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The battle to believe in God Don't kid yourself that atheism is a modern invention — it's as old as religion

Doubt is part of the deal. Credit: MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP via Getty Images

November 14, 2019   4 mins

How did God disappear from the landscape of Western society? The standard answer is that He was killed by thinkers: philosophers and scientists, especially those associated with the Enlightenment.  First, God died in theory, only after which He died in practise, when ordinary people eventually caught up with the ideas that were first formulated in the study and the laboratory.

The only problem with this, as Alec Ryrie astutely observes in a new book on the rise of atheism, is that “death-by-philosophy … is a poor fit with the actual chronology of western secularisation”.

Atheism, he asserts, was alive and well before the Enlightenment. And considerable religious revivals — Methodism, Hasidism, the Russian Orthodox church — occurred after it, even as a reaction to it. In many ways, Unbelievers: An emotional history of doubt is a reflection on the cultural significance of experts, a challenge to those who, as historian Dominic Erdozain put it, “privilege the clean logic of ideas above the raw fuel of human experience among the forces of historical change”.

What Ryrie’s account achieves is an explanation as to why atheism often remains so angry. That it is angry seems undeniable — from the vituperative nature of exchanges on social media, to the hardly concealed fury of its leading lights, Dawkins, Hitchens etc, there can be little doubt it is driven as much by passion and righteous indignation as by following the consequences of cold clear dispassionate rationality. “Reason is a slave to the passions” as David Hume rightly noted.

For Ryrie, a scholar of the Protestant Reformation, the passion in question has its roots in the protest against the abuses of the church of Rome, of well-padded priests feathering their own nests, of the bullying authority of the Papacy. For in seeking to establish an alternative source of religious authority, Protestants loaded a great deal more significance on the notion of faith, and its near cousin intellectual assent. It was under this category that the reformers would mock the Roman church and its practises as “superstitious” – making fun of Roman practises as mumbo-jumbo, transubstantiation, the veneration of bones and so forth.

According to Ryrie, reason became “a battering ram against the Papacy”. Doubt was mobilised by the Reformation as a means of dislodging Roman authority and of returning the believer to a more serious wrestling with the scriptures and their own personal convictions. In his way, doubt became a mechanism for the intensification of piety. “The aim was not to turn believers into unbelievers. It was to turn naive believers into sophisticated, self-aware believers”; that is, to shift the centre of religious authority from the church to the self. Scepticism began life not as a dispassionate estimation of the soundness of the arguments for the existence of God, it was the weaponisation of reason in the assault against over-weaning Roman power.

Scepticism has grown intellectually respectable since its sectarian origins. But Ryrie’s contention that its power and effectiveness derive as much from its emotional impact as its rational argumentation makes considerable sense to me, not least because “one cannot be reasoned out of something one was never reasoned into”. None of which is to discount or discredit the rational case against God. But disproofs of God’s existence are about as effective in creating atheists as proofs are in creating believers. Such arguments are shadow boxing. The real battle is always emotional.

Which is why, for Christians, the book to read alongside that of Ryrie’s Unbelievers is that of Francis Spufford, published back in 2012. In many ways, Ryrie’s account of the origins of unbelief feels a lot like an academic prequel to Spufford’s much celebrated Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.  It helps that Spufford is a brilliant writer. But what makes Unapologeticwork so well is that it seeks to make sense of faith in its own terms, rightly refusing the unbeliever vs believer boo-hurrah that has sucked so much contemporary debate about religion into its boringly constricted channels.

Spufford explains Christianity by reminding us of the sort of work it is intended to do. The proper starting point is not the question of God’s existence, but what he calls “the HPtFtu” – or, “the human propensity to fuck things up”. The propensity extends to our relationships, our attempts to be good, even to our rationality. Emotionally, Christianity begins within the unfixable realities of human life, its tragedies and absurdities. Even its blood-soaked history, including that of the Reformation, is just yet another example of the HPtFtu.

Christianity grows out of the broken and unfixable. Its USP is to be found within and alongside the stuff that doesn’t work – indeed, that’s why someone so naturally sympathetic to Christianity as Dostoyevsky gives all the best arguments in The Brothers Karamazov to those most hostile to it. But this isn’t its failing as much as its point.

As Spufford claims: “Virtuous and idealistic atheists are at work all over the place, but it is observable that a surprisingly large number of believers are at work with the dying, the demented, the addicted, the institutionalised and the very impaired and afflicted, where the best that can be done is to love for the sake of it” and to “keep sorrow company”.

Christianity is a prolonged meditation on all the stuff in our lives that doesn’t work. It gains its emotional power by its connection with failure – moral, emotional, intellectual. I suppose that is why I read the New Atheist critique of Christianity as often obviously correct, and yet strangely irrelevant. What they take to be a kind of philosophical or quasi-scientific explanation of things is often much more like a cry for help. And to accuse a cry for help as being intellectually confused is a peculiar kind of response.

Yes, Christianity does have substantial things to say about human pain. But 99% of the work that it requires of us is to recognise our inability to fix ourselves, our incapacity. That’s what monks were doing in the desert. They were not punishing themselves for being sinful, or anything like that. They were living up close and personal to their own fragility, their own pain and failure. If you want to attack Christianity on its own terms, attack it here (as someone like Nietzsche does, for instance).

Now, of course, you may completely disagree with my characterisation of Christianity. Many will. But what Ryrie’s engaging book suggests is that the battle over God is really a battle about a certain sort of emotional literacy. For the Christian life is as much dependent on arguments about God’s existence as birds are dependent upon ornithology.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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