When Faith Alone Is Lost

Alec Ryrie on belief and doubt in Reformation culture

The philosopher Charles Taylor puts his finger on the question. “Why was it 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 even inescapable?” The question is not merely historical. If deep, inexorable forces drive our collective leave-taking of God, then the eventual withering of religion is inevitable. Its apparent resurgence in much of the world at present might even be its death throes. But if western secularism is a blip, an artifact that has emerged in response to specific historical conditions, then it may be our secular age that will wither instead. To ask, where did unbelief come from? is to ask, where is it going? And what will happen to all of us en route?

This essay will not answer those questions. It will merely gnaw at one corner of them, the corner suggested by Taylor’s timescale. Right at the starting-point of modern secularization lies a violent religious revolution: the Protestant Reformation and its Catholic counterpart. It was a struggle not between the faithful and the faithless – at least, not on its face – but between several passionate bands of believers. And yet, so the argument goes, as they dug their trenches and pounded each other with their polemical and then their literal heavy guns, they tore up the inherited religious landscape that they were each trying to control until it could no longer be recognized. With all sides condemning each other for their false beliefs, it was hard to prevent civilians caught in the crossfire from reaching the conclusion none of the combatants wanted: what if all of them are right, and, therefore, all of them are wrong? And as the battles eventually subsided into exhausted ceasefires, armed truces, and frozen conflicts, ordinary people and their governments began systematically to evade those conflicts and the terrible destruction they could cause by confining “religion” to a private sphere and creating a new “secular” space. A people that could not reconcile its religious divisions could at least work around them, and eventually discover that it did not really miss them or need them. And so religion was confined to its own narrow sphere, like a once-formidable elderly relative sent to a nursing home: spoken of with respect, paid a ritual visit occasionally, its debts honored, but not allowed out in public where it might cause distress or embarrassment, and in truth – though no-one is crass enough to say so – simply kept ticking over while we wait patiently for it to die a natural death.

It is a powerful story. Brad Gregory’s philosophical lament for modernity, The Unintended Reformation, is its fullest recent exposition. Unfortunately, the world it explains is not quite the world we have. If European Christianity had collapsed completely by the eighteenth century and was now an archaeological memory, this narrative would explain it. If religiously fractured societies like the United States were now noticeably more secular than religiously united ones like Norway or Sweden, this narrative would explain it. And if the Reformation had been a simple war between believers, with the unbelievers cast only as battlefield medics and the architects of postwar reconstruction, this narrative would explain it. But the story of the Reformation and of unbelief is messier, more interesting, and more revealing than that.

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When modern believers try to cheer themselves up in the face of modern secularization, one of their regular themes is that unbelief is actually nothing new, and that therefore its modern manifestation is not too worrying. That reassuring conclusion is palpable nonsense, but the premise is a fair one. When Taylor said that in 1500 unbelief was impossible, or when the great French historian Lucien Febvre wrote that atheism was inconceivable in the sixteenth century, they were making philosophical, not historical arguments. Febvre recognized that a great many people did in fact deny religion, sometimes in bluntly blasphemous terms. Court records across the continent preserve a parade of these people. What they do not show us are intellectually sophisticated attacks on religion that could seriously challenge the dominant philosophies of the day. Therefore, Febvre concluded with magnificently Gallic literary disdain, denial of this kind

did not matter, historically speaking. … It hardly deserves to be discussed, any more than the sneers of the drunkard in the tavern who guffaws when he is told the earth is moving, under him and with him, at such a speed that it cannot even be felt.

It is an intriguing comparison. For how do we, in the twenty-first century, know that the drunkard is wrong and that Copernicus was right? Very few of us have the astronomical skill to examine the question for ourselves. But we are universally told it is true by learned authority; it is an important part of a wider web of knowledge we have about the world around us; and we have seen very persuasive pictures explaining it. And yet, like Febvre’s drunkard, we sometimes struggle to hold onto the fact. We say that the sun “rises” even though we know it does no such thing. The earth feels stationary. For most practical purposes, it might as well be.

