Commentary Magazine

Without God, Without Creed, by James Turner

The Rise of Atheism

Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America.
by James Turner.
Johns Hopkins University Press. 316 pp. $26.50.

If the argument of James Turner is accepted, a major rewriting of cultural history is in order. Turner, who teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, contends that “Until little more than a century ago, virtually everyone within the orbit of European culture agreed that a superhuman power was somehow responsible for the universe and that this fact determined the purpose of life.” And then, in the second half of the 19th century, something happened. What happened is reflected in an 1869 letter by Charles Eliot Norton to his friend John Ruskin: “There is a matter on which I have been thinking much of late. It does not seem to me that the evidence concerning the being of God, and concerning immortality, is such as to enable us to assert anything in regard to either of these topics.” Soon, hesitant agnosticism gave way to what had until then been almost universally condemned as atheism. It became quite respectable to say in public, “I do not believe in God.” A century later, and despite the fact that 95 percent of the American people may believe in God, according to Turner such belief had become a “subcultural” phenomenon.

Turner's is a work of intellectual history and, more precisely, “a study of the fate of one idea: the belief that God exists.” He wants to determine how it happened that at a certain point in history, “available ideas in the culture changed so as to make unbelief viable.” Most of our textbooks have a ready answer to Turner's question. It happened because of “the process of secularization.” But to say that unbelief was produced by secularization is something of a tautology. So the better textbooks explain that secularization or unbelief was caused by the advance of science, human rationality, and the course of progress in which man assumed control of his destiny and no longer needed the idea of God for purposes of explanation or of consolation.

In short, most of us have been educated to believe that there is a necessary and causal connection between secularization and modernization. Turner says he too began by accepting this conventional account, but has been forced to the conclusion that it “stands the problem of unbelief on its head.” He does not discount the importance of science and social transformation, but finally, he argues, unbelief is not something that happened to religion. “On the contrary, religion caused unbelief.”

It is not just religion in general that is at fault (and Turner clearly believes a question of fault is involved), but the culturally regnant religion of Reformed Protestantism. This is the mainline, or old-line, religion of America's “brand-name” churches: Presbyterian, Congregational, Unitarian, liberal Methodist and Baptist. So eager were they to accommodate belief to modernity that the two became indistinguishable, with the result that belief was eventually viewed as eminently dispensable.

While much that developed in America was genuinely new, Turner knows the roots must be traced to European experience. Thus, the first half of his book examines belief and unbelief in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. “It is not so clear,” Turner decides, “that any atheists actually existed. Searching for full-fledged deniers of God before the 18th century sometimes resembles hunting for the unicorn.” Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Bacon, Descartes, and a host of other worthies in the pantheon of modernity were devout believers who certainly did not think they were contributing to a process of secularization. To be sure, the term atheist was used in those days, but it typically referred to what we might call impiety or religious dissent. As Francis Bacon observed, “All that impugn a received religion or superstition are by the adverse part branded with the name of atheists.”


Outspoken atheists, full-fledged deniers of God, such as Robert Ingersoll (d. 1899), are a rather recent phenomenon on the Western scene, according to Turner. They felt they were the vanguard of the future because liberal religion was manifestly on the run, scurrying to adapt belief to every latest definition of “reality” promulgated by science or the prophets of social progress. By the middle of the 19th century the scene had been set for the cultural triumph of unbelief, and this was a triumph that extended to the churches themselves:

Few victories have concealed so much irony. Even while damning Deists, church leaders swallowed the Deist conception of a natural-law God. Even while lauding the converted heart, they absorbed the maxim that belief in God rests on intellectual assent to a demonstrable proposition. Even while preaching the blood of the Lamb, they devoured the Enlightenment's moralism and its God bound by human morality.

Religious realities that could not be demonstrated by Enlightenment criteria of truth—realities such as divine grace and judgment, spiritual communion, authoritative inspiration—“either faded away or drifted into supernatural dissociation from ordinary reality.” By the end of the century, many thoughtful people had come to the conclusion that it made little sense to revere the carcass of a thoroughly eviscerated religion.

The last century's reputed battle between religion and science was really not much of a battle at all, Turner believes. As quickly as the rules of knowledge were changed, religion adjusted to the new game. Finally, the business of keeping religion up to date became tedious and was mainly left to those with a vested interest in it. “Relatively few on either side [religion and science] confronted the other; rather, science all too easily displaced religion as an object of interest.”

