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Children of Doubt

The Emotional Past, Present, and Future of Unbelief

ISSUE:  Winter 2019

Pascal’s wager—that saw of Christian apologetics—is conventionally understood to demonstrate that human beings deny the Christian God’s existence at the risk of perdition. The seventeenth-century French polymath Blaise Pascal weighed the infinite torment awaiting unbelievers under God’s Providence against the finite pleasures of living as an atheist in a godless universe. He concluded, regardless of the deity’s actual existence, that the only rational choice is to adopt cautious belief.

Whether readers find such reasoning persuasive or ludicrous (the dying atheist Christopher Hitchens deemed it a “hucksterish choice”), the wager is usually regarded as an innovative logical gambit; indeed, it is widely considered a precursor to modern game theory. Except it misses the point entirely, at least according to Alec Ryrie, a historian of Christianity at Durham University, a public institution in the United Kingdom. “Pascal does not expect anyone to be persuaded by it. Quite the opposite,” Ryrie writes.

His point is that unbelievers may accept his logic, may even “want to be cured of unbelief,” but even so find that true faith is beyond their reach.… The wager, then, is a call not to conversion, but to self-examination. It confronts unbelievers with the fact that even a logically watertight reason to believe would not change their minds.

It is emotion that regulates the scope of reason, and its primacy in matters of belief not only manifests in the singular psyche but also in the great hulking veers and crashes of history itself. Unbelievers, Ryrie’s remodeling of the history of Western atheism, turns upon the “intellectualist fallacy,” a term borrowed from theologian Dominic Erdozain indicating “a tendency to privilege the clean logic of ideas above the raw fuel of human experience among the forces of historical change.” This consideration leads Ryrie to the idea that animates the book: “It is not only religious belief which is chosen for such instinctive, inarticulate, intuitive reasons. So is unbelief. In which case, the crucial juncture in the history of atheism is the period before the philosophers made it intellectually respectable.”

Atheism, as a system of thought, did not spontaneously self-assemble in the minds of interventional geniuses like Spinoza, but rather was the final rationalization of centuries of inner conflict felt by the vaunted figures of European history (such as Montaigne or Shakespeare) and, most importantly, by ordinary men and women. As an intellectual character, Hobbes is shocking to Ryrie not because of his “Machiavellian cynicism,” but because he was unfazed in believing that “religious truth was fundamentally inaccessible.” Though Hobbes tepidly affirmed the existence of a God in his writings, he was fairly indifferent to the matter—a nonchalance that would have seemed impossible to previous generations.

In Ryrie’s account, the two emotional tributaries of unbelief are anger and anxiety, both of which surged through the Middle Ages, through Luther’s Edict of Worms and the Reformation, and to the cusp of the Enlightenment, when atheism, already brooding in the murk of social consciousness, was inevitably articulated by a group of figures we now credit for it. Unwittingly, Hobbes, Spinoza, and the other progenitors of modern atheism were heirs to an inestimable emotional privilege—the liberty simply not to fret about the Christian God or ethic—because they had been spared the nausea of self-alienation and spiritual torment that hitherto accompanied ideas like theirs.

The result of Ryrie’s effort is an astute, conversational book that reads as deeply obvious in retrospect—a mark of intellectual achievement. The only major criticism of it I could concoct is that it probably should be much longer, replete with more supporting evidence, given the significant historical revisions Ryrie is proposing. And though Ryrie is a licensed minister in the Church of England, he evinces an abiding respect and fascination for atheism (with the exception of any Christian sophisticate’s obligatory ire for Nietzsche). Ryrie conjures a strained brotherhood between Christianity and atheism, entities that have “shaped each other more than they might like to admit,” namely, by sharing the volatile field of feeling that galvanized their ideas. After all, the first atheistic thoughts resolved in the minds of devout Christians, and the secular humanism that has defrocked Christianity in many parts of our world bears all the markings of a Christian morality.