To ask whether Copernicanism is a hoax and to postulate a motionless earth, you do not need to be a drunkard or an idiot. You need to be able to think independently; you need to be suspicious; and you need to be uneducated, so that you yourself are not woven too tightly into the web of knowledge to kick against this portion of it. Your lack of formal education will mean that you are unable to refute astronomers who come at you with their orbits and laws of motion, any more than medieval barroom atheists could refute the theologians with their essences and ontologies. You, and they, can only reply with the perennial mulish wisdom of the skeptic who is told to admire the weave of emperor’s clothes: I do not see it.

Medieval and early modern Europe were plentifully supplied with suspicious, uneducated, thinking people. (The story of the emperor’s new clothes itself dates back to thirteenth-century Spain.) And late-medieval Christianity provided plenty of targets for their suspicion. The theme underlying most reported denials of basic Christian doctrine, whether drunken or sober, was a gimlet-eyed conviction that people were being swindled in the name of God. The medieval church was not actually an engine designed to use the common people’s fears and hopes in order to fleece them of what little they earned. But you did not have to be openly malicious to reach that conclusion. The unifying note of medieval skepticism was a fierce determination not to be taken in.

This perennial, low-level phenomenon did not worry the Church very much. If it stayed at Chaucer’s level, mocking jobbing pardoners with their fake relics and the gullibility of those who bought them, it could even be helpful in reining in abuses. And if skeptics mocked the Church, they were also the butt of its jokes. Medieval miracle-tales, for example, regularly feature blockheads who will not believe that Christ’s body is really present on the altar until they are granted a vision of the bloody truth. Only when there was a serious heresy scare did the Church authorities pay close attention to the everyday skeptics caught up in their dragnets. The danger that religious difference could produce religious indifference was all too obvious.

And then one such heresy scare, in Germany after 1517, slipped out of control. But this, it turned out, was not simply another alternative, a challenge on whose untended margins skepticism could spring up. Martin Luther’s emergent movement sowed and harvested unbelief more directly. Fatefully, accidentally, Luther discovered that he could use a decades-old, apparently mature communications technology, the printing press, in a radically new way, to whip up a mass movement of lay religious dissent as literally no one before him had done. The suspicious, uneducated, and thoughtful had been used to being voiceless. Now they were being sold cheap, vivid pamphlets that told them they were the spiritual equals of any pope. Luther had a narrowly defined view of what spiritual equality meant, a view that was belied by the mass appeal that he was making. He and his university allies tried to replace the Church’s old claim to authority based on sacramental ordination with a new claim based on their learning and deep knowledge of the Bible. To the radicals of the day, this looked like a bait-and-switch. Luther’s clique found themselves mocked as “scripture wizards.” Hence what became, and remains, one of the perennial features of Protestantism: a suspicion that the priesthood of expertise is just another a self-serving conspiracy, a suspicion which priests only sharpen the more they protest their good intentions and emphasize their knowledge.

Soon enough, however, these long-standing but now fast-flowing streams of skepticism found that the tide was turning against them. As the exhilarating chaos of the early Reformation settled into an increasingly grim contest among competing religious blocs, those blocs became locked into a moral arms race, outbidding one another with their virtues. One of the major themes of scholarship on the Reformation in the past thirty years has been how this arms race – the so-called process of “confessionalization” – led Catholic and Protestant churches alike to extend their authority deep into ordinary people’s lives. Many of those people welcomed that authority, which brought with it moral order, education, and deepened spirituality. Those who already suspected that churches were a conspiracy did not.

One of the recurrent themes of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century cases of supposed “atheism” is moral revolt. If you were bridling at an ethical code being imposed on you with unaccustomed severity, it was only natural to kick back at the church imposing it. And when the churchmen played the God card, you might concede the point: or you might see them and raise them. This is the most plausible reading of one of the age’s most notorious supposed atheists: the English playwright Christopher Marlowe, who in the last year of his life was accused of “diabolical Atheism” and specifically of stating that “There is no God.” He was said to have “read the Atheist lecture” to a coterie of Elizabethan libertines including Sir Walter Raleigh. But the mood of all this was scabrous mockery rather than sober philosophizing. Marlowe’s reported comments about religion blazed with anger and contempt. The “Virgin” Mary, he said, was a whore whom the angel Gabriel pimped to the Holy Spirit. The women who followed Christ “were whores and Christ knew them dishonestly,” while Christ’s male disciples “used him as the sinners of Sodom.” Marlowe famously added that “all they that love not Tobacco and Boys were fools.”

