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teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at The New School in New York City. She has written two volumes of poetry and three books of non-fiction, including Doubt: A History.
Hecht has crafted a playful quiz to determine how much of a doubter you are. See where you rank on the scale of doubt.
We've isolated two clips of Hecht on her poetry, listen and read along:
"No I Would Not Leave You If You Suddenly Found God"
Engraving by William Blake titled "Job Rebuked by his Friends" from Illustrations of the Book of Job, 1825.
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According to the Catholic Catechism, two kinds of doubt have to be distinguished. The first is involuntary doubt. We see this in Mary in the Gospels when she said "How can this be, since I do not know man?"" It is when one has trouble believing what we are asked to believe, we need help and explanation. "Help my unbelief."
Voluntary doubt is a willful decision to not believe something that has been revealed by Revelation.
You seem to confuse doubt, which can be of either kind, with willful unbelief. For example, the current atheists (Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, etc.) do not doubt: they are sure there is no God. How are they sure? I don't know. But their doubt is of the second kind, not the first kind.
Doubt of the first kind is human, part of the human condition. Doubt of the second kind is often sinful, obstinate, dogmatic in its unbelief. It's often said that Mother Teresa doubted, but only in the first sense, not the second sense. And the difference is critical.
You have said "Doubt of the second kind is often sinful, obstinate, dogmatic in its unbelief." We have many examples through history of belief, faith, certainty which has led to sinful action and words, obstinance and dogmatism in it's belief. I personally doubt the "critical" distinction you make between your two kinds of doubt. It may not keep me from sin, but I hope it keeps me from dogmatism.
I have learned so much about the history of belief from this Hecht that this book has become one of the most significant I have read since seminary, 30 years ago.
Actually, Richard Dawkins frames a 7 point scale ranging from pure believer to pure atheist. Dawkins is not "sure" there is no God. He is just as sure as he is that there is no tooth fairy.
So Job had an idea of an afterlife even if Judaism didn't. Jesus did not espouse "following the law." He excoriated those who mindlessly followed practices of the law and ignored the spirit behind the law. Christian belief is very specific. Rom 10:9 "... if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
There was doubt in the early church, but there was never any doubt in the minds of the apostles that Jesus rose from the dead. That was (and is) the difference between Christian and Jew.
On the Scale of Doubt quiz I am identified as an agnostic, but that does not correspond to my self-identification. The reason is that my idea of "God" is close to that of Carl Jung, who said he didn't believe in God, he knew God exists. His experience and mine lead to a concept vastly different from anthropomorphic gods, humanlike individuals with mind and will like other individuals in the universe.
I say I am an atheist in the sense that I don't believe in a theistic god. I don't call myself an agnostic because I have no doubt that I experience Something beyond ordinary reality, Something that classical science could not posit but that a new scientific paradigm seems to be moving toward. I call my spirituality generic, eclectic, secular, and sometimes even atheist. I've written about an atheist mystic, the French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville.
As a coin collector, I immediately recognized that Jennifer Michael Hecht was wrong in stating that "In God We Trust" was placed on our currency after World War II because, "the tradition of doubt in the United States was stifled with the advent of the Cold War." In fact, she was off by nearly 100 years. This motto was a product of the Civil War. More importantly; instead of bolstering her argument, this example weakens it.
Quite frankly I am amazed that in this day and age people still see "doubt" as a good thing. Two thousand years ago when human experience was less well developed, when science could not explain things as clearly and concisely as it does today it makes sense that people would believe things with no proof or evidence to the contrary. Doubt in today's society no longer holds place.
Think of a man accused of murder and sitting trial. What would our society be if there were no proof of his guilt and no evidence to suggest his guilt but because of "doubt" we find him guilty none-the-less and commit him to death. In our judicial system today we must prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to find him guilty. Why does this same logic not hold to religion? Why do we continue to believe these ridiculous notions of the universe when there is absolutely no proof or evidence to support them? Why do we doubt the veracity of some religions but wholeheartedly believe the truth of others?
I for one, believe it is time to put doubt aside entirely and accept the evidence and proofs of science. Certainly we do not know everything and most likely we never will. But based on information that we have it seems so remotely unlikely the supernatural being exists.
Good show on Doubt today. I took the quiz by the author and turned out to be an atheist as expect. The answer to the score seemed somewhat biased though.
"You may still be an atheist or agnostic, though not of the materialist variety."
I'm not sure if this is supposed to be a compliment but a materialist atheist would be a definition placed by a person of faith because they need to diminish some in the athirst community. I can't think that any atheist would describe themselves as a "materialistic atheist." Would any religious person describe themselves as materialistic catholic? The Mafia comes to mind.
"Still Be?" Are you expecting me to change?
Your show today, with Jennifer Michael Hecht really hit a home run with me. I am not able to follow any religion for the same exact reasons she described so eloquently.
I have never been able to express it so well as she did, so I am grateful.
I so wish that religious people could really hear this and stop framing MY views from within their narrow religious frameworks. I am not an Agnostic, a Doubter, a 'non religious person', and I'm definitely not an "Atheist". I just want to look at the Universe as it is, as I experience it, not with a bunch of stories forced on top of it.
I hope you have more shows/topics that open up to this larger view of the universe, and break out of the narrow, limited 'religious' views of our reality.
I'm still listening to the program, but I have to thank you now for making and airing it. It's so good to hear doubt praised rather than criticised.
As a poet, I've long embraced doubt, which Keats conceptualized and praised as Negative Capability. I understand and have come to agree with Ms. Hecht's insistence that labels like "Atheist" or even "Agnostic" or "Skeptic" can carry too much baggage, though at this time in history I find it useful to call myself an Agnostic Secularist, because I think it's important, above all else, to get religion out of government before the world destroys itself over articles of dogma. Between what's going on in Gaza and the looming tensions between Pakistan and India, not to mention the religiously motivated attacks on 9/11, there's no doubt at all in my mind that the arrogant certainties of religion have no place in international relations.
