REFLECTION: The Joy Of Doubt by Jennifer Michael Hecht

The Joy Of Doubt by Jennifer Michael Hecht

From Doubt

Ethics, Logic, Mood

The history of doubt exists, has galloped across some twenty-six centuries, and has been very conscious of itself for much of that time.  From Cicero to Schopenhauer, from Fanny Wright to Hubert Harrison, from Socrates to Wittgenstein, the long strange story of the history of doubt has loved its heroes.  It seems crucial that this history be known, if only so that its theorists, poets, comedians, and martyrs may be understood in their proper context.  People should be able to speak to each other about doubt without having to establish all the old arguments every time the conversation begins again.  Doubters and believers alike should know that Epicurus and Lucretius, the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, and the teachings of the Buddha have been remarkably constant resources in the history of unbelief.  So has the whole history of Skepticism and doubt in our ability to know the world from the Carvaka, Socrates, Pyrrho, Sextus Empiricus, Montaigne, Charron, Hume, Bayle, through to all the modern skeptics.  Since I began writing this book, well before September 2001, the significance of its subject has redoubled.  The book is now offered as a way to contextualize the struggle over religion and secularism that is at the heart of the crisis.  There are limits to any specific parallel, but it helps to know something of the historical course of secularization and the responses it has drawn.  Most notably, one sees how slowly ideas change and how many heroines and heroes of the cause are required.

The quiz that introduced this book was geared toward teasing out the issues of doubt in general, and was interpreted in terms of the categories that make sense to our times: believers, agnostics, and atheists.  Now that we have run through the story of doubt, the categories believer, agnostic, and atheist stand out as very recent ways of dividing thought on this issue.  They may not be the most interesting or useful ways anymore.

According to common usage, the term agnosticism holds that we cannot reasonably make an assessment on the question of whether God exists.  Why not then extend Skepticism to all knowledge; that is, why are agnostics supposed to be Skeptics only on this question?  Agnosticism often ends up being a catchall term for those who do not think there is a God, but who harbor a tiny allowance that there might be some force that creates meaning and makes possible an afterlife.

What of the difference between belief and atheism?  There have been mystics and philosophers who said they believed in God but who did not believe anything about the universe that was different than how the atheists described it.  They just called something about it “God.”  If your idea of God is a being that thinks, does things, or even exists, you would have to re-classify a great many self-titled believers as atheists.  If, instead, what divides belief and atheism is that believers have a taste for religion and atheists think it’s dangerous bunk, then what of the great atheist religions?  Believer mystics and believer philosophers have more in common with atheist mystics and atheist philosophers than with those who accept a Creator God who is aware of us and does things.

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.

Divisions that seem more historically stable might include: the sectarian, who accepts the stories, rituals, and rules of his or her own religion as true; the “one-of-many” religionist, who believes all religions are equally true and interprets the universe as having some force that unites life and perhaps gives it meaning; the Skeptic, who doesn’t believe we can know anything about anything; the perplexed, who believes knowledge is possible but who identifies him- or herself as personally unresolved; the ritualistic, who thinks the universe is a natural phenomenon and we should celebrate our humanity in the ritual and allegory of traditional religion; and the science secularist, who thinks the universe is a natural phenomenon and that religion adds more bad than good. All these people can be doubters – open to the idea that they do not know everything.  Whatever the terms, knowing the history of doubt seems to open up the conversation.

This history also allows broad assessment of doubt.  For instance, is it good or bad to find out you are living next door to it?  It seems to have a knack for generating and popularizing very useful theories.  In atomism, anthropology, and cosmology, in politics and neurology, we now hold doubters’ doctrines.  It is not a coincidence: doubters have wanted to know how the world works and expected to find answers in the world around them.  Doubt has been a disproportionately industrious and dynamic stream of human culture and cosmology, espoused by such productive figures as Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Socrates and Sigmund Freud – it gets a lot done.  The story of doubt has run alongside the religions all along, and I think it always will.  There will always be individuals and groups who doubt the religious faith in which they were brought up, and parts of the world in which cosmopolitanism encourages the mixing of ideas and the growth of doubt.  When religion stays out of politics (in the broad sense of the term), atheism quiets down to a calm chat: we hear about it from contemplative people, with little or no attack on the mythic aspects of religion, because in these circles, none is necessary.

