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Moralism’s triumph over dogmatising  

20 May 2016

Nick Spencer finds this account of the origins of unbelief essential reading

 

 

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The Soul of Doubt: The religious roots of unbelief from Luther to Marx

Dominic Erdozain

OUP £22.99

(978-0-19-984461-6)

Church Times Bookshop £20.70

IN EARLY 1649, six soldiers publicly burned the holy scriptures at Walton-on-Thames, near London. “The Bible containeth beggarly rudiments,” they reasoned, mere “milk for babes”. The thing that confuses what would ordinarily look like a straightforward act of anti-Christian violence was that the soldiers were seriously Christian, as was the logic of their incineration. Christ, they explained, “imparts a fuller measure of his spirit to his saints”. The Bible — not to mention the sabbath, tithes, and ministers against which they also protested — was an unnecessary distraction.

Such seemingly counter-intuitive logic lies at the heart of Dominic Erdozain’s fine study of the origins and development of unbelief in Western Europe. We have, he begins, absorbed the idea that there is an unbridgeable “dichotomy” between religious and secular thought, the latter being wholly different from and antagonistic to the former.

The truth is much stranger, and more interesting. Unbelief, he reasons, and in particular the “aggressive and articulate unbelief” that is his subject, emerged from Christian convictions, catalysed by moral and spiritual anxieties that made sense only within a Christian framework. The keystone is “conscience”, the defiant interiorisation of moral and spiritual commitment which was dragged centre-stage at the Reformation. Western unbelief is, in effect, he argues, the victory of Christian moralising over Christian dogmatising.

The book opens with Luther’s twists and turns on conscience, from being its fiercest defender to its most hostile critic — or perhaps second most hostile, as the book then looks at Calvin(ism)’s huge impact on the subject.

There follow long and masterful chapters on Spinoza and Voltaire. Of the former, Erdozain argues, against the monumental recent work of Jonathan Israel, that Spinoza’s philosophical and biblical criticism was not “a first draft of scientific naturalism” but “an extension of the Radical Reformation’s spiritual protest against dogma and all its works”.

When he comes to Voltaire, he contends, even more boldly, that, while the sage’s animosities towards the Church were “often riper” than Kant’s, “so too were his pieties.” Over and above Voltaire’s well-attested deistic natural theology, there looms “a positive theology of forgiveness”, and he remained a man “of real, if idiosyncratic, piety”.

Erdozain then pursues the story through the more familiar territory of Victorian faith and doubt, and through Feuerbach, Marx, and the Young Hegelians, whose atheism he does not doubt, but whose debt to Christianity he outlines in some detail.

Voltaire once claimed that history was just a pack of tricks we play on the dead. Erdozain’s excellent book exposes that trick and helps us to read the history of ideas in the key in which it was written, not the one to which our ears are now most attuned. His bold conclusions will not persuade all readers, but The Soul of Doubt is, none the less, a must-read for anyone interested in the peculiar history of the Western mind.

Nick Spencer is a director of the think tank Theos.

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