The Doubt Quiz is strangely worded, especially for interdisciplinary students of science and theology such as myself. Practically, constraints on time and human memory prohibit complete knowledge of all things through science; theologically, one cannot fully comprehend all things about God. My religion — which claims infallibility when speaking "from the Chair of Peter" — speaks also of "ongoing revelation" which suggests it does NOT currently contain all truths. Most statisticians and competent test-takers know that "All" or "Never" statements about real life are are always false. Also, since according to Aquinas, God exists outside of time, memory is unnecessary, and prayer does not "change" things; they are and have always been the same, with prayer a factor in their existence. I was surprised to see my results indicating I am an agnostic or atheist. I guess I have "Doubt" about the validity of the quiz.
Ms. Hecht should have run her little quiz past an actual scientist before coming up with her rating scale. Specifically, question 12 asks "Do you believe that the world is not completely knowable by science?"
The world is not completely knowable by science, and no responsible scientist would claim otherwise. Quantum indeterminacy is called "indeterminacy" for a very good reason. There are some things we will never know. And this is true not because we aren't trying hard enough, or looking in the wrong places, or using inadequate equipment. We literally can't know them. That's the way the Universe is built. (For what it's worth, this plugs into Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and, in mathematics, to Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem.)
I truthfully (and accurately) answered "Yes" to Question #12. Ms. Hecht's rating scale said "If you answered No to all these questions, you're a hard-core atheist and of a certain variety: a rationalist materialist. If you said no to the first seven, but then had a few Yes answers, you're still an atheist, but you may have what I will call a pious relationship to the universe. If your answers to the first seven questions contained at least two Not Sure answers, you're an agnostic. If you answered Yes to some of the questions, you might still be an atheist or agnostic, though not of the materialist variety. If you answered Yes to nine or more, you're a believer."
So, according to Ms. Hecht's rating scale, I am not a 100% pure, hard-core, rationalist materialist. I disagree. I think I'm more of one than Ms. Hecht is. I follow the evidence where it leads, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make us feel.
I have downloaded the Hecht interview and will give it a listen. She is also coming to Indy to speak next year and I will attend. And I have read Dawkins, Hitchins, and Harris and think you are missing a wide swath of important thought by excluding those thinkers from your show. Once again I ask you to reconsider and to invite conversations with them. Hitchins is the most recent book I read "God is not Great," and he expanded my thinking even further. Doubt is fine, but you really should explore the fertile area of literature and thought presented by these authors, or better yet come to the Atheist Alliance International Convention this September in Washington. I have never been to such an event and am eager to check it out.
Sad to hear that Jennifer Hecht believes that the devil was prompting God to test Job. The Hebrew "stn" indicates merely an interrogator or counterpoise so that God has someone to talk to as a way of telling the story.
As a former devout Southern Baptist, the "generosity" (a frequently — and rightly — invoked term) the program grants those struggling with issues of faith and transcendence is a great weekly benediction. Listening to Krista's recollections of her grandfather, I was reminded of Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead. Robinson wrote a great critique of Dawkins' The God Delusion in Harper's Magazine, and I was wondering if you had considered interviewing her. She is clearly rooted in a strong Protestant tradition, but her work evokes the same sort of generosity I note in your program week after week.
This interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht about the history of doubt was very interesting. Often times when we hear the word "doubt" when it pertains to the existence of God, we think of it as having a negative connotation. It often times is used to describe skeptics and cynics. To me, doubt is something that could be the first step to becoming a believer. I often times question my beliefs, not only in a religious sense but in fact in every aspect of my life. Through constantly questioning my beliefs, I found that it only makes me more of a believer and reaffirms why I believed in these things in the first place. I also think it is natural for humans to question what is around them. This can be seen in early childhood; children always ask about everything. Doubting and questioning would only help us understand and learn about different things.
I found Ms. Hecht's discussion on doubt very interesting. Having been raised in a Catholic household, the idea of doubting or questioning anything having to do with religion was frowned upon. I had trouble taking that leap of faith at 13 and always wanted to know how, what, where, why, and when. As an adult I still have doubts and ask questions, but I'm not so easily dissuaded from seeking answers. At one point, the reader tells us that, "no age is too early or too late for health of the soul." For that reason I will continue to ask questions, search for answers, and express my doubts. Maybe someday I'll feel comfortable taking that leap of faith, in the meantime I'll continue listening and learning from shows like yours.
Thanks SOF Team! I'm an avid listener and not religious. I happened to initially catch only about the last 8 minutes of the show, and was delighted and relieved by what I heard. I've never found an author who was so seemingly congruent with my thinking on religious and spiritual matters as Jennifer Michael Hecht. I've since then listened to the whole podcast and I bought her book. I've avoided the terms atheist and agnostic for myself. They seemed too rigid and limiting for my needs. I am so much more comfortable with Jennifer's perspective on doubt and the fluidity of conversation that is needed on these matters.
Today's show was mildly interesting in its historical look at doubters. However, atheism, agnosticism and it's various shades is not (in my opinion) particularly new, deep or interesting. Also, I believe the fields of religion and spirituality stand alone in that their most fundamental doubters seem to be the ones who have spent the least amount of time and effort exploring them. Such priceless comments as "I don't believe there has ever been any proof of the afterlife" and "I don't believe it serves any purpose to believe in a cohesive force that binds the universe", really illustrate my point.
