Jennifer Michael Hecht is both an accomplished historian and an award-winning poet. In an earlier book, The End of the Soul (2003), she investigated the ways in which secular- religious struggles influenced the development of physical anthropology in France during the nineteenth century. In Doubt: A History, she analyzes the many different forms of skepticism that have appeared throughout the centuries. Her book celebrates the practice of questioning traditional beliefs as a positive force for promoting creativity and for restraining the abuses of certainty and unthinking obedience.
Although Hecht focuses primarily on doubts about revealed religions, she also considers questioning attitudes about the possibility of finding happiness and making sense of the suffering and injustices in the world. Even though her sympathies are clearly on the side of the doubters, she acknowledges the contributions of believers to human welfare and social stability. She also recognizes that thinking persons of faith usually entertain some doubts, just as committed skeptics must often rely on beliefs and assumptions that have not been scientifically proven.
Hecht’s book examines the ideas and influences of several hundred thinkers, with brief summaries of some and in-depth discussions of others. The book has particularly good treatments of Epicurus, Cicero, Pyrrho of Elis, the Biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes, Rabelais, Montaigne, the Buddha, Zen Buddhism, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, and Bertrand Russell. Among many interesting topics, Hecht makes a strong refutation of historian Lucien Febvre’s influential thesis about the impossibility of atheism existing during the period of European Renaissance.
Although numerous books have been published about the topic of doubt during limited periods of time, Hecht is the first historian to present a reasonably comprehensive and scholarly account of the entire story. Her book can be highly recommended as a stimulating and accurate contribution to this important topic.