Tracing Unbelief

On the recommendation of my friend Jonny I am reading a book by James Turner called Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America. The blurb on the back cover reads:

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, atheism and agnosticism were viewed in Western society as bizarre aberrations. Shortly thereafter, unbelief emerged as a fully available option, a plausible alternative to the still dominant theism of Europe and America. How and why…did it become possible for significant numbers of people to sustain disbelief in God?

He explains in the Preface that he was surprised to discover that, as he traced the origins of unbelief, that the picture he expected to find was, in a sense, the opposite of what he found. He writes:

The individual elements (mostly well known to specialists) conform to anticipated contours, but the contours together produced a surprising picture, almost a photographic negative of what I had expected to see. Though both science and social transformation loom large in the picture, neither caused unbelief. To believe that either did, I now think, is to stand the problem of unbelief on its head, to give credit to the blueprint but ignore the architect who drafted it, and ultimately to distort the history of Western religion from the sixteenth century through the nineteenth. Put briefly, unbelief was not something that “happened to” religion. 

On the contrary, religion caused unbelief.

I don’t know about you, but that line caught my attention. As I proceeded into the first chapter, I found him developing his thesis with careful observation and insight.

In Chapter 1 Turner points out that Science (particularly that of Copernicus and those that followed) caused a revolution in understanding the world that the church was not prepared to deal with. There were also social forces at work that moved the church from the center of society to at least a less central position. And wackiness ensued. By the time of the Protestant Reformation it seems that the world was ready for a revolution, and it got one. The church, for its part, was ripe for fragmentation on several levels.

From the first chapter comes this little ditty:

The Reformation…brought to the fore doctrinal disputes, first with Rome, then among the Reformers themselves. By so doing it put greater stress on doctrine. The ensuing orgy of creed making probably owed something to the advent of printing, which provided an ideal growth medium for theological polemics. But it owed much more to the Protestant spokesmen and Catholic apologists who chose to use the press (and councils and synods) to draw lines of division along ever-finer points of creedal logic.

This book doesn’t read like a John Grisham novel, but it is intriguing. It promises to be a good book and I’ll post nuggets from it from time to time.

[HT: Jonny]


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