Jennifer Michael Hecht
A History of Doubt
January 8, 2009
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “A History of Doubt,” with historian and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht. We’ll look at the contribution of skeptics, cynics, and others who’ve followed the human impulse to challenge what is given and to doubt. Hecht has explored a rich tradition of doubt across the ages, as graceful life philosophies and even as a driving force in religious reform. This way of being in the world defies the narrowness of religious and atheist certainties in our time.
MS. JENNIFER MICHAEL HECHT: The great figures I love the most are ones who continue constantly to question. They may decide for sure that they don’t believe in God, but they don’t decide for sure that they really know what the universe is all about. They decide for sure that questioning is for them.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. As an historian, my guest this hour always noticed doubt, she says, out of the corner of her eye. Jennifer Michael Hecht defines doubt generously, broadly addressing the human impulse to question what is given in order to invest one’s days with meaning.
Jennifer Michael Hecht demonstrates the graceful and illuminating role doubt has played throughout history. This hour, we’ll explore Socrates and Descartes, Job, and Zen in this intriguing light.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “A History of Doubt,” a conversation with historian of science and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht.
MS. HECHT: You have to be a little bold and a little brave in most periods of time to be a doubter. And I liked them. I also was surprised by them, because the dominant history basically suggests that doubt is very modern and that we had a few doubters in the ancient world, but basically doubt is a modern phenomenon. And I kept seeing it everywhere. And so I just wanted to tell that story to sketch it out. And then when I did the research for it, I found it was much more cohesive and self-knowing than I had ever dreamed.
MS. TIPPETT: The story Jennifer Michael Hecht tells over 500 pages in her book Doubt: A History traces the forms doubt has taken through many cultures and eras. She begins with the ancient Greek philosophers whose writings from the third and fourth centuries B.C.E. still influence our thought today. From them we have terms like cynic and skeptic, though Jennifer Michael Hecht’s scholarship fills those words with new substance. “Only in modern times,” she notes, “is doubt equated narrowly with a rejection of faith.” The history of great doubters includes many who have grappled with religious questions and, as Jennifer Michael Hecht puts it, “found the possibility of other answers.”
As we began, I asked her to talk about one of her basic propositions — that up to now, most of us have overlooked the contribution that doubt has made to intellectual and religious history. We’re used to describing progress by way of great ideas and powerful beliefs. We classify periods of iconoclasm and widely diverging beliefs as periods of decline, she says, while we celebrate the certainties of the Greek city-state or the early American town.
MS. HECHT: I think that there’s a reason to celebrate them. Those periods tend to be very nourishing for the ideal citizens in them. Of course, a lot of people are left out, generally, but they tend to be very satisfying. But on the other hand, the cosmopolitan periods that are the periods of mixing and questioning and new ideas competing with old ideas, these periods we tend to sort of just gloss over. And the history of doubt needs to really celebrate those times as the periods of time that have the — all the fireworks in them
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I’d like to talk about ancient Greece, because another thing that struck me is how there were certain philosophies — and I’m thinking here of the stoics, the cynics, the skeptics, the Epicureans — which in some way developed during, in that period of time and that place, and keep reappearing all through this history of doubt that you tell, and still are really formative categories with which we talk about ourselves in our time. You know, let’s go through some of these terms and talk about what they meant when they were born. Like who were the cynics?
MS. HECHT: Cynic meant dog. The idea was to live life in the same way a dog does. Why try to press against this mad universe our plans and memories and desires and try to defend them against the cruel world, when instead we could just kind of go with the flow and not worry about our dignity, for instance. And that’s really the key point of being like the dogs. Live outside, then you don’t have to defend a house. Live casually. Go to the bathroom in the same way dogs go to the bathroom. Don’t be ashamed of yourself and don’t try to accomplish anything. When we think of cynicism today, we tend to think of people dismissing even those things dogs love.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. HECHT: And that’s inappropriate. Right.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, and we think of cynics as, we think of cynicism as a posture, right?
