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.
In Doubt: A History, Jennifer Michael Hecht sets out to provide just such a historical context for religious doubters of all stripes. She seeks to trace an unbroken line of free thought from its earliest stirrings to today, to illuminate patterns in disbelief. There is a tendency to think of doubters as a monolithic block: that there are a million ways to believe, but only one way to disbelieve. Hecht, however, teases out a wide variety of doubt from 2600 years of human thought. She’s ecumenical in her collection of doubters: mingled with the obvious agnostics and atheists, she highlights many interesting moments of questioning and doubt from believers. And she questions the utility of labels like these I’ve just used:
I think politics drives a lot of clinging to the three terms, but I also think it is easier to force yourself to be clear if you avoid using ‘believer’, ‘agnostic’, and ‘atheist’ and just try to say what you think about what we are and what’s out there.
A nice picture, isn’t it? Everyone going about, granting and granted plenty of time to delineate their nuanced thoughts about the universe and our role in it; for that matter, a society that encourages people to have such complex thoughts? If I could find out where that happens, I’d live there. Or at least join their forums.
It was heartening to learn the depth of the history of non-believing thought; atheism is in no way a modern development. The only golden ages of universal faith believers can look back on are periods of brutal suppression of dissent. There have always been doubters; they haven’t always been allowed to express their thoughts, or even been left alive to think them. It was also demoralizing to realize the same arguments pro and con have been going on for millennia; though there is some progress over time, (e.g., the burning of heretics being substantially less common today than it has been in prior centuries), there’s very little evolution of ideas after a certain point. It seems the various strands of thought have been refined to their most essential points, and now we cycle through them in an ongoing tug-of-war to win the most adherents. Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis are lost to shouting matches and robotic iteration of well-worn points. Can there be nothing new under the sun? Are there any new thoughts to think? Is there a way to break the cycle of library building and burning?
Although it’s a relatively breezy and high-level survey of the topic, Doubt is a good deal more dense than my customary reading. It was dismaying how much work it took to keep my attention on it; I’ve let my reading muscles go slack, I’m afraid. I did pick up speed (and interest) as we entered the 19th and 20th centuries and covered less dry philosophy and more fruitful literary and scientific inquiry. And, significantly, women finally joined the story in a major way (not to discount martyred Hypatia, whose murder in 415 C.E. signals the fall of Alexandria as a cultural center and the onset of the Dark Ages, and her few ancient sisters in free-thinking.)
In my copy of Doubt, the latter chapters are thick with flags to remind me of quotes I wanted to capture, topics I want to delve into further, and people whose biographies I want to seek out. So many interesting and witty characters, from the Salons of Paris, through the suffragette and abolitionist movements, and on to the arts and sciences of today. This is the best thing I got from reading the book: myriad leads for further illuminating reading.