There are numerous, probably hundreds of books on both of these subjects in any bookstore and a great many spiritual paths that explore these concepts. The study of past life regression is really quite common, as are people who recall their past lives and out of body experiences (including astral experiences in other spheres). Demonstrable "proof" can be found in documentation of persons able to describe previous lives, events, people, etc. in actual case studies.
For most people, the transient stage of atheism, agnosticism or "doubting" is a temporary (usually dry) period between formal religious studies and their true spirituality. To stop there and smugly declare yourself "done" like the 15 year old who suddenly finds himself to be the resident expert, seems rather stupid. It is topped only by writing a book about it and then appearing on a radio show. Also, "mystical" experiences including "miracles" are the norm rather than not for most people on a spiritual path. I am not talking about sitting in a hut in the desert, but simply about being open to love and spirituality in every day life. Now, more than ever before in history, large numbers of people are experiencing the reality of God in themselves through heightened awareness and kundalini "awakenings." That is the real story — not a lot of intellectual musings from theologians and professional skeptics.
My response is more to Krista Tippett's journal entry about this program. The declaration of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins as extremists shows a clear unwillingness to question your beliefs and a serious misunderstanding of what they are saying. Perhaps they say it in a way that makes it impossible for you to hear it. But because of your biases not their extremism. What they are saying, ultimately, is that you have to be willing to take responsibility for your own morality. Your whole world revolves around your unwillingness to do so.
Your excuse is always that "God wants" and it allows you to justify doing anything to anyone. Slavery and segregation were long supported by religious leaders. It is only those who opposed the theology that finally managed to make slavery illegal and segregation less popular. Our current, and most religious president ever, has made torture acceptable public policy with little doubt expressed from those with religion and morality. I guess when you believe that "freedom is a gift from God" you don't need the idea of justice. But as long as you worship god you are permitted anything. You permit anyone to question anything as long as in the end they come back to a belief in god. And you mistake that belief as morality. Take responsibility for your actions and stop calling it God's will. Then we can talk about morality.
Just a line to let you know that I think you have hit a new high-water mark in an already outstanding series of programs. I am a doubter, and yet I am entirely uncomfortable with rigid terms such as "atheist" or "agnostic." I am neither of these. Jennifer Michael Hecht provided a liberating new vocabulary for remaining a person who receives "religious" sustenance from the overwhelming mysteries of life. Thanks to all concerned for an excellent look at a fascinating subject.
I am a recent BFA sculpture graduate from the University of Georgia and have always considered myself a doubter. I find that doubt and the consistent quest for knowledge is an essential part of the human experience. However, what I am realizing we doubters may need is a counter example to religious structure. Could it be possible to produce a narrative that encapsulates both the extent of our current knowledge of the universe and the deficiencies of that knowledge? Could we express, poetically, in a text inspired by reality as we perceive it, all the wonder and grandeur and mystery of the world without the influence of dogma?
Religion does not have a monopoly on inspiration. So why should they have monopoly on all the mystery in the universe? We have to own our doubt and our ignorance to move forward both individually and as collective. What we are consistently told is that science lacks any guidance on the meaning of life. So let's try to form a coherent structure for drawing meaning from what science currently tells us we know. If I can say my understanding of the world helps me to live in it, so could everyone else. In my experience there continue to be many notions about the nature of the world and reality and humanity that we must question. But doubt should never be an impediment to our constant commitment to keeping our eyes open and interacting with others on the basis of love for the world and all that is in it.
I feel that this discussion of doubt and belief biases the results with the selection of topic. You divide people into believers and doubters. To doubt is to go against truth and authority. This is a bias. Perhaps you should select rational and gullible. I tried to think of a set of completely neutral categories. But I have failed. Perhaps I doubt that they exist. I enjoyed the show. Though I always have ambiguous feelings over the knowledge that my deepest thoughts are centuries old.
I found your interview/discussion with Ms. Hecht most fascinating. Doubt is a very real experience for me and has been for most of my life. I took the doubt quiz and the results were that I am an agnostic, if indeed, that is a correct static label/condition/state of being. I believe that I can be spiritual yet not religious. I think there is some truth in all religions, yet believe in no one religion. I cannot accept ideas, thoughts, dogma with faith, for doubt prevents me. Whenever I am in a group or organization, I can be linked and part of the group and yet outside of it be it a religious group, a political group, Sierra Club, Alcoholics Anonymous, Alanon, group therapy, academic classes, the military, and I am sure there are more. This program got me to thinking more about doubt and existence. Thank you for creating more doubt and for helping me accept doubt as a state of being.
I am in the process of listening to your program about doubt with Jennifer Hecht. It called to mind my very favorite joke: Renee Descartes walks into McDonald's. He orders a Quarter Pounder with cheese and a soda. "Would you like fries with that?" the clerk asks. "I think not." replies the great philosopher, who thereupon disappears. Thanks for a wonderful, objective, thought provoking show.
What I heard reminded me of a recent discussion after a Quaker Meeting I regularly attend. Most listeners do not know that Quakers started out as a group of "Seekers," and our faith tradition began with the revelation of George Fox in 1652 that inward experience and not belief in a creed is what leads to faith. A famous quote by Fox demonstrates: "Thou sayest, 'but what does the priest say?' and 'thou sayest, but what does the Bible say?' But I say, 'What canst thou say?'"
You quoted Elizabeth Cady Stanton talking about the powerful influence that her friend, activist Lucretia Mott, had on her, awakening her to the understanding that she could have her own thoughts and opinions that disagreed with the popes and priests of the day. What I missed was any reference to the fact that Lucretia Mott was a dedicated Quaker. Lucretia Mott's outspoken protests against slavery and for the women's right to vote, came out of her own religious tradition, which encouraged independent thought and the ministry of women from its beginning. I don't know if at this point you've ever done a program on Quakerism, but I sure wish you would! It's a tradition that has welcomed and encouraged seekers of all kinds, while also holding the experience of mystery to be found in the communion that occurs in hearts gathered together in silent anticipation.