MS. HECHT: That’s right, and as a dismissal of everything.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MS. HECHT: And, really, it was, when we think about, other people who have decided to reject a great deal of the human culture world, we often think about those as having tremendous dedication, say, on a Buddhist model or a mystical model, where you really sequester yourself and try to get rid of the — even a religious model, you know, certainly to go into the desert and meditate. And the cynics were more along those lines, in a way. And they didn’t suggest any transcendental experience to come out of it. But what they expected was to be happy and to have true friendship and loyalty, because that was the only thing that they were cherishing. They were charming. And hundreds of men and women came from across the empires to practice with the leader that we think of as Diogenes. And he’s almost always depicted sort of lying around in the sun.
We have that great story about him and Alexander the Great, where Alexander the Great has heard of this impressive philosopher and comes to him and says, you know, ‘What can I give you? I’ll give you any gift,’ which was both a sort of tease. Because if you gave him a great deal of money, of course, he’d seduced the cynic away from cynical life. And Diogenes says, ‘Yeah, I can think of something you can do for me. Could you step out of my sun?’ He was, you know, he’s blocking his sunlight. And Alexander the Great once said, were he not Alexander, he would be Diogenes. Because these are two men who both had a tremendous amount of ambition. And one dealt with it by going out and conquering the world and the other by conquering his own ambition.
MS. TIPPETT: Historian and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht. The fourth century B.C.E. philosopher and original cynic Diogenes left behind no actual writings. But here is an anecdote passed down about another conversation he reportedly had with Alexander the Great.
READER: Diogenes asked Alexander what his plans were. Alexander answered that he planned to conquer and subjugate Greece. “Then what?” Diogenes asked. Alexander said that he planned to conquer and subjugate Asia Minor. “And then?” Alexander said that he planned to conquer and subjugate the world. Diogenes, who was not easily dissuaded from a line of inquiry, posed the question again: “And what next?” Alexander the Great told Diogenes that after he had finished conquering and subjugating, he planned to relax and enjoy himself. Diogenes responded, “Why not save yourself a lot of trouble by relaxing and enjoying yourself now?”
MS. TIPPETT: And what about skeptics? Tell me the story of the original skeptics.
MS. HECHT: Right from the beginning of philosophy, you have questioning. But it’s really with Socrates that we date the earliest idea of skepticism, just the idea of saying, ‘I don’t know anything,’ and that the human mind isn’t really designed to know things. It’s — you know, the natural world has designed us to stay alive and to reproduce, but, but not really to gather truth. And we shouldn’t expect too much from it. We should try to know the world by questioning what we can’t know and take that kind of approach. And, you know, Socrates said he knew more than anybody else, because he knew he didn’t know anything. So that’s one origin of skepticism.
But skepticism really gets going, really, centuries later when there have been so many different competing philosophies that people look up and say, ‘How could they all be right?’ And that’s really the amazing gesture of skepticism. We think of skepticism as both the questioning of our ability to know anything philosophically, but also, just plain looking at the variety of philosophies and saying, ‘They’re all so brilliant. They all convince me when I hold that book in my hand. How can I then think that any one of them holds real truth?’ And so at first, skepticism was a denial of any ability to know anything. Later, it develops brilliantly into a study of probabilities.
MS. TIPPETT: And what about the Epicureans? I must say that we use the word cynic and skeptic in our language today. We don’t use the term Epicurean very much, but you point out that that is actually also a very important thread in this history of doubt.
MS. HECHT: Yeah, when you do see the word, it’s almost always in terms of somebody who loves great food.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Hedonistic is what we think.
MS. HECHT: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MS. HECHT: And, you know, in this kind of refined way. And really, Epicurus more suggested that we refine our hungers rather than the food. You know, learn to love the things that we have. Learn to recognize that there is nothing better than cold water when you are thirsty, and so to remember thirst. He’s one of the absolute great heroes of the history of doubt. He doesn’t only negate, he doesn’t only question the overall ideas of religion and of meaning that were handed to him by the rest of society. He makes these amazing suggestions for how we should live in the absence of a religious world or of a world guided by gods. And that’s why he’s so important and so beloved. His biggest claim is that fear is what ruins our lives, and that the big fears are fear of pain. And he says, ‘Forget about fear of pain. It’s usually much worse than the actual pain.’
