The Emotional History of Doubt: A Conversation with Historian Alec Ryrie

Albert Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Alec Ryrie is professor of the History of Christianity in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University in Durham. Durham University in the United Kingdom. Professor Ryrie began his studies at Trinity Hall, Cambridge followed by a year at the University of Saint Andrews and their Department of Reformation Studies. He then earned his doctor of philosophy from Oxford University under the tutelage of renowned historian Diarmaid MacCulloch. In addition to his teaching, professor Ryrie’s academic publishing focuses on the English Reformation and the emotional history of religion. His newest book, Unbelievers, An Emotional History of Doubt, chronicles the history of atheism from the Middle Ages to the modern times and is the topic of our conversation today.

Albert Mohler: Professor Ryrie, if I were to think of the standard account of the rise of doubt in the English speaking world in the modern age, generously defined, then I think I would have to start with the Enlightenment and the standard account and follow through various forms of skepticism and doubt from Hume to, well, Matthew Arnold and Leonard Wolf and the Victorian doubt that exploded into a form of agnosticism by the 19th century and more formalized atheism of the 20th century. You don’t so much dismiss that as, tell us, there’s an entirely different story. Is that right?

Alec Ryrie: That’s right. The reason I wrote the book I’ve written is that I wasn’t persuaded by that story, which seemed to me to miss the really crucial episode in this, which is what happens before that. Where did these first instincts for doubt come from? One of the reasons I don’t buy it is that that’s too intellectual. That, I think, falls to the idea that people are really persuaded by the arguments that the philosophers are making, whereas I think most of us tend to intuit, to feel what the truth that makes sense to us is and we then come up with a philosophy that we need, we develop rationalizations that we need to develop it. It’s been said for years, I think most people accept this that believers accept their faith not just out of a cold rationality, that you sat down with all the reasons for and against Christianity, you weighed them up and you decided that one side is more probable than the other, a decision of faith isn’t like that. It’s something that’s made with your whole self.

Alec Ryrie: All I want to suggest in this book is that that’s true of unbelief as well. That people often find themselves falling away from faith or reaching to a new set of convictions not because they’ve been persuaded by reading a philosopher but because of something that’s more intuitive, more visceral. They then go out and find a philosophy that they need to justify it but the bit that really interests me is what it is that first tugs people away from faith in the first place.

Albert Mohler: I can remember reading, many years ago, John Updike’s novel In the Beauty of the Lillies and Updike had a pretty good handle on the emotional conditions of, you might say, upper class white culture in the United States in the 20th century. He wrote, however, about a minister in the early 20th century. He named the pastor Clarence Wilmot in Manhattan and he spoke of Wilmot losing his faith and it all happened one morning when Wilmot was simply preparing a message and as Updike said, “His faith fell from him as particles falling to the ground.” That immediately caught my attention. Of course then Updike novelistically takes us into the man’s inner life but that was actually one of the first times I, as a theologian, a generation or so ago reading that material thought, I’ve talked to people like that and I think Updike is onto something. There was something intuitive and emotional that burst out into this unbelief. The unbelief didn’t mug them like a philosophical mugger.

Alec Ryrie: No. Although I think for some of them, the experience can have been almost as violent as that. One of the characters who I talk about in the book is John Bunyan, who of course doesn’t end his life as an unbeliever but in the extraordinary autobiography he writes, Grace Abounding, talks about this period of a year when he is consciously wrestling with doubt that threatened to overwhelm him. He describes the way he struggles against those doubts as being like a baby who’s struggling against being kidnapped. In other words, he can make a lot of noise but he can’t do anything about it. He feels helpless to resist these thoughts that are overwhelming him with the arguments that he’s trying to mount. I end up telling this story to quite a lot of people, in that sort of era, so before we’re supposed to think that there was unbelief, who were wrestling with doubts of that kind and they mostly find that trying to deploy philosophical or rational arguments against these temptations is pretty ineffective. Even if those are arguments of whose truth they’re absolutely committed, that doesn’t mean that you can persuade your feeling and your intuition to do what your reason says they should.

