One of the characters in Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, argues that doubt rather than disbelief is the opposite of faith because disbelief is as certain as faith. Doubt is uncertainty, a refusal to take sides. Doubt is the ultimate openness towards phenomena. Doubt can question both, faith as well as disbelief.
Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book, Doubt: a History, is a masterpiece that presents to the reader all the great doubters from the ancient Indian Carvakas and the Greek Xenophanes to our own Salman Rushdie and Natalie Angier. The best feature of the book is its readability in spite of the highly philosophical themes it deals with. The next best is that it does not confine itself to philosophers, rather it discusses novelists, scientists, historians and others of some significance who have contributed to the history of doubt.
Thousands of people have been killed merely because they questioned certain religions. In the heyday of Christianity and its colonial empires, doubters were killed mercilessly in the name of heresy and witchcraft. Today Islam is doing the same thing in a different way. Narendra Modi’s India has a unique way of bringing all Indians back to their original ghar.
Doubt has driven the world forward, towards light and enlightenment, while religions have sought to keep it in certain degrees of darkness, the degree being determined expediently by the priest and the politician. That’s why the French writer Denis Diderot (1713-1784) averred that “humanity would not be free until the last king is strangled in the entrails of the last priest.” [Quoted by Hecht, p. 347]
Hecht’s sympathies are with the doubters though she does not share my abhorrence of the religious people. She knows that “great doubters are often more invested in religious questions than is the average believer.” [p. 364] But her approach to the subject is very balanced and objective. She quotes the Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), “Reader! To whatever visible church, synagogue, or mosque you may belong! See if you do not find more true religion among the host of the excommunicated than among the far greater host of those who excommunicated them.” [p. 364]
|Jennifer Michael Hecht|
Jesus was a great doubter. In fact, he questioned most of the beliefs and rituals of his religion, Judaism. The more he doubted, however, the more he insisted on the importance of faith. Faith was the ultimate means of redemption for him. Yet his last words on the cross were, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” Hecht says that these words could have been put into Jesus’ mouth by later editors of the Bible who wanted to make certain links between the New Testament and the Old Testament. Jesus’ lament actually belongs to the Psalmist [Psalm 22]. Jesus, however, turned his religion upside down. He brought faith and love in the place of the Jewish commandments and rituals.
I discussed the example of Jesus in slight detail to show that Hecht’s history of doubt is also a history of religions. Anyone who is interested in understanding religions and/or religious doubt will find Hecht’s book a treasure. It is written in the most lucid style possible. It is even subtly witty at times. It is indeed a masterpiece.
PS. Below are a few blog posts of mine inspired by this book: