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Key insights from

Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt

By Alec Ryrie

What you’ll learn

Nietzsche famously wrote in his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra that, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” But if that is true, who are God’s murderers, really? Could we point them out in a line-up? British historian Alec Ryrie argues that the vast majority of historians and laypeople alike have brought in the wrong suspects and called the wrong defendants to the stand, that God was on the chopping block well before any Humes or Voltaires came on the scene. Ryrie sees doubt beginning as an older, more visceral reaction to the Church.


Read on for key insights from Unbelievers.

1. The Enlightenment is commonly and mistakenly viewed as the turning point away from Christian faith in the West.

In the West there remains a lingering cultural Christian influence, but surveys find increasing disbelief in the West, from the the religiously strident United States to the more disenchanted Europe. Any stigma surrounding pronouncements of disbelief in God or religion proper is gone or rapidly fading, especially among young people. In parts of Scandinavia and the Netherlands, disbelief is over 40 percent. A 2015 poll in Great Britain revealed that 70 percent of those under 24 years old report no religious faith.

Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement that “God is dead” is no longer seen as a scandal but fairly obvious. The common narrative among Christians and atheists alike is that scientists touting empiricism and philosophers pushing rationality are responsible. These godless intellectuals turned scientific inquiry and Enlightenment principles into weapons that aggressively clubbed down faith.

These histories of growing unbelief usually mention thinkers like Spinoza, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Voltaire, and Thomas Paine and describe how they cast aspersions on miracles or biblical authority or else created systems of thought and life that did not depend on God to sustain or even create the universe. Other philosophers found existence without religion to be the more compelling option. And then there was Darwin who hunted the origin of the species and did not find a creator at the front of it.

Depending on who tells the story, these men are either heroes or villains, but both sides see the Enlightenment as the hinge in the history of faith in the West. It is a common, but unsatisfying account.

There are signs of atheism reaching back further than the Enlightenment. The timeline is all wrong. Just because earlier formulations of doubt were not philosophically robust does not mean they were not powerful or persuasive.

We are routinely looking at the wrong centuries to find God’s killers and bringing in the wrong suspects for interrogation. We have to remember that currents guide thinkers every bit as much as thinkers guide currents.

We think philosophers attacked religion and the assault was successful, but what if there was already plenty of disbelief in the cultural atmosphere and philosophers simply put words to what many common people had already been thinking?

2. Decisions to come to faith or leave it are intuitive and emotional before they are conscious and intellectual.

In the history of ideas, faith and belief are often approached in a manner that is highly cerebral. But if we consider our biggest decisions in life, we realize that they are far more driven by intuition than pure, calculating reason. When we change our minds, we cannot always clearly articulate the change. Often, rationales come in only after the fact, as an overlay to reinforce a change that has already taken place.

Blaise Pascal was right to remark, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” The point is that belief and unbelief are both processes that operate most powerfully at a level of inexpressible gut instincts. If this is true, then the rumblings of discontent prior to formal declarations of atheism are atheism’s true birthplace in Western Christianity.

Thus, the key question is not what ideas germinated, but how did the cultural and religious soil become so hospitable to seeds of doubt in the first place? This means that we would do better looking not at atheism’s intellectual origins but at atheism’s emotional history, which began much earlier.

We need not pull head and heart apart to explore this history, but the history of ideas is often too tidy, and fails to account for the messiness of human experience being brought to bear on those ideas. Humans have never approached ideas from a logical vacuum, free of cultural and personal experience.

As we will see, Christianity’s biggest existential threats are not atheists “out there” brandishing lethal arguments, intent on bringing down the Church. The biggest opposition has come from Christians who end up opposing the Christianity of their day. The impetus of these protests is primarily moral (not intellectual). This is what is meant by an emotional history.

