The Birth of Modern Belief

Faith and Judgment from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment

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Ethan H. Shagan
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , December
     408 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Belief has had a rough go of it in religious studies. In a discipline that many would assume to be especially concerned with belief, scholars have criticized that category for its allegedly theological overtones, its tendency to construe all religions through a Christian-inflected lens, and its invocation of internal mental states that appear resistant to the prying eyes of theory—among other alleged sins. Mary-Jane Rubenstein, in describing her attempts to disabuse her students of the habit of universalizing belief as the primary category by which to understand religions, likens the experience to that of playing Whac-A-Mole: just as it seems she had succeeded in stamping out the concept in one place, it rears its ugly head in another (“The Twilight of the Doxai: Or, How to Philosophize with a Whac-A-MoleTM Mallet,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 24 (2012), 65). Along these lines, many scholars of religion view the notion of belief as the antagonist of a B-rated horror movie, a fungal infection, or the hydra of Greek mythology: no matter how many times it is dispatched, it keeps coming back.

Despite these serious criticisms, belief is a concept from which religious studies does not appear to be able to extricate itself. This suggests that what may be necessary is not the extirpation of the concept, but the refinement of it. The solution, therefore, may be to cultivate a greater awareness of the concept’s historical origins and career. Scholars of religion may thereby gain greater clarity about what precisely we mean by the term, and—perhaps most importantly—what  limitations are imposed on its utility by its history and the unacknowledged assumptions that may attend its use. We could then determine when and how the concept is useful, and when and how it is distorting.

Enter Ethan H. Shagan’s The Birth of Modern Belief. Shagan’s book provides an incredibly lucid, smart, and eminently readable intellectual history of this concept, mapping its use from the medieval period to the early modern. Throughout the book, Shagan exhibits the shifting meanings of the deceptively simple term, tracking its various forms as it morphed in relationship with its context, both influencing the religious and intellectual worlds it helped to define and  being shaped by the political and cultural pressures that impinged upon it. This is one of those books in which the reader finds himself underlining something on nearly every page, both because of the depth of Shagan’s insight and the crispness and clarity of his prose. The Birth of Modern Belief is a detailed, fascinating, and profoundly relevant work that helps to nuance and critically reconceive a category of analysis that religious studies both struggles with and depends upon.

The story of belief, as Shagan tells it, is the story of belief progressively slipping its chains, escaping the highly restrictive formulations of it provided by Catholics and Protestants in the medieval and early modern periods, and eventually evolving into its contemporary meaning as we know it: “individual, propositional assent based upon whatever criteria the believer finds most convincing” (288). This is what Shagan calls “sovereign judgement.” One of the important lessons of his text is that, despite the intuitiveness of this definition of belief, it is a late-comer to the history of the term, and it did not tread an easy path to get here.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Shagan’s book is his argument that belief morphed into its contemporary form largely because European Christians, in seeking to shore up their faith against rival sects, made belief too difficult. In the wake of the Reformation, “the rival confessions of Christianity, unwilling to grant belief to their enemies or to dissidents and backsliders in their ranks, participated in a common project to make belief hard, denying belief-status to most putative Christians and their religious claims” (66). Suddenly, faced with a profusion of Christianities—each of which implicitly threatened to undermine one’s own standing in the eyes of God—both Catholics and Protestants devised new theological means by which to demarcate “real Christians” from pretenders and heretics. One common tactic in this theological boundary-maintenance was to articulate formulations of belief that made it difficult to achieve—so difficult, in fact, and so adamantly restricted to a select few—that only the members of one’s own sect could possibly be said to be “true believers.”

While tactics such as these successfully allowed religious partisans to deploy the notion of belief in ways that distinguished themselves from competing Christian sects, the end result of this arms race in credulity was to render belief so difficult—and yet, at the same time, so central to proper religiousness—as to be virtually impossible. Thus, these intentionally demanding constructions of belief eventually collapsed under their own weight. Ironically, this helped pave the way for the modern proliferation of belief based on one’s own assessment of probabilities—a far more tractable formulation than its forerunners, such as absolute reliance on institutional authority or pious certainty in that which could not be known.

There are many other significant highlights to Shagan’s narrative, such as the unexpected way in which religious conceptions of belief prefigured the Enlightenment’s shift to inductive reasoning and the eventual birth of science, and the logical contortions performed by medieval apologists to show that Christian belief was rational without reducing it to rationality. And there are gems as well, such as those early modern exponents of belief who devised calculations to determine precisely when the tenability of Christian belief would expire (3150, by one optimistic estimate).

Shagan’s The Birth of Modern Belief is an eminently important book that also happens to be excellently written. It is a highly valuable contribution to religious studies’ ongoing debates over the concept of belief, and it should be read by not only anyone interested in the concept—although they especially should read it—but by just about anyone working in the study of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jason Blum is Visiting Assistant Professor of Writing at Davidson College.

Date of Review: 
January 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ethan H. Shagan is Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Rule of Moderation: Violence, Religion, and the Politics of Restraint in Early Modern England and Popular Politics and the English Reformation


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