Skip to main content
The Queen Mary Centre for Religion and Literature in English

Symposium 2023: Forms of (un)belief

Saint Thomas the Apostle puts his finger in the lance wound of the risen Christ

Saint Thomas the Apostle puts his finger in the lance wound of the risen Christ. Etching by G. de Lairesse. Wellcome Collection

9 May 2023

In this symposium scholars working on religious belief and unbelief in Britain from the early modern period to the twentieth century will share work-in-progress. Themes explored will include practices of belief; the uses of language; questions of translation; activities in educational and commercial settings as well as professional religious environments; accommodations and clashes between doctrine, philosophy, and everyday life; and the role of Scripture. The seminar will consider how varieties of (un)belief can be understood through attention to form (literary forms such as dialogues and sermons; the social forms of clubs and societies or behavioural expectations; urban environments and the landscape) from the perspective of different academic disciplines including Literary Studies, History and Theology.


Speakers and abstracts

Cathy Shrank, University of Sheffield

‘Teachyng all thynge necessarye to salvacyon’: Sixteenth-century religious dialogue

The third-century biographer Diogenes Laertius divides dialogues into two types: the one adapted for instruction, the other for enquiry. English dialogue tends towards the former, rather than the latter. This is all the more true for religious dialogues. They do not mount a maieutic search for truth: rather, they are designed to convey what the author already believes to audiences within, and beyond, the text. Even those dialogues which debate an issue do so with a clear line on what counts as the ‘correct’ opinion. This paper examines how this conviction about the role of dialogue as a purveyor of truth comes under particular pressure after the split in the Western Church in 1517. It looks at continuities between pre- and post-Reformation religious dialogues (e.g. an interest in the connection between faith and reason; the desire to bring readers to salvation) as well as how the form changes in an age of controversy.

Cathy Shrank is Professor of Tudor and Renaissance Literature at the University of Sheffield. She works on canonical and non-canonical writings from the late fifteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century. Publications include Writing the Nation in Reformation England (Oxford University Press, 2004), the co-edited collection The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature (Oxford University Press, 2009), and – with Raphael Lyne – an edition of Shakespeare’s Poems (Routledge, 2017). She is currently completing a monograph on dialogue (supported by a major Leverhulme Research Fellowship), editing William Tyndale’s Mammon, and collaborating on the Oxford Works of Thomas Nashe.


Nil Palabiyik, Queen Mary University of London
Publishing Greek Orthodox polemical tracts in Seventeenth-century London

Nicodemos Metaxas was a man who was equally invested in God and worldly possessions. An independently wealthy Greek Orthodox priest of noble Byzantine lineage, he enjoyed close links to the English Levant Company which traded over the vast territories of the Ottoman Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean. Nicodemos arrived in England in 1623 to join his merchant brother and to study at Oxford but he somehow found himself in London’s Fleet Street at the heart of the city’s printed book trade. The English capital does seem like an odd choice to print Orthodox polemical tracts dealing with the doctrinal differences between the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox tradition, but there was appetite for any text that criticised the Papacy in post-Reformation England. In the context of a rapprochement between the Anglican church and other anti-Papal denominations, the appeal of the ancient tradition of the Eastern church and the polemical usefulness the opinions Greek church fathers in refuting popish ideas were undeniable. This paper will chart the production, circulation and the diffusion of the Greek Orthodox tracts that Nicodemos produced in collaboration with the various printing houses of London in 1620s.

Nil Palabıyık, a Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Queen Mary, University of London, conducts research at the crossroads of intellectual history, manuscript culture and history of the book. As a postdoctoral fellow funded by the British Academy and the Humboldt Foundation, she worked at the Rylands Library and Institute, Manchester, and the Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität, Munich. Her love of archives took her to the finest libraries in Europe, and led to visiting fellowships at the Scaliger Institute, Leiden, and Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel. She published on humanist scholarship, early modern orientalism, and Greek printing in Europe and the Ottoman Empire


Adam Budd, University of Edinburgh

Andrew Millar (1705-68): Bookseller of the Enlightenment and Choreographer of Rational Dissent

Historians are aware of the degree to which the London-based Scottish bookseller Andrew Millar (1705-68) promoted the Scottish Enlightenment by supporting its authors and promoting their works. Millar also courted controversy by fostering pamphlet-wars on topics raised by authors in his stable, most notably David Hume on natural religion. This activity is unsurprising because it was good for business.

