Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt by Alec Ryrie - review by Dmitri Levitin

Dmitri Levitin

O Ye of Little Faith

Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt


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Writing about atheism and its long-term history is hard. The evidence is scarce: even in the case of elites, there is often great uncertainty over what someone really believed in times (in other words most of Western history) when unbelief could land you in very hot water, or something even hotter. When it comes to non-elites, the problem is greater still. Definitive evidence is more difficult to come by and while the archaeological record may help us understand what people ate or how they lived, it tells us far less about what they believed – let alone what they didn’t believe.

But writing about atheism is also hard because it tends to evoke accusations of partisanship. Alec Ryrie, an eminent historian of early modern British Protestantism, has faced both these problems in writing his new book, Unbelievers, concerned with what he calls the ‘emotional history of atheism’. He proudly declares his personal allegiances: not only is he a historian of religion, he is also a licensed lay minister in the Church of England. To offset this, he supplies a nicely ecumenical mission statement: ‘to remind both parties’ – believers and atheists – ‘how long their fates have been intertwined and how much they owe to one another, not least so they might be willing to talk and to listen to one another again’.

I opened this book with much excitement, not because of such ambitions – I am not sure that historians are best placed to play the role of relationship counsellor – but because I have a great deal of sympathy for Ryrie’s interpretative aim: to write a history of unbelief in which the focus is not on great thinkers, but on ‘men and women at every level of society’. Despite being a historian of ideas myself, I agree wholeheartedly with Ryrie that we tend to overplay the role of philosophers in the shaping of everyday belief (and unbelief). Since Ryrie takes aim at that assumption, I came to this book ready and willing to hear a very different story from the oft-told one that runs from Machiavelli through to Spinoza, Diderot, Darwin and on to Dawkins.

It was thus something of a surprise to find that much of his book is concerned with philosophers and other thinkers. Of its six substantive chapters, four focus primarily on such people. Subjects discussed include the reception of ancient medicine and Epicureanism in the Renaissance; the politicised explanation of religion by Machiavelli; the condemnation of such an explanation by Calvin and other theologians; Francis Bacon’s suggestion that atheism was preferable to superstition (Ryrie does not realise that this was an ancient argument pilfered from Plutarch); the sceptical relativism of Montaigne; the absurd accusations and counter-accusations of ‘atheism’ that Protestant and Catholic theologians hurled at each other after the Reformation; the blasphemous shenanigans of Sir Walter Ralegh’s circle; and the Jewish philosopher Uriel Acosta, who was falsely accused of atheism by his enemies. To finish, there is a quick run-through of Voltaire, Paine, Kant, Feuerbach, Huxley, Dostoevsky, Bakunin, Napoleon and Hitler.

For all the talk of ordinary men and women, women are more or less completely absent here, outnumbered about thirty to one by the usual male names. In any case, Ryrie’s passions clearly lie far away from the brief expositions of these men’s thoughts that he has forced himself to provide, expositions that often rely on outdated secondary literature and on unreliable translations. By the end, when Ryrie starts contemptuously dismissing more recent atheistic arguments as ‘ridiculous’, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that one is simply reading a religious apologetic.

But to stop here would be quite unfair, for there is something much more interesting in this book. Ryrie’s thesis about all these thinkers is that they were driven primarily not by philosophical or rational concerns, but by the two emotions of anger and anxiety, especially as they manifested themselves after the Reformation. He pays particular attention to the anticlerical anger that was built into Protestantism, which its own clergy struggled to control, and to the anxiety caused by early modern religious pluralism. His two central chapters, by far the most deeply researched, take up these themes. They concentrate on various nonconforming Protestants, almost all English, from the middle of the 17th century. Although much of the exposition still focuses on theological leaders, here we really do hear the promised voices of ordinary men and women. For example, Ryrie discusses the well-known case of Hannah Allen, a Puritan whose anxieties about whether she was predestined to salvation or damnation eventually led her to attempt suicide. Similar anxieties led one Mrs Drake to stop attending church altogether.

