The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx
Oxford University Press, 2015
In early 1649, six soldiers publicly burned the holy scriptures at Walton-on-Thames, near London. “The Bible containeth beggarly rudiments,” they reasoned, mere “milk for babes.” The thing that confuses what would ordinarily look like a straightforward act of anti-Christian violence was that the soldiers were deeply Christian, as was the logic of their incineration. Christ, they explained, “imparts a fuller measure of his spirit to his saints.” The Bible – not to mention Sabbath, tithes, and ministers against which they also protested – was an unnecessary distraction.
Such seemingly counter-intuitive logic lies at the heart of Dominic Erodzain’s fine study of the origins and development of unbelief in Western Europe. We have, he begins, absorbed the idea that there is a unbridgeable “dichotomy” between religious and secular thought, the latter being a wholly different from and antagonistic to the former. The truth is much stranger, and more interesting.
Unbelief, he reasons, and in particular the “aggressive and articulate unbelief” that is his subject, emerged from Christian convictions, was catalysed by moral and spiritual anxieties that only made sense within a Christian framework, was justified on Christian grounds, and was often seen, even by those like Spinoza and Voltaire who are firmly (but Erdozain argues wrongly) buried a long way outside Christianity’s walls, as the restoration of the authentic faith.
The keystone is ‘conscience’, the defiant interiorisation of moral and spiritual commitment that was dragged centre-stage at the Reformation. Western unbelief is, in effect, the victory of Christian moralising over Christian dogmatising. The book opens with Luther’s twists and turns on conscience, from being its fiercest defender to its most hostile critic. No matter how hostile he became, however, the genie was out of the bottle. “Luther first armed his critics, then he provoked them. He was the burning prophet of the free conscience.”
Of course, quite a few prophets had literally to be burned before consciences were truly free, and chapter two delves into one of the most famous of these immolations, that of Michael Servetus in Calvin’s Geneva in 1553. Crimes of this magnitude were hardly unusual at the time but Servetus’ execution became iconic, putting “haunting question marks behind the theology it tried to defend.” Having condemned the cruelty of religious persecution with such eloquence, the evangelical turn to such methods carried portentious consequences.
Crucially, the emerging reaction to such barbaric theological hypocrisy was articulated in theological terms, rather than those of outright scepticism. For all that Calvin might have thought otherwise, Servetus was not executed for his scepticism but for his ‘wrong’ kind of faith. It was that wrong kind of faith from which European unbelief (a better term than doubt: if the book has a fault it is that these two terms, alongside ‘scepticism’ and ‘atheism’ are sometimes used almost interchangeably) emerged.
There follow two long and masterful chapters, on Spinoza and on Voltaire. Of the former, Erodzain argues, against the monumental recent work of Jonathan Israel, that Spinoza’s philosophical and biblical criticism was not “a first draft of scientific naturalism” but “an extension of the Radical Reformation’s spiritual protest against dogma and all its works.” Tracing the fascinating but frustratingly unclear influence of certain Quakers on the great Dutch lens-grinder, Erdozain argues that Spinoza’s philosophy was “an expression of spiritualist theology”, exhibiting “a priority of inward over outward revelation” and “a blurring of the boundaries between God and nature”.
If he reading of Spinoza is bold, that of Voltaire is more provocative still. Erdozain recognises that the sage’s animosities towards the church were “often riper” than Kant’s, but so too, he reasons, “were his pieties”. Over and above Voltaire’s well-attested deistic natural theology, there looms “a positive theology of forgiveness”, and he remained a man “of real, if idiosyncratic, piety.” Erdozain traces the influence of the French philosopher Pierre Bayle – one of the greatest and now least-known lights of the Enlightenment – on Voltaire, seeing in him “a ministry of holy confusion unleashed in the name of health and humanity”. Bayle’s penchant for provocation, mystification and mockery was transmuted into Voltaire’s more fiery righteousness (and self-righteousness), but Erdozain sees in both genuine, if eccentric, devotion. I am not so convinced that devotion was to anything recognisable as the Christian God, but Erdozain gives them both the benefit of the faith, as it were.
He then pursues the story through the more familiar territory of Victorian faith and doubt, his home territory about which he writes with transparent ease and subtlety, and finally through the Feuerbach, Marx and the Young Hegelians, whose atheism he does not doubt but whose debt to Christianity he outlines in some detail.
Some of Erdozain’s conclusions feel alarmingly bold. I am with him on Spinoza whom I think has been turned into a cool 21st rational sceptic who just happens to be living in 17th century Netherlands, but I feel Bayle was too slippery and witty to be sincere, and Voltaire too indignant at the Catholic crimes he saw about him to be genuinely pious. That said, Erdozain still makes a powerful case for both, and marshals a great deal of evidence well. His is most emphatically not one of those apologetic books that shows that all the good guys in history were really on the Christian side. It is, on the contrary, a sober and very fine piece of historical scholarship.
He writes well and wittily throughout, explaining, for example, how Western Christianity in the wake of Augustine developed an “interiority complex”. That said, he just occasionally over-reaches himself, such as when he writes how “the raging waters of revolt were guided toward the exacting turbine of doctrine” (I thought I head Jack Dee signing off another episode of I’m sorry I haven’t a clue).
Voltaire once claimed that history was just a pack of tricks we play on the dead. Erdozain’s book exposes that trick and helps us to read the history of ideas in the key it was written, not the one to which our ears are now most attuned. His conclusions will not necessarily persuade all readers but The Soul of Doubt is nonetheless a must-read for anyone interested in the peculiar history of the Western mind.
Want to keep up to date with the latest news from Theos? Click here to join our monthly e-newsletter. We'll let you know about our latest reports, blogs and events.
Image by wikimedia available in the public domain