In the ancient world a tremendous range of doubt emerged early on: Anaxagoras guessed that instead of a god, the sun was a hot rock; Democritus came up with atoms as an explanation of a completely self-functioning universe; Epicurus worked out a graceful-life philosophy to live well in this world, without religion; the Carvaka rejected God, gods, inference, causality, karma, and life after death, and declared religion a trap by leaders and priests for power and money; Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, counseled a nontheistic transcendence program; there was a grand and nuanced tradition of philosophical Skepticism.  The great cosmopolitan doubt started with Xenophanes considering the gods of Ethiopians and red-headed Thracians, and in the same breath the relativism this inspired was extended to animals, so that oxen and horses and lions all imagined gods with tails.  Also in the ancient history of doubt, the author of the Book of Job wailed at the injustice of the world; Miriam called the Temple a wolf that devoured time, energy, and intellect, and smacked the building with her sandal; and the essentially secular Roman Empire encouraged a bread-and-circuses materialism, along with a good deal of state ritual.  From the ancient world, seven key doubting projects emerged:

  • science, materialism, and rationalism
  • nontheistic transcendence programs
  • cosmopolitan relativism
  • graceful-life philosophies
  • the moral rejection of injustice
  • philosophical skepticism
  • the doubt of the believer 

They are all very different, but many people involved in one are also involved in others.  Christian doubt arose as the struggle to believe in God, in oneself, in one’s strength to bear the challenges of renunciation and in some cases martyrdom: Jesus’s last words, in two out of the three synoptic Gospels, asked God why he had forsaken him; it seems he was expecting something and now doubted it was coming.  Augustine gnashed his teeth and rolled around in his garden yearning to devote himself to God.  The doubt of believers is one of the beauties of religions that stress belief; Jesus admonished Thomas to believe without proof, and it is a central image of that faith.  Eastern asceticism and the emerging notions of sin and hell and, much later, Protestant justification by faith, further intensified believers’ doubt.  It is an aspect of the howl of Job, through the looking glass where belief itself is the test rather than life as the test for belief.

People tend to think that the doubt of believers shut down the others, but that is true in only the most limited geographical terms.  There was a “dark age” of European doubt, which can be described as beginning with Hypatia’s murder in 415 CE; or in 529 when the emperor Justinian outlawed paganism and closed the Epicurean Garden, the Skeptic Academy, and the Lyceum.  It took a while before the philosophies of doubt were forgotten, but let’s consider the sixth century as the time the lights dimmed, and the twelfth century as when doubt begins to start up again in Europe.  Although the period was marked by a great movement toward theism all over the world, there was still a lot of room for doubt.  Theravada Buddhism continued to doubt the supernatural throughout the period, as did the nontheist traditions of Confucianism and Taoism.  In the late fifth century CE Zen gave doubt new life, concentrating on doubt itself, staring at it, making doubt its only goal.  The Buddha had suggested that we deny the reality of this world.  Zen really loved doubt for its own sake: it liked answering questions by holding up lotus flowers or tweaking a nose, celebrating the development of doubt as a highly charged experience.  Still this doubt was productive: “Great doubt: great awakening.”  There were Indian rationalist philosophies in this period, too: in the seventh century, the sage Purandara added probability to the Carvaka’s denial of all inference, and the eighth-century Sankara argued that as milk, without intelligence, flows when it is needed, so the entire world can self-generate according to natural relationships.

Europe had its dark age, but around the world, and even on the other coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, the missing six centuries of doubt were actually lively with doubt.  Al-Rawandi died about 860 having rejected almost every aspect of Islam, God, and religion in general.  The older al-Warraq had taught him much of his doubt.  If we ask, then, how long the record of doubt goes dark around the Mediterranean Sea, we are down to about three centuries.  Al-Rawandi doubted that the Koran was miraculously beautiful, argued that the prophets had tricked believers on purpose, and that Muhammad himself showed the weakness of religion when he criticized Judaism and Christianity.  Al-Razi lived around the same time (854-925) and was as believed as al-Rawandi was hated, but he doubted as fiercely.  He wondered what kind of God would use prophets instead of just telling everyone what they need to know.  He suggested, instead, the contemplation of philosophy, and al-Razi’s Baghdad joined the ranks of the world’s great doubting cities.

