This week’s Speaking of Faith podcast – a repeat – is one of the most fascinating I’ve heard. Host Krista Tippet speaks with Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt: A History. From the wholly quotable transcript:
Hecht: The great doubters have tried to figure out how you can live, and they’ve very much respected the answers that religion has come up with. They just have to fill in certain parts differently because they don’t think that the world is being guided or has been created or is being judged by anyone. And if you don’t think that you’re being watched and if you don’t think that, for instance, morality comes from some outside source, it immediately gives you an incredible amount of responsibility. We can start to think about morality in different ways and start to celebrate the aspect of humanity that generates this thing. And it doesn’t mean you have to question the religious morality because, indeed, the doubters suggest that that came from humanity in the first place. So there’s no reason to throw it out.
I’ve thought of doubt more as negation than as positive theory for how to live. And I’ve been moved and changed by seeing the kinds of suggestions that were made for how to live, and to see that those suggestions are really so close to the kinds of religious suggestions, they just avoid the one where someone’s taking care of it all and you can just place your faith in them. But religion does an awful lot of other types of work — just reminding us of death, and reminding us that the community is larger than the self, and reminding us of the real reasons why we do things, and reminding us that those real reasons get lost in the minutia of daily life. Doubters, without reference to the supernatural, work over those same themes and come to various answers, some which are similar to the religious and some which are quite different. That has been an education for me.
It’s interesting to me that, as I think, in the last couple of years, religion has come more to the surface of things. I think 9/11 had something to do with this, both in terms of the way religion got into the news and the way people responded to it. I think it was bubbling under the surface. But what I’m also noticing and what you write in your book is that, at the same time, it seems like people are feeling a need to articulate what you just said — doubt, or a lack of belief, as a position that has some integrity.
The point that I want to make is that, you know, in the grandest scheme is that right now the truth is I don’t think that there is much pride in doubt or much recognition that it has a rich history. And I think that that’s really crucial right now, especially because of the way that belief is coming up again as part of policy. That kind of idea, it’s got to be met with the voices of people who are looking at things from the other side. And right now, you know, well, I think I’d like to contextualize this a little bit and say that America in the beginning of the 20th century was a wonderful time to be a doubter. You know, Thomas Edison tells The New York Times he doesn’t believe in an afterlife. You know, that’s something that most people believe in an afterlife wouldn’t tell The New York Times today. It was thought of as — the whole idea of nonconformism, of questioning, of bucking the dominant idea was celebrated as part of what democracy desperately needed, really, from John Stuart Mill and Harriet Mill onward, that idea of liberty as being something you have to keep enacting, otherwise you’ll lose it.