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Principles of Uncertainty, 1900–

The New Cosmopolitan

If you ran in the right circles, a New Year’s Eve party welcoming the twentieth century might have presented you with any of a great variety of doubters. That couple dancing the cakewalk beside you might be an American, freethinking, women’s rights lecturer and a British, atheistic, birth control pamphleteer. Or they might be a French anticlerical anthropologist and a Russian nihilist; or a couple of German materialists. It is a fanciful notion, of course, but the cakewalk—a craze in the United States and across Europe beginning in the 1890s—was the first dance to cross over from the African-American community, having originated with slaves mocking the formal strut of their owners’ dances. A rising popular culture supported all sorts of rebellion. If we jump forward to 1910, the couples might be doing the turkey trot to Scott Joplin’s ragtime. The turkey trot was a silly dance (one hopped four times on each foot) and as good a marker for rebelliousness as the cakewalk had been: it became hugely popular almost entirely as a result of its being denounced by the Vatican. The story of doubt in the twentieth century has been about many things, and kicking it up—doubting authority and custom—is one of them.

The twentieth century has qualities of the peak cosmopolitan moments throughout history: the Hellenistic, Rome, the Tang, the golden age of Baghdad, and the Renaissance. There is deep skepticism about our ability to know the world, to say anything true, to find a universal value. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein set the tone for much modern philosophy when he wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”1 Others, such as Wittgenstein’s teacher and colleague, Bertrand Russell, have remained confident in science and its brand of doubt. The foundational condition for these doubts and others has been a degree of public secularism. Cosmopolitan doubt has often struggled over public secularism, and over the idea of a cultish version of politics, like that of ancient Rome. Both raise new questions in twentieth-century doubt, and this chapter begins with some flash portraits of the secularization of nations and the religiosity of politics. It then looks at a group of spunky American doubters, at the tricky new philosophies of doubt, and at the specific doubts confronted by Christians, Jews, and Muslims in this tumultuous century. Finally, “Doubt at the New Millennium” will bring us up to date.


The secular state became a widespread ideal as governments from various traditions decided to get religion out of the state and to encourage public secularism. Also, the state seemed to be becoming a religion itself: ever since the French Revolution, political forces had spoken of their campaigns as a “new religion” and had devoted that kind of attention to ritual and symbolism. Philosophers explained the history of the modern state as a kind of religious drama, and revolutionaries spoke of the sacred state, its martyrs, and its liturgy. A “cult of personality” grew up around charismatic leaders and was often discussed as a replacement for religion. There were other phenomena that fit into this model, too. States purposefully planned nonreligious festivities and rituals like Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, or Memorial Day, and such holidays began bringing the population together for something a lot like religion, but secular. Many commented that welfare seemed like a new, secular version of charity. Elementary education soon included all sorts of pledges, shared lore, and anthem singing. Athletics and sporting events, like secular parades and holidays, helped provide unifying communal experiences. Modern doctors in their expanded role (newly empowered by germ theory and vaccination) and the new professionals of psychiatry, sociology, and anthropology were all envisioned as the new clergy, giving advice, defining humanity, and setting standards. There are many levels of this. Thomas Mann wrote during World War I that it is a mistake to think that religion can be separated from politics. “For man is so made that, having lost all metaphysical religion, he transposes the religious into the social, he puts his social life on the altar.”2

The rise of what Michel Foucault called “the pastoral state”—a secular state that takes on pastoral functions—coincides with the decline of public religion, but one did not simply take the place of the other. A practicing believer may well love secular state rituals, too: sports, parades, and flags. The twentieth century displayed a rise of religious behavior in secular settings (consider also the film idol and the fantasy of transformation and ascension implicit in modern stardom), but that does not quite mean that the decline of religion caused the rise of these other religiosities. There was clearly a relationship, but here it is my intention not to uphold the idea that modernity has variously replaced religion, but to point out that the popularity of the idea was an important aspect of twentieth-century doubt.

With the separation of church and state in 1905, the heyday of French anticlericalism was over. It had been a movement of the middle class, eager to run a secular, modern democracy. Now political doubt was more likely to be Marxist. By the opening of the century, there were strong socialist and communist parties and associations across Europe. Many members espoused atheism, and all of them were exposed to atheist arguments and atheist pride. Lenin agreed with Marx that religion was bad, but that there need be no attack on it because once the world was rid of wage slavery, religion would disappear. As Lenin put it in 1905, “The modern proletariat ranges itself on the side of Socialism, which, with the help of science, is dispersing the fog of religion and is liberating the workers from their faith in a life after death, by rallying them to the present-day struggle for a better life here upon earth.”3 Heaven was explicitly exchanged for earthly happiness. But consider also this amazingly coercive call for religious freedom: “Everyone must be absolutely free to profess whatever religion he likes, or to profess no religion, i.e., to be an atheist, as every Socialist usually is.”4

In a 1909 speech Lenin said, “Marxism is materialism. As such it is as relentlessly opposed to Religion as was the materialism of the Encyclopaedists of the eighteenth century, or as was the materialism of Feuerbach.” But, said Lenin, Marxism does not attack religion head on, with “purely theoretical propaganda,” but by helping real people with their real problems. In this speech Lenin even said the priest should be welcomed in the Socialist movement and so should the person who gets things wrong and says, “Socialism is my religion.” In 1917, the Russian Revolution resulted in the first state created and maintained under an empty sky. The United States was the first nation to encourage dissent and ensure the right to doubt; the Soviet Union was the first to maintain a state in decided hostility to religion.

Lenin had wanted the secularization to be unforced, but new revelations from the Russian archives show that in 1922 he responded violently to a community of clergy and their followers who refused to collect church valuables and turn them over to the government. He encouraged the arrest and quick trial of the insurrectionists and then proceeded to murder a large number of the clergy and their supporters. Lenin died in 1924, and Stalin’s campaign against religion was worse. His main target over the next two decades was the Russian Orthodox Church, which had the most members. Almost all of its clergy were killed or sent to labor camps, and by 1939 only about five hundred of more than fifty thousand churches were still open. Most organized religions were never outlawed, but were decimated by severe limitations. By 1926 the Roman Catholic Church had no bishops left in the Soviet Union; attacks on Judaism were waged all through the Soviet period, so that the organized practice of Judaism practically disappeared; and Protestant denominations were persecuted. Fearing a pan-Islamic movement, Stalin suppressed Islam with methodical force. As unbelief was imposed, faith became a powerful voice of dissent and freedom. Although much opposition to the regime was in the name of secularist Enlightenment principles, the image of the secret meeting changed from a place where one might confess illicit doubt to a place where one might confess illicit faith. Meanwhile, among the mass of people living without religion, there were many true unbelievers. Open doubt was suddenly the norm.

Turkey secularized fast, too. When the Ottoman Empire fell in 1923, Turkey was proclaimed a republic and Kemal Ataturk became its first president. He ruled as a dictator all his life, but it was Ataturk’s aim to democratize and modernize the country quickly, and he did. Of religion, he said, “I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea. He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap. My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth, and the teachings of science. Superstition must go.” Still, he did not mean to war against faith. “Let them worship as they will,” he added, “every man can follow his own conscience, provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him act against the liberty of his fellow men.”5

Ataturk changed every aspect of Turkish life, and most of his modernizing decrees directly attacked Islam. He abolished the caliphate, abolished religious orders, made polygamy illegal, and even forced every man to take off his fez and wear a European hat. In 1926 religious law codes were replaced with new codes borrowed from western Europe. Civil marriage (as opposed to religious) was made compulsory. In 1928 Islam ceased to be the state religion. Ataturk closed the religious schools, which taught in Arabic, and replaced them with secular, Turkish-language schools with modern concerns. He had canvassed the army’s support before making these changes, and the army continued to support secularism in the future. Constantinople became Istanbul. Ataturk promulgated a constitution that provided for a parliament elected by universal manhood suffrage, and he let in the women ten years later, in 1934. He is remembered as a hero of democracy by modern Turks. By the time he died in 1938, Ataturk had radically secularized the country on the Western model. His biographer Andrew Mango explains that in Ataturk’s world, “Most Turkish officers and gentlemen accepted Islam as a general framework for their lives and the life of their society. Others, like Ataturk and many of his friends, seem to have been freethinkers from their earliest years.” This group accepted that Islam was part of other people’s lives and had to be taken seriously for that reason, but they did not like it. Writes Mango, “In the eyes of many educated Muslims in Turkey, as in other Mediterranean countries, religion was the province of women; the sincerity of men who showed religious enthusiasm was suspect.”6 One of the few positive things Ataturk said about religion was that since his soldiers thought they were going to heaven, they were conveniently willing to die. It is what doubters had long suspected.

What happened in Italy has been well told by Emilio Gentile in his The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy (1996). Early in the century the modernist intelligentsia of Italy thought that a new religion was necessary, an “irreligious religion” to replace Catholicism and energize life.7 That generation searched for a civic religion, but they did not actually try to hash out a state liturgy so much as mull over the question of what they could possibly believe. What they came up with sounded like a somewhat elitist humanitarian cultural revival. They did not expect a quick solution and spoke of being stranded between grand mythic periods. Some of the Fascist leaders had been associated with this group, but had new rhetoric. Gentile tells us that Benito Mussolini considered himself a militant atheist in these years and (unlike Lenin) specifically described his revolutionary socialism as “religious.” Enrico Corradini was one of the major contributors to the cultic rise of Italian nationalism and the creation of Fascism.8 He admired the “religion of heroes and nature” of Japan, writing that “Japan is the God of Japan” and hoping Italy could copy the mood.9 In 1932 Giuseppe Bottai wrote that Fascism was, “for my comrades or myself, nothing more than a way of continuing the war, of transforming its values into a civic religion.”10 By 1920 Mussolini spoke of a “religious notion of Italianism.”11 Funerals for Fascist soldiers were full of ornate ritual attaching their memory to “the immortal soul of the nation.”12 A cult of the Italian flag was instituted in the 1920s, with a daily saluting ritual at school, and on Flag Day students were told to receive the flag as the “new eucharist.”

As early as 1923, Mussolini was dating letters “Year One of the Fascist Era,” and as soon as they gained power, the Fascists added state holidays to the calendar and issued details on how to celebrate them.13 April 21 was to be the Founding of Rome Day. Secular architecture got as ornate as cathedrals. Il Duce was imaged as the savior, of course, but the real God, as Cordini had hoped, was Italy and its Roman past. Emilio Bodrero wrote that Rome’s name was “no longer that of a city but that of a divine entity,” and that “being a citizen of Rome meant partaking of that divinity.”14 The patter recalls the ancient world and the polis. Later Mussolini insisted, “There is no need to get all tied up with antireligiousness and give Catholics reason for unease. We need instead to multiply our efforts in education, sports and culture.” Some tolerance for religion was all right: “Protestants save their own souls, but we are Catholics and we let priests do their work. On the other hand, when they try to interfere in politics, socially, in sport, then we fight them.”15 Elsewhere Il Duce said that, “The State’s duty does not consist in writing a new gospel or other dogmas, in overthrowing old gods, substituting them with others, called ‘blood,’ ‘race,’ ‘Nordic,’ and things of the kind.” His point was that, to him, the Nazis were the ones getting religious about politics.

A great deal has been written about the religious qualities of Nazism, with its processionals, symbols, savior, and sacred state, but one does not have to doubt religion to create a religious, mystical nationalism. Nazism held the state above religion in devotion and importance, but celebrated an image of simple Christian piety, with a very blond Christ. The Nazis even argued he hadn’t been Jewish. Nazism was described as a replacement religion so widely that the role of doubt cannot be ignored. But neither should it be exaggerated. Like a vacuum, doubt can have brutal power—especially where it has no philosophy, but merely the unspoken absence of belief and religious community—yet there is no evidence that Germany was experiencing more religious doubt than other nations at the time.

Gentile mentions that “the cult of the fallen” in many nationalist movements was an early and key part of the “sanctification of the nation.”16 Historian George Mosse has also shown that a new state religiosity grew up around the bodies of the world-war dead. The memory of the war was “refashioned into a sacred experience which provided the nation with a new depth of religious feeling, putting at its disposal ever-present saints and martyrs, places of worship, and a heritage to emulate.”17 The soldiers’ martyrdom became the “all-encompassing civic religion.”18 In the past, soldiers were often not buried at all, but left on the field to be eaten by ravens and dogs.19 With World War I, thirteen million soldiers died, more than twice as many as in all the major wars between 1790 and 1914. As Mosse shows, the movement to bury every soldier was discussed as a new, nationalist faith.

In China, students in the May Fourth Movement of 1919 embraced Western Utilitarianism as an alternative to the self-sacrifice and social hierarchy of Confucianism. They read the French philosophers and many of them rejected all religions. Historian Vera Schwarz tells of a written debate on “What is the point of human existence after all?” She describes one writer’s response as “moving swiftly, and rather superficially, from Feuerbach, to Darwin, to Nietzsche,” because while the desire for a great break with the past was not much about God in China, the story of Western civil rights was told as a story of rising religious doubt. Mao Zedong read Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, and d’Holbach in his youth and took on philosophical materialism. By the time Mao became head of the Chinese Communist Party, in 1935, his philosophy of religion was an interpretation of the materialism of Marx and Lenin. He followed them in their contention that religion itself was bad, beyond the idea that science had proved God did not exist: religion drained resources from the state, belonged to the old world, deceived the people about reality, and took up workers’ time, bodies, and minds. In the Cultural Revolution many monasteries and churches were destroyed, organizations disbanded, and communities annihilated. Meanwhile, as religion was forced out, the cult of Mao was becoming a vibrant focus of communal identity.

The idea that states were going to have to be secular, and that the secular state was going to have to be emotionally charged, was finding various expressions in the first half of the century. Meanwhile, back in the United States, there were some terrific maverick doubters.



