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

4.12 of 5 stars 4.12  ·  rating details  ·  1,680 ratings  ·  182 reviews
In the tradition of grand sweeping histories such as From Dawn To Decadence, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and A History of God, Hecht champions doubt and questioning as one of the great and noble, if unheralded, intellectual traditions that distinguish the Western mind especially-from Socrates to Galileo and Darwin to Wittgenstein and Hawking. This is an accoun ...more
Paperback, 576 pages
Published September 7th 2004 by HarperOne (first published 2003)
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What is it they say? "History is written by the winners."

That is unless you're Howard Zinn ("People's History of the United States") or Jennifer Michael Hecht, writing "Doubt: A History." No, I'm not calling these two "losers," but they definitely adopted Quixotic missions in championing the unspoken viewpoint of "the other side" of history.

And both turned out encyclopedic tomes on their respective topics. But as much as I enjoyed Zinn's take on American History (recommended, by the way, by Mat
Here's a little confession: I'm a doubter. I always have been. And given my very conservative Mormon family and the even more conservative Mormon community I live in, doubt is frowned upon. More than that, it's considered a serious character flaw--something to be ashamed of, purged, and overcome as quickly as possible. Doubt: A History provides an overview of some of the world's most prominent doubters--Socrates, Thomas Jefferson, even Jesus--and describes the crucial roles they played in histor ...more
Jul 30, 2008 Bob rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: owned
An absorbing history of healthy skepticism through the ages.

Personally, I've always joked that Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" could be "I doubt, therefore I may not be." In reading this book, I realize "I think, therefore something thinks, but it's not necessarily me." Which can ironically lead one to a non-dogmatic spirituality. As an agnostic, I find the claimed certainties of both religion and science to be irksome. As Hecht has in her book (it may be a quote from someone else), the rea
April Hamilton
This is a hefty, dense tome. There's a lot of quality analysis, history and argument here, but the problem with a book like this is that it's a 'preaching to the choir' sort of exercise.

People who are already somewhat doubtful of established cultural institutions will be nodding in agreement and amusement all the way through, and will likely already be familiar with much of the historical and philosophical background the book provides, but those who have a more reverent attitude toward those in
I have nearly reached the end and I know I will be starting again when I finish. I enjoy Jennifer's writing style very much. It feels to me like we're two friends walking though a museum and she's giving me the guided tour of my life. She speaks to me in a conversational tone opening up my mind to the secret history of thought. I'm relishing in the choice bits she chooses to quote, like handpicked produce from the grower. She hasn't grabbed the bag of discount apples from a supermarket like so m ...more
Hecht's historical survey of doubt is a lot of things and seems to do them all very well. It is a defense of doubt, a survey of doubt, a biography of doubters, a family tree of doubt's relatives. It looks at doubt both from within and external to belief. It examines the motives and believers and gives each its appropriate due.


I found the book to be highly readable. Strange to say, it was almost TOO readable. I felt myself slipping through the pages almost too fast. It has given me a whole new g
Kevin Mchargue
This broad but meticulous history of ideas helps to correct two widespread errors: the belief among current nonbelievers that previous generations all accepted religion uncritically, and the belief among current believers that atheism is some new, decadent development. The reality is that from the moment the first religious belief existed, the first doubt existed, both in communities and within each individual. People have always struggled with problems of good and evil, sin and grace, sense and ...more
I have no words to describe the brilliance and execution here. If the title causes even the least spark of interest for you, read this book. I'm sure this will be one of the most well-loved books on my shelves for the rest of my life.
Peter Mcloughlin
This book traces the history of religious doubters, skeptics and atheists from the classical world through the middle ages to the modern era. It seems that every age has had religion and every age has had its disbelievers. The disbelievers of history form a who's who of famous minds. Ancients like Lucretius and Democratus, to the middle ages with the great Arab scholars like poet and physician Omar Khayyam, to the modern era where the list explodes. Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Paine, Voltaire, ...more
Paul Fidalgo
A good read, but more importantly, a really solid education; Not simply in terms of the history of doubters, but the history of, well, thought. Of philosophy. For someone who didn't quite get the education he might have liked, this book is a great tour through different ways of thinking about the world, freed from the gauze and blur of supernaturalism.
Summing up nearly 3000 years of history on a subject as vast as 'doubt' is certainly an undertaking (one Hecht just manages to pull off) and at times the books does feel like a mere laundry-list of freethinkers, many of their names I have already forgotten. But other sections (like her attention to freethinking women throughout the ages) more than make up for it. Some sections seem far too brief (almost dumbed down) but I suppose if they weren't this book would be about 3000 pages.

