A closer look at “Doubt, A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson,” by Jennifer Michael Hecht.



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E-mail from the author received 6 February 2005 in response to a shortened review of “Doubt: A History” posted to earlier the same day:

”Thanks Jon! I loved this review when I saw it on your site. (I was ego-surfing.) It is so much smarter than lots of reviews that came out in major papers. I'm glad you posted it to the Amazon site — should bring us both readers!” — Jennifer

NOTE: The review below never ran in The Plain Dealer.



From January 2004

While some people see it as negative and unproductive, doubt does lots of work. Doubt toils in the fields of philosophy, science, politics and the arts and does its most mysterious work in the field of theology by inspiring new religions: Doubt fathers devotion.

This is one of many lessons we learn in "Doubt, A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson," by Jennifer Michael Hecht, historian, professor and award-winning poet.

We also learn that doubt is older than most faiths, that it includes many categories, schools and practices, and that doubt has a pantheon of heroes, who still to speak to us across the ages. And who would question the importance of studying faith and doubt — you can't grasp one without the other — in this post 9/11 world?

"Since I began writing this book, well before September 2001, the significance of its subject has redoubled," Hecht writes in the concluding chapter. "The book is now offered as a way to contextualize the struggle over religion and secularism that is at the heart of the crisis." In short, the book is not only fascinating, it's also timely and important.


Hecht begins by pinpointing the origin of faith and doubt in one simple but profound sentence: "We live in a meaning-rupture because we are human and the universe is not." Hecht calls this, "The Great Schism," and it causes us staggering problems because we have an almost "violent" desire for knowledge and control.

Enter a host of philosophical and theological geniuses to help us cope with the cruel facts of life: that natural forces can wipe out a lifetime of dreams in an instant; that the vast, empty spaces of the universe fill some people with dread; that happiness is elusive; that morality is fragile; and that death is mysterious, terrifying and certain.    

Hecht explains that some prophets and thinkers try to heal the schism by writing a human meaning back into the universe; this results in a story of God or gods, who care about our welfare. Other religious innovators have gone the other way, urging us to steep our souls in the cool indifference of those vast and silent spaces; this results in the great non-theological belief systems of the East: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.  

Philosopher-scientists have taken a third path: They believe reason can solve the meaning-rupture by exposing and explaining everything. And "graceful-life" philosophers open a wider way forward: They say awe and wonder give the best approach to life — learn what you can, know your limits, and don't fear death because it's not something you'll experience anyway, or to paraphrase Epicurus: Where I am, death is not; where death is, I am not.

And lest we think otherwise, Hecht reminds us that billions of moral and principled people have lived without recourse to a personal God or hopes of eternal salvation, and they didn't degenerate into beasts or go mad with fear and uncertainty. In fact, many of them have taught us courage as they performed the heavy lifting for cultural advancement. Take Anaxagoras for instance.


He was one of the early heroes of doubt and played a role in the battle between religion and science. He is also, "the earliest historical figure to have been indicted for atheism — in fact, it seems they wrote the law just for him," Hecht explains.

A meteorite had fallen in 467 BCE, convincing Anaxagoras that heavenly bodies were not gods, just glowing lumps of metal. "This was the origin of a conflict between religion and science," Hecht writes. "Here, new information, new empirical data, led to a direct challenge to the way in which the gods were envisioned."

This new type of doubt spurred a new kind of punishment. Set up about 438 BCE, the law held that society must "denounce those who do not believe in the divine beings or who teach doctrines about things in the sky."

The fortunes of doubt rose and fell for centuries but headed into steep decline in 415 CE with the brutal murder of Hypatia, one of the First Ladies of doubt. The "terrible story of Hypatia" has been cited as the "defining moment in the death of ancient philosophy at the hands of Christian orthodoxy," Hecht writes. She quotes church historian Socrates Scholasticus, who said Hypatia, "made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time."

She became head of the Platonist school of Alexandria and was not frightened to face "an assembly of men" to teach philosophy or advise on political affairs. But she soon ran afoul of the future Saint Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria. So some of Cyril's followers, "waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with roof tiles." They later burned the dismembered remains.

Doubt completed its slide into oblivion in 529 CE. "That year, fearing the anger of God, the Christian emperor Justinian outlawed paganism and closed the Epicurean Garden, the Skeptic Academy, the Lyceum, and the Stoic Porch. After more than 800 years, they no longer existed."

But doubt was not defeated; it just went on vacation for a while, coming back stronger than ever.


But let's say you're not interested in historical figures or philosophical theories. What does "Doubt, A History," have to say to you, a person who currently lives under a post 9/11 national terror alert system and hears reports about flight cancellations or terrorist bombings daily?

