Everyone agrees that we’re drowning under a rising tide of atheism.
Actually, that’s how Alec Ryrie describes early 17th-century Europe. We’re talking about the century following the Protestant Reformation, a century marked by wars of religion fought between Protestants and Catholics, and civil war in England. It’s the century that gave us these words: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” from the Westminster Shorter Catechism. What seems to us an era defined by religion seemed to many at the time to be marked instead by unbelief.
Atheism and religious skepticism has a long history in the West, as Ryrie shows in his new book, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, published by Harvard University Press. Ryrie is professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University and president of the Ecclesiastical History Society. He traces doubt from the blasphemous lips of gamblers to the poisonous pen of Nietzsche. He identifies anger and anxiety as the emotional hallmarks of doubt, through a massive transformation effected by World War II until our own day.
Ryrie joined me on Gospelbound to discuss doubt, Reformation-induced incredulity, and how Hitler became the potent moral figure in Western culture and the swastika overtook the cross as packing the biggest emotional punch.
This episode of Gospelbound is brought to you by Southeastern Seminary. In a changing ministry landscape, Southeastern’s four-year master of divinity and master of business administration program was built on a foundation of rigorous theological training and practical vocational training. Learn more at sebts.edu.
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Collin Hansen: Everyone agrees that we’re drowning under a rising tide of atheism, right? Actually that’s how author Alec Ryrie describes early 17th-century Europe. We’re talking about the century following the Protestant Reformation essentially marked by wars of religion, fought between Protestants and Catholics. What seems to us as an era defined by religion seemed to many at the time to be marked instead by unbelief. Atheism, a religious skepticism, has a long history in the West, as Ryrie shows in his new book, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, published by Harvard University Press.
Collin Hansen: Ryrie is professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University and president of the Ecclesiastical History Society. He traces doubt from the blasphemous lips of gamblers to the poisonous pen of Nietszche. He identifies anger and anxiety as the emotional hallmarks of doubt through a massive transformation affected by World War II until our own day. Alec joins me on Gospelbound to discuss doubt, how Reformation induced incredulity, and how Hitler became the most potent moral figure in Western culture and the swastika overtook the cross as packing the biggest emotional punch. All right, well thank you for joining me, Alec, on Gospelbound.
Alec Ryrie: It’s great to be with you.
Collin Hansen: What does it mean, Alec, that you’ve written an emotional history of doubt? How does your account differ then from others?
Alec Ryrie: Well, I got into this partly because I was getting bugged by some of the standard histories of atheism and unbelief, which are often written from quite a kind of triumphalist perspective, which is okay. Everybody likes to tell the story of how they got to where they are. But that account is always one that’s led by intellect and philosophy and it suggests, basically, that a bunch of philosophers and scientists came up with these ideas which led them to break off the shackles of ignorance and religion, you know the kind of story, and go out boldly into the world of free thought and intellectual liberty. And I thought, “Well, yeah, okay. Maybe that’s true for some people.” But the story that I started finding in the history that I was doing of the reformation era and of what followed was kind of different from that. That these work people, as you say, in the 17th century who were talking about atheism all the time. It’s when the English word is coined.
Alec Ryrie: It’s a big preoccupation of the period, but they don’t mean something philosophical and certainly not scientific. It’s something which they experienced as a temptation, as something which is pulling them into struggling to hold onto beliefs that they know with their heads are true. They’re still intellectually convinced to the truth of Christianity, but they’re feeling an emotional tug away from it. And I think this is how… it’s uncontroversial. I think that people of faith come to their faith, not just with a kind of cold process of intellectual calculation, but with our whole selves. It’s an intuitive process. When I say it’s emotional, I don’t mean that it’s irrational, but that it’s more than just kind of cold calculated rationality.
Alec Ryrie: And all I’m trying to suggest in the book is that the same thing that’s true of faith is true of unbelief as well. That whatever we decide to do as human beings, whatever decisions we take about our values and our choices and our identities, these are made in that kind of intuitive, whole self, emotional way. I mean, how could they not? And so I thought there was a story of that fuller emotional history of unbelief that wanted to be told so I had a shot at doing it.
Collin Hansen: Tell us particularly about the central role of anger and anxiety in your Emotional History of Doubt.