Ryrie admits that these cases, fascinating as they are, may be ‘as much psychiatric as theological’ and that it ‘remains open to dispute’ how typical they may have been. Nonetheless, he insists that they were symptoms of an ‘anxious unbelief’ that permeated society. Seen in these terms, organised religion was the Valium of the people. Then, during the tumultuous period of the Civil War and Interregnum, a number of ‘radicals’ refused to take their medicine and surrendered to their anger and anxieties. These included the various sectarians – Familists, Seekers, Ranters, Muggletonians and the small band of followers of Gerrard Winstanley – who rejected organised forms of religion and even Scripture in favour of individualistic spiritualism. Even in their own time these niche figures were dismissed as religious fanatics. Half a century ago, Christopher Hill improbably portrayed them as proto-Marxists. Ryrie redeploys them as the precursors of philosophical unbelief. At one point, he even compares the spiritual inner principle posited by Winstanley – a man who thought that his creation of a tiny farming commune on a hill in Surrey would herald the start of the biblical millennium – to Kant’s categorical imperative.

It’s not clear if Ryrie intends us to take such comparisons literally. But, as I understand him, he really does think that the foundations of Western unbelief are to be located in fringe English Protestant sectarianism. He writes that when ‘unbelief finally came out into the open’ in the second half of the 17th century in the writings of Hobbes and Spinoza, it was a direct inheritance from the Protestant spiritualists. (So we have returned to the significance of philosophers after all!) One can see why he has tried to develop this argument: to show that what connects unbelievers is not doctrinal atheism but rather an emotional reaction to religious authority. The problem is that it is so historically implausible. Hobbes openly despised the Civil War fanatics and developed his views, at least in part, so as to oppose them. Spinoza did spend time with the Collegiants, a Dutch Protestant sect with some ties to the English sectarians, after he was expelled from Amsterdam’s Jewish community. But the roots of the idea for which he was most violently condemned as an ‘atheist’, his equation of God with nature, lay in his manipulation of Cartesian metaphysics, a point on which Ryrie is silent.

Of course, both men shared the angry anticlericalism of the Civil War spiritualists. But opposition to the same thing is not enough to establish historical connections: both Judith Butler and Vladimir Putin rail angrily against Western ‘liberalism’, but that hardly means that there is any further link between them. Ryrie is able to create such a connection only by applying to his English radicals the age-old slippery slope argument: ‘Once you have begun cracking open the husks of traditional Christian doctrines in order to reveal their inner spiritual kernels, how do you know when to stop?’ But on those terms it could be argued that everyone (including Jesus himself) who has ever accused their local religious leaders of excessive ceremonialism, hypocrisy and failing to live up to their own ethical standards was laying the foundations for Spinozist atheism.

It seems that Ryrie began researching a fascinating book about the spiritual experiences of mid-17th-century English sectarians and, somewhere along the way, got distracted into writing one about the history of atheism. My cynical, un-Christian soul cannot help wondering whether the devilishly tempting whisperings of a publisher played a role in this process…

Despite my reservations about the end product, I should still very much like to see Ryrie and others undertake a wider exploration of non-elite unbelief, one that really does eschew philosophers. Such an exploration would, I think, have to rest on two prerequisites. The first would be an abandonment of the obsession with Protestantism, along with the Anglocentrism that so often accompanies it. One of the most spectacular discoveries made in the last half-century about the mental horizons of ‘ordinary’ early modern Europeans concerns the reading habits of pre-Revolution Frenchmen. It turns out that they absorbed many of their ideas – and their anger against the ancien régime not from the elegant writings of the philosophes but from works of pornography and libellous slander that were read in their thousands. No one could deny that these texts had far more impact than the ideas of some fringe Protestant spiritualists who flourished (if that is the right word) for a few short years in 1650s England.

But even more fundamentally, I would like to see such a study begin not with ‘culture’ or ‘ideas’ at all, but with hard socioeconomic reality. By 1850, ordinary Europeans were on average working twice as many days a year as they were in 1500, a change that transformed the lives of women in particular and simply left far less scope for otherworldly concerns to intrude into people’s lives. By then, too, established Christian churches had become much, much poorer (relatively speaking). Gradually, they lost the ability to attract the brightest and the best into their clergies and thus to propagandise as successfully as they had in the past (many such people began to join the ever-growing state apparatus instead). Surely these immense, complex social transformations played a larger role in the growth of unbelief than Hobbes, Spinoza or even Winstanley?

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