Albert Mohler: It does seem that there’s something of a mixed picture here. By the way, I accept your criticism as what you cite as the intellectualist fallacy that this is just all about an intellectual pilgrimage but it does have something to do with a mixture, it would seem to me, of the intellectual, the emotional, the intuitional. I wrote a book years ago in response to the so called New Atheists. There are a lot of reasons to bring them up in your book but mostly at the end, I guess. One of the things about them is that they were all emotionally involved in pushing atheism as the only possible stance, philosophy of life that is imaginable amongst sophisticated wise people in the modern age, so they say. But they never really talked about any experience that led them to this other than intellectual. There’s almost no emotional engagement but yet their arguments come out emotionally.

Alec Ryrie: It’s very striking when you read Dawkins and Hitchens and so forth, how passionate they are in terms of their writing, the anger that very often emerges from what they’re saying and sometimes, there’s a sense of beauty as well you can see. They’ve got an almost rapturous vision that they’re seeing that they’re wanting to convey. There’s something very evangelical about it in some ways, not that I think the news they’re trying to communicate is especially good.

Albert Mohler: And they haven’t gotten very far with it, by the way.

Alec Ryrie: No, absolutely. Angry and aggressive atheism has a terrible track record in terms of actually winning people over. I think those books are much more preaching to the choir than they are actually about winning over converts. But there’s real resistance among the core disciples of that movement to talk about emotional or intuitive reasons for making the sort of movement they’re doing. I think partly because the idea of rationality, of reason with a capital R, as something almost to be worshiped, has become so important to the self image of that particular sub group of atheism. I think this is one of the reasons why a lot of other atheists find themselves withdrawing from that kind of thing. There’s a lot of distaste for the clear eyed certainties of that movement, as if all these truths were simply self evident.

Albert Mohler: I think you write very perceptively at the end of your book that the Four Horsemen, as they’re known, of the New Atheism, “are much better at cheering up atheists than they are at persuading believers.” I think that’s true. I want to go back to the beginning of your argument because the word emotion, well it’s even in the sub head of your title and I think that has to be defined. I think a certain person listening to this conversation might be tempted to think of emotions as only a part of the story you want to tell. When you use the word emotion, you’re talking about a much bigger story than a smile or a cry. You’re talking about something far deeper.

Alec Ryrie: I am. I apologize for using a word that’s got so much ambiguity to it. What I really don’t want to do is suggest that emotion and reason are separate from or opposite to each other. I would see our emotional nature really as a shorthand for talking about the wholeness of our humanity. That our emotions are not irrational. They include reason. They have their own reason. Pascal is one of the philosophers who I think is really important to this account, famously said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” I think that’s to be taken very literally. That our emotional responses have reasons for them but those are reasons, which run deeper and have more profound consequences and resonances for our lives than the self conscious calculating that is what we tend to call rationality. I’m trying to suggest that we need to think about unbelief as well as belief in those sorts of whole person terms. The story of your life that gets you to that point rather than simply the reasons that persuade you.

Albert Mohler: As a theologian, I enthusiastically affirm that. I think first of all, if you go back to classical philosophy, the classical Greek philosophers gave a lot of attention to the unity of thought and force and anger and an entire range of emotion and then of course in a biblical theology, especially in the Old Testament, even the organs, the physical organs that are referenced, whether it be the heart or the stomach for that matter, it’s clear that there’s a deep emotional, that’s the best word I can find to use for it, an emotional part of belief in God and worship of God and the struggling with the big questions of truth. It is intellectual but we were not made merely intellectual. By the way, a very wise church historian I read years ago said that we should remember that believers are not creeds with legs. There’s more to it than that.