By the twelfth century, doubt was back in Europe.  It had swept like an hour hand down through the Mideast, across North Africa, up into Spain, and soon, with Saadia ben Joseph (882-942), into France.  Averroës and Maimonides were doubting in Spain in the tenth century and Gersonides in France between 1288 and 1344.  Doubt must have been in Paris a good while before the Condemnation of 1277 said it was no longer permissible to teach “that theological discussion are based on fables”; “that there is no higher life than philosophical life”; “that Christian Revelation is an obstacle to learning”; and “that man could be adequately generated from putrefaction,” among other doubting propositions.  In 1417 a manuscript of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things was discovered, and by 1435 Lorenzo Valla’s celebration of Epicurus almost got Valla burned at the stake.

By the mid-thirteenth century a movement of Latin Averroism was centered in Paris and Padua.  Averroism got really big in the West with Pietro Pomponazzi.  At Padua in the early sixteenth century, Pomponazzi denied the existence of immortal souls and argued that people do not need threats of Heaven and hell in order to be moral.  Epicurus, Lucretius, and Diagoras were Pomponazzi’s heroes.  Pomponazzi, in turn, was hero to the entire Libertine group in France – those who also drew upon Montaigne and Charron as evidence that we cannot know anything about religion or God.

The Inquisition let us hear common doubt, and it was remarkably fertile and imaginative, doubting all aspects of religion; doubting God because of personal tragedy, because the myths of the Old and New Testaments did not ring true, and because of the injustice of the world.  From Menocchio to Bruno, the history of doubt saw many of its martyrs in this horror.  That claims to certainty were enforced by fire helped drive many to bold expressions of skepticism.  Montaigne had lines from Ecclesiastes and Sextus Empiricus carved into the walls of his home, and his self-designed symbol featured a scale balance, in perfect, level indifference, underlined by the motto, “What do I know?”  He also concluded that since Copernicus had overturned cosmology, we should ignore science, for the whole thing might be overturned again.  Not everyone took it this way: Gassendi and Galileo headed off in the direction of experimental science – transforming atomism into a religiously neutral idea along the way.  Modern thought still follows both these divergent paths.

Maimonides and Gersonides, Newton and Galileo, all worked on the problem of finding naturalist ways to understand miracles.  Spinoza shocked everyone by saying they did not happen.  His biblical criticism and disbelief got him excommunicated and made him one of the most consistently important doubters of all time.  His near contemporary Hobbes had a similar effect; indeed, for a while it seemed all doubt was Hobbist, but in the long run Spinoza remained more significant to doubters through to the twentieth century.  Perhaps if today’s politically conservative doubters realized Hobbes’s philosophical position, he would again enjoy a vogue.

Several authors explained in writing that it was well known that doubting authors used recognizable tricks to fool the censors.  Charron, in Of Wisdom, (1601), discussed hidden messages in pious texts.  Toland did the other forms of subterfuge.  Doubt was already powerful and popular by the time the English deists rejected the mythology and dogma of religion and its consequences.  When Hume sat down to dinner with d’Holbach and met fifteen atheists around one table, the voice of doubters got bolder, and when Diderot wrote up the anecdote, the voice got loud.

The most striking innovation of modern doubt is its political nature.  American doubters had unique new reasons for anger at religion: slavery, the Calvinist witch trials, missionaries gouging money from people and using the money to further harass the Native Americans.  America also had a new kind of doubter, the kind in petticoats: reforming women who generally supported their families with their books and speeches.  Reformist doubters did not usually read widely in the history of doubt, citing only Thomas Paine of all critics, and noting only Galileo of all the harassed.  The other new factor of modern doubt was the evangelism of nineteenth-century atheism.  Much of the avant-garde of the century expected the end of religion and the end of belief in God, and many of them hoped for it.  They thought universal atheism was best because it was true and because it would force us to live better, to realize how entirely responsible we are for what we do and what we fail to do.