Whatever else this was, it was not a serious critique of Christianity. It was not even consistent: Christ could not be both the mere son of Joseph and also a bastard born of his mother’s adultery with God. What holds Marlowe’s claims together is not logic but fury. This was an atheism that threw off intolerable ethical constraints by lashing out at the God in whose name they were imposed. If you did indeed love tobacco and boys, and saw no reason why you should renounce your desires, it was the only choice available. There is a reason why, in the sixteenth century, the words “atheist” and “libertine” were used as synonyms.

But if the Reformation took the lid off long-standing doubts and spiced them with moral revolt, the result was not to secularize society. It may have been merely to bring perennial skepticism and immorality out into the open where they could be seen. Or to inaugurate a culture war, in which the high ground of social order, intellectual coherence, and moral conviction belonged indisputably to the various churches. There was a good deal of moral panic about “libertines,” and blustering skepticism did manage to claim some social spaces: theaters, alehouses. But it was also proverbial that these “libertines” were almost all men, and men of a certain wealth and status, who were very concerned to keep their wives, children, and servants firmly planted in traditional morality and religion. It was a concession that they themselves were too shallowly rooted to pose an existential threat to the order they mocked.

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The danger would come from a more unexpected direction, which takes us back to Luther’s original challenge. For Luther and his allies had not merely empowered skepticism: they had deployed it. They had distilled the gentle brew of the Renaissance humanists’ doubts about pious excesses like pilgrimage and relics, and produced a fiery liquor which shocked, burned, and purged its way through unwary believers. Christians were now being told in the name of God, by men who risked their lives and defied every worldly authority to preach the “pure Gospel,” that the pope was a fraud; that purgatory was a confidence-trick; that the Mass itself, the great, daily, sustaining miracle at the heart of Europe’s faith, was mummery and priestcraft.

Not that the Reformation was a battle between Catholic belief and Protestant unbelief. In fact, while Protestants mocked Catholics for their ridiculous faith – arguing that it was absurd to imagine Christ’s transubstantiated body being in many places at the same time, as if Thomas Aquinas had never thought of that – Catholics fought back in the same terms. They mocked Protestants for believing that the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testament were the Word of God, despite not having any watertight reason for believing it. So each party played beggar-my-neighbour with the other, and each also insisted that its own credulity in the face of rationalist skepticism was a sign of true faith.

The religious controversialists of the Reformation age wielded incredulity like a surgeon’s knife: fatal in the wrong hands, but if used skilfully, it could separate the good tissue of faith from the cancer of superstition. The danger was not simply that the surgery would be incomplete (the fear that some malignant doctrines or practices had slipped through haunted some Protestants, who obsessively re-opened their religious wounds to search out every trace of real or suspected popery). Nor was it merely that the preachers’ hands might slip and cut into healthy flesh. It was also that that great, mobilized and empowered constituency of uneducated, priest-suspecting doubters would discover the power of incredulity and take it into their own hands. They had been deliberately trained in its use, and some began to hack away with ever-greater enthusiasm. For some of those conducting radical experimental surgery on themselves, pain only proved that it was working.

Before long, dangerous symptoms were starting to appear. The philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne, writing amid France’s devastating religious civil wars, was one of the first to look the emerging crisis dead in the eye. Faced with such viciously competing religious claims, he wondered, how could you be sure which one was true? How could you be sure that either one was true? Were the religious parties even coherent? “It is impossible to find two opinions which are exactly alike, not only in different men but in the same men at different times.” Did the combatants understand their professed faith? Did they – did anyone – really believe it, even if they believed that they believed it? Did Christian Europeans have any real basis for believing themselves to be more civilized than the cannibals of the newly-discovered Americas?