Alec Ryrie: Yeah, I very much want to agree with that, that the kind of belief that is rooted in intellect, this is the belief that St. James says the devils have and tremble. It’s not something that’s rooted in yourself. One of my particular bugbears is the idea that the head and the heart are opposite to each other. This is an idea, which as far as I can tell first gets dreamt up in the 17th century and that we’ve become absolutely stuck with. I’m really opposed to this notion that’s so often used as a shorthand for the idea that reason and emotion are forces facing each other down whereas if we’re to have any kind of human unity, we need to recognize that head and heart are both aspects of ourselves that are woven in together with one another and neither can be anything without the other.

Albert Mohler: By the way that church historian I mentioned was yourself.

Alec Ryrie: I think I remember saying something like that but I’m not quite if that’s quite what I meant. I’ll just let that go.

Albert Mohler: This is in your book, Being Protestant in Reformation Britain, where you say that, “Christians are more than credal statements on legs.” I make a connection explicitly between that book and this book because in that first book, which I think was published in 2013, you actually are looking at what it meant to be Protestant in Reformation Britain and you start out with chapters about the emotional conditions of life at the time, especially at the Tudor age and I don’t know anyone else who’s done that. You’re used to the word emotional over and over again in this first book about being Protestant in Reformation Britain, there has to be a tie in your methodology and in your own thought, to the book that turns from believing to a focus on unbelieving.

Alec Ryrie: Sure. Well, as I’m arguing in the book on unbelief, I do think certainly in the Reformation period and I think down to the present, belief and unbelief are two sides of the same coin. I mean, the fact that so many people in that period and since cite that prayer from the gospel, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” That that phrase has been so resonant, I think tells us something. When I set out to write that first book, I thought I was writing a book about practices of prayer and the more of the writing about prayer and the written prayers from that period I was reading, the more I thought, I cannot talk about what people are doing in terms of places and practices of prayer without having got inside of this first and talking about the emotional power and the emotional concern that are actually driving this that are making people build their lives around these practices. It was reading these intensely passionate accounts of people’s faith and the early puritans in particular tended to write…

Alec Ryrie: They’re very much people who are wanting to live out their faith on paper and give us these tremendously detailed, real time accounts of it. I kept coming across these enormously faithful Christians living at the height of the age of faith, talking about their temptations to atheism, and they use that word. Sometimes they will be explicitly saying, “I am tempted to believe that there is no God.” I was thinking, this isn’t what these people are supposed to be saying, according to the standard histories, nobody’s allowed to think this until the 18th century. That was what set me off thinking there’s a story here that hasn’t been told. In the way of things, I started pulling on a thread and there turned out to be more of it there than I thought.

Albert Mohler: My engagement with his same story came as a very young man, as a young evangelical teenager and very much struggling with some of the same issues and I read Bunyan but I didn’t feel much attachment to Bunyan. I read him at some remove but it was Edwards. Reading Edwards, what was accessible to me as a teenager and then a young man in my 20s and Edwards writing as a young man, where I realized he was articulating exactly what I was feeling and what I was struggling with. The inability to have the mastery over myself that I thought a Christian should have. The inability to control every emotive state and attitude and all the rest. And Edwards’ self examination, which is far more ruthless than I was willing to make myself undergo, honestly. It was nonetheless real to me and then of course, Edwards also deals with doubt, especially in his sermons.

Albert Mohler: He will address those in the congregation who may be struggling with doubt and I think he does so with enormous pastoral skill. In any event, your attention to this emotional set of conditions is, I think, extremely welcome and when you unfold the argument in your book Unbelievers, you talk about two streams of unbelief. They are anger and anxiety and each of them are really interesting ways of getting at what was going on in this period. Let’s talk about those two streams because even when you talk about the stream of anger, I don’t think it means exactly what someone might hear in the first round of this conversation. We need to unpack what you mean by anger a bit there. Let me let you tell the story.

