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Doubt: A History

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  3,216 ratings  ·  277 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 October 14th 2003)
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Nov 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2014, aere-perennius
“The history of doubt is not only a history of the denial of God; it is also a history of those who have grappled with the religious questions and found the possibility of other answers.”
― Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History


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 th
Robert Schneider
Mar 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: religion, philosophy
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
Jul 04, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 10, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Dan Graser
May 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Jennifer Hecht's grand work on the history of doubt is an impressive tome of 600 pages, taking you - chronologically and internationally - right up to 2002. The notion of history being written by the winners is one which certainly applies to large swaths of event-narrative; the history of intellectual thought is one where history is frequently written by the losers (though generations later) since during their day they were likely at least shunned and most often fatally persecuted given the perc ...more
Oct 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
April Hamilton
Mar 23, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly
One of the sacred cows of modern times is Faith. When a person is described as a “man of faith” it would ordinarily give the impression that that person has been bestowed the highest compliment ever and enjoys all the possible human virtues there are.

But a contrarian view makes that person somewhat mentally ill, with “Faith” being considered as a delusion, a hindrance to progress and a source of many evils. This perception is not entirely without merit.

Look at the tragedy of present day Afghani
Moh. Nasiri
Don’t take every fact at face value – instead maintain an impulse for doubt.
تاریخچه تردید

When you were a kid did your parents ever tell you not to believe everything you see on TV? Well the same goes for all information, regardless of the authority that disseminates it. In order to form your own opinions it’s essential to allow doubt and skepticism a place at the table. Just remember not to fall into despair when nothing seems to add up, because you’re not alone.

What connects ancient philosophe
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
Jan 13, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Ross Blocher
Sep 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A masterful work, both in scope and execution. Jennifer Michael Hecht traces the development of doubt, both within religion and without religion, from the ancient Greeks and Indian Charvaka (an ancient materialistic, non-theistic response to Hinduism I'd never even heard of) to Paine, Jefferson and the current crop of modern skeptics and atheists. Along the way, she demonstrates the importance of doubt in challenging assumptions, sparking reflection, and driving thought forward. Hecht is a poet ...more
Simo Ibourki
Mar 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy

I loved the quotes and book passages, I loved how Mrs Hecht integrated in her book not only atheistic and agnostic doubt (Epicurus, Cicero, Schopenhauer, ...) but also religious doubts (Job, Ecclesiastes, Buddha, Jesus, Jews, ...), I also loved her coverage of doubt in a lot of cultures (eastern world, muslim and jewish world, ...) other than the highly-talked about western philosophy.

A highly recommended book for beginners in the field of philosophy.

Paul  Perry
Hecht's examination of how doubt has always lived alongside faith since the earliest times is a fascinating work of scholarship. She takes us from the beginnings of philosophy which grew alongside the earliest recorded organised religions, where the act of questioning and doubting was fundamental to the process of philosophy. This unfaith runs like a bright silver thread through history, although many times religion has sought to obscure the fact and expunge it from the records, or recast the pr ...more
Kevin Mchargue
Nov 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 13, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Paul Fidalgo
Jan 06, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Aug 14, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Aug 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 01, 2022 rated it it was amazing
I loved this history of great doubters and their ideas (and lives). Some of these doubters I knew; others were new to me. Even people of faith would enjoy this lively history of ideas.
Nov 29, 2010 added 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
Nov 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 04, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was good, but I was annoyed at times because it seemed more like a lit review and just a catalogue of people and ideas as opposed to an engaging analysis. I think Karen Armstrong's work is a much more interesting walk through the same history. Armstrong focuses on the religious angle, but she basically comes out the same as Hecht, which is that belief and doubt used to co-exist more comfortably together. I guess I was expecting a bit more from this book --like maybe more of a dialogue with ...more
Feb 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: atheism-religion
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

“Doubt: A History" is about the history of religious doubt, from all over the world, and from all recorded history. This ambitious and comprehensive book takes us up close and personal with those who have grappled with the ultimate questions of life and found possible answers contrary to traditional faith. Jennifer Hecht provides freethinker
Peter Thomason
This is a remarkable book and Jennifer Hecht is quite a scholar. In the canon of the History of Ideas I would rank it with The Art of Memory by Frances Yates, another wonderful scholar. Reading both of these studies was like taking a 15-week graduate course so I took my time, read slowly, and used my TASIIRR technique: Take notes; Ask questions; Skim first; Impress, associate, repeat; Introduce to others; Read aloud; Read on paper, for maximum retention.

Hecht takes the approach in this survey of
Mar 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: religion
For the first 1/3 of this book, Hecht kept referring to life as a happy accident. She obviously subscribes heavily to Dawkins "life is an accident" brand of atheism. Dawkins himself wrote about how there doesn't need to be a watchmaker in the clockwork universe; and yet, he doesn't seem to understand that if he admits that the emergence of life was actually likely on Earth, and not a miraculous accident, it doesn't imply a god. Considering the conditions when our galaxy formed, when our solar sy ...more
Feb 18, 2021 rated it really liked it
I read somewhere that Hecht wanted to title this book as “A History of Atheism” which the publisher didn’t want to accept – in fact, the publisher was right, otherwise the book would have been labeled as the book of atheists. Hecht’s scholarly work with her captivating prose gives a beautiful perspective on doubt.

Hecht’s analysis reaffirms that doubt has been one of the central forces to the positive effects of humanity, innovations, and the intellectual discovery we enjoy today. Throughout his
Jan 23, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, non-fiction, own
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 c
Meadows13 Meadows
Oct 14, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
I thought this book was just fantastic. After reading the first chapter I grabbed a highlighter and started over, there was just so much goodness in the form of quotes from and life experiences of religious doubters and nonbelievers through out history. Like books I've read by Sagan and Hitchens, I found this book inspiring and an affirmation of my own non-belief. I was familiar with many of the doubters in the book but not so familiar with the particular details of their lives and struggles to ...more
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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-fetched, 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.” 19 likes
“Plato offers the amazing idea that contemplation of the way things really are is, in itself, a purifying process that can bring human beings into the only divinity there is.” 8 likes
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