Know Doubt

Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of Doubt: A History, and a collection of poems The Next Ancient World, which won the Tupelo Press Judge’s Prize. She holds a Ph.D. in the history of science from Columbia University. She spoke to us from New York City, where she is an assistant professor of history at Nassau Community College.


dobby gibson: The overlap between doubt and belief was one of your book’s true surprises.

jennifer michael hecht: I think what people most responded to in the book was the removal of the sense of constant polemic. That doubt and faith are opposite ends. That they’re people who believe in totally different types of worlds. That they just hate each other and there’s nothing in common. When you look at serious thinkers, that’s just not what’s going on. They’re all trying to understand the world.

Some doubters see the very fact of life as what we mean by “spiritual.” So there’s no getting rid of the spiritual. Spinoza says the whole world is God and then proceeds to worship. But where’s God if the whole world is God? He doesn’t take out some part that’s somehow separate and “thinking the world.” The world is itself. And if you want to call that thinking, well, then the world is thinking itself! But it’s majestic and it’s glorious and it’s infinitesimal and it’s everywhere—and the world created thinking. Look at us thinking right now! So the world is all the attributes of God. The world is God and God is the world.

Now, yeah, that’s an atheistic position! And a lot of people have seen it that way. But it’s also a vision that refuses to say that the world is just dirt and chance. There is something human about the universe—even if it’s only in our human mind.

conduit: In the story of Job doubt transforms itself into not only belief, but an intense poetry. What is it about doubt that makes it such fertile ground for spiritual discovery—and acts of great art?

hecht: I think the answer is … that life is painful. And that religion is itself a beautiful, artistic, long answer to that pain. When you remove that one answer, you have to find another. You have to find a way to have meaning, and be able to love, and think, and work, and breathe knowing that death comes. And deeply suspecting that it’s a real, final death.

You know, when you face that, it can hurt a lot, but it can also allow you to marvel at the wonder of life. It’s a staple of talk shows that somebody has a near-death experience—survived cancer, whatever—and says that life afterwards has been much more wonderful than life before. Why should that be? Well, they were scared, and hurt, and had to confront death. But it makes you live with an appreciation, and it makes you live wide awake.

It’s that same wonderful, creative spirit that made up the terrific myths and ideas of religions. The same pain, the same problems, force people who have ripped away that one answer of religion to create a new one in art. I mean, why do you write poetry? I mean, well, can I ask that question? Why do you write poetry? It can’t be for the cash!

conduit: I’m desperate for attention.