Atheism during the Middle Ages was a wraith threaded through the fog and shadows. “It was a rumour, not a manifesto; an inarticulate suspicion, not a philosophical programme,” Ryrie writes. Like popular tales of revenants and necromancers, atheism’s “vagueness was what made it powerful.” A key to Ryrie’s rendering of Christianity’s evolution can be found in the sociologist Peter Berger’s dictum: “Historically speaking, Christianity has been its own gravedigger.” The (inconsistent) leniency of medieval religious institutions toward philosophical criticism of Catholicism, and the moral blazes of the Reformation (which so often scorched the religion’s fundamental rituals and beliefs), exemplify that Christianity provided its believers with an accidental affordance to unbelief.

The suspicions that members of the clergy were avaricious frauds, that God was a cosmic tyrant, or that religion generally was a tool of social domination were not confined to the auspicious ages that followed the Enlightenment. Neither was the emotional magma from which such notions erupted. In Ryrie’s view, it was men, particularly, that carried the torch of fury through the late medieval period and into the Renaissance. One could see sardonic disdain for religion as early as 1276, when a Montauban peasant openly claimed that he would not confess his sexual partners to a priest. Another Frenchman accused the clergy of inventing rituals so as to extort common folk out of what little they had. In 1299, a “notoriously tight-fisted moneylender from Bologna” told fellow churchgoers that the Bible was a work of fiction, the “True Cross” little more than a “bench,” and claimed that their dinners were as holy as the Eucharist. During the sixteenth century, Spanish men commiserated by trading blasphemies in “alehouses, gambling dens, brothels, barracks, ships,” where God himself was often the object of their scorn. “I deny God and the bastard of his lineage,” cried Juan de la Calle after a severe losing streak at gambling. Deriding the idea of scriptural revelation, English soldiers known to mock “churches and ministers” burned a Bible before the people of Surrey in 1649.

Anxiety, owing to its isolating nature, was a far less social experience than anger. Ryrie defines the “unbelief of anxiety” as “the unsettling, reluctant inability to keep a firm grip on doctrines that people were convinced, with their conscious minds, were true.” Though Ryrie locates the most of religious anxiety in later periods, he presents evidence of it as far back as the 1160s. Stricken with the spiritual hesitancy that often attends sickness, King Amalric summoned the archbishop of Tyre to ask “whether…there was any way of proving by reliable and authoritative evidence that there was a future resurrection?” The archbishop could not believe the question had been asked.

In the early modern period, Ryrie finds apprehension over purity and ultimate destination in the personal journals and public writings of the Puritans who lived in England and its colonies. These are Ryrie’s most affecting portraits. “I am darkened in understanding,” one serving-maid divulges, “and I am tempted to believe there is no God.”

Subdued by her unbelief, another woman known as M.K. is (somewhat representatively) tempted by hedonism:

Why dost thou thus trouble thy self? Take thy pleasure, do what thou likest. Thou shalt never be called to an account for anything; for as the wise man dieth, so dieth the fool, and both rest in the grave together. There is no God to save thee or to punish thee; all things were made by nature, and when thou diest, there is an end of all thy good and bad deeds.

Hannah Allen, a disquieted teenager of the 1650s who was “convinced she was damned,” wrote: “My Sins are so great, that if all the Sins of all the Devils and Damned in Hell, and all the Reprobates on Earth were comprehended in one man, mine are greater…I am the Monster of Creation.” She would harm herself throughout her life. Ryrie argues that for Allen, “the truly unbearable thought was the possibility that God’s mercy might be real.”

Another “fretful” Puritan named Michael Wigglesworth wrote that “the clearest arguments” for the existence of God “cannot persuade my heart of belief [in] the being of a God, if God do not let the beams of his glory shine into it.” Ryrie tells us that these were “people frightened by their own thoughts,” and if they could be meaningfully described as “atheists,” they were “reluctant, even horrified ones, drawn despite themselves into entertaining thoughts that they wished would go away.”