Alec Ryrie: Well, as I was trying to look at what is it that makes people, in the past and to some extent in our own time, although I’m a historian. I’m happiest dealing with people who’ve been dead for a few hundred years. When I was looking at what is it that draws these people towards unbelief or away from the faith that they’ve been raised in, it was those two themes that kept surfacing up to the point that eventually I ended up organizing the book around them. Anger is maybe the obvious one, because we all know that being angry at the church, whatever your church might be, at it’s moral restrictions that it’s placing on you, being angry at your priests or ministers who are, with the best run in the world, not always people whom everybody gets on with, at whatever restrictions that they or the institution might be placing on you. That can lead to people kicking back and you kick back against the priest and say, “Who are you to boss me around?” And the priest says, “Well, I’m God’s representative on earth.”
Alec Ryrie: And at that point, either you have to put up and say, “Okay,” or you have to say, well, you have to expand your quarrel to include God as well. And so there’s a history going right back into the Middle Ages and probably beyond of anger with the church. Often it is with the church and with the clergy which leads people into this position of wanting to kick against religion more widely. Anxiety is maybe the less obvious one. This is the experience, and again, this goes way back. I’ve got examples of this going back deep in the Middle Ages of people who find themselves struggling to hold on to core parts of their faith under pressure. Maybe most obviously is when you’re faced with death, either the prospect of your own death or the death of people around you. And you might know with your head, you might be fully convinced of a doctrine of the immortality of a soul. But still, death looks really final. It feels really final.
Alec Ryrie: And holding on to that faith and in those moments of pressure is classically difficult and always has been. It’s not just questions of immortality, there are other flashpoints. In the medieval church it was often continuing to believe in Christ’s presence in the sacrum, which is so central to Catholic experience in medieval Europe. In later periods it’s often the question of struggling to believe that the Bible really is the Word of God. There are these flashpoints that when people struggle to hold on to them can lead them down a slippery slope in which they suddenly start asking, so if I’m not sure about that, is there really a Christ? Is there really a God? And people are explicitly asking themselves those sorts of questions in those words in the 1500s and 1700s.
Collin Hansen: You cite the Reformation in particular as a turning point in both of these aspects of anger and anxiety. I want to just read a few passages or at least quotes where you explain this further. You write, “The Reformation mobilized doubt as a weapon and encouraged ordinary believers to do the same in the hope that they would make their way through to a reflective and experienced faith rather than a simple and trusting one.” I guess I’m wondering this, is there anything Protestants could have done to prevent this kind of outcome? Is there a different course that could have been taken that would not necessarily have unleashed sort of the bad with the good?
Alec Ryrie: That’s a great question. Calvin, John Calvin, who’s not everybody’s favorite reformer, but maybe, intellectually, the most brilliant of that first-generation of them, talks explicitly about exactly that question when he writes his book about atheism in the ’50, ’40s where he recognizes that the Reformation has unleashed this problem to some extent because the reformers are trying to kick against the structures of the established church. They’re ridiculing a lot of medieval beliefs.
Alec Ryrie: They’re mobilizing these forces of skepticism against them saying it’s ridiculous to believe in transubstantiation or in all these miracles carried out through prayers to saints or whatever it be. And he recognizes that this has an obvious problem because once you start handing out those weapons of skepticism to the whole population, then they start using them in ways they’re not supposed to. And his answer to that is if that’s the price we have to pay, then it’s worth it. Because a faith which is simply mixed in with unreflected belief, which is just taking stuff as assumed and not really owning and digging into their own, but that’s not true faith. So that answer is to say atheism and unbelief has always been there. And what the Protestants do is manage to drag it out into the open where we can see it, and to clearly separate it from the true faith, rather than this sort of mixture of half-belief, which is what they would see that the medieval church as having fallen into.
Alec Ryrie: Now, you don’t need to buy that kind of aggressive approach to the Catholic world to see there’s something really serious and kind of painfully honest in what the Reformers are doing here. And when you look at some of the really impressive people who wrestle with this kind of explicit doubt and come through it to a really profound faith which has looked doubt in the eye and understood it, and has nevertheless come through it and out the other side, and it’s held on to. A faith which is as they would say enlightened really is has it has its eyes fully open. I find some of these accounts kind of moving, but you do have to recognize that there is a price to be paid and that there are people who really did and of course continue to struggle. Even the ones who want to hold onto their faith sometimes desperately want the hold on find themselves under enormous pressures to as they try to do so. Even Luther would accept… I maybe going out on a limb here. I think Luther would accept and expect that for the world to be filled up with the people and he called the fanatics, the schwannoma, the radicals whom he’s surrounded by. And I mean, almost everyone who believes or disagrees with gets that label.
