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

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

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