My biggest cr
May 28, 2009 Julia rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: open minded scholars
Shelves: non-fiction
This book changed my life. I literally took a month to read, highlight, take notes--Hecht is an excellent scholar, and she has done an amazing job of honoring the history of those who QUESTION. She explains that she wanted people to know that doubt has its own existence, not just in response to belief but as a quest for truths that may never be found. Albert Einstein once said, "The important thing is not to stop questioning"--and that's her central point. The subtitle of the book is revealing: ...more
Meadows13 Meadows
I have yet to read a book by Ms. Hecht that I didn't find very thought provoking. For an agnostic like myself, this was a enlightening journey through millenia of the history of doubt over religious dogma and theology. It contains more fantasticly memorable and stimulating passages than I'll attempt to repeat here.

It was incredibly affirming to read that renowned persons from hundreds or even thousands of years ago were expressing the exact same doubts that have marked my personal philosophical
Andy Payne
This magnificent work, full of enthralling portraits of the world's great sceptics, and landscapes of the times and cultures they inhabited, provides an invaluable history of serious thought. While an enormous amount of scholarship, analysis and deep thinking has obviously gone into it, the writing is always accessible, frequently surprising, and often moving. I learnt a great deal, not least about myself. I shall never forget the feelings of certainty and melancholy that wrapped around me as I ...more
Nov 29, 2010 Dianne is currently reading it
Only a couple of chapters in so far, and I can already see that Ms. Hecht is a lively but carefully original thinker. Just a couple of examples:

- She characterizes the work of the Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics as some of the first self-help books in the West. I find this notion appealing, as it shows that supposedly pie-in-the-sky philosophy is actually deeply relevant to how we live, while simultaneously ennobling the much-maligned desire of human beings to read self-help books.

- By
Well, everyone else has been far more eloquent about this book than I could ever hope to be, but I did want to add a couple of small things.

First, I don't remember the last time I read a nonfiction book, particularly a history of any kind, that was so enthusiastic. I mean, there were exuberant exclamation marks in this book. Maybe this is my own fault and I need to do more reading, but those exclamation marks were refreshing.

Second, I very much appreciated the awe and the wit. Hecht seems to kno
I have never learned so much from ONE book.

Jennifer Michael Hecht'a comprehension of history and philosophy is staggering. The "doubt" of which she speaks is the history of the doubting of God and gods in human thought and society. She goes from the ancient Greeks like Epicurus to Job to Lucretius to Thomas Jefferson to George Carlin and everyone else in between. Her wit and wisdom are evident on every page. I actually high-lighted this book as I read it. If you are a believer, read it. It will
Sammi Murphy
Definitely enjoying.. a lot!

So far the chapter on Buddhism has given me the most to think about. Overall this book has morphed my thinking a little into... why can't pieces of doubt come together? I think doubt can shape the way we practice whatever it is we believe. Perhaps what formed from doubt in the Greek gods led to athiesm, but the nontheistic philosophies include meditation and oneness of self and connection with nature and things we could all experience no matter what God or religion we
This book presents an encompassing story of religious doubt throughout the ages. Looking at the history of religion through the eyes of the great doubters and the various philosophies of doubt was a great way to understand the past 3,000 years. My only criticism is that, at times, there was a bit more detail than I personally needed, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the entire book and would recommend it to anyone interested in understanding not only the history of religion, but also insights on f ...more
I bought the book shortly after it was first published. I skimmed it, read the first chapter and set it aside. Time to read it through. I heard the author interviewed on "Speaking of Faith" and was intrigued by her premise for the book.

