The fury that fuelled the rise of atheism

Those who questioned the existence of God in the 16th and 17th centuries weren’t acting on a cool analysis of the scientific evidence but on anxiety and raw anger. By Alec Ryrie

A 16th-century woodcut by Albrecht Dürer entitled 'The true and false apostles of Christ'. As the Reformation recast Europe's spiritual landscape, many believers fretted that their religion no longer felt true to them. (Photo by Alamy)

This article was first published in the June 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine

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In 1592 a dangerous word began to be murmured about the playwright Christopher Marlowe: “atheist”. Rumours started accumulating. In May 1593, Marlowe was accused of saying “that Christ was a bastard” who “deserved better to die than Barabbas”, that the women who followed him “were whores”, and that “Christ knew them dishonestly”. Marlowe supposedly claimed that “if he were put to write a new religion”, he would produce something “more excellent and admirable” than Christianity. A few days later, he was dead, murdered in what may or may not have been a simple squabble over a dinner bill.

All this shouldn’t have happened. Atheism is supposed to belong to the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, not to the Age of Faith in which Marlowe lived. And it is true that, before (let us say) the rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza in the 1660s, philosophically coherent and intellectually respectable atheism was almost impossible for Europeans. But most of us do not decide what to believe or disbelieve with our intellects alone. We make the great choices – beliefs, values, identities, purposes – intuitively, usually unable to articulate why we have done it, often not even aware we have done it. That fact’s true of religion, and it’s true of irreligion too.

Marlowe shows us what the standard story of the rise of atheism and unbelief in western culture misses. It fails to consider the crucial point in the 16th and 17th centuries before philosophers made it intellectually respectable, when the raw dough of atheism began to bubble with unexplained energy.

In other words: the intellectual history of unbelief – the period when Enlightenment philosophers began employing reason in their arguments against religion – is preceded by an emotional history. In the 1660s, on the cusp of unbelief’s emergence into the open, the mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal wrote that “the heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing”. It’s historians’ business to make sure that we do know something of the emotional reasons for atheism in the 16th and 17th centuries. Why? Because these reasons are far more than bit-part players in the conventional story of western unbelief. They are underground rivers continuing to nourish western secularism down to the present.

The old puzzle about this period – the period when the word atheist first came into common use – is, how do we reconcile the pervasive moral panic about atheism with the lack of any actual atheists? The answer is to think of unbelief not as an intellectual state, but an emotional one.

I’ve found two interwoven emotional stories of unbelief during the period c1520–1660: the first, an open, eye-catching, confrontational story, dominated by adult men; the second, a hidden, pervasive story, which includes many more women, children and adolescents. Call them the story of anger and the story of anxiety.

Anger is the simpler of the two. Behind it all lurks the Protestant Reformation, which didn’t generate doubts so much as it weaponised them. Whether you were Protestant or Catholic, after the Reformation a large part of your faith consisted of disbelieving – and mocking – the faith of the other side. Whole populations were taught that transubstantiation (the belief that the bread and wine offered in the Eucharist literally become the body and blood of Christ), or faith in the direct authority of the Bible, were ridiculous. They were only supposed to aim that ridicule at approved targets, but people who are given weapons don’t always use them the way they are supposed to.

We see the result in Marlowe. It’s hard to extract any coherent doctrines from what he is supposed to have said, but there is no mistaking the mood. His reported words boil with fury, directed at busybody priests and their petty moralisms, and at the tame God they keep on a leash and use to justify their meddling. Marlowe also apparently said that “all they that love not tobacco and boys are fools”. If you loved tobacco and boys in late Elizabethan England, then it was hard not to defy both the church and the god in whose name you were commanded to abstain from them.

This kind of seething moral revolt was as old as the hills, and was the exact opposite of a threat to Christendom. Instead, it played into the church’s hands. If rejecting religion also meant rejecting morality, then plainly unbelief was monstrous. Indeed, it made theological sense that people who were utterly sunk in corruption should also have abandoned their faith. So the popular stereotype of the atheist in the 16th and 17th centuries was of a moral monster. He (it was almost always a man) was consumed by incestuous or other “unnatural” lusts, trying to drown out the inner condemnation of his own conscience with the roar of his own depravity. This was the kind of opponent that respectable Christians craved. He appears again and again in anti-atheist sermons and tracts.

