Angry Atheists

by Jeroen Bouterse

“Why, during the seventeenth century, did people who knew all the arguments that there is a God stop finding God’s reality intuitively obvious?” This, says Alec Ryrie in his Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt (2019), is the heart of the question of early modern unbelief (136).

Ryrie’s point is that arguments pro or contra theism, and the influence of philosophical and scientific developments upon these arguments, are not actually crucial to the possibility of unbelief. The currents that run underneath these arguments are instinctive, emotional, and these are what we should look at if we want to understand doubt and denial of Christian theism historically. The history of unbelief is not primarily the history of eighteenth-century Enlightenment radicals and nineteenth-century science warriors, but of premodern anger and anxiety.

This also means that it is a history internal to Christendom: atheism, to Ryrie (himself a lay minister in the Church of England), is not essentially alien to Christianity; especially post-Reformation, it is a bug in the system itself, one that at times almost looks like a feature. The very self-criticism and soul-searching that come to define a faithful believer can lead her to recognize that she believes in her heart that there is no God.

This reference to the book of Psalms serves to illustrate that atheism, whether or not there was a blunt word for it, was eminently conceivable to Christianity from the outset. Medieval Europe, where Ryrie begins his narrative, is certainly no exception: theologians such as Anselm had no problem imagining atheist fools when clearing their throats for their proofs of God. Equally, they did not need those proofs; intellectually, atheism was no more a live option at the time than flat-earth-ism is now.

So, why, yes, there were atheists. Like our flat earthers, they had to be way outside of any kind of mainstream, and highly suspicious of it. They were angry, iconoclastic, and their beliefs reflected their independent-mindedness and eccentricity; whether those beliefs involved literal denial of the deity was almost beside the point, as long as they shocked the ruling elites. Medieval blasphemers and heretics are part of the social and emotional history of atheism (which is what matters to Ryrie), but not of its intellectual history.

Ancient polytheists or religious skeptics were known to the middle ages, but in so far as their ideas could have challenged medieval orthodoxy in theory, they did not do so in practice. Even in the renaissance, angry unbelief and intellectual respectability remained quite far apart, except perhaps in Machiavelli. Modern atheists are not Machiavellians in any ethical sense of the word, Ryrie emphasizes – “far from renouncing Christianity’s distinctive ethic of mercy, most modern atheism has redoubled it” (38) – but Machiavelli, or what he stood for in the imagination of the age, put into everybody’s mind the idea that perhaps religion was a lie, a cynical trick played by the powerful on the gullible.

The watershed in the history of unbelief, however, is the Reformation. This idea is not in itself new, but Ryrie subtly wants to change the narrative about what religious conflict and secularization have to do with each other. The point is not, he argues, that people got tired of all the trouble and decided to contain the harm that religious strife caused by working around religion; the point is, rather, that within the conflict, both sides weaponized doubt, in a way that backfired as often as it hit its mark. Skepticism was not a response to the Reformation by disinterested bystanders; it was generated by the debates. Protestants argued that Catholic literalist belief in transubstantiation was basically a silly superstition; Catholics retorted that this kind of criticism betrayed the carnal nature of Protestants’ own reasoning, which was tantamount to impiety, and that by the way, Protestants’ reliance on the Holy Spirit to illuminate the reading of the Bible was itself laughably naïve. Both accused the other side of being either too credulous or too incredulous. In the crossfire, some of these accusations stuck. To some, retreating from the more contentious and doubtful issues seemed the best solution; important figures such as Michel Montaigne and Jean Bodin quite explicitly deleted their religious Twitter accounts.

Whatever the motives for these retreats, the indirect effect of the Reformation was to open up secular spaces in the religious landscape. What would it look like if people set up camp there? Ryrie’s third chapter is primarily about the atheists conjured up by the popular and clerical imagination of the seventeenth century. The stereotypical atheist was a hubristic and worldly man, who wished there was no God that he had to obey, no-one to judge him. Atheism was associated with libertinism, with immoral behavior to the point of incest. On the one hand, this link to ethical nihilism made atheism into a convenient negative mirror image of mainstream culture – the atheist was a fearsome other, but much like the medieval blasphemer, he did not constitute a genuine challenge. On the other hand, anything that supported the possibility of irreligious morality could now undermine religion together with its own self-satisfied moralism. Also, the fact that godless hypocrites made for nice stock characters in the theatre domesticated atheism, suggesting it to be “not a uniquely depraved spectacle of horror, but a tolerable everyday phenomenon, to be joked about rather than feared” (102).

Christianity itself had set the bar for atheism very low. This made atheism more ubiquitous and less fearsome; it also made being a proper Christian a stressful business. Seventeenth-century puritans could worry especially about what the doubt in their own souls revealed about them – and what that revelation in turn implied about God. To doubt your own salvation was contextualized as unbelief, and indeed, some people spiraled through despair into actual denial of Christian doctrine. The roots of these initial doubts could well be cognitive – nagging questions about the reliability of Scripture, for instance – but writers of the age itself agreed, and Ryrie agrees with them, that no-one simply argues her way out of temptation. At least, not if the arguments do not pack some emotional punch as well; the wonder of creation and the evidence of the deity in the human mind were the two main arguments that doubters could effectively aim at their own worries, Ryrie claims.

