- The Birth of Modern Belief: Faith and Judgment from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment by Ethan H. Shagan, and: Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism by James Simpson
The question of how secular modernity arose in the early modern Christian West—a society steeped in communal norms, obedience, and faith—has long fascinated scholars. Most agree that the rise of skeptical philosophy was only one of many factors in the demise of the traditional Christian worldview and the socio-political structures that supported it. One of those factors is the Protestant Reformation. In The Birth of Modern Belief, Ethan Shagan claims that "the Reformation was not an engine of modernity" (3), while James Simpson argues in Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism, that "[l]iberalism does indeed derive from Protestantism" (10). While the terms the authors use differ slightly, both authors attempt to answer the question of what [End Page 494] role the Protestant Reformation played in the rise of modern liberal ideals such as freedom of thought and individual rights. Shagan claims that it was the changing nature of belief itself, not the Protestant Reformation, that enabled the West to transition to modernity; Simpson argues that the changing nature of belief that grew directly out of the Protestant Reformation enabled this transition. Despite these apparently opposing claims, both authors add to our understanding of how the Protestant Reformation helped shape the modern world. In doing so, they align with Brad Gregory's conclusion in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, that "ideological and institutional shifts that occurred five or more centuries ago remain substantially necessary to an explanation of why the Western world today is as it is."1
Shagan begins his account earlier than Simpson's, describing medieval belief as reducible in many ways to the acceptance of authority. Because medieval belief inhered in assent, he writes, the period lacked any notion that belief "consisted in a person's individual views of religion" (63). Belief was, in this period, a "form of participation in the collective and indubitable credenda of the Church" (62). The Reformation, according to Shagan, precipitated a break with collective obedience to Rome and "launched a revolution in religious epistemology," a reconceptualization of belief not as compliance with doctrinal positions but rather as an interior state of individual "grace and salvation" (66, 72). Throughout the second chapter, "The Reformation of Belief," Shagan argues that the standards for belief grew dramatically—so much so that he finds claims from the period that "[t]here is not a single believer on earth" (88), that the mere fact that a person has temporal cares shows that the person does not believe (92), and that failure to surrender all earthly possessions is a sure sign of lack of belief (95). Indeed, Shagan argues, this new vision of what it meant to believe was "so harsh and unyielding as to be unsustainable" (100). Given this narrowed definition, and new sense of the difficulty, of true religious belief, it is a little difficult to understand how Shagan's original thesis that "the Reformation was not an engine of modernity" fits with his evidence supporting the growing difficulty of religious belief (3).
For Simpson, the break with past norms brought by the Reformation was significantly political and psychological: he sees the Reformation's new Protestant theology as "fundamentally expressive of European revolutionary modernity" (25). Here, Simpson uses the term "revolutionary" to mean a continual state of change—a need to overthrow the norm and demonstrate ever-increasing devotion to higher and higher standards. Indeed, one of the fascinating aspects of Simpson's work is the degree to which the Protestant writings to which he refers parallel some of Robert Jay Lifton's ideas on thought control during revolutionary movements: Simpson writes...