3. Atheism can be defined narrowly as disbelief in a deity, or broadly as a rejection of established religious norms.

Atheism and disbelief are no longer synonymous, philosophically speaking. But to track an emotional history of doubt, it is helpful to recover the original meaning of the term “atheist.” It comes from the Greek atheos. Atheos literally translates “without god or gods,” but it connotes a more cultural violation of the established religious norms. In this sense, Socrates was an atheist, but so were early Christians. Their renegade beliefs about Jesus as the King of Kings, deserving worship instead of Caesar and the pantheon of the day, cut at the heart of Greco-Roman religious sensibilities.

It is in this same, broader sense that we can refer to unbelievers in Christendom as “atheists,” even if they continue to believe in God. They are atheists in that they rejected the religious systems that were part of Christendom’s atmosphere and taken for granted as true.

The word “atheist” was only widely used in the West after Ancient Greek was rediscovered during the Renaissance. From there, the term gradually trickled into the mainstream of various European languages.

The closest thing to early medieval atheists in our own world would be flat-earthers. The two groups have a lot in common. Both groups tend to be highly suspicious, independent in thought, willing to go against the societal grain. Many are uneducated, not integrated into society, and reject the wisdom of their age, whether it came from priests or astronomers. Whatever the established authorities on the matter might believe matters little, and both groups are convinced they are being lied to. This critical distance from society makes it easier to take shots at centuries or millennia of accumulated knowledge. Just as flat-earthers reject scientific authority, the early medieval atheists rejected established religious authority.

Flat-earthers generally have views informed by passionate skepticism rather than a deep grasp of the facts. Their beliefs are generally more jargon rather than refined or well-reasoned proofs, but their beliefs are nonetheless powerful and cannot be glibly brushed aside. Neither can early atheism, even if it only existed in raw, ill-defined forms.

4. Christian thought and ancient Greco-Roman thought have a tangled history in the West, with one critiquing the other or vice-versa.

Medieval Europe was saturated in Christianity, but it also lauded ancient philosophers who were leery or even critical of religion. The scholastics were attempting to marry the two streams of thought (the Christian stream and Greco-Roman stream), but Christianity was the measure against which ancient philosophies were judged. 

The early pioneers of a movement that would later be called the Renaissance also revered the ancient traditions, particularly the orators and rhetoricians. But unlike the scholastics of the medieval era, who measured ancient pagan wisdom according to a Christian framework, Renaissance thinkers began critiquing Christianity using ancient pagan wisdom as the standard. Instead of seeing Christianity and Greco-Roman thought as part of a proud inheritance to be humbly received, they praised ancient rhetorical brilliance, and saw a history of its corruption and disintegration over the centuries—which coincided with the rise of Christianity.

The Renaissance movement brought uncomfortable questions to the surface regarding the authority of Scripture, its trustworthiness, and the reliability of the translations. These were more quiet expressions of discomfort than a colossal clamor, but those murmurs would grow in the subsequent centuries.

5. Ancient philosophers saw religion as a tool for manipulation and hated it; Machiavelli saw religion as a tool for manipulation and loved it.

Lucretius (99 – 55 BC) was a Roman poet and philosopher. As those pioneering the movement that would be called the Renaissance began returning to ancient Roman texts, Lucretius’ writings were among the most popular. His work On the Nature of Things offered an Epicurean vision of life that the Church would have frowned upon, but it had some of the most eloquent Latin poetry ever written. Just like film critics appreciate good artwork even if the message clashes with their personal view of life, so Renaissance thinkers loved the ancient form, even if the content was not always commensurable with Christian sensibilities. Even the Church’s heretic hunters would quote Lucretius’ witty sayings in their pamphlets designed to keep people on the straight and narrow.

And Lucretius was the beginning of the Renaissance return to ancient Rome. There were numerous other ancient Roman voices that people were harkening to hear. Pliny the Elder was another popular ancient to study, and Cicero was the crowned jewel of antiquity according to many a Renaissance man.

One man from Renaissance-era Italy who loved the ancients and took a much dimmer view toward Christianity was Machiavelli. He had the bearing of a skeptic. As one of his friends put it, Machiavelli “finds it difficult to believe the things that should be believed.”

