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A brief history of doubt — and the emotion that underpins it

17 January 2020

Unbelief has long been a matter of feeling as much as thinking, suggests Alec Ryrie


The Incredulity of Thomas, c. 1601-02 by Caravaggio (detail)

The Incredulity of Thomas, c. 1601-02 by Caravaggio (detail)

THE philosopher Charles Taylor puts it well. “Why”, he asks, “was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”

The conventional, triumphalist, inevitabilist answers about secular­isa­­­tion tend to focus on philosophers and scientists, on the Enlightenment and the Victorians, and on intel­lectual critiques. But that misses a longer, deeper story.

Intellectual critiques of religion did not cause our modern secular surge. The purely rational case for atheism has added almost nothing to its arsenal for a century (only the neurological argument, really).

In the same time-frame, lots of anti-Christian truisms that every educated European in the early 20th century “knew” have been de­­bunked. We no longer believe that the universe is infinitely old and entirely deterministic, that human­ity’s “races” are fundamentally dif­fer­­ent, that evolution is governed by some sort of progressive life-force, or that the Bible is a mere collage of myths shared by peoples across the ancient Near East.

And yet, during this same era, Christianity in the West has been receding, not advancing. It looks as if it is not all about science and philosophy.

Then look at the other end of Taylor’s timescale. The conventional story says that the starting-gun for modern atheism was fired by Spinoza in the 1660s. But, by then, the Christian West was already nearly two centuries into a full-scale moral panic about what it called “atheism”. The English word, coined in 1553, quickly became ubiquitous.

It was not just paranoia. The villain in Cyril Tourneur’s 1611 play The Atheist’s Tragedy is a caricature, but Tourneur’s rival, Christopher Marlowe, was credibly accused of saying: “There is no God,” and that Christ “deserved better to die than Barabbas”. It was proverbial that physicians, soldiers, and politicians were “naturians” or “nullafidians”, with no faith.

Even the most earnest believers found this kind of “atheism” in themselves. A pious Londoner de­­scribed how she had spent the 1640s wrestling with temptations to believe “that there was no God, no Heaven, and no Hell”. The young John Bunyan spent a year desperately won­­dering “whether there were, in truth, a God, or Christ?”

None of these people had sound philosophical grounds for their doubts. Like nervous flyers white-knuckled during a nasty bout of turbulence, they told themselves firmly that there was nothing to worry about. But, under such circumstances, rational reassurance does not help much. In other words, atheism existed in practice before it existed in theory.

This is as we should expect, of course. If our own age has taught us anything, it is that intellectual argu­­ments rarely change anyone’s mind. The conventional story has it that philosophers attacked religion, and people then stopped believing. But what if people stopped believing and then invented philosophies to ra­­tion­alise their unbelief?

So, the answer to Taylor’s ques­tion — why it is that belief once felt so natural, and now feels so difficult — is an emotional one. We all accept that, when we embrace religious faith, we do it intuitively or emo­tionally, with our whole selves, not by dry calculation. My point is simply that when we reject or abandon faith, we do exactly the same thing.


THE emotional history of atheism that I have been reconstructing has two keynotes, which run deep back into the Middle Ages: anger and anxiety. Anger was directed at over­bearing Churches, interfering priests, and the God who, they claimed, was on their side.

Anxiety was about whether God really hears prayers, whether the soul is really immortal. In themselves, neither anger nor anxiety threatened Chris­tian society. They were per­ennial, predictable, and eminently man­­­­age­able. The fury of a few blasphemers and libertines offered the Church exactly the kind of opposition it wanted. And stirring a little anxiety into the faith helped to ensure that it never solidified into a mere habit.

And then came the Reformation. Martin Luther turned his personal crisis of faith into a Europe-wide religious explosion by weaponising scepticism: training Christians not just to doubt other Christians, but to mock and vilify them, accusing them of perpetrating a centuries-long priestly con-trick. Pretty soon, whether you were a Protestant or a Roman Catholic, scorn­­ing other Chris­tians’ beliefs as ridiculous was an in­­escapable part of your faith.

