Magazine December 22, 2019, Issue

A Populist History of Religious Disbelief

Detail of a portrait of Michel de Montaigne, 1570s (Wikimedia Commons)
Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, by Alec Ryrie (Harvard University Press, 272 pp., $27.95)

In his 1580 masterwork Essays, the French writer and statesman Michel de Montaigne drew a straight line between the Protestant Reformation and the “execrable atheism” that had begun to sweep through Europe. The problem, according to Montaigne, lay in the difficulty of preserving the average man’s religious faith in an age that had taught him to question long-established Church doctrines. “Once you have thrown into the balance of doubt and uncertainty any articles of [the common people’s] religion,” he wrote, “they soon cast all the rest of their beliefs into similar uncertainty,” having “no more authority for them, no more foundation, than for those [beliefs] you have just undermined.” That Montaigne, a Roman Catholic famously skeptical of the power of human reason, should lay unhappy consequences at the doorstep of Protestantism’s “priesthood of all believers” is perhaps to be expected. What is more surprising is that Alec Ryrie, a self-proclaimed “licensed lay minister in the Church of England,” wholly endorses Montaigne’s thesis.

Which is not to say that this new book by the author of Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World is merely a close examination of one alleged side effect of the Reformation. Rather, Ryrie, a prize-winning historian as well as an ecclesiastic, has broadened his scope to take in nearly 750 years of doubt and disbelief in the professedly Christian West. The continent-roiling movement commenced by Martin Luther gets its fair share of attention — Ryrie is, after all, one of our foremost experts on the subject — but Unbelievers has a larger story to tell, one whose roots touch medieval Europe and whose fruit still blooms today, whether or not one wishes to taste it. Because Ryrie has written “an emotional history,” to borrow the language of his subtitle, his concern is with religious unbelief as it has played out in the psyches of the masses across centuries. The result is not only a convincing rejection of what one might call the Great Godless Man theory of history but a stirring glimpse into the souls of everyday citizens, whose struggles to maintain their faith in a complex world feel all too familiar.

In Ryrie’s telling, the traditional narrative concerning the emergence of atheism in the West has long given undue weight to the scientists and intellectuals whose “frontal assault” on God during the Enlightenment rendered religious sentiment increasingly problematic. Against this standard account, Ryrie puts forward a populist counterargument: that “unbelief clearly existed in practice . . . before it existed in theory” and that historians of religion have “not only been looking at the wrong centuries but profiling the wrong suspects.” In furtherance of this claim, Ryrie asks readers to imagine two streams of popular unbelief, each feeding a river of elite opinion that would crest with the publication, in 1670, of Baruch Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, one of the foundational texts of modern atheism. As a member of a world-bestriding intellectual class, Spinoza is clearly worthy of historical consideration, and his treatise’s attacks on the credibility of the Bible successfully anticipated the arguments of many of this century’s anti-scriptural polemics. Yet like all philosophical documents, Spinoza’s work was fed by source waters. It is to those that Ryrie wishes to draw the reader’s eye.

The first such tributary, Ryrie argues, was a “stream of anger” flowing from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and comprising an “unbelief of suspicion and defiance” held by women and (especially) men who refused any longer “to be taken in or ordered around by priests and their God.” Among the many figures whom Ryrie plucks from medieval obscurity are Durandus de Rufficiaco de Olmeira, a French merchant who was overheard to say, in 1273, that the doctrine of transubstantiation was false and that financial profit was superior to virtue; Uguzzone dei Tattalisina, a moneylender who told Mass-goers in 1299 Bologna “that they might as well venerate their dinner as the consecrated bread”; and Jacopo Fiammenghi, an Italian monk who, that same year, responded to accusations of debauchery by denying the existence of the soul. What all these men had in common was their hunch, formalized in Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince two centuries later, that “religion was a political trick played by the powerful.” To deny the Church’s precepts was to reject an arbitrary authority governing one’s behavior and to free oneself to operate in the world as one wished. Though Ryrie is quick to concede that religious disbelief rooted in anger was insufficiently widespread to become a movement, its existence nevertheless proves that the more complicated doubts that would arise during the Reformation did not sprout “in virgin soil in which no seed of unbelief had ever been sown.”

Where Reformation-era atheism did represent a new phenomenon was in its unique intellectual tenor, a quality that leads Ryrie to characterize it as an “unbelief of anxiety.” This second stream of pre-Enlightenment doubt, deplored by Montaigne in his discourse against Protestantism, was the unexpected (though perhaps inevitable) consequence of reformers’ tendency to “make witty mockery of the absurdities of the papists,” in the words of John Calvin. Because Protestantism taught that certain Catholic doctrines were simply too ridiculous to be true — transubstantiation chief among them — the Reformation undermined the ability of the laity to accept any irrationalities where religious dogma was concerned. Thus did the Protestant elite transform doubt “into a weapon of mass theological destruction.” In the process, Ryrie suggests, they “stirred up anxious unbelief like never before.”

Though Unbelievers provides example after example in support of this contention, two cases in particular stand out. The first is that of Sarah Wight, a pious young woman in 1640s London who made multiple suicide attempts in an effort to free herself from religious uncertainty, recalling, after one of them, “I felt myself, soul and body, in fire and brimstone already.” The second is that of Hannah Allen, an English teenager of the same generation, whose doubts regarding the possibility that she could be saved (“There was never such a one [as wicked as me] since God made any Creature”) led her to the very brink of “giv[ing] up all for lost, . . . clos[ing] with the Devil, and forsak[ing] my God.” While both cases are extreme, they nevertheless illustrate “the anxiety and intensity of Protestant piety.” Because that piety necessarily found expression in a religious environment scrubbed clean of Catholicism’s institutional certainties, it could no longer be founded upon a “simple, unreflective acceptance of universal truths.” It had to be built on something else instead.

What that “something else” looked like in the centuries after the Reformation is the subject of much of the rest of Unbelievers, a tour that includes not only the faithful Protestants who overcame an unprecedented license to doubt but the Schwenckfeldians, Spiritualists, Muggletonians, and Ranters who were corrupted by it. Of the many post-Reformation radicals whom Ryrie examines, the most fascinating by far are the Seekers, whose utter paralysis in the face of doctrinal uncertainty led to the abandonment of any religious practice at all beyond a periodic gathering to discuss “what is good for the Commonwealth.” Like their spiritual heirs in 21st-century progressive Evangelicalism, Seekers came to the erroneous conclusion that “the only way to truly follow God was to abandon dogmatism,” striving instead “to adhere to a supposedly universal moral law.” As Ryrie concludes, and as many an orthodox Christian already knows, “that may be magnificent, but it is not religion.”

What it is instead is a striking ideological forerunner of what Ryrie calls the “inflection point” of the 1960s, when a newly muscular secularism appeared in the global West and “a linked set of principles about human equality and bodily and sexual autonomy” began to displace traditional biblical doctrines. To the extent that Christianity was willing to align itself with these new values, it could retain its place in the public sphere. Yet when Christianity and the new “humanism” were in conflict with each other, the faithful too often found that “their humanist ethics [had] made their religion appear redundant.” This is not, of course, a cheering thought. It is merely the most astute diagnosis of post-war irreligiosity that many readers will have encountered.

In February 2014, Adam Gopnik famously took to the pages of The New Yorker to declare that “we need not imagine that there’s no Heaven; we know that there is none.” For those who wish to understand the cultural evolution that made so bold a statement possible, Alec Ryrie has written a necessary book.

This article appears as “That You May Disbelieve” in the December 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Graham HillardMr. Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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