Caravaggio's The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, ca. 1601–1602
The narrator of my novel in progress has a storefront preacher mother and a family legacy of extremism that seem, the more she struggles against them, destined to determine her future. While her life goes in a very different direction from mine, I've taken quite a bit of material from my own experiences and neuroses in imagining her story. I'm a doubter by nature—committedly, almost compulsively so—and gravitate toward works by other agnostics. Skepticism is as old as faith, and its manifestations are complex and varied.
By far the most heretical book of the Bible, this candid, downbeat, and gorgeously poetic meditation on the seeming meaninglessness of existence—“all is vanity and a chasing after wind”—has incited controversy throughout the approximately twenty-three hundred years of its existence. The narrator, Qoheleth, advocates acceptance of fate and an absent, somewhat neglectful creator—“the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the learned, nor favor to the skillful: but time and chance happeneth to them all”—and the simple pleasures and innumerable mysteries of life.
In this thoroughgoing critique, Paine argues that Christianity is akin to ancient idolatry but has been recast, narrowed, and bent to the purposes of power and revenue, and therefore amounts to not only fabulism but a fraud perpetrated with the aid of the ultimate forgery, the Bible. The world itself, he argues, is “the only true and real word of God,” and the “consciousness of existence” trumps the scriptures’ “doubtful jargon” and the dubious epistles that spread hatred. For Paine, the hero of the New Testament is Doubting Thomas—the disciple reviled only slightly less than the traitor Judas—who insists on seeing and touching Jesus’s wounds.
Incredulous at the omniscient God and the grim afterlife humans have imagined for themselves, Twain’s Satan sends hilarious dispatches to his fellow archangels. Man, Satan reports, is at best “a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel” who “blandly and in all sincerity calls himself the ‘noblest work of God’” and has imagined a heaven that leaves out “the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race—and of ours—sexual intercourse!” A brilliant satirist who was raised in the church, Twain engages Christianity on its own terms and highlights its illogic—Noah’s poor son, in this telling, is sick and swollen with parasites; after all, if two of every living creature were preserved aboard the ark, the parasites had to gain sustenance somewhere while the rest of the earth drowned—without resorting to the supercilious “You idiots!” preachiness of atheist zealots like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.
Royall, a nineteenth-century Baltimore-born polemicist and arguably the United States’ first woman journalist, was such a notorious and divisive figure that her powerful enemies had her hauled into court on the charge of being a “common scold.” (She was convicted.) Advocating education for women, she traveled the country, exposing the “farce,” “horrid dogmas,” and corruption of the evangelical church and excoriating the ladies’ church groups—“Virtuous Indignation Societies”—that worked to strengthen the power of the clergy and erode the separation of church and state. “I know very well how to shoot a rifle,” she wrote, “and if I don’t drill an army of women and shoot every Presbyterian I can find, there [are] no snakes.” Her satiric scenes and ear for country dialect precede and anticipate those of Twain. Unfortunately, you'll have to read most of her works in a research library; The Black Book has never been reissued.
This highly readable overview, and intelligent defense, of doubt traces the lineage of skepticism from Socrates through Epicurus, Cicero, Qoheleth, Paine, Jefferson, Twain, Dickinson, Nietzsche, and many others up to the present day and creates the sense that uncertainty is a legitimate tradition all its own. Religious dogma is not verifiable; science is fallible. Agnosticism, like faith, may be a matter of temperament, but it is not a cop-out.
Maud Newton hosts the literary weblog maudnewton.com. Her writing was most recently published in Granta and Narrative.