Book Review: Doubt

 

From Graceful Atheist

I have just finished Jennifer Michael Hecht‘s Doubt: A History. It has been around for some time but as I am new to atheism it is new to me. I would suggest this is an extremely important book for modern atheists to provide perspective on where we have come from and direction on where we are going. There is something wonderful about history. It places our ideas in context. It draws lines between what would appear to be disparate ideas. This book provides that context and draws those lines in a valuable way.

After my deconversion I had a number of ideas I was desperate to express. You will find them throughout this blog. Interestingly, however, I was mildly disappointed to find that none of my ideas were particularly original. Come to find out my experience of deconversoin was rather typical in fact. Average.  I titled my first blog post “A very common message” after this realization.

After reading Hecht’s book I am even more disappointed to realize that my ideas are not only not original for today but not particularly original for 2600 years ago. It is quite a humbling experience. But it does provide a sense of unity with doubters throughout history. And for that I am grateful.

Hecht’s book is dense with quotes from doubters and moves at break-neck speed from 600 BCE to the turn of the millennium. Attempting to review the book in the traditional sense could never do it justice. If I were to start quoting this post would be as long as the book. (Take note meme creators, this book is a rich quarry of quotes). Instead, I will write about the reactions I had reading the book and how they apply to the modern doubter.

In praise of Doubt

The book is not titled Atheism: a History and this is significant. For one thing, the original usage of the term meant something closer to heretic rather than the way we use the term today as a complete lack of belief in any god(s). In fact, a common theme in the book is the deep and profound doubt expressed throughout history that none the less defaulted to some distant conception of god, from Aristotle’s prime mover to Spinoza’s  (and Einstein’s) pantheistic god and  what feels like capitulation in Kierkegaard’s fideism. Those who took doubt to its logical conclusion of true atheism were few and far between until the time of the enlightenment. And even those who did were wary of releasing this truth upon the masses for fear of the collapse of social norms.

The book could easily be titled Skepticism: a History. In many ways it is philosophical skepticism that is the line one can draw through the history of doubt. The Epicureans and the skeptics really began to rigorously question theism. Questioning everything especially that which comes from authority is a common theme. Decendants of these philosophies often refer back to the ancient Greeks in solidarity during their own times. Including our own time, we owe a debt to the skeptics.

However the book is titled Doubt: a History. There is something deeply moving about the word doubt. It implies one cares enough to question. Doubters have skin in the game. Doubters question not purely for the sake of questioning but for the sake of knowledge and truth.

Taking one’s place in the line of history

I am a doubter and I am proud to be a part of its history. After getting over my disappointment in the lack of originality of my ideas, I found great comfort in having historical precedent.

Reading Hecht’s book one can see the cumulative effect of the writings of doubt through history. Each generation is emboldened by the writings of their predecessors. The fear of expressing one’s opinions which are contrary to popular belief is widdled away bit by bit. There is a wonderful scene described in the book when Hume sits down in a room with 15 other atheists for the first time. That is what you call a historic moment.

The freedom we in the West experience to express our doubt up to and including atheism is due not only to the enlightenment philosophers but all those who went before them as well. Today we are dazzled with Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and the inimitable Hitchens. But there would not be four horsemen today if not for Diogenes, Epicurus, Cicero and Lucretius.

The doubter’s perspective

Hecht spends a fair amount of time reading between the lines of history to find doubt’s story. By this I mean there were time periods and cultures which attempted to repress doubters. As is often noted history is written by the victors. But wonderfully we have doubter’s stories as imprints in the counter-arguments of the prevailing ideologies. Like a cast mold the negative space of doubt can be inferred (or directly quoted) by the diligent ways it is argued against by the true believers.

I personally enjoyed reading the stories I am familiar with from my own prior faith tradition delightfully told upside down from the doubter’s perspective.

The Jewish flirtation with Greek culture and the reaction as told in Maccabees and the story of Hanukkah. This is the pull of cultural assimilation and the conservative reaction against it.