MS. TIPPETT: That’s so true.
MS. HECHT: We can — it is. It is true.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah.
MS. HECHT: It’s so amazing. And he says acute pain, really intense pain is usually short-lived. And the kind of chronic pain you can get used to, but the fear of it, that’s what gets us. And he says the second great fear is fear of the gods. And he says, ‘Forget about that. There really aren’t any.’ And then the biggest fear is fear of death. And that, he says, that’s the real thing that we have to deal with to get our minds right to live in this world. You have to accept that death is real. That it ends everything. That it comes along when it’s going to come along, but that — that’s OK. It actually makes the sweetness of life. It makes the joy to realize that this moment is the moment that we have and all we have. And that death, he says, is so final that there’s nothing to mourn. We won’t be there to be sad about it. And he says, ‘You’ve got to meditate on this idea. You’ve got to think about it over and over.’ And he gives a lot of different delightful formulations of it. And that’s been the great doctrine that keeps coming back. Sometimes, you know, most often citing Epicurus, but often in other ways, too, because it really is one of the great, the great religious questions.
MS. TIPPETT: Historian and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht. She counters some popular notions about what doubt means. In our time, we often equate doubt with outright rejection of beliefs and theologies. But she shows that doubters have often articulated positive philosophies, what she calls “graceful life philosophies.” Here’s a reading from one of the greats in her doubters hall of fame, the third-century B.C.E. Greek philosopher Epicurus.
READER: Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young, nor weary in the search thereof when he has grown old, for no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come or that it has passed and gone is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet, or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young ought to seek wisdom. The former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been. And the latter in order that, while he is young, he may at the same time be old because he has no fear of the things which are to come. So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness since, if that be present, we have everything. And if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it.
MS. HECHT: The thing is most doubters throughout history, even if they doubted all the way to not believing in any kind of religious idea, most of them don’t hate religion. Most of them aren’t against religion. They are, in fact, more like religious thinkers, the great doubters, than the average person who doesn’t ask any of these questions and sort of just goes along. The great doubters have tried to figure out how you can live, and they have very much respected the answers that religion has come up with. They just have to fill in certain parts differently, because they don’t think that the world is being guided, or has been created, or is being judged by anyone. And if you don’t think that you’re being watched, and if you don’t think that, for instance, morality comes from some outside source, it immediately gives you an incredible amount of responsibility. We can start to think about morality in different ways and start to celebrate the aspect of humanity that generates this thing. And it doesn’t mean you have to question the religious morality, because, indeed, the doubters suggest that that came from humanity in the first place. So there’s no reason to throw it out.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. But I do want to point out that you also classify some of the great heroes of faith as great doubters in the history of doubt. And I’m thinking, first of all, of Job, which I think is often cited as a pivotal text of what faith is all about.
MS. HECHT: Yeah. The Job story was written before Judaism had an idea of an afterlife. But after it had developed the idea of individual divine justice, so that if you are a good person, you are going to have success. And that is a doctrine which is very difficult to uphold when things start to go very wrong, especially when they go wrong for a lot of people at the same time, when some disaster strikes. And Job is well seated and then suddenly, because God makes a bet with the devil about his honor, he’s suddenly beset with the absolute worse things you can imagine. People he wouldn’t have hired to clean out the stables before, their children spit on him. His own children are killed. He’s covered in sores all over his body. He’s really at the very bottom. And he still doesn’t really question God until his friends come and try to console him with notions of how this must be according to some justice, because God is just. And that’s when he begins to question and say, ‘No, this can’t be. I’ve shown more morality than I’ve seen from the universe.’
MS. TIPPETT: Than this God you’re defending, yeah.
MS. HECHT: Yeah, ‘I don’t’ — he just keeps saying, ‘I’m not seeing it. I gave to the poor widows, and He then took away my ability to do so and crushed me. How could that be a good and powerful God?’ And when God comes down at the very end of the book, the speech He makes never mentions divine justice. He doesn’t take it up at all, God. It’s as if the Job author was saying there is no evidence of divine justice, but we still have to contend with peacocks and ostriches and you should …
MS. TIPPETT: It’s a very flamboyant speech about the grandeur of the Creation.