This chain of thought could have led Montaigne to total skepticism, and indeed in philosophical terms it did, but his conclusion that certain knowledge of any kind at all was out of his reach led him to put his faith in a certainty he found outside himself: the ancient and (tolerably) unified witness of the Catholic Church. This “fideism” was a perilous route to orthodoxy, but a route it was, and the modern attempts to dismiss Montaigne’s persistent testimony to his own enduring faith read like secularist wishful thinking. But as popular as this attempted end-run around doubt would prove over the following centuries, it had its dangers. One was the lifting of faith into a rarefied and holy realm where it had the highest honor but was uncontaminated by – and therefore largely irrelevant to – the rough-and-tumble of daily life. Montaigne’s deeply devout essay On Prayer ends by warning believers that they ought to pray less, since it is rarely possible to bring the soul to the right state of pious attention. He regrets that so much vulgar nonsense is written about religion, and wonders if it would be wise for lay people, including himself, to be required to hold their peace on the subject. And indeed, the vast bulk of his essays make only passing, idiomatic references to God. They are awash with classical citations and allusions, but only very rarely touch on the Bible. Fastidious piety and pervasive secularism begin to look almost indistinguishable. Montaigne was not the last Catholic to strike this costly bargain: to defend his faith by building it a cloister where it could pray undisturbed. In the following century René Descartes, who did believe that some certain knowledge was possible, likewise claimed to have reached an orthodox Catholic destination by a novel route. His reasoning was very different from Montaigne’s, but his radical separation between mind and body cut God off from the mundane world in a troublingly similar way.

For Protestants – many of whom were eager readers of Montaigne, and many others of whom found themselves thinking along similar lines – the problem was worse, since simple submission to Mother Church was not an option. In 1628, the satirist and future bishop John Earle published a sharply observed collection of “characters,” mocking pen-portraits of stereotypical figures in the society of his day. One of these is “A sceptic in Religion,” who is “something of an Atheist.” Not a scoffing libertine, he is a man agonizingly torn between competing religious alternatives. “He finds doubts and scruples better then resolves them, and has always some argument to non-plus himself.” Every time he reads something he changes his mind: “his whole life is a question.” He is like a man who places himself between two dueling enemies in order to break up the fight, only to be shot by both of them. “Whilst he fears to believe amiss, he believes nothing.”

A recurrent feature of Protestant spiritual diaries and autobiographies from the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries is the struggle with doubt: and the more earnest and intense the Protestant, the more agonized the struggle. And if libertinism was a game for adult men, this crisis afflicted men and women at every age. One teenage girl in the 1640s, assailed by “temptations that there was no God,” feared that no one else had ever had such terrible thoughts. She imagined ballads being sung about her, the dreadful atheist of Oxfordshire. Finally she spilled out her distress to her aunt, who blithely reassured her that she, too, thought that way sometimes. The deaths of friends, which forced believers to confront the fact that death looks so very final; the hypocrisy and godlessness of clergy who must surely know better; the manipulation of religion by those in power; dreams which were hard to fit into a Christian framework – all of these and more might spur believers to ask themselves questions which they knew they should not ask. Even the rising tide of books and sermons denouncing atheism sometimes sparked the very doubts they so stridently attacked.

Most of those battling these unwelcome thoughts recognized them as irrational, and reassured themselves – often by meditating on the created world – of the inescapable truth of God’s being. But it was a truism for most Protestants that doubt was an inescapable companion of faith; indeed that the greatest saints were assailed by the most terrible doubts. Therefore, believers ought not simply to thrust doubts out of their minds. They should wrestle with them like Jacob with the angel, confident that their struggle would bring them new blessings.

So if, like Earle’s “sceptick,” you were caught between competing religious claims, you ought not simply retreat to your habitual faith and close your ears to other voices. That, preachers warned, betokened a spiritual laziness that was itself a kind of atheism. You would be like the man in the Gospel parable who builds his house on sand and simply huddles in it when the storm comes and the waters rise. The leading English minister Samuel Bolton told his readers, amid the religious anarchy of the English Civil War: “When a man sees aboundance of opinions abroad, one saith this, another that, sure it will make a man to put the question to himselfe, upon what foundation doe I stand?” That process of questioning, he warned, exposes some so-called Christians’ faith as having no foundation, and reveals them for the atheists they always secretly were. For the faithful, however, the effect was more radical. “It will make [such] a man to enquire after the rock, and endeavour to build there. … These things doe fire him out of his formality, and he can have no rest till he come to some bottome to stand on.”

