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.

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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.

There is another story that helps explain today’s “nones.” Often enough, Christianity wasn’t rejected outright—either intellectually or emotionally. Rather, it didn’t take hold because it wasn’t successfully passed down. This outcome resulted from an array of interlocking social changes. First, for good theological reasons, Christians gave up trying to coerce people into believing. Second, the worldly benefits of being a Christian mostly went away. People once went to church to prove they were respectable. This was a vital survival strategy. When hard times came, neighbors and charities would only help those deemed deserving. But rising standards of living and the creation of a welfare state reduced reliance on the safety net of a pious reputation.

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A third reason was the rise of leisure opportunities. Before modern transportation and media, a person could neither get out of town on Sunday morning nor access electronic entertainment, making church a welcome break from a boring, cooped-up life at home. But once a trip to the beach was within reach, it was church that felt boring and cooped-up. Fourth was the rise of permissive parenting. Mom and Dad no longer had the nerve to insist that Johnny get up and go to Sunday school, whether he wanted to or not. The parents had not stopped believing in God; they just neglected to give their children a spiritual formation.

Repeat the cycle just once, and you have a generation that hasn’t necessarily rejected religion—but, in all likelihood, hasn’t been initiated into it. When the English soccer star David Beckham’s daughter was born, a journalist asked if he planned to have her christened. He replied, “I definitely want Brooklyn christened, but I don’t know into what religion yet.” This is not a culture of having rejected religion—whether intellectually or emotionally. Many of the “nones” don’t know how to pray for the same reason they don’t know how to read Roman numerals: No one taught them when they were young, and so they now assume it must not be worth learning. Maybe Jill doesn’t believe in God because her grandparents let her parents stay out late on Saturday night and then sleep in on Sunday morning. Anger and anxiety play their roles, but so does apathy.

More Deeply and Truly

Ryrie is a specialist in early-modern history, and thus he has told a story focused on the 16th and 17th centuries. The last pages of the book, however, offer a powerful and provocative meditation on our current moral climate. Christian thought, Ryrie argues, is no longer the basis of morality. Instead, we have “the anti-Nazi narrative.” Once Jesus Christ, as the ultimate standard of goodness, was our moral lodestar. He has been replaced by Adolf Hitler as “the fixed reference point by which we define evil.” It used to be that crying “atheist” was the best way to really discredit someone; nowadays, “Nazi” is the smear of choice. The cross is no longer a potent symbol in our culture, but the swastika sure is.

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I think this analysis helps explain why almost every online argument eventually escalates to a Hitler analogy. I was recently interviewed for an article about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The journalist asked me about Bonhoeffer’s relevance for today. This is normally a dream question for a church historian: We spend our lives arguing that Athanasius, Julian of Norwich, Jonathan Edwards, or whomever is more relevant than commonly supposed. I found myself, however, warning against the temptation to think of Bonhoeffer as too relevant: Not every ideological fight is analogous to resisting Hitler. Our current moral framework too easily lends itself to seeing our opponents as evil incarnate.

To return to the book’s main argument, Ryrie is definitely on to something right and important. For those who have given religious matters much sustained thought, emotions are often more determinative than they care to admit. My own intuition accords with his claim that people believe or disbelieve for reasons other than the ones they usually give.

That is why apologetics is often of limited utility. Such arguments are reassuring to Christians—who like having zinger debating points to wield—even though their own faith does not really rest on the theories and facts they rattle off so triumphantly. Moreover, these arguments do not persuade opponents, because they too disbelieve for motivations that differ from their stated reasons. The same is true from the other side. Ryrie reminds us that Richard Dawkins is essentially doing atheist apologetics. Thus he is remarkably unsuccessful at convincing believers that God doesn’t exist. His real ministry is “cheering up atheists.”

As for believers, we would be wise to lean more on faithfulness than cleverness. We know what we know more deeply and truly than we know why we know it. As Pascal famously put it, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

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).

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Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt
Our Rating
5 Stars - Masterpiece
Book Title
Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press
Release Date
November 19, 2019
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