MS. HECHT: That’s correct. And it’s an amazing statement of the questions which are still remaining even if you dismiss the idea of divine justice. And that’s what Job accepts in the end. He sort of falls down on his knees and says, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I don’t have answers to those questions.’ And that’s the end of the book. So that the book of Job has been, when it’s told in religious stories, there’s always something a little added. Certainly, one never dwells much on how this whole thing was a sort of careless bet with the devil. But even more than that, the idea that Job’s questions about justice are never addressed, you know, the religious interpretations of this story just gloss over that and gloss over the rebellion and just say, ‘Look, Job was given many trials and in the end came back to God.’ And that’s not the story as written. When you read the story, it seems to be much more a howl against the injustice of the world.
MS. TIPPETT: Historian and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, exploring philosophical and religious doubt. Jennifer Michael Hecht also includes Jesus in her retelling of the story of doubt across the ages.
MS. HECHT: I don’t see him as a, you know, classic figure of doubt, but his contribution to the story of doubt was huge. First of all, the whole notion of modern belief has in it the idea of husbanding one’s faith, of dealing with doubt, and that hasn’t always been a major part of religion. The ancient Greeks and ancient Romans really paid much more attention to ritual and custom and community. You show up at the shrine, you do the thing, you make the sacrifice, and it doesn’t matter so much what you believe. And in ancient Judaism also, the Mishnah has a line in it in the voice of God saying, ‘Better they should forget me and remember my law.’
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MS. HECHT: And that’s something which you can see in modern Judaism. You know, if a kid goes up to a rabbi and says, ‘I’m not sure I believe’ they say, ‘Well, you know, you just keep — you just keep showing up.’ It’s not the most crucial aspect of Judaism. When Christianity came to being, it’s the first of these great monotheistic religions that came to being after doubt had already a huge literature. The ancient Greeks and Romans had a huge literature of doubt that questioned, ‘How can you have an anthropomorphic God? How can you imagine God suddenly coming into being? What sense does it make to say the world was created by God when we then have to problematize what created God?’ All these questions were already well worked out and Christianity — I had always wondered how does a culture that had already dismissed Zeus and Hera then take on this sort of anthropomorphized god? And the answer turns out to be by taking it on very aggressively, by taking on the history of doubt as its own and saying that ‘We believe anyway,’ inventing the idea of belief as a leap.
MS. TIPPETT: Trace that development for me in Christianity.
MS. HECHT: You know, in two out of three of the Synoptic Gospels, the three Gospels that we think of as the most historical, Jesus’ last words are “My God, why have you forsaken me?” And that seems to be — it seems authentic. Most historians think that it would have never made its way into the Gospels if it hadn’t been something that they simply couldn’t have left out, because people heard it, and it was part of the story. And what that does is it makes faith forever after have doubt in it in a way that’s been very positive for faith. So that the experience of belief isn’t simply the way that you believe the sky is blue without question. You always believed it, everyone says it, you see it yourself, but rather something that isn’t provable. That notion of faith, that’s one of the most wonderful things about belief and faith.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. HECHT: And so that kind of had to be created, and it’s created through the experience of culture that already has doubt in it.
MS. TIPPETT: In her book Doubt: A History, Jennifer Michael Hecht quotes the church father Saint Augustine from his fifth-century treatise De Trinitate. He wrote, “Nobody surely doubts that he lives and remembers and understands and wills and thinks and knows and judges. At least, even if he doubts, he lives. If he doubts, he remembers why he is doubting. If he doubts, he has a will to be certain. If he doubts, he thinks. If he doubts, he knows he does not know. If he doubts, he judges he ought not to give a hasty assent.”
Jennifer Michael Hecht opens her book on what she calls the study of religious doubt, with a quiz, asking questions that challenge you to think about your believes and doubts. Take her quiz on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org, and calculate where you fall on her scale of doubt. I spoke with Jennifer Michael Hecht in 2003. And now, for the first time, we’re making the complete conversation available as a free MP3. Download our unedited conversation and this produced program through our podcast, e-mail newsletter, and Web site. Look for links on our homepage, speakingoffaith.org.
