The battle to believe in God

Nov 14, 2019 by

by Giles Fraser, UnHerd:

How did God disappear from the landscape of Western society? The standard answer is that He was killed by thinkers: philosophers and scientists, especially those associated with the Enlightenment.  First, God died in theory, only after which He died in practise, when ordinary people eventually caught up with the ideas that were first formulated in the study and the laboratory.

The only problem with this, as Alec Ryrie astutely observes in a new book on the rise of atheism, is that “death-by-philosophy … is a poor fit with the actual chronology of western secularisation”.

Atheism, he asserts, was alive and well before the Enlightenment. And considerable religious revivals — Methodism, Hasidism, the Russian Orthodox church — occurred after it, even as a reaction to it. In many ways, Unbelievers: An emotional history of doubt is a reflection on the cultural significance of experts, a challenge to those who, as historian Dominic Erdozain put it, “privilege the clean logic of ideas above the raw fuel of human experience among the forces of historical change”.

What Ryrie’s account achieves is an explanation as to why atheism often remains so angry. That it is angry seems undeniable — from the vituperative nature of exchanges on social media, to the hardly concealed fury of its leading lights, Dawkins, Hitchens etc, there can be little doubt it is driven as much by passion and righteous indignation as by following the consequences of cold clear dispassionate rationality. “Reason is a slave to the passions” as David Hume rightly noted.

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