The Reformation was an invidious time to be a Christian in Europe, and it proved to be a node of amplification for both anger and anxiety. In efforts to undermine each other’s theological pretensions, Protestants ridiculed the doctrine of transubstantiation, while Catholics cast aspersions on the Bible’s divine inspiration. This selective deployment of skepticism was strategic in intent, of course, but in effect it created a perilous game: The Papist and the Protestant dared and goaded each other under the cumbrous structure of Christianity itself, armed with massive hammers, pulverizing support columns to spite one another, while the cathedral moaned and swayed, threatening to bury them both in the bricks and mortar of their former religion. For Ryrie, unbelief “was not a by-product of the Reformation conflicts,” as some of his contemporaries believe. “It was a weapon in them.”

Ryrie offers examples of their invective that made me (who abandoned Catholicism at twelve) earnestly wince: “If someone is seasick after receiving the sacrament,” Ryrie paraphrases Protestant critics, “does he vomit his Savior half-digested onto the deck?” In the mind of one clever Protestant, Catholics “eat [Christ] up raw, and swallow down into their guts every member and parcel of him: and last of all, that they convey him into the place where they bestow the residue of all that which they haue [sic] devoured.”

The ripostes from Catholics were less scatological, but no less devastating. Channeling the Catholic polemicist François Véron, Ryrie queries:

So, the Holy Spirit teaches you that the Bible is the word of God? Does this inner conviction extend equally to all sixty-six books of the Old and New Testament? To every chapter and verse of them?… If so, why do so many other readers interpret it differently? …And what about the textual glitches and variations between manuscripts of the Bible? Which is the inspired version?

This “battle for credulity” was, according to Ryrie, a “high-wire act.” To rain the Pyrrhonic acid of doubt down upon the cherished articles of your enemy’s (deeply related) faith while simultaneously invoking the immunity of your own doctrine constituted a “dangerous rhetorical achievement.” One wonders if “achievement” is even the right word, given the consensus among historians that the Reformation served a disharmonious function for Christianity.

Thus the clerestory of premodern Christianity was shattered, and new and curious denominations made off with the colorful shards. “The result,” writes Ryrie, “was an exuberant flowering of religious variety without precedent in the Reformation era. Old radicals and new adventurers at the edges of orthodoxy found themselves converging on ideas and practices that look very much like unbelief.”

Ryrie has in mind undertakings like the spiritualism of German preacher Sebastian Franck, a disciple of Luther who wanted to banish all external expressions of religion—baptisms, preachers, services, churches, etc. Protestant radicals like Henry Barrow (executed), Edward Wightman (burned at the stake), and the mysterious Bartholomew Legate (also burned at the stake) indulged in a kind of Christian pessimism premised on the idea that Roman Catholic baptisms were invalid. Because Christians believe that one must be baptized in order to baptize another, this idea initiated a chain negation, invalidating both the Catholic Church and Protestant sects, leaving humanity in a state of spiritual despondency without any foreseeable relief.

Most nebulous of all were the “Seekers” of revolutionary England, like Mary Springett and Luke Howard. Not truly a sect, the Seekers were “a mood…almost defined by withdrawing from settled religious practice and ‘waiting upon the Lord.’” These religious castaways found themselves simultaneously reluctant either to commit fully to Puritanism or to cut the rope from their seemingly obsolete doctrine. The consequence was a “religion of anxiety,” one sustained by a procession of internal debates (Seekers usually struggled alone) over the veracity of the Christian religion and its moral rectitude. The salient contributions of Seekerism—meretricious, by Ryrie’s evaluation—were the kind of treacly apothegms one can find today on a Unitarian bulletin: “God’s law [is] written onto every human heart.”

“The only way to truly follow God was to abandon dogmatism,” Ryrie summarizes the conclusion of many Seekers. “The price was to redefine ‘following God’ simply and entirely as striving to adhere to a supposedly universal moral law. That may be magnificent,” he writes. “But it is not religion.”

