This is a very interesting book that reveals how much more there is to the history of doubt and atheism than we talk about in most of our daily lives. I would recommend it for anyone who wants to have an understanding of the historical and philosophical background of what it means to be a free-thinker, a doubter, a secularist, or a skeptic.
Hecht reviews the history of the philosophies of doubt, starting with three chapters covering Greek doubt, East Asian doubt, and Jewish doubt before the age of Christ. I would definitely recommend the reader pay close attention to Chapter One, “Whatever Happened to Zeus and Hera,” especially the short sections on Aristotle and Epicurus, because she refers back to those two seminal thinkers very often through the rest of the book, and it useful to remember who they are.
This brings up a perhaps inevitable weakness of the book – Hecht covers a lot of ground over the last three millennia, introducing hundreds of figures (mostly men) who influenced the history of doubt, and sometimes it gets confusing. Some of these figures are never mentioned again, and some get mentioned repeatedly afterwards, but it’s hard to know which ones need special attention. This led to lots of moments of “wait, who was Plotinus? Who was Pompanazzi?” as I was reading. As I said, this was probably inevitable for this sort of book, but it was a bit frustrating at times.
After the first three chapters on pre-Christian doubt, Hecht continues through history and around the world. There is much more of a focus on European and western figures (which is unsurprising since the author and audience are American), but Hecht also talks about important figures and thoughts in Muslim, Indian, and Chinese doubt. She gives the history of Muslim doubt special attention, crediting Islamic libraries and centers of learning with keeping alive the memory of ancient Greek philosophy when it was otherwise lost in the west from roughly 500 AD to 1200 AD. According to Hecht, it was the discovery of these ancient Greek thoughts in Moorish libraries that reignited intellectual thought in Europe and led to the Renaissance ad Enlightenment.
As I was reading Hecht, I kept a mental list of many other books that I should read from her history: Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary, Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed, Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, Armstrong’s A History of God, Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible, Plato’s Timaeus, the anonymous Theophrastus Redivius, Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Nasrin’s Shame, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, al-Razi’s On the Refutation of Revealed Religions, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Paine’s The Age of Reason, etc. Some of these were familiar to me before, but most of them were completely new to me. I don’t expect to read all of them, but Hecht has greatly increased my horizons of what I could read about the history of doubt.
The battles between atheism, agnosticism, and theism in America today have settled into very familiar grooves (one debate between an atheist and a conservative Christian looks very much like another other such debate), but it’s useful both to see how those battles came came to be what they are and also to see how different the arguments and thoughts have been in the past and around the world.