Alec Ryrie: He doesn’t think that that’s an accident, that all these people have appeared. But that the nature of the apocalyptic process of Reformation that he believes that his experience has set in motion is that as well as God’s people being raised up and the gospel being reformed and purified, that the Devil will be fighting back against it. And whether that fight back comes in the form of those whom he would call fanatics or those whom his contemporaries would call atheists, I think they would see that as part of the same process.
Collin Hansen: I wondered as I was reading it was really surprising, people who are well known, people who are unknown, I was wondering, I mean, has unbelief really changed? I mean, has anything really changed here? You write this: “Men, and very occasionally women, whose lives were sufficiently easy and prosperous that they did not feel the need for God in this world and who wanted to reject any constraints on their behavior preferred to imagine that there was no eternal judgment to fear, no inspired scripture to obey and ideally no God to lay bare the secrets of their foolish hearts.” Really that’s the 17th century. That’s not the 21st century.
Alec Ryrie: Sure. I mean, the… I think it’s fair to say that if you were to go back and do some opinion polling, the balance of opinion would have shifted from now and then. I mean, there’s an awful lot of panic about this kind of stuff in the 17th century, but that’s because they think there are a few of these people, that this is a strain which is starting to creep into their society. I think it would be fair to say that we have a little bit more of that than they do, just as the material prosperity.
Collin Hansen: Prosperity, by comparison. You can afford to tune out certain things or you certainly don’t have certain desires or needs, I guess I should say, that religion has often met.
Alec Ryrie: It’s a part of that. I wouldn’t want to push the material thing too far as if you could just kind of track prosperity against faith because there’s so many stories from other parts of the world or other periods of history which suggest the opposite. If you look, for example, at the enormous growth in Christianity in contemporary China or South Korea, which has absolutely gone hand in hand with enormous explosion of material prosperity. So it doesn’t tie up neatly, but it is a part of the story.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. I mean, basically I was just giving a shorthand version of the widespread secularization thesis that was popular for much of the 20th century, which is… You’re right. It has been largely debunked in part because of what we’ve seen happen in the Far East.
Alec Ryrie: It’s always worth remembering that, and I think those of us in North America and Europe can still sometimes struggle to hold onto this because we’ve been so much raised on the secularization theory. I mean, secularization is real, but it’s a local phenomenon. This is a peculiarity of the North Atlantic world. It’s not a fundamental fact about human history that there is a tendency towards becoming secular. These specific societies and in these specific circumstances have been doing that for a couple of centuries now. That doesn’t mean that we are going to carry on doing it. And it doesn’t mean that the same thing’s going to happen anywhere else. It might, but there’s no inevitability about it.
Collin Hansen: That’s an excellent segue into what we need to talk about with World War II. Tell us more about your view of World War II as our modern-day Paradise Lost, the moral story by which we judge all others. I mean, when you… I mean, you’re not the first person to observe this, but of course, just looking at Star Wars, it doesn’t really get more obvious in terms of a widespread Western story. And also one that is trans… well, I guess, I don’t know if I’d say transparently, because I don’t know if George Lucas admitted this, but obviously about the Nazis. They’re literally stormtroopers. So I mean, yeah. How did World War II come to exercise that kind of just paradigmatic story by which everything else in the West is constantly judged?
Alec Ryrie: That’s a great question and a really important one. I think World War II is the culmination of a long process. You can trace a lot of this back before then. But I would try to take this back to the, after the various struggles and pressures that Christianity has, not just Christianity, but it’s overwhelmingly Christian story, has being put under in the 18th and 19th century. By the time you get to the early 1900s, Christianity still has got one pretty much unchallenged role in Western society. Whether you’re a believer or not, you still see this religion as setting the moral frame for society. And Jesus Christ is the most potent moral figure.
Alec Ryrie: You’ll find lots of explicit atheists from that era who will go out of their way to say, “I do not believe that Jesus was Son of God, but I accept his moral teaching as the greatest moral teaching of any human beings ever.” And if you’ve denied that in that period, then you’re a monster. You’re somebody who can’t be [inaudible] spoken to. The really dramatic shift I think that happens across the middle of the 20th century is that Christianity loses that sense of being the moral anchor of our society.
Alec Ryrie: I think to some extent this is the Christians’ fault because if you look back through the lens of World War II as this extraordinary catastrophe, the most terrible war in human history, accompanied by a genocide the like of which has never been conceived, Christianity has not fulfilled the role that it’s supposed to of clearly identifying evil and speaking out against it. It’s been preoccupied with issues like fornication and blasphemy and not with murder. The churches in Germany, of course there are some German Christians who stand up heroically against the Nazis, but really not that many. Many of the rest try to find a way of living with them or indeed fully throwing their lot behind them.
