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Religious doubt as instinct
By Ken Burrows
Even at a time when atheists were widely considered to be depraved, sometimes referred to as monsters afflicted with a spiritual madness, doubts about God and religion in general frequently still surfaced. Why?
It’s a key question explored by Alec Ryrie, president of the Ecclesiastical History Society, in his 2019 book Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt. “Arguments against God and against Christianity’s core doctrines were nothing new in the mid-seventeenth century,” Ryrie writes. “The question is . . . why did some people start to find them compelling?”
His answer is that some believers experienced two motivating, negative emotions toward religion: anger and anxiety. In other words, their resistance to religion arose from within. This contrasts with the popular notion that believers stopped believing only in response to philosophers attacking religion.
According to Ryrie, what primarily made believers “angry” was a resentment against an all-too-dominant Christian society. He calls this the unbelief of defiance, “refusing to be taken in or ordered around by priests and their God.”
What made believers “anxious” was something subtler and more introspective. Ryrie refers to it as “the unsettling, reluctant inability to keep a firm grip on doctrines,” with unbelief being “a direct result of anxious searching.” Religious doubt crept up on people “unawares” even as they tried to resist it. A major issue leading to doubt was skepticism about the reliability of biblical inspiration, due particularly to the fact that different authorities claimed different interpretations of scripture were the only true ones. How could people tell what to believe? Preachers tried to prove they knew what was true, but, Ryrie notes, “however neat their answers they could not stop the question from echoing.”
This unbelief born of anxiety caused otherwise pious men and women to face uncertainties about dogma “which could not be reasoned away,” even if they tried. They regularly hid such uncertainty to avoid social ostracism. These skeptics often concluded their personal moral vision was essentially the core of their religion, but was detachable from it. In essence, they were leaning toward humanism and its secular ethical commitments. According to Ryrie, for those raised in religious settings, these secular ethics “made their religion appear redundant.” This led them to ask about dogma and doctrine: “What if we only believe what we believe out of habit?” He notes that this kind of evolving unbelief was initially seen as only an odd curiosity, but it became dangerous to religious authorities when it began to assert an ethical framework of its own.
And from where did these ethics arise? Ryrie quotes historian Callum Brown, an observer of unbelief, as suggesting they emerge “from within human experience,” not from religious teaching.
Note again that Ryrie is looking back some 400 years, to a time when people felt temptations to unbelief were wrought by the devil, when expressing religious doubt was considered tantamount to mental illness or worse. And yet doubt born of internal anxiety still occurred quite regularly. He argues our contemporary humanist surge is thus not wholly modern and is not a blip or anomaly “but a continuation of moral forces at work within the world for centuries.”
In other words, religious skepticism has long been a part of human nature. For many it has been, and still is, a basic human instinct.
Published August 18, 2021 in the Colorado Springs Independent with the quotation below.
Progress is born of doubt.
--- Robert G. Ingersoll