Alec Ryrie: I mean, both of these are stories that I’ve traced back deep into the Middle Ages, that goes back to before the Reformation, although I think it takes on a new force after that. In some ways I think anger is a very appropriate Christian emotion a lot of the time. The anger of Job and of pushing against the situation in which you find yourself, protesting to God. It’s very often, and it seems to be at the root of this both then and now, anger principally at the church. Whichever church it may happen to be. Churches being by their nature, full of sinners and with a tendency to attract corruption to them in every age. The trouble is, of course, if you’re going to be angry at the church, whether because of its corruption or because it’s imposing irksome moral requirements on you, then the church is likely to turn around and say, “But you can’t be angry with us because we’re God’s representatives.” And then you’ve got the choice of either backing down, putting your hands up and admitting you were wrong or of bringing God into the quarrel as well.

Alec Ryrie: So you find a lot of these cases in the 14th, 15th, 16th century of people who are hauled up before the court accused of atheism, it’s actually because they’ve got into a fight with a priest, which has got out of control and they’ve found their anger at the institution, or sometimes even just with the individual, has expanded to a point where this has led them into questioning what the institution stands for and I think we still know in our own time the extent to which alienation from a church, even a particular church or a particular minister can be one of the things that drives people out of the faith, that it becomes genuinely difficult to hold on to your own faith if you can no longer trust in the people who are supposed to be your teachers and exemplars in it because you can’t recognize their moral authority anymore.

Alec Ryrie: The point where I think that sort of thing can become really interesting, almost creative, is when you get to the stage where people are holding out a higher moral vision than they feel that the church they’ve been raised in can offer. That’s the impetus that produces reformations. You see this sort of anger at work in the 16th century reformers and in subsequent generations when they see a church that’s succumbed to corruption. Martin Luther would say this shows not just that these particular monks and bishops have fallen into corruption but that the whole theological system that allowed them to fall into corruption must itself be corrupt. That it’s a bad tree that’s produces bad fruit and therefore, we need to overthrow it all and pursue a thorough going reformation and rebuild the faith from the ground up and it’s that same impetus that you see driving a lot of these reforms.

Albert Mohler: There’s another part of the story here that, so far as I know, no one else has really told as you have. That is the fact that there was one specific profession in the medieval world and continuing into the time of the Reformation, that tended to be a harbor for, let’s just call it atheism or unbelief and that was medicine. Now there’s a logic to that that makes immediate sense but there’s a story there that again, I’d like you to tell.

Alec Ryrie: Yeah, I’m not the first person to make this point. It’s something that others have noticed but I thought it was a story that was worth telling here. I didn’t realize when I told it quite how much medical matters were going to be on all our minds as they are this year. This is partly just a matter of intellectual genealogy that most of the practice of medicine in medieval Europe and 16th, 17th century Europe. The medical tradition comes from pagan Rome and Jewish and Islamic medicine are both very important. Christianity as such hadn’t produced a strong medical tradition so people who are trained in medicine are trained in traditions that don’t really owe very much directly the Christianity but you’ve also got… I think there is a real built in tension between the perspective of the theologian and of the physician, that the theologian is interested in God’s will and in conforming yourself to God’s will and submitting to it and recognizing that health and sickness takes place under providence and that the Christian’s principle duty is to accept it, whereas the physician is by nature not terribly interested in God’s will, which he can’t do anything, it was he in those days, can’t do anything to change but in those natural phenomena, which he is able to effect, that he can actually do something about.

Alec Ryrie: So there’s a tension between the submission to God’s will that traditional Christian approaches to illness would teach and of course would very much see the Christian life as being one of preparing yourself for death. And the physician’s job of wanting to try to find things that are not under God’s control because they’re under his own control and of preserving life, of cheating death rather than submitting to it. Of course, that’s, to some extent a kind of professional tension, which lots of people found ways of dealing with. Of course there have been a great many, earnestly and passionately, Christian doctors. Butt it’s something that often comes to the point at the moment of serious illness. If you’re facing a life threatening illness, do you submit to God’s will and pray for whatever the outcome might be? Or do you fight with all your resources and throw everything you can and bring in pagan or Jewish or Muslim medical methods regardless, with the hope of staying alive? That second tendency has a tug away from conventional Christian belief in it.