Ryrie makes this determination many times throughout the book: Religion stripped of practice, ritual, doctrine, social structure, and a stable metaphysic is no longer that. Indeed, Ryrie contends that the historic variants of “humanity’s universal religion” were merely the stillbirths of Reformation-era unbelief. It’s true that attempts to titrate general principles from Christianity’s greater pool of spirituality typically yielded a dilute mixture. But it seems fairly premature, if a touch cynical, to dismiss this impulse entirely, especially in light of Ryrie’s concern over “the evaporation of a once very widespread religious culture” throughout the West. Of course, Ryrie fully knows that the world in the twenty-first century is hardly a secular paradise (or dystopia, depending on your perspective), but his narrative hurls all its freight toward a set of provincial outcomes: total domination of secularism or religiosity, or an interminable standstill between them. But as we know, this broad competition would be felt as spiritual pain in the individual soul, where life’s meaning or purpose—if we even choose to entertain such outworn notions—would be bracketed by a doomed ultimatum: all or nothing.

One could imagine how shudderingly bad Megan Phelps-Roper’s memoir, Unfollow, could have been if not for the sensitivities that allowed her to (mostly) evade the trip wires and pitfalls of chronicling her years in the Westboro Baptist Church. One hazard would be failing to humanize one of the most ostentatious and vile fundamentalist churches in modern American history, and consequently seeming aloof as to why many Americans found morally degenerate a group of Kansan Christians who held signs like god hates fags, while insisting that God was punishing gay people with HIV; who held signs like thank god for ieds, while protesting the funerals of soldiers who died in Iraq or Afghanistan; who held signs like pray for more dead kids after twenty-six people, including twenty grade-schoolers, were slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary. Another danger would be succumbing to self-aggrandizement—after all, Phelps-Roper illuminated her own path from the total darkness of superstition and ignorance—and recasting her story as the individualistic triumph of reason over zealotry, dogma, and groupthink. Either way, the humanity of the church members, her family, and her former self, would be left far behind, and Unfollow would fail as a literary document.

Phelps-Roper recalls picketing as a child throughout the country with the Westboro congregation to remind America of its great sins: “homosexuality, adultery, fornication, idolatry, rebellion.” As she grows, a blooming awareness (ritually battened down by family discussions and scripture readings) begins to press upon the cramped dimensions of her ideology. Her alienation from her religion is predictably facilitated by her exchanges with strangers on the internet and her communication with the outsider Chad Fjelland, whom she later married. In many ways, Phelps-Roper’s religious travails possess a striking fidelity to the ideas that energize Unbelievers. Anger and anxiety, those imps of unbelief from Ryrie’s history, question and repine in Phelps-Roper’s ear until her ultimate apostasy in 2012, when she and her sister, Grace, decided to leave the church—a tragic act of immense courage.

Anger is characteristically easy to identify in Phelps-Roper, whose mother, Shirley, and certain church members, like the conniving Steve Drain, are frequent targets of her insolence and rage. She chafes at her adamant mother’s denial of the physical abuse in her extended family and describes her as “just impossible to please.” After a cabal of self-appointed “church elders” ostracizes Shirley and begins promoting “unscriptural” behavior, Phelps-Roper’s anger and doubt create a kind of firebreak between her mind and the fervid ideology of the church, giving her a necessary distance to formulate criticism. “Their tender and heartfelt praise for my parents’ boundless dedication and sacrifice abruptly [decayed] into a noxious contempt,” she writes. “The rot had set in almost overnight.”

Anxiety addled Phelps-Roper as soon as her religious tutelage began. As her mother shares the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau, a young Phelps-Roper, familiarized with the concept of predestination (arguably the most psychologically disastrous idea in the history of Christianity), balks at Esau’s “dreadfully unfair” predicament: Because God had wrought Esau’s “reprobate” nature, he had in effect “created [Esau] to be condemned to Hellfire.” Struggling to appreciate her mother’s circular rationalizations, it’s a matter of moments before Phelps-Roper formulates the next logical question: “What about me?”

Henceforth, when her mother would discipline or criticize her, Phelps-Roper “was consumed by terror, frantic at the thought that I had been like Esau all along….At each of my mother’s censures I stood on the edge of a precipice, feeling as if I were only a light breeze away from being pitched headlong into the waste howling wilderness of the world, forever cut off from God and His people.”