On October 2, 1910, Thomas Edison told the New York Times, “No, all this talk of an existence for us, as individuals, beyond the grave is wrong. It is born of our tenacity of life—our desire to go on living—our dread of coming to an end as individuals. I do not dread it though. Personally, I cannot see any use of a future life.”20 That’s a hell of a thing to tell the New York Times. Edison was roundly scolded for the statement by all manner of public and private personalities. His investors begged him to tell America that he believed, and after a storm of letters came to his laboratory, he offered this breathtaking claim to faith:

I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious theories of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God…. I work on certain lines that might be called, perhaps, mechanical…. Proof! Proof! That is what I have always been after. I do not know the soul, I know the mind. If there is really any soul, I have found no evidence of it in my investigations…. I do not believe in the God of the theologians; but that there is a Supreme Intelligence, I do not doubt.21

This critical opinion had been aroused in him by Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Paine’s Age of Reason. He wrote of the Paine: “I can still remember the flash of Enlightenment that shone from its pages.”22 He was also devoted to Darwin and Huxley. Edison got away with a lot because he was Edison: God was supposed to have lit up the heavens, and Prometheus brought fire, but neither act was well documented; the historical figure who really let there be light was Edison. Still, in early-twentieth-century America, outspoken doubt seems to have been more publicly acceptable than in most eras, anywhere. Being a dissenter, taking public opposition, had some moral cachet to it as a good unto itself.

The decade of the 1920s saw a burst of creative activity among African-American artists, writers, and social commentators based in Harlem in New York City. Hubert Harrison was a central participant in this and an amazing figure in the history of doubt. He was born on Saint Croix, Danish West Indies, and his working-class mother reared him alone, with few resources. But for those of African descent, Saint Croix had some advantages; there was no formal segregation, no lynching, and some real opportunity for advancement within society. Harrison studied hard and was working as an under-teacher of a school while still a young teenager. His mother died when he was only seventeen and he came to the United States, arriving in New York in 1900. He did menial jobs by day, earned a high school degree at night, read voraciously, found a job with the post office, married, and had five children. Meanwhile, Harrison wrote pro-labor letters to newspapers, which brought him to the attention of a variety of intellectual and workers’ movements, including the free-thought movement.

In 1911 Harrison wrote a short essay on Thomas Paine for The Truth Seeker. It began: “If you should ask a man in the street who Thomas Paine was, he would say he was an Atheist; and he might probably qualify his statement with an adjective more forceful than polite.”23 That is not what a man in the street would say today. It seems we can either remember Paine was an atheist and forget he was an American hero (as they did a hundred years ago), or remember that he was an American hero but forget that he was an atheist (as we do now). Harrison added that while many hated Paine’s atheism, some of those who liked it hated his style: “If you had asked a cultured liberal like Leslie Stephen the same question fifty years ago, he would have said that Paine was one of the cruder kinds of Infidels, fit perhaps for the unlettered minds of the mob.”24 Harrison sided with Paine against the imagined critique of Virginia Woolf’s father: for Harrison, Paine’s crudeness was part of his success. Harrison, meanwhile, demonstrated more knowledge of the history of doubt than anyone had in a while. He celebrated Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Hume, Spinoza, Diderot, d’Alembert, Voltaire, and d’Holbach. He also said that while most people could not understand this stuff, they could understand Paine. Harrison himself went further than most of his heroes, noting that “These French Deists, however, made certain false premises which we smile at today”: they believed in keeping monotheism but fixing it, “which was absurd”; in the worship of nature, “which was foolish”; and “in the origin of religion as conscious fraud,” which wasn’t true.25

Harrison praised Lord Herbert and Edward Gibbon, too. He even mentioned John Toland, the seventeenth-century doubter who taught us about offering a “bouncing compliment” as a misdirection at the beginning of a doubting text, and who died with a copy of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things near his bed. The history of doubt had not heard Toland’s name much for a long while. In the last three paragraphs of this article on Paine, Harrison returned to his subject, explaining the variety of Paine’s biblical criticism, showing all sorts of errors in the Bible, and quipping that everyone knew of these now, “except, perhaps, in America.” Because Paine brought the debate to common people: “He was ‘the Apostle to the Gentiles’ of the Free-thought movement.” This meant Paine had brought “the results of that great conflict down to the level of the democracy,” just as Paul brought the worship of Jesus from the small world of the Jews and out to the masses of gentiles.26

Harrison was friends with the activist and educator Frances Reynolds Keyser, and wrote her a striking letter in 1908. It seems he had said something to her about the attraction of Catholicism, and she asked what he saw in it. In response, he joked that he always wanted to learn Latin, but that really, he was a deep doubter. It was Paine who had awakened him to “certain rationalist results which bore their own proof on their face.” On her behalf, he asked himself, “Did it hurt?”

I said already that I was not one of those who did not care: I suffered. Oh, how my poor wounded soul cried out in agony! I saw the whole fabric of thought and feeling crumbling at its very foundations, and in those first fearful weeks of stern reaction I could not console myself as so many have done with husks of a superior braggadocio.

He then searched desperately for something to believe: “What had gone was the authenticity of the Bible,” and that was a lot, because “my God was the Bible God”: the Hebrew God, “plus the tribune God fused from four centuries of Persian, Babylonian and Hindu teaching and the Alexandrine cobwebs of… Plotinus, and the Neo-Platonists. So when my Bible went, my God went also. But I had to get one to worship, and I proceeded to build me a God of what was left.”

For a while he believed there was one universal God with no religious dogma. “But in the meanwhile, Time, the great healer, closed the wound and I began again to live—internally. But now I had a new belief— Agnosticism.” He had rejected the idea that Jesus was a fraud, as “comparative mythology had more rational explanations to offer,” yet since he mentioned it we know it was still a concern. The strongest hold was Jesus: “The power of his personality haunted me for a long time, but in the end that also went. Now I am an Agnostic; not a dogmatic disbeliever nor a bumptious and narrow infidel. I am not at all of Col. Ingersoll’s school.” Instead, he called himself “such an agnostic as Huxley was.”27 He was a little sad about it:

I wish to admit here something that most Agnostics are unwilling to admit. I would pay a tribute to the power of that religion which was mine. It is only fair to confess that Reason alone has failed to satisfy all my needs. For there are needs, not merely ethical but spiritual, inspirational—what I would call personal dynamics; and these also must be filled.

Harrison spoke of a spiritual side to humanity as being a real part of human experience, whatever the truth of specific religious ideas. “Rationally,” he explained, “I believe the scientific explanation to be the correct one. And yet—Shall we stunt the soul by refusing to develop it in any one direction while conceding the necessity for development in all other directions?” If we can show that a set of beliefs “can develop the spiritual side of man,” he asks, why should we “refuse the aid of the belief” just because it doesn’t correspond with the facts? For these reasons he had considered Catholicism, with its beautiful rituals and antique institution. “Besides, as I got to know more, I found that Reason was not everything and I admired the sublime courage of the Church which boldly demands the subjection of Reason to faith.” The Latin lessons were attractive, too. But “Entre nous, I doubt whether I will ever be anything but an honest Agnostic, because I prefer, as I once told you, to go to the grave with my eyes open.”28

Harrison did the history of doubt a great service by describing how doubt stood with his fellows. In an article called “The Negro Conservative: Christianity Still Enslaves the Minds of Those Whose Bodies It Has Long Held Bound” (1914), he opined that African-American scholars were essentially stuck in the eighteenth century and wondered why. After all, “It should seem that Negroes, of all Americans, would be found in the Free-thought fold, since they have suffered more than any other class of Americans from the dubious blessings of Christianity.” He noted that some said the two main forces of racial prejudice in the United States were the Associated Press and the Christian church. “This is quite true,” agreed Harrison. “The church saw to it that the religion taught to slaves should stress the servile virtues of subservience and content.” Further, “It was the Bible that constituted the divine sanction of this ‘peculiar institution.’” To show his readers “the relation of church and slavery,” Harrison referenced a book called A Short History of the Inquisition; it is important to see that he saw these abuses as informing on each other. This fine historian of doubt then turned to Nietzsche, wryly commenting that the philosopher’s description of Christian ethics as slave ethics “would seem to be justified in this instance.

As for doubters around him, there were “a few Negro Agnostics in New York and Boston,” but these were almost always West Indians from the French, Spanish, and English islands. “The Cuban and Porto Rican cigar-makers are notorious Infidels, due largely … to their acquaintance with the bigotry, ignorance and immorality of the Catholic priesthood in their native islands.” But African-Americans “reputed to have Agnostic tendencies” are rare, and “these are seldom, if ever, openly avowed.” Then in an essentially Marxist turn, he said: “Myself, I am inclined to believe that freedom of thought must come from freedom of circumstance,” and he did not think it wise to campaign on the subject. In his words: “there is a terrible truth in Kipling’s modern version of Job’s sarcastic bit of criticism: ‘No doubt but ye are the people—your throne is above the king’s / Whoso speaks in your presence must say acceptable things.’” Job says the first line only, of course, and he says it in response to his friends’ defense of God. Harrison reminds us that tucked in Job are warnings about the tyranny of believers. Popular opinion can support doubt, but it can also be as dangerous to it as any monarch.

In 1920 Harrison was happy to say that after a period of being always drawn as conservatives by reporters, “Today Negroes differ on all those great questions on which white thinkers differ, and there are Negro radicals of every imaginary stripe—agnostics, atheists,… and even Bolshevists.”29 By then Harrison had been nicknamed the Black Socrates. He would also be called the father of Harlem radicalism. As historian Jeffrey Perry put it, in the 1910s and 1920s Harrison created or cofounded “almost every important development originating in Negro Harlem—from the Negro Manhood Movement to political representation in public office, from collecting Negro books to speaking on the streets, from demanding Federal control over lynching to agitation for Negroes on the police force.”30 He was also a literary critic and “a pioneer Black activist in the free thought and birth control movement.”31

Other well-known freethinkers of the Harlem Renaissance include the labor activists Asa Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen; the authors J. A. Rogers and George Schuyler; poets Claude McKay and Walter Hawkins; and activists Cyril Briggs, Richard Moore, and Rothschild Francis. Perry writes that “W. E. B. Du Bois, according to his biographer David Levering Lewis, was ‘agnostic and anticlerical.’”32 Historians have noted more doubting poets of the Harlem Renaissance, including Countee Cullen, Waring Cuney, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Helene Johnson. Consider Georgia Douglas Johnson’s small poem “The Suppliant”:

Long have I beat with timid hands upon life’s leaden door,

Praying the patient, futile prayer my fathers prayed before,

Yet I remain without the close, unheeded and unheard,

And never to my listening ear is borne the waited word.

Soft o’er the threshold of the years there comes this counsel cool:

The strong demand, contend, prevail; the beggar is a fool!

Doubt, once again, brought strength. This time it had managed to rhyme two of its favorite notions: the fool that does not struggle, and the cool of accepting the real world.

It is no secret that anarchists tended to be doubters. Emma Goldman (1869–1940), the Russian-American anarchist, preached atheism in her magazine Mother Earth. In a piece called “The Philosophy of Atheism” (1916), she declared having chosen “the concept of an actual, real world with its liberating, expanding and beautifying possibilities, as against an unreal world,” whose spirits, oracles, and “mean contentment” have kept humanity down.33 Goldman gives a little history of doubt and accounts for her place in it: “I am not interested in the theological Christ. Brilliant minds like Bauer, Strauss, Renan, Thomas Paine, and others refuted that myth long ago.” For her, the theological Christ is “less dangerous” than “the ethical and social” one. Science will loosen the hold of theology. “But the ethical and poetical Christ-myth has so thoroughly saturated our lives that even some of the most advanced minds find it difficult to emancipate themselves from its yoke.”34 She hated seeing workers, especially women, still saddled with ideas of self-denial and penance. For her, doubt was a source of happiness. “Atheism in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.”35 In 1932 Goldman wrote a biography of Voltairine de Cleyre.36 President Hoover had Goldman deported to the Soviet Union, but she left there, disillusioned with Bolshevism, and became a British citizen. When she died, at seventy, her body was brought back to the United States and buried in Chicago, beside the graves of de Cleyre and other Chicago radicals.

When Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic, in 1916, the motto of her journal was “No Gods, No Masters.” Sanger left us a nice conversion story: She was given a Christian upbringing by her mother, but soon found herself influenced by her father’s freethinking. When Margaret was very young, her father, a monument cutter, arranged for Ingersoll to come speak in their town, and he made it clear to the town that he supported the man. His daughter later confessed to remembering only the excitement and the trees outside the window of the hall, and not a word Ingersoll said. Henceforth, however, Margaret and her siblings were called “devil children” and heretics. She was hurt by this, but it did not touch her belief. It was some years later, after dinner one night, that her father asked her why she had spoken to the bread. She said she was thanking God for it, and he asked if God was a baker. That, she said, was the start of her awakening. In a great pair of lines from her autobiography, Sanger wrote, “It was not pleasant, but father had taught me to think. He gave none of us much peace.”37 He hounded them to take up action for the oppressed workers of the world. “Unceasingly he tried to inculcate in us the idea that our duty lay not in considering what might happen to us after death, but in doing something here and now to make the lives of other human beings more decent.”38 She spent her life working so that women could have some control over their lives and so that people could limit the sizes of their families to fit their resources, but by the end of her life she was also involved in the eugenics aspect of birth control—encouraging the “less fit” to limit reproduction. Some people who pressed for sweeping changes in this century were doubters and took up their causes because they believed that, in the absence of God, humanity must design a better world for itself. Results varied widely.

Of the great American doubters, the most raucous and odd was surely Samuel Clemens—Mark Twain. He left so much material critiquing religion that a recent book has been compiled of his “irreverent writings.”39 Twain’s questions on religion were based mostly on Paine’s Age of Reason, along with some Darwinism and a sense of the late-nineteenth-century science versus religion debate. His work on belief and doubt was usually in the form of allegory or fiction, and unlike most of his contemporaries who were doubters, Twain examined the stories in the Bible. His belief was expressed in his book Letters from the Earth, in which God had made earth and universe as an experiment to which he paid little attention. One of God’s deputies, Satan, visits earth and writes letters back to the other deputies. He’s astounded to find that the human beings think God is watching them, that they talk to him and ask him for things. He marvels that humanity invented heaven and yet kept from it the one thing they love most—sex— and included in it a whole bunch of things they usually avoid: harp playing, endless group singing, and prayer.

