Some Thoughts on Jennifer Hechts’ Doubt: A History

Some Thoughts on Jennifer Hechts’ Doubt: A History

Its rare for me to have such a viceral negative reaction to a book (slightly more common when it comes to film). There is little that bothers me more though than a book (or film or show for that matter) that is less than honest about where it is taking its premise. That it appears to be about one thing- in this case a curious history of doubt as existing integrated with and alongside a history of faith and the schisms that have unfortunately held them at odds- but ends up being something quite other- a polemic against religion that sneakily uses this hisory to prop up a schism of its own making- betrays so much of the authors attempt to establish doubt as a hepful aspect of humanities shared appeal to mystery. Instead we get doubt as an answer to the problem of religion.

Which is so unfortunate because the first chapter starts out really strong, not as a polemic but as a treaties and a reflection on our common humanity, the very real tensions and schisms that emerge as we try to reconcile our humanity with the reality of an uncaring universe, and the ways that doubt can help us navigate this schism “faithfully”. It cites the problem as not just the naturally bred schism that exists between a conscious humanity and an unconscious universe, but also as the tendency for belief and doubt to become partisan in nature with believers and doubters then occuping different sides of the preverbial fence. The point here being that we then are tempted to assume that doubt must be synonymous with skepticism and unbelief, which of course creates more division (including the perception of a necessary divide between faith and sicence). And yet in truth, and something this history helps uncover, doubt, and our resistance to it, exists just as readily and just as apparent within modern, rationalist skepticism and unbelief. This is, in fact, what should be what the history of doubt can help teach us- this great schism between human values and a seemingly meaningless universe sees our need to locate some form of certainty when it comes to meaning consistently being undercut by the reality of this world whether we believe in God or not. Healthy doubt can be a helpful means of helping us navigating this problem and can actually lead us to a richer faith.

However, here is where we get the first signs of this book saying something quite different. Early on Hecht notes,

“Great believers and great doubters seem like opposites, but they are more similar to each other than to the mass of relatively disinterested or acquiestcent men and women. This is because they are both awake to the fact that we live between two divegent realities: On one side, there is a world in our heads- and in our lives, so long as we are not contadicted by death and disaster- and that is a world of reason and plans, love, and purpose. On the other side, there is the rld beyond our human life- an equaly real world in which ther eis no sign of caring or vaue, planning or judgment, love, or joy. We live in a meaning rupture because we are human and the universe is not.”
Doubt:A History (p xii)


If, as she goes on to say,

“Great doubters, like great believers, have been people occupied with this problem, trying to figure out whether the universe actually has a hidden version of humanness, or whether humanness is the error and people would be better off weaning themselves from their sense of narrative, justice, and love, thereby solving the schism by becoming more like the universe in which they are stuck”,


then the author is able to deftly move us towards her central thesis by way of this tension, first defining relgion as a search for “enlightenment“, establishing a history of religion as one that reveals the dominant, or oldest presence of religion in history as a belief system “without God or gods”, something she attempts to etablish as both still the norm in the East and as the most faithful expression of religion historically. Finally, Hecht moves to reinsert doubt into the picture not as a healthy element of faith but as the necessary opposition to faith in aworld “where there is no substantial evidence of the existence of God.” When God is taken out of the picture, Hecht observes, poeple must then build moral sytems in its place, and this history is intent on showing how healthy doubt can help us do this well, placing us in good company with those who have atttmped to lay claim to the promise of somehing (in this case a belief in a godless world that does in fact have the power to heal and reconcile the schism) that is “vibrant in its prescriptions for a good life, and just as passionate for the truth.”

Doubt: A History is not then about the necessary wrestling as the early going suggests. Rather, what this book quickly becomes is the establishing of the cynics, the skeptics and the unbelievers as occupying the true force of relgious and human hstory. This book becomes an oral and evolutionary history of unbelief, underscored by its journey though east and west and packaged as an origins story. The very schism it observes and critiques in the early going suddenly gives way to further schisms of its own making, smuggling in appeals then to certainty through rationalist, enlightenment approaches as the true counter to the notion that humanity has always seemed to be drawn to belief in God. The schism of its own making is betwen religion and rationlism. The great Doubting heroes are the couragous people who have persisted with the early tendencies towards unbelief even as ancient history began to see belief in God becoming the dominant force and narrative. They are the ones who have protected doubt, a word now soley defined as unbelief, from the evils and dangers of religion.

This is, I think, where Hecht’s work ceases to be very helpful, and the skewed perception that this creates is evidence of its allegiance to carving out a one sided view of history, albeit one that the author believes has been somewhat buried and which is in need of a fresh unearthing (a fair and helpuful assertion). It is also deeply contradictory in how it seeks to abolish the schisms while at the same time creating schisms between faith and doubt in order to estbalish her main claims. It also betrays some of the central concerns of religion by using a caricatured and largely dismissive view of religion as somehow existing seperate to the existence of God or gods. This misses the ways that religion, and belief in God, is legitimately concerned with this apparent schism between human consciousness and a seemingly unconscious universe, often working to reinstate or uphold this marriage between heaven and earth that wrongly and often misapplied Platonic perceptions have unfortunately worked to seperate (relegating god out there somewhere and leaving the world down here as something humanity simply then has to escape).

The author cannot solve the problem of the initial schism, and ironically she is not interested ultimatley solving it. Instead she simply reapplies it towards a fresh history of unbelief as sitting in necessary contest with the history of belief. What becomes all too apparent as she moves chronologically through the history of humanity existing in simitaneous relationship to both doubt and belief is that doubt can only be a friend to her positiion when it is used to describe and define the enemy. This is how she is ableto uphold the certainty of her own position. The irony of course being that this same history she is unearthing undercuts the assumption of her working premise left, right and center. It reveals that the moral systems and humanisitic vision she brings in to replace God and to answer the tension of the existing schism between conscious humanity and an unconscious universe is no more certain in its conclusions than anything else. It is as vulnerable to the unconscious universe as faith. Its too bad then that she couldn’t heed the helpful words of her own early assertions. There’s a wonderful “Scale of Doubt” quiz that she includes as a way of showing how we are not so different as we think in a world clouded in schisms. Understanding that faith and doubt don’t exist in hard and fast lines towards certainty can actually be a way of making faith, or confidence in the meaningful life, stronger. It can also help heal the divide and give us a way to genuinly wrestle with what is a shared and universal human struggle together. As it is, Hecht leaves no room here for someone to challenge her own unbelieving assumptions in its failure to actually address the schism. She simply assumes that the history of doubt will satisfy these very human concerns. It does’t. Far from it in fact. And given the degree of certainy she seems to have in the fact that it will it actually makes me more inclined to become a skeptic, although not in the way I think she has in mind.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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