After a short break, more conversation with Jennifer Michael Hecht. She says the categories we now use to classify doubters, such as atheist and agnostic, are modern constructions and that they are narrower than the philosophies that came before them. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today we’re exploring the positive human impulse to question and doubt in order to find meaning.
Doubt has been a defining quality of the modern intellect since the Enlightenment. In the 17th century, René Descartes decided that in order to arrive at absolute truth, he must discard any belief that could be doubted. He did so until he arrived at a single remaining certainty within himself, the fact that he existed. Descartes became the father of modern European rationalism. Here are the opening sentences of his “Meditations” of 1641.
READER: Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that, consequently, what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful. And from that time, I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences. But as this enterprise appeared to me to be one of great magnitude, I waited until I had attained an age so mature as to leave me no hope that at any stage of life more advanced, I should be better able to execute my design. Today, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares and am happily disturbed by no passions, and since I am in the secure possession of leisure and a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.
MS. TIPPETT: From René Descartes.
My guest, Jennifer Michael Hecht, is an historian of science and also a poet who’s written a lyrical history of doubt. She sees doubt as an enlivening force even in the history of belief, including that of religion.
She points out that Asia gave rise to great religions with doubt at their core, such as Zen Buddhism, which cultivates doubt actively as a practice. In the Middle East and Europe, the influence of the classic philosophical schools of ancient Greece and Rome subsided as the influence of monotheistic religions grew. Christianity originally embraced doubt as part of the experience of faith. But by the Middle Ages, as a powerful religious establishment, the church persecuted doubters, sometimes violently.
Ironically — Jennifer Michael Hecht points out — the church created vigorous new sources of questioning when it sent doubt into exile.
MS. HECHT: What we see is the exile does happen. That as Christianity takes over, as Rome falls, we do see the closing of schools, the shrinking of cities, and philosophers tend to head east to the Byzantine Empire, where they thrive for a while and teach the ancient philosophies and then they’re kicked out. There’s an actual moment when the emperor says, ‘OK, enough with the schools of philosophy,’ and closes them down. And the philosophers all run even further east to Antioch, to Baghdad, to the great new cities of the Muslim empire. And there, you see this incredible birth of doubt in the Islamic world. And we are generally a culture that has completely forgotten that that ever happened. We know that there was a Muslim Golden Age. We know that it was about science. Well, you know, it’s almost an obvious step to say, ‘Well, if it was about science, there was a lot of rationalist questioning.’ Islam comes along after Judaism and Christianity have basically thought that the age of prophets was over. And here comes this new prophet, this religion that’s saying, ‘a new prophet came’ and finished their religion.
MS. TIPPETT: Seven hundred years later. Right.
MS. HECHT: Yeah, it’s just — it seems amazing. And so the Muslims basically defend that their prophet was true on the basis of the evidentiary miracle of the Qur’an. And so the beginning of questioning in Islam is often questioning, ‘Is the Qur’an so beautiful that it’s a miracle?’ And that’s where you get some of these really amusing people questioning the beauty of particular metaphors in the Qur’an and saying, ‘Hey, this begins to knock down the theory that this is proof of anything. I could write a better couplet, you know, in a moment than this sort of thing.’
MS. TIPPETT: What are some texts or people, voices you’re thinking of there? Examples.
MS. HECHT: Well, there’s some who were hated, and there were some who were loved. There was al-Razi who was a great physician, and he wrote many, many books that were very much in the philosophical tradition, quoting Galen but adding to him, correcting him when he found evidence or experiments that proved him wrong. And so he was beloved in the Muslim community, but he also has this huge library of doubting books that he wrote. Also, a guy named Ibn al-Warraq, and his name has been taken up as a pseudonym for a present-day doubter who comes out of the Islamic tradition, and who is too frightened for his life, with good reason, to write under his own name. And al-Rawandi is another figure who questioned to the point of disbelief and was widely known for having done so, and suggested, for instance, that a good god would have never sent prophets. He would have told everybody what they needed to know. That the idea of sending a few people in a few moments in history to tell the truth and then hoping everyone else believed them, and allowing the doctrines to get changed over time and questioned and all that, why would a god do that? And that’s a really profound question, which hadn’t come up before.