As the essay goes on, Twain’s indictments become more serious, though always fully engaged in the Christian mythology. Satan describes how the Creator seemed to have come up with distinct, horrible things to infest every little part of a human being. Consider hookworm: “Many poor people have to go barefoot, because they cannot afford shoes. The Creator saw his opportunity. I will remark, in passing, that he always has his eye on the poor. Nine-tenths of his disease-inventions were intended for the poor, and they get them.”40 Twain describes the ravages of African sleeping sickness, and God’s “atrocious cruelty” in creating it. Wrote Twain, “his chosen agent was a fly.”41 Then six thousand years go by, science figures out what to do about it, and everyone praises God for having inspired the scientists. Twain could not. “He commits a fearful crime, continues that crime unbroken for six thousand years, and is then entitled to praise because he suggests to somebody else to modify its severities.” Twain describes the symptoms of the disease (sleepiness, skin eruptions, convulsions, madness, death), then issues one of the angriest statements of his life: “It is he whom Church and people call Our Father in Heaven who has invented the fly and sent him to inflict this dreary long misery and melancholy and wretchedness, and decay of body and mind, upon a poor savage who has done the Great Criminal no harm.” The Great Criminal! Twain said there isn’t a man in the world who wouldn’t cure the victim of sleeping sickness if he had the power. “To find the one person who has no pity for him you must go to heaven; to find the one person who is able to heal him and couldn’t be persuaded to do it, you must go to the same place.” Put flatly: “There is only one father cruel enough to afflict his child with that horrible disease—only one. Not all the eternities can produce another one.”42 Twain fully rejected the idea of a just God.

It’s strange to hear someone struggling with the details of Christian dogma again—it had been out of favor among doubters for so long. Twain offers complaints about biblical morality, such as the Old Testament’s vicarious punishments. Scolding God for never considering that he, as Creator, was to blame for humanity’s sins, Twain lamented that just because the people of Shittim had been “committing whoredom with the daughters of Moab,” the Lord told Moses to hang the leaders of both peoples. Twain said, “If it was fair and right in that day it would be fair and right today,” because God’s morals are supposed to be eternal and unchanging.43 “Very well, then,” he wrote, “we must believe that if the people of New York should begin to commit whoredom with the daughters of New Jersey, it would be fair and right to set up a gallows in front of the city hall and hang the mayor and the sheriff and the judges and the archbishop on it, although they did not get any of it. It does not look right to me.”44

In June of 1906, Twain dictated some personal reflections on religion. He wrote to his friend William Dean Howells, “To-morrow I mean to dictate a chapter which will get my heirs and assigns burnt alive if they venture to print it this side of 2006 A.D.—which I judge they won’t.” He added that “The edition of A.D. 2006 will make a stir when it comes out. I shall be hovering around taking notice, along with other dead pals. You are invited.”45 These confessions rip into religion, and Christianity in particular. For one: “If Christ had really been God, He could have proved it, since nothing is impossible with God.”46 Twain believed in God, but not one that cared for us. He described the size of the universe, our place in it, and then laughed at the idea of God “passing by Sirius to choose our potato for a footstool.”47

For Twain we are to the creator of the universe as a scientist’s vial of microbes would be to the Emperor of China: it’s unlikely that he even notices we exist, but impossible that he cares for some of us and is angry at others. Yet Twain had a strong belief in God: “the myriad wonders and glories and charms and perfections of this infinite universe” are all “slave of a system of exact and inflexible law,” and when we realize this, “we seem to know—not suppose nor conjecture, but know—that the God that brought this stupendous fabric into being … is endowed with limitless power.” So he exists. But what more?

Do we also know that He is a moral being, according to our standard of morals? No. If we know anything at all about it we know that He is destitute of morals—at least of the human pattern. Do we know that He is just, charitable, kindly, gentle, merciful, compassionate? No. There is no evidence that He is any of these things—whereas each and every day as it passes furnishes us a thousand volumes of evidence, and indeed proof, that he possesses none of these qualities.48

Twain sounds nothing less than Gnostic in his conviction that there is a God and that this God is cruel: “He proves every day that He takes no interest in man, nor in the other animals, further than to torture them, slay them and get out of this pastime such entertainment as it may afford.” The last of Twain’s autobiographical dictation is less heated but equally Gnostic in its mood, insisting that “Man is a machine and God made it—without invitation from anyone.” The maker of a machine is responsible for the machine’s performance; not the machine. Twain goes so far as to say, “In our secret hearts we have no hesitation in proclaiming as an unthinking fool anybody who thinks he believes that he is by any possibility capable of committing a sin against God—or who thinks he thinks he is under obligations to God and owes Him thanks, reverence and worship.”49It is a nice piece of homespun American doubt, animated by a conviction that the world is amoral and that therefore there is no good God. It’s also beholden to the ancient argument from design and the Enlightenment idea of knowing God through his natural laws.


When confronted with Darwinism, many American religious leaders were doing what religious leaders all over the world were doing: accepting the idea. A series of conservative Christian works, The Fundamentals, was an origin of the term fundamentalist, but even here some articles in the series asserted that evolution was “coming to be recognized as but a new name for ‘creation.’”50 It was easy to “assume God—as many devout evolutionists do—to be immanent in the evolutionary process.”51 So what happened? As historian Edward Larson explains in his study of the Scopes trial, the politician William Jennings Bryan was a very particular character. A progressive in many ways, he stood for the vote for women and was enough of a pacifist before World War I that he resigned from his position as secretary of state when President Wilson moved the United States toward war. But he also sided with fundamentalism, and when his resignation ended his political career, he began making speeches for a living, often in support of religious traditionalism. It was he who championed the idea that people shouldn’t teach evolution. Education had been the major point in French secularization, and it would be in the United States, too. It expanded noticeably in the 1920s: for example, in 1910 there were not quite ten thousand students in Tennessee high schools; in 1925 there were more than fifty thousand. This massive change created tension over what the state was teaching, and when Bryan hollered that the state-approved textbooks took evolution for granted, he provided a rallying point for nervous parents.

Spurred by Bryan’s campaign, in 1925 Tennessee passed a law against teaching anything that denies the “story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible” and teaches instead that we descended from a “lower order of animal.” In response, the American Civil Liberties Union offered to defend anyone who would challenge the law, and the science teacher John T. Scopes took on the challenge in what became the Scopes “Monkey Trial.” Bryan volunteered his aid to the prosecution and Clarence Darrow was secured for the defense. Darrow is known as a legendary lawyer today, but in his time he was known as an atheist lawyer. While he was alive, Darrow did not let anyone forget he was a doubter. He could argue that you were one, too. His essay “Why I Am an Agnostic” begins:

An agnostic is a doubter. The word is generally applied to those who doubt the verity of accepted religious creeds of faiths. Everyone is an agnostic as to the beliefs or creeds they do not accept. Catholics are agnostic to the Protestant creeds, and the Protestants are agnostic to the Catholic creed. Any one who thinks is an agnostic about something, otherwise he must believe that he is possessed of all knowledge. And the proper place for such a person is in the madhouse or the home for the feeble-minded. In a popular way … an agnostic is one who doubts or disbelieves the main tenets of the Christian faith.52

Having reeled in his reader, he pounces:

I am an agnostic as to the question of God…. Since man ceased to worship openly an anthropomorphic God and talked vaguely and not intelligently about some force in the universe, higher than man, that is responsible for the existence of man and the universe, he cannot be said to believe in God. One cannot believe in a force excepting as a force that pervades matter and is not an individual entity.53

It’s nice to see the reinvention of Hume’s point that the “God” that reason leads us to needs another name. Darrow then explains that science builds railroads and bridges, steamships, telegraph lines, cities, and plumbing; science keeps up the food supply and “the countless thousands of useful things that we now deem necessary to life.” And science needs doubt: “Without skepticism and doubt, none of these things could have been given to the world.” For that alone, “The fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom,” but the death of wisdom. “Skepticism and doubt lead to study and investigation, and investigation is the beginning of wisdom.”54

The final personality in the cast of the Scopes trial was H. L. Mencken, the most prominent American journalist and critic of the time, and a passionate doubter. A recent biography of him is called The Skeptic, and this attitude was especially keen when aimed at religion—he coined the phrase “Bible Belt” and it was not a compliment.55 Mencken wrote much criticism of Bryan’s fundamentalism, so the ACLU took him on as an adviser. He also wrote reports on the trial that shaped the event in national memory. The judge was hostile to evolution and refused to allow scientific witnesses to speak on the value of the theory. On Mencken’s advice, the defense put Bryan on the stand. He went willingly, happy for the chance to defend religion, but Darrow had a field day with him. The radio broadcasts of the trial and the reporters’ dispatches brought Bryan’s literal trust in the Bible to all of America, and America thought it sounded silly. That was clear right away, and the next day the judge struck Bryan’s testimony from the record, asking the jury to decide only if Scopes had taught evolution. They found him guilty, but the battle for public opinion had been won by Darrow, Mencken, and doubt. For many believers, the old doubter’s doctrine that life and humanity developed naturally was now too well documented to dismiss, so they accepted it and kept believing anyway. For others, rejecting the old doubter’s doctrine was a banner issue for rejecting the culture of science and cosmopolitanism. For doubters, the rise of Darwinism was a triumph.

Something similar happened in physics. Einstein’s theory of relativity appeared at the very beginning of the century, in 1905, and whatever people understood of it, they could tell the universe was becoming stranger. Energy and mass were now somehow the same; translated versions of one another, convertible back and forth. Time, the great certainty, was shown to slow down in relation to speed! Quantum mechanics and Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle seemed to make a fact of ancient Skepticism. The old physics assumed we could say where a particle is and what its momentum is, at a given moment. Quantum mechanics holds that this is impossible: the more precisely we measure the position of a particle, the less precisely we can know its momentum. That’s the uncertainty. The Skeptics had said our senses and our minds could not know the world because it was not knowable to our senses and minds. Buddhists had come to the same conclusion. The scientists had to admit, and usually did, that the ancients had said all this before. What often got lost was that this conceptual doubt had a historical correlation with religious doubt and the rejection of all dogma.

By the 1930s everyone knew of Albert Einstein and that he was a genius. That made it matter what he believed; his quip “I am convinced that God does not play dice with the universe” has been famous since he said it. The comment, however, was about Einstein’s beliefs regarding the role of chance, not the existence of God. When he was talking about religion, he gave a different impression. In 1921 a New York rabbi asked Einstein if he believed in God and he answered, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”56 Thoughtful and judicious, Einstein never seemed to answer the question with the kind of zeal that might have been understood as clear-cut unbelief. In a private letter he lamented the problem: “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”57 His awe was real but should not be misread as mysticism. Consider an early comment and a late one: In 1921 a woman wrote to him asking about his beliefs and Einstein responded that “the mystical trend of our time” evident in “Theosophy and Spiritualism” seemed to him “a symptom of weakness and confusion.”58 He added, “Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seems to me to be empty and devoid of meaning.” In 1953 a woman wrote to Einstein asking about life after death; he responded: “I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.”59

In 1932 he gave a speech entitled “My Credo” to the German League of Human Rights in Berlin. It is a lovely piece. “Our situation on this earth seems strange,” began Einstein. We all appear here, “involuntary and uninvited for a short stay,” without knowing anything of why. “In our daily lives we only feel that man is here for the sake of others, for those whom we love and for many other beings whose fate is connected with our own.” This love was matched by awe:

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavor in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.60

As for so many of those who devote their lives to the study of the universe, it seems to have been for Einstein a school for both reverence and reason.

At about the same time, another conceptual revolution occurred. Sigmund Freud published his early Studies on Hysteria in 1895 and Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, but it was across the early decades of the twentieth century that his work transformed much of Western culture. Freud’s father was a freethinker; he’d been emancipated from the narrow ghetto life of Galicia and had brought up his children in a secular mood in a secular world. Although Freud was Jewish, his critique of religion was aimed at the Roman Catholic Church that surrounded him in Vienna, which he saw as repressive to its flock and anti-Semitic to his.61 Early on, Freud’s work affected the history of doubt in an important, but general way. It showed human morality and civility as a thin covering over a mass of blind hungers and needs. Even noble self-sacrifice was now reducible to the fulfillment of some personal psychological need. Where could good and evil, let alone sin and saintliness, be located in such a schema? There is also in psychoanalysis an impulse toward freeing people from unnecessary bonds, and religious bonds were usually seen as of the unnecessary variety.

Freud also plays an interesting role in the history of Skepticism. On the one hand, his dissecting of compulsion and illusion powerfully suggested that the Skeptics had been right to doubt our ability to see the world. On the other hand, he provided a lot of help in correcting one’s vision problems so that the world could be known as clearly as possible. Freud saw both roles, but saw himself much more in the latter role. As he put it privately, he felt that he did for human reason what Copernicus had done for the universe and Darwin had done for our origins.62 He did not often place himself in the history of doubt, or in any intellectual history. But as Freud scholar Philip Rieff wrote, “Privately he admitted to remote intellectual connections—with Kant, Voltaire, Feuerbach.”63 He also acknowledged that Schopenhauer’s “will” was the same as unconscious desire.64

In his 1913 Totem and Taboo, Freud got more specific about doubt. Here he explained religion as having originated in a primitive patricide carried out by brothers: religious ritual walks us through the killing and the eating of the father’s body; the hovering absence of his authoritarian voice serves as the basis for God. The whole notion of sacred and profane, Freud explained, had grown out of the incest taboo. Up till now, the idea that religion had been invented in response to human needs did not really disqualify religion, since believers could say, yes, the need is the indication God gives us that he is there. As Rieff explains it, while other critiques of dogma could be integrated into religion, Freud’s work could not be, because here “There is no distinctively religious need—only psychological need.”65 If we believe that we are deeply shaped by our primary family histories, the idea of God as a translation of feelings toward parents is compelling. If we believe there are neuroses, a lot of religious behavior seems psychological.