I've always been proud of my skepticism, and particularly of my cynicism, because I don't feel alive unless I question everything I believe, and everything I've been told. You know — the "people" versus "sheeple" thing. You have no idea how much it pains me to compliment anything I find on an offensively pretentious, cult-building vehicle like NPR. Yet I must admit your show, "A History of Doubt," was extraordinary. I greatly appreciate you devoting time to the only topic that really moves our species forward. For what it's worth, Speaking of Faith is one of the few shows on NPR that honors me with meaningful discussion rather than insulting my intelligence with social programming, and I appreciate that. That recent interview with Ingrid Mattson was fantastic, also. Krista's a good egg. Congratulations to both host and guest for a job well done. Feel free to bring Ms. Hecht back anytime (on The Happiness Myth?). I can't believe NPR finally devoted a little time to helping people think for themselves, rather than programming them!
I heard Speaking of Faith for the first time today and greatly enjoyed the show. The discussion of doubt and great doubters throughout the ages was illuminating. I received my B. A. in Continental Philosophy and so hearing many of the figures discussed such as the ancient Greeks and Descartes was like being reunited with old friends. It was refreshing to here Prof. Hecht's perspective on the incredibly creative and positive effects of doubt and doubters. These days it feels more and more that one must choose a side to be on, an ideology to buy. This feels true politically, religiously, or culturally, especially since 9/11. I found Prof. Hecht's placement of doubt and critical inquiry to be a much needed change in perspective. Great show!
Your program with Jennifer Michael Hecht reminded me of the philosopher Gene Gendlin. Hecht says "I don't believe there's any thinking to the universe." But of course there is thinking to the universe, because the universe includes us. Somehow, the nature of the universe is such that we are possible. The apparent conflict between science and religion is an artifact of a particular way of thinking (a model of reality) that developed during the scientific revolution and has become confused with science. But the model must have something wrong with it, because it can't explain us: "Since our human bodies have environments including … objects, meanings, and symbols, we know that living bodies can have objects, meanings, and symbols. Let us therefore not build the 'basic' terms in our model in a way that makes our own bodies seem impossible from the start."
I agree with other posters who've called Ms. Hecht's definition of doubt into question. I'm a religious doubter. Through prayer, meditation, study, conversation, and observation of life, I have developed a world view that includes a loving divinity underlying all reality. Nevertheless, when I see the suffering of sentient beings and the apparent absurdity of so much of what happens, I feel conflicted emotionally and intellectually. This sometimes painful condition is what I think is more properly called "doubt."
Ms. Hecht, by contrast, sounds as if she's quite confident and unwavering in her answers to certain key questions. She does not believe in a creator or a unifying force underlying reality. She does not believe the universe has any intelligence informing it. She does not believe in an afterlife. That's not doubt. It's not even agnosticism. It's pretty basic materialist atheism — and she's anything but doubtful of it. I mean no disrespect to her position; as I've said, in my own moments of great doubt I think she may well be right. But to call her position of atheistic certainty doubt is to suggest that she has left certain questions open (about God, ultimate meaning, etc.) which are in fact not open at all.
Ms. Hecht is quite right that doubt and atheism are not the same. The difference is that atheists, like religious fundamentalists, wake up each day with the same answers to the biggest questions. Doubters, for better or worse, do not.
I am an associate professor of History at Meramec Community College in St. Louis, and am preparing a course for next year entitled "Freethinkers" (inspired by the book of the same name). The subject of the course is twofold: a history of secularism in America, and the interplay/conflict/dialogue between science and religion in America. I have, as a person of a Jeffersonian deistic view of the world, read extensively on the secular end of the course, but am far less clear on where to go for books arguing the other side. I was hoping you could provide me with a few titles that would be the counterpart to books such as The God Delusion and The End of Faith. Thank you for your help, I appreciate it — I very much enjoyed her book "Doubt".
Saturday mornings at 7 a.m. I drive to my chiropractor's office and listen to WNYC on a too short drive. That is how I have discovered your show. And listening to your interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht this morning really confirmed for me how great your show is.
I would respectfully remind, or advise, Ms. Tippett and the producers of Speaking of Faith that there are congregations around the world — principally in North America — formed by persons who privilege the role of doubt in their religious understandings. I am the minister at one such Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Chicago, where many of our parishioners try to live consciously and ethically with a perspective free of any reference to the divine.
We are not unanimous in our skepticism; indeed, some of us have a belief in God. We live, daily and openly, with the tension caused when those who completely reject the existence of God are in relationship with those who tolerate or embrace belief. Some of us even move in a constant continuum, moving between belief and doubt, and then back again. Admittedly, this tension does not always lead to harmony among us. And yet we consistently find ways to work with and love each other as well. Not only that, but our believers find common ground with our skeptics in this way: by having faith in human agency in confronting injustice and in comforting the wounded, be they believers or not.
Your column on "doubt" spurred me to make a comment on atheism, that I hope adds light to the subject. Often I think that the problem so many atheists have with the idea of God is the same problem people of Eastern religions would have: believing that God is a separate entity from us.