The answer revolves around one of doubt's most longstanding and powerful incarnations, what Hecht calls "cosmopolitan doubt," which occurs when people from varying cultures are thrown together. Hecht explains: "If my ostensibly universal God demands rest on a different day than your ostensibly universal God, we are both going to notice the glitch and wonder who's got it right, if anyone. So difference alone leads to a more questioning, critical attitude toward received truths, i.e. truths that have tradition as their primary proof or source or authority." This might also be called "doubt from diversity" — and we're up to our ears in it.


It is perhaps an unstated thesis of Hecht's book that as our communication-saturated, Web-wired world shrinks, we reach greater levels relativism, pluralism and diversity, which is to say doubt, more than ever, is forcing itself on us whether we like it or not. So we all have a stake in understanding the intricacies of doubt and why our free society frightens other cultures and their time-tested, doubt-denying beliefs.

Our praise of freedom and equality rings false and our commitment to diversity remains shallow if we don't grasp the ongoing importance of doubt. Moreover, one of the best weapons in the war on terror is improved intelligence, not the kind you get from agents in the field or experts in Washington, but the kind you get from quiet study in the privacy of your own home.

Have a little faith in doubt and read this book.


"Like belief, doubt takes a lot of different forms, from ancient Skepticism to modern scientific empiricism, from doubt in many gods to doubt in one God, to doubt that recreates and enlivens faith and doubt that is really disbelief."

"Doubters in every century made use of that which came before."

"This is a study of religious doubt, all over the world, from the beginning of recorded history to the present day. The story builds and does so in the same erratic, wildly creative way that the history of belief does. Once we see it as its own story, rather than as a mere collection of shadows on the history of belief, a whole new drama appears and new archetypes begin to come into focus. Without having the doubt story sketched out as such, it's hard to see how patterns of questioning have mirrored certain types of social change, for instance, it's hard to identify doubt's enduring themes."


"Great believers and great doubters seem like opposites, but they are more similar to each other than the mass of relatively disinterested and acquiescent men and women. This is because they are both awake to the fact that we live between two divergent realities: On the one side, there is a world in our heads — and in our lives, so long as we are not contradicted by death and disaster — and that is the world of reason and plans, love and purpose. On the other side, there is the world beyond human life — an equally real world in which there is no sign of caring or value, planning or judgment, love or joy. We live in a meaning-rupture because we are human and the universe is not.

"Great doubters, like great believers, have been people occupied with this problem, trying to figure out whether the universe actually has a hidden version of humanness [postulated through belief in gods or God], or whether humanness is an error and people would be better off weaning themselves from their sense of narrative, justice, and love [postulated by the great nontheistic "atheist" religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism and by some western philosophers].


Another aspect of the Great Schism has to do with fairness. We seem to have an innate notion of what's right and fair, but fate and the universe often upset those notions profoundly, and this causes us no end of pain and confusion. Our efforts to make sense of this result in both belief and doubt.


Another aspect of the Great Schism has to do with our passion to know. "We have an almost violent desire to understand things, and our brains seem to take the whole of life as a great puzzle." But there's a difference between problems and mysteries. Problems can and should be solved; mysteries can't be solved, but they can be enjoyed. One of the joys of doubt is the savoring of mystery. And yet, "there is serious weirdness to the mind, thinking amid the vast unthinking world."


Yet another aspect of the Great Schism is the mixture of feelings we have about our inferiority — or is it our superiority that bothers us so? "The universe is more powerful than we, but when it comes to demonstration of sentience and will, we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of being the smartest, most powerful creatures around. Thus there is a rupture between daily life, in which individuals are rarely the highest authority, and the larger picture, the macro-reality of humankind, in which we as a group are the authority on everything.


"Faced with two contradictory truths — that of the human world and that of the universe — religious virtuosos have all suggested some kind of reconciliation. They all say the schism is illusory, either because the universe is really possessed of human attributes and only looks chaotic, uncaring and without direction [God or gods are in charge], or because our sense of meaning is ridiculous, and we ought to train ourselves away from out struggle to invent, succeed and sustain [the way of nontheism]."

So on the one hand we have "a preacher reading a human-type meaning back into the universe" or a monk or a guru reading a nonhuman-universe meaning back into human life.

It's not just religion and philosophy that try to close the gap; the arts have been preoccupied with the schism between human and nonhuman ways of decoding existence.


"The great doubters and believers have been preoccupied with another Great Schism: the one between what human beings are and what we wish we were, what we do and what we understand. ... The fact that the human heart so often disagrees with and disobeys the human brain [and vice versa] also seems to demand explanation." [The birth of morality and moral philosophizing.]

