A sweeping survey of how unbelievers have shaped religion, science, and society through the ages.
Hecht (History/Nassau Community College) begins, unsurprisingly, with the Greeks. Much of their philosophy arises with questioning gods who were all too human both in their attributes and their personalities. Questions first raised by Plato and Aristotle remain, even now, at the root of Western thinking on religious questions. The Jews, with an invisible deity, had different issues to settle, growing to some extent out of their history; the authors of Job and Ecclesiastes dealt subtly with questions of guilt, pain, and divine justice. Buddhists discarded the notion of a god early on; their impact on the other religions of Asia was significant. And the Romans, with a perfunctory state religion, turned readily to Skepticism, Epicureanism, and other philosophies that offered advice on living well in this world without worrying what comes after. Christianity, then Islam, threw the focus back onto god-based systems with emphasis on an afterlife; but even these faiths had their doubters, including such central figures as St. Augustine (and both Plato and Aristotle contributed to their core beliefs). Hecht follows the thread of doubt and rationalism through the Renaissance, when Galileo and Montaigne began to question the wisdom of the Ancients, to the Enlightenment, when science and rationalism fought on equal terms with a new revival of faith. The final chapters touch on the founders of the modern worldview, from Darwin, Marx, and Freud, right up to the conflict of religions implicit in the post-9/11 world. Along the way, Hecht may have missed a few prominent naysayers, but all the important ones are here, with clear explanations of their contributions.
Sometimes dry, but worth sticking with—a well-rounded treatment of the subject.