Despite my reservations about the end product, I should still very much like to see Ryrie and others undertake a wider exploration of non-elite unbelief, one that really does eschew philosophers. Such an exploration would, I think, have to rest on two prerequisites. The first would be an abandonment of the obsession with Protestantism, along with the Anglocentrism that so often accompanies it. One of the most spectacular discoveries made in the last half-century about the mental horizons of ‘ordinary’ early modern Europeans concerns the reading habits of pre-Revolution Frenchmen. It turns out that they absorbed many of their ideas – and their anger against the ancien régime – not from the elegant writings of the philosophes but from works of pornography and libellous slander that were read in their thousands. No one could deny that these texts had far more impact than the ideas of some fringe Protestant spiritualists who flourished (if that is the right word) for a few short years in 1650s England.
In reality, as Alec Ryrie shows in this short but beautifully crafted history of early doubt, unbelief was (and is) chosen for ‘instinctive, inarticulate and intuitive’ reasons just as much as is belief. Ryrie is a Reformation scholar, but one with a particular interest and expertise in the culture of Protestantism. He adopts this approach in Unbelievers, arguing persuasively that unbelief was as much, if not more, about what people felt as what they thought, in particular a confluence of moral outrage and personal anxiety.