The Soul of Doubt

The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx

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Dominic Erdozain
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Over the last three decades or so, theology has become deeply genealogical in its methodology, and historians have become increasingly interested in theology. This has particularly been the case when theologians and historians have investigated the relationship between religious belief on the one hand, and secularism, atheism, or unbelief on the other. We might perhaps see Michel de Certeau and Hans Urs von Balthasar as together constituting the fount of this stream, which we subsequently see cascading through the work of Amos Funkenstein (1986), Michael J. Buckley (1987), Alan Charles Kors (1987), John Milbank (1990), Michael Allen Gillespie (1995 and 2008), James Byrne (1996), William Placher (1996), Charles Taylor (2007) and perhaps my own Short History of Atheism (2010). While heterogeneous in their analyses, they would all broadly share the view that Erdozain claims as his own, that “a dichotomy between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ thought is unsustainable. Fierce Christian apologists and even fiercer ‘new atheists,’ share a common root system” (2). “The ‘secular’ critique of Christianity was a burning product of the religion it dared to appraise” (4). 

Erdozain refers to none of his genealogical forebears, with the exception of Charles Taylor (and a brief footnote reference to Michael J. Buckley), which one might think a surprising omission. One potential explanation for this might have been that as a self-confessed historian, he eschewed secondary texts in favour of primary and archival sources, as his fellow historian Alan Charles Kors unequivocally did. But in fact, this is not Erdozain’s approach; he is not as archive-based as was Kors, and the range of secondary sources he marshals is impressive. Perhaps none of his predecessor genealogists was sufficiently buttressing, for Erdozain’s thesis is undoubtedly distinctive in relation to theirs.  His claim is that religion’s secularist critics (and those critics who have subsequently and misleadingly been identified as secularists) developed their attacks on the basis of criteria that were ultimately internal to Christian thought itself.  He reveals and unfolds a dialectical process wherein heterodox thinkers articulate ethical critiques—which derive their force from a specifically Christian-shaped “conscience”—of their more orthodox masters. The pattern that emerges is one in which orthodoxy becomes increasingly oppressive and corrupt, only to be confronted by heterodox protests and “reformations,” which claim that the essence of true faith has been betrayed. Once it is seen that many of the supposedly secular critics of religion were in fact deeply religious themselves, and that the criticisms were fired by religious motivations, the historical picture of “religion” being progressively undermined by an independent, self-standing “secular” world becomes less and less plausible. One thinker who has perhaps put forward a similar thesis is Don Cupitt. In his most recent and least discussed writings, Cupitt has argued that secular ethics is constituted not as a rejection of Christianity but as its afterlife. What Cupitt has not done, however, is to provide the extensive textual evidence for this thesis that Erdozain provides in abundance.

Erdozain executes his task with skill and verve.  He possesses a delightful felicitous style that makes him a pleasure to read.  The analyses become a little more strained in the later chapters—especially the discussion of Darwin—which do not seamlessly fit into the otherwise prevalent picture of religious critics being motivated by specifically Christian and  ethical concerns. But the earlier chapters on Luther, Calvin, Sebastian Franck, and Sebastian Costellio, together with strikingly original readings of Spinoza and Voltaire, constitute an impressive performance, which should be considered required reading for anyone seeking a rounded understanding of religious belief and unbelief in the early modern and modern periods.

It would have been good, however, to see a little more methodological reflection on the status of Erdozain’s narrative, and particularly its relationship to other genealogical accounts. He does give some indication of how he sees the relationship of his own study to that of Charles Taylor. Taylor, he says, explicates the intellectual contexts and conditions for what is believable, shows how these contexts and conditions changed, and shows also therefore how what was actually believable changed as well.  Erdozain’s complaint is that Taylor describes these transitions, but leaves the reasons for them unexplained: “It elevates the context of religious faith over its content, so that the fate of religion in any period seems to turn on the hospitality of the circumstances . . . The process is mapped rather than explained” (4-5). But to what extent do the processes of inner alienation arising from an accusing conscience of the kind illuminated by Erdozain actually explain the kinds of contextual shifts explicated by Taylor? Are they the predominant explanatory factor, or merely one factor among many others? This may be very difficult to specify with precision, but without at least some attempt to specify it, the explanatory power of the narrative remains uncertain. And to what extent can we be sure that the kinds of developments outlined by Erdozain were not themselves actually caused or made possible by the contextual changes described by Taylor? How are we to determine the direction of causation here? Again, definitive answers to these questions may be elusive; as Michel de Certeau reminds us, “history is never sure.” But it would have been good to see a little more reflection on what explanatory work may or may not be expected from Erdozain’s narratives.

Nonetheless, the book is undoubtedly an outstanding achievement. Whatever the relative explanatory importance of its account in relation to others, Erdozain provides an invaluable—indeed indispensable—contribution to the rich and evolving tapestry that constitutes our historical reconstruction of the relationship between religion and secularism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gavin Hyman is Senior Lecturer in the Departments of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. 

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dominic Erdozain is a visiting scholar at Emory University. His first book The Problem of Pleasure: Sport, Recreation and the Crisis of Victorian Religion was published in 2010.



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