I have always appreciated the book of Job for its brutal honesty. Job accuses God of being unjust. Hecht points out God makes a “heap” argument to Job for faith. Meaning, how can Job account for all of creation without appealing to God. Interesting take. Job’s wife steals the scene by encouraging Job to “Curse God and die” and may be the true hero of the story.

I have also always loved Ecclesiastes. But relieved of the burden to make pious sentiments from this wisdom one can hear the bitter exhaustion and resignation for what it is.

“Might as well have a good time because the universe is unjust and uncaring.”

Others have pointed out the doubt of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane but Hecht portrays Jesus as a world class doubter. He seems to be reliant on his followers’ belief in him and is practically begging them to do so. He has moments where he seems unsure of himself and the Father. This all culminates on the cross with

“Why have you forsaken me.”

The key insight of the book is that Christianity, particularly as described and defined by Paul, forever makes doubt a feature not a bug by requiring faith alone. Not just faith but faith without evidence.

“Blessed are those who believe but have not seen.”

Hope and discouragement

My favorite term in the book is graceful-life philosophies. As you may know I have a particular regard for the word grace in a secular setting. This wonderful term describes the philosophies of Socrates to Epicurus. And it means seeking the answer to the question:

How does one life well?

This questions seem particularly poignant to our times. We must seek a secular pluralistic society as the world grows smaller and smaller. Rather than beating the dead horse of if one can be good without god, we should be asking how can we thrive and work with each other. We need graceful-life philosophies to unite us in this task.

In reading the history of doubt there is hope that even in oppressive environments rational voices remain. Regardless of the culture or particular religion there are those who express their doubt giving encouragement to future travelers.

The flip side of this coin is that humans have a tendency toward superstition and religion.  People do not like feeling out of control so they fabricate stories which explain the phenomenon around them. Again we can see this by reading between the lines in the negative image of the prevailing ideologies. In the Old Testament all the idolatry that gets systematically stamped out is an indication of people  not only seeking gods but very localized micro-cultural gods. In the early Catholic church the attempts to rid itself of heresy eventually get worn down and the use of votive candles and individual saints indicate the same phenomenon.

Ultimately, the hardest take away from the book is that forward progress toward reason is not a given. The hard-fought for knowledge of reason, logic, mathematics and the beginnings of science collected by the Greeks and represented in the library in Alexandria can and was burned down figuratively and literally. Though the flame of reason moved to the Muslim world rather than going out during the “dark” ages there is still a sense of opportunity cost. Where would the world be if the pursuit of science had been unbroken from the time of the Greeks until now?

This too is especially poignant for our times. As I write this in the US at the begging of 2017, there is a sense of loss of forward progress for the voice of reason. We have a responsibility to protect this forward progress and stand up for truth.

We have been having the same arguments for millennia

I started out this post by acknowledging my ideas about my new-found atheism are not new. That is the understatement of the century. While reading the history of doubt one comes to the inescapable conclusion that there is “nothing new under the sun.” The arguments for and against theism have been hashed and rehashed over and over again.

What was exciting to discover is that these debates have occurred in many cultures throughout history. They are not unique to the Abrahamic religions in any way.

What is a little depressing to discover is that we are still having the same arguments. As science has moved the gaps in knowledge literally to tiny fractions of a second after the big bang, apologetic arguments have moved further into the abstract.

As a relatively young atheist what I am struck by is the evasiveness of apologetic arguments against doubt. Apologists always have an answer. Those answers rarely deal with the questions straight on and at least in my experience are never satisfying.

All apologetic arguments tend reduce to god-of-the-gaps (what we do not yet know) arguments or the epistemological black holes (how can we know anything without God?)  of the Cynics. This feels like a thoroughly beaten dead horse. Doubt has won. The history has been written.

What is next?

The question I have been asking myself from minutes after acknowledging my own doubt and becoming an atheist and the question I find myself contemplating after reading this history of doubt is “what is next?” What do we do with the hard-fought for knowledge? Keep beating a dead horse?

I’ll be writing about that in the coming months. In the meantime, thank you to Jennifer Hecht for a comprehensive look back at where have come from and how we got here.
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