Customer Reviews of Doubt: A History
There are millions of books out there offering to seduce you or browbeat you toward a particular belief system, but for the thoughtful philosophers, the nervous doubters, the nonbelievers (both lost and found), and evangelical athiests, there are very few well-written, even-handed, inspiring texts. Jennifer Hecht deserves a wreath of laurels for creating an exciting, readable, joyous work that belongs in the home of every open-minded, rational, seeker of enlightenment. This book should have its own section in bookstores.
I've been waiting for a guide like this for a long time. My religious friends have their bible; but this is mine. Mine. My source of wisdom from the ancients. My source of morality tales and life stories of my martyrs.
Errors? It's funny: the bible is supposed to be the word of a divine being, but it still has mistakes in it. Doubt: A History is the work of a human, for humans, for you. If I were offered a canteen of water after a week in the desert, I wouldn't complain if the canteen were the wrong color. Let's get a little perspective here. There are people who can't sleep at night for want of what is in this book. Solace. Warmth. Information. Camaraderie. Validation. And ultimately, hope. Hope that our species can save itself by tempering faith with reason.
Rich and beautifully written - must read for skeptics of all stripes
This book is excellent.
The Freethought Society and Humanist Association in Philadelphia co-sponsor a Secular Book Club, and Doubt: A History was the first book we discussed. Surprisingly, the moderator said the book wasn't recommended to him, but rather, he found it by browsing in a book store. That's a shame because this book is such a wonderful survey of religious doubt in the Western World, that also touches on some aspects of doubt in the Eastern World as they influenced and related to the West.
Jennifer Hecht is a historian and award-winning poet. Her writing style is narrative, clear, and full of personality. At my book club meeting we spent several minutes just raving about how much we enjoyed the writing style.
The story begins with the ancient Greeks, then moves into ancient Judaism, Rome, and early Christianity. Jesus himself becomes an important figure in the history of doubt because by emphasizing faith in a way that Judaism never did, Christianity invented the doubt of the believer and the concept of doubt itself as a grave sin. (Jews, Greeks, and Romans were fine with you as long as you practiced religion. Genuine belief was secondary.) From there it moves into Buddhism and some lesser Eastern schools of thought, Islam, and relates them all to how Christianity and Judaism evolved over the middle ages and into the Enlightenment and modern times. Of course it discusses the role of religion in politics, especially in the era of the secular state, covering the French revolution and the foundation of the United States. The book touches on so many figures in the history of Doubt that even the seasoned freethinker is sure to encounter some new names and stories.
Because the book focuses exclusively on doubt, we get to read about all the arguments among doubters, such as Cicero's fictional story of three debating philosophers: an Epicurean, and Stoic, and a Skeptic. Later comes the long line of doubters who go about their doubting with quiet respect toward believers, in contrast to the doubters who view religion as a scourge that should be removed for the sake of bettering the human condition.
In her conclusion, Hecht states why she wrote this book: "The only thing such doubters really need, that believers have, is a sense that people like themselves have always been around, that they are part of a grand history. I hope it is clear now that doubt has such a history of its own, and that to be a doubter is a great old allegiance, deserving quiet respect and open pride." I confidently declare that she provides this. Doubt: A History is a wonderful resource for doubters of all stripes to have on their shelves.
Hecht does us freethinker apologists a great service here. She gives us an eloquent and exhaustive account of the process of doubt through history. For the most part, the people she depicts here are skeptics, rather than cynics. Their humanistic values come from their own evaluations and struggles with objective truth, rather than a wholesale rejection based on suspicion of motives of others (although that does pop up from time to time to be sure). For as many loud and proud rebels depicted in here, there are an equal army of strugglers who can't reject what they see as true, despite the prevailing beliefs of the communities around them. It's a very lively, thought provoking book, and enjoy interested in the history of ideas would probably enjoy it. Heck, even theists should read it.
the Best History Book I've read this year
Jennifer Hecht has written a courageous book in the face of the current groundswell of fundamentalist thinking. It is a very thoroughly documented history of some of the greatest thinkers in every era. She also sites many lesser known sages and provides us plenty of examples to support her argument. She uses a very personal sometimes humorous style that makes this tome compelling throughout the whole book. For those in need of a poignant quote Hecht provides them routinely in every chapter.
