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Doubt: A History by Jennifer Hecht

A friend and I were commiserating about the relative dearth of good atheist books. Say what you will about the Christian faith we left (and we’ve both said plenty), there is within the church a tradition of heady literature. From Augustine and Pascal to G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, we never lacked for quality reading. It might have been intellectual nonsense, but it was exceedingly well-written nonsense.

Finally, an atheist-friendly book I can gush about. Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt: A History (with the unwieldy subtitle, The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson) is a delight from first page to last, as exhilarating as it is informative. For the atheist it is (dare I use the word?) inspirational.

Another friend of mine, a Russian Orthodox intellectual, criticized Doubt for not being deep enough. I see its airy, playful tone as among its greatest strengths. Doubt foregoes the ponderous prose and intellectual snobbery found in many atheist tomes, instead presenting an amiable “potluck” survey of religious skepticism through the ages.

In the book’s 500-odd pages, the reader meets a great many fascinating characters and learns enough of what makes them remarkable to send the curious scrambling to the source material to find out more. Already I’ve delved deeper into Diogenes, Shelly, and Ingersoll, and reread the Hebrew Bible books of Job and Ecclesiastes with fresh eyes. I defy any atheist to come away from Doubt without a new set of heroes — intellectual giants, persons of great courage and conviction, and even literal martyrs to the cause of free thought. Hecht summarizes her own work nicely on the last page of text: “The only thing that doubters need, that believers have, is a sense that people like themselves have always been around, that they are part of a grand history.” Exactly. Many atheists might revel in their freedom from the stale and restrictive traditions of religion. But to realize you are part of a great parade of thinkers who advance humanity, consisting of compelling and colorful characters, is to claim for yourself pride of place. Hecht has rendered an extraordinary service through her book, and I urge atheists to read it. Atheism is a tradition to celebrate and embrace. –Greg Peterson

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The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner

There have been many fine books regarding evolution and Darwinian ideas written by names we are all familiar with: Dawkins, Gould, Dennett, Eldredge, etc. All these books are good with their own particular perspective on an evolutionary principle. However, I would like to point out a book you may have overlooked.

While studying in England a couple years back, I ran into a relative of Charles Darwin after visiting Darwin’s house (now a museum). During my long conversation with the relative, he spoke of his life as an engineer and it was only now in his retirement that he had taken up an interest family history. While looking into the ideas Darwin developed, there was one book he felt truly gave a view of the big picture of what evolution represents and of the people who continue to study the story of life. That book is The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner.

The Pulitzer Prize winning book, written in 1994, tells of the work Peter and Rosemary Grant of Princeton University have done on the Galapagos Islands for the last 20 years. (It has now been 30 years since their work began. See my article on “Nobel Conference explores The Story of Life” in the November/ December 2003 Minnesota Atheist for more information.)

The book majestically covers the Grants’ work studying the finches on Daphne Major Island and the incredible discoveries that they’ve made. Through conversations with the Grants, their colleagues, and marvelous, accurate drawings from their daughter (who has grown up on the island), Weiner is able to weave together a narrative of the methods of biologists, their discoveries, and what it means and implies for them to have actually measured and witnessed Natural Selection in action.

The book is a masterful collection of science, biography, environmental studies, and elegant narrative. If you want to understand what biologists do and what we can – and have – learned about evolutionary studies, then pick up this book. – Brett Welch

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