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Unbelievers: An emotional history of doubt, by Alec Ryrie

15 May 2020

Mark Oakley considers the view that rational argument comes after

A FEW weeks ago, to bring comfort during the Covid-19 pandemic, the actress Gal Gadot assembled a line-up of celebrities to sing the slightly nauseating John Lennon song “Imagine”. The project had rather mixed results. “Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try,” they dolefully sang. Perhaps now wasn’t quite the time. Only a few years ago, however, Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker had declared that “we need not imagine that there’s no heaven; we know that there is none.” He took it for granted that the rational template for today’s sane and sorted is a commonsense, unapologetic atheism.

How did we get to this intellectual plain? Well, in search of an answer, Alec Ryrie is clear: “intellectuals and philosophers may think they make the weather but they are more often driven by it.” In other words, it is not ideas that are the motivating energy for doubt and disbelief, but, rather, feelings and emotions. He found himself drawn to the subject and wrote this interesting and very accessible “emotional history of doubt” which takes for granted the notion that disbelief, like belief, is often rooted in more “instinctive, inarticulate and intuitive” reasons than its evangelists like to admit.

While Ryrie does look at the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers which helped erode belief in an omnipotent, all-loving, and omniscient God, his view is that this was not “virgin soil”, but a furrow that had been well ploughed in the hearts of many through the Middle Ages, in people such as Uguzzone dei Tattalisina, who, in 1299, told some churchgoers that they “might as well venerate their dinner as the consecrated bread”. Many were angry at clerical power or hypocrisy well before the Reformation took hold of Europe. Ryrie’s argument is that unbelief existed in practice before it existed in theory.

Unsurprisingly for a Reformation scholar, the best part of the book explores how the Reformation used this anger and ridicule as part of its theological armour, but how this also led to free-range anxiety. A free-for-all is not the same as freedom for all, and many were made ironically and irrationally itinerant, even trapped, by a lack of dogma in their lives.

Ryrie traces the impact of this explosive mixture of heart and head as people tried to find a compass in their inner life which didn’t point them back to God’s corpse or the hypocrisies of those who spoke for him. Post-Enlightenment feeling often wanted to dispel such illusions but not be left completely disillusioned. This project continues in our own day and can be found in the comments of such figures as the novelist Julian Barnes, who says that, although he doesn’t believe in God, he misses him. In our age, which is sometimes described as “post-secular”, there is also the phenomenon of those who, like that other novelist Graham Greene, would say that “the trouble is I don’t quite believe my unbelief.”

An interesting section of the book examines how, from the 1960s, humanist ethics has often tried to make religion look redundant. Faith’s substitutes in their many forms consequently come into their own, and God-free ethics is the one that claims the most plausibility.

Some might find this book a bit uneven in its explorations. Others may find its range a little narrow. How successful it is in keeping to its brief as an emotional rather than an intellectual history will be for readers to decide. There is no doubt, however, that this is a very thoughtful and helpful contribution at a time when anyone who professes atheism is thought to be the rational one in the room. To quote Barnes again, in his book The Sense of an Ending: “Most of us, I suspect, . . . make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure to justify it. And call the result common sense.”

The Revd Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Honorary Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.


Unbelievers: An emotional history of doubt
Alec Ryrie
William Collins £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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