But there was more to angry unbelief than this. Marlowe’s contemporary Cyril Tourneur wrote a play called The Atheist’s Tragedy, published in 1611. The eponymous atheist fits the monstrous stereotype perfectly: not so his son, Sebastian. Sebastian is an atheist, coward and philanderer, but also, unexpectedly, a man of principle. He risks his own security to try to prevent a forced marriage and to bail an innocent man from prison. In the end he sacrifices his life to save his lover from her vengeful husband. It was an alarming possibility. Maybe you could be angry with Christianity not because you rejected all morality, but because you had a different moral code of your own.

The evidence is thin – angry unbelievers who didn’t want to share Marlowe’s fate usually kept their feelings to themselves – but it’s there. The early 17th-century polymath Francis Bacon reckoned that it was better to be an atheist than to be superstitious, not least because philosophy and what he called “natural piety … may be guides to an outward moral virtue, though religion were not”.

Plenty of respectable Christians, heirs to the Renaissance rediscovery of classical philosophy, agreed that unbelievers could be virtuous. Some even began to wonder if religion undermined morality. Uriel Acosta, a Portuguese Catholic and convert to Judaism, concluded by the early 1620s that all religion “was nothing but a human invention”. He insisted that “the law of nature… which distinguishes between right and wrong” was a far truer guide to morality than “false religion, invented by weak and wicked men”.

This stream of righteously angry unbelief would gather force through the centuries. The Enlightenment’s most powerful critique of Christianity was not that it was false, but that it was immoral. The polemicists Voltaire and Thomas Paine were animated above all by their moral revulsion at the churches, which Paine called “human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind”. Neither Voltaire nor Paine held any particularly advanced metaphysical views: they simply loathed Christianity’s abuse of power. The same fury bubbles away in the great 19th-century critics of Christianity, from Feuerbach and Thomas Huxley, to the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who believed that the essence of religion was “the impoverishment, enslavement and annihilation of humanity”, by means of making us “slaves of church and state”. These people rejected religion, not because they found it incredible, but because they found it intolerable.

The stereotype of the atheist in the 16th and 17th centuries was of a moral monster consumed by incestuous lusts

The unbelief of anxiety is less well-known. It began, not with people who were lashing out at their religion, but with people who found it was slipping from their grasp.

One day in the early 1640s, a teenage girl named Elizabeth Walker went to pray, as was her daily custom, when suddenly the Devil put “a blasphemous suggestion into my mind”. She tried to thrust it away, but “my enemy fiercely assaulted me: I could neither see anything, nor hear, or do anything, but evil motions were forced into my mind”: to be specific, “temptations that there was no God”. Walker was horrified to find such thoughts in her head and doubted that anyone had ever entertained such ideas: “I thought my estate to be singular.” If anyone found out, she feared “that I should hear books and ballads cried of me about the streets”: the dreadful atheist of Essex. She could not hide her distress, however, and eventually her aunt winkled the truth out of her. The aunt was able to reassure her “from her own experience in the like case”. Apparently these unwelcome thoughts were not as rare as she had imagined.

It was, in fact, all too common a story in that age. The Puritan writer John Bunyan spent a year as a young man tormented by “blasphemous thoughts… against the very Bein0g of God”. “It came questioning into my mind of the truth of God,” wrote the Northamptonshire gentlewoman Elizabeth Isham in the 1630s, “This temptation came many times unto me.” The diaries, letters and memoirs of pious believers from this period are full of “risings of atheistic thoughts”, “temptations that there was not a God”, “this horrid temptation, to question the Being of God”.

These were not intellectual crises. Most of these sufferers remained convinced that Christianity was true. They were tempted to atheism in the same sense that some of us are nowadays afraid of flying. With our rational minds we know that a plane will not fall out of the sky, but that knowledge is not much help as we sit white-knuckled through a nasty bout of turbulence. Regardless of what they thought, the religion in which they had been raised – which they were often desperate to cling to – no longer felt entirely true.

We don’t know exactly where this widespread anxiety came from. The sufferers uniformly blamed the Devil, which at least tells us that this was not a party or a movement. I have found no one who claimed to have been lured into such blasphemy by another person. Instead, they found it bubbling up inside themselves unbidden.

