Saturday, June 24, 2017

Doubt by Jennifer Michael Hecht

A book I enjoyed a lot less than I thought I would. It’s called “a history” by its author, as in “a history of doubt,” and indeed it is as it chronicles the principles and personalities of great doubters (i.e., those who doubt the existence of God or gods) through 2,600 years of history. An ambitious and worthy subject, but at times it felt like I was reading an encyclopedia.

Here’s are the random bits that seemed to jump out at me. Given the subject matter of the book, you can be sure that they take a unapologetic freethinking bent.

Christian Saints = Pagan Nature Gods

By the sixth century, Christians in the West had won over the cities, but the countryside was still a place of almost endless supernatural energies, and even city dwellers saw the natural world in this spirited way. The great God of the Christians was too far away for farmers, and the Son may have been human but he was not available for watering the fields or fending off locusts. In parts of Spain the practice of leaving little piles of votive candles near springs, in trees, and on hilltops and crossroads was still so rampant that as late as the 690s dramatic Church ceremonies were staged to transfer the candles to the local churches and announce that idolatry was finally dead. What actually worked was not sermons against the enchanted natural world, but rather the reenchantment of the world in Christian terms. Gregory of Tours (538-594) was most responsible for the reinterpretation of the Christian saints as capable of helping average people in their relationship with the natural world; through them springs and crossroads once again became sanctioned places for worship. The saints brought healing, mercy, and fertility to the small places of field and hearth, and brought safety on byroads and high seas. In myriad ways, water was holy again, and trees might spring up on the graves of saints.

Never thought of saints this way before, but is makes total sense. Similar to the way the early Christian church adopted pagan holidays as their own.

Begging the Question

After my long post on The Mind and the Brain, where I accuse the author of constantly begging the question in a similar way, this one really resonated with me.

[John] Locke did not agree with [Rene] Descartes, because Locke noticed that “I think, therefore I am” is a bit of a leap (as the Buddha might have happily pointed out); that “I think, therefore thinking happens” is pretty much all you can get.


More Christian Tormentors Than Christian Martyrs

There were not that many martyrs anyway, wrote [Edward] Gibbon, announcing “a melancholy truth which obtrudes itself on the reluctant mind,” that “even admitting” all the Christian martyrdom history has recorded, “or devotion has feigned … it must still be acknowledged that the Christians, in the course of their intestine dissensions, have inflicted far greater severities on each other than they had experienced from the seal of infidels.” The number of Protestants “executed in a single province and a single reign far exceeded that of the primitive martyrs in the space of three centuries and of the Roman empire.”

An excellent point.

Jesus: Jefferson’s Philosopher, not Savior

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, in a letter to his friend, William Short:

“That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore. But that he might conscientiously believe himself inspired from above, is very possible. The whole religion of the Jews, inculcated on him from his infancy, was founded in the belief of divine inspiration … he might readily mistake the coruscations of his own fine genius for inspirations of an higher order. This belief carried, therefore, no more personal imputation, than the belief of Socrates, that himself was under the care and admonitions of a guardian Daemon. And how many of our wisest men still believe in the reality of these inspirations, while perfectly sane on all other subjects.”

So, fixated, it seemed, was Jefferson on separating the philosopher Jesus from the mythical one, he famously edited his own Bible, taking out of the supernatural mumbo-jumbo that seem to permeate the Gospels. He also penned this delightful quote:

“But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its luster from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill.”

Schopenhauer: Jefferson’s Disciple

In the following fact, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer seems to be taking the same page out of Jefferson’s notebook.

He wrote that believers convince themselves their religion’s myths are somehow connected to its ethical code and thus “regard every attack on the myth as an attack on right and virtue.”

Here, Schopenhauer’s myth is Jefferson’s dunghill, and Schopenhauer’s ethical code is Jefferson’s diamond. But the German takes the idea one step further.

Almost comically, “this reaches such lengths that, in monotheistic nations, atheism or godlessness has become the synonym for absence of all morality.”

To those who equate myth with morality, the rejection of one must therefore entail the rejection of the other.

A Fundamental Misunderstanding


[Charles] Bradlaugh wrote that “the Atheist does not say ‘There is no God,’” but says: “‘I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God; the word God is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny God, because I cannot deny that of which I have no conception’ especially when even those who believe in the things cannot even define it.”

This seems to me one of the fundamental misunderstandings that exist between believers and non-believers. One cannot deny that which one does not understand.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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