If we were able to truly embrace the idea of "Oneness" and understand it experientially, we may feel that there is no God "that is outside of us," or that is not "part of all that is." So if the atheists or agnostics could try to picture God as the intelligence behind the universe, as the Divine Awareness that we are all a part of, they may be willing to acknowledge that the whole is greater than the individual parts added together. But even if there is no "separate" God, that doesn't mean that our consciousness and awareness doesn't live on after our bodies have passed…
If God is not a separate being/entity and is in fact part of all that is (including us), than I can understand how an atheist would reject the Western (Judeo-Christian) idea of God. But before we throw the baby out with the bath water, we might want to redefine our perception of God. It's been said before, but even the word "God" has a lot of baggage. Maybe if we just thought of "Beingness" or some other way of perceiving this divine energy and awareness it would allow us to live more fruitful lives and understand what Love is all about.
Oneness (even that word is getting old). We're all down here together, and we're all connected.
My comment addresses the recent blog, "Take Job, who railed against God, or the very essence of Zen Buddhism, which asks its practitioners to question every certainty — even the disciplines of Zen."
History is a reflection of occurrences over time based upon a collection of primary- and second-hand experiences. We who are alive today can't be certain of the historical facts of Job or Buddha. A better history would be written about the telling of these tales (the "story" about Job or a Zen parable) and the people who've told them.
Certainly, in light of human desire to believe in something, we find ourselves discussing Buddhism and Judaism as two branches of the same tree of "religion." But they are not. Zen Buddhism's "doubting" can exist within Job's "world" as it can exist within the world of anyone at any time. And it can exist for anyone at any time.
What's further curious, with specific regard to "doubt" and the hunger for proof, is that Buddhist temples are full of people praying toward statues of Buddha. Jewish temples are full of people praying to emptiness while (usually) facing east. Go figure. Then doubt!
So you don't find Harris and Dawkins as rightfully fit right now. But what about secular New Testament historians like Earl Doherty or Dr. Robert M. Price (The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man)? There's historical meat to chew on regarding what to doubt and what not to. Religious scholars won't go there, but will you? Thanks.
I only knew Hecht as a poet because of a Web site called "Poets Online" that used her work as a writing prompt. They referenced her poem "History" which is also on this site and the prompt dealt with "revisionist history" (see http://poetsonline.org/archive/arch_rev2.htm). I didn't realize that Hecht was also a historian (I think that red hair dye threw me off) and I really enjoyed this program.
This is less a suggestion than a fan letter, pure and simple. I try never to miss your program. On Saturday mornings, it begins my day. Many years ago, I came to understand that organized religion was simply not for me. That realization did not, however, end my search for understanding — an understanding that can never, of course, be truly achieved; only sought. I have come to value highly your weekly discussions and their own ongoing searching.
Reading your introduction of this week's subject of doubt has reminded me of a philosophy professor who long ago departed this life. He would open his undergraduate class on religion by drawing a line on his blackboard. At the left end of the line he would write the words, "religious belief", and then turn to face the class: "Okay, what goes at the other end?" Most often, the answer was atheism. Certainly that was the response he always hoped for — because then he could say, "No, no," as he wrote the word "atheist", just under religious believer. "They're both sure. At the other end, we would put," as he wrote, "agnostic, because they don't pretend to know any of it for sure." I thank you and most of your guests for not knowing anything for sure.
The best modern work regarding doubt in my experience was Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene — a wandering Spanish priest, a disillusioned ex-anti Franco communist — journey together through newly liberated Spain, questioning their respective faiths —funny, touching, and beautiful.
I have enjoyed your show many times. Today's topic (doubt) reminded me of a wonderful song by a group called The Subdudes. It's called "It's so hard" and it's on a CD called Annunciation. The lyric begins "When I was a little altar boy, I swear it gave me so much joy. I could really feel that amazing grace." It goes on to describe, both musically and lyrically, the same feelings which led me into and out of the seminary. You might enjoy hearing it. Anyway, thank you for doing what you do.
I really enjoyed listening to A History of Doubt. However, I don't understand how you could broadcast an hour on doubt and not mention Unitarian Universalists. If you come to a Unitarian Universalist church, you'll find a congregation full of doubters. Our ranks are full of those who doubted their birth faith and sometimes suffered because of those doubts. Then they discovered that they could revel in those thoughts and search for answers as a Unitarian Universalist. As we sing in one of our hymns "to question is the answer." Thanks for your excellent programs.
While it is not very often that views from eastern religion, particularly from intellectual traditions of Hinduism, are mentioned on your show, I would like to share with you that doubt has always been very central to the rational, intellectual movements in Hinduism. In fact the largest part of Hindu literature deals with the clarification of doubt and curiosity. Case in point is the most well-known scripture Bhagavad Gita or "divine song."
Arjun the great warrior is paralyzed by the doubt that fighting in a battle where his own family members are his enemy, is not worth fighting for. His mentor and friend Krishna then talks to him about his doubt regarding life and death, action or inaction, faith and doubt. The whole of this text, most sacred of texts in Hinduism, deals with not only existence of doubt, but clarification of that doubt in teachings of Krishna.
You asked for feedback on the interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht in a tone that suggested you were afraid much of it might be negative, so I thought I'd tell you how enlightening I found it. Of course, I am a doubter myself but didn't know that's what it was called. Like Ms. Hecht, I just knew I wasn't comfortable with "atheist" or "agnostic." Both emphasize what I'm not instead of what I am.
It was interesting to hear Ms. Hecht's thoughts the same week as the piece "God Said Ha" by Julia Sweeney ran on This American Life here in Vermont. The next step in my search for a perfect philosophical fit, now that these folks have helped clarify what we reject in religion, and why, is a guest who can help define the positive aspects of us non-theists', non-believers' spirituality and ethical foundations. What gives us joy, inspiration, confidence, moral compass, comfort etc. in the absence of religion?