Still, it was in The Future of an Illusion (1927) that Freud entered the ranks of the world-class doubters. Reading The Future of an Illusion, it takes a moment, but we recognize in it an old friend. In chapter 4 of this history, we looked at Cicero’s dialog The Nature of the Gods, and then in chapter 8 we saw that Hume’s Dialog Concerning Natural Religion borrowed its structure from Cicero and reenvisioned the characters. Both used misdirection in their final assessment of who won their debate. Later, Schopenhauer reimagined the conversation as Dialogue on Religion with Philalethes, the philosopher, talking to Demopheles, the people. Schopenhauer’s debate was not really on the nature of the gods, but on whether to preach the truth or leave the mass of people the religion they need. In the end, he called it a draw. The Future of an Illusion is loosely modeled on the Schopenhauer dialog.66 After a few chapters, Freud explains that in order to keep his argument rigorous he had decided to “imagine that I have an opponent who follows my arguments with mistrust” and “I shall allow him to interject some remarks.”67 This was the Demopheles character, and the two argue for the rest of the book. Although Freud agrees that for most people religion gives them their only inkling of the philosophical world and their only chance to think about the universe, he thinks they could do better.

Freud calls it maturity. Religion, he says, “has an infantile prototype.”68 It is born of the child’s feeling for the parent, and then in adulthood, and the adulthood of humanity, it is often sustained by fear of community rebuke.

Let no one suppose that what I have said about the impossibility of probing the truth of religious doctrines contains anything new. It has been felt at all times—undoubtedly, too, by the ancestors who bequeathed us this legacy. Many of them probably nourished the same doubts as ours, but the pressure imposed on them was too strong for them to have dared to utter them. And since then countless people have been tormented by similar doubts and have striven to suppress them, because they thought it was their duty to believe.69

The book’s message is that illusion is different from error; it is willful error. Because we want so much the consolations of God, heaven, purpose, and moral order, we should recognize that religion is a willful error, an illusion. As surprising as it would be if our very wishes turned out true, “it would be more remarkable still if our wretched, ignorant, and downtrodden ancestors had succeeded in solving all these difficult riddles of the universe.”70 Freud added disdain for those who believe we can’t know anything about the real nature of things, so we “might as well” believe in God. “If ever there was a case of a lame excuse we have it here. Ignorance is ignorance; no right to believe anything can be derived from it.”71 The fideist God was thus a false idea. The God of the philosophers fared no better: “Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense. They give the name of ‘God’ to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers.”72 They even claimed this was a higher concept of God, “notwithstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines.”73 There’s that idea again.

Freud’s nameless Demopheles begins the penultimate chapter, asking, “Have you learned nothing from history?” He cites the French Revolution and Robespierre and “how short lived and miserably ineffectual the experiment was.”74 Furthermore, “The same experiment is being repeated in Russia at the present time, and we need not feel curious as to its outcome.” Then he asks, Isn’t it obvious people need religion?75 Freud answered that people could handle the shock of the truth:

They will have to admit to themselves the full extent of their helplessness and their insignificance in the machinery of the universe; they can no longer be the center of creation, no longer the object of tender care on the part of a beneficent Providence…. But surely infantilism is destined to be surmounted…. We may call this “education to reality.” Need I confess to you that the sole purpose of my book is to point out the necessity for this forward leap?

You are afraid, probably, that they will not stand up to the hard test? Well, let us at least hope they will. It is something, at any rate, to know that one is thrown upon one’s own resources. One learns then to make a proper use of them. And men are not entirely without assistance. Their scientific knowledge has taught them much since the days of the Deluge…. As honest smallholders on this earth they will know how to cultivate their plot in such a way that it supports them… they will probably succeed in achieving a state of things in which life will become tolerable for everyone and civilization no longer oppressive to anyone. Then, with one of our fellow-unbelievers, they will be able to say without regret: “We leave heaven to the angels and the sparrows.”76

The fellow-unbeliever who wrote that last line was the poet Heine. Heine had coined the word Unglaubensgenossen, in reference to Spinoza.

In the final section Freud tries to explain to his imagined opponent, almost apologetically, why he is bothering humanity with his calls to doubt. Listen to the care in Freud’s language: “Take my attempt for what it is. A psychologist who does not deceive himself about the difficulty of finding one’s bearings in this world, makes an endeavor to assess the development of man” based on a lifetime of studying children and adults. In the process, “the idea forces itself upon him that religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis, and he is optimistic enough to suppose that mankind will surmount this neurotic phase.” Could one blame him for saying so? After all, Freud said, he knew the proposed psychologist (himself) might be wrong: “These discoveries derived from individual psychology may be insufficient, their application to the human race unjustified, and his optimism unfounded. I grant you all these uncertainties. But often one cannot refrain from saying what one thinks, and one excuses oneself on the ground that one is not giving it out for more than it is worth.”77 Freud had a method for working toward what he called maturity, and so could imagine that the whole group might develop, and this made it easier to hypothesize that society might someday dispense with religion.

Freud’s most dedicated scholars have treated him rather badly in regard to his beliefs about religion. For Rieff, Freud’s genius for some reason fails him on the issue of religion:

Freud’s customary detachment fails him here. Confronting religion, psychoanalysis shows itself for what it is: the last great formulation of nineteenth-century secularism, complete with substitute doctrine and cult—capacious, all-embracing, similar in range to the social calculus of the utilitarians, the universal sociolatry of Comte, the dialectical historicism of Marx, the indefinitely expandable agnosticism of Spencer. What first impresses the student of Freud’s psychology of religion is its polemical edge.78

Peter Gay reminds his readers that “Critics might say that he was merely looking for scientific-sounding reasons to confirm his anti-religious stance.”79 It is true that nineteenth-century secularism was a very particular movement—based on the transition to democracy and identification of religion with unyielding authority and obscurantism—and Freud was alive and working within that secularist movement. He used some of its devices, and his thought was shaped by it. But to read his work is to see that he was no yahoo indicting God out of anger at the church. Freud was part of a long and sober history of doubt. His company is not just Mill, Comte, Marx, and Spencer but also Cicero, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Hume.


Twentieth-century philosophy was rich in outspoken and engaged doubters. Bertrand Russell was a central figure of the first half of the century. In his essay “Why I Am Not a Christian” (a 1927 lecture), Russell revived an old approach: he enumerated the proofs of God and why they no longer held. Here’s his take on the idea of a first cause:

I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question ‘Who made god?’” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause.80

If everything must have a cause, what caused God? “If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.” Next Russell came to “the natural-law argument,” which tried to prove God through the existence of his natural laws. That did not wash either, because “Nowadays,” with Einstein “you no longer have the sort of natural law that you had in the Newtonian system, where, for some reason that nobody could understand, nature behaved in a uniform fashion.” On the argument that the world needs a designer, Russell mentioned Darwin. There were no good reasons to believe, but that did not stop people. “You all know, of course,” wrote Russell, “that there used to be in the old days three intellectual arguments for the existence of God, all of which were disposed of by Immanuel Kant,” yet “no sooner had he disposed of those arguments than he invented a new one, a moral argument, and that quite convinced him.”81 Added Russell, “He was like many people: in intellectual matters he was skeptical, but in moral matters he believed implicitly in the maxims that he had imbibed at his mother’s knee.” “The psycho-analysts” were right, mused Russell: “our very early associations” have an “immensely stronger hold on us” than our later experiences. This modern doubter ticked off philosophical proofs, shook a fist against injustice, and scribbled a Freudian note on the illusions of believers.

Russell is not worried that doubt ought not be sown among the masses. He is certain that doubt is good. In his terms, “We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world—its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it.”82 For him, the idea of God is an idea taken from “ancient Oriental despotisms” and “quite unworthy of free men.” In his 1947 “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?” Russell says he can’t prove “that either the Christian God or the Homeric gods do not exist, but I do not think that their existence is an alternative that is sufficiently probable to be worth serious consideration.”83

He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. In 1954 he published a book on ethics and, having seen the horrors of the century, gave this account of modern doubt: “I do not believe that a decay of dogmatic belief can do anything but good. I admit at once that the new systems of dogma, such as those of the Nazis and the Communists, are even worse than the old systems, but they could never have acquired a hold over men’s minds if orthodox dogmatic habits had not been instilled in youth.” Specifically, Stalin’s language “is full of reminiscences of the theological seminary,” Russell explained. “What the world needs is not dogma, but an attitude of scientific inquiry, combined with a belief that the torture of millions is not desirable, whether inflicted by Stalin or by a Deity imagined in the likeness of the believer.”84 A doubter could thus blame religion, rather than doubt, for the religiosity of the modern state, but the main point here is that freedom of thought is better than state religion or state atheism.

Russell made major contributions in ethics and epistemology and took logic way beyond the Scholastic logic that had long reigned. He also added a new voice of contented doubt. “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive,” he explained. “I am not young, and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end”; thought and love do not lose their value because they are not eternal. As with other doubters, Russell’s advice was that after the initial shock, doubt is nice: “Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.”85 For the enlightened, the universe can be a wonderful home.

It has not always been easy to hear the voice of women doubters, although we have seen that marriages were often made on the basis of mutual religious doubt. Russell’s wife, Dora Black Russell (1894–1986), had become a freethinker at a young age and joined a local Heretic’s Society while still in high school. After marrying Bertrand, and traveling, she increasingly saw religion as bad rather than merely erroneous. Her first book, Hypatia (1925), was about women’s reproductive and sexual freedom, but—as suggested by its title—a critique of Christianity ran through it. In her Religion of the Machine Age, Black Russell wrote, “When the male of the species, enamored of his stargazing, set up a God outside this planet as arbiter of all events upon it, and repudiated nature, together with sex, for a promised dream of a future life, he turned his back on that creative life and inspiration that lay within himself and his partnership with woman. In very truth he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.”86 She would not be the last theorist to suggest that religion was a denial of the good real things of life—work, love, children, and play. Others would also champion her claim that while men embraced a sacred fantasy that privileged them, the mundane world left to women was not only the real world, it was the better one.

A very different doubter knew the Russells. Ludwig Wittgenstein did not go around rejecting the Bible, or religion, or God, and yet he is a key doubter. He was a fascinating man. The youngest of eight siblings in an extremely rich family, he gave up his inheritance and lived in austere simplicity. Three of his four brothers committed suicide. As a young man he studied philosophy at Cambridge with Bertrand Russell, and at that time wrote a brilliant book of philosophy, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He then left the discipline for ten years, taught school to children, then returned to philosophy and Cambridge (as a professor now) to write a wealth of brilliant material that began by questioning his own first book, the Tractatus. Most of this writing came to light only after his death, but his lectures had already transformed much of philosophy.

Wittgenstein claimed that philosophy was just a matter of conceptual knots that got tied by language. Language is ad hoc; it works in weird ways developed by the community over history, so that a concept like “time” seems to have all sorts of paradoxes in it that are really just problems of language. We all know what time is and how to use all the complex terms for it; only the philosophers had confused things by trying to resolve the paradoxes of language and by insisting on some overall picture of what the world means. For Wittgenstein, meaning is defined by a community playing a language game together—although reality does exist and limits the kinds of games that can be played.87 Philosophy cannot think outside the communal game, so what it is good for is undoing its own language knots: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”88 He got called the new Socrates and shifted philosophy toward teasing out the rules and sense of language to figure out how we mean things. Lots of people, from Comte, at least, to Russell, had thought that philosophy was going to be about science now, that science was the only approach to investigating the world that had held up. Wittgenstein showed that philosophical problems were still worth talking about because they can be unraveled in language, and since language is our reality, this process has a lot to teach.

The book Wittgenstein was finishing in the days before his death was called On Certainty and was an answer to Skepticism. It claimed that doubting, by its nature, is done within the realm of believing something: “If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything.”89 For Wittgenstein, to doubt everything is like searching for your keys by opening the same drawer over and over: it’s missed the point of the game. He defines true doubt as being hinged on certainties, and if we accept that, the Skeptic argument becomes a mistake. As for the Skeptic worry that we are dreaming, Wittgenstein denies the problem: what you think in sleep (even if it is “it is raining” and it so happens that it is raining outside) isn’t part of the conversation: “And suppose a parrot says: ‘I don’t understand a word’ or a gramophone: ‘I am only a machine’?” They are not telling the truth or lying; they do not have the criteria for being in the conversation and neither does a sleeping person. As the Wittgenstein scholar Avrum Stroll has put it, “The background conditions for sensible assertion are, among other things, that a person be fully aware of what his words mean and intend them to make a statement.”90 If we are left with life as a language game, it may be more accurate to say Wittgenstein rewrote the Skeptic problem than that he conquered it. Still, reading the Skepticism of Sextus Empiricus, Montaigne, and Descartes can be kind of annoying—for instance, because we know when we are awake—and there is a way that Wittgenstein’s On Certainty grabs hold of doubt where Skepticism had only badgered it. Yet, it is not certainty we are left with. Wittgenstein’s process leaves us with even more of a sense that we inhabit a world of belief and cannot see out of it.

Wittgenstein did not write much about whether he believed in God or religion. Still, we know he praised mysticism and that there was tension between him and Russell over the latter’s idea that science was the route to truth. Wittgenstein was born and died Catholic, although three out of four of his grandparents’ families had been Jewish and converted to Catholicism after Napoleon’s defeat. We know he was very conflicted about this, and even a bit self-hating. We also know that as a soldier in World War I, he carried Tolstoy’s translation of the Bible around so much that he was known as the guy with the Gospels. In 1938 Wittgenstein gave three lectures on religious belief, and his students have left us their notes. Here Wittgenstein did not speak about his own belief but of the separate nests of propositions occupied by the believer and the unbeliever, such that they cannot even contradict each other:

If you ask me whether or not I believe in a Judgment Day, in the sense in which religious people have belief in it, I wouldn’t say: “No. I don’t believe there will be such a thing.” It would seem to me utterly crazy to say this.

And then I give an explanation: “I don’t believe in…,” but then the religious person never believes what I describe.

I can’t say. I can’t contradict that person.

