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Power of ideas


How to Be an Atheist in Medieval Europe
Alec Ryrie (Gresham Lecture 2018)

Intellectuals and philosophers may think they make the weather, but they are more often driven by it. People who read and write books have a persistent tendency to overestimate the power of ideas. Some of us, sometimes, change our beliefs and our lives as the result of a chain of conscious reasoning. But not very often or very honestly. Our own age has forcibly reminded us that intellectual elites often struggle to bring their societies with them. Their default role is instead to tag along behind, explaining why things have inevitably turned out as they did.


The conventional story has it that philosophers attacked religion and people therefore stopped believing. But what if people stopped believing and therefore found they needed arguments to justify their unbelief? Most of us make the great choices – beliefs, values, identities, purposes – intuitively, embedded in our social and historical contexts, usually without being able to articulate why we have done so, often without being aware we have done so. If we are that way inclined, we might then assemble rationalisations for our choices: rationalisations which may be true, but true in a meagre, post hoc way.


It is no great surprise that Enlightenment thinkers could develop atheistic philosophies. Anyone who needs a philosophy badly enough will find one, and arguments against God were nothing new in the mid-seventeenth century. The question is not, where did these criticisms come from? but, why did some Europeans start to find them compelling? To answer that question, we do not need an intellectual or philosophical history of atheism: we need an emotional history.

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