The most repressive forms of Christianity attempt to quarantine these useful insecurities, lest doubt creep into the holy wards of the mind (an inevitability in the case of Phelps-Roper). Her anxiety reaches its apogee while she is idly painting a basement wall with her sisters (communal labor is a regular theme and setting in Unfollow). She “moved the brush over the deep purple stripes we were meant to cover. I watched the bristles leave their trails of white, but no matter how thickly I coated the brush or how many times I went over it—again and again and again—the darkness was still visible underneath.”

It becomes an almost Cartesian meditation: Phelps-Roper’s mind is utterly eclipsed by doubt, a cerebral experience that is somehow also intensely embodied (“My eyes widened and my face flushed hot, overtaken by panic and shame and regret and humiliation…”). She pummels herself with questions: “What if we’re wrong? What if this isn’t The Place led by God Himself? What if we’re just people?” Phelps-Roper expends several breathless and beautiful pages documenting this runaway self-interrogation, as she suffocates outside the airlock of ideology. By the end, her faith has all but evaporated.

Though she shies from the designation, Phelps-Roper’s account provides compelling evidence that the Westboro Baptist Church is a cult in its late stages, as is commonly suspected. Much of what we associate with the church was begat in the mind of Fred Phelps (the father of Shirley Phelps-Roper). Throughout Unfollow, the aging, then ailing, Phelps serves as the family’s image fashioned after the Old Testament God: looming, prolific, dauntless, and wrathful. Phelps-Roper would eventually notice the “striking correlation between [Shirley Phelps-Roper’s] view of her father and her view of God.”

In 1955, the East Side Baptist Church of Topeka made Phelps pastor of their new west side church plant, Westboro Baptist. Phelps, influenced by the “Puritans of old England,” broke ties with the mother church soon after and commenced the picketing now associated with his kin (literally: A large portion of Westboro’s congregants are related by blood to the late patriarch). As Phelps-Roper unties her extended family’s strange and frequently violent history, you can see the glowing embers of Phelps’s vision begin to fade in relay between subsequent generations, as incredulity siphons members away and power-hungry congregants corrupt his institution. By the time Phelps is sundowning in hospice, he has been excommunicated from the church he pioneered. He died in 2014.

Unfollow never lets its reader forget how passionately the Westboro congregation consulted scripture (fairly obscure Biblical passages are rendered effortlessly germane on almost every page). As is always the case with the fundamentalist, scripture is used as a kind of manual for life, giving one the impression of profoundly desperate machinations: Such believers carve a jagged line in the earth, behind which life is ordered by, as Phelps-Roper aptly writes, “a multiplicity of rules” that imbue existence with the unfettered glory of spiritual mission. Beyond their line in the ground, or the Westboro picket line, they stare with tempestuous eyes at the aimless and the damned, deeming some element of the secular or moderate way of life wholly unacceptable. One wonders what demons they see.

Perhaps the most consistent theme of Phelps-Roper’s prose is its fixation on human contact. “Ours was a physically expressive family,” she writes. Besides acknowledging that familial love can be just as robust in a deeply repressive community as elsewhere, this all-too-Christian preoccupation renders the body—like the crucified body of Christ—simultaneously an object of grace and wretchedness. We see Phelps-Roper’s aunt rubbing “soothing little circles on the back of my hand” when she would fidget during church. We see a young Phelps-Roper pressing an ear into her crooning mother’s side to hear “her sing from inside her body.” She presses her thumbs “firmly into the flesh on either side” of her mother’s swollen spine, and runs her hands “through [Grace’s] long, dark waves to detangle and braid them.” (It is verboten for Westboro women to cut their hair.)

Phelps-Roper’s bodily fascination persists in the presence of violence. During a sisterly squabble, her mother grips her aunt’s arm, “digging long fingernails into her flesh,” which leaves behind “four little crescent moons.” Phelps-Roper is horrified (though not enough to squelch her curiosity) to read reports of her grandfather abusing his wife, “punching her, beating her with heavy implements, dislocating her shoulder by throwing her down the stairs, and cutting her hair to the scalp.”(Haircutting is verboten because it is shameful.)

