How Believers Become Unbelievers: A Review of Alec Ryrie’s Emotional History of Doubt

Deconstruction. That is the popular word used nowadays to talk about how certain Christians go through severe periods of doubt about their faith. Some recover from these periods of deconstruction, and continue on with a stronger, renewed faith. Others do not, either hoping to hang onto some sliver or strand of faith, couched within a progressivist view of Christianity, while others simply become agnostics, or even, perhaps, atheists.

It is a phenomenon that hits people ranging from Christian musicians to Bible scholars… I remember the terrible feeling I had, in the pit of my stomach, when I first read Bart Ehrman’s introduction to Misquoting Jesus, one of the first of his many New York Times bestsellers, where he chronicled his story of deconstruction, in the process of becoming a Bible scholar. The scary part was just how similar his story was to mine, at least initially. Ehrman had grown up in a mainline Episcopal Church, with a pretty nominal Christian upbringing, until he got involved with a vibrant evangelical youth ministry, where he describes himself as becoming a “born-again” Christian, in high school.  However, I went off to a secular college, and was strengthened in my faith through my college Christian fellowship. In contrast, shortly after Erhman’s “born-again” experience, Ehrman was drawn into a very “fundamentalist” type of Christian faith, that propelled him towards attending Moody Bible Institute, and then to transfer to Wheaton College.

Wheaton was a more “sophisticated” brand of evangelical Christianity back then, as compared to Moody, but Ehrman was still deeply steeped in a rather rigid form of Christian belief. It was only during his years in graduate school, at Princeton Seminary, when the wheels fell off of his faith. He first lost confidence in the inerrancy of Scripture, but finally became disillusioned with the Christian answer to the problem of evil and suffering. How was it that a person with such a classically evangelical pedigree, having been educated at some of the best and well known conservative Christian institutions of higher learning, end up throwing away his faith in God? Today, Bart Ehrman is perhaps the world’s most recognizable skeptic of Christianity, having a rather large Internet following, who enjoys a highly visible presence on YouTube. I have personally experienced a number of seasons of doubt, in my own Christian walk, but nothing to the extent to which Ehrman himself went through. Sadly, stories like Ehrman’s have become more frequent in the age of the Internet.

Pastor Joshua Ryan Butler argues that there are four main causes behind deconstruction: (1) hurt experienced in the church, (2) poor Bible teaching, (3) a desire to sin, and (4) street cred; that is, it has become hip these days to doubt. As compared to previous generations, it seems like the propensity towards doubting Christianity has been on the rise. As a blogger writing for an apologetics blog, I still believe that the Christian faith still offers the best explanation for reality. I am confident that not all seasons of deconstruction lead to a completely unraveled faith. Nevertheless, I am still left with the question: What are the historical roots behind deconstruction in our post-modern world? A deeply thoughtful book by Alec Ryrie has been written in an attempt to probe this question for answers.

An Emotional History of Doubt

Alec Ryrie’s Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt comes as an aid to help one understand why it is that those from certain Christian backgrounds go through periods of deconstruction. Ryrie, a professor of Christian history at Durham University in the U.K., and an expert in the history of the Protestant Reformation, analyzes how societies that were once overwhelmingly Christian, at the start of the Protestant Reformation, became so secular. Charles Taylor, the Roman Catholic and Canadian philosopher, and author of the monumental, The Secular Age, wondered 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?

Ryrie tackles Taylor’s question by providing his own answer. Doubts that lead to atheism are not first prompted by philosophical inquiry, as many believe. Instead, intense periods of doubting are first triggered by emotions born of anxiety, buoyed by changing cultural trends. A reorientation of someone’s moral framework can easily lead to the sentiment of anger, where such feelings are often directed against those in religious authority. The abandonment of time-honored traditions only amplifies the problem. In response, more radically-oriented, liberal Protestants have recast Christian theology in terms of ethics, which ironically has only made the problem worse. The rapid decline of mainline liberal Protestant Christianity provides evidence that this trend tends towards promoting secularism, thus demonstrating the difficulty in sustaining such a revisionist understanding of faith across multiple generations.

I would add that going to an extreme in the opposite direction, from liberal Protestantism, also exacerbates the problem. Certain forms of Christian fundamentalism, in responding to our age of anger and anxiety, end up seeking to double-down on certain theological commitments, as a means of safeguarding theological certainty. But in doing so, the apologetic complexities and strenuous efforts required to sustain such theological commitments become so unwieldy, that they can create a type of emotional exhaustion, all of its own. Once one reaches a certain threshold of that exhaustion, the floodgates of doubt are let loose. Like pulling a loose thread on a sweater, faith begins to completely unravel.

Ryrie makes a case for an emotional history of doubt, as opposed to the typical intellectual history of doubt, as told by many skeptics themselves (think of Edward Gibbon’s 18th century classic apologetic for modernistic skepticism, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire). Ryrie’s argument parallels the theme of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, reviewed here on Veracity, which posits that human beings are moved primarily by intuitions, and only secondarily moved by evidence-based argumentation.

