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Unbelievers Reviews

Unbelievers by Alec Ryrie

Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt

Alec Ryrie

Score pending

2 reviews

Imprint: William Collins
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 21 Oct 2019
ISBN: 9780008299811

Why have Western societies that were once overwhelmingly Christian become so secular? Looking to the feelings and faith of ordinary people, the award-winning author of Protestants Alec Ryrie offers a bold new history of atheism.

3 stars out of 5
2 Feb 2020

"It seems that Ryrie began researching a fascinating book about the spiritual experiences of mid-17th-century English sectarians and, somewhere along the way, got distracted into writing one about the history of atheism."

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.


4 stars out of 5
9 Nov 2019

"Unbelievers covers much ground in a short space with deep erudition and considerable wit."

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.