In one sense, I understand all he says—the English words “God,” “separate,” etc. I understand. I could say: “I don’t believe in this” and this would be true, meaning I haven’t got these thoughts or anything that hangs together with them. But not that I could contradict the thing.91

Meaning is embedded in constructs of beliefs. There is also a sense of Wittgenstein’s own religious doubt here. In On Certainty we also get hints of his doubt: “I believe that every human being has two human parents; but Catholics believe that Jesus only had a human mother. And other people might believe that there are human beings with no parents, and give no credence to all the contrary evidence.”92 Still, his greatest doubt insists we can speak of the world only in our language game, and otherwise must be silent.

Later in the century the philosophy of doubt was most often expressed in literature, especially that of the existentialists. Existentialism was a mostly German and French movement that started between the world wars and hit its height after the Holocaust and the atom bomb. Pascal and Kierkegaard are understood as forerunners of existentialism, because they both spoke of the choice of faith, and because both were marked by fear and trembling at the thought of the abyss. Existentialists saw pain the way the Buddha did, as the predominate feature of existence. They handled it differently—the Buddha with a triumphant exit from the pain; the existentialist with either a leap of faith or a sneer and a shrug.

Existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers argued for belief in God in the way that Kierkegaard had discussed: through absurdist irrationalism, a leap. Other well-known existentialists, like Jean-Paul Sartre, did not believe in God. Sartre’s father died when he was young; he lived with his mother, a mild Christian, and with his grandparents, one of whom was Protestant and the other Catholic. Although they did go to church occasionally, there wasn’t much to it, and as Sartre later attested, “I was led to unbelief not through conflicting dogma but through my grandparents’ indifference.” For him, belief was good-natured conformism: “In our circle, in my family,” he explained, “faith was nothing but an official name for sweet French liberty.”

Sartre’s atheism was at the heart of his theory of human identity, for in his mind “There is no human nature because there is no God to have a conception of it.” Sartre said if there is no idea of us before the fact of us, if there is no blueprint, we are really free. Even the brain itself doesn’t dictate who we are. Sartre said “existence precedes essence,” which means that a human being “first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards.”93 Since “existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is.”94 Thus, Sartre explained, if you marry and have children, for all your own reasons, you are also creating human reality.95 In the way we live, we are the author of what humanity shall be. For Sartre, this was an intense command upon us to be moral, for our actions are the only reality. He was very aware of the recent history of doubt, writing that the “philosophic atheism” of the Enlightenment had the idea that God was gone, but not the idea that essence is prior to existence. “In Diderot, in Voltaire and even in Kant” there is human nature. For Sartre there was heroism in a moral life because we are all free and all responsible.

In Sartre’s play No Exit the character Garcin provides the cosmology: “Hell is just other people.”96 It is a sour and funny little notion, from the sour and funny faction of the history of doubt. Sartre says more about his childhood in his War Diaries. His grandfather (the Protestant) disliked “the whole religious business” on principle and had “a ‘dissenters’ contempt for clerics.”97 Sartre wrote, “I think he cracked anti-clerical jokes at the table and my grandmother rapped him on the fingers for it, saying, ‘Be quiet Dad!’” Sartre’s mother made him take First Communion, but more for propriety “than from true conviction.” She herself had “no religion, but rather a vague religiosity, which consoles her a bit when necessary and leaves her strictly in peace the rest of the time.” He then described his own vague childhood belief, and announced:

So there you are. It’s pretty thin. God existed, but I didn’t concern myself with him at all. And then one day at La Rochelle, while waiting for the Machado girls who used to keep me company every morning on my way to lycée, I grew impatient at their lateness and, to while away the time, decided to think about God. “Well,” I said, “he doesn’t exist.” It was something authentically self-evident…. I settled the question once and for all at the age of twelve. Much later I studied religious proofs and atheist arguments…. I think I ought to say all this because, as I have said, I am affected by moralism, and because moralism often has its source in religion. But with me it was nothing of the kind.98

He reminded his readers that for him this was not rebellion: “the truth is I was brought up and educated by relatives and teachers most of whom were champions of secular morality and everywhere sought to replace religious morality by it.”99 These were the anticlerical, secularist teachers we saw at the end of the previous century. Existentialism emerged into the history of doubt with a pedigree.

Simone de Beauvoir, philosopher and central voice of twentieth-century feminism, started out as a religious girl. She stopped believing in God when she was fourteen, as she recounts at some length in the first volume of her autobiography. Reading Balzac one afternoon:

“I no longer believe in God,” I told myself, with no great surprise…. That was proof: if I had believed in Him, I should not have allowed myself to offend Him so light-heartedly. I had always thought that the world was a small price to pay for eternity; but it was worth more than that, because I loved the world, and it was suddenly God whose price was small: from now on His name would have to be a cover for nothing more than a mirage.100

For a long time she had had an idea of God that was “purified and refined, sublimated to the point where He no longer had any countenance divine” and was not at all connected to earth or any being on it. Finally, “His perfection cancelled out His reality.” It is a now classic observation beautifully expressed. Yet there is something new here, too: “My Catholic upbringing had taught me never to look upon any individual, however lowly, as of no account: everyone had the right to bring to fulfillment what I called their eternal essence. My path was clearly marked: I had to perfect, enrich, and express myself in a work of art that would help others to live.”101 Ever since the Inquisition, doubters who were former Catholics had been generally furious with Catholicism. It’s important that Beauvoir’s break with the church was not political, not a thing of outrage, but a matter of thought. When she met Sartre, she adopted his notion that in a godless universe there is a desperate need for each of us to be moral and to act for the betterment of life. Yet for her, the original impulse came from Catholicism’s inspiring notion of human value and its call to action.

Albert Camus is often associated with the existentialists and was a serious doubter. In his “Myth of Sisyphus” (1942), Camus tells us that Sisyphus is the absurd hero.102 In his “scorn of the gods” and because he is condemned to push the boulder up the mountain, over and over, with no progress, he represents the image of humanity itself in a godless world. But it’s not all bad: “If this myth is tragic,” explained Camus, “that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”103 Creepy. It comes to seem less creepy to be conscious all the time. That very consciousness is what makes humanity victorious: “The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”

Despite the funny idea of world-conquering scorn, Camus keeps coming back to happiness, even when headed downhill with the stone. “If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This world is not too much.” He mused that, sometimes, “The boundless grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.”104 Acknowledging the absurdity of the human condition is what saves us. In fact, he writes: “One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness.” Why? Because it makes fate a human matter. “It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile suffering.”105 It’s our ball game, such as it is. “All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing.”

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks…. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.106

This is graceful-life philosophy and has remarkable echoes of the ancient past.


Jews in Germany were emancipated in 1871 and had equal rights under the Weimar Constitution, between the world wars. Twentieth-century descendants of “Enlightenment Jews” in Berlin carried on a Spinoza craze culminating in the 1927 celebration of the 250th anniversary of his death, and in the 1932 celebration of the 300th anniversary of his birth. A rationalist intellectualism reigned there between the wars.

When Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life came out in May 1934, he had already been running a very modern Jewish group for years. Kaplan saw problems with the Orthodox, Reform, and newer, in-between position of Conservatism. Judaism, the book announced, should be seen as a “civilization” with religion as but one part. Jewish poetry, painting, music, and other arts were emphasized. The book consciously followed Emile Durkheim’s notion that the sense people have of God is a real sense, but that the feeling emanates from the community. Jewish civilization was a living people that had constantly evolved. As it did so, many of its central ideas, including its “God ideal,” shifted. Jews had reached a point at which some of them no longer believed in God, Kaplan explained, but they were still Jewish because the Jewish people are the definition of Judaism. Kaplan rejected all supernaturalism: revelation was not true, Jews were not the chosen people, and although prayer felt good, it could not work. He saw Jewish rituals as “folkways” that preserved the group’s memories, identity, and values. Kaplan hoped that this cultural Judaism would take moral responsibility for the world, encourage social justice, and celebrate the arts. After Kaplan, these ideas grew into Reconstructionism, a fourth Jewish denomination.

Milton Steinberg’s A Driven Leaf (1939) took as its hero the famous heretic of the Talmud, Elisha ben Abuyah. In the years before the last revolt against ancient Rome, Rabbi Elisha had left Judaism. The Talmud said that one day, as Elisha and a few rabbis were walking, they witnessed a boy die moments after doing a mitzvah said to give long life. Elisha declared, “There is no Justice and there is no Judge.” Steinberg drew on his great scholarship of the period and the little information we have on these people and events, and made up the rest. As Steinberg imagined it, Elisha’s mother died in childbirth. Elisha’s father did not believe in God or practice Judaism, but rather loved Greek wisdom and used Stoic naturalism to argue against miracles.107 Elisha was circumcised only because of the insistence of his late mother’s brother, a rabbi. Later, his father finds the young Elisha a Greek tutor, Nicholas, but the father soon dies and Elisha’s uncle steps in, fires Nicholas, and, over time, helps Elisha to become a great rabbi. Years later, Elisha suffers doubts about God. He asks his friends to explore a proof for God, looking to mysticism and Greek rationalism; one friend dies and one goes mad. Elisha cannot stop searching. In a quest for philosophy he meets up with Nicholas the Greek again, and his old tutor helps him choose books, including what he calls “the most blasphemous book ever written, but brilliant”: Euhemerus’s Sacred History.108 Nicholas reminds Elisha that Judaism has a beauty and a pity for humanity that the philosophers do not know, but Elisha responds that he can’t help his doubting. When Job’s friends advised submission, Job cried out, “‘Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf?’ I know how he felt. The great curiosity is like that. It is not a matter of volition.”109 Here the line is a plea for tolerance for doubters: they cannot refuse their questions. The book’s title shows the importance, for Steinberg, of this link from the Job author, to Elisha ben Abuyah, to the doubts of modern Jewry.

Steinberg gives Elisha a friendship with the real wife of Elisha’s real student, Beruriah, wife of Rabbi Meir, and the death of her young boys grinds at Elisha’s faith. Meanwhile, other rabbis worry over the rise of “godlessness” and of “exercising in gymnasiums, sitting in circuses, lounging all night in drunken symposiums and running in pursuit of harlots.”110 Amid this tension it becomes known that Rabbi Elisha has Greek ideas and Jewish doubts. One day, walking with some other rabbis, he sees a father exhorting his son to a mitzvah—go chase away the mother bird before we take the eggs. The rabbis say the boy will have a long life, and the boy falls dead. Steinberg wrote of Elisha, “A great negation crystallized in him. The veil of deception dissolved before his eyes.” Then Elisha says the line from the Talmud flanked by some flourish: “It is all a lie…. There is no reward. There is no justice. There is no Judge. For there is no God.”111

Elisha is excommunicated and heads off to cosmopolitan Antioch to devote himself to Greek study. He cuts his hair like a Greek and goes to banquets with brilliant, beautiful women and a cast of Stoics, Epicureans, and even a Cynic who comes uninvited, eats messily, and then stretches out on the floor. One of Elisha’s Greek tutors mentions that he does not believe in the gods and, “What is more, I do not know a single educated person who does, except the Stoics who interpret them as allegories for the forces of nature.”112 The tutor reports that he is not bothered by this. Elisha, by contrast, sacrifices everything on his quest for truth, to the point of betraying his own people to the Romans. Steinberg’s Elisha chooses the secular, open mind of the Roman state over the Jewish clannish cult. In the end, Elisha concludes that it was a bitter and unbearable mistake: he continues to value Roman freedom of thought and unintrusive secularism but cannot accept the lack of heart in its bloody circuses, its materialism, and its treatment of workers and slaves. His devotion to finding truth fares no better: Elisha concludes that there is no way to find the truth by reason, not even with Euclid, and Steinberg gives him a little non-Euclidean geometry to make the argument.

The truth that Elisha comes to is Steinberg’s point: logic fails, but humanism does not. At the very end, alienated from both Rome and the Jews, Elisha sees his old student Rabbi Meir. It is Sabbath and they meet by chance near the road mark past which a Jew could not walk on Sabbath. Meir begs Elisha to return to the Jews, and Elisha admits that he wants what is back there, in the world of belief and community, but sighs that he cannot: “For those who live there insist, at least in our generation, on the total acceptance without reservation of their revealed religion. And I cannot surrender the liberty of my mind to any authority. Free reason, my son, is a heady wine. It has failed to sustain my heart, but having drunk of it, I can never be content with a less fiery draught.”113 Then off he goes, past the boundary marker, and down the road, to disappear into the distance. Who was Steinberg? He was born in 1903, grew up in Harlem, and studied with Mordecai Kaplan at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He was ordained in 1928 and then served as a rabbi in Indiana, becoming famous for siding with the workers during a local strike.

Early-twentieth-century Jewish doubt was deep and melancholy before World War II, but there was much rationalism. The atrocities of the Holocaust were difficult to reconcile with any concept of God, so henceforth, alongside this rationalist Jewish doubt there was a new doubt that came more from the belly; more Job than Spinoza. Elie Wiesel was religious when he was very young, but when he was still a child he was taken to Auschwitz and he lost his faith on his first night there, looking upon the crematoriums to which his mother and sister were headed. In his stunning memoir, Night, he wrote, “Never should I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live…. Never shall I forget these moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.”114 He also tells us of a day when the Gestapo took the young boy who was the tiny light of goodness for everyone in the camp and hanged him—he was not heavy enough for his neck to break so it took half an hour for him to slowly suffocate. Watching, someone asked, “Where is God now?” and Wiesel said to himself, “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.”115 For many Jews, belief in God ended.

The most famous story about belief and the Holocaust shows that it is a complicated matter. It is said that a group of Jews in Auschwitz put God on trial, indicting him for abuse and evil beyond any argument or mitigation. They found him guilty. The rabbi solemnly spoke the verdict and then announced it was time for evening prayers. For the observant, profound doubt in God did not always mean stopping the practices. For those who did not have practices and did not have God, Jewish identity was growing elusive, just as the attack on Judaism made it seem imperative that Jews remain a vibrant presence in the world, in defiance.