The point was, of course, to over­­throw the cor­rupt Church and set up a purified one in its place. But the trouble with arming whole popula­tions to fight a war of scorn and scepticism is that they do not always stop when they are told.

So some people turned their scorn on to the new religion as well as the old. Catholics were blind, and Protestants one-eyed, one group of French free-thinkers said. Only they themselves were truly deniaisez. The word meant both “en­­lightened” and “de­­flowered”. They had lost their religious vir­­ginity, and there was no going back.

Both anger and anxiety had a new urgency. That start­lingly secular play­­wright William Shake­­­­s­­peare sum­med up an age of religious warfare in the words of a dying man caught in senseless crossfire: “A plague on both your houses!” Anger at the Churches had ac­­quired a righteous edge. Was this how Jesus Christ would have lived?

As for anxiety — it was not only the terrible choice between Catholic and Protestant, made in the know­ledge that heaven or hell hung on the outcome. You did not need to spend very long impaled on that dilemma to begin to ask: is either of them right? Am I damned, whatever I do? Or is Hell simply another of those priests’ tricks? Would a good God ever truly condemn his creations to eternal torment? Maybe, a few people began to wonder, the most truly moral thing to do was to walk away from all this so-called religion?

And so, by the middle of the 17th century, something new was stirring. Moral rationalists such as the Dutch Collegiants, or mystics such as the early English Quakers, had turned their fury at the Churches and their struggles to find spiritual bedrock on which they could build a true faith into a moral struggle against “reli­gion” and all its evils. When a bril­liant, excommunicated Dutch Jew, Baruch Spinoza, fell in with the Collegiants and the Quakers in the 1650s, that was the world that he discovered.

Like him, many of the canonical founding fathers of Western secu­larism, from Pierre Bayle through Voltaire and Tom Paine to Feuer­bach and beyond, were not trying to abolish Christianity: they were trying to reform and purify it. In practice, though, that could look pretty sim­ilar. If you conclude that your faith is built on sand, you might demolish it and start digging to find bedrock so that you can build anew. That is not too different from just smashing it up — especially if, no matter how deep you dig, your shovel never seems to ring on anything truly solid.

Anger and anxiety kept sim­mering away: in the anticlerical fury of Karl Marx or the anarchist Mik­hail Bakunin, in the agonised doubts of Fyodor Dostoevsky or George Eliot. And, as ever, what truly fired those emotions was not science or metaphysics, but ethics.


LIKEWISE, the secular surge of our own times does not represent any kind of intellectual breakthrough; more that, in the wake of two world wars and the social revolutions which followed, our society no longer measures its morals by reli­gious yardsticks.

Once, the most potent moral fig­ure in our culture was Jesus Christ, whose ethics were normative for believers and unbelievers alike. Now, our most potent moral figure is Adolf Hitler, who has become our new, secular embodiment of ab­­solute evil. That is the conviction on which most of our modern ethics, including the gossamer bubble called “human rights”, depends. So, now, Churchill’s speeches tug at the heart more than the Sermon on the Mount, and a swastika stirs deeper emotions than a crucifix. It’s power­­ful, it’s fiercely moral, and it’s right — as far as it goes. But it is not rational, it is not inevitable, and it is not stable.

The enduring truth is that, from the Middle Ages to the present, most of us have made the great choices — beliefs, values, identities, purposes — intuitively and emotionally. That is not because belief, or unbelief, is irra­tional. It is because human beings are irrational — or, rather, because we are not calculating ma­­chines. The emotional history of belief and unbelief suggests that our intuitive choices often have a certain wisdom to them.

Blaise Pascal, the 17th century’s shrewdest wrestler with doubt, famously compared the choice between belief and unbelief to an impossible wager on unknown odds. His point was not to make a crass, pragmatic argument for faith: that was only ever a parody. It was
to demonstrate that “multiplying proofs of God’s existence” is futile. This is not an academic matter: too much is at stake.

And so, like any gamblers, we wager with our guts and our hearts. As well we should; for, as Pascal also told us, the heart has its reasons, of which Reason knows nothing.


Dr Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham Uni­­versity. His latest book, Un­­believers: An emotional history of doubt is, is published by Harvard University Press at £18.95 (CT Bookshop £17).

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