Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht

[1 March 2005]

By N. A. Hayes

Doubtful Respite

Doubt: A History acts as a salve for those of us still burnt by the so-called moral values swing vote of the last presidential election. Especially when Hecht reminds us that doubt played an instrumental role in the formation of Western culture and American society. Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine both rejected those rigid beliefs of creationism and miracles with varying degrees of violence. We are reminded that for most of history, doubt has been a moderating factor, allowing for a more cosmopolitan atmosphere. Certainly, there have been fanatics in rejecting faith but this phenomenon is relatively modern. Doubt co-exists with the religious impulse that recognizes that religion plays an important civic and cultural function.

Doubt’s negative side is its aristocratic nature. Often its proponents suggest religion should be permitted to the common people because they can not accept the uncertainty, the possibility, that there is no justice in the universe, and no life but this one. This knowledge (or more accurately, lack of knowledge) was to be kept for the elite in wisdom or power. To act in this way was to preserve society not merely to act with cynicism (I mean this in the popular sense, not to hearken back to Diogenes, the founder of Cynicism, living in his jar).

Hecht’s interest is specifically not on the outright denial of religion but this particular line of thought. Mostly, we are shown those thinkers who suggest the world may not be as they were told. Hecht provides a vast frame of reference for our travel through history. She proposes a difficult goal for herself in that she seeks to follow a mercurial thought which has relatively few declarations in recorded history. To further the difficulty of the task, she takes a broad focus on both Europe and Asia.

The cumulative tale is rendered with an accurate but accessible language. She could easily drift into complicated abstractions but surveys the material, giving us only what we need to follow thoughts and their permutations through history. More complete abstractions would serve only to convolute the narrative.

Hecht does take some liberties (such as suggesting that when Descartes said Cogito Ergo Sum he meant Dubito Ergo Sum), but overall she gently depicts both believers and unbelievers. In addition to these broad sketches of schools of thought, Hecht provides us with an ample amount of historical connection both of supporters and detractors.

The gentleness does not deny or confirm since either of these is beyond the scope of the text. Alister McGrath covers a lot of the same ground in his The Twilight of Atheism. However, he polluted his history with personal accounts and a partisan account of the evidence. He errs on his prejudice, his predetermined fact. Hecht only offers what she has proof of, or evidence, to suggest.

But this comparison is unfair since Hecht relates a history that is too often ignored and McGrath has manufactured a polemic against all without blind certainty with an undertone against those not evangelical Christian. He provides a framework in which to judge the mistakes of past thinkers. She asks only for us to question how we know, even how we question in regards to those questions asked in the past.

This book provides a counterweight to the excesses with which we are all familiar about the history of believers—the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Protestant Reformation—allowing the non-philosophers among us to glimpse into a past with greater possibilities.

Published at: