July 07, 2014

Women of Doubt:
Jennifer Michael Hecht chronicles the history of doubt

As I was reading Doubt: A History, I was struck by the number of female voices Jennifer Michael Hecht included. It's a side of history that I am incredibly unfamiliar with, and hearing these voices was empowering for me as a female and an atheist.

I wrote two weeks ago about atheism's inclusion problem--women are less likely than men to publicly identify as atheists. Hecht is one of the strong female voices of doubt that I am glad to have, and the women she gave life to in the pages of the book were amazingly colorful. I look forward to highlighting them over the coming weeks, but since it was Doubt that kickstarted this project, I thought it was only fair to give Hecht the first go around.

As this is a new column, I'll be experimenting with format. Right now, I think we will go with biography, quotes, and impact. Let's give it a go, shall we?

Who is Jennifer Michael Hecht?

Hecht is a poet, philosopher, historian and commentator. She received her BA in history and PHCD in the history of science. She's written seven books, four that are history and philosophy, and three poetry volumes. Her first book, The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism and Anthropology in France 1876-1936, grew out of her dissertation on the Society for Mutual Autopsy.

Hecht was raised Jewish. She believed in God until about the age of 12, when she began to question her beliefs. She has been an outspoken member of the secular community since 2003:
"Poetry came first, then historical scholarship, then public atheism, and they probably remain in my dedication to them."
Hecht only accepted the mantle of atheist reluctantly. She says:
"Initially after writing my book Doubt, I avoided the atheist label, saying only that I did not believe in God. After some reflection, I realized I needed to defend what I truly believe. I now call myself an 'atheist,' and proudly."
Hecht is currently a teacher at the New School. She's taught in the MFA program both there and at Columbia University. She's appeared on a variety of television and radio shows and has been widely published in scholarly journals and other magazines. Don't worry, I'll have a list at the end!

What does Jennifer Michael Hecht say?

Hecht has a lot of great quotes out there, so it is hard to pick out the best. Here's a few of my favorites though.

How was life before Pop-Tarts, Prozac, and padded playgrounds? They ate strudel, took opium, and played on the grass.
--The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote to What Isn't Working Today

We are humanity, Kant says. Humanity needs us because we are it. Kant believes in duty and considers remaining alive a primary human duty. For him one is not permitted to "renounce his personality," and while he states living as a duty, it also conveys a kind of freedom: we are not burdened with the obligation of judging whether our personality is worth maintaining, whether our life is worth living. Because living is a duty, we are performing a good moral act just by persevering.
--Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It

You have to be a little bold and a little brave in most periods of time to be a doubter. And I liked them. I also was surprised by them, because the dominant history basically suggests that doubt is very modern and that we had a few doubters in the ancient world, but basically doubt is a modern phenomenon. And I kept seeing it everywhere. And so I just wanted to tell that story to sketch it out. And then when I did the research for it, I found it was much more cohesive and self-knowing than I had ever dreamed.

That we love and that love, among other possibilities, brings forth life is very strange. The birth of a child can bring extraordinarily religious feelings, because it is such a good thing, but also because it makes no real sense. Where did this miniature human being come from? Technically, we made it out of nine months' worth of French toast, salad, and lamb chops. Technically, our bodies hold tiny, little instructions for how to build human eyes, a language center in the brain, and a human spirit--fussy, joyful or otherwise. But how strange that such a thing as fussy exists and is created thusly.
--Doubt: A History

And lastly, a poem:

When They Die We Change Our Minds About Them 
When they die we change our minds
about them. While they live we see
the plenty hard they're trying,
to be a star, or nice, or wise,
and so we do not quite believe them. 
When they die, suddenly, they are
what they claimed. Turns out,
that's what one of those looks like. 
The cold war over manner of manly
or mission is over. Same person,
same facts and acts, just now
a quiet brain stem. We no longer
begrudge his or her stupid luck. 
When they die we change our minds
about them. I will try to believe
while you yet breathe. 

What influence has Jennifer Michael Hecht had?

 Hecht's work still grows in influence. Personally, I would put her greatest influence this far at the beauty that is Doubt. To have so much history of nonbelief gathered in such a handy and accessible text is brilliant. This is not to say that I doubt the influence of the rest of her work, but more because I've been profoundly impacted by this book myself.

I picked Doubt as my very first book on my "atheist" reading list. I did this purposefully. I read through the summaries of the books I'd put on the list, and I liked the appeal of starting with a history text. The "history" of the Bible was one of the first things we learned--the names, the stories, the timelines--as I grew up, and without that, I felt a bit lost. Doubt connected me to a wider history of religious doubt and atheism. I'm deeply indebted to Hecht for giving me back a firm foundation to grow from.

I can't wait personally to pick up some more of her work, and I hope you guys will too. If you do, feel free to venture back to these comments for a discussion. I'll be watching. Let me know too if you like the Women of Doubt idea and format and make suggestions for women you'd like to see and any format changes you'd like.

In the meantime, can we all agree that doubting women are badass? Boo-ya.

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