Causes of Unbelief

Alec Ryrie takes another look.

Alec Ryrie offers a perspective on the rise of unbelief in our day that challenges existing ideas. His book, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, is a valuable resource to helping Christians to think through their responsibility for the state of unbelief in our world today.

Ryrie explains that the existing view of the rise of unbelief – that new, fresh ideas about life and the world edged out Christianity as more convincing and convenient – isn’t the way unbelief grows. He argues that, from the 16th century on, unbelief existed in practice before it existed as a worldview. People drifted into unbelief, making up the rules as they went, until they settled on a worldview that seemed to provide a rationale for their views.

According to Ryrie, what actually happened was an emotional response to corrupt or loveless Christian faith – in the form of anger and anxiety – that led people first to doubt the reliability of faith, then to flee it for some form of unbelief. The moral failures of the Church, in other words, bred discontent, rebellion, and ultimately rejection. When formal views of reality then emerged to challenge the faith, they found a ready audience of disgruntled, searching people.

His book is filled with persuasive examples of how the Church has driven people away through moral corruption, ineptness, a loss of intellectual rigor, and plain meanness. Whereas the Church and Jesus used to be the standard or morality, now Hitler serves as a negative example, and convenient epithet to pin on whomever we find to be disagreeable to our views. He writes concerning this long, sad history, “The moral force of the unbelief of anger and the moral urgency of the unbelief of anxiety mixed into a gathering flow of insistent, ethically-driven doubts that began carving Christendom’s old-established landscape into something new.” When people became convinced that Christianity had been “devalued,” they left it behind, and went searching for a view of life that would accommodate their own values and ethics.

He concludes, “Two things at least are clear. First, Western Christendom is not about to snap back into place. The contemporary humanist surge is not a blip or an anomaly, but a continuation of the moral forces that have been at work within the Christian world for centuries…But, secondly, the humanist surge is not a stable new reality either. The intuitions which make it possible will not flow peacefully, steadily and indefinitely.” 

This is an important book, and should cause us to look seriously at the ways our churches and their members interface with the surrounding world. For if cross-bearing, self-denying love does not define us, then we will have only ourselves to blame for the continuing growth and expansion of narcissistic, materialistic, amoral humanism.

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