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In the shadow of doubt

Review of Unbelievers: an Emotional History of Doubt by Alec Ryrie.

How did the West turn away from Christian faith? Beginning in the 18th century philosophers and scientists made it difficult to believe in God; by the 1960s, pop culture caught up to their earlier intellectual attacks. And thus we Christians find ourselves today in a thoroughly secular society. Or so goes the usual answer.

Not quite, counters the British historian Alec Ryrie. “What if people stopped believing and then found they needed arguments to justify their unbelief?” he asks. With wit, charm and deep learning, Unbelievers offers an alternate account of how the West lost faith, which gives priority to the heart over the head and highlights the role of anger and anxiety in moving ordinary people to reject faith. For Ryrie, the story of unbelief begins in the Middle Ages, where anger against the church and anxiety about the truth of various Christian teachings bubbled under the surface of a devout society. During the Reformation anger and anxiety exploded as outright unbelief. Protestants fanned the flame of popular anger toward moral corruption within the Catholic church, and both sides provoked anxiety by encouraging scepticism about the authority of the church (for Catholics) or the Bible (for Protestants). Furthermore, Catholics and Protestants pursued a risky strategy in encouraging Christians to move from nominal to devout faith. For what happens if you don’t have “enough” faith to be saved? “I cared not for Heaven so I might not go to Hell” said one man of that age, whose despair sank him into unbelief. Only in the late 17th century did intellectuals begin to formulate logical arguments for an unbelief that had already flowed into the mainstream of European culture on an emotional current of anger and anxiety.

Unbelievers is a superb work of history deserving of a wide readership – and not just among other historians. It’s chock-full of relevant insights for Christian believers seeking to understand our time and place. If Ryrie’s creative and rigorous account of the emergence of our post-religious society is correct, Christians need to rethink atheism and theism, faith and doubt, less as opposites than as intertwined; we need to respect the moral earnestness of many unbelievers; and we need to reflect on how to commend faith to speak to the heart and imagination rather than just the intellect.


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