Jennifer Michael Hecht Interview

jennifer michael hechtJennifer Michael Hecht is the author of three history books and two volumes of poetry. Her bestseller, Doubt: A History, demonstrates a long, strong history of religious doubt. Hecht’s The End of the Soul won the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s 2004 Emerson Award “for scholarly studies that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity.” Publisher’s Weekly called Hecht’s poetry book Funny “one of the most original and entertaining books of the year.” Her work appears in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post.

TheBestSchools: Thank you for allowing us to interview you for You wear at least three different hats: that of poet, of historian of ideas, and of public advocate for atheism. So, we have a lot of ground to cover. Could you begin by giving us some personal background? What religious tradition, if any, were you raised in? Was there ever a time in your life when you were attracted to belief in God? Were there some pivotal events that led to your rejection of God?

Jennifer Michael Hecht: I was raised an atreeist, a Long Island Jewish antiarborial coven. I kid, but it is true that my Jewish identity felt significantly about not being allowed to have a Christmas tree. For years, we went to a Conservative temple, then tried a Reform, but my parents balked at the lack of yarmulke, which seemed reasonable to me at the time. Our house had a lot of rules; so as far as I was concerned, Judaism needed the hats. With an anthropological eye, I’d say it was a religion about replacing the six million dead, not eating Wonder bread, and occasionally doing Woody Allen–like bits, sometimes out of love for the comedian’s early work, and sometimes just because Yiddish has a habit of backing its way into a sentence. “Never should a tree stand in my hearth like the heathens who pulled my great grandfather’s beard and called him a sheeny,” someone might say, one finger extended upward for the vow, like Jackie Mason or, if you are unfamiliar, like Socrates pointing up, towards the heavenly Good. Sheeny, by the way, is yet another forgotten epithet for Jew—when prejudices fade, all sorts of curses are forgotten forever. In defense of our forefathers, kids like me were allowed to color eggs, but not in springtime; thus, I was raised against the calendar and the population.

menorahMenorah in the window, eight weak presents, people telling you the reason you don’t get the tree and the Santa party is because you’re better; then they list genius Jews at you, all men. I felt seriously invisible, humming songs learned at school that claim I’m dreaming of snow. We did Passover and some Friday nights lit candles and went to temple—not tons, but a bunch.

I believed in God from the time my mother told me he was there, until age twelve, when I had a Talking Heads headshift, standing in my parent’s house saying: “This is not my beautiful couch, I am not your beautiful daughter, I might be anybody and just happen to be here.” It felt really out of body. The disjuncture was sudden, but lasted days. Back to normal, I never entirely returned. From there, I just thought it all through and saw we are one species among great nature, and as the trees very slowly rot, so do our pampered haunches. That’s it. There is no reason to imagine that there is someone in the sky bowling for thunder and wondering how bad we’ll sin alone in bed at night.

The deepest question is whether the wonder of consciousness is wonderful enough to deduce from it that there is more magic than meets the eye. I don’t think so. I meet its wonder right where I see it.

For a few bad months, I did miss God and was sad. Even after that was almost all gone, sometimes, I wished I had him. That never happens now. What I’ve got now is faith in humanity. It is hard to sustain for even seconds at a time. Still it is much easier to sustain than faith in God. As I have been saying for a while, it may be hard to believe that humans could help you, or would even if they could, but at least they do exist. I don’t have to first hope that they are out there. So, I try to have faith in humanity, by which I mean the actual community of my life and also the whole pathetic-but-lovable human project. When in despair, to which I am not unacquainted, working on faith in your place among the other sufferers of this life, as hard as religious people work on faith in God, can be interesting.

TBS: Given your three major intellectual interests—in poetry, in historical scholarship, and in atheism—can you say which of them came first, second, and third. How are they logically connected and intertwined in your life journey?

JMH: Poetry came first, then historical scholarship, then public atheism, and they probably remain in that order in my dedication to them.

