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Alec Ryrie – Unbelievers – Feature Review

Alec Ryrie Unbelievers Review“We Are Not Calculating Machines”

A Review of

Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt 
Alec Ryrie

Hardback: Harvard UP, 2020
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Reviewed by John Wilson

Part of the reason I enjoy reviews and reviewing is the enormous freedom the form allows, apart from the constraints (sometimes considerable!) imposed by any given editor or publication. But there are self-imposed rules I try to follow. One is to try to give readers of a review a sense of what reading the book at hand is like, sentence-by-sentence—what flavor it has, not merely summarizing and critiquing an overarching argument or sketching the outlines and the import of a novel, for instance. You might be surprised how many reviews do this only in the most perfunctory way.

Alec Ryrie’s Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, published last November by Harvard University Press, has severely tested my ability to fulfill this requirement. Ryrie is well-published; his next book, Christianity: A Historical Atlas, is due from Harvard in May. We can infer, from his role as president of the Ecclesiastical History Society, that he is a collegial figure as well. (I suspect that he and I have a friend or two in common.) Unbelievers has been widely and favorably reviewed, and the book comes with warm endorsements from a handful of distinguished scholars. And yet as I have read it and re-read it, Ryrie’s “emotional history” seems deeply muddled to me.

In Matthew’s gospel, there is a harrowing passage (Matt. 25: 34-46) which I’ve seen quoted more often in recent years (here taken from the ESV): 

44 “Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 

Whatever else we take from this (for instance, is “eternal” a mistranslation, as some have argued?), I think it’s quite clear that the passage describes people who claimed to be followers of Jesus (“believers”) but who were in fact not. The same scenario is outlined in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” And there are other instances in the New Testament making it clear that, from the very beginning, “Christians” included unbelievers who were practicing the faith for their own ends. As the church improbably flourished over the centuries, and Christianity grew ever more established, inducements to simulate belief became much more obvious. Does anyone really think that the notorious Renaissance popes were sincere believers? And what of countless other “ordinary people,” unmentioned in our chronicles?

And yet on page 2 of Unbelievers, we find Ryrie quoting Charles Taylor, who wondered (in The Secular Age) why “it was virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but inescapable?” As I asked when I reviewed Taylor’s book years ago, what makes Taylor so sure about the “state of belief” in 1500? Does his inference follow from the public face of Christendom?

But wait—there’s a twist coming. On page 22, Ryrie introduces Thomas Semer, who was tried and eventually executed for heresy “by burning” in 1448, persisting in his blasphemous assertions right to the end. Here is what Ryrie says next, concluding the same paragraph:

What we cannot know is the extent to which this kind of skepticism was an ever-present feature of medieval religion’s sea floor, only stirred up by persistent inquisitors; and to what extent it specifically flourished in those corners of the ocean which were filled with heretical variety and therefore attracted the inquisitors’ attention.

This sensible observation is at odds with Taylor’s narrative, though Ryrie doesn’t make that explicit. Why then, I wondered, had he quoted Taylor as he did at the outset? As with many questions I had while reading this book, I was never able to come up with an answer.

But then, as I’ve already reported, I was repeatedly wrongfooted as I made my way through Unbelievers. At the outset, explaining what he hoped to accomplish, Ryrie says that he sought to “remind both parties” (believers and atheists, that is) “how long their fates have been intertwined and how much they owe to one another, not least so that they might be willing to talk and to listen to one another again.” Again? Such talking and listening has been going on for as far back as I can remember, alongside sneers, mudslinging, and more decorous polemics, and I expect it will continue to do so.

Ryrie says at the outset that he is “a believer (and, in the interests of full disclosure, a licensed lay minister in the Church of England).” I thought about that now and then—reading, for instance, on page 133 about the poet Thomas Traherne (whom I love) and the way in which, “from his infancy, the wonders of Creation had both enraptured him and filled him with eager curiosity.” Ryrie then makes this observation:

In the modern age, the majesty and strangeness of the cosmos still has a powerful emotional tug, but that tug has usually been towards atheism rather than towards God. Neither emotional reaction is ‘correct’. Traherne simply reminds us how different the same facts can appear to different eyes.

But it doesn’t follow that neither reaction is correct. If the quotemarks are intended to suggest that neither “emotional reaction” constitutes a knockdown proof for the existence or (nonexistence) of God, that’s true. But once again, it doesn’t follow that neither reaction is correct.

That word “emotional” reminds me that I have to say something about the way Ryrie deploys it and its cognates. On the one hand, he is quick to explain that he doesn’t intend “to imply that the intellect and emotions are opposites, or that emotions are irrational.” So far so good. But then things begin to slide, and just six pages later (page 11), he’s saying this:

In writing an emotional history of atheism, I am not arguing that atheism is irrational. I am arguing that human beings are irrational; or rather, that we are not calculating machines, and that our ‘choices’ about what we believe or disbelieve are made intuitively, with our whole selves, not with impersonal logic.

Oh, dear. No wonder Ryrie quickly adds that, since “arguments as such have precious little bearing on either belief or unbelief,” he isn’t trying to “convert anyone to or from anything.” No, nothing as vulgar as that. He just wants us to talk.  

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John Wilson

John Wilson is Contributing Editor for The Englewood Review of Books. He was previously editor of Books and Culture magazine.

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