Historian Alec Ryrie offers a revisionist take on the roots of unbelief. But there’s another story that needs telling.
Let’s begin with a quiz. Think of some specific people you know who do not believe in God. Do you have your answers? I thought of Jill, and then, to make it more challenging, imposed an alliteration rule before adding Jeremy, Jeanette, Jane, and Jeffrey.
Most of us can cobble our own lists together without too much trouble. Which raises an interesting question: How did we reach the point where this exercise is so easy? After all, there were numerous generations in Europe when almost no one could have named a single true unbeliever.
In his well-researched and thought-provoking book, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, historian Alec Ryrie recounts a McCarthy-like atheist scare in late-16th-century England. The authorities were determined to root the problem out, but the deeper they dug the less they found. One man was subpoenaed because he was overheard saying he knew that some people did not believe in heaven or hell. Asked to name names, he duly explained that he had learned of the existence of such people when a minister denounced them in a sermon.
So how did we get from unreliable rumors of atheists to alliterative lists of them? Ryrie’s thesis is that the standard account, which focuses on intellectual arguments for atheism, is wrong. He believes that these are generally just rationalizations concocted after the fact: “What if,” he wonders, the true story is that “people stopped believing and then found they needed arguments to justify their unbelief?”
Anger and Anxiety
Ryrie replaces the old view with a revisionist story driven by emotions rather than ideas. Just in case unbelievers might find this a slur, he adds this disarming disclaimer: “In writing an emotional history …