I meant to be a poet with a day job as a cultural historian, but fell in love with the history of science. My first book grew out of my dissertation on some late-19th-century anthropologists whom I ended up studying as a tribe, rather than concentrating only on their work. They dissected each other to disprove the soul. In this research, I lamented the lack of a history of atheism, so I did that next. When people invited me to speak at atheist meetings, I discovered there was a movement and took my place in it—which is to say, I responded to what people seemed most excited about what I was saying, and I reacted to some of the things I was hearing that did not sound right to me, such as the science worship that sometimes goes along with atheism these days. I’ve also written against agnosticism—the “you can’t prove a negative so we have to allow for the possibility of God and Superman” argument seems philosophically silly to me. Either you doubt everything to the point where you can’t speak, or you make reasoned decisions. I’ve written against the right to suicide. I’ve rescued a lot of women and people of color from atheist oblivion.

TBS: How has your atheism shaped your academic interests and career, and vice versa?

JMH: My atheism was certainly a part of the reason I was so interested in late-19th-century French anthropologists whose public atheism I had noticed in my general history of science studies. It was just a part of what drew me to this group of men and women initially, but as my research on them in France progressed, it was clear to me that they had been atheists before there were anthropologists, and many of them had even met together in clandestine atheist clubs before deciding together to essentially invent anthropology as a discipline. Once I saw this, I knew I had found an interpretation of something they had done that I had long known about but had at first considered just a weird anomaly, and that was the Society of Mutual Autopsy, in which the anthropologists and others who joined them in the Society dissected each other’s brains after death. I came to understand that this was being done not only for the sake of scientific findings, but perhaps primarily to prove to the Catholic Church that the soul does not exist.

The research I did on the dissertation, and then in turning that work into my first book of history and theory, The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology, alerted me to the fact that there was no sufficient history of atheism. I turned my attention to writing one. That became Doubt: A History. In writing Doubt, I was thrilled to find that many atheists did not stop at stating there are no gods, no God, no Karma, no afterlife, etc.; they also made profound suggestions about how we should think of life and how we should live. That was the start of The Happiness Myth, which begins with a section squarely on that topic and then continues to look at aspects of our present-day claims about how to get happy (topics like drugs, sex, exercise, diet, shopping, money), which I compare back to historical ones. This book is kind of an anthropology of us, and is also a work of Skepticism in the modern sense of debunking.

simone weilAs for how my scholarship changed my atheism, I have to say that I am much more tolerant of religion (its rituals and traditions) and much more accepting of the most sophisticated versions of belief, which I had known much less about. I wouldn’t say that before I researched Doubt, I thought that all believers held to ideas of heaven with a gold throne and a bearded God in flowing robes, but it did all seem a little simple-minded to me. I really hated the idea that someone as philosophically agile as Augustine, or Kant for that matter, or Simone Weil, could be a believer. Now, I understand that decision, each slightly different, but all to do with the depth of their distress or passion and the ease with which the paradoxes of existence can be experienced as a great unified unknowable. If social and familial emotional forces make that seem okay to call “God,” some very savvy people will always go that way. It doesn’t seem right for me, and I think they lose some claim to being robustly dedicated to truth, but no longer am I appalled by the existence of the brilliant believer.

TBS: How has your atheism influenced your sensibility as a poet, and vice versa?

JMH: I didn’t start out doing it, but now I find I do think about the philosophical emotional situation of other people, besides myself, who do not believe in God, and I’m sometimes aware of writing for such a person, in my poetry but perhaps especially in my blog posts on the “Best American Poetry” blog (under the title “Jennifer Michael Hecht’s The Lion and the Honeycomb”), and more recently on my own “Poetic Atheism” blog.