"The terms we use to define God tend to be descriptions of the ruptures between human beings and the universe: meaning, purpose, infinity and eternity. The terms we use to define the personality of God tend to be descriptions of the ruptures between our real selves and our potential selves: honesty, kindness, love and compassion. Great doubters have been as profoundly invested in these questions as have great believers, and they have offered a bounty of answers ... The history of doubt is not only a history of the denial of God; it is also a history of those who have grappled with the religious questions and found the possibility of other answers." [Morality without theistic belief.]


"We can describe some loose relationships between certain types of communities and certain kinds of religious doubt. We start where belief starts: in a relatively isolated group of people, concerned with a very local religious world. ... Where everyone seems to believe the same thing, doubt is calm: when scientists or philosophers begin to question religious lore, they do so from within the religion, merely trying to get it all correct. The best religious minds help to question the specifics without hostility to the old version of things. [But over time] what was understood as history and science is increasingly seen as allegory [and the first erosion of certainty ignites the first spark of doubt]."

In these early days of doubt, "marveling at the mechanism [the workings of the universe or the mystery of mind] is regarded as a sufficient replacement for faith." [Curiosity as a form of faith. The Greek way.]


"By peaceful trade or a hostile clash or general upheaval, the interaction of small groups has led to one big group [and] a massive mixing of peoples and cultures." This can give birth to what Hecht calls, "cosmopolitan doubt."

"If my ostensibly universal God demands rest on a different day than your ostensibly universal God, we are both going to notice the glitch and wonder who's got it right, if anyone. So difference alone leads to a more questioning, critical attitude toward received truths, i.e. truths that have tradition as their primary proof or source or authority. But it is more than that: The heterogeneous society results from, and leads to, a shakeup of cultural constraints, so that eventually nothing feels unified and integrated. ... The effect is that religion here tends to reflect that homelessness and doubt."


While diversity can promote renewed belief or even rabid fundamentalism in some people, it can also free others from traditional beliefs, leaving them somewhat adrift. What Hecht calls "graceful-life philosophies" step in to close the gap between traditional religious belief and rampant, aimless secularism. "The message of such graceful-life philosophies tends to be: We don't need answers and we don't need much stuff, we just need to figure out the best way to live. Cosmopolitan doubt is often harrowing, but it is also experienced as amusing and empowering — these people feel savvy and free in comparison to their forerunners. They go to the theater."

As cosmopolitanism progresses Hecht says, "Finally, within the mixed, increasingly skeptical community, something new arises: a committed, ardent belief, where the idea of doubt is written into the idea of the religion [Jesus in the garden]. Here expressions of doubt can feel threatening very quickly because the feeling of lost certainty and the pain that accompanies it are now very well known ... the group feels it must consciously police its membership against doubt." [And the members themselves often feel the need to police themselves against doubt!]


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Hecht says of the pre-Socratic philosophers and their ideas:

"What sets this new type of thought apart is that it is an attempt to explain the universe by thinking it through rather then relying on tradition. Thus the birth of philosophy is, in itself, one of the origins of doubt."

Here are some important thinkers from the past and their contributions to the history of doubt. All the following philosophers lived between 585 BCE and the death of Socrates in 399 BCE.

THALES: The first philosopher of the West. Predicted an eclipse of the sun in 585 BCE. Said that, "all things are full of gods," which said more about forces than deities. Thought that soul was diffused throughout the whole universe.

ANAXIMANDROS: A student of Thales. Explained the world without reference to the gods. Saw constancy behind the flux of existence.

HERACLITUS: Said you can't step into the same river twice. He thought fire was the most basic component of the universe. "This world order, the same for all, no one of gods or men has made, but it always was and is and shall be: an ever-living fire, kindling in measures, going out in measures." Showing himself to be a profound psychologist, he said, "Character for man is his daemon."

"Right at the beginning of philosophy then," Hecht writes, "the original Greek pantheon was put into deep doubt in favor of an essentially empirical world. ... As the Greeks had once marveled at the deeds of the gods, now they would marvel at the well-ordered cosmos. ... There was no longer a reason for a god to have a personality ... religion survived the philosophers, but not intact."

PARMENIDES: He argued the opposite of Heraclitus, saying that all change is just a matter of perception, that constancy is the rule. He believed however that humanity probably needed some kind of theistic religion to explain the universe in the context of human experience. Perhaps one of the first to realize the mass of humanity was not up to the challenges of nontheistic living, even though he believed in it for himself.

PROTAGORAS: All that survives of his book "Concerning the Gods" is the first sentence, but as Hecht says, "It packs a punch." He wrote:

"About the gods I cannot say either that they are or that they are not, nor how they are constituted in shape; for there is much which prevents knowledge, the unclarity of the subject and the shortness of life."

He was indicted for blasphemy on account of his book but drowned before he came to trial. "Protagoras' claim suggests that nothing available to humanity could serve as trustworthy or sufficient proof of the gods' existence: not tradition, nor experience, nor contemplation."

