The story of doubt.
ONE EXPLANATION FOR the continuing popularity of religion, despite the growing body of empirical evidence to refute the foundational truth claims of most world religions, is that humans naturally gravitate towards certainty. Religion, if nothing else, seems to provide answers to the obvious questions that everyone ponders in the natural course of life--questions of creation, ethics, life meaning, and death. So long as one isn't distracted by the rational failings of one's learned religious beliefs, those beliefs can provide the unique comfort of certainty.
Thus, perhaps because certainty has a natural appeal, its less glamorous alter-ego, doubt, is often disfavored in public discourse. We admire the self-assured hero, we like our leaders certain, and we view hesitation and uncertainty as weak.
Jennifer Michael Hecht sees things differently. Her admirable work, Doubt: a History--subtitled The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson, reminds us that doubt isn't a negative concept defined by a lack of certainty--doubt is an affirmative, a concept that itself leads to knowledge and enlightenment.
In her book Hecht embarks on an ambitious goal, to survey almost three millennia of recorded history seeking evidence of the common thread of doubt within the wide variety of peoples and cultures. The result, while not final and authoritative, is an impressive work that belongs on the shelf of any studious freethinker or, as Hecht would prefer, doubter.
Such a massive undertaking is destined to result in criticism regarding emphasis. (Why does Hubert Harrison get four full pages while W.E.B. Du Bois gets a quick mention in just one sentence?) But such second-guessing is what makes it all so entertaining to the reader. I may think Epicurus got too much play and Friedrich Nietzsche not enough, but you may think otherwise. The debate just adds to the overall experience.
This book claims to be a history of doubt, and that's exactly what it is. It isn't another history of atheism or religious dissent, but a fairly thorough study of doubt from all angles--the doubts of saints as well as sinners, the doubts of artists and politicians, the doubts of writers and common people. Thus, while the protagonists one might expect to find, Giordano Bruno and Baruch Spinoza for example, are present but Hecht also finds time to discuss the sometimes overlooked doubts of characters such as Jesus, Augustine, and Martin Luther. She finds doubt in places where many were certain there was none.
Hecht spans the globe, bringing in a cast of characters, some well known and some obscure, all strung together by the common thread of doubt. This creates the feeling that this is a celebration of doubt--every person and every issue are considered from that standpoint. Hecht even modifies Rene Descartes, for example: his Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am), she argues, should perhaps have been stated Dubito Ergo Sum (I doubt, therefore I am).
Hecht also spends more time immersed in Western culture than Eastern, though she makes a sincere effort to include Eastern doubt in the discussion. She visits the world of Islam a few times and also brings the reader into the worlds of Buddhism (she reminds us of the Zen maxim: "Great doubt, great awakening"), Hinduism, and Chinese philosophy.
Since Hecht is an accomplished poet, one might expect that her writing would convey a certain style that differs from traditional works of popular history. It is a bit, perhaps, but not radically so, and certainly not in a detrimental way. She cruises through this voluminous material confidently and fluidly, like a well-organized college lecturer who knows her subject. Her straightforward intellectual narrative, however, occasionally pauses to comment in a way that gives reminder of her roots in poetry and literature. After revealing the doubts of Emily Dickenson, Hecht writes: "She could do in a four-line poem what other people took a chapter for, but in the best circumstances they take as long to read2 This isn't David McCullough.
Similarly, Hecht describes Emerson's Transcendentalism. "It rejected religion, yet was spiritual in its mood and its vision of the natural world as a humming abundance of beauty, love, and creativity" The experience of doubt is clearly more than intellectual.
Though some casual readers might be deterred by its almost 500 pages of detailed history and philosophy, Doubt: a History is a work that is more than just worthwhile (for even many tedious works can be so described), it is actually an enjoyable read. It will be a bit more work for the reader than some other mainstream freethought histories (Susan Jacoby's popular Freethinkers: a History of American Secularism comes to mind) but is wider in scope while still being quite digestible.
In the end the reader is left with an admiration for the concept of doubt and a much lower opinion of the long-admired notion of certainty. Indeed, if certainty is a state of mind that humans find desirable, Hecht reminds us that great certainty isn't necessarily an indicator that its possessor holds the keys to vast wisdom. As we have learned in the modern age, the opposite is often true.
David Niose is an attorney and treasurer of the American Humanist Association.