If there were only humans and trees and rocks, I would wonder if the fact of consciousness would not be so special a thing as to make it reasonable to imagine it transcends the body somehow. But the facts that are given to us from history and nature just throw too much argument against it. Ants have a kind of thinking. Thinking is stuck to stuff. There are too many examples of this for me not to smirk and jiggle at the idea of all those little mosquito souls, judged each by their stalactite-nosed Saint Peter: “You, you can stay, you bit enough tough hides and raised pustule dunes. But you, you frigid hangabout, stuck it in too leastly and must go.” And it is off to Insect Hell for her, a place where everything is stainless steel, so the wee bitches just jab at each other for a lifetime, sword on thirsty sword. History, too, gives me too much evidence against God. My knowledge of the sociopolitical intellectual situations in which God was invented, and the uselessness of coming to a consensus on any—any!—attribute for the great fellow, overwhelm the argument of consciousness’s being so amazing that it might do yet this other thing, fly without wings. Consciousness is as cool as Einstein’s hairstyle, baby, but it ends when you die. The earliest well-worked-out, sophisticated atheism I found was the Ancient Carvaka’s in 600 BC India and, laughing at the idea of thoughts existing after the death of the body, they stated if there were life after death, you’d also see mangoes hanging in the air without trees, but you don’t. For my part, all the brains I’ve ever known are slick, grey, and squishy. The universe isn’t any of those things. It is less a mind and more of a place.

TBS: So far, you have published three books of intellectual history, including the widely reviewed and praised Doubt: A History. You now teach creative writing for a living. What contributions do you feel your poetic imagination and your skeptical reason have made, respectively, to your development as a prose writer?

JMH: The poetry comes out everywhere, if I let it. For one thing, in spaces where I think it is at least vaguely appropriate I write in a style very much my own which is full of wordplay and neologisms and poetic rhyme and meter. I tone it down where the setting is not specifically to do with poetry, but my muscular and musical tendencies in language tend to show through.

As for the skeptical, I got my Ph.D. at Columbia in 1995, having started there in 1988, and in those years at that place postmodern critical approaches were significantly influential, if not universally embraced. Though I didn’t see it this way at the time, this was merely an important contemporary moment in the history of Skepticism. Now that I know much more of the long and fascinating history of Skepticism, I can say that it influences my work profoundly—in my poetry, in my attempts to explain historical events to myself and others, and in my relationship to a variety of philosophical ideas.

TBS: You run a website called “Poetic Atheism,” and are particularly associated with that concept. Could you tell us what you mean by the phrase?

JMH: When I came to the movement, it seemed surprisingly associated with science, so I thought Poetic Atheism would be a nice banner to fly. Most historical periods have not seen science as more dangerous to faith in God than say, philosophy, and in most times where atheism flourished through history everyone knew there were great poetic tales of doubt and disbelief.

Of course, I don’t just mean atheism with art in it. I mean that art lets us talk about the human without getting religious, but with full attention on the ineffable, the unspeakable, the awful, the graceful, the sublime. I don’t believe anything supernatural—no God, no ghosts, no unified spirit of life coursing through all things. But I do believe in love, free will, inexplicable feelings of connectedness, and human irrationalism, and I value the experience of sentient living with a genuine reverence. I am awed by the universe, with its infinitesimal particles and billions of galaxies. Also, I am awed by the unfathomable depth of the human imagination and force of feeling.

shelleyThis is not new material, generally speaking. There have been Humanists since the early Renaissance, and some of them were atheists. More recently, atheists like Einstein, Sagan, and Dawkins all took a moment away from talking science and politics every once in a while and offered some flowery language about the beauty and the wonder of it all. Some of it was pretty good poetry.

All I’m doing, then, is calling some more attention to this thing—the artistic engagement with atheism—and I’m hoping that I can bring in some of the actual poets and artists who have struggled with expressing this world, with all its intricacy, sheer beauty, and shocking shifts of scale. Not to dis Einstein, Sagan, and Dawkins, but expressing paradox and awe unto trembling is tricky stuff best left largely to the professionals. P.B. Shelley got kicked out of Oxford for writing “The Necessity of Atheism.” Think now of his “Ozymandias.” One example is but a star in the firmament and my description is truer with more constellations showing.

