More wearisome than the person who seems to know everything might be the person who speaks as if their uncertainty were a stroke of genius. They may not know everything, but at least they know they don’t know everything! I kid. A little. Because we have all known, or have been, this person at some point or another. Maybe they heard one tenet of religion that didn’t sit with liberal humanism and loudly denounced the whole thing. Now they “live in that gray space.” Or maybe they were bullied at Vacation Bible School and realized at a young age that their church was less a hospital for sinners than a building full of them. None of these feelings should be laughed off, but neither are they very unique.

The English historian Alec Ryrie wants us to abandon the notion that belief and unbelief are opposites; the former, as he points out, is nested within the latter. Ryrie’s newest book Unbelievers illustrates — I want to say “savagely,” but “rigorously” is more like it — that unbelief is not just “stage two” of belief. Faith and doubt are, and have always been, intertwined. In other words, there is nothing new about doubt; further, it is more emotional than intelligent. But our impression has always been that, between the two, unbelief is smarter. In one comical example, Ryrie writes of a French cardinal who, in the 1580s, was tried for atheism, not because he had any real conclusions about it but because, to him, doubt seemed “sophisticated,” and “nothing was wittier than a knowing flirtation with atheism.” Arch a brow, and you look suddenly shrewd. That’s the way it is.

In reality, unbelief comes easily and/or naturally. Ryrie collects stories of medieval doubt that, to me, at least, seem all too familiar. Despite the caricature of the pre-Renaissance Christian as an unthinking pleb who couldn’t get the Latin, Ryrie holds that medieval Europeans “could also think for themselves. The conundrum that our lives feel as if they mean something, while the world looks as if it means nothing, confronted them as it confronts us all.” Today, belief is not difficult [only] because we live in the “age” of Secularism and Donald Trump and whatever other reasons the formerly religious give. Something as major as the shape of the earth, and evolution, had little direct impact on church attendance, historically speaking. According to Derek Thompson at the Atlantic, 19th-century philosophers “predicted that atheism would follow scientific discovery and modernity in the West, sure as smoke follows fire.” But it took well over 100 years before any sharp drop in religious affiliation actually registered. To such data, Ryrie’s book is a worthwhile rejoinder. Early on, he rejects this premise that the beliefs of “normal people” follow the intellectuals’. Really, he argues, it’s the other way around:

Intellectuals and philosophers may think they make the weather, but they are more often driven by it. People who read and write books, like you and me, have a persistent tendency to overestimate the power of ideas. Some of us may occasionally change our beliefs and our lives as the result of a chain of conscious reasoning, but not very often or very honestly. Our own age has forcibly reminded us that intellectual elites often struggle to bring their societies with them. Their default role is to tag along, explaining with perfect hindsight why things inevitably turned out as they did.

Unbelief, in Ryrie’s view, is as “instinctive, inarticulate, [and] intuitive” as belief: “The notion that God does not hear prayers and either does not or cannot act is quite capable of suggesting itself to people who are unfamiliar with Lucretius” — or for that matter, Spinoza, Hitchens, etc. Unbelievers precedes all of this. You could say: doubt was born at night, but not last night.

But it was extremely unpopular. It was undignified, in a way, and had not yet claimed enough respectability to appear on any official scale. Perhaps this is because it had not yet been validated by the big ego of intellect; it simmered, instead, in two unpleasant emotions.


What Ryrie identifies as “the most obvious” cause for unbelief is anger, usually in response to some injustice or trauma involving belief/believers. Particularly in the West, where society itself was “Christian,” you might have felt understandably oppressed not just by clerical abuses but by the additional chorus of purported belief, singing at you from all sides. In such an environment, anger was a way of slipping out of the chokehold, at least momentarily. Examples of this include “a notoriously tight-fisted moneylender from Bologna,” Uguzzone dei Tattalisina of the 13th century, who rejected the authority of the Bible and argued, “there is no other world than this.” Similar to that guy was Durandus de Rufficiaco de Olmeira, and Nicholas of Pasignano, and plenty of other humorously named Europeans who became suspicious that the whole concept of the afterlife was just a way of keeping laypeople under the church’s thumb. If you were being ordered around by presumptuous clerics, the best response was to take shots at the foundations of their presumption. Ryrie interprets all this as less a theory about God than “resentment at being manipulated.” And “resentment of priests,” Ryrie says, “was a sport for all.”