XENOPHANES: A poet who began to criticize the actions of the Olympians, "Not as a scold, but because he thought that these gods couldn't really exist." It was an early case of cosmopolitan doubt. "In the light of knowledge of other cultures, Xenophanes began to feel that the idea of these gods was sort of silly, not just because they acted childishly, but because they acted very Greek. ... With this critique, Xenophanes began the great tradition of trying to imagine where the idea of gods came from ..." He thought that if there is a deity, there must be simply one god, "Not gendered and not subject to desires and needs." It has been argued, "That with these ideas Xenophanes produced the first theology — rational thinking about what God must be like."

PRODICUS: He wondered how people ever learned the names of the gods. He concluded that early people so highly valued nature and objects that they began to worship them. He also believed that great teachers were remembered and ultimately worshiped. He didn't say this meant all the gods were fictions, yet he was classified by many later doubters as among the most famous of "atheoseis."

DEMOCRITUS: Believed along the same lines as Prodicus. Said that, "People must have invented the gods because they were frightened and excited by what they saw in the sky." Yet they also were in awe of the order of the cosmos, and such fear and admiration lead to "anthropomorphized worship." He was also the founder of atomism, the belief that all objects are made of "Some smallest thing," and that "Solid objects flow," as when fruit comes and then falls only to come again next season.

"Democritus essentially guessed how the universe works, in a manner of speaking, because it made sense. It was a stunning insight."

He went on to point out that things fall into orderly patterns and that this allows us to make predictions about the way things will behave and interact.

DIAGORAS: Perhaps the most famous atheist of the fifth century BCE. He revealed the secrets of the Eleusinian mystery religion to everyone and "Thus made them ordinary," that is, "He purposefully demystified a cherished secret rite, apparently to provoke his contemporaries into thought." He was indicted for profaning the mysteries but escaped trial by fleeing the country.

ANAXAGORAS: The earliest figure to have been indicted precisely for atheism. In 467 BCE a meteorite had fallen "And it convinced Anaxagoras that heavenly bodies, including Helios, the sun, were just glowing lumps of metal. ... This was the origin of a conflict between religion and science. Here, new information, new empirical data, led to a direct challenge to the way in which the gods were envisioned. This new kind of doubt encouraged a new kind of punishment for doubt. Set up about 438 BCE the law against Anaxagoras' atheism held that society must 'denounce those who do not believe in the divine beings or who teach doctrines about things in the sky.'"

THUCYDIDES: In writing his history of the Peloponnesian War the gods did not intervene in the drama. "By now, [around 400 BCE] educated people commonly held that traditional belief in the Olympic gods had been fully discredited, and that the most compelling understanding of God was the universe-mind idea of some philosophers."


• Science: materialism and rationalism. Coming to us from the pre-Socratic philosophers in ancient Greece.

• Nontheistic transcendence programs (often religions without gods). Hinduism is truly "that old-time religion," and the Carvaka were history's first recorded doubters.

"The Carvaka believed that there was no afterlife whatsoever, and they thought it was pretty funny that anyone believed otherwise."

• Cosmopolitan relativism: What happens when people mix and begin taking their own traditions with a grain of salt.

• The moral rejection of injustice: like the doubt of Job and other victims and survivors.

• Graceful-life philosophies, which present themselves as guides for life without traditional religious belief.

• Philosophical Skepticism, "Which questions our ability to know the world at all, including our ability to claim God's existence." This begins with pre-Socratic questioning and takes off when the ancient Greeks, "Acquire a multitude of philosophies and that great variety makes some people reject them all."

• And finally, there is the doubt of the ardent believer — great certainty in her own beliefs amounts to a great doubt about alternative ways of viewing the world.


"A few things about religion become visible from the history of doubt.

One is that there was belief before there was doubt.

But only after there was a culture of doubt could there be the kind of active believing that is the center of modern faiths. Until the Greeks filled libraries with skepticism and secularism, no one ever thought of having a religion where the central, active gesture was to believe. Another is that doubt inspired religion in every age: from Plato to Augustine, to Descartes, to Pascal, religion has defined itself through doubt's questions. [Just as doubt has defined itself through religion's assertions.] Of course, this extends up to today."


"Doubters have been remarkably productive, for the obvious reason that they have a tendency toward investigation, and also are often drawn to invest their own days with meaning. ... The earliest doubt on record was 2,600 years ago, which makes doubt older than most faiths.

Faith can be a wonderful thing, but it is not the only wonderful thing.

Doubt has been just as vibrant as a prescription for a good life and just as passionate for the truth. By many standards, it's had tremendous success. This is its story."

“Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little
awakening. No doubt: no awakening.”

©jonfobes 2005