MS. TIPPETT: What happened to that lineage, that tradition of doubt within Islam? Where did it go from there?
MS. HECHT: It gets shut down in a kind of — there’s a sudden moment where the idea that philosophy can be studied and some people will be able to keep their faith and other people will go on questioning, and that that’s OK. That gets shut down pretty suddenly. And the idea that philosophy is just too dangerous for people to read. And so it shuts down not only religious doubt but all study of philosophy. What’s wonderful is that by that time, the philosophers have descended into upper Africa and across Africa going towards Spain. And then, actually gone into Spain where there was a vibrant Jewish community that picked up a lot of these ideas. And that’s where you see the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who’s thought of as one of the great figures of the religion. He really put together the doctrines that Orthodox Jews follow to this day, which was a simplification of what was going on before. And yet he’s staggeringly rationalist and willing to question the Torah, willing to question the sages and to say, ‘Look, there’s reality out there. Let’s try to figure out what it is, and we’re not going to let anything stand in its way except that we know that there is God. But we can’t even say God exists according to the idea of existence that we have in our minds. The only thing that can only be understood by this kind of strange thing called faith is the actual idea of God itself.’
And that questioning and that studying the ancient philosophers and the Arabic commentaries — that energy and those documents and those figures spread into the Christian West. Doubt is sort of chased out of Western Europe down through the Mideast, across North Africa, and then back up through Spain into Europe again. And then you see this incredible period of medieval doubt, which eventually blossoms into the Renaissance
MS. TIPPETT: Right. There’s also this theme that runs through the story you tell, and Maimonides is a good example. But, you know, another example would be the Reformation. I mean, you name Luther as a doubter. And there’s a way in which this doubt that you’re seeing in history is a great energizing and renewing force within religious traditions.
MS. HECHT: Yeah, without question. It’s hard to imagine what religious tradition would be if there weren’t people looking up and saying that they disagreed with what had come before. And that has wonderful stories when you have something like Zen, which is in itself a religion that is based as firmly on doubt as you could be. It wants doubt. It says when you’re in the state of doubt, that’s the end point you’re going to. And that’s the closest to seeing reality as it really is that you can get. And so there is this rich tradition of doubt, and yet, you know, in the next generation, you have someone questioning Zen from within, sort of teasing and making fun of the idea that wearing these yellow robes and sitting for hours could do you any good, and yet still doing it. So that each generation’s doubt is the next generation’s certainty, in some ways. And so there comes a new doubter.
MS. TIPPETT: Historian and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht.
READER: A statement of Benjamin Franklin, from his autobiography. “I was scarce 15 when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books that I had read, I began to doubt of revelation itself. Some books against Deism fell into my hands. It happened that they wrought an effect in me quite contrary to what was intended by them, for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations. I soon became a thorough Deist.”
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, we’re exploring the human experience of doubt. I wondered whether studying the history of doubt has changed her and the way Jennifer Michael Hecht thinks about doubt in our time.
MS. HECHT: I’ve thought of doubt more as negation than as positive theory for how to live. And I’ve been moved and changed by seeing the kinds of suggestions that were made for how to live, and to see that those suggestions are really so close to the kinds of religious suggestions. They just avoid the one where someone’s taking care of it all, and you can just place your faith in them. But religion does an awful lot of other types of work, just reminding us of death and reminding us that the community is larger than the self and reminding us of the real reasons why we do things and reminding us that those real reasons get lost in the minutia of daily life.