Some secular philosophy came out of the camps. The renowned psychotherapist Viktor E. Frankl lost wife, parents, everyone, and was himself in the death camps for years and suffered endless unspeakable horrors. In a night marked by disease, starvation, and darkness, someone asked Frankl to say something to comfort everyone, to keep them from suicide. He found himself saying that even if you expect nothing more from life, life still expects things from you: to be there for someone else, to use a talent, to bear suffering. In another moment of awakening, on a long, horrible march with almost no hope of survival in the long run, he suddenly began thinking about the psychology of his experience there, and even imagined giving a talk on it to a posh crowd in some distant future. It was good. “Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by myself. What does Spinoza say in his Ethics?… ‘Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.’”116 Frankl developed all this into logotherapy, or meaning therapy, which held that Freudian psychoanalysis was wrong to say that instinctual drives are real while ideas of meaning are just a “secondary rationalization.”117 Frankl’s experience had led him to believe people need and want meaning more than anything else, and most of them freely acknowledge that when asked. Therapy must help people find meaning. There is nothing antireligious about this doctrine, and Frankl encouraged the believer to see God as his or her meaning, but no more than he encouraged a nonbelieving musician to live for the song. From the most terrible place, Frankl joined doubt’s conversation on how to live in a world like this.

Jewish doubt after the Holocaust was both innovative and traditional. For many, the liberal Jewish God no longer maintained any coherent meaning, but the old Gnostic, Cabalistic images of God rang truer than ever. Cabala’s emphasis on religious feelings and the pointedly nonrational character of its knowledge sources have appealed to many who could not reconcile rationality and religion. Also, not only does it deny providence, it makes human beings responsible for fixing the world. Our generosity is not judged; rather, it adds up to something. The great scholar of medieval Jewish mysticism Gershom G. Scholem explained that mysticism—which seems so full of belief—actually depends on people feeling separated from God.118 It was true of Jewish medieval mysticism and of the modern Jews who read Scholem. The Holocaust brought the idea of Jewish exile to the fore again, and it also caused an about-face in the nineteenth-century rejection of Zionism.

Margarete Susman (1874–1966), the brilliant German-Jewish philosopher and poet, offered a moral struggle with God, even in the absence of God. Susman described her worldview through Job. An essay of 1956 begins with the words “Since the earliest times and down to this day Israel has not ceased to quarrel with God, to take man’s part in his dispute with God for His justice.”119 The Jew, she explained, has long suffered homeless-ness, but now the Jews have to share the rest of the Western culture’s home-lessness as well as their own. “God, for whose sake they have accepted all this, cannot be found any longer, because… the revealed God whom the Jew has accepted has become, in a manner unimaginable till now, the Deus absconditus, the absent God, the God who simply can no longer be found.”120 Then she makes a wonderful leap: “The dispute with God cannot cease even now…. Just as He evaded Job in his personal fate, so He evades the modern Jew in his universal fate. For this reason the process against God must assume a new shape … a version in which God is all silence and man alone speaks. And yet, though His name is never mentioned, only He is addressed.” If God is the idea of true good and true power, we must keep wrestling with him even without him. Susman calls out with Job, “Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf? And wilt Thou pursue the dry stubble?”121 Like the rabbis who found God guilty and then hurried to evening prayers, Susman issued a total rejection but would not leave it all behind. It is a testament to the poetry of the conversation.

The philosopher Walter Kaufman has likened rationalist believers in God to the friends of Job, suggesting that those whose belief in God is based on life experience “must have led sheltered lives.”122 Kaufman quotes Ecclesiastes, saying that when he sees how the oppressed suffer, and how everyone ignores it, he thinks the dead are better off than the living. For Kaufman, the division between theists and atheists is not as important as the division between those who feel the suffering of the world and those who do not. Hence, “The only theism worthy of our respect believes in God not because of the way the world is made but in spite of that.”123 The only theism as profound as the Buddha’s atheism, Kaufman averred, was the theism of people like Job: “born of suffering so intense” that they “must shriek, speak, accuse and argue with God—not about Him—for there is no other human being who would understand.”

Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz (1966) also refused the God of Judaism. Rubenstein spoke of “death of God theology,” which had been the purview of the Christian existentialists, as the only way to think about Judaism in the world after the Holocaust.124 Rubenstein was deeply engaged in the study of psychology and would come to practice Buddhism. Other doubters discussed above were philosophers and poets; Rubenstein was a rabbi, writing for other rabbis.125 He met with career blocks at first, which amounted to what has been called a bureaucratic excommunication, but now he is seen as having inspired the wealth of post-Holocaust theology that has become a vital component of Jewish culture.

Jews came back to Job, and also back to the gymnasium: the world of the gentiles, “Greek learning,” and Mammon, with New York City as the new Alexandria. In many other cities, too, there are Jews who observe as many laws of Moses as did Abraham and Sarah, but who identify strongly as Jews. Does the Jew in the gymnasium doubt? The Jewish voice in mainstream society is often cynical, skeptical, and philosophically materialist. Indeed, the doubt is so thick that wry humor is as much a factor of Jewishness as the beards of the Orthodox. Cultural, secular Judaism has its own claims. As Lenny Bruce said, “Even if you are Catholic, if you live in New York you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you are going to be goyish even if you are Jewish.” Humor is a good place to look for Jewish doubt in the gymnasium of modern culture. Consider the professed philosophy of an icon of this humor, Jackie Mason:

Life has no meaning beyond this reality. But people keep searching for excuses. First there was reincarnation. Then refabrication. Now there’s theories of life after amoebas, after death, between death, around death. Now you come back as a shirt, as a pair of pants…. People call it truth, religion; I call it insanity, the denial of death as the basic truth of life. “What is the meaning of life?” is a stupid question. Life just exists. You say to yourself, “I can’t accept that I mean nothing so I have to find the meaning of life so that I shouldn’t mean as little as I know I do.” Subconsciously you know you’re full of shit. I see life as a dance. Does a dance have to have a meaning? You’re dancing because you enjoy it.126

Mason describes his rejection of religion in part as a rebellion against his strict Orthodox father, but he has dismissed God most resolutely in an ethical critique. The Holocaust and the world’s poverty, sickness, and cruelty led him to believe that “If God exists he’s an idiot. That’s why I don’t believe in any God. Because if that’s how he behaves, I don’t want to know such a person.”127 Few Jewish comedians have offered such analysis, but they speak to the issue in other ways. Henny Youngman said, “I wanted to become an atheist but I gave up. They have no holidays.” As for Woody Allen: “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.”128


In Cold War America, atheist meant communist.

In 1954 a law was passed changing the national motto of the United States from “E Pluribus Unum” to “In God We Trust.” In 1955 another law required the new motto to be on all U.S. currency (it had been there occasionally since 1863), and in 1956 yet another law added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. The Congressional Record shows that Congressman Charles G. Oakman supported the laws because: “Our belief in God highlights one of the fundamental differences between us and the Communists.”129

The well-known Reverend George Docherty preached a sermon in favor of God in the Pledge, and Eisenhower listened. Congressman Louis C. Rabaut, sponsor of the law on the Pledge (House Joint Resolution 243), cited him later, saying: “You may argue from dawn to dusk about differing political, economic, and social systems, but the fundamental issue which is the unbridgeable gap between America and Communist Russia is a belief in Almighty God.”130 Rabaut added, “Unless we are willing to affirm our belief in the existence of God and His creator-creature relationship to man, we drop man himself to the significance of a grain of sand and open the floodgates to tyranny and oppression. An atheistic American, as Dr. Docherty points out, is a contradiction in terms.”

Rabaut clearly did not know his history of doubt: “This country,” he claimed, “was founded on theistic beliefs, on the belief in the worthwhile-ness of the individual human being which in turn depends solely and completely on the identity of man as the creature and son of God.”

The money bill (HR 619) was introduced in the House with the following intent: “Nothing can be more certain than that our country was founded in a spiritual atmosphere and a firm trust in God…. At the base of our freedom is our faith in God and the desire of Americans to live by His will and by His guidance. As long as this country trusts in God, it will prevail.” The money would bear “a constant reminder of this truth.”131

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a strange bird, part Twain, part Paine, part Royall, part Menocchio (the blaspheming miller put to death in 1599). In 1963 students at public schools in Baltimore started every day by reading a chapter of the Christian Bible and/or the Lord’s Prayer. William Murray was in high school at the time, and he and his mother, Madalyn, sued. Along with another suit filed by the Schempp family against school Bible reading in Pennsylvania, the Murrays’ action brought about two landmark Supreme Court rulings: compulsory prayer and Bible reading were both banned in public schools. Taking on the name O’Hair in a second marriage, Madalyn went on to found American Atheists, which became the largest atheist organization in the nation. Lots of people were put off by O’Hair, and it wasn’t just the atheism. She could be very brash, even crass. When Playboy ran its famous interview with her in 1965, the magazine called her the “most hated woman in America,” and in the article she said things such as: “The ‘Virgin’ Mary should get a posthumous medal for telling the biggest goddamn lie that was ever told. Anybody who believes that will believe that the moon is made out of green cheese.” And furthermore, “I’m sure she played around as much as I have.”132 Adding to the discomfort she aroused, in 1995 she and two family members disappeared, and were found, killed, in 1999—apparently the victims of a crime that had to do with money and not metaphysics. Just before her disappearance, O’Hair was asked by an interviewer what she was proudest of having accomplished. She replied, “Oh, one of the things I’m most proud of is that people can say, ‘I am an atheist,’ in the United States today, without being called a Communist atheist, or an atheist Communist. I separated the two words. I think that that’s probably the best thing that I did.”133 It is funny to think that a lot of doubters are today a little embarrassed by the way atheism is now associated with O’Hair, and to realize how profoundly she thereby achieved her goal. Evangelistic atheism no longer feels treasonous— it just seems, like O’Hair, harsh, a little coarse, and not at all mainstream.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Margaret Knight held a similar position as the most famous British atheist—although with a cleaner image. Reading Bertrand Russell and other philosophers at Cambridge had swept away the last of her already dwindling religious beliefs: “I let them go with a profound sense of relief, and ever since I have lived happily without them.”134 She became famous when she convinced the BBC to let her do a series of atheist broadcasts, offering advice on how to teach morals to children without religion. The shows were avidly antireligious and argued that secular morality was superior to religious morality. The texts were later published in a 1955 book, and it is useful to see how she framed the matter there: “The fundamental opposition is between dogma and the scientific outlook. On the one side, Christianity and communism, the two great rival dogmatic systems; on the other Scientific Humanism.”135 Clearly Knight’s project is in part the same as O’Hair’s, but not only does she separate communism and atheism, she seeks to link communism and Christianity: all the tired old beliefs were going to have to make way for secular humanism and science.

When the Cold War ended, it became clear that religion had been a big part of the resistance movements that brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989. Yet doubt had a strong hand in this, too. Vaclav Havel vitalized the revolution with a nonreligious devotion to speaking and living the truth: the simple resistance of not lying or hiding. Havel was brought up Roman Catholic and does not now consider himself a believer, but he wants more than materialism, self-interest, and gadgetry. Havel has said that the principle of human rights emerged from the Enlightenment as “conferred on man by the Creator,” but the anthropocentrism of that idea “meant that He who allegedly endowed man with his inalienable rights began to disappear from the world.”136 Human rights have to be anchored in something new. “If it is to be more than just a slogan mocked by half the world, it cannot be expressed in the language of a departing era.” But it can’t be just science either. Havel has said that the Gaia Hypothesis, which sees the whole earth as a single system, a mega-organism, might be the right kind of idea. Human rights won’t be respected until there is respect for “the miracle of the universe.” There’s a secular, Stoic, mysticism here. Havel tends to use the word atheism to decry the emptiness of life in the West, hoping for more cultivation of transcendence, unity, and joy.

After the disasters of the first world war, the shocking horrors of the next world war, and the nerve-wracking threat of the Cold War, for many the value systems of civilization could no longer be trusted. In the 1960s questioning the status quo and challenging the grounds of authority was again championed as a virtue, and intellectual movements based on uncertainty seemed most compelling. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction appealed because it upended the relationships between established ideas. The fragmented feel of our art and philosophy, often referred to as postmodern, is a response to this. It is also a reflection of the frantic pace of modern culture and its kaleidoscope of images and variety of experts. In taking images from popular culture and advertising, contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman and, in another way, Robert Rauschenberg reflect a sense of meaning having come unstuck. Both express the pain of that, but also celebrate the fun of it. American artist Jenny Holzer has variously decorated buildings with “truisms,” sound-bite claims that seem designed to disrupt the logic of certainty. Artist Matthew Barney’s creation of an entire alternate world in his Cremaster Cycle excites the viewer’s sense that the rules of our real world are arbitrary conventions. Film and television impart the feeling that the world cannot be quite got hold of, from the fast cuts of music videos to the antihero cowboy. Some feel that the world is meaningless, so why should art bother making meaning? We ought to have fun with nonsense. Through many sources, the idea arose that the central individual imagined by the Enlightenment does not exist. To approach truth, one must look at things from many vantage points. It is an elegant modern contribution to Skepticism and to cosmopolitan doubt.


The European idea of Chinese beliefs, particularly Confucianism, had included a good dose of atheism for centuries. Later, from the early nineteenth century on, other Eastern productions—the Vedas and Buddhism— also offered new ideas that seemed secular and rational. We have seen how ancient Eastern doubt came into Europe through Schlegel, the champion of Romanticism and husband of Dorothea Mendelssohn, and how Schopenhauer brought attention to these ideas among artists and intellectuals. There was also the Frenchman Eugène Burnouf, whose studies finally made clear to Europeans that Buddhism was not an aspect of Hinduism, and delineated the differences between the two. In all these efforts, little attention was paid to Buddhism as a living tradition; Europeans loved the books and ignored the monks. By the late nineteenth century, there were many texts and lots of readers. The most popular late-century interest in Buddhism was by the Theosophical Society, founded in New York in 1875 by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and the American Henry Steel Olcott (Annie Besant joined later). In the 1880s, interest was in the Pali Canon, the Pali-language texts that are the foundation of Theravada Buddhism. These were held to be more authentic and pure—and nontheist and rationalist—than the Buddhism commonly practiced. The idea of the Buddhist in Europe now was of a model of restraint and moral goodness, rationalism and detachment—but still, everyone ignored the monks.