The reason I am drawn to your show is because I expect someday you will address this. It was alluded to in Hecht's work, as it was in that of the woman who has spoken on the spirituality of science on your show. It is that rapturous aspect of pastor John Ames' response to the world around him in Marilynn Robinson's marvelous Gilead that transcends his religiosity, and of the ideas about God that Julia Sweeney and I both imbibed in our childhood churches but later found to have little to do with anything in the Bible or the doctrinal credos religious folks must swear to. Perhaps it is the source of concepts of beauty, love, and goodness that inspires our greatest works of art, especially music, and our best concepts of a godhead. But I don't know how to express or define these things. Surely someone does. If so, I hope you can find this person for your show. Thank you for your good work.
Even though I am an humanist who does not believe in the existence of a sentient, all-powerful God, I have been enjoying your explorations of faith and ethics on your program. I particularly enjoyed your recent program on "A History of Doubt" with Jennifer Michael Hecht. I find it, unfortunately, very unusual for a public show to acknowledge that unbelievers can be moral and ethical; that someone who does not believe in the existence of a God can still be a questioning, seeking person appreciative of the majesty and mystery of the universe and filled with awe at the complexity and beauty of the various life forms in this universe. I find it so much more miraculous that the universe in general and life in particular have evolved the way they have without the direction and intervention of a God, than to believe that a deus et machina has directed it to be so. Thank you.
It was reassuring to hear Jennifer Michael Hecht's thoughts on skeptics. When I was a child, I dreamed of being mayor of my hometown. More recently, I've found myself thinking that I would not, after all, be suited to politics. With my doubts and uncertainties, I often feel at odds with the certainty I hear expressed from successful politicians. Ms. Hecht's program reminded me that many great political thinkers are skeptics. Surely my world would be much poorer without Benjamin Franklin and Lucretia Mott.
The recent show with Jennifer Michael Hecht was incredibly worthless. The notion of doubt, which of course was central to the show, was defined so generously that the term lost any real significance. Anybody that ever once entertained a question about some matter became part of Hecht's history. This program might have been saved had the interviewer been able to notice this confusion. But, alas.
I listened with interest to the discussion this morning about doubt. As a Christian, I was also interested in the quotes from Job and Ecclesiastes. However, I was disappointed not to hear mentioned the last chapters of Job and Ecclesiastes— in which both writers give glory to God as the final answer to all of their doubt.
Basically the way I see it is that doubt will produce one of two responses: either the person will turn towards God, or turn away from God. In all of the cases cited from the Bible, the doubters took their doubt to God. They yelled at God over what they saw. Another person that did this is David. They did not turn away.
This is what is missing from our churches today; those who doubt are (in general) treated as pariahs, which tends to turn them away from God. I pray for the day to return that we in the Church will be merciful to those who doubt, and keep pointing them towards the Source.
I was gratified to hear this week's segment on doubt. I was raised by atheists; Christianity has never played a part in my belief system. Neither, for that matter, would I characterize myself as an atheist. A mystery is a mystery. For me, the crux of this mystery is "Why these laws of physics?," a question I can't answer. Like your speaker, I feel no need to go further — clearly the human mind cannot even contain itself, let alone the entire universe.
On the other hand, I live in the Bible belt. My Christian friends find me a puzzle. The culture here is so steeped in religion that it's hard for many to picture a world without it, let alone a world in which one's morality is not based on religious teachings. Still, I am always open to the prayers of friends, after all, what do I know? (Enough to reject Billy Graham as a bigot and a social climber. Ditto for the Pat Robertsons and G.W. Bush's of this world — I'm not naive, and I do resent seeing Christianity hijacked by the manipulative and greedy.) But for the many around me who are sincere and devout, "Never deny" is my motto. So we live in peace.
I was recently initiated into a Sufi organization. Sometime later, after being diagnosed with walking pneumonia, I voiced my dissatisfaction to a fellow mureed about my failure to quit smoking. Because smoking is an issue which slows spiritual progress he advised me to ask our Shaykh for help. The next time I met with the Shaykh I asked if he could help me with my smoking addiction. He kindly nodded his head. Within seconds I felt my lungs clear, and I could breathe freely again. I have not craved a cigarette since.
On another occasion, while writing a letter at home one night, I felt a distinct tingling in my "heart center." I wrote off the sensation as a byproduct of my new found energy since being initiated. The next day a senior mureed phoned and expressed his regret that I did not receive a message to attend an unscheduled zikr at the Mosque the night before. I knew immediately the message he was referring to was the tingling I had felt in my "heart center." I was stunned. From then on I have driven straight to the Mosque whenever I have felt that tingling, and always I arrive just in time for an unscheduled zikr or meeting.
I cite these "miracles" to communicate a brief point. Since I have been initiated, a thought has taken root in my Being — where there is not belief there is doubt, where there is not doubt there is apathy. Doubt leaves an opening for belief, however slight. When we doubt we are waiting to be convinced. Without belief, without doubt, we are truly lost.
As a teacher, I spend a much of my time trying to guide and encourage students in developing the tools of critical thinking — and much time wondering why it is so hard to do so. Listening to this program today, it struck me that one obstacle to good analytic and critical thinking is a fear of doubt. Perhaps for my students, and for many of the rest of us (including our leaders), doubt is equated with weakness and is then a flaw, not a strength. I look forward to reading Dr. Hecht's book and following these ideas more deeply, and thinking about how to make doubt a part of my classroom practice.
I'm also intrigued and energized by the synthesis of intellectual and spiritual ideas generated through the inquiry into doubt. How exciting to juxtapose Maimonedes and Ben Franklin! I'd like to add Shakyamuni Buddha to the mix. One of the basic tenets of much Buddhist practice is atta dipa, "follow your own light." The Buddha's final instruction to his "followers" was not to follow, but to question and test his teachings for themselves. The zen questions which today are known largely as silly stereotypes ("what is the sound of one hand clapping?") are not intended to be answered, but to create ever-deepening doubt. Korean zen practice is especially concerned with meditating on the hwadu, a question like "What is 'I'?"