Albert Mohler: In your book you say that, “Physicians were heirs to medieval Europe’s most robustly secular intellectual tradition,” and later you say, “The physician’s consulting room can join the ale house and the gaming table on our list of secularized spaces.” I want to fast forward even to the 19th century because as someone who has a great interest in the history of medicine, one of the things that I think would be most surprising to modern people is to understand the suspicion under which physicians operated, even in 19th century London, when it came to attempts to understand the body by means to autopsy, dissection and such things, you had the body men, who were… This is the background, of course, to the strange tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Alec Ryrie: Yeah, like the Burke and Hare cases.

Albert Mohler: Absolutely. This is something that modern people would find nearly unbelievable because when we speak of physicians, we speak of some of the most esteemed, scientific, cultural authorities but even in the 19th century, to say physician, you could be saying something close to that if they served the court but otherwise, not so much.

Alec Ryrie: Yeah, and of course, a lot of the learned and dignified medicine, even late into the 19th century, by which stage they may have got fairly good at explaining and diagnosing disease, treatment was still not so good. When you see a lot of the flourishing in the 19th century of alternative therapies, of things like hydrotherapy and all the sorts of movements associated with Dr. Graham, Dr. Kellogg and all of those, which we look at with a certain amount of condescension now as alternative therapies, you’d often be better off submitting yourself to them than whatever it was that the learned doctors at the official hospital might be threatening you with.

Albert Mohler: Yeah, absolutely. I can remember early on, getting to know a Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones there in London and in all of his biographical materials, it would point out not only that he had been a physician and always considered himself a physician, but that he had been a physician to the royal court. Only being an American, that did not mean to me as much as it was intended to mean, which was to say, he didn’t fail at medicine and then go into preaching. There was a clear distinction between the kind of physician that Martin Lloyd-Jones was before becoming a pastor. In the United States, we would have our own way of conveying that but I think that distinction still plays into it very much and even right now.

Albert Mohler: Study by study indicates that those who have a professional self consciousness in the sciences tend to be, and this is a percentage survey factor, but they tend to be more open and acknowledging of skepticism, agnosticism, atheism or some other variant of unbelief. But you talk about the first stream being anger, I think we can get that but before going onto the second stream, I want to point out that I think the shocking thing to me, in reading your book, from what I expected is that the anger isn’t so much at God as in theodicy, as it is at the church. As I read your book, the anger is directed more towards Christianity than towards God but it certainly gets to that.

Alec Ryrie: Sure. But I think at least in the stuff that I’ve read, it usually gets to it by that route, that the quarrel begins with the church, whichever church it might happen to be. One of the things that really surprised me as I was working through this material is that I kept expecting to find your classic theodicy type of problems, the problem of pain, the problem of evil, which philosophers have talked about since ancient time as one of the key knockdown arguments against Christianity. It’s a very real problem and I don’t at all mean to dismiss the agonies of people who’ve wrestled with it but just as a historian, it struck me how rare it was to find real instances of people who have found themselves drawn away from the faith by this problem. The effect of suffering rarely seems to be to alienate people from God but more to throw them back onto dependence on Him. The point that C.S. Lewis made many years ago is that all of the world’s great religions were first preached in a world with no anesthetic or painkiller.

Albert Mohler: That’s right.

Alec Ryrie: Whereas we’ve become an age of unbelief in a world where we’ve largely managed to banish that sort of everyday suffering, at least to an extent that none of our forebears would be able to imagine, that that maybe tells us that the classic problem of evil doesn’t have the same grip on us in reality as we imagine it might.

Albert Mohler: When the intelligent reader picks up a book, a major book, intending to read, we look to, expect to learn more about what we know is in the book but the greatest benefit comes often by the unexpected. It’s what we did not expect to find that turns out to be the most interesting memory of and contribution of the book.

Albert Mohler: Let’s move to the stream of anxiety. I think a lot of the intellectual class will look at anxiety and say, “That sounds quintessentially modern.” You demonstrate that it’s not. How does that stream of anxiety work?