Doubters, without reference to the supernatural, work over those same themes and come to various answers, some which are similar to the religious and some which are quite different. That has been an education for me. And also, I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable with the way that the modern idea of atheism is so connected with a kind of dismissal of all wonder, of all ritual. And when I read the great doubters throughout history, I found that, for the most part, they, too, wanted to keep our eyes on those things. They, too, wanted to create ritual and to think about community and to think about how it’s the human world that developed these ideas of so much magic and the fact that community can create. You can get a feeling when you’re in a crowd of people who are all there to mourn something or to celebrate something, you can get a feeling that feels like it’s coming from outside you, and it is. It is the group. The group does something to the human experience, to the personal feelings. And that is what religion has always worked with. And yet, if you dismiss religion, there’s no reason to also dismiss this magical quality of the human experience. And, you know, I looked around and I saw that the modern world gives replacements for that in ways of, you know, sports and parades and all sorts of ways where we come together and experience things. But I thought it would be important to make a note of that, to notice that what we’re doing in those instances is a kind of a leaf from the tree of religion.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s interesting to me that as, I think, in the last couple of years, religion has come more to the surface of things. I think 9/11 had something to do with this, both in terms of the way religion got into the news and the way people responded to it. I think it was bubbling under the surface. But what I’m also noticing and what you write in your book is that, at the same time, it seems like people are feeling a need to articulate what you just said, doubt or a lack of belief, as a position that has some integrity.
MS. HECHT: The point that I want to make is that, you know, in the grandest scheme is that, right now, the truth is I don’t think that there is much pride in doubt or much recognition that it has a rich history. And I think that that’s really crucial right now, especially because of the way that belief is coming up again as part of policy. And that kind of idea, it’s got to be met with the voices of people who are looking at things from the other side. And right now, you know, well, I think I’d like to contextualize this a little bit and say that America in the beginning of the 20th century was a wonderful time to be a doubter. You know, Thomas Edison tells The New York Times he doesn’t believe in an afterlife. You know, that’s something that most people who don’t believe in an afterlife wouldn’t tell The New York Times today.
It was thought of as — the whole idea of nonconformism, of questioning, of bucking the dominant idea was celebrated as part of what democracy desperately needed, really, from John Stuart Mill and Harriet Mill onward, the idea of liberty as being something you have to keep enacting, otherwise you’ll lose it. And that was celebrated in the beginning of the 20th century. And we really see that close down with the Cold War, because the United States felt that it had — well, it had — a violent, tense enemy in the communist world. And that communism was equated with making legalist gestures of atheism. Well, that made it seem that atheism was treasonous. And that’s when “under God” went into the pledge and “In God We Trust” …
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. HECHT: … went on all the money. And when you look at the Congressional Record, it’s very specifically against communist atheism that those things were done. Well, we live in a very different world now. In the early 21st century, the murderous tension that we have in the world is with fundamentalist religion that’s willing to commit terror.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MS. HECHT: And so it’s time to change our stance a little bit.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, and that’s why I think it’s illuminating, the way you talk about what the substance of doubt has been through history is that it is not nihilistic. It has substance and it has virtues of thought and knowledge and even self-doubt. Right?
MS. HECHT: That’s right. And that the whole — the great figures that I loved the most are ones who continue constantly to question. They may decide for sure that they don’t believe in God, but they don’t decide for sure that they really know what the universe is all about. They decide for sure that questioning’s for them.
MS. TIPPETT: Historian of doubt Jennifer Michael Hecht. Here’s a passage from the collected writings of the 19th-century American social reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She’s describing her encounter with a freethinking doubter of her age, the abolitionist Lucretia Mott.
READER: I found in this new friend a woman emancipated from all faith in man-made creeds. … Nothing was too sacred for her to question. … It seemed to me like meeting a being from some larger planet, to find a woman who dared to question the opinions of popes, kings, synods, parliaments … recognizing no higher authority than the judgment of a pure-minded, educated woman. When I first heard from the lips of Lucretia Mott that I had the same right to think for myself that Luther, Calvin, and John Knox had, and the same right to be guided by my own convictions and would no doubt live a higher, happier life than if guided by theirs, I felt at once a newborn sense of dignity and freedom; it was like suddenly coming into the rays of the noonday sun after wandering with a rushlight in the caves of the earth.
MS. TIPPETT: I have to ask you, do you consider yourself a religious person?
MS. HECHT: No, I consider myself a doubter. I’m in a difficult position because — having read the documents that I read in order to write this book and having thought them through and written the book — I find that the modern terms atheist, agnostic, and believer are so wrongheaded, so misunderstood, and sort of calcifying sections of thought that really need not be calcified, that I really hesitate to align myself with any of them.
