Thursday, January 15, 2009

Book Review: Doubt: A History

Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson, by Jennifer Michael Hecht

This book is amazing. I highly recommend. My copy is falling apart right now from overuse. I desperately need one of those Quran book-holders to preserve it. For atheists, the book will likely introduce you to many religious skeptics that you haven't heard of before and offers insight into both the history of atheism, and to a lesser extent, the history of religion. For theists, it offers a easy and painless introduction to religious skepticism, and Hecht's warm and friendly tone is sure to be a welcome relief. At 494 pages, it seems quite formidable, but once you get into it, it's a breeze.

I really liked Ebonmuse's summary:
A magisterial history of religious doubt, dissent and freethinking from the ancient Greeks to the modern day. Readers who can get past the book's admittedly intimidating size will find treasures on nearly every page, showing that doubt has been alive and well in even the darkest of dark ages. I learned an enormous amount from this book and will use it often as a reference - strongly recommended.
The book starts out with my favorite part, Greek doubt. It goes over the major schools of thought - Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism, and introduces us to Greek doubters: Xenophanes, Democritus, Epicurus, Diagoras, Anaxagoras, Socrates, etc.

One thing that always strikes me about this book is the sheer multitude and diversity of doubters throughout history:
  • The Carvaka (in the play The Rise of the Moon Intellect, Passion's diatribe against religion is absolutely hysterical)
  • Islamic doubters al-Razi (who famously wrote The Prophet's Fraudulent Tricks, The Stratagems of Those Who Claim to Be Prophets, and On the Refutation of Revealed Religions and yet died of natural causes) and al-Ma'arri ("O fools, awake! The rites ye sacred hold / Are but a cheat contrived by men of old / Who lusted after wealth and gained their lust / And dided in baseness-and their law is dust.")
  • Chinese philosopher Wang Ch'ung (who attacked magical thinking and espoused naturalism)
  • Giordano Bruno (who pursued Copernicanism to its logical end and shockingly claimed that the universe was filled with other suns and other worlds just like ours, teeming with life. He was burned at the stake as a heretic, although with probably the most badass last words ever, "Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I recieve it." Even today, the Catholic Church still cries crocodile tears over his death murder. Cardinal Angelo Sodano called it a "sad episode", but quickly added that we should not judge those who condemned Bruno and that the inquisitors "had the desire to preserve freedom and promote the common good and did everything possible to save his life." What a load!)
  • And I can't forget Baron d'Holbach, one of the first openly atheistic atheists (who mused on God, "If he is immovable, by what right do we pretend to make him change his decrees? If he is inconceivable, why occupy ourselves with him? If he has spoken, why is the universe not convinced?")
I could go on all day (and heartily enjoy every moment of it), but you get the picture. There are gems here, and that's not all. Hecht does an excellent job weaving together the myriad lives of religious doubt, noting the common refrains, and presenting naturalism as a both a valid and worthy alternative to supernaturalism, with its share of heroes and firebrands, its moments of triumph and loss, and its ability to inspire and enrich the lives of people.

Doubt is a must-read for anyone interested in religion's critics.

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