Alec Ryrie: Anxiety is… I use it to mean the difficulty of holding onto a faith that you may want to, under moments of pressure. I talk about… One of the first examples I use is a case of Amalric who was the king of Jerusalem, the Christian crusader king of Jerusalem, the 12th century, who when he was seriously ill, found himself struggling to hold on to a belief in the resurrection and the immortality of the soul and this sort of anxiety very often focused not so much on the big, fundamental question, is there a God? But on something a little more immediate like that and in particular, on two issues, which recur again and again and again, which is, can I believe in the immortality of the soul and the hope of resurrection? And can I trust that the Bible is the word of God? And how can I be certain of these things? How can I find a security that I can really take…

Alec Ryrie: How can I find bedrock here to be sure that my house is built on rock rather than on sand? If you’re unsure about that, if you’re not sure what your house is built on, then what you do is you start digging in order to find out whether there’s really something secure down there and before long, that process can be enormously disruptive. If you’re going to start excavating underneath your house of faith, then you pretty much have to tear it down and start again. And so it’s this sort of gnawing anxiety on people who may wish to hold onto their faith but find themselves struggling to be able to do so, this I think is what I would say is going on in that case of Bunyan’s that I mentioned a few minutes ago.

Albert Mohler: Of course it was a massive issue during the Reformation and you wrote a very important book coinciding with the 500th anniversary of Luther’s proverbial nailing of the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church but in that book, you don’t deal as much as I thought you might have with the fact that assurance was one of the key issues of debate, that the Roman Catholic insistence that a believer could have no assurance over against what Luther and Calvin and their traditions developed as a doctrine of assurance, that’s a crucial issue to me because it points out that intersection of the emotion and the intellectual because you don’t need any more graphic illustration than Luther himself to see the cauldron of theology and desperation in one man over the course of a lifetime.

Alec Ryrie: I think that medieval Catholics would say that they were seeking and did find assurance but they meant something a little bit different, that the assurance is of… It would be centered above all around the sacrament, assurance of the presence of Christ in the mass and being able absolutely to depend on that as a physical fact, whereas they would see the Protestants moving away from that and talking about Christ being present in the elements about faith as dissolving the certainty, which they had, into something that’s open to debate. I think one of the ironies of this is that you’ve there got two Christian parties, each of whom see their own faith as the only way of holding onto this kind of certainty and the other as dissolving Christianity into this mush of opinion. One of the great ironies of the Reformation is that the Protestants, in their pursuit of a more purified faith, have to use skepticism, taking up the anxieties of the age around them, mixing a dollop of anger in with it and using these things as a way of arming, animating their populations in order to mobilize them against the traditions, which they’d seen as needing to be overthrown and the result is of course that you train an entire population in skepticism of this kind, which becomes the process that’s difficult to control.

Albert Mohler: I think it’s important to recognize that you indicate that the Protestant temptation to unbelief…. Two things I want to note here. First of all, very carefully, let me go before the Protestants, very carefully you dissect a bit the word atheist to demonstrate that when many people use the word atheist, they do not mean someone who denies belief in God but someone who denies belief in certain doctrines and I think that’s key because we can read the word atheist as meaning only one thing and this was confusing to me first when I wrote this book on the New Atheism, now I guess almost 20 years ago. I went into the Oxford English Dictionary first of all, just to look at every use of the word and it was clear that not every use of the word was atheist in the classic sense. I think your explanation’s quite helpful.

Alec Ryrie: When you look back at the origins, it’s a Greek word originally, obviously, I think the early use of it would be better translated into modern English as godless. An atheist is, as the term was first popularized in the 16th, early 17th centuries, it can mean somebody who postulates that there is no God but it can equally mean somebody who’s engaged in what you might call constructive denial of God. That is that what they claim about God is so far removed from the reality that what they’re really talking about is no longer God but some fantasy of their own invention. It was often said that people who denied the trinity were atheists because they had made such a fundamental violation of God’s true nature but it also applies to those whom they called practical atheists. That is people who live as if there were no God even though they may claim to be believers. The modern atheist writer John Gray talks about people who have no use for the idea of God, as a way of understanding what an atheist might be. It seems to me that that more expansive category, what we might call secular rather than atheist now really defined, has still got some real value to it.