A fascinating look at doubt through ages of human civilization. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in the history of free thought.

It took me considerable time to read, taking a small section at a time. It's a book I will read again and use as a reference.
Nov 19, 2008 Shaun rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: thinkers
Wow! This book is amazing at giving a history of doubt. I have always thought that skepticism and doubt was a big minority in the world (it still is). However, it's the second largest "belief" in the world (the first is Christianity). This book could be used as a text book in class, but it doesn't have that dryness to it that other text books have. I wish that this book was longer so that Hecht could delve into greater detail about doubt into these great thinkers.
Aug 02, 2007 Steve rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: everyone with a working mind
Combines atheistic philosophy with poetic craft. Unlike many of the recent atheist-rants, Hecht’s history is a work of actual persuasive-writing, and its call for our stepping past religion, mainly because her argument is so effortless, is powerful. She’s a cool, welcoming voice to the fold of irreligion, and this is the only book I’d truly recommend to a religious person. Non-combative, though calculated, Doubt is fascinating, instructive, and bolstering.
What a wonderful experience reading this book. Its like looking back at the history of doubt and realizing that I belong to a culture that is rich and meaningful and deeply intertwined to the culture of belief. This quote from the book summarizes my experience reading it and helps to clarify that I am simply pondering on the shoulders of doubting giants who have come before me.

“Theistic religions all have in them an amazing human ability: belief. Belief is one of the best human muscles; it can
When one has certainty, there is no more room for further knowledge or understanding. Science and Reason never prove, at the most they can just show things to be less false than other things. There is a long history of people who haven't been certain and their story makes for a much more interesting revealing of human history than the ones who pretend to have no doubt.

There are two recurring characters in this marvelous book about doubters throughout history, the Stoic, Cicero and his "On the Na
anthony e.
Insightful and interesting, as well as sweeping in scope. My only complaint is that Hecht sort of drops the ball towards the end. Doubt is the questioning of the established view, and when, in modern day, the established view is doubt, it seemed to me appropo to look at faith as doubt.

But that's just me.
Typically we measure a time period in history according to the heroes or champions of the day; instead, the author argues, it's really those who were the "doubters" that we should be looking at...for those are the people that affected change.
An excellent, readable, throughly researched and noted history of religious doubt. Great general reference book for those interested in countering the bile that spews from the mouths and keyboards of the religious wrong.
This book is a joy to read for so many reasons that there's no point any even bothering to explain it. Just read it. You'll see what I mean.
Puts a lot of things in context. Very readable and most thought-provoking. Highly recommended for thinking people everywhere.
Ira Therebel
A great book on a very interesting topic. Jennifer Hecht takes us through the history of religious doubt starting from the ancient Greeks all the way to the modern time. In the process she addresses different religions and how they evolved. We hear about some major doubters of the times, the ones that are not as well known and the social attitude they faced.

I am not an expert on the topic to address any inconsistencies or fallacies. I personally didn't notice any. To me the book was highly inter
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interested? 2 31 Apr 23, 2012 06:54AM  
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Jennifer Michael Hecht is a poet, historian, philosopher, and author.

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“Prayer is based on the remote possibility that someone is actually listening; but so is a lot of conversation. If the former seems far-fetcher, consider the latter: even if someone is listening to your story, and really hearing, that person will disappear from existence in the blink of a cosmic eye, so why bother to tell this perhaps illusory and possibly un-listening person something he or she is unlikely to truly understand, just before the two of you blip back out of existence? We like to talk to people who answer us, intelligently if possible, but we do talk without needing response or expecting comprehension. Sometimes, the event is the word, the act of speaking. Once we pull that apart a bit, the action of talking becomes more important than the question of whether the talking is working-because we know, going in, that the talking is not working. That said, one might as well pray.” 8 likes
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