this. But there is a sense, too, in which in the period before Ryrie’s story gets under way, “belief” itself had been subsumed within practice. Medieval Christianity, arguably, was more about practicing than professing, belonging rather than believing (to use sociologist Grace Davie’s helpful distinction). One was a Christian by virtue of membership of the Church, participating in its rituals, and observing the seasons of the liturgical calendar. It was sufficient for the majority to entertain implicit belief in abstruse doctrinal propositions.
Going back further still to earliest Christianity, we find a remarkable absence in the New Testament of references to “belief” in our modern sense. As we learn from Teresa Morgan’s magisterial Roman Faith and Christian Faith, the key New Testament word was “faith” (pistis), the primary meaning of which was “trust” rather than the theoretical entertaining of propositions about God. Perhaps, then, the history of unbelief needs to be more closely linked to the story of how belief itself became the most prominent aspect of the Christian life. On this subject, Ethan Shagan’s recent The Birth of Modern Belief is an indispensable guide.
Accompanying the modern prioritization of individual belief was a corresponding diminution in the importance of sacramental practices. This involved not merely a change to the context of religious worship, but arguably to a form of life that shaped the way in which beliefs were held. In this sense, again, practice precedes belief. Accordingly, when, in the famous (and much misunderstood) “wager argument,” Blaise Pascal finally offers a prescription for unbelief, it is this: “Follow the way by which they set out, acting as if they already believed, taking holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally cause you to believe.”
Belief, as Ryrie convincingly illustrates, is not just a matter of intellectual assent. But neither can it simply be relocated into the affective sphere. If Pascal is on the right track, beliefs are also embedded within a web of social practices and cultic acts which lends them meaning. Perhaps the rituals of daily life in the technologically advanced West are hostile to a religious vision of the world. This may help account for the vast acceleration in the rate of Western unbelief that began only in the second half of the last century.
In his conclusion, Ryrie observes that Western Christendom is unlikely “to snap back into place.” If the present sociological patterns hold, this may well be right. But religious traditions in which doctrinal belief is less prominent will, like medieval Christian faith, be more immune to the modern phenomenon of unbelief. And this will also be true for future versions of Christianity, which, it is worth reminding ourselves, still flourishes in places far removed from the historical centers of Christendom.
Peter Harrison is a Professorial Research Fellow and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland.
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