Once again, the Reformation clearly had a lot to do with it, given the intense introspection that both Protestant and Catholic reformers encouraged. In particular, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination (that God has unalterably ordained everyone’s eternal fate) had a tendency to push some earnest believers into despair. If you become convinced you are going to hell come what may, it is natural to be tempted to unbelief: either doubting that God is merciful, or wondering whether he is just. The thought that death merely extinguishes the soul, rather than condemning it to an eternity of torment, would seem positively appealing.

More important than the origins of anxious unbelief were its consequences. Most sufferers tried to fend off these terrible thoughts with rational arguments, but that proved no more effective than trying to cure flight-phobia with lectures on aerodynamics. Other arguments packed an emotional as well as an intellectual punch. Elizabeth Walker was one of many to be brought back to faith by “meditating on the creation”, which was as much to do with wonder at natural beauty as with the classic philosophical argument that the world could not have created itself. For others, the fundamental argument was that, as John Milton put it: “God has imprinted so many clear signs of himself in the human mind… that no sane person can be unaware of God’s existence.” Which amounted to saying that you know there is a God because you just know, and that to fail to see this self-evidently obvious truth was not to be in error, but to be insane.

If that was you – if you felt your religion slipping from your grasp, despite your best efforts – all that was left was holding onto what you could. From the beginning of the Reformation, mystics had been trying to redefine their faith, turning traditional doctrines into allegories for deeper spiritual truths. Resurrection could refer to filling deadened souls with new spiritual life rather than resuscitating corpses. Maybe doubting such doctrines was not a temptation at all, but an opportunity – a heaven-sent chance, even, to dig through the layers of compressed tradition and convention that your faith had been built on, until your spade eventually struck bedrock.

By the mid-17th century, Europe was alive with bands of earnest excavators, tearing up the established religious landscape in search of buried truths. These radicals did more to break conventional religion than anyone else. The Dutch Collegiants, who rejected any organised churches, ministry or public worship; the English Seekers, who rejected baptism and all other sacraments, and sometimes even private prayer; the Quakers, who dethroned the Bible – these people were trying to purify religion, not to de stroy it. But from the outside it was hard to tell the difference.

The one truth these radicals could still hold onto, the heart of their stripped-down faith, was not a doctrine, but an ethic. The Diggers’ leader, Gerrard Winstanley, claimed that to truly pray was to live righteously and to “till the ground according to reason”. Some of the Seekers met, not to worship, but to “read some good moral things”, like the works of Plutarch or Cicero. They had found profoundly religious reasons to abandon religion.

Baruch Spinoza – an excommunicated Jew who was deeply influenced by the Collegiants and the Quakers – stood squarely in this tradition. His critique of both Judaism and Christianity was a deeply spiritual one. The notion of the supernatural offended his notion of what “God’s nature” was, and he was deeply committed to the ethical teachings of Jesus Christ, whom he called “not so much the prophet as the mouthpiece of God”. Despite all this God-talk, his contemporaries called him an atheist, and with good reason. By distilling religion down into ethical rationalism, he had purified it out of existence.

Two emotional stories about atheism converged. Angry unbelief concluded that religion was morally intolerable; anxious unbelief redefined religion as ethics

And so our two emotional stories converged. Angry unbelief concluded that religion was morally intolerable; anxious unbelief redefined religion as ethics. Between them, they ensured that unbelief could lay claim to the moral high ground: a vantage point which the most effective critics of conventional religion, such as Kant or Dostoevsky, made their own. The result has been that unbelief became first tolerable, then respectable, and now, in much of the western world, normal.

This long perspective on the emotional history of unbelief puts our contemporary secular surge in a different perspective. Religion has not become less credible than it was a century ago: the substantial arguments either way have not really changed. Nor has it been stamped out: efforts to do so have generally backfired. Instead it feels less credible to many people, in large part because it no longer has the moral authority that it once did. Ironically, it has been religion’s own ethical standards that have undercut it.

The operation to purify the western understanding of God has been strikingly successful. The only problem is that, as Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out, the patient appears to have died. Unless, of course, it eventually turns out to have made him stronger.

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Alec Ryrie is professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University, and professor of divinity at Gresham College, London. His book Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt is due to be published by William Collins in November.