A History of Unbelief

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Rendered as they are by Jennifer Michael Hecht in “How Secular Are Secular Ethics?” (February 26), the claims of my book The Soul of Doubt are indeed incredible. I do not, however, argue that contemporary secularism is inherently Christian…

To the Editor:

Rendered as they are by Jennifer Michael Hecht in "How Secular Are Secular Ethics?" (February 26), the claims of my book The Soul of Doubt are indeed incredible. I do not, however, argue that contemporary secularism is inherently Christian. I deliberately concluded my "history of conscience" with Marx, suggesting that when conscience is "externalized" into politics, human rights, or revolutionary socialism, it ceases to operate as conscience. I continue to dispute the concept of secularization but I acknowledge that the 20th century is different. The Christian sensorium that I find in a writer like George Eliot is not comparably evident in, say, second-wave feminism or the New Atheists. It was precisely to avoid the kind of clumsy imperialism the reviewer perceives in my study that I concluded it when I did. Indeed my starting point was a suspicion that a self-consciously secular present has remade the Enlightenment in its own image, bowdlerizing its religious energies as awkward linguistic hangovers from an age of faith. Mine was the classic historian’s intuition that the story looks different when you know, or think you know, how it ended. So when Hecht protests that, "As a Jewish atheist, I’ll have to ask him to get his own Spinoza," she captures the fallacy that inspired the book. I say nothing about Spinoza that Spinoza does not say about himself. The real scandal is a scholarship that can make an atheist of someone who vigorously denied that he was.

More troubling still is Hecht’s studious avoidance of my central thesis, which traces an unbroken tradition of dissent from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. Ignoring the two chapters that link Luther to Spinoza with ground-hugging attention to the sources, she suggests an argument conjured from the circumstantial evidence of friendship or the superficial symmetry of language. My argument is not based on the "look" of Enlightenment ethics but on an inherited structure of thought — one that does find its inspiration in the New Testament. I do not ignore science or classicism, but I find them secondary to a distinctly Christian fury in the rattling of ecclesiastical cages. The Inquisition makes more skeptics than Copernicus. Predestination forces more people into doubt than evolution. Most of my skeptics did not labor over questions of biblical historicity or scientific consistency. They didn’t need to. Religious violence did the work. To throw light upon this in-house rebellion is not to swallow people who clearly lie beyond it, such as Gandhi or Bernie Sanders. The Soul of Doubt is a history of unbelief, not the crashing sermon on the present that Jennifer Michael Hecht thinks it is.

Dominic Erdozain

Atlanta


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