I’ve been reading Dominic Erdozain’s excellent The Soul of Doubt: The religious roots of unbelief from Luther to Marx. At last, a book that sets the record right.

The way I was taught Christian history, and the way far too many church history books still tell it, works on the ‘orthodoxy’ model. The Church carries on, with its doctrines. True church members accept them, heretics debate them, unbelievers reject them.

The pattern is: sixteenth century good, eighteenth century bad, nineteenth century good. For Protestants, Luther and Calvin are standard-bearers for their respective churches, while for Roman Catholics the Council of Trent plays a similar role. Then unfortunately came the Enlightenment. The churches declined and fewer people attended church services. Things got better with the nineteenth century revivals. Because western churches today still operate on the nineteenth century model, this picture remains popular. It has the effect of praising the worst elements of the Christian tradition and blaming the Enlightenment for the best.

More realistically, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries church attendance was usually compulsory, and anyway the terror of Hell was motive enough. Once both were relaxed, fewer attended. Church leaders stopped being so passionately opposed to each other. Intellectuals once again felt at liberty to question inherited Christian dogmas. With the rise of atheism in the nineteenth century church attendances rose again, but because of a new anxiety. The emptiness and meaninglessness of life in the absence of transcendent reality was more obvious when it was first popularised than it is today. As that fear declined, church attendances dropped again. Over the last few decades the ministers of western churches have been inundated with advice about ‘church growth’, like the recent Renewal and Reform programme of the Church of England.

So if we leave aside the obvious fact that ‘orthodox’ Christian teachings keep changing anyway, the conservative-liberal split looks something like this. Conservatives think Christians should accept inherited ‘orthodox’ teachings without questioning them, and also worry about church attendance numbers. Liberals believe in thinking for themselves, and sit more lightly to churchgoing.

So from the perspective of today’s conservatives, especially those in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, past ages can be judged by how many people attended church services and the contexts can be forgotten.

Erdozain offers a much-needed alternative account. His introduction tells us he aims to present

a fair analysis of the critics, heretics, and troublemakers, whose motives in rattling what has passed at various times for religious orthodoxy have been as consistently misrepresented by their admirers as their enemies… Very few of the skeptics encountered in these pages were atheists, and those that were continued to measure religion by Christian standards.

He begins with Luther:

Luther energized and expanded the claims of the Christian conscience, against papal authority and religious tradition, before diminishing it in relation to his master principle of “justification by faith alone” and the theocratic muscle of the state… He sets in motion a conflict between conscience and creed that will run, in various forms, into the late modern era.

We are introduced to the theological challenges of Sebastian Franck and Sebastian Castellio.

Castellio’s dispute with John Calvin over the punishment of heretics provoked more than a vigorous debate on religious toleration: it prompted eloquent appeals for the suspension of theological certainty in favor of a simplified religion of conscience.

A central figure is Spinoza. Erdozain argues that, far from trying to destroy Christianity, he was trying to restore its original emphasis on love and mercy.

Similarly, Voltaire’s hostility to the Catholic orthodoxy of his time centred on his opposition to persecution and Jansenist doctrines:

The leading critic of organized religion in the modern era emerges as a profoundly Christian thinker, attempting to steer a violent orthodoxy back to peaceable origins.

This reclaiming of open debate within Christianity is important on a number of levels. Here I shall draw attention to just one. The dominant narrative of church leaders these days is that there is a Christian ‘orthodoxy’ which previous generations accepted, and which has only recently been challenged by ‘liberals’. Erdozain shows that this is simply not the case. It would be more accurate to say that church leaders define their orthodoxies to suit what they themselves believe, and there are always others who disagree with them. Debate continues in every age; we should not be misled by the fact that histories are usually written by the establishment.

Time and time again, Erdozain’s descriptions made me think of people I have got to know in Modern Church. The main difference is that the persecutions have stopped. The views about Christianity that were expressed by Servetus, Franck, Castellio, Spinoza and Voltaire are today praised by anti-religious secularists for their opposition to Christianity, and dismissed by church historians as Deists or unbelievers. Both sides are wrong: they were Christians thinking for themselves, and coming up with thoughts that still characterise liberal Christians today.

The situation changes with the nineteenth century’s doubts, where it became more common to reject the Christian label. Still, Erdozain argues,

the “warfare” between science and religion revolved around ethical and professional concern rather than religious knowledge as such… it led few into atheism or philosophical “materialism”… The real solvent of faith in the nineteenth century was the evangelical conscience, reacting with force and penetration to harsh renderings of Christian orthodoxy.

In effect, different parts of the Christian tradition were being set against each other.

The “religious roots” that I consider fundamental to modern cultures of unbelief are twofold: the positive content of dissent, including conscience, Bible and Christian ethics, and the negative stimulus of dogma, persecution, and theologically induced fear.

In support of this judgement he quotes Nietzsche:

You see what it was that really triumphed over the Christian God: Christian morality itself.