It is my contention that most of the great poets have been atheists, or at least strong doubters. That’s why you bother to be a poet: to labor towards the truth of the matter given our circumstances, to the extent that we can perceive them. Poetry listens in to the cacophony of contradictory truths among the error and the willful delusion. This real world I am describing may not be the interest of any given scientist, but it is the interest of most people living their lives. The lab reduces variables. Poetry deals with them, all of them, all at once, whatever it takes; it makes of itself an impression of the whole reality of what the human can experience of knowledge and of sensibility.

TBS: Do you like to read poets who are particularly concerned with philosophical or religious questions? I am thinking of poets like Donne, Leopardi, Dickinson, Hopkins, Rilke, Celan, Milosz. Does this type of poetry have a particular appeal to you as a philosopher?

donneJMH: Yes I do. Donne’s phrase “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” often goes through my head—to which I reply, as God, in schoolroom counter-taunt: “No, you batter mine.” Leopardi’s misery makes me as happy as Schopenhauer’s does, though I am ever aware of the equal cacophony of birth and pleasure that shadow their admittedly much more deafening symphony of death and suffering. Dickinson I treasure beyond measure and think she’s mostly on my side of the nonbeliever line; anyway, she’s my number-one poet. Hopkins has a few rhyming hunks of pure passion, frustrated but wild, which I love with a love that is more than a love, but which only go so far. Donne is deep and great company, but he leans too much into comforting delusions for me, often when he is at his best in poetic chops and pyrotechnics. Rilke is a lifesaving self-help writer and a bit of a brilliant con artist. Celan and Milosz are great; I’ve had good seasons with both of them. I’m for Wyslawa Szymborska, Keats, Bishop, Stevens, Auden, Plath, Shakespeare, of course, the Wordsworth crowd, plus Frank O’Hara, Gertrude Stein, Stevie Smith.

I’ve taught a course called “Poets and Philosophy” for six years now at the New School, and I wrote an essay about contemporary metaphysical poetry for American Poet, the Journal of the Academy of American Poets, drawing on the work of Kim Addonizio, Mark Doty, and Wisława Szymborska, among others. I mostly prefer what I call “Philosophical Poetry,” but I define that rather widely. It might be more accurate to say I read most poetry philosophically and am especially pleased when poems are rich in their philosophical concerns.

TBS: In one of his last published pieces, entitled “The Fire of Life,”(1) the distinguished atheist philosopher Richard Rorty reflected on the process of dying, and concluded that poetry provided him with more spiritual sustenance than philosophy. In the same article, he suggests that poets are the pioneers of human understanding, in the sense that reason can only follow along paths first blazed by the imagination. Would you agree with Rorty that in some sense poetry has cognitive priority over philosophy?

condorJMH: Well, I think I’ll answer that with a poem.

Zoo Review

To begin is to let things out of control.
The park’s caged condor stumbles to the fore.
The mind can not be told what it does not know.

Let us begin by calling a massive bird a soul;
each wing wide as the height of a man or more.
To begin is to help things out of control

with a clasp of fence in beak and a forceful fold
of what was given, then out the rifted door.
The mind must graze what it can not hold.

If the population of the park took up a goal
of leaving, it wouldn’t stop to wonder where to go.
To begin is to chase thoughts out of control.

Likewise, as love and birth have come to show,
much can not be seen before we are ashore
where minds find what, at sea, they did not know.

The bird adjusts its shoulder-feathers like a stole,
a bristling cape, a heft of flight, a height left low.
To begin is to let things out of control.
The mind can not be told what it does not know.

TBS: How is that different, then, from Pascal’s “le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point” [the heart has its reasons that reason knows not]? What would you say, as a poetic atheist, to poets and other believers who might insist they directly intuit the presence of the divine?

fork in the roadJMH: Yes this is the key, isn’t it—the fork in the road? I have no trouble choosing my path, though I have respect for those who take the other. I am convinced that knowing the irrational and poetic—even coming face to face with deep paradox—does not mean giving that great weirdness some further attributes, like a benevolence or a knowing. Engaging with the paradoxical and wonderful and awe-inspiring everything does not mean one should go on to believe in things that are not detectable in a reproducible way meaningful to objective witnesses.

