A weakness for atheism
As important as it may be, the timeline is the less serious issue here. The biggest problem is that the “philosophy death story” is based on a radically simplified, almost caricatured image of who we are. This assumes that in everything we do – when we choose to believe or not to believe, for example – we always act as purely rational agents, “calculating machines,” our emotions, passions, or feelings. ‘having nothing to say in the process. Which is a strong intellectualist hypothesis. Worse, it is a form of solipsism that those of us who think and write are particularly prone to. “Intellectuals and philosophers may think they are making time,” Ryrie observes, “but they are more often motivated by it. People who read and write books, like you and me, have a persistent tendency to overestimate the power of ideas.
According to this line of thought, then, philosophers, intellectuals and scientists began to attack religion, and then, as a result, people stopped believing in God. Blinded as we usually are by our own prejudices and inclinations, we easily take it all in. Ryrie, however, looks at the question the other way and wonders, “But what if people stop believing and then find out that they need arguments to justify their disbelief?” The approach he proposes is more holistic because it perhaps makes more sense. Being human is more than just rationality. We are a complicated mixture of reason and unreason, soul and body, thought and emotion. As such, when it comes to our most important choices, we make them “intuitively, with our whole being, grounded as we are in our social and historical contexts, usually unable to explain why we have it.” done, often not even aware that we have it’s done. “
This is how we choose to believe, and also how we choose not to believe. What comes after such a choice, thus made, is only rationalization. Our deeper self, based on motives that our mind may not be fully aware of, makes a vital decision, and then the poor mind – weak and incidental by nature – goes on a fishing expedition to find the reasons. In a certain sense, then, it is not us who choose not to believe, but rather unbelief that chooses us. This, according to Ryrie, does not make atheism irrational, it makes we irrational. This is why Ryrie believes that instead of an intellectual history of atheism, it would be more relevant and profitable to pursue an emotional history. He uses “emotion” in a broad sense, to denote not only “spontaneous or involuntary passions”, but also “the conscious mind”. In this sense, we are shaped and defined by our emotions; we become who we are in the process of dealing with them. “We may not be able to fully control our emotions, but we manage and manage them, and we learn them from the culture around us as well as discover them within ourselves,” he writes.
The “emotional story” of Ryrie’s atheism is clustered around two emotions which he says affect our belief and disbelief in a particularly strong way: anger (under which he places the various “grudges nurtured against an encompassing Christian society, against the Church in particular and often also against the God who watched her”) and anxiety (“The disturbing and reluctant inability to keep a firm grip on doctrines that people were convinced, with their conscious minds, to be true”). There are times when “anger disbelief” is dominant, and times when “anxiety disbelief” will prevail, just as it is possible that the two “emotional flows” will converge and coexist in one form. or another. The book covers quite a bit of historical ground, but it does not claim to be exhaustive. Once Ryrie has made his main point, he focuses on a few Protestant locations, with most of the case studies coming from England, although he devotes many insightful pages to important Continental figures such as Montaigne, Pascal and Spinoza. .
One of the finest achievements of this book is the subtle phenomenology of faith that Ryrie undertakes here. Faith is never simple or easy. It is, in itself, a momentous event (“It is a big business to believe that there is a God”, exclaims one of its characters), and, as an experience, it helps us. claims holistically. Faith is a tyrannical and capricious master. This can cause us to fall not only from the horse on the road to Damascus, but also from any sense of balance. In no time at all it can become its opposite, unless faith and doubt are meant to coexist, to varying degrees of unease, within the confines of the same self. William Perkins, the leading theologian of Elizabethan England with whom Ryrie repeatedly engages in his book, shows how “these two thoughts, There is a god, and there is no god, can be, and are both in one and the same heart. Indeed, a “man cannot always discern what are the thoughts of his own heart”, concludes Perkins, a few centuries before Freud.
As we read Ryrie’s book, we realize something both surprising and refreshing: He is practicing precisely what he preaches in this book. It appears here as a intuitive learned. Although clearly structured and carefully developed, the book is built on hunches. Some of them are fully explored, others only briefly (for my part, I very much hope that the few insightful pages on Hitler’s role in our religious imagination, abandoned almost by accident at the end of the book, will be one day developed into an argument the length of the book). As you delve into the reading, you feel – sometimes clearly, sometimes more obscurely – that the argumentative prose is meant to “rationalize” things the author must have intuitively felt first. Which is, I guess, something to expect from a “believer with a soft spot for atheism.” Because what is a “weak point” if not feeling and intuition transformed into a method?
If we add to this rhetorical fluency of Ryrie, we have the full picture of a writer who feels his way through a difficult subject. Our emotions aren’t just what Ryrie talks about in her book. It is also on them that he acts brilliantly.
Unbelievers: an emotional story of doubt
Harvard University Press, $ 27.95, 272 pages.