Anger, of course, can be righteous. This form of unbelief often builds off a moral foundation that is, in Ryrie’s words, “straightforwardly Christian”: that “liberty is an absolute good and subjugation an absolute evil.” Such morality, though, becomes increasingly adept at disentangling itself from its Christian roots, which so patently failed to embody their gold standard, Jesus Christ. Even Spinoza, perhaps the most towering unbeliever of the 17th century, and certainly the most influential philosophically, admired the teachings of Jesus, even, to a large extent, the gospels. But Christianity was far from perfect.


More slippery — and possibly more prevalent than anger — was anxiety. Earnest Christians were the most likely to become panicked doubters, fearing they weren’t good enough, or that their faith wasn’t authentic enough; that they were being lured into false beliefs; that in their hearts they weren’t as pure and transformed as their public rhetoric implied. Ryrie offers the classic example from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, wherein the “Atheist” began his journey as an emboldened believer in search of the city of God. He never found it, and you know what happens next.

As the Reformation progressed in search of authentic religion, believers were encouraged to doubt traditional frameworks and also to “loathe doubting. Scepticism was now not the opposite of faith, but a necessary component of it.” Was the Eucharist really the body of Christ? Did priests really have special authority? Did other Christians really believe what they said they believed, or were they just a little bit faking it? These were questions of both faith and doubt.

Elsewhere the preacher John Everard sought to distinguish between God’s “true Word” and the false word of the Bible. Then there was the gentlewoman Mary Springett who “resolved” in her heart to “be without a religion until the Lord manifestly taught [her] one.” There was Clement Writer who felt it to be his spiritual obligation to “refuse” any sense of truth at the risk of embracing, unbeknownst to him, error. There were the 17th-century Baptists, not unlike the 21st-century ones, who, “after the emotional intensity of a clandestine baptism, found that their inner life was not in fact permanently transformed… [They] might worry that they ‘had grasped but at a Shadow, and catched nothing but Wind.’” Exvangelicals, are you getting this?

Ryrie cites Montaigne as the ultimate anxious believer. In remarks that feel like an exhausted tossing-up of hands, Montaigne concedes:

As I do not have the capacity for making a choice myself, I accept Another’s choice and remain where God put me. Otherwise I would not know how to save myself from endlessly rolling. And thus, by God’s grace, without worry or a troubled conscience, I have kept myself whole, within the ancient beliefs of our religion, through all the sects and schisms that our century has produced.


Two things happened when I read Unbelievers: I was overwhelmed by the history, and it was over before I knew it. In a brisk 200 pages, Ryrie covered a lot of ground, but it never felt rushed. It felt more like watching one of those videos where there’s a picture of a human that zooms out to show the Earth, which zooms out to show the solar system, which zooms out to show the galaxy. Most of all, I felt humbled — my own doubt is as common as yours. That doesn’t make it worthless, just usual. And a little easier to release.

Personally, I am in the camp of the anxious believer, always wondering what if. So it’s nice to know the company is good. One particular quip that I enjoyed came from another anxious believer, “poet and unorthodox Protestant John Milton: ‘God has imprinted so many clear signs of himself in the human mind, and so many traces of himself throughout all nature, that no sane person can be unaware of God’s existence.’” In the book, I underlined this, and left a little smiley next to it. Frankly, the evidence of God in nature seems ambiguous at best, but I love that Milton says this regardless, and with such drama too: what’s at stake is sanity. And beneath what seems to be an anxious outburst is the genuine punch of conviction. Or, like Montaigne, surrender.