Why isn’t it enough to celebrate that the feeling of the crowd is powerful and emotional? Why add to that some tertiary figure beyond you and the crowd, and give him credit for the good feeling? I may not always know I’m asleep when I am dreaming, but when I am awake I know it. We can feel the feelings of transcendence, but be awake enough to know that that is all of what they are, feelings of transcendence, and that is good enough, it is indeed sublime. A phrase I often use in a slightly different context is: “The feeling of meaning is sufficient to the definition of meaning.” We can also say: “The feeling of transcendence is sufficient to the definition of transcendence.”

Perhaps I’ll share another poem, in part because it is funny and I enjoy lightening the mood, but also because it is another example of nudging at something one cannot quite put into words—the phenomenon of a mind changing its mind, the way we sometimes know or intuit more than we can account for, sometimes less, and sometimes use poetry to take a snapshot of the tricks of experience and language. To wit: “Love Explained.”

TBS: In 2009, you told a Freedom from Religion Foundation convention audience that: “If there is no god—and there isn’t—then we made up morality. And I’m very impressed.” We have two questions about this quote. The first one is this: When you say you are “very impressed” by the fact that human beings made up morality, does that mean you take there to be objective moral facts? For example, that killing innocent people is really wrong, no matter what anyone thinks. Many philosophers who accept your premise—that human beings invented morality—would deny this. What would you say to them? On the other hand, if there are no objective moral facts, then what is so impressive about our made-up morality?

rembrandt jewish brideJMH: Morality isn’t magical. It is the attempt to do right. I neither love nor hate the idea of “moral facts,” but the phrase can sound like more than it means, so I avoid it. To a degree, I think something like moral facts exist, not “no matter what anyone thinks,” but precisely because of what many people think and because of what I think and feel in agreement with them. What is impressive to me is that my human experience and my intellectual analysis both make it feel and seem obvious to me that I should not kill innocents, and that I should share and be decent. Why? Well, here I’ve just said that morality isn’t magical, and I meant that it isn’t some all-or-nothing true list of rules. But in another way, morality is magic. Love is magic, too. The fact that so many of us have a crushing desire to be good is so enchanting and strange that it is the thing, along with consciousness and love, that makes us humans just as marvelous strange as the vast universe. Morality is impressive because it feels impressive to me—first, that so many of us want to be good, and second, that we can have so much agreement on what that looks like, especially within cultural groups, but to a surprising degree above and beyond such groups.

TBS: Here is our second question about your comment on morality. It seems to imply that the only two possibilities regarding the source of morality are either (1) God determines what is right and wrong or (2) human beings just “make it up” as they go along. But modern virtue ethicists—such as Philippa Foot, Martha Nussbaum, and many others—have been attempting to revive a third point of view on morality, namely, the Aristotelian view that morality is an inherent feature of human nature—something that is non-optional for us and that we in no sense just “make up.” Is this a point of view that you find at all appealing?

JMH: Yes, I’m very much on the side, generally speaking, of those who report that morality is somewhat inherent in the group and not something that we each make up. Though of course foot binding and dueling were ended after thousands of years, each in a single generation under a campaign depicting these things as shameful, and some individual figures had a lot to do with “making that up.” Much is fashion, but there are deep rules of morality that we as human beings, in human groups, “invented” on biological and social and intellectual lines. They were invented by all of us, in some cases, and in others, first by individuals and later ratified by changes in behavior that became deeply rooted and indeed may have helped shape biology.