This paper considers Millar’s involvement in radical theological works that he never claimed to have supported or published, but which archival research reveals his deep material involvement. By carefully manipulating the release of Francis Blackburne’s The Confessional (1766), and distribution of Archibald Maclaine’s translation of Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History (1765, 1768), Millar ensured maximum intellectual impact. To what extent can their intellectual and social effects, which paved the way for Parliamentary sanction of rational dissent within the Church of England (1813), reflect this bookseller’s own “enlightened” principles?

Adam Budd is Senior Lecturer in Cultural History and Director of Postgraduate Taught Programmes in the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. He is also Secretary of Education at the Royal Historical Society, where he has been on Council since 2018. His most recent book, on 18th-century print culture, authorship, collaboration, and migration, Circulating Enlightenment, was published by Oxford UP in late-2020 (not an ideal time for a book launch)—and the second edition of The Modern Historiography Reader will be published Routledge in 2024.


Felicity Loughlin, University of Edinburgh

Articulating and Circulating 'Conscientious Unbelief' in Nineteenth-Century Scotland

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, radical freethought acquired a more visible presence in Scotland’s towns and cities than ever before. The circulation of radical writings was crucial to the enhanced visibility of this minority group, which attracted a level of attention from the ecclesiastical and civil authorities that was strikingly disproportionate to its numbers. From the 1820s, 'conscientious unbelievers' contributed extensively to radical newspapers and published pamphlets based on debates held in 'Zetetic Societies' in Edinburgh and Glasgow and in the halls of the socialist Rational Religionist Society. Such writings adopted a variety of literary styles, drawing inspiration variously from Scottish traditions of ecclesiastical satire, Burnsian poetry, spiritual autobiography, and contemporary freethinking texts and newspapers. Radical bookshops and booksellers ensured that Scottish works circulated alongside freethinking texts from elsewhere and provided important hubs for 'unbelievers' of various stripes.  This paper explores the textual forms of and social sites for these contentious works in early nineteenth-century Scotland and asks how far they shaped the evolution and experience of 'conscientious unbelief'. 

Felicity Loughlin is a historian of religion and belief in Europe, with particular expertise in the Scottish context. In April 2022, she began a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, which set out to explore the place of 'unbelief' in the Scottish religious and cultural landscape, c.1697-1914. In September 2022, she was appointed to a lectureship in the History of Modern Christianity in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh in September 2022, where she is continuing this project.


Suzanne Hobson, Queen Mary University of London

H.G. Wells, the Rationalist Press Association and the “Dialogue Novel”’

H.G. Wells had a direct hand in the creation of the novel of ideas as a distinct category of literature in Britain. Or, more accurately, given the existence of nineteenth-century pre-cursors, Wells’s quarrel with Henry James marks the moment at which the novel of ideas split most noisily from its modernist counterpart. The difference, as Wells saw it, was between the novel as a social mediator, a vehicle for social, political and scientific ideas (Wells), and the novel as Art (James). This paper will argue that religious examples – especially the dialogue form seen in the Book of Job – directly informed Wells’s quest for a new kind of novel equal to the expression of his social vision. Critics have often missed this line of influence in part because, given his scientific training and the post-Darwinian ethos of his early novels, Wells is more readily seen as an ally for Rationalism and the Freethought Movement. This paper observes that Wells was close to but not entirely uncritical of these groups. Rather than endorse what he took to be their bleak view of human existence he sought counter arguments and found the Dialogue Novel the ideal literary form in which to express them.

Suzanne Hobson is Professor of Modern Literature at QMUL and the author of Angels of Modernism: Religion, Culture, Aesthetics 1910-60 (2011) and Unbelief in Interwar Literary Culture: Doubting Moderns (2022). She is co-editor of The Edinburgh Companion to Modernism, Myth and Religion (2023) and The Salt Companion to Mina Loy (2010). She is past Chair of the British Association for Modernist Studies and co-organiser of the London Modernism Seminar.

Back to top