Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of award-winning books of philosophy, history, and poetry, including Doubt: A History and The Happiness Myth. She recently discussed the role of art and poetry in her doubt, in addition to her skepticism of science, with D.J. Grothe, associate editor of Free Inquiry.
Free Inquiry: A couple years before there were the New Atheists, two women, first you and then Susan Jacoby, wrote two best-selling books on the history of freethought and doubt. Why aren’t you considered one of the New Atheists?
Jennifer Michael Hecht: People did mention “the brotherhood” of the New Atheists, so it seemed like maybe it was a little gendered. Or maybe it was that I have a slightly more moderate voice—not more moderate in terms of atheism: I am as much an atheist as any of them. You can’t out-atheist me. But you can have different perspectives on the relationship between religion and atheism. My research was into the history of atheism and the history of religious doubt, and it showed me that there were a whole lot of people in history who called themselves believers but who shared the basic worldview of atheists. And so I began to be a little bit wary of so quick a dismissal of anybody who has any religious sympathies whatsoever.
FI: For you, is religious doubt just being open-minded that a given religious claim could be wrong? Or is it stronger than that—is it actually a kind of active rejection of a claim?
Hecht: Doubt is bigger than just being open-minded to the notion that a given claim might be wrong. I don’t need to allow for the possibility of a pink unicorn in the closet just because I’m not checking all of the time to make sure that it is still nonexistent. And I think doubt should apply more widely than to just religion and the supernatural.
I got a Ph.D. in history of science from Columbia in 1995. The education that one got there at that time and in that subject was intensely critical of the kind of assumptions that go along with science and scientific speech. In a straightforward way, I am profoundly skeptical of what we know and what we can know. I apply my skepticism when looking at the way that culture has changed what we thought of as true in times past. Studying as historians will open anyone’s eyes to the vast array of ways humans make value and meaning. The only thing that can convince us given this historical knowledge that we have more truth than anybody else is a kind of temporal prejudice. And this we have to the nines.
FI: So your doubt, which is a way of getting to truth, is informed not just by your study of science.
Hecht: For me, the best way to get to truth is poetry. And by poetry I mean art. And psychoanalysis. And meditation. All these different ways that human beings have learned to try to take themselves out of the equation, to doubt their own assumptions about themselves and the world, their certainties. Maybe I am a slightly alternative voice in the skeptics or atheist movement in that I love science and I am entirely on the side of scientists against religion and the supernatural. But once that’s said, my approach to what the universe is about, and to the most that human beings can know, is that I believe that poetry, art, and, indeed, psychoanalysis are the ways to get to the kind of truth that’s very difficult to put into straightforward, rational terms.
FI: This lifestyle of doubt doesn’t seem like something that leaves you hungry. It seems like there is a surprising joy that comes from the more widespread doubt that you’re pushing.
Hecht: Absolutely. It’s someone who is able to see the mystery of life but not have to fill it in with quick answers and not to see mystery as only a puzzle that needs an answer. It is to understand, given our place in this world, that doubt is the most philosophically attuned way to go forward. And it doesn’t have to feel in the least bit like there’s something missing. A real understanding of the world around us shows us that it’s impossible to understand everything. To be in a comfortable state of wondering and learning seems to be a more glorious position and yes, absolutely, a more ecstatic, joyful position.
To hear the rest of Grothe’s conversation with Jennifer Michael Hecht, go to www.pointofinquiry.org.