Religion: Learning & Unbelief

This strand of the project focuses on unbelief in early nineteenth-century Scotland. Christian Scots of the period, haunted by the religious consequences of the French Revolution, were deeply concerned by the rise of ‘infidelity’ and anxiously sought to stem a rising tide of heterodoxy, anticlericalism, scepticism, irreligion, deism and atheism.

Robert Chambers (1802-71)

Evidence of growing unbelief was found in the appearance of ‘freethinking’ or ‘zetetic’ societies in Scottish cities, in the emergence of radical booksellers known for supplying infidel works, in trials for blasphemy and irreligion  (the last of which took place in 1843), and in controversial works such as Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), whose evolutionary theories of life were seen by many as a dangerous threat to Christian understandings of natural theology and divine providence.

Despite the considerable alarm caused by unbelief in this period, it has received remarkably little attention. This neglect stems from an ongoing preoccupation with the heated debates that divided different varieties of Scottish Christians in this period—as Evangelicals and Moderates battled with one another for dominance in the Kirk, as tensions rose among competing Presbyterian denominations as well as between Presbyterians and Episcopalians, and as Irish immigration fuelled antagonism between Protestants and Catholics.

This strand will bring unbelief to the foreground, focusing especially on its intersections with learning and the legacy of the Enlightenment. How did the Scottish Enlightenment’s unresolved debates over the relationship between reason and religion shape the debates of 19th-century unbelievers?  To what extent did the life and writings of the David Hume, the ‘Great Infidel’ shape 19th-century Scottish unbelief? How did unbelievers respond to ongoing scientific, philosophical and historical controversies, including debates over philosophical materialism, phrenology and geology? How far did disputes among unbelievers intersect with controversies within the various factions of the Christian mainstream?

Edinburgh Zetetic Society’s ‘Shorter Catechism’ (1824)

By exploring these questions, this strand will offer a more textured understanding of the religious controversies that animated the intellectual life of Scotland in the first half of the nineteenth century.