Throughout the history of doubt, Epicurus and Lucretius were probably the most consistently visible figures.  To take a quick tour: The Mishnah mentioned the Epicureans alone of all Greek philosophers and warned against them.  Augustine wrote, “To my mind Epicurus would have been awarded the palm of victory, had I not believed that after death the life of the soul remains. . . a belief which Epicurus rejected.”  Maimonides was well aware of Epicurus and through him of atheism, and of the idea of a world run entirely by chance.  Bruno praised Democritus and Epicurus in the preface to his On the Infinite Universe and Worlds of 1591, and many future doubters would find Democritus and Epicurus through Bruno.  In the early drafts for an edition of Principia, Newton included ninety lines from Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things.  In the late seventeenth century, the philosopher Pierre Bayle wrote that “Atheism does not necessarily lead to corruption of morals,” and praised the ethical lives of Epicurus and his followers.  Hume demanded: “Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered.  Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able?  then he is impotent.  Is He able, but not willing? then is He malevolent.  Is He both able and willing? whence then is evil?”  Jefferson wrote to a friend, “As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurean,” and in another private letter he recommended: “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than of blindfolded fear. . . .  If it end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you.”  Marx wrote his dissertation on Epicurus, lauding the Greek’s effort to free humanity from fear of gods.  Fanny Wright gave a lecture about Epicurus, including a discussion of Leontium, the courtesan and Epicurean philosopher; Ingersoll saw his naturalist morality based on happiness as indebted to Epicurus more than anyone else.  Epicurean ethics based on pleasure and pain inspired Utilitarians and Transcendentalists.  And then there is the modern triumph of ideas Epicurus championed: atomic theory and the self-creation of the world and life.

Doubt has had some other towering figures.  Cicero called to order a doubters’ debate that was reconvened in works by Montaigne, Hume, Schopenhauer, and Freud.  In Petrarch’s hands Cicero was the start of the Renaissance – a grand honor in the history of doubt.  Also, the Job author started a conversation about justice in the universe that has been joined by doubters throughout the centuries.  In the Jewish tradition, there was Menelaus and Miriam; Koheleth, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes.  The psalms speak of the godless, and the fool who “in his heart, says there is no God.”  Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, in the early second century, became Aher, “the Other,” saying that there is no justice and there is no judge.  It was a moral rage that precipitated this, but we know Elisha never tired of singing Greek songs: this was also a cosmopolitan doubt.  These issues would come up again through the centuries, in Spinoza, Maimonides, Mendelssohn, and into the new millennium.

Doubt has come in dialogs, scholastic questions, cryptic books, anonymous compilations, ribald novels, essays, astronomy lessons, Inquisition trial reports, treatises on political science, speeches, poetry, interviews, and open letters to the New York Times.  There are left-wing doubters such as those of the Enlightenment tradition, including the French Revolution and much of communism, and there are authoritarian doubters such as Hobbes, Scarpi, Naudé, Napoleon, and Mussolini.  There are forgotten doubters such as Elisha and al-Rawandi; widely beloved doubters such as al-Razi and Twain.  Among the drinking doubters are Socrates, Rabelais, and Ikkyu Sojun.  There are also teetotaling doubters, as well as sexual adventurers and phlegmatic types who are never much tempted to look away from their books.

People throughout the ancient world had argued that a thinking person could be happy and moral without God or gods, but most of them worried about what the average man or woman would do, and feel, without religion.  This issue was in the background of the debate Cicero started.  Bayle decided people could handle it.  This conversation continued along without resolve.  Something dramatic changed when Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill thought to encourage doubting and nonconformism, as such.  Now the healthy state needs doubt.  In the next century, Freud said the healthy psyche needs doubt, indeed should embrace disbelief as a part of maturity.

There have been many people who have seen the modern world of doubt as a matter of the translation of services and relationships, calendars and allegiances, from religious to secular.  The Romantics made art a religion; a whole range of people made politics a religion; and the practitioners of medicine and psychotherapeutics are often described as modern confessors.  All of these have added their nontheistic counsel to a great tradition.  That counsel could only benefit from being understood within its wider context.  Most crucially, the murderous tension surrounding fundamentalism right now demands that the history of doubt be understood, and that secularists, arguing for cosmopolitan tolerance, be conversant with its history.  It is worth mentioning again that the last “great” enemy of the United States was more secularist than the United States.  That is no longer the case, and we might want to revise our approach to the matter.