TBS: In the minds of many, virtue ethics is closely associated with conservative religious—especially Catholic—thought. However, the German Marxist philosopher and intellectual historian, Ernst Bloch, once pointed out that there used to be an atheist, “left-wing Aristotelianism,” in contrast to “right-wing Aristotelianism,” as he called neo-Thomism. You have special expertise in the history of French thought, and I expect you are familiar with the French “vital materialist” tradition, leading from Maupertuis, La Mettrie, Diderot (of the Rêve de d’Alembert), and Théophile de Bordeu, through Cabanis, Bichat, Lamarck, Geoffroy, and Claude Bernard, to Merleau-Ponty, Canguilhem, and Deleuze. Of course, there are important differences among these thinkers, but what they all have in common is not only atheism, but a biological essentialism not unlike that of the virtue ethicists—and very much in opposition to the mechanist reductionism typical of most atheist thinkers in America today. Do you think this “left-Aristotelian” tradition is something we could draw upon, in constructing a more positive atheist view of human nature and morality? If so, why? If not, why not?

JMH: Well, most of them want to say a lot about the processes involved in what is going on within and between people. I find all that too speculative to be of much interest to me, which is to say it feels like just one person’s invention, rather than a report on the real, and for me—for that reason—it gets boring. Worse, for some of them, like Lamarck, that biological essentialism sometimes slips over into a Bergson-like vitalism that suggests something fantastical enough to morph into a high-philosophy version of God (if a process acts willfully, it follows that it has will). I think that is an uncalled-for insult to pure nature with its gigantic and complex systems tumbling away, and wishful thinking, because we kind of miss our nearly universal childhood delusion that our parents were in control and benevolent. Others, like Cabanis, make things too biological—he being one of the several scholars over two centuries and across a few nations who have been called the author of the sentence: “The brain secretes thoughts like the liver secrets urine.” But whereof we cannot speak scientifically, or even philosophically, thereof we can still speak poetically. Speaking with poetic authority, it is easy to say what is to rational common sense quite obvious: piss and consciousness are not comparable human products. Pretending they are persists because it has lovely counterintuitive shock value.

The wonderfulness of what really seems to be the case seems perfectly sufficient to me, and I can accept its paradoxes without inventing solutions. It is a paradox that out of all this matter, which doesn’t think and doesn’t matter, our wet little brains do all this thinking and our little lives matter. But they do.

TBS: Who are your favorite atheist authors earlier in history? Today? Which books would you especially recommend to people who would like to learn more about the subject?

stantonJMH: I think I say a lot about this in Doubt, so here I’ll just say: Lucretius’s De rerum natura [On the Order of Things]; Thomas Jefferson’s Letters; Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible; Annie Laurie Gaylor’s Women Without Superstition—a must read; Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers; Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great; William Lobdell’s Losing My Religion; Hella Winston’s Unchosen.

TBS: Are there any Christian or Jewish apologists, or other religious authors, whom you enjoy reading or whose work you respect? Are there any philosophical critics of atheism whose work you have found challenging?

JMH: I love Augustine’s Confessions and Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed. I love this crazy religious poem “The Hound of Heaven,” by Francis Thompson, around 1883. I get a great deal out of the “religions” of the eastern hemisphere—the poetics, art, meditation, and wisdom of Buddhism in its many forms, even some that collapse all these questions into one big somethingnothing. But mostly, I go for literature or philosophy that is written by someone coping with hounds of earth, and other worldly menaces, that is, the real actual existential problem of being a human being, day in day out, in the moment and across a lifetime.

TBS: Even if many of the claims made by Christianity and the other world religions are untrue, can there still be value in religion considered as a practice or way of life? Do you feel that you have learned anything at all of value from either holy scriptures or modern religious authors?

JMH: Part of Poetic Atheism is interest in the Ritual, Community, and Meditation developed within religion. Some people had such a bad time with the religion of their youth that they want to invent totally new rituals, and others get a lot from reviving pagan ones. I think most people get tremendous solace and a sense of truth by drawing on the religion of their childhood, and avoiding the supernatural bits. I encourage people to find some version of the Ritual, Community, and Meditation that reminds them of family, nostalgia, future hope—vows and promises, unusual but repetitive music or silence, an increased sense of social intimacy—and just do it without the supernatural. Just do it because it feels right and helps your life.

