A Soft Spot for Atheism

‘Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt’
The theologian William Perkins showed “these two thoughts, There is a God, and there is no God, may be, and are both in one and the same heart.” (Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

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.”

What is a “soft spot,” if not feeling and intuition turned into method?

Important as it may be, chronology is the least serious problem here. The bigger issue is that the “death-by-philosophy narrative” relies upon a drastically simplified, almost caricatured picture of what we are. It assumes that, in whatever we do—when we choose to believe or disbelieve, for example—we always act as purely rational agents, “calculating machines,” our emotions, passions, or feelings having no say in the process. Which is a strong intellectualist assumption. Worse, it’s a form of solipsism to which those of us in the business of thinking and writing are particularly prone. “Intellectuals and philosophers may think they make the weather,” observes Ryrie, “but they are more often driven by it. People who read and write books, like you and me, have a persistent tendency to overestimate the power of ideas.”

According to this line of thought, then, philosophers, intellectuals, and scientists started to attack religion, and then—as a result—people stopped believing in God. Blinded as we usually are to our own biases and proclivities, we easily take the part for the whole. Ryrie, though, looks at the issue from the other end and wonders: “But what if people stopped believing and then found they needed arguments to justify their unbelief?” The approach he proposes is more holistic because perhaps it is more commonsensical. There is significantly more to being human than sheer rationality. We are a complicated mix of reason and unreason, soul and body, thought and emotion. As such, when it comes to our most important choices, we make them “intuitively, with our whole selves, embedded as we are in our social and historical contexts, usually unable to articulate why we have done it, often not even aware we have done it.”

That’s how we choose to believe, and also how we choose not to believe. What comes after such a choice, thus made, is just rationalization. Our deeper self, based on motives our mind may not be fully aware of, takes a vital decision, and then the poor mind—weak and ancillary by nature—goes on a fishing expedition to find reasons for it. In a certain sense, then, it’s not we who choose not to believe, but rather unbelief that chooses us. That, Ryrie believes, doesn’t make atheism irrational, it makes us irrational. That’s why Ryrie thinks that, instead of an intellectual history of atheism, it would be more pertinent and profitable to pursue an emotional one. He uses “emotion” in an enlarged sense, to mean not just “spontaneous or involuntary passions,” but also “the conscious intellect.” In that sense, we are shaped and defined by our emotions; we become who we are in the process of dealing with them. “We may not be able to govern our emotions fully, but we curate and manage them, and we learn them from the culture around us as well as discovering them within ourselves,” he writes.

Ryrie’s “emotional history” of atheism is clustered around two emotions that, he finds, affect our belief and unbelief in a particularly strong manner: anger (under which he places the various “grudges nurtured against an all-embracing Christian society, against the Church in particular and often also against the God who oversaw it all”) and anxiety (“the unsettling, reluctant inability to keep a firm grip on doctrines that people were convinced, with their conscious minds, were true”). There are times when “the unbelief of anger” is dominant, and times when “the unbelief of anxiety” will prevail, just as it is possible for the two “emotional streams” to converge and coexist in some form or another. The book covers quite a bit of historical ground, but it doesn’t claim exhaustivity. Once Ryrie has formulated his main argument, he focuses on a few Protestant places, with most of the case studies coming from England, even though he dedicates many insightful pages to important continental figures such as Montaigne, Pascal, and Spinoza.

One of this book’s finest accomplishments is the subtle phenomenology of faith that Ryrie undertakes here. Faith is never simple or easy. It is, in itself, a momentous event (“It’s a Great Matter to Believe there is a God,” exclaims one of his characters), and, as an experience, it claims us holistically. Faith is a tyrannical and whimsical master. It can throw us not just off the horse on the Damascus road, but off any sense of balance. In no time, it can become its opposite—unless, that is, faith and doubt are meant to coexist, in various degrees of uneasiness, within the confines of the same self. William Perkins, the major theologian of Elizabethan England with whom Ryrie repeatedly engages in his book, shows how “these two thoughts, There is a God, and there is no God, may be, and are both in one and the same heart.” Indeed, a “man cannot always discern what be the thoughts of his own heart,” concludes Perkins, some centuries before Freud.

As we read Ryrie’s book, we come to realize something at once startling and refreshing: he is practicing precisely what he is preaches in this book. He comes across here as a distinctly intuitive scholar. While clearly structured and carefully developed, the book is built on intuitions. Some of them are fully explored, others only briefly (I, for one, very much hope that the few insightful pages on Hitler’s role in our religious imaginary, dropped almost by accident at the end of the book, will one day be developed into a book-length argument). As you become engrossed in the reading, you sense—sometimes clearly, sometimes more obscurely—that the argumentative prose is meant to “rationalize” things the author must have first felt intuitively. Which is, I guess, something to be expected from a “believer with a soft spot for atheism.” For what is a “soft spot,” if not feeling and intuition turned into method?

If we add to that Ryrie’s rhetorical mastery, we have the complete picture of a writer who feels his way through a difficult topic. Our emotions are not only what Ryrie is talking about in his book. They are also what he is brilliantly acting upon.

Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt
Alec Ryrie
Harvard University Press, $27.95, 272 pp.

Published in the June 2020 issue: 

Costica Bradatan is a professor of humanities at Texas Tech University and an honorary research professor of philosophy at University of Queensland in Australia. He is the author, most recently, of Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers (Bloomsbury).

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