MS. TIPPETT: OK, so, yeah, so what — tell me what’s gone wrong and what you would propose instead.
MS. HECHT: Well, I like the conversation to be more fluid, and I’m willing to answer the question that you’re getting at with more sort of piecemeal terms.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MS. HECHT: I can say that I don’t believe that there is any thinking to the universe. I don’t believe that there’s any overall force that created us, is watching us, and gave us a text to follow. I don’t think it’s particularly useful either to talk about a force that’s coursing through all nature and is somehow cohesive. I don’t believe in an afterlife, though I can’t imagine how anyone could get any evidence whatsoever on that question. So certainly that’s one where you say, you know, the force of life and consciousness seems to be material. On the other hand, I feel that religion has been such a crucial aspect of the human experience and that people who — that I won’t align myself with any doctrine which entirely rejects it as, say, bunk or some mass hysteria, foolishness, childishness. Those aspects of atheists’ discussion, I think, are reasonable if you point them at very specific types of religious beliefs, specific moments.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. HECHT: But overall, you miss too much of what’s really going on in those ways. And that’s why I’m so careful about my terms.
MS. TIPPETT: I copied down this longish quote from your book. It’s just such a beautiful piece of writing and — all right. “That we love and that love, among other possibilities, brings forth life is very strange. The birth of a child can bring extraordinarily religious feelings, because it is such a good thing, but also because it makes no real sense. Where did this miniature human being come from? Technically, we made it out of nine months’ worth of French toast, salad, and lamb chops. Technically, our bodies hold tiny, little instructions for how to build human eyes, a language center in the brain, and a human spirit — fussy, joyful or otherwise. But how strange that such a thing as fussy exists and is created thusly.” I mean, you’re avoiding the word mystery there, but …
MS. HECHT: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: But the word strange is a synonym for mysterious …
MS. HECHT: Sure. I don’t …
MS. TIPPETT: … in that case, isn’t it?
MS. HECHT: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, and it seems that if you have a doctrine, a version of rationalism or a version of atheism, that makes it so that you have to be worried about using the word mystery, you’ve got yourself too constraining a doctrine. And so, I think that that’s what’s been so wonderful about doubters throughout history. They haven’t been an all-out turf war against religion. They haven’t been afraid — you know, Epicurus says, ‘You know, it feels good to pray, you might as well.’ Now, that’s an amazing statement for someone who says that there’s no one listening. And the idea that we don’t have to be against religion or against the idea of mystery. How can you really be against the idea of mystery and have your eyes open at the same time? It doesn’t make sense to me.
But mystery, then, doesn’t mean I’ve got to fill in the blanks with, you know, ideas of my own imagination. Though, when people say that they’ve spent, you know, years in the desert and they’ve had certain experiences, I think that it’s perfectly reasonable to hold those experiences, those feelings. Or, you know, you don’t have to go off into the desert, just the feeling of faith. That’s an important thing. And I don’t think it needs to be dismissed in a kind of panic of, ‘We’ve got to control the other side.’ You know, if we sort of can respect these ideas and say, ‘Yeah, life is mysterious. It is very strange.’ Just the fact that, you know, we are these animals who have these kinds of thoughts, it’s all pretty wondrous. And doubters have celebrated it. And that’s the kind of doubt I want to bring into the conversation, because I think we’ve really backed ourselves into a couple of corners, and it’s time to get out.
MS. TIPPETT: Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of Doubt: A History and, most recently, The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong. She’s also published two volumes of poetry.
The economic downturn of recent months has force many of us reckon with doubt in our economy, our financial institutions, and the way we’re living our lives. In our ongoing series, “Repossessing Virtue,” we’ve been posing questions to past guests about the moral and spiritual impact of economic crisis. And some of our most enlightening reflections on this crisis have come from you, our listeners. We’ve recorded some of these stories of personal transformation and struggle. Give them a listen and add your insights by commenting on our blog, SOF Observed. Look for all these links on our homepage, speakingoffaith.org.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, with assistance from Amara Hark-Weber and Nancy Rosenbaum. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.