The Joy of Doubt: An Interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht

hecht_bw-thumbThe word doubt has gotten a bad rap in our time.  Widely considered the bleak counterpart of belief, that most cherished of virtues, it’s the Darth Vader of thought, decidedly on the dark side of the force.  But for those who dare to strip away the husk of pop culture platitudes, religious jingoism and revisionist history — the real story of doubt becomes clearer, and its essential service to humankind far more evident. 

Arguably no one has done more work to unravel the genuine story of doubt than award-winning author Jennifer Michael Hecht.  With scholarly insight honed scalpel sharp, she takes us on a journey through the history of doubt, at times a force of opposition, at others a force of enlightenment — but always a force that has driven humanity beyond insular thought no matter how established or anointed.  Jennifer Michael Hecht recently spent some time discussing her thoughts on doubt, science, history and happiness with Neuronarrative.

You wrote a well-reviewed tome on the history of doubt, called (what else) Doubt: A History.  Though the breadth of the content is immense, what are a few of the main themes that you found run through the history of doubt?

Doubt: A History is the story of atheism and religious doubt, as well as doubt1philosophical doubt, through all history, all over the world.  One of the coolest things about the history of doubt is that every generation of doubters has drawn on doubters from the past, so that there really is a coherent narrative across time. As I say in the book, people think the history of doubt is a collection of shadows on the history of belief, but that is not so.  Draw an outline around all these shadows and they pop out as a story all their own.  It is like looking at a map upside down – takes a moment to get used to. 

One of the main themes in the history of doubt is that it is important to remember death.  Life feels like a narrative, it feels important.  But the fact of death suggests that life is no logical narrative and life is not important in the way we think it is when we forget about death.  All the great philosophers say to meditate on death, remember death, it is better to dwell in the house of mourning than in the house of mirth.  The world is what it is and only makes the sense that it does if you accept the parts that at first sound disturbing.  Eventually, remembering death makes you able to experience life.

Another is that through history there have always been a few cities that were widely known as centers of atheism.  Another big theme was that there are two kinds of atheist texts: those that argue with passion against the legendary, magical parts of religion, and in contrast, those who know all that stuff is hokum and wouldn’t waste time debunking virgin birth or stopped suns, but rather discuss the nature of the universe, has it always been here? are there others? what started it?  what are we? and find non-theist ways to answer. 


You mention that the “earliest doubters” lived around 600 B.C., well before the major rudiments of what we might call scientific thought, in any modern sense, were set.  What energized these people to doubt so dramatically?  Do you think that we can we safely draw a conclusion (from this and perhaps other evidence) that doubt is a hard-wired human trait?

Thinking is doubting.  I believe there are always doubters.  There have always been some people who doubted the extraordinary claims (with minuscule evidence) that their culture raised them to believe.  The Ancient Carvaka lived in India in 600 BC and rejected karma, gods, and an afterlife as all foolishness.  One of their great arguments was that if the soul can exist without a body then you would also see mangos hanging in the air, without trees.  But you don’t.  They believed that nature was a somehow reproducing complex of patterns and they figured that must explain things.  You don’t have to have science to notice that a fairy tale is a fairy tale.


Some readers may think that taking on a subject like doubt must by definition be a negative experience – but you don’t treat it that way at all.  How can thinking about doubt, particularly in so much depth, be a positive thing to do? 

Doubt is joy.  It is sweet to say what you mean and mean what you say.  It feels great to stay uncertain about what can not be known, but to say for sure what you think you can say for sure.  I’m sure there is no God.  The universe doesn’t think.  Brains think and they are generally grey squishy things found in the skull of an animal.  The universe is a place, not a mind.  It’s got rocks and space.  But yowza, what kind of a place is it?  How strange that our little eyes blink out consciousness surrounded by vast dead space.  It’s wild.  It’s a magical mystery, not to be solved, but to be pondered.  Most atheists in history have not been howling into the abyss of the night sky, they were out there measuring the stars.  And writing love sonnets to each other and to the seasons, and to time.  Doubt is good.


From doubt you moved onto happiness in The Happiness Myth, which came out in paperback this year.  In a culture so preoccupied with finding happiness, what motivated you to take on the topic from a significantly different angle?

hapmythpbSpending decades studying history had made me very conscious of how cultures differ from each other across time and place, and I came back to the 21st century feeling very differently about the world around me.  It seemed to me there were five aspects of modern life that started to look a bit comic in light of history: money, drugs, wisdom, bodies, and celebration.  In these areas, everything that looks like a normal norm to us, bland and ordinary, can be seen to be as weird as corsets, top hats, and sacrificial bonfires.  To laugh at a whalebone corset but think it normal to want to see the woman’s bones, instead, is silly.  To say money can not buy you happiness is silly, given that if I offered you anything right now, cash might be a favorite.  Also, we regularly trade away our time for money.  So what does it get us that works?  A role in the social game of shopping.  As for drugs, how can we justify the notion that our classification of drugs is the right one?  Opium and Prozac have more in common than we think, one difference is we drive cars and handle money all day and can’t afford to be “fuzzy”.


An interview with you would be incomplete, to say the least, without mentioning your estimable achievements in poetry.  I’m curious to know how your scholarly work interplays with your poetic work. Does one inform the other? 

I often learn something in my studies that shows up in a poem.  There is a funny_amazonprolific Ancient Greek (he is said to have written over 700 books) who stars in a poem called “My Hero,” that is coming out in The New Yorker sometime soon.  Still, by and large, my poems are inventions. It is also true that ideas that I learn by writing them, in my poetry, guide the questions I choose in my non-fiction.  I learned a lot about what I think by writing Funny.  Most all the poems in Funny have old jokes inside them.  The jokes are funny but the poems are serious.  I learned a lot from writing it.  It has an afterward prose essay on the philosophy of humor and of poems.  This led to my writing more prose studies of the topic.


On the spot question:  are we, right now, in a favorable or unfavorable place in history in your opinion?  (and, of course, why do you think so?)

This is a great time to be an artist.  The internet is giving humanity back a lot of what the industrial revolution stole.  The modern world threw us into massive flux so we had no way to have a coherent community over the course of your life.  People felt alienated.  The anonymity, the sense of being lost in a great wash of moving people, is being overturned by the internet.  For a while now an artist could reach many people, but mass production was a one-way street.  Now artists can more easily hear from the world they are influencing.  It is an amazing time to create.


What are you working on now? 

Right now I am writing up a secular argument against suicide, and I think a pretty good one.  It’s the kind of subject where, jeez, even if you convince only a few people, still a worthwhile day’s work.  Anyway, I thought of this and the more I think through the implications of the idea, the more persuaded I become that it could be of use.


Link to Jennifer Michael Hecht’s website

Link  to a recent interview on Point of Inquiry

Link to an interview on Skepticality


Filed under Interviews

2 responses to “The Joy of Doubt: An Interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht

  1. Pingback: The Joy Of Doubt! | Simoleon Sense

  2. Pingback: Life, friends, is either difficult or boring. Right now, mine isn’t boring. On Dickinson. | Hey Miserable!

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