By no means did everyone just drift away or lose interest in religion. Well into this century there were humanitarians who felt it their moral duty to attack religion and its institutions. Ironically, however, their condemnation of religion employed the same moral reasoning which progressive religion had declared to be beyond dispute. In a culture in which “suffering in any quantity had become less tolerable,” the question of theodicy loomed large and God was found to be guilty—or, more frequently, nonexistent—at the bar of human judgment, which religion itself had named as the ultimate supreme court.

Following the liberation from traditional belief, some who recognized that man was incorrigibly homo religiosus sought to construct alternative channels of devotion in the “religions” of science, nature, art, or historical progress. For example, what John Dewey did not hesitate to call “the religion of secular humanism” had numerous adherents, and perhaps still does. By the middle of the present century, militant atheism had receded: a Madalyn Murray O'Hair is culturally marginal, an almost amusing atavism. There is no reason to rage against the darkness of religion when it is culturally agreed that, with respect to whatever eternal verities there may be, we are all in the dark. Each of us, it is said, has recourse only to whatever subjective lights he might “find meaningful,” and it is not good taste to talk about them in public. If, however, we do express such beliefs publicly, we dare not “impose” them upon others, not even upon our own children.


According to what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has called the dogma of “modern emotivism,” religious beliefs have to do with feelings or “values,” not with facts. At most such beliefs can be tentatively recommended to others as “useful” to psychological well-being, social justice, or some other agreed-upon good. It is, after all, not as though they were true in anything like the sense that it is true that Paris is the capital of France. Turner does not put it quite this way, but the fatal divorce in the 19th century was between religion and truth. And it was the religious leaders of the last century who began the divorce proceedings. “[Their] lust for empirical proof proved, in the end, nothing less than disastrous for belief. After science separated iteslf from God, doubting Victorians had left, not a subtle and firmly grounded alternative, but stunted arguments and evocations of heartfulness.” Instead of challenging a narrow empiricism with an alternative epistemology, religion, when it did not submit to the judgment of that empiricism, recommended itself as something other than truth in the accepted definition of the term.

Turner's indictment is comprehensive:

The church played a major role in softening up belief. Theologians had been too unwilling to allow God to be incomprehensible, too insistent on bringing Him within the compass of mundane human knowledge, too anxious to link belief with science, too neglectful of other roads to knowledge, too insensitive to noncognitive ways of apprehending reality—too forgetful, in short, of much of their own traditions as they tried to make God up-to-date. And the leaders of the churches got away with this as long as science depended on God, as long as the new conception of knowledge that science exemplified did not reach its ultimate conclusion. But when it did, theology paid the price for ignoring the complexity of the question of God, for suppressing the transcendent mystery that was supposed to exceed human understanding. One might say that most theologians had lost faith long before any Victorian agnostics.

Without God, Without Creed is an always provocative and usually persuasive exercise in cultural and intellectual history. There is so much that one wishes for more. For one thing, it is not clear what was so distinctive in the American experience that made secularization here so very different from its more aggressive forms in most European countries. For another, the influence of figures like Marx and Nietzsche is omitted. Before the Robert Ingersolls there were those who attacked religion with apostolic fervor, whether in the name of an illusory “kingdom of freedom” or a despairing abyss of nothingness.

In other words, while the religious appeasers of a reductionist epistemology undoubtedly have much to answer for, religion was under attack before it retreated. Establishment religion might have stood more firmly by its transcendent truth claims and thereby blunted the attack, but the attack almost certainly could not have been avoided. To put it differently, it seems likely that there were actors who did not need religion to bless the ideas by which they were led to the conclusion that religion was irrelevant, or worse. The intellectual and cultural decline of religion was only partially a case of suicide.

Finally, Turner seems almost resigned to the fact that religion will continue to be, as it became for the first time in Ingersoll's day, sub-cultural. By this he means that, even though almost everybody in America claims to be a believer, “belief no longer functions as a unifying and defining element of that entire culture; it no longer provides a common heritage that underlies our diverse world views.” As a generalization about our present situation, and about the last several decades, this statement is accurate enough. But Turner only touches upon a number of developments that might invite a different conclusion. These developments could portend a cultural shift as comprehensive as the cultural shift of the Victorian era which he describes so well. Admittedly the evidence for such a shift is not decisive; but it is more than here and there or now and then, and in combination it is impressive.

