Atheism is too serious a business to be left to the unbelievers. They are too much into it—when not just too superficially militant about it—to see the thing clearly. Just as the word itself relies on its opposite to make any sense (negative words have an annoying tendency to do that), the reality that it signifies needs the trained theological eye to reveal its richness and complexity. The relationship between belief and unbelief is one of those things that, if we pay enough attention, can teach us how irremediably complicated human beings can be. One term can turn imperceptibly into the other, and devour it insidiously, one doubt at a time. You can still believe in the morning and be overwhelmed by unbelief by early afternoon. If you don’t believe me, you can read what Alec Ryrie has to say on the subject in his new book, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt.
If unbelief needs the believer’s reflecting gaze to better understand itself, then in Ryrie atheism may have found its ideal expositor. A scholar of religion and a Christian theologian (indeed, “a licensed lay minister in the Church of England,” for full disclosure), Ryrie is, in his own description, “a believer with a soft spot for atheism.” He thinks he is in a good position to understand atheism because he went through it himself, and so he knows it inside out. While he abandoned his “youthful atheism,” Ryrie still respects it. Indeed, he writes, “I find an honest atheism much more honorable and powerful than the religion of many of my fellow believers.” This sympathetic positioning allows Ryrie to understand atheism like few others do. Ryrie is an impressive stylist and a compelling narrator of ideas. The evocative exempla, the apt metaphor, the powerful language and memorable phrase: none of it is here by accident. But his book is a joy to read not just because it is beautifully written and smartly conceived, but also because of the exercise in intellectual generosity to which it invites the reader.
We are all familiar with the story of how God got killed. Nietzsche may not have given us all the gruesome details, but eager commentators have since filled in the blanks. It was the doing of scientists, philosophers, and intellectuals, the story goes. A cold and dark, purely rational (and rationalist) affair; some three centuries’ worth of murderous effort. Ryrie recounts it for us. First, in the seventeenth century, Spinoza managed to show that “a world without God could be philosophically coherent.” Then, in the eighteenth, authors like Voltaire and Thomas Paine attacked the church on moral grounds, while Hume, Kant, and Rousseau came up with intellectual models of the world that, “whether or not we classify them as strictly atheist, left Christianity far behind.” As a result, God became pretty much redundant. When firebrand atheists like Ludwig Feuerbach and Arthur Schopenhauer arrived on the scene in the nineteenth century, God was pretty much a goner; and the bad news of his inexistence, which they were burning to impart, was already old news. In 1859, as Ryrie notices, Charles Darwin could come up with “an explanation for the origins of life without reference to God.” Finita la commedia.
Ryrie has some problems with this “death-by-philosophy narrative,” neatly cut as it may be. “The timescale, the suspects and the nature of the murder are all wrong,” he writes. He thinks it is important to correct the story not just for the sake of the historical record, but for our own sake; a revised narrative might help us make better sense of ourselves and of our historical predicament. “Telling the story a different way not only changes our sense of history; it casts our current moment of pell-mell secularization in a different light.” Unbelievers is as much about the past as it is about the present—and perhaps about the future, too.
Chronologically, unbelief existed in practice long before it existed in theory. You don’t need the word “atheism” (a relatively late invention) in order not to believe in God or at least to entertain serious doubts about his existence. Ryrie gives the example of the medical art. Inherited from the Greco-Roman pagans, saturated with Arabic and Jewish intellectual influences, and shaped by a healthy dose of professional skepticism, medicine in Christian Europe was a breeding ground for contestation. Atheism was almost an occupational hazard for the medieval doctor. The medical world, observes Ryrie, was “one of those reservoirs in which unbelief lay dormant throughout the Middle Ages.”