Albert Mohler: But that raises some huge questions that you deal with in a rather summary way at the end of your book. You are not only a historian, you are a churchman yourself and looking to these issues. The conditions of unbelief and you cite Charles Taylor kind of necessarily in the beginning of your book about the change conditions of belief, a category that I found incredibly helpful in thinking through not only history but the present moment, and the current conditions of belief, which seemed to me to imply a third category between belief and unbelief and that is, you just referred to it as something like secular, a term which I’m happy to receive. It’s kind of people who don’t believe but they don’t actively not believe. They are distanced under most conditions of their lives from any kind of theist referent, at least self consciously, so there’s a sense in which we’ve arrived at a time in which two categories are not sufficient. There’s some new category that seems to be growing in percentage of population, which is the theologically distant.

Alec Ryrie: Sure. I mean, in some ways, I think that that kind of pattern of thought is much more profoundly alienated from Christianity than classic atheism.

Albert Mohler: So true.

Alec Ryrie: Which is in many ways still engaged with the issues. I think of my own father who died eight years ago and who was a confirmed atheist but raised me with the precept that I had to come to my own mind on this but the one thing I could not do was neglect the question. The question of is there or is there not a God is amongst the most important that any human being could ever face and on that it seems to me the classic atheist and the Christian are as one, whereas as you say, this pattern of disengagement from these issues in any sense is something much more profoundly difficult for Christians or indeed for the combative atheists who feel themselves to be such an outnumbered minority to engage with. My hunch, and it’s not much more than a hunch, is that a lot of this comes down to ethics. That what has given Christianity its cultural power and has made secular cultures beyond its scope listen to it so many times down the centuries, has been the moral authority with which it’s been able to speak. For various reasons, some good, some bad, I think Christians in North America and Europe now often find it much harder to lay claim to that sort of moral authority. I would be inclined to trace a lot of the difficulties that we face in our age back to that.

Albert Mohler: Someone like Bertrand Russell in the early 20th century who kind of combined both of those trajectories that you indicate, he made a statement and I’m happy to paraphrase it here, I’ve read it many, many years ago, in which he said, “The atheists of times passed basically were made from the neck up but the atheists of the 20th century will be made from the waist down.” I think that’s a rather prophetic word actually, and in your book you talk about Christianity now being situated in the West in a society that includes what you called a linked set of principles about human equality and bodily and sexual autonomy and that is a very different missiological context than Christianity has ever inhabited before. At the end of your book, you make a rather astounding argument, which has caught a lot of attention. I know what you’re doing with it, I want to ask you to expand it just a bit further. You say that, and I’m paraphrasing your argument and you clarify it as you see fit but you say, perhaps one of the greatest signs of the eclipse of Christianity in our age is the fact that the defining individual of morality is no longer Jesus Christ as a positive example but Adolf Hitler as a negative example.

Albert Mohler: That’s caught a lot of attention and indeed, it’s kind of a scandalous argument but you’re right, in the sense that, in many parts of our society, there’s no aspirational ethic that would point to the standard of Jesus Christ, but instead there’s this ethic of having to get to an Adolf Hitler before you can make a declarative moral statement.

Alec Ryrie: It’s the only fixed, generally accepted fixed point that we’ve got now, I think. The anti-Nazi narrative is certainly in this country, and I think to a considerable degree in the United States as well, it’s the only uniting national myth that we have. You can assume if you’re engaged in some kind of civilized discourse with another human being, you may not know anything about their beliefs but you can start from the assumption that they think that Hitler is a bad guy and work out from there and if you happen to meet one of the people who doesn’t believe that, then you know you’re talking to a monster and there’s no need and really no possibility of pursuing the conversation any further.

