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’.