Alec Ryrie: Western society comes out of that period with a sense that the moral absolutes are issues like human rights, which is a secular construct. Of course it’s a bubble, human rights has really struggled to come up with a solid philosophical justification for it, but it’s just something that we have declared as a society that we believe because we desperately want to believe it. In that context, Jesus no longer quite serves as that moral focus for our society. We have reached the point where the most potent moral figure in our collective imagination is no longer Jesus, it’s Hitler. We no longer have a figure who teaches us what’s good, but a figure who teaches us what’s evil and we take our moral bearings from that.
Alec Ryrie: Fair enough. If you’re going to choose one human being as an embodiment of absolute evil, then I can’t think of a better one, but it has all kinds of consequences. It means that we are orienting ourselves around a secular standard, where we basically just agree to say, “Look, Nazism and everything that is associated with it is really bad,” and we struggle to articulate why. It also means that we now as a culture know what we hate, but we’re not nearly so good at articulating what we love.
Collin Hansen: Let me read your specific quote on that. You say, “Perhaps we still believe that God is good but we believe with more fervor and conviction that Nazism is evil.”
Alec Ryrie: I think that’s true. I mean not of every individual of course, but of the culture as a whole. If you look at … The way to get yourself ostracized and to be completely beyond the bounds of any kind of respectful conversation in your society or in mine is to cast any doubt on the ultimate evil of Nazism which by the way I am not doing. Whereas nowadays, to be flippant or dismissive about Jesus’s morality, that’s kind of okay. People do that. I take that as a sign of where our collective values have landed. Like I said, if you’re going to choose a secular reference point for evil, then I’m going to struggle to come up with a better one, but the very act of choosing a secular reference point and by modeling ourselves around what we hate rather than what we love, I have worried about that.
Alec Ryrie: I also just as a historian, I don’t think it’s stable. We’ve tried to turn this specific historical event, World War II, into some kind of timeless lessons you mentioned, Star Wars, the Harry Potter stories where Voldemort is absolutely explicitly a Nazi figure and you see this figure of the Dark Lord who just stalks through our imaginations in the post-war period. Those are the legends that we raise our children on, that’s the story that we want to keep retelling ourselves. This is what evil looks like, even though of course in real life, evil doesn’t usually look like that. I have real doubts about whether that’s going to be something that can endure and where our culture’s lasting sense of what is evil and therefore also of what’s good is going to come from.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Well it seems like there’s a whole lot more that can and should be written on that topic and maybe I just haven’t been exposed to that literature yet. I mean I have to think just working through this process that how Germans processed this is different from how the British processed it which is different from how the Americans processed it because of course the Americans emerge with just this triumphalist self-righteousness. I remember, I used to think that World War I was really the decisive shift in terms of Western Christianity, especially in Europe, but Philip Jenkins smacked me down on that one because he said, “In actuality, the doubts that we have about World War I now weren’t necessarily prevalent at the time. They’re more of a post-World War II phenomenon.”
Alec Ryrie: I think that’s right.
Collin Hansen: In fact World War I incited a whole lot of religiosity.
Collin Hansen: I feel like if we had another 90 minutes on this podcast, we would be able to get into that but I have a couple more questions that I want to make sure that we get to in the time that we have and I’m often just in an evangelistic context or an apologetic context talking with somebody who doubts and one of the places that I turn most frequently … Sometimes, if somebody tells me about doubts, I say, “That’s really not that hard. Let me introduce you to something that’s much harder.” Like let’s cut to the chase on this, where I usually turn to Ivan Karamazov who comes up in your book as well, as I’m not so much concerned with someone who doubts whether or not God exists or if we can trust the Bible or if Jesus is raised from the dead, because Christians have been working for a long time on answers to those questions from the beginning, it’s not as hard.
Collin Hansen: I mean really, it’s what you’re talking about in an emotional intuitive time of atheism, not just sort of a rational, these arguments don’t make sense, Christianity doesn’t comport with science or something but what’s the best answers they’ve been able to muster on that question?
