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Gresham College: Prof. Alec Ryrie – The Origins of Atheism: #6/6 – Jesus,Hitler and The Abolition of God


About this series – The Origins of Atheism

Once – so the story goes – everyone believed in God. Then along came science, freedom of thought and modern ideas, and people began to doubt. Now most people don’t believe. Sooner or later, no one will. But this story isn’t true; and not just because the prophecy seems dubious. In reality, almost all of us answer the great questions of religion – do we believe, doubt or reject? – in ways that don’t really have much to do with ideas, science or philosophy. We take our stands, whatever they are, for more intimate and intuitive reasons, and then construct the philosophy we need to justify them. The history of both belief and unbelief is an emotional history before it is an intellectual one.

This lecture series by Professor Alec Ryrie will not re-tell the philosophical history of religious doubt from the Enlightenment onwards but will look back further, to the age when the newly-minted word ‘atheism’ became a cultural obsession: The Renaissance, the fifteenth, sixteenth and especially the seventeenth centuries. This was the age that wrote the emotional scripts of modern unbelief, scripts which we are still playing out today. It was a time when serious thinkers were all-but universally agreed on the reality of God. But still, people doubted.

The medieval world’s hidden but ever-present undercurrent of self-taught scepticism was joined in the 1500s, in the Reformation era, by new streams of doubt: paralysing uncertainty, agonised apostasy, liberating defiance and the bold pursuit of a hoped-for truer, deeper faith in places of old certainties that now rang hollow.

The lectures in this series will dwell on some of the giants of the age – from Machiavelli and Montaigne, through Raleigh, Marlowe and Shakespeare, to Thomas Hobbes, John Milton and Baruch Spinoza – but also on ordinary men and women who, whether with delight or with horror, found themselves doubting or denying what they had once held true.

About this lecture

This series has argued that the origins of modern secularism lie in the age of the Renaissance. This last lecture will track that legacy down to the present. From Tom Paine through Bakunin to modern humanism and anti-Nazism, religion has not collapsed intellectually. Instead, religious impulses – defiance of unwelcome moral authority, the quest for ever-deeper truths, a readiness to judge churches by their own standards – have given our age a profoundly secular ethic with deeply religious roots.

Professor Alec Ryrie

Alec Ryrie is Gresham Professor of Divinity. He is also Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University, President-elect of the Ecclesiastical History Society for 2019-20 and Co-Editor of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History. From 2015-17 he was Visiting Professor in the History of Religion at Gresham College and gave two series of lectures on the history of Protestant Christianity.

He studied History as an undergraduate, at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, before completing a Master’s in Reformation Studies at St. Andrews and a D.Phil. in Theology at St. Cross College, Oxford. From 1999-2006 he taught at the University of Birmingham, moving to Durham in 2007. Having been Head of the Department of Theology and Religion from 2012-15, he is currently completing a three-year Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2015-18). He is on the editorial boards of St Andrews Studies in Reformation History (Ashgate) and the Royal Historical Society’s Studies in History and New Historical Perspectives. Since 1997 he has been a Reader in the Church of England, and he is licenced to the parish of Shotley St. John (diocese of Newcastle).

Professor Ryrie is a historian of the Reformation era and of Protestantism more widely, with a particular focus on England and Scotland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He is an expert on the emergence and development of Protestant and radical beliefs, identities and spiritualities, and on the history of Protestant missions and missionaries. He has written several prize-winning books and his 2017 book Protestants: The Radicals Who Made the Modern World gives an overview of the history of Protestantism from Luther to the present. Much of the book was prefigured in his lectures at Gresham College in 2015-17. You can watch the lectures in full here.

His current research is on the early history of doubt, scepticism and ‘atheism’ before such things became intellectually respectable. His book on this subject, Unbelievers: The Religious Quest to Abolish God, will be published in 2019. Many of the book’s themes will be explored in his first series of lectures as Gresham Professor of Divinity on The Origins of Atheism.

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