This is a religious quest: a quest driven by the conviction that if you dig through layer upon layer of convention and deception with enough determination, your spade will eventually ring on bedrock and you will be able to build anew. But that hunt for solid ground had its consequences. The landscape of traditional religion began to be ripped up by bands of earnest excavators. Many of them found their foundations and started to build again, but soon others – or they themselves – began to worry that this foundation, too, might not truly be the rock they sought. And in the process the traditional ritual, devotional, even intellectual structures of the faith were undermined or even deliberately demolished.

Take, for example, the English Puritan Mary Springett, who, as the civil war progressed and radical sects proliferated, moved from group to group with rising unease. “I changed my ways often, and ran from one notion to another, not finding satisfaction or assurance that I should obtain what my soul desired.” Eventually, “I gave over all manner of exercises of religion in my family, and in private.” All religion now seemed to her to be so hypocritical that she did not dare try to practice it.

I began to conclude that the Lord and his truth was, but that it was made known to none upon the earth, and … that there was nothing manifest since the Apostles’ days that was true religion, and so would often express that I knew nothing to be so certainly of God, as I could shed my blood in defence of it.

A contrasting and much calmer contemporary example is provided by Edward Herbert of Cherbury, philosopher, classicist, and brother of the poet George Herbert. As a youth, Herbert wrote, “a great number of doubts began to occur to me” about the conventional Protestantism in which he had been raised. Many of its doctrines – in particular, the doctrine of Hell – seemed to him ill-founded or contradictory. This was not intended as an attack on Christianity: quite the opposite, an attempt to ensure that his faith was founded only on “certaine and infallible Principles.” But in the process, he was willing to sweep away anything that failed to meet those exacting criteria.

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Neither Springett nor Herbert ended up as atheists. Springett eventually found her bedrock in Quakerism, which convinced her with its formidable moral authority. She came to believe it was only her restless “seeking,” and her refusal to be fobbed off with stale, pre-packaged truths, that had led her at last to the light within. Herbert found a set of basic doctrines – the existence of God, reward and punishment after death – which he held were universally taught by all religions and were thus sufficient for any faith. He continued to conform outwardly to the Church of England, accepting its teachings insofar as they agreed with his stripped-down faith, and “beleiving the rest either piously vpon the Authority of the Church or at least doubting piously when proofes were not sufficiently made and confirmed vnto mee.”

The story of the Reformation and doubt, then, is not a story of how the Reformation made belief impossible or doubt easy. The chequered history that both have had, and are still having, over the past five centuries ought to be proof enough of that. The Reformation did make modern unbelief possible: it brought skepticism out into the open, it gave a voice to longstanding doubts that had previously been silenced, and it provoked a backlash by its moral overreach. It made believers grapple with doubt as never before, and as they worked out what it was their pious duty to doubt and what to believe, they changed what faith meant, sometimes almost out of recognition.

Perhaps nothing was more damaging to that faith than the fearless pursuit of it, chasing the will-o-the-wisp up the mountain until it simply vanished in the rarefied air, and the foolhardy believer was left exposed, above the treeline. Yet in practice that was not how the story usually played out, and we should beware of the condescension that says that Montaigne and Descartes, Springett and Herbert should have followed their reasoning through to the end and left their faith behind them. All of these mountaineers, after all, found and flourished in the shelter they were looking for.

If their quests have a lesson for our modern explorations of belief and doubt, which are of course very different, perhaps it is this. The force that keeps driving those explorations onto fresh terrain may not come from the unbelievers but from the believers, restlessly seeking their solid ground. It may be – to resort to our earlier image – that believers’ recklessly radical kill-or-cure self-surgery is itself the greatest threat to their faith. But to cite a perennial surgical principle, made canonical by the modern era’s greatest ex-Protestant wrestler with doubt: what does not kill you makes you stronger. And belief is not dead yet.


Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University and co-editor of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History. He is the author of six books including Protestants (Penguin, 2017) and the prize-winning Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford, 2013). He is currently working on a history of early modern religious doubt.

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