In his 1517 treatise that condensed ancient pagan political wisdom, Machiavelli writes that religion is an instrument of civil control, and thus piety and devotion should be encouraged. Medieval Europeans would have agreed that piety and devotion are laudable aspirations. Lucretius would have seen religion as an organ of control and detested it. Differing both from the ancients and medieval thought, Machiavelli saw religion’s manipulative potential and loved it. He loved Roman emperors who leveraged the common belief in emperor divinity to keep control over society.

This was a new twist on unbelief, but here during the Renaissance, as in medieval times, doubt tended to look like cynicism that saw faith as trickery rather than philosophically untenable.

In Machiavelli’s most well known treatise, The Prince, talk of religion is conspicuous in that it does not get a single mention. In other works, Machiavelli talks about popes and clerics as political agents. Interestingly, he admired Moses but thought Jesus was a fool. Of course, he knew better than to say so by name, but Jesus fell into his category of “unarmed prophets” who inevitably met terrible ends and were ineffectual.

Machiavelli was not actively trying to bring Christianity to its knees. In fact, he encouraged religion, even if only for its political utility. But there were limits to Machiavelli’s political vision. Christianity is not a great religion for building a strong state. There was too great an emphasis on mercy and love. To put it bluntly, Christianity was not masculine enough for Machiavelli’s liking.

This thread of atheism as masculine philosophy and antidote to weakling religion has a long intellectual history from certain Roman emperors to more recent thinkers like Nietzsche—but the key word here is intellectual. On the social and emotional histories of doubt and atheism, the impact has been negligible. If anything, atheism has, in its own way, tried to bring a more authentically compassionate ethic in reaction to what they saw as lacking in the Church’s practices.

Machiavelli exposes a thread of anger in the Christian world, rooted in the belief that people were being hoodwinked. He gave voice to the perceived trickery and even incorporated it as a tool in his political stratagems.

6. Protestants are falling on the sword of skepticism that Reformers used to cut ties with Catholicism.

Even by the reluctant admission of lawyer-theologian John Calvin, the Reformation was creating conditions for greater unbelief. People were taking the Reformation’s strong emphasis on gospel freedom and running with it in all sorts of directions. The new doctrinal emphasis on freedom and faith alone was creating relief for some and confusion for many more. The vitriol and cynicism that Reformers had unleashed on the papacy were now being expended on Protestant doctrines as well. More than mere confusion, though, the Reformation was pulling people away from faith. How did this happen?

The Protestant Reformation vehemently attacked superstition of any kind. In the early Protestant mind, superstition was interchangeable with Catholic doctrine. Zeal without knowledge or an inordinate emphasis on this or that practice was taken as superstition.

But this suspicion of superstition created a conundrum for Protestants. Since antiquity, the natural foil to superstition is impiety—otherwise known as atheism, broadly defined as rejection of popular religion. This created a tightrope walk for Christians in the Reformation era, who would fall to superstition on one end and impiety on the other. Whether someone was Catholic or Protestant was a reliable indicator of which way someone would fall. Those opting for Catholicism would take the older food of belief even if it were partially rotten, whereas the Protestants would opt for extreme hunger rather than partake. Protestants would chance some unbelief rather than fall back into what they considered Rome’s trickery.

One Catholic observed that “a Catholic may commonly become sooner Superstitious, than a Protestant; And a Protestant sooner become an Atheist, than a Catholic.”

Another historian similarly contended that, in an age that had begun rejecting superstition more than ever, the devil saw an opportunity to lead people out of the prison of superstition and straight into another: the prison of atheism.

Catholics have, not unfairly, pointed out that disbelief was not just an unintended byproduct of Protestantism, but a central defining feature. Protestants not only argued against but ridiculed Catholic doctrines like transubstantiation, relics, and papal authority. Catholics were not just wrong but childishly credulous. Gullibility was a sin for Protestants. This is the perilous tightrope that Protestants chose to walk: rejecting credulity while hanging onto a faith that does not tip over the other way into total incredulity toward religion altogether.

