Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht
By Greg Peterson
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.