Given such acute observations of the body, at first it’s puzzling that Phelps-Roper’s captivation by touch dissipates upon the subject of sex. She does address the subject, but in a revealingly oblique way. The relevant chapter, “The Lust of the Flesh,” is in truth about loneliness, partnership, and love, rather than sexual experience of any kind. This elision becomes easier to explain with the undeniable and potent innocence that permeates this memoir. It manifests in her childlike and nostalgic yet disarming tone, which, at times, threatens to smother the book’s spectrum of moods, and moreover restricts any real consideration of puberty, the erotic, or lust. But her innocence is also capable of producing charming episodes of humor. After leaving the church, Megan and Grace embark on an adventure to Deadwood, South Dakota, to consume the forbidden canon of secular society—or, in their exuberant words, to “read books.”

Reading Hans Christian Andersen’s fable “The Snail and the Rosebush,” Phelps-Roper is forced to consider whether she would be forgiven by greater society for her indiscretions:

Which of those people wouldn’t love to hurt me now? An admission of guilt would be blood in the water. They would eat me alive. It was clear that the Snail’s path was the only option now: “I retire within myself, and there I shall stay.” My sister came to sit next to me and we linked arms and wept. “I don’t want to be a snail!” I cried into her shoulder.

The innocent are amusing only until they must shoulder responsibility, when their charm molders into naivety. Phelps-Roper’s concluding elegy is the most disappointing part of her memoir. Steps beyond the blast radius of her own mighty skepticism, Phelps-Roper believes she sees familiar patterns in our current political climate:

As I watch the human tribal instinct play out in the era of Donald Trump, the echoes of Westboro are undeniable: the division of the world into Us and Them; the vilification of compromise; the knee-jerk expulsion of insiders who violate group orthodoxy; and the demonization of outsiders and the inability to substantively engage with their ideas.

How quickly her thinking has been secularized, washed of moral passion and discernment. Phelps-Roper admits that the derangement of Westboro is not at all anomalous in American Protestantism, but fails to recognize the role the mobilized religious right has played in impeding efforts to reduce misery and injustice in American society. Contrary to her impressions, American politics as it exists today is not merely a contest between dogmas. This blindness is a somewhat understandable consequence of her desire to apologize for the moral and intellectual failings of her family, whom she still loves passionately (the book is dedicated to her parents). If the members of Westboro are not victims of “very human forces,” or “good people…trapped by bad ideas,” then they are simply malicious, bigoted, and spiteful people. Which they are—especially but not uniquely so. Hatred and cruelty are not essential to Christianity or to an apocalyptic cult in Topeka, but are rather endogenous to our humanity. Ironically enough, this was one of Christianity’s most powerful lessons: The same nature that allows us moments of astounding grace also permits unimaginable evil; but nothing is beneath forgiveness.

Two books whose titles use a prefix of negation is as good a signal as any that Phelps-Roper has joined a secular culture that struggles to construct an affirmative vision of life and the world. (As Ivan Turgenev knew, perpetual negation is the great tool of the nihilist.) Very few unbelievers would assent to being “nihilists,” but then again, few (if any) of Ryrie’s Christians would admit to being atheists. That is because their atheism was not some personal insignia, but a historical force that moved them and was moved by them. There is a similar dynamic at play with secular culture’s relationship to nihilism. We are discovering ourselves at the edge of Ryrie’s emotional history, beset with his gnawing anxiety, but in its mirror form: Whereas for the Christians of the Middle Ages it was “intuitively impossible” that our universe was not governed by a God that charged it with purpose, it is becoming “intuitively obvious” that this is the case for us, that each human being, to put it cruelly, is nothing more than a “snail which melts away as it goes.” (Ps. 58:6-10)

This grim picture of the human condition is increasingly difficult to rebuke from within secular humanism, and I wonder if our nihilism seems as unacceptable to others as it does to me. As we’ve learned from Ryrie, our feeling this spiritual discord, generation after generation, will someday allow a set of minds to express openly and codify the nihilism with which we privately struggled. In fact, this is already happening in parts of academia and in the seedy quarters of the internet. And at some stage, religion, spirituality, or the instinct that underlies them all must confront the nihilism that our areligious culture threatens to spawn while, in Ryrie’s words, “finding ways to offer something that secular humanism cannot.” 


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