In their own way, Protestants were carrying on the theme of Church as trickster that had been around since medieval times. Protestants were turning reason into a weapon against superstition, but as more and more people failed to maintain the balancing act and slipped from less credulous to incredulous, that same weapon was brandished against not just Catholic superstition but against Christianity of any stripe. To the Catholic, this stony suspicion was a far more troubling trend than credulity because Protestants were losing their capacity for faith at all.

Ultimately, it was not a question of doctrine or faith being debated. It was a race to find the others' view unbelievable, and one’s own view as credible. Just as Protestants would make fun of Catholic belief in transubstantiation, Catholics would ridicule the Protestants’ strict adherence to the word of God as inspired. Each side viewed the other side as so blind and gullible as to be incapable of embracing the more beautiful spiritual vision of the more credible side. 

7. The core emotions driving the history of religious doubt have been anger and anxiety.

The roots of doubt were emotional well before they were intellectual. Doubt appeared first as anger, and then anxiety. An angry suspicious view of Church leaders as tricksters abusing authority gave way to a defiance that reached a fever pitch in the Protestant Reformation. Reformers wielded skepticism as a weapon to club down Catholic gullibility, but their technique using doubt to disarm Catholic superstition became increasingly generalized to religious superstition. The Catholics wanted to keep faith simple and trusting, whereas Protestants wanted a faith that was tested through reflection and experience. Doubt became faith’s refining fire, but some were burned in the process.

The Reformation era opened up options of faith in Europe where there had formerly only been Catholicism, but it was a decision that some people did not want to be presented with in the first place. If we consider the word heretic comes from the Greek word meaning “able to choose,” the idea of options was deeply unsettling to some. Sometimes the ongoing reflective process of working through doubts strengthened faith, but it left many other people in a state of quiet exhaustion, and still others in a state of disillusionment. As the tool of skepticism became more and more widely resorted to, religion itself was doubted, often from within the Church’s ranks.

The rise of doubt about one’s salvation, the Church’s or Bible’s authority, and immortality led to a mounting anxiety. Seventeenth-century Puritans in some ways epitomize this anxiety. Protestantism ushered in new forms of doubt and with it, deep anxiety: A vacillating kind of skepticism that never alights on anything for fear of being wrong or choosing wrong. Radicals, spiritualists, Quakers, Anabaptists, and Seekers in England and Holland often deflected questions of doctrinal stances until they could be more certain, or they would look for the core of faith and shirk what they considered overly established and outmoded doctrines. Some were waiting for another prophet to come out of the wilderness in the power of the Spirit to show people a way forward. One spiritualist even believed that all spiritual rites (from baptism to the Lord’s Supper) should be postponed until such a figure comes, since the Church had been corrupt since the death of the first apostles.

Atheism was a more acceptable phenomenon for the Church when it was seen as something beyond the Church’s walls—all the better for believers when atheists were corrupt and sexually immoral, their lives in shambles, because it reinforced the narrative of a clear-cut demarcation between the faithful and faithless, and the consequences of living outside Christian faith.

The Church and its devotees were comfortable with that kind of atheism, but when atheists left the expected role of bad guy, the narrative was thrown into upheaval. This was the case when atheists claimed the moral high ground over believers and respected Jesus but rejected what they considered corruption among clerics and believers.

Some of the famous Enlightenment figures that most Christian historians and theologians vilify as atheists bent on ruining Christianity actually seemed more keen on purifying or salvaging it. Listen at what Thomas Paine has to say in The Age of Reason. It is a piece that is often considered a strike at faith, but he writes the treatise, “…lest in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government and false theology, we lose sight of morality, humanity and of the theology that is true.”

By exploring natural law and universal moral frameworks, some Enlightenment figures were attempting to find a new, surer foundation than questionable church authority to ground a system closer to a more genuine Christianity.

The threads of anger and anxiety tie together a history of unbelief in Western Christianity that goes back further than most people realize. Considering the emotional history of doubt can help those who still hold to faith take a more humble view of the Church’s role in the rise of doubt and a more charitable view of unbelievers from the past and the present.

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