Alec Ryrie: That’s, in its own terms, okay. I’m perfectly happy with the judgment that Hitler was a monster but as you say, there’s a problem in defining our morals by what we hate rather than by what we love. I must say, when I look at the bitterness that has consumed so much of our public discourse, increasingly over the past 30 years or so, I find it hard not to see this as part of it, that we’re generally, and I think this applies on all sides…. We’re much better at knowing what we want to be rid of than what we actually want to create. The ways in which we positively want to move rather than enemies who we want to strike down.

Albert Mohler: One final issue, I have to say I’m in fundamental disagreement with the way you conclude the book. In hope anyway. Let’s put it this way, I hope you’re wrong. I say that as a conservative confessional Protestant because when I reach the end of your book, you seem to say that the change conditions of belief, the changed and transformed morality of the society around us will require Protestantism in particular to adjust to it and you don’t seem to hold out much hope that Protestantism holds resources to prevent eventual capitulation to the spirit of the age. Am I reading you rightly there?

Alec Ryrie: You might be strengthening what I’m saying a little bit. I do think that the history of Protestantism is one of informing the spirit of the age but also of learning from it, that if you think about the various phases of moral and doctrinal development, the hard learning that Protestants have done over the last five centuries, that’s often been about opposing the great social movements of the time but it’s also often been about learning from the age. I mean, the extraordinary realization, which collectively came over English speaking Protestants from the late 18th through the mid 18th century that slavery was an intolerable evil rather than simply a normal and rather regrettable part of everyday life, as Christians had always tended to see it, that’s the most dramatic example of that nowadays but there are other cases as well and it seems to me that the moral insight that our age has had, that Nazism represented a particular and peculiar set of evils and set of evils that Christians at the time were not as quick to recognize as they should’ve been, that that’s a set of moral insight, which we need to take seriously and that we learned some really hard taught lessons there and should not be forgetting them.

Albert Mohler: There’s one line in your book where you write, “The religions that will prosper in this environment will be those that work with the grain of humanist ethics while finding ways to offer something that humanism cannot.” That’s kind of consistent with the way you ended your book, Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World. It’s all of a piece and I get that and frankly, that kind of argument is invigorating to a conservative confessional Protestant, it just underlines the challenges that we face and that’s actually the best part, I think, of the experience of reading your books. Brilliant, insightful, I appreciate the fact you make arguments and assertions. I appreciate the fact that you’re looking at what you identify as the emotional as well as the intellectual. I feel like, having read your corpus of work, that you are looking at human beings more as human beings need to be understood in history. So that leads me to say, I’ve got a library of Professor Alec Ryrie books here on my table. What would be added to it next? What are you working on at the present?

Alec Ryrie: I’m starting out on a project now on the history of Protestant missions. I think the story that we’ve been told about the missionary movement is really that this is something that begins from the late 18th century, with a few honorable forerunners like John Eliot, David Braynard-

Albert Mohler: William Carey.

Alec Ryrie: Yeah, Carey is very often seen as the guy who fired the starting gun on the movement and I think there is a whole pre-history of Protestant mission. Mission before there were missionary societies. There’s a story there that’s not been told of the profound missionary ambitions that underlay the early American colonial efforts but was also at work in the Dutch Empire of the 17th century, the biggest Protestant empire of the age and in a lot of other areas as well. I’m having a load of fun with this and having to go way outside stuff that I know anything about but I think there’s a significant untold story there of that first age of Protestantism reaching around the world and discovering what it means to try to take the faith to people of an utterly different lifestyle and set of beliefs.

Albert Mohler: Professor Ryrie, thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.

Alec Ryrie: Great pleasure to be with you. Thank you very much.

Albert Mohler: Many thanks to my guest, Professor Alec Ryrie for thinking with me today. If you enjoyed today’s episode of Thinking in Public, you’ll find more than 100 of these conversations at under the tab Thinking in Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to Thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.