Even for those who resisted the temptation of doubt, however, there were roads into practical unbelief that went straight through sincere theology: Protestant spiritualists sought to develop a purer faith by pruning out childish and superstitious elements, but what was on the far side of these minimalist tendencies? ‘Seekers’ such as Clement Writer did not always stop at the rejection of baptism and ministry; they also made it a point of courage to avoid at all costs the hypocrisy they saw in others, even if that involved confronting uncomfortable questions about the Bible. What these Seekers had left after eliminating every form of dogma or traditional Christian practice was a high-minded morality, and here Ryrie feels he has to draw the line: “that may be magnificent, but it is not religion.” (169)

This narrative constitutes excellent evidence in favor of one of Ryrie’s contentions: that unbelief is, to a large extent, homegrown; that the history of Christianity itself has opened wide gates and broad ways to atheism. I am less sure that all this is also best analyzed as an “emotional history”, of anger and anxiety.

There is much to be said for this frame, to be sure. Ryrie uses emotions as a lens through which he can historicize questions that can easily be misunderstood as perennial, especially by those of us who are interested in atheism and apologetics. It is all too easy to think of ontological arguments, theodicy problems, and arguments from design as basically timeless, and from there it is a small leap to the mistaken conclusion that the history of unbelief is a chronicle of philosophical and scientific innovations and discoveries. Ryrie shows that the same arguments or considerations have much less force in one time than in another; in the 21st century, the problem of suffering weighs heavily against theism, while for 17th-century puritans it hardly registered. Ryrie is rightly sensitive to this historical variability. Atheism has not fallen from the skies with the unstoppable force of the better argument; it has developed historically, and what better way to anchor it firmly in historical reality than by tying it to the human body or psyche?

On the other hand, anger and anxiety themselves risk becoming constants in Ryrie’s commentaries, turning up as a kind of undercurrent wherever there is religious unbelief and doubt at the surface. The suggestion is sometimes that the emotions are causally prior – that “if you are unable to believe, it is because of your passions”, as Ryrie quotes Pascal (185). In its simple form, however, this suggestion is not supported by the narrative. The puritan doubts that Ryrie describes do of course come with a good deal of anxiety, but these doubts themselves have substance: they are rooted in factual questions about the authority of the Bible, “made harder both by Catholic attacks and by the accumulation of minor textual puzzles and problems uncovered by biblical scholarship since the renaissance.” (120)

Catholic-Protestant polemics are angry, but they are also quite literally a matter of substance. When a Protestant describes the Catholic view of the Eucharist as eating Christ up raw and “convey[ing] him into the place where they bestow the residue of all that which they have devoured”, Ryrie comments: “That is not an argument; it is a gag reflex.” (55) A true and important observation: what stands out here is not the quality of the reasoning but the ruthless anger and disgust. But if it is a gag reflex, it is a self-induced one; behind it, there is a web of associations, meanings, and implicit arguments. Anger and disgust do not exist in a historical vacuum, and a full explanation of the reason why 16th-century Protestants were so prone to equating transubstantiationism with cannibalism, and why on the other hands Catholics were deeply disturbed by this level of impropriety, is contextual and historical. That is, it relies not on the workings of the human limbic system, but on the discursive resources that authors on different sides of the controversy tap into.

I should emphasize what I hope my synopsis of the narrative already made clear: that this is precisely the kind of explanation that Ryrie’s book delivers in practice, in a convincing and elegant manner. He does not shy away from intellectualizing the hot-headed half-arguments that both sides throw at each other in their polemics; he shows us why they were meaningful and powerful at the time, and what their intended and unintended effects upon later religious discourse were. He also makes it clear that he does not mean to contrast emotions and intellect. “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. It is in this sense that they can be said to have a history” (5). I completely concur with this premise, and would only add that it complicates the idea that two more or less specific emotions are perennial in the history of atheism.

Perhaps this is why the final chapter, in which Ryrie follows these two threads from the seventeenth century to the present, is the least convincing: he tries to fit the cheerful mockery of Monty Python’s Life of Brian into the mold (“merry absurdism and gentle ridicule […], but containing occasional, unmistakable flashes of real anger” (187)), and the section on anxiety contains preciously few examples of actual anxiety. The book ends with the exciting thesis that after World War 2, Nazism and its atrocities have become the absolute reference point for morality in the public consciousness, and that this is culturally important because it is the first wholly secular moral absolute, dislodging Jesus. A fascinating thought and an admirable final display of Ryrie’s talent for reading between the lines of cultural expressions, for discerning what they reveal about the spirit of the age; but what all this has to do with the two supposedly central emotions of the book remains unclear to me.

It is a small complaint. Ryrie’s book simply contains a much richer story than the ‘two emotions’-framework can sustain, and this framework never holds him back from telling that story. He takes every seriously held position seriously, and takes care to find the right words and the right metaphors to draw out what is at stake, bringing past hopes and worries closer, allowing them to resonate with us without collapsing them into the present. Ryrie succeeds in historicizing recognizable strands of unbelief by situating them in different religious discourses, and by providing a convincing narrative about the dynamics of those discourses. He is right in insisting that this dynamics is not amenable to rational reconstruction, that it is not an isolated intellectual chess game, if such a thing were even conceivable. Ryrie’s protagonists doubt God with all their heart and all their soul, as well as with all their mind.


Edition used: Alec Ryrie, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt. Harvard University Press: Cambridge (Mass.) 2019.