Book Review: ‘Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt’ by Alec Ryrie

Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt

Review by Timothy Larsen. Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. He is the author of John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life (Oxford University Press). The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


Let’s begin with a quiz. Think of some specific people you know who do not believe in God. Do you have your answers? I thought of Jill, and then, to make it more challenging, imposed an alliteration rule before adding Jeremy, Jeanette, Jane, and Jeffrey.

Most of us can cobble our own lists together without too much trouble. Which raises an interesting question: How did we reach the point where this exercise is so easy? After all, there were numerous generations in Europe when almost no one could have named a single true unbeliever.

In his well-researched and thought-provoking book, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, historian Alec Ryrie recounts a McCarthy-like atheist scare in late-16th-century England. The authorities were determined to root the problem out, but the deeper they dug the less they found. One man was subpoenaed because he was overheard saying he knew that some people did not believe in heaven or hell. Asked to name names, he duly explained that he had learned of the existence of such people when a minister denounced them in a sermon.

So how did we get from unreliable rumors of atheists to alliterative lists of them? Ryrie’s thesis is that the standard account, which focuses on intellectual arguments for atheism, is wrong. He believes that these are generally just rationalizations concocted after the fact: “What if,” he wonders, the true story is that “people stopped believing and then found they needed arguments to justify their unbelief?”

Anger and Anxiety

Ryrie replaces the old view with a revisionist story driven by emotions rather than ideas. Just in case unbelievers might find this a slur, he adds this disarming disclaimer: “In writing an emotional history of atheism, I am not arguing that atheism is irrational. I am arguing that human beings are irrational.”

Specifically, Ryrie identifies two driving emotions on the road to modern unbelief: anger and anxiety. Both start with a mood and only later blossom into a manifesto. Anger might begin with a growing resentment toward church authority. Then the priest, when defied, might counter that he is backed by divine revelation, tempting our angry young man “to enlarge his quarrel to include God.” This is not about an intellectual tradition of rational arguments going back to the Roman philosopher Lucretius—it is about being ticked off.

The unbelief of anxiety was often a byproduct of Christian teaching gone awry. Fear that one was not predestined for salvation was a common form. This is a kind of unbelief of despair. It was not an intellectual rejection of doctrinal claims, but it could lead on to that. John Bunyan knew all about it: Tellingly, what keeps Pilgrim locked in Doubting Castle is not Atheism but Despair. Relatedly, preachers often set the bar of true faith impossibly high. Finding any confusion about doctrine in one’s mind or inclination toward worldliness in one’s heart was condemned as an outpost of atheism. This kind of preaching worked only too well. People assumed that atheism was everywhere, and it became harder to get alarmed about something so mundane.

In cultures where faith was dominant and secure, doubt often appeared as a counterweight, as a valve for letting off steam. Skepticism, after all, is not some purely modern mode: It was there in ancient Greece. Nor had it been somehow effectively banished from medieval Europe. Medieval people were quite capable of not buying a claim made by an authority: It did not take Protestant exegesis for someone to think that maybe bread is just bread and not the body of Christ. Indeed, unbelief was long considered an occupational hazard of the medical profession.

While Ryrie does not mark these connections, it is also illuminating to see how often church history and concerns about unbelief overlapped. Florence banned the reading of Lucretius in schools in 1517—the same year as Luther’s 95 Theses. The Atheist’s Tragedy was published in 1611—the same year as the King James Version.

What really helped the unbeliefs of anger and anxiety gain traction was when a moral critique of Christianity emerged from them. Even this began as an instinct rather than an argument. Moreover, it was an instinct arising on the basis of Christian thought. People assumed that Christian moral standards were the right ones but then turned those standards back on their source, weaponizing one part of Christian teaching (like God’s loving nature) to denounce other parts (like the doctrine of hell) as “un-Christian.”

And perhaps not unlike atheists turning Christians’ own claims against them, my main critique of Ryrie’s argument is that he does not take it far enough. His account still leans too heavily on the standard set of unbelievers, and even his emotional history of unbelief is still too much about people consciously rejecting the faith.

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Source: Christianity Today