Alec Ryrie – Unbelievers – Function Evaluate

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"We don't calculate machines"

A review of

Infidels: An emotional story of doubt
Alec Ryrie

Hardcover: Harvard UP, 2020
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Reviewed by John Wilson

One reason why I enjoy reviewing and reviewing is the tremendous freedom that the form offers, apart from the (sometimes considerable!) Restrictions imposed by a particular publisher or publication. But there are self-imposed rules that I try to follow. One is to give readers of a review a feel for what the reading of this book looks like sentence by sentence – what taste For example, it not only summarized and criticized an overarching argument or outlined the outline and meaning of a novel. You will be surprised at how many reviews do this on the surface.

Alec Ryries Infidels: An emotional story of doubt, published last November by Harvard University Press, has put my ability to meet this requirement to the test. Ryrie is well published; his next book, Christianity: a historical atlas, is said to come from Harvard in May. We can conclude from his role as President of the Ecclesiastical History Society that he is also a collegiate figure. (I suspect he and I have a friend or two in common.) Infidels has received extensive and positive reviews, and the book is warmly recommended by a handful of respected scholars. And yet when I read it and read it again, Ryrie's "emotional story" seems to me to be deeply confused.

In the Gospel of Matthew there is a shocking passage (Mt 25,34-46), which I have seen quoted more often in recent years (here from the ESV):

44 "Then they will also answer and say:" Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and not serving you? " 45 Then he will answer them and say, "Truly, I tell you, since you did not do it to any of the least, you did not do it to me." 46 And these will go into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. "

Whatever we draw from it (for example, is "eternally" a misinterpretation, as some have argued?), I think it's pretty clear that the passage describes people who claimed to be followers of Jesus ("believers"), but in which they were not fact. The same scenario is described in Matthew 7:21: "Not everyone who says" Lord, Lord "to me will enter the kingdom of heaven, but someone who does my Father's will in heaven." And there are other examples in the New Testament that make it clear that “Christians” were from the beginning unbelievers who practiced the faith for their own purposes. As the church blossomed unlikely over the centuries and Christianity became more and more established, incentives to simulate faith became much more obvious. Does anyone really believe that the infamous Renaissance popes were sincere believers? And what about countless other “ordinary people” who are not mentioned in our chronicles?

And yet on page 2 of InfidelsRyrie quotes Charles Taylor, who wondered (in The worldly age) why "it was practically impossible not to believe in God, about 1500 in our western society, while in 2000 many of us found it not only easy but inevitable?" As I asked Taylor when I was reviewing Taylor's book years ago, what makes Taylor so sure about the "state of belief" in 1500? Does his conclusion follow from the public face of Christianity?

But wait – there is a turn. On page 22, Ryrie introduces Thomas Semer, who was brought to trial "by burning" for heresy in 1448 and finally executed, and kept to his blasphemous claims until the end. Here's what Ryrie says next, closing the same paragraph:

What we cannot know is the extent to which this type of skepticism has been an ubiquitous feature of the seabed of medieval religion that has only been stirred up by stubborn inquisitors. and to what extent it flourished especially in those corners of the ocean that were filled with heretical diversity and therefore attracted the attention of the Inquisitors.

This sensible observation contradicts Taylor's story, though Ryrie does not make it explicit. Then why had he quoted Taylor as he did in the beginning? As with many questions I had while reading this book, I could never find an answer.

But then, as I have already reported, I was repeatedly wrong on my way Infidels. At the outset, Ryrie explained what he wanted to achieve, saying that he had tried "to remind both parties (ie believers and atheists) of how long their destinies have been intertwined and how much they owe each other, not least to keep them ready are talking and listening to each other again. " Again? Such talk and listening, as far as I can remember, has continued alongside mockery, mud fights and more decorative polemics, and I expect it will continue to be the case.


Ryrie begins by saying that he is "a believer (and a licensed lay minister in the Church of England for full disclosure)". I thought about it from time to time and read, for example, on page 133 about the poet Thomas Traherne (whom I love) and the way "the miracles of creation had delighted him and filled him with enthusiasm from an early age." Ryrie then make this observation:

In modern times, the majesty and strangeness of the cosmos still has a strong emotional trait, but this trait was usually directed towards atheism rather than God. None of the emotional reactions are "right". Traherne simply reminds us of how different the same facts can appear to different eyes.

However, it does not follow that neither reaction is correct. If the quotes are to indicate that none of the “emotional responses” is a knockdown proof of God's existence or (non-existence), it is true. But again, it doesn't follow that none of the reactions are correct.

This word "emotional" reminds me that I have to say something about how Ryrie uses it and his relatives. On the one hand, he quickly explains that he has no intention of "implying that the intellect and emotions are opposites, or that emotions are irrational". So far, so good. But then things start to slide and only six pages later (page 11) he says the following:

When I write an emotional story of atheism, I don't argue that atheism is irrational. I argue that people are irrational; or rather, that we do not compute machines and that our "decisions" about what we believe or do not believe are made intuitively with our whole self, not with impersonal logic.

Oh man. No wonder Ryrie quickly adds that since "arguments as such have little impact on belief or unbelief," he doesn't try to "convert someone to or from anything." No, nothing as vulgar as that. He just wants us to talk.

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John Wilson

John Wilson is an editor for The Englewood Review of Books. Previously, he was the editor of Books and Culture.

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