The first European to go off and become a Buddhist monk was ordained in 1899. More Europeans followed, and they came back to Europe to set up several famous retreats. There remained an idea of Buddhism as nonmythic. According to historian Martin Baumann, Buddhists in Asia were aware of their European audience and came to emphasize the rationalist scientific character of Buddhism for that reason.137 In 1903 Karl Seidenstucker created the Society for the Buddhist Mission in Leipzig, Germany, praising Buddhism as the “religion of reason.”138 It seemed a new pragmatic attitude for the new middle class; rationalist Buddhist groups sprang up in Germany and Britain first. Then, in the twentieth century, Buddhism spread through the rest of Europe, usually championed by a single famous enthusiast in each nation. In France in the 1920s it was the American-born Grace Constant Lounsbery. All the proponents were still Western, still devoted to a rationalist Buddhism.

By the 1950s, the movement of Asian Buddhists around the globe brought a variety of Buddhisms, some of which incorporated theism and supernaturalism. Just in these years, meditation was no longer seen as an expendable part of a basically intellectual Buddhism. By the 1960s meditation was growing popular, as were courses in Zen. In the next decades, refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia brought more Buddhism to the West. Soon the political tragedies of Tibet and the plight and personality of the Dalai Lama called attention to Tibetan Buddhism, which is now growing most rapidly. Two different Buddhisms in the West were on the rise in the 1960s: that of the so-called European Buddhist community, with small numbers but huge conferences, journals, and societies; and that of the immigrant community, with huge numbers but hardly any formal structure (or anything to which one owes regular attendance). The European version tends to be leery of anything supernatural; many of the immigrant versions are also devoted to practices, community, and identity, and are uninterested in the supernatural.

Buddhism in America is usually described as having three components: the “old-line Asian-Americans”; the “convert” Buddhists (not an accurate term since the second-generation adherents are not converts, but it signifies non-Asian Buddhists whose families came to Buddhism in the 1960s or later); and, last, “ethnic” Buddhists (recent immigrants). The first group brought the dharma to the United States for the first time during the 1849 gold rush, so that by 1875 there were eight Buddhist temples in San Francisco. In 1942 Franklin Roosevelt sent more than a hundred thousand people of Japanese ancestry to internment camps; about 60 percent of them were Buddhists. The experience led this Buddhist community to accelerate in its Americanization and, in 1944, to break all ties with Japan. It is now the quietest, but in some ways most successful, of the three branches, serving as a stable institutionalized form of the dharma that happily coexists with the rest of American life. As for the “converts,” between 1910 and the early 1960s twenty-one meditation centers were founded in the United States. Buddhism guides for the year 2003 list more than a thousand. Indeed, sitting meditation is now the chief characteristic of Euro-American Buddhism. Zen is the oldest form of convert Buddhism in America. It came in with a terrific speech by a Rinzai monk, Shaku Soen, at the Chicago World Parliament of Religions in 1893. His student D. T. Suzuki went on almost single-handedly to popularize and explain Zen philosophy at mid-century. The Beat poets and the rising counterculture brought about the “Zen boom” of the 1950s and 1960s, and Suzuki did much to guide the American understanding of it. Although the counterculture was not against spirituality, the Zen that Suzuki brought to Americans was at home in the history of doubt. Here’s Suzuki on religion and God:

Is Zen a religion? It is not a religion in the sense that the term is popularly understood; for Zen has no God to worship, no ceremonial rites to observe, no future abode to which the dead are destined, and, last of all, Zen has no soul whose welfare is to be looked after by somebody else and whose immortality is a matter of intense concern with some people. Zen is free from all these dogmatic and “religious” encumbrances. When I say there is no God in Zen, the pious reader may be shocked, but this does not mean that Zen denies the existence of God; neither denial nor affirmation concerns Zen…. Therefore, in Zen, God is neither denied nor insisted upon; only there is in Zen no such God as has been conceived by Jewish and Christian minds.139

Rick Fields’s study of Buddhism in the United States credits the introduction of Eastern thought to Transcendentalists Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau, though it was Suzuki who was most responsible for Buddhism in the West as we know it.140

Zen, more than Theravada or Tibetan Buddhism, is expressly about doubt.141 In Suzuki’s words, “I discovered that it is necessary, absolutely necessary, to believe in nothing…. No matter what god or doctrine you believe in, if you become attached to it, your belief will be based more or less on a self-centered idea.”142 In a recent work, Rick Fields, too, praises doubt, writing: “Doubt is a state of openness and unknowing. It’s a willingness to not be in charge, to not know what is going to happen next. The state of doubt allows us to explore things in an open and fresh way.”143Bernard Glassman explains his notion of “bearing witness”: “It’s about living a questioning life, a life of unknowing,” and just bearing witness to suffering is the path to peace and healing.144 In 1994 Glassman founded the Zen Peacemaker Order, based on three tenets: “Not-Knowing: and thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe,” bearing witness, and loving acts.145 Glassman has said that Not-Knowing is what his Japanese teacher taught him, but that it also fit well with his own Jewish background, or rather with the Cabalist tradition of it, where all is one, the Ein Sof. No knowledge can help one reach it.146 The Korean master Seung Sahn called his 1982 book Only Dont Know; the great Western student of Zen Alan Watts has a book called The Wisdom of Insecurity. In each case, the message is doubt.

Another of the most important interpreters of Buddhism today, Stephen Batchelor, has given his books such titles as The Faith to Doubt (1992) and Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997), and cites the ancient Zen maxim “Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening. No doubt: no awakening.”147 Batchelor explains that we can get to “this condition of unknowing” a number of ways, but for many it comes as the final acceptance that the questions we have are not open to rational answers. “It is the palpable silence which follows the breakdown of an apparatus which has been strained to its limits. The acknowledgement ‘I don’t know’ comes finally not as failure or disgrace but as release.”148 Against critics who might think his call to doubt is a refusal to investigate the world, Batchelor cites Thomas Huxley, saying that agnosticism was about the testing of ideas, not the rejection of all knowledge. Batchelor writes that this agnosticism also describes the Buddha: the program was pragmatic and falsifiable.149

In the 1960s, when Americans began visiting the Theravada retreat centers of south and southeast Asia, they brought back “insight meditation,” divorcing it from the rituals of its origins. Many of these early students later trained in psychotherapy and gave rise to a movement that combined the two.150 Recently, Mark Epstein has added his experience working with Buddhism and psychotherapy. He writes that in the case of both specific psychological pain and common existential pain, the trick turns out to be “going intothe doubt rather than away from it.”151 Batchelor and Epstein both quote the passage from the great Zen master Takasui, and the context of psychotherapy gives Takasui’s words new meaning: “Only doubt more and more deeply, gathering together in yourself all the strength that is in you, without aiming at anything or expecting anything in advance, without intending to be enlightened and without even intending not to intend to be enlightened; become like a child in your own breast.” The merging of these therapies is a nice story for the history of doubt, especially because psychotherapy has within it so much of the West: the rationalism behind Freud’s scowl was Greek, his brave face about it was Roman, and his pity for the forsaken world was Jewish. With the mix of Zen and psychotherapy there is a deep commingling of the great traditions of doubt.


In the first half of the twentieth century, the greatest scholar of the medieval poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207–1273)—often known as just Rumi—was a professor at Cambridge University, Reynold Alleyne Nicholson. His eight-volume translation and critical commentary on Rumi has been highly regarded in Iran, and the commentary has recently been translated into Persian.152 He had great credentials. In 1920 Nicholson’s Studies in Islamic Poetry offered a brief chapter anthologizing earlier poetry, with the rest of the book entirely devoted to one of the great doubters of all time, Abdallah al-Ma’arri (973–1057), the early medieval poet. There had been important work on al-Ma’arri in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, by Alfred von Kremer, but Nicholson believed that despite its brilliance, Kremer had missed a major point: “He did not examine the language and style with sufficient closeness to detect the subtle manner in which the poet at once disguises and proclaims his unbelief in the Mohammedan or any other revealed religion.”153

Nicholson told his readers that al-Ma’arri had been a major force of Skepticism. He also explained the poet in terms of the greater history of doubt, finding him at times full of the “pure skepticism of Carneades.” Nicholson cited al-Ma’arri lines such as: “Certainty is not to be found in a time whose sagacity brought us no result but supposition. / We said to the lion, ‘Art thou a lion?’ and he replied doubtfully, ‘Perhaps I am’ or ‘I seem to be.’”154 It is as delightful an image of Skeptical times as one could ever hope to conjure: the very lions qualify their identity with reservations! Nicholson wrote that al-Ma’arri had sketched “many anecdotes of the zindiqs” and that he expressed himself “in the manner of Lucian.”155 Nicholson saw al-Ma’arri as a freethinker, a deist, and a doubter of creeds, and he not only translated al-Ma’arri’s doubt but focused on it. In the 1930s, Nicholson continued to translate al-Ma’arri and write of him as a materialist and disbeliever. Nicholson also said of al-Ma’arri that he “contemplates life with the profound feeling of Lucretius.”156 Thus was a great Islamic doubter returned to the history of doubt.

Later in the century, Islamic doubt drew the attention of the world. The fatwa (ruling) on Salman Rushdie is better known than his precise level of doubt. In a 1995 essay, Rushdie wrote that “God, Satan, Paradise, and Hell all vanished one day in my fifteenth year, when I quite abruptly lost my faith,” and “afterwards, to prove my new-found atheism, I bought myself a rather tasteless ham sandwich, and so partook for the first time of the forbidden flesh of the swine. No thunderbolt arrived to strike me down.” That was it, he wrote. “From that day to this I have thought of myself as a wholly secular person.”157 The Satanic Verses (1988) is not an attack on Islam or on religion. It is a work of fiction, of magical realism. Rushdie has written that the book’s use of fantasy was intended to faithfully represent the world of Indian believers (there are some 330 million gods), but it also reflects chaotic cosmopolitan uncertainty.158 The novel is partly based on a story in which Muhammad, not yet established, accepts the idea that some local, female gods can share the pantheon with Allah (the locals will not abandon their gods) and then, later, revokes the verses that okayed the deal, saying they came from Satan rather than God. Hence, the satanic verses. They have been seen as weakening the case for revelation. In the spinning, jumbled adventures of The Satanic Verses, figures of the Koran are parodied, but Rushdie’s central drama is of the immigrant or displaced individual, wandering the cosmopolitan world. In fact, one main character turns into a hoofed beast in a direct borrowing from that Roman novel of a vast cosmopolitan world, The Golden Ass. The book also gave a warty caricature of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and this was perhaps most provocative. With the fatwa, the rise of fundamentalist Islam became visible to a wider world and Rushdie joined the long train of doubters forced into hiding to save their lives.

The headline for Taslima Nasrin’s official Web site announces, “I am an atheist. I do not believe in prayers. I believe in work. And my work is that of an author. My pen is my weapon.”159 Nasrin is a Bangladeshi physician and writer—a highly respected poet, essayist, novelist, and journalist. The call for her execution came after the publication of her novel Shame (1992), about the suffering of a Hindu family after they are attacked by Muslims. Nasrin’s crime was “blasphemy and conspiracy against Islam, the Holy Qur’an, and its prophet.” With the fatwa on her, it became clear to the West that Islamic fundamentalism had spread to Bangladesh. In a 1998 interview Nasrin was asked what originally prompted her to be so outspoken in her opposition to Islam.160 She answered, “When I began to study the Koran, the holy book of Islam, I found many unreasonable ideas. The women in the Koran were treated as slaves. They were nothing but sexual objects.” When she set down the Koran and looked at her world, she “realized that religious oppression and injustices are only increasing, especially in Muslim countries,” and especially against women. She said that she then began to write against “the crimes of religion, particularly the injustice and oppression against women.” Her interviewer asked if she was chiefly critical of fundamentalists, to which Nasrin replied:

I criticized fundamentalists as well as religion in general. I don’t find any difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalists. I believe religion is the root, and from the root fundamentalism grows as a poisonous stem. If we remove fundamentalism and keep religion, then one day or another fundamentalism will grow again. I need to say that because some liberals always defend Islam and blame fundamentalists for creating problems. But Islam itself oppresses women. Islam itself doesn’t permit democracy and it violates human rights. And because Islam itself is causing injustices, so it is our duty to make people alert. It is our responsibility to wake people up, to make them understand that religious scriptures come from a particular period in time and a particular place.

Such statements impugn mainstream Islam in the same way Christian unbelievers have impugned all Christianity along with its crueler excesses. Average moderate Christians never like it, and moderate Muslims do not like it much either. But her point is that just as average moderate believers may support each other across religions, radical doubters and secularists should be able to support each other across religions.

In 1994, while Rushdie was still in hiding, he published an open letter to Taslima Nasrin in the New York Times, both to comfort her and to bring attention to her plight.161 The letter began by saying how tiring it must be to be called the “female Salman Rushdie”—“what a bizarre and comical creature that would be!—when all along you thought you were the female Taslima Nasrin.” He said instead the press should say her enemies are “the Bangladeshi Iranians.” “What an Islam they have made, these apostles of death, and how important it is to have the courage to dissent from it!” The fundamentalists, he explained, always say they want simplicity, but in fact, they are obscurantists. “What is simple is to agree that if one may say ‘God exists’ then another may also say ‘God does not exist’; that if one may say ‘I loathe this book’ then another may also say ‘But I like it very much.’” Rushdie was at pains to demonstrate that doubt and pluralism have a long history in his part of the world.

In 1991 an interviewer reported that “Mr. Rushdie lamented that people in the rich and powerful West had failed to see that he was the victim of religious persecution, not unlike so-called heretics of generations past who were burned or drowned for their dissenting beliefs.”162 Like Nasrin, Rushdie protests the “multiculturalist” respect some in the West accord to acts that would be seen as simply wrong in their own culture. The West, he asserts, seeking to avoid its old crime of cultural imperialism, now perpetrates a new injustice by denying universal Enlightenment standards for human rights.