Alec Ryrie: That’s a really important question. This feels like a cop-out, but I don’t think it is. I’m going to give you the answer that Ivan Karamazov himself gives to that which is … Just after he’s laid out this critique that he finds the suffering in the universe morally unacceptable, he says, “It’s not that I don’t believe in God, I just refuse to accept this universe that he’s made, built as it is with so much pain in it.” He then launches into this parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which is this extraordinary imagined meeting between the inquisitor who is this figure of the church and of power, of what if you’re Martin Luther you would have called the theology of
Alec Ryrie: … glory, of somebody who represents the church as oppression and as control. And he has Jesus brought before him for trial. And this is set up to be a dialogue between the two of them. Only Jesus never speaks. And then the inquisitor spends pages and pages berating him for the simplicity and the foolishness and the impracticality of his morals and how all this nonsense about unconditional love and total self-sacrifice, and it can’t be done. You can’t run a world where you need power, you need the realities, you need the church. And at the end of it this figure of Jesus sits there in silence and then stands up and kisses him. So what I would take from that is that if people feel that there’s a conflict between the church, whatever church it might be, or the theology that they’ve been raised in, and the example and the teaching of Jesus, that’s often going to be true. And if you’ve got that feeling, I think that may be a good intuition to follow. And if you feel that there’s a conflict between your church and the example of Jesus, then my advice would be go with the example of Jesus and see where it leads you.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Dostoevsky does not give an answer. I mean, that is the answer right there. There is no intellectual rational response to it. There is simply the kiss.
Collin Hansen: And one reason why I jumped straight forward in my podcast interview is I’ve had just a privilege of talking to just amazingly insightful people like yourself. And when I’m talking with Christian apologists and Christian pastors, they all give me the same… I’ll often ask them, what is the hardest thing about Christianity to believe? And it’s the same answer for everybody. It’s the innocent suffering of children paired with the eternal torment of hell for those who don’t believe in Jesus. And the reason why I’m not surprised by that is, of course, that’s exactly the scenario that Ivan raises, the suffering of innocent children that launches Ivan into this rejection of the ticket to heaven.
Collin Hansen: So you close this way. And the whole book is not very long. The whole book just covers an amazing sweep of history. But a lot of what we’re talking about here is really sort of back-loaded into the book. And you close this way, you say the religions that will prosper in this environment will be those that work with the grain of humanist ethics while finding ways to offer something that humanism cannot. And to be clear, with humanist ethics, you’re truly talking about the anti-Hitlerism sort of religion that’s emerged against Hitler. But then what humanism cannot, you’re referring to what you’re saying right there. It’s not stable that we build an entire sort of Western culture on simply, don’t be Nazis. So what is it that you see here, maybe you’ve already answered the question, but that humanism cannot offer?
Alec Ryrie: I don’t think it speaks to the heart that, I think as Christians, it’s seriously incumbent on us. It’s our duty to look at the really important moral lessons that the experience of the last couple of centuries, and of the mid-20th century in particular, have taught us. We really did learn new things about what truly is evil out of that experience. And we would be very, very foolish to turn our eyes away from that, to forget that the powerful things that we learned from it.
Alec Ryrie: But I continue to believe that those lessons, while they’re important and they’re necessary, they’re not sufficient. They teach us what’s wrong, but they don’t teach us what’s right. They don’t teach us what’s actually beautiful. And they don’t feed the heart and nourish the soul in the way that Christianity very often doesn’t either, but it can do. And the experience of a great many Christians down the centuries has been, continues to be, that there is food to be had here. There’s nourishment. There’s warmth.
Alec Ryrie: And in a world which knows what’s wrong, but can seem still very cold beyond that, I would like to see more of Christians emphasizing the positives that the warmth, the beauty, the joy that there is to be found in faith rather than some of the other themes that we sometimes hear being emphasized.
Collin Hansen: Well, I think one of the most helpful things you write about, and that you’ve really emphasized here, is the way as Christians, we can become really obsessed with certain kinds of moral expressions, like you mentioned, blasphemy and fornication. They may be significant, but somehow we fixate on those things against a backdrop of this drama of good and evil that’s playing out around us. I can certainly recognize that within the American church to this day. And it’s somehow reassuring to focus on these little things, but then again, get the big things wrong and then forget the whole point of Christianity in the beginning, the power of that kiss, the power of the kiss of Christ.
Collin Hansen: My guest on Gospelbound has been Alec Ryrie. He is the author of this book we’ve been talking about, Unbelievers and Emotional History of Doubt, published by Harvard University Press. Alec, again, professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University. Alec, thank you for joining me.
Alec Ryrie: It’s been a great pleasure, Collin. Thank you.