From the beginning, philosophers have been compelled to face their own beliefs and societal mores by proposing "Doubt". Doubt need to be understood for what it is and what it is not. There are many variants to the concept of doubt and they include amongst them-skepticism, agnosticism, atheism and humanism to name only a few. Skepticism is not "throwing the baby out with the bath water" but it is a discipline that does not accept things on the surface. It is the questioning of ideas on their own merit. Doubt should not be confused with atheism nor should it be considered as rational in every case. Understanding historical religions provides a mirror of today. At every level in this historical book, the issues are incredibly similar to those facing us.
The use of religion as a social control has been shown by Hecht from long, long ago. The reaction of those who cannot accept faith on its own merits marched right along with the constrictions of so many religions. Hecht describes this condition across cultures and time. It appears as if it is part of the human psyche though she does not suggest that tacitly or overtly.
Gods are considered in several ways. In some cases they are all powerful creators who control all events on earth. In others they are "hands off" creators who leave our machinations to ourselves. These two main types of gods have been understood throughout history and today are referred to as theism and deism. Balbus described four main reasons for belief. That god has foreknowledge of events; god has created the blessings of nature; the witness to awesome natural spectacles and the regularity of heavenly bodies. Balbus wrote thousands of years ago that "Only the arrogant fool would imagine that there was nothing in the whole world greater than himself. Therefore there must be something greater than man. And that something must be God." Michael Behe and his "Irreducible Complexity" owe Balbus for that quote.
Once cities formed and humans socialized, religions formed to speak to the beliefs of the people. They were formed more out of the need to create order from chaos rather the issue of good versus evil. (While an argument may be made that these two concepts are one in the same I would posit that they may really be a "nature versus deity" issue). As in current times, fundamentalist religious leaders and their flock require fundamental answers to questions. Answers have to be firm and unbending. They had to be relied on and passed from one generation to the next. They were designed for obedience and custom. St. Augustine lamented about the agony of hesitation that result from not owning the correct answer to moral dilemmas,
Thinkers on the other hand were not satisfied with the descriptions. Religion was described as a method to keep brutish people in line or for political ends as just two examples. Many doubters wrote about the grand scale of bloodshed that has historically been the cargo of religion. The central question of skeptics-if there is a god and he is good why are there catastrophes.
Today fundamentalists use a notion attributed to Martin Luther that essentially says that a lie for god is not a sin. It is easy to identify many of the lies spewed by religious leaders and it is not dissimilar to the tactics such as magic and sorcery used to make sacred points in the past.
"There are those who have argued that all our beliefs about the gods have been fabricated by wise men for reasons of state, so that men whom reason could not persuade to be good citizens might be persuaded by religion. Have not these also totally destroyed the foundations of belief?" Cicero
Hecht examines religion and doubts both historically and culturally. The book is not limited to western societies by any means. She cites Zen Maxim "Great doubt; great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening. No doubt: no awakening." The idea of a just God in a cruel world is the central point of doubt. She also sites a few ironical biblical notions of the doubt of Jesus. He asks God (who he is one third of) to relieve him of the burden of Calvary and in his dying (?) moments he cries out "Why you hast thou forsaken me?" This is confusing to the skeptic because it addles the understanding of
Jesus' immortality and his place within the trinity. It is not confusing to the true believer who uses faith as an explanation for all things not understood. Of course there are also believers who use questions and uncertainty to better understand their own faith.