To these great Muslim doubters we add two with interesting pseudonyms. First, there is Ibn al-Rawandi—he borrowed the name of the great medieval doubter. His Islamic Mysticism: A Secular Perspective (2000) explains that its author was a devoted convert to Sufism and was enchanted by its metaphysics. He studied and worshiped in Cyprus and was content at first, but when doubts emerged for which the traditionalist authors had no answers, and then the Salman Rushdie affair divided Islam, Rawandi left Sufism and sought to offer a critical evaluation of it. His conclusion was that mystical experience is not a trustworthy validation of religion. This new Ibn al-Rawandi lives in London and writes articles for Philosophy Now and New Humanist. Second, there is the extraordinary author of Why I Am Not a Muslim (1995), who took the name Ibn Warraq in honor of that other great medieval Islamic doubter, Muhammad al-Warraq. Ibn Warraq explains that he was raised Muslim, but “As soon as I was able to think for myself, I discarded all the religious dogmas that had been foisted on me. I now consider myself a secular humanist who believes that all religions are sick men’s dreams, false—demonstrably false—and pernicious.”163

He said he would have kept this opinion to himself had it not been for the Rushdie affair and the rise of fundamentalist Islam: “For those who regret not being alive in the 1930s to be able to show their commitment to a cause, there is, first, the Rushdie affair, and, second, the war that is taking place in Algeria, the Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, a war whose principal victims are Muslims, Muslim women, Muslim intellectuals, writers, ordinary decent people. This book is part of my war effort.” Ibn Warraq announces, “The present work attempts to sow a drop of doubt in an ocean of dogmatic certainty by taking an uncompromising and critical look at almost all the fundamental tenets of Islam.”164

Like other Muslim doubters, Ibn Warraq is angry that multiculturalism has made it difficult for an irreligious liberal to be flatly against religion. He quotes John Stuart Mill’s encouragement to radicalism and generally calls out to the tradition of doubt: “Muslims cannot hide forever from the philosophical implications of the insights of Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Feuerbach,… and Renan,” he writes. “Hume’s writings on miracles are equally valid in the Islamic context.” And further: “What of the rise of the critical method in Germany in the nineteenth century, and its application to the study of the Bible and religion in general? When biblical scholars say that Jonah never existed or that Moses did not write the Pentateuch, then, implicitly, the veracity of the Koran is being called into question.”165 He quotes Nicholson as saying “this blasphemous sentence, among others: ‘the Koran is an exceedingly human document.’”166 He cites Xenophanes, Montaigne, Galileo, Spinoza, La Peyrère, Hobbes, Gibbon, Bayle, Voltaire, Kant, Schopenhauer, Paine, and Carlyle, as well as Averroës and Avicenna. Darwin, Huxley, Ingersoll, Russell, and Sartre also give witness. Einstein is quoted as saying that anyone who believes in the law of causation “cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events…. He has no use for the religion of fear.”167 Realizing that many Christians have incorporated science into their faith, Ibn Warraq laments, “Muslims have yet to take even this first step.”168 He also writes that a series of articles by Ibn al-Rawandi in New Humanist “somehow gave me enormous moral encouragement and support.”169

Ibn Warraq tells of a friend, a well-educated Muslim, who saw Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian on Ibn Warraq’s bookshelf and “pounced on it with evident glee.” Later, Ibn Warraq was disappointed to learn that the friend “apparently considered Russell’s classic to be a great blow to Christianity; at no time was my friend aware that Russell’s arguments applied, mutates mutandis, to Islam.” Ibn Warraq even suggests that Muslims try reading “Allah” wherever Western doubting texts say “God”; only if they hear Nietzsche saying, “Allah is dead,” he states, will they get the point.170 Ibn Warraq then compiles a great variety of criticisms against Islam. It may be the first Muslim history of doubt. He also issues various critiques of the Koran and of Muhammad’s morality.

Popular modern Muslim doubt tends to be ethical; it critiques the behavior of Muhammad as the ancient Greeks critiqued the behavior of the pantheon. One central issue is Muhammad’s preteen wife; it is often introduced as a reason a former Muslim has left the faith. The treatment of Islamic women in general is also very important, followed by the treatment of non-Muslims, even, sometimes, Muslim non-Arabs. There is also the issue of democracy. Ibn Warraq cites the founders of the United States on the relationship between religion and politics and concludes that Islam cannot be reconciled to that vision. He also devotes an entire chapter to al-Ma’arri. Citing many verses from Nicholson’s several books, he puts together his own anthology of al-Ma’arri’s great doubt. To consider just one conversational passage and a stanza:

Sometimes you may find a man skillful in his trade, perfect in sagacity and in the use of arguments, but when he comes to religion he is found obstinate, so does he follow the old groove…. To the growing child that which falls from his elders’ lips is a lesson that abides with him all his life…. If one of these had found his kin among the Magians, or among the Sabians, he would have declared himself a Magian, or among the Sabians he would have become nearly or quite like them.171

As for the stanza:

…The creeds of man: the one prevails

Until the other comes; and this one fails

When that one triumphs; ay, the lonesome world

Will always want the latest fairytales.172

The consistent theme of Ibn Warraq’s book is distress that Western intellectuals, having won separation of church and state in their own nations, no longer want to fight religion.


When I started writing this book, I did not think there would be much to say about the third millennium CE, but things changed fast in the autumn of 2001. During the Cold War, the idea was that Americans believed more than our opponents did; in the confrontation with fundamentalist Islam, we are faced with an enemy that violently rejects public secularism. It demands a reappraisal of our attitude. In the most immediate terms, consider the response of a few doubting Muslims. Salman Rushdie published an article called “Yes, This Is About Islam” in the New York Times on November 2, 2001. He wrote: “‘This isn’t about Islam.’ The world’s leaders have been repeating this mantra for weeks.” And for good reason, said Rushdie: to keep innocent Muslims from being harassed and to keep the peace with other Muslim countries. But for him, “The trouble with this necessary disclaimer is that it isn’t true.” Rushdie sighed, “Of course this is ‘about Islam.’” But he explained that it was not so much about religion, as religion in politics. “The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal, its depoliticization, is the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp in order to become modern.” Rushdie concluded, “If terrorism is to be defeated, the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based, and without which Muslim countries’ freedom will remain a distant dream.”

After September 11, 2001, Ibn Warraq has many times called for politicians and intellectuals to stop trying to “protect” Islam. In October 2001, ABC Radio National devoted an entire program to an interview with Ibn Warraq, and here again he rejected the West’s respectful response to Islam.173 For him, “we will not get anywhere until we emphasize the things that we value, like separation of church and state, liberalism, democracy, the value of rationality, discussing our problems and so on.” When asked if he thought Islam capable of a modern transformation, Ibn Warraq replied that it is possible if only we begin to look critically at Islam as we have looked critically at Christianity. “Higher biblical criticism,” he encouraged, “has existed since at least the seventeenth century with Spinoza and so on, going on to the nineteenth century in Germany. And yet nobody dares to look at the Koran in the same way.”

Ibn Warraq lamented that even in academia there is a taboo about discussing the Koran “scientifically,” enough so that excellent work, such as that of Christoph Luxenberg,174 has been shunned in the West. And with what explanation? “‘Well, we do not wish to hurt the sensibilities of the Muslims.’ I mean it’s incredible.” For him the answer is Bible scholarship and lots of it, so “then the Muslims will be forced to look at their own religion in a critical way as well.” He added, “As somebody once said, we’re not doing Islam any favors by shielding it from Enlightenment values.” For him, defusing the present global threat should be understood as dragging Islam through the same process that her older sisters have undergone: separation of church and state, an increase in gender equality, recognition of other religions as partaking in the same truths, and a willingness to have secular standards of conduct applied within their ranks.

A similar critique has been offered by Ramendra Nath, a philosopher who teaches in India and wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Russell. He has recently published Why I Am Not a Hindu. Nath writes: “Though I agree with Buddhism in its rejection of god, soul, infallibility of the Vedas…, still I am not a Hindu even in this broad sense of the term ‘Hindu,’ because as a rationalist and humanist I reject all religions.” Nath, too, argues that fundamentalism cannot be extracted from Hinduism and that the religion itself—and all religion—endangers peace, equality, and truth.

The new millennium nurtures its share of doubting scientists. The title alone of Francis Crick’s essay “How I Got Inclined Towards Atheism” clues us in to the beliefs of the Nobel Prize–winning biologist who helped decipher the structure of DNA.175 James Watson, his Nobel Prize–winning partner, has spoken of his religious doubt, as well. Stephen Hawking has presented an attitude toward God very reminiscent of Einstein’s (if a little less respectful): willing to muse about “God’s mind,” but dismissive of a personal God. The Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Weinberg has been a vocal proponent of atheism for a long time. He complains that even those, like Havel, who doubt religion, still reject “reductionist materialism.” “Thales’ ocean had no room for Poseidon. In Hellenistic times the cult leader Epicurus adopted the atomist theory of Democritus as an antidote to belief in the Olympian gods…. Scientists are often driven in their work by motives of this sort. Of course, none of this bears on the question of whether the reductionist perspective is correct. And since in fact it is correct, we had all better learn to live with it.”176

Science fiction, started by the great Latin doubter Lucian, began by laughing at the Olympian gods and never really changed its attitude in this regard. A surprising number of leading science-fiction writers have been open about their atheism. Isaac Asimov was outspokenly critical of religion as early as the 1960s, but in his later years he went further, saying:

I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I’ve been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unre-spectable to say that one is an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn’t have. Somehow it was better to say one was a humanist or agnostic. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect that he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.177

H. P. Lovecraft said that he gave up belief in God soon after he rejected Santa Claus, before he was ten years old. Harlan Ellison reported himself “so far beyond atheism” that there was no word for his level of disbelief in the English language.178 In a 1997 profile in the New York Times, Arthur C. Clarke mused about the world of 3001, saying, “Perhaps most controversially, religions of all kinds have fallen under a strict taboo, with the citizenry looking back on the religious beliefs and practices of earlier ages as products of ignorance that caused untold strife and bloodshed. But the concept of a God, known by the Latin word Deus, survives, a legacy of man’s continuing wonder at the universe.” In 1998 Douglas Adams said he called himself a “radical atheist” because if he said just “atheist,” people assumed he meant he was agnostic and he would have to explain, “I really do not believe that there is a god, in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference), I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one… etc., etc.”179 The Time magazine columnist Barbara Ehrenreich, a self-avowed fourth-generation atheist herself,180wrote a very funny line on the phenomenon: “What gets me is all the mean things people say about Secular Humanism, without even taking the time to read some of our basic scriptures, such as the Bill of Rights or Omni magazine.”181

In 1995 the Freedom from Religion Foundation made the social commentator Katha Pollitt their “Freethought Heroine” for her willingness to publicly call herself an atheist. She wrote about their 1995 convention in her column in The Nation, and the piece is called “No God, No Master”— an adjusted version of Sanger’s phrase.182 In 2001 Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prize–winning science writer for the New York Times, published an essay entitled “Confessions of a Lonely Atheist,” pointing to how illicit atheism feels to her today. Angier wrote, “So, I’ll out myself. I’m an Atheist. I don’t believe in God, Gods, Godlets or any sort of higher power beyond the universe itself, which seems quite high and powerful enough to me. I don’t believe in life after death, channeled chat rooms with the dead, reincarnation, telekinesis or any miracles but the miracle of life and consciousness, which again strike me as miracles in nearly obscene abundance.”183 Angier also writes that public atheists are either too wacky, like O’Hair, or more concerned with secularism than with godlessness. Angier quotes Katha Pollitt here as saying that if someone believes, she is “not interested in trying to persuade that person there is no intelligent design to the universe.” Rather, Pollitt explained, “Where I become interested and wake up is about the temporal power of religion, things like prayer in schools, or Catholic-secular hospital mergers.” Angier understands, but writes, “And yet there is something to be said for a revival of pagan peevishness and outspokenness.”

Churches are dwindling in Europe. They are dwindling more slowly in the United States, but here there is a rather loud buzz of doubt from the world of culture and entertainment. Many sports heroes, artists, and others have come forward as doubters, from comedians such as George Carlin, who made a fabulous career of laughing at the “invisible man living in the sky” who always needs money, to a great range of people who quietly mention their atheism when asked. In an interview in Ladies’ Home Journal, Katharine Hepburn said, “I’m an atheist, and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for each other.”184 Doubt speaks in many voices, from actor Richard Gere promoting Tibetan Buddhism to Karen Armstrong, the historian of religion and former nun, musing with a good deal of open doubt about the future of God.185 Author and gay rights activist Quentin Crisp wrote of having shocked an audience in Ireland without much mentioning his irreligion. He described their tension as sectarian rather than moral and quipped that when you tell them you are an atheist they ask, “But is it the God of the Catholics or the God of the Protestants in whom you do not believe?”186 Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell recently coined the word “Brights” as a new umbrella term for those who have “a naturalist worldview,” and early promoters of the new term include the evolution scientist Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel Dennet. The list of doubters now in the public eye, or recent icons, includes musicians Frank Zappa and John Lennon, actors Christopher Reeve and Jodie Foster, financier Warren Buffett, writer Camille Paglia, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, historian Gerda Lerner, Nobel Prize–winning author Nadine Gordimer, Linus Torvalds (creator of Linux), fashion designer Bill Blass, and both Penn and Teller—magicians.

We are in an age of intellectual uncertainty and we are in an age of science. We are in an age of cosmopolitan secularism and an age of ardent, doubt-conscious faith. We are marked by moral ambiguity. We investigate graceful-life philosophies and various transcendentalist and therapeutic meditations. Nowadays, all the classic forms of doubt run wild. There is uncertainty in modern society, modern art, and modern cosmology. In politics, there is doubt of moral absolutes, but also uncertainty about moral relativism. The last hundred years have nurtured every aspect of the great history of doubt, so that Skepticism, rationalism, and cultural relativism were redefined and ancient doubting practices found new audiences. At moments like this one, for those who love doubt, it seems that a culture is not only held together by shared beliefs, but also by shared dedication to inquiry, and defense of a secular public sphere.

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