We can, I believe, see today a widespread collapse of confidence in the dogmas of the secular Enlightenment. Ever since World War I, and increasingly so in the age of Auschwitz, the Gulag, and the nuclear threat, belief in the inevitable progress of history has come to seem perverse, if not blasphemous. As Robert Nisbet has argued, this may have its negative consequences, but a greater sobriety about human limitations can also open the way to alternative understandings of reality.

This collapse is, as it were, the negative way (via negativa) toward another truth, the truth to which religion witnesses. Also negatively, there is a growing recognition that law, human rights, and democratic theory require their legitimations in beliefs that can only be described as religious. More positively, with respect to the sciences—notably the cosmic sciences, biology, and what has become the metaphysics of physics—rigorous methodology is forcing a veritable outbreak of reverence, brilliantly described by Leon Kass in his Toward a More Natural Science.


But what about religion itself, which, after all, Turner chiefly blames for the bitter legacy from which we may only now be emerging? As one surveys the sectors of institutionalized religion in America, the news is not heartening. There is obviously a revival of religion (or at least of religiosity) under way, but from prestige divinity schools to television evangelists it is generally a religion pathetically determined to prove its utility for purposes that have little to do with religion, purposes which range from a more satisfying sex life to the advancement of Marxist-Leninist revolutions. And yet here too there are persons, trends, and movements pointing in more promising directions.

The continuing influence of Karl Barth, the greatest Protestant theologian of this century, should not be discounted. Nobody more adamantly posited transcendent truth against Enlightenment reductionisms, although, it must be admitted, he was sadly indifferent to the cultural tasks of religion. Today Wolfhart Pannenberg of Munich is the most influential figure bringing together Barth's commitment to the integrity of faith and an understanding of theology's role in the universal discourse of reason. Also, both Christians and Jews are paying more attention to the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Anticipating Turner's theme, Heschel wrote in 1966: “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats.” Heschel's conviction that theology begins with God's perception of man rather than man's perception of God stands in bracing contrast to the theological appeasers of the 19th and 20th centuries described by James Turner.

The necessarily subcultural future of belief was challenged also by the Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox theologians and ministers—I among them—who in 1975 issued the Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation. The appeal diagnosed the malaise of religion as deriving from a “loss of transcendence,” and called upon the churches to speak a distinctively religious word to a modern world that the churches had been slavishly imitating. Ten years later, the 1985 Extraordinary Synod called by Pope Paul II examined the many “progressive” changes of the two decades past and, declaring that the Church and the world had in large part succumbed to a “loss of transcendence,” called for a renewal of “mystery” in religious belief and practice. Unless the Catholic Church is completely devoid of effective leadership (which seems unlikely), the directions set out by the Synod will soon become evident in American Catholicism. As for the currently ebullient worlds of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, it is impossible to say what their long-term impact upon American culture will be. It seems probable that it will be enormous, arid it is at least possible that these movements will have learned something from the history of Protestant cultural accommodationism described by James Turner.


Without God, Without Creed may thus be too resigned about our cultural future. Still, it powerfully underscores two important truths about our past that continue into our present. First is the sheer historical and human oddity of unbelief. There was a unique moment in the history of a specific culture, our own, in which respectable people began to say out loud that they did not believe that there is a higher power or powers responsible for the universe or that this fact determines the purpose of life. That assertion appeared as a stunning novelty, but within a century it would become culturally entrenched. Now that culturally curious moment may be receding, and we are uncertain about what comes next.

This brings us to Turner's second important truth. As in the 19th century, there are Jews and Christians today who are busily trying to prove the utility or plausibility of religious faith by the criteria of the still dominant culture. They fail to see that those criteria are themselves fast becoming less usable and less plausible. The way toward a more promising future will, I expect, be found in large part by those believers who understand that the only religion that can make a difference is the religion that is different. And then, of course, when we go public with our differences, we will have to find new ways to deal with our differences in public.

Admittedly, that is a formidable prospect. But the alternative is to go on as we are, with a subcultural faith in God and creeed that, in the view of most Americans, is separated from and therefore bestows no meaning upon the culture. As a result, the culture itself seems to many of them ever less worthy of their faith and devotion.

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