In such practices, doubt is the means to enlightenment — it is essential, not heretical. I thought Zen Buddhism was unique in this, but another's post reference to Paul will be sending me back to my Bible to learn more. Thanks for the opportunity to develop these ideas!
When listening to the program today, I heard the erroneous statement that Diogenes was pre-Socratic. Socrates died in 399 BC while Diogenes encountered Alexander the Great who died in 323 BC. Alexander was tutored by Aristotle, who, as I tell my students, was the "grand student of Socrates." Diogenes was clearly post-Socratic.
Thank you for another great program. This program on doubt gave me new vocabularies for exploring my own doubts and beliefs. I cannot help but think that it is because of this tradition of doubt that we have the opportunity to hear you, Krista Tippett and your guest Jennifer Hecht — two women, carry your message to us. It seems that doubt is associated with progress in all human endeavors including culture, politics, economics, and science. And where it is prohibited so is progress.
Your program is wonderful. I listen as much to online recordings as to the program itself, as it airs early on Sunday, which is a day whose mornings are devoted to worship. I am an active Episcopal layman, and I find that your program has enriched my life. For example, I've purchased Prof. Zornberg's books on Genesis and Exodus, and am working my way through them, with the Old Testament books in my Pocket PC for reference. So technology serves spirituality. I love it.
My religion professor at the University of Redlands, a Baptist clergyman turned academic, Doug Eadie, taught me to not to trust those who want to posit doubt as the opposite of faith, something to be avoided. He said that the opposite of faith is fear. This distinction has stood me in good stead at several points in my life, and I hold to it still. Thank you.
I finished the book about 10 days before the interview with JM Hecht was broadcast on July 14, 2004. I enjoyed the book very much, and I think it took great courage to take on so broad a topic. The book challenged me to examine some of my own assumptions; perhaps like many readers I rummaged around in the book, seeking the set of philosophies that best suited my own tastes and tendencies. Mostly I applaud Dr. Hecht's championing of doubt: that it is perfectly acceptable to confront the Great Questions by saying "I'm not sure, I don't know." She shows us that, throughout history, some of the wisest men and women have been the most doubtful.
I heard parts of this show as I was drifting off to sleep. It made much sense as I'm not only doubtful, but fail to understand the folly of those who follow any doctrine blindly. It must be the reality that one must have some reason—no matter how nutty—to explain their lives. I will buy the book. Ms. Hecht is most articulate.
Thank you for your wonderful program today! I am fascinated by the dilemmas of belief and doubt. How strange it still seems for a true believer, raised from infancy to believe comprehensively and with full commitment in the fundamentalist Christian God, to have achieved a satisfying state of doubt! My doubt at this point is certainly close enough to atheism as to be indistinguishable from it in practical terms: I merely do not fully commit to the belief that there is no God; rather, I now assume it.
I spent my childhood actively assimilating evangelical fundamentalist Christianity as it was practiced and believed by my family. Part of my childish brand of acquiring this deep belief was asking questions about the elements that puzzled me, and I tried on the answers I got with full enthusiasm.
It is just that the questions have never gone away. How do you really know that God is there, or that He is speaking to me or guiding me? The feelings I have change, so I must have to resort to my thinking. Heresy. Faith is the answer. But if faith is the only way to know God, why did He give me a brain that wonders? That is the question that eventually led to the ruin of my faith and the blossoming of a spreading skepticism — tinged with a little cynicism.
By the time I was ten, I was asking those questions aloud, and by the time I was twelve, I had learned not to. By fifteen, they were well suppressed, but by twenty, a full crisis began to surface. It lasted for years, and I longed for something like "Fundamentalists Anonymous" so I could find someone who shared my experience and who could help still the maelstrom.
It was what I l learned in seventh grade science that eventually rescued me, although it kept me living in distinctly separate and parallel worlds of science and religion for a very long time. I learned that inquiry, especially systematic inquiry, and particularly open-ended inquiry, is a very good thing. I learned, slowly, to harness some of the arguments in my head.
The very hardest thing has been to understand morality in the absence of an absolute moral Authority, or, in fact, of any moral authority. It doesn't really do to just make it up as we go along, because any competing standard has equal force. And gliding along with tradition carries the danger of repeating endlessly the mistakes of the past. Science has helped again, this time in the thinking of evolutionary psychology, a field of study that posits a subtle genetic foundation for the way our brains are wired and way we make decisions. Basic morality, the concepts of right and wrong, fairness, and altruism, appears to be rooted in our biology. It isn't necessary to believe in an external, non-demonstrable being to explain the pervasive sense of right and wrong that virtually all humans share.
I am careful not to actually "believe" in science, although I accept and practice scientific principles. Some other means of asking questions and explaining the world will eventually replace science as we know it, just as science has largely superseded religion as a practical explanatory and exploratory system of thought, and if I am alive to see it, I will use my carefully nurtured ability to keep asking questions to espouse it: I will make a leap of doubt into the next way of wondering.
Doubt is the yeast of faith! I put no trust whatsoever in the so-called "faith" of any adult who has not encountered at least one spiritual crisis in their lifetime. If they've changed religions a few times, I trust their faith even more. Religious doctrine and practice can be taught and passed down through generations, but true faith can only be discovered, forced through the sieve of one's own questions, doubt, and soul.
If an adult practices the religion of their parents because it is what they were "taught," or how they "were raised," then they have memorized facts on command, without the experience of faith. In our culture and current political, I see far too many people in positions of power practicing the religion of the head, instead of giving witness to the faith honed by doubt and born of the heart and soul.