Some of my favorite items in the history of doubt are that Ben Franklin was converted to deism in a book intended to argue against deism; that Emma Goldman wrote a biography of Voltairine de Cleyre; that Bradlaugh was the last prisoner of the Clock Tower; and that he named his daughter Hypatia.  I love that Paine picked up Doubting Thomas as a hero for doubters.  I love the claim by the first century CE philosopher Wang Ch’ung that he would believe men fly as soon as one grows feathers; and that Nagarjuna, the Buddhist philosopher of the early third century CE, claimed that everything we could think of about reality, even the doctrine of no-self, is equally wrong.  I love that Lucian, a doubting cutup in the late ancient Rome, was so well known as a doubter in Rabelais and Dolet’s time that they were both called “apes of Lucian”; and that in Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, there are shadows of Lucian’s ancient transformation.  I also love Freud’s mentioning Heinrich Heine as an Unglaubensgenossen, a “fellow-unbeliever,” and that Heine himself had coined the unwieldy word in reference to Spinoza; that Margaret Sanger’s first introduction to doubt was when her father brought Ingersoll to town.  More favorites are the weird compilation texts of doubt published in the seventeenth century, like the Theophrastus Redivivus; and that modern Muslim doubters, in search of protective pen names, have made it so that once again al-Warraq and al-Rawandi labor over the problems of Islam.  Marcus Aurelius’s warm advice also stands out; as does the face that George Eliot translated Strauss and Feuerbach; and that Pliny the Elder was able to believe that sometimes rain comes down as blood, but he still laughed at the idea of life after death.  Finally, I love that Albert Einstein doubted a personal God of any kind, but said he believed in Spinoza’s God, recognizing Spinoza’s God as the awesome universe itself.

Cicero ended his study The Nature of the Gods by picking a winner among the doubters, and the tradition is worth keeping up.  The contest I want to judge, however, is not between various doubters but between the great doubting tradition and all the other traditions of religious thought.  Theistic religions all have in them an amazing human ability: belief.  Belief is one of the best human muscles; it can be very good.  The religions are all beautiful and horrible, filled with feasts, sacrifices, miracles, wars, songs, lamentations, stained glass, onion matzos, and intense communal joy: everyone kneeling, everyone rocking, everyone silent, everyone nose to the floor.  The religions have also been the energy behind much generosity, compassion, and bravery.   The story of doubt, however, has all this, too.  It also has a relationship to truth that is rigorous, sober, and, when necessary, resigned – and it prizes this rigorous approach to truth above the delights of belief.  Doubt has its own version of comforts and challenges.  From doubt’s beginnings, it has advised that if you create your own desires and model them after what you actually experience, you can be happy.  Accept that we are animals, but ones with special problems, and that the world is natural, but natural is just an idea that we animals have in our heads.  Devote yourself to wisdom, self-knowledge, friends, family, and give some attention to community, money, politics, and pleasure.  Know that none of it brings happiness all that consistently.  It’s best to stay agile, to keep an open mind.  Anyway, if you live long enough, you will likely find yourself believing something that you’d never believe today.  Or disbelieving.  In a funny way, the one thing you can really count on is doubt.  Expect change.  Accept death.  Enjoy life.  As Marcus Aurelius explained, the brains that got you through the troubles you have had so far will get you through any troubles yet to come.

Throughout history, many great thinkers have argued that the study of these questions could give life meaning, grace, and happiness.  Many heartily suggest, indeed insist, that doubters should do some practices, some therapy, some art, to tune themselves to a manageable relationship with a universe that very possibly has no humanness at all.  Doubters in the modern world have all sorts of philosophies and communal experiences in which to engage and participate, and it is not uncommon for doubters to compose a sacred-but-secular world for themselves out of reading philosophy of some sort, taking part in psychotherapy, art and poetry, meditation, dance, secular solemnities, and festivals.  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.  I hope it is clear now that doubt has such a history of its own, and that to be a doubter is a great old allegiance, deserving quiet respect and open pride.  For its longevity, its productivity, its pluck, its warmth, its service to friend and foe, and its sometimes ruthless commitment to demonstrative truth, I give the palm to the story of doubt.

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