I’ve long been talking and writing about people who simply keep going to churches and temples like the ones they grew up in, or like the ones that feel easiest, and they use these places for Ritual, Community, and Meditation, but when they do so, they are being asked to meditate on things they don’t actually believe. I call it “drop by and lie” religion. It’s better than no Ritual, Community, and Meditation at all, but it is kind of sad. Here, at the most crucial moments of your life, celebrating birth, marriage, and death, you go to a proclaimed sacred place and repeat carefully chosen strange words, in which you do not believe. Wouldn’t it be nicer for two atheists to stand in front of an altar and say things that sounded very much like religion, that had the cathectic power of liturgy, but which was also inspiring as philosophical comfort and advice? A Ritual and Meditation, that is, which spoke of natural processes and the glory of the human experiment and its distilled wisdom about faithfulness and humility, joyfulness and despair.

titian vanityAs for what I’ve learned from what you call the Holy Scriptures, I give a good long chapter to Job and Ecclesiastes in my Doubt: A History. Here, I’ll just say that I am much beholden to the words: “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor riches to the wise, but time and chance happeneth to them all.” And: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

As for modern writers, I love the title, The Awful Rowing Toward God [by Anne Sexton—TBS]. I don’t know if she thinks herself religious, but Olena Kalytiak Davis’s brilliant book, And Her Soul Out of Nothing, comes to mind.

TBS: If you had to guide a college-bound high school senior on where to pursue undergraduate studies, what would you say? What are some of the top schools and programs that embody your educational philosophy? Leaving aside religious institutions, where would you not send this high school senior?

JMH: I don’t know enough to weigh in on this one. I’ll be delighted to read someone else’s answer, but can’t really give one myself. I guess I could say that reading literature seems more important than workshopping, so I’d lean in the direction of schools that required a lot of reading and discussing books, especially great books by dead people.

TBS: Any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers? Where do you expect to be ten years from now? What impact would you hope that your notion of poetic atheism might have had by then?

JMH: Oh my, what an essay! I’ve only now noticed the footnote to the questions you asked me and went and read the Rorty essay of which I had not been previously aware. What a beauty! I’m now particularly pleased that I chose the above poem, as I hope it brings out how a poetic rush into saying what seems obviously true, despite its contradictory problems and argument deficiencies, can make sense. Through particular juxtapositions and repetitions, rhythmic emphasis and conceptual overload, simplicity and brevity, the care of perfect description and the flight of imagination, the escape from grammar above all, poetry manages to communicate inner life, actual experience, and all sorts of half-conceived impressions, and sometimes something that rings out as truth. You have to start by getting lost, because only some part of your mind knows why it has chosen a given direction.

As for the ten-year question, I hope I have some money by then. Otherwise, I would hope my life to be much like it is now, with a lot of writing in it and even more teaching (I feel underused in that capacity at the moment).

I find the question of where Poetic Atheism might be in ten years rather thrilling and flattering, and also inspiring, but having not really thought of it before, can only mumble something. It would be fantastic if mainstream atheism changed from being quite so firmly associated with science and became more reflective of art and what it can offer, such that Poetic Atheism in its primary role today would no longer be necessary. Still, the term would still be useful to differentiate between different types of thinkers and varieties of work. I’d love it if Poetic Atheism was a well-known shorthand for the kind of atheism that knows its history and is engaged with the arts and with the nonsupernatural aspects of religion.

leviathanWhen I wrote Doubt I was surprised to realize how many of the canonical texts of the history of atheism are already in the homes of all sorts of people, because Job and Ecclesiates are in the Hebrew Bible, the story of the Greek-loving secular Jews who fought the Maccabees is in the Apocrypha found in Catholic Bibles, to name a few. Another is the hunk of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, which is a stunning critique of all religion, especially Christianity. I would like people to know how much of the art they see in museums, and how much of poetry and great literature, are in part efforts of religious doubters and atheists to negotiate the existential challenges we all face. I would be very pleased to have Poetic Atheism, and indeed my books and talks, associated with the shift into more awareness of this presently hidden-in-plain-sight history.
(1) Rorty, Richard, “The Fire of Life,” Poetry Magazine, November 2007. Available online at

Degree Finder