I turned off the radio this morning, sick of hearing about the spider hole in which Saddam was found. I picked up a book recommended by my therapist, The Question of God by Armand Nicholi, hoping for an objective presentation of the beliefs and arguments of Freud and C.S.Lewis, only to be discouraged by the author's obvious bias, starting with his premise that there are two basic assumptions: the universe is random and life a matter of chance or an "Intelligence beyond the universe" provides order and gives life meaning. Well, I don't believe in that "Intelligence" but think that life nonetheless has meaning.
I put down the book and reluctantly returned to the radio this afternoon and was thrilled to hear the interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht—at last a position I can relate to: one can question and doubt in order to find meaning; doubt is not nihilistic; morality, integrity, wonder, ritual, community, mystery, the feeling of faith and the magical quality of the human experience do not belong to any one doctrine.
I am going to the bookstore first thing tomorrow (after the plumber locates the source of the leak that has made a hole in my bathroom ceiling—from the ridiculous to the sublime?) to get Hecht's book, Doubt: A History. Thanks to Speaking of Faith and Host Krista Tippett for the excellent and inspirational program and insightful interview. Thank goodness I tuned in when I did—a happy and meaningful coincidence!
I enjoyed the program, and the viewpoint and scholarship of Jenifer Michael Hecht. I was raised in the Wisconsin Synod of the Lutheran Church that believes that the Bible is literally true, married in the Methodist Church; and my wife and I left all churches in the early eighties and have gone our own way.
Having gone my own way, I do not think that doubt is a correct description of my views. I now strongly believe the same things I actually think. One of my beliefs is that there cannot be a God as a solution to the question of where all this complexity came from, because a God would have to be more complex and, if created have come from a being even more complex. Evolution works fine for me — all of the principles can be seen in more rapidly reproducing organisms and genetics is a powerful science with real applications.
Another of my beliefs is that man is the creator of God and belief systems. God-creation is the job of the theologian, the pastor, the story-teller, the movie maker, and everyone, to some extent. God can always be invoked to explain mystery and, yes, it can provide some ideals.
I resonated with the statements in the program that said that skeptics are not the opposite of religious people. As a viola and violin player, I often participate in other people's religious services and weddings. Somehow, I am okay with participating in the music but do not participate in any creeds and still hate almost all sermons because they stand unrebutted.
Though I am not the opposite of religious people, I generally see religion as a negative force in the world. All these spiritual and religious and ecumenical people, especially if also political are regularly "confessing" their belief in things that aren't so. They can easily be led by those with selfish motives (or even those who seek a modest living) or by who those who seek power.
As a spiritual non-believer, I found this show on Doubt to be among the best "Speaking of Faith" I have ever heard. I never realized that I needed a history,.. yea, even a bible,... of my own to help me work through my doubtful take on existence. I am delighted and excited to find this subject being talked about with such respect and intelligence.
Most of the world's geniuses have been doubters, it seems, and it makes me feel so good about my beliefs to have them on my side.
I frequently listen to "Speaking of Faith," even though as a "doubter" much of what is said I feel somewhat estranged with. I do appreciate the show when discussions around faith, ethics, and moral questions are focused upon. I am not always in agreement with what is said, but I am very glad that SOMEONE is discussing these very important issues because I don't hear anyone else in the media talking about these things.
I found Dr. Michael Hecht's insights very confirming for where my own thinking has gone over many years of study and reading, and I look forward to reading her new book. I was especially glad to hear her confirm for me the idea that doubters are not "just" atheists or agnostics. I do think that most of us who lean toward a skeptical/doubting way of perceiving the world are far more open to other ways of seeing the world than in the past when there was an atheistic dogma that was as narrow as any fundamentalist. I also agree that moral questions are NOT the exclusive territory of the church/clergy/religious arena. I appreciated her discussion of the third century BCE Greek philosphers, Diogenes, Epicurus, etc. and how their thoughts have shaped a rational way of looking at ethics.
Please include more discussions like this. I am thinking of a "debate" between Dr. Michael Hecht and someone on the faith side would be an interesting program. Keep up the good work!
I was glad to hear, during the discussion of Epicureanism, the idea that we should be in touch with our senses and work to experience the present as fully as possible, and also that happiness is goal of paramount importance. Our own Constitution places The Pursuit of Happiness on the same high plane that supports Life and Liberty. It is refreshing to me to hear this affirmed. As the rock group the Eagles say in the song 'Already Gone', "So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key".
Your program "A History of Doubt with Jennifer Michael Hecht" was a great gift and a joy to hear. It showed me how I have internalized the idea of the narrow the labels of various (contemporary) religions, agnostic, or athiest. I really thank your guest for her clear thoughts on this ridiculously limited way of thinking about the choices of how to think about and present the vastness of the actual issues of human thought about the nature of existence. And for her historical review of the great doubters. I will buy her book, and I thank-you for the exceptionally interesting and deep program.
I feel that this picture is showing that we should never have doubt because anything is bound to happen in life.
I scored as an "agnostic" in the quiz because I doubt the ability of science to completely understand life...catch 22??? My reasoning is, because "science" is a human creation, and the human mind is not limitless in its ability to understand reality, the scientific use of cause and effect and the necessity of proof to be repeatable limits its understanding to measurable results repeatable in cause and effect assumptions. I am not a theist; agnostic does not describe my view...I doubt the human ability to understand life and the universe completely because we cannot comprehend everything with our limited human brain.
I am a big fan - been listening to archive episodes every day for the past several months. Sometimes the archived episodes don't play at all - I listen on my phone. This episode doesn't play. I love listening to your unedited versions! Anand
Is anyone familiar with Richard Dawkin's 7-point scale of belief? How does this not cover all categories of doubt?