"Even within the closed system of Christianity, doubt was understood as the only way to know anything." Kierkegaard for example, saw the pitfalls of religions in the quest for a greater personal faith. Other belief systems used transcendentalism, koans and riddles. Eastern and western religions use doubt for faith building-negating, god in order to prove god and to push on in the search for something better or more meaningful.
With the age of enlightenment and reason along with technological and scientific breakthrough came a greater acceptance of agnosticism and atheism. While not all great thinkers professed a specific non belief, many described how the world could work without divine intervention. From Kant to Hume from Bacon to Darwin, serious if not specific questioning of a deity was rampant. Of course even with greater acceptance there has always been a reaction from those inspired by faith.
The greater examples include the Inquisition or the trials of Galileo but there also were many subtle one such as the term atheism becoming a euphemism for amoral and the constant reminder of the "Godlessness" of the communists. In our own country the backlash caused the changing of our dollar bills and National Anthem to include religious phrasing. It created the McCarthy witch hunts and the extreme fundamentalism that has swept this nation. The same fundamentalism drives people to vote for candidates and causes that are not in their own best interests. Religious leaders have always felt and preached that unchecked reason leads to disbelief and the most startling and cogent point of this book is its historical imperative and looking at what is being publicly discussed today.
Despite this, skeptics, atheists and humanists have prevailed and they have spoken out. As Bertrand Russell indicated "What the world needs is not dogma, but an attitude of scientific inquiry, combined with a belief that the torture of millions is not desirable, whether inflicted by Stalin or by a Deity imagined in the likeness of a believer." Werner Heisenberg used his scientific theory of uncertainty to point out the philosophical understanding that despite all of our knowledge and technology, we are objectively prevented from being certain
Later Sartre wrote about the need for atheistic morality. He viewed human actions as the only reality and those actions are dictated by morality as if it is a legacy. "In a godless universe there is a desperate need for each of us to be moral and to act for the betterment of life."
The anti Post modernist, Salmon Rushdie speaks to the cultural relativism of the west and how it seeks to avoid its old crime of cultural imperialism, now perpetrates a new injustice by denying universal enlightenment standards for human rights. Like Sartre, he indicates that atheism forces us to live better; it forces to live better because we are responsible for what we do and what we fail to do.
Hecht was almost gleeful in describing women rationalists and doubters and with good reason. Hypatia's sense that all evil is man made and that nature cannot be evil and Anne Royall citing with disgust that how the poor were exploited by the churches and missionaries just as they are today are but two examples. Others include Fanny Wright and her empiricism "observe, compare, reason, reflect understand'; and...we can do all this without quarreling." The great feminist and emancipation advocate Ernestine Rose and the English scientific humanist, Margaret Knight are also described as were many other great women thinkers.
It is difficult to give full justice to this book in a three page critique. It is a serious book highly researched and presented in a very readable way. I sensed some real joy by Jennifer Hecht as she wrote these words. "Doubt gets a lot done" claims the author.
History is normally taught as a series of conquests -- this man over those men; this nation over that nation; this religion or idea over that culture; and so on. History is presented as tedium punctuated by fits of violence.
How much more useful to humankind it would be if history were taught like this: as the struggle of the concepts underpinning human liberty and dignity -- physical, intellectual, spiritual -- to survive and thrive in the face of human ignorance and knavery. We debase the human spirit when we hold up the worst blunders of Aristotle and Plato as greatness -- because they were co-opted by church and state power in the centuries to come and became great instruments of human slavery in the process -- and ignore the genius of thinkers Democritus and Epicurus, which helped human beings learn to be free every time they were discovered and rediscovered over the years.
Today we're steeped in a culture that equates doubt and thought with deviance and immorality. The culture-warriors of the Right wouldn't be able to get away with it, though, if the masses knew the history that is laid out clearly and delightfully in this book. When you realize that throughout recorded history men and women with no prior knowledge of modern physics and biology were able to dismiss the manipulations of the religious state with nothing more than curiosity, honesty, and common sense as their allies -- that's a history that does a body good.