 

Historical Factors Behind the Deconstruction of Christian Faith

Ryrie locates the beginning of the cultural acceptance of atheism, not at the start of the Protestant Reformation, but during the medieval period.  In other words, the seed for the post-modern trend for rejecting Christian faith was planted during the Middle Ages, as the state church started to become crippled by corruption from within, as book reviewer Andrew Wilson observed.

Ryrie’s thesis goes on to indict the Protestant movement for adding fuel to the fire in enabling atheism to grow and flourish in the West, as summarized in Graham Hillard’s review of the book in The National Review. What resonated with me the most in Unbelievers is just how much the variety of conflicting opinions given by religious authorities, in how to interpret the Bible, feeds into skepticism about the Bible itself. Christian group “A” believes that the Bible teaches doctrine “X”, while Christian group “B” believes the Bible teaches doctrine “Y”, which flatly contradicts doctrine “X”. Sadly, this state of affairs has all been done in the name of upholding the Protestant claim of “sola Scriptura;” that is, believing that the Bible, and the Bible alone, teaches authoritative truth.

Ryrie devotes most of his writing to telling stories of how the deconstruction of Christian faith impacted uncertain believers, between the age of Martin Luther in the early 16th century and the beginnings of historical criticism associated with Baruch Spinoza in the 1670s. It was very insightful to learn that such explorations of doubt rarely had much to do with the so-called contemporary conflict between the Bible and science. Instead, deconstruction before the modern era was driven more by anxiety about the instability of one’s personal theological beliefs, and anger at established church authorities for failing to guide and unite believers. As it has been often repeated, “division in the church leads to atheism in the world.” As a book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, Jeffery Collins, put it, “It wasn’t the books of Hobbes and Spinoza that shook the faith of the people. Rather, the people’s weakening religious certainty cleared the ground for godless philosophers.”

The connection between anger and deconstruction suggests a way of understanding why unbelief has proliferated so much in modern and post-modern periods. Evangelical Christianity enjoyed its greatest hegemony in the United States up until the eve of the Civil War. While some Christians believe that it was the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 that prompted the decline of this hegemony, I would argue instead that it was the moral outrage behind the Civil War that sparked this movement towards skepticism. The failure of evangelical Christianity to address the moral problem of slavery, without triggering a bloody Civil War, only increased anger towards historically orthodox Christianity. We see this also in the decline of Christianity in 20th century Europe, in the wake of two world wars primarily fought on European soil, where religion was used as a justification for the perpetuation of violent atrocities. I would then continue to make the case that moral outrage over the perceived inability of Christianity to ward off the evils of racism, misogyny, hatred towards sexual minorities, and exclusivism (think of the doctrine of hell and divine judgment) fuels the move towards deconstruction in 21st century America. In my conversations with critics of Christian faith, it is the anger towards the perceived lack of an adequate moral vision in Christianity that triggers the process of personal deconstruction more than anything else.

In the last chapter of Unbelievers, Ryrie offers two insights that helps to describe why unbelief has risen so much in the West, particularly since the end of World War 2. First, Ryrie observes that the phenomena of “Jesus Mythicism,” the belief that Jesus never existed, owes itself less to rigorous historical inquiry, and more to the claim that Christianity has lost the moral high ground. Napoleon himself denied the existence of Jesus on several occasions, but Ryrie identifies Napoleon’s reasoning here as based on Napoleon’s resentment towards the “moral authority of a dead Galilean peasant” (p. 196). Secondly, Ryrie argues that the positive moral authority of Jesus, in the modern age, has been superseded by the negative moral authority of Adolf Hitler, as Nazism has largely replaced Satan and all of his minions as being the ultimate expression of the demonic. Ryrie’s conclusion is that the trend towards unbelief will continue, but that at the same time, unbelief will not dominate, as both the believer and unbeliever ironically have an equally vested interest in the future of the Christian faith.

Anger and Anxiety: Unbelief Is Not Just about Questions of the Intellect

Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt is an invitation to skeptics to consider how much the emotional dimension of doubt will often supersede the intellectual dimension. With that in mind, Alec Ryrie’s efforts here are less about persuasion, and more about encouraging self-reflection. In other words, rational argumentation rarely works to convince someone out of unbelief. Likewise, for believers undergoing periods of doubt, it is worth considering the role intuitions play in instilling anxiety about faith, as opposed to purely evidenced-based logic.

Personally, I am glad I read Tom Holland’s Dominion last year, before reading Ryrie’s Unbelievers, as Holland successfully argues that even for those disenchanted with Christian belief, the thought streams of a Christian worldview are deeply embedded in Western culture. It is simply in the water that we drink and the air that we breath. In other words, the truth claims of the Gospel of Jesus will continue to haunt the skeptic, even if one accepts atheism. The influence of Jesus of Nazareth is simply unescapable.

In my own spiritual journey, I have experienced extended periods of doubt, but I always find myself sensing that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is that “Hound of Heaven,” who never stops pursuing me, and who will not let me go. Nevertheless, both Christians wrestling with their own faith journey, along with agnostics and atheists, will find Unbelievers to be a helpful tool to process how developments within culture impact personal experiences of doubt in today’s world.

Alec Ryrie offers the following lecture based on the content of his book.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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