Fun with Poetic Atheism

Dear Bleaders,
I’m getting the sense that atheism in these parts (’round this url) is not as, shall we say “taken for granted” as it is in my usual conversations. A good number of my usual conversations take place in my head, the ones that involve other people are still usually in New York City, and failing that, often in universities, and in any number of reform religious temples and churches that invite me to speak, i.e. I go from one den of atheism to another.  I’m surrounded by secularism and never find myself in a conversation about what I would think if I met up with someone on Sunday who I had buried on Friday. My answer to that is that this sort of thing doesn’t happen. We are animals on a ball of dirt and if you look at us and all the other animals with a little perspective, what seems self-evident seems true.

The kind of atheism conversations I am going around starting are about how we feel about all of this. As I suggested in my first post, I do not believe individuals have to create meaning for themselves. I think saying people do have to do this is a bit of a wrong turn. I ask you to grant that nature is extraordinary and that so is culture; and meaning is embedded in the community, in our natural and cultural togetherness.
As I also mentioned in my first post, my particular form of radicalism, if you will, is called Poetic Atheism. I am not in the least against science, indeed, one aspect of Poetic Atheism is to pay attention to the celebrations of science that have been made by artists and writers who really knew how to stoke up some awe or translate a moment of natural transcendence into something articulable and even more fully memorable. But Poetic Atheism does poke a little fun at science. My PhD is in the history of science (Columbia, 1995) and if the philosophy of science is about how science works, it is not untrue to say that the history of science is about how science doesn’t work, or rather how it is a cultural production and, like all cultural productions, a lot of it changes over time in waves of fashion. The hard sciences are obviously more durable, but even medicine, which features a great deal of experiment and measurement, changes its mind about everything every few decades and it is all a lot more kaleidoscopic than linear progress. There’s just no good reason to set science up, all by itself, against religion. You want your friend’s cancer treatment to be up to date, up to the minute, but you read Sappho at your wedding – art can be thousands of years old and still stir a community and move people to tears. You may love the Renaissance but you don’t want to use their toilet paper or take their doctors’ advice. The art still does work, though, strong as the day it was made.
Much of what religion used to do for people, after all, has also gone on in the humanities, without God, all throughout history. Almost all the best poets wrote without recourse to the supernatural – that is why they were poets, they were knocking their heads against the questions of meaning and life and death given the world as it evidently presents itself to us, (as even the Bible tells us): “Dust to dust” and “All is vanity.”
When someone prays in Shakespeare’s plays something bad follows quickly after. The Bard solves nothing with Jesus. He says we are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little lives are rounded with a sleep. That is not Christian theology, it is secular philosophy, poetic philosophy. John Keats does not, upon seeing the first specks of blood in his coughing handkerchief, begin writing Odes to Mother Mary. He says instead “When I have fears that I may cease to be…” when he is tortured by the thought of missing life as a celebrated poet, and missing love and family, he doesn’t throw himself before an altar, but rather goes down to the beach to stare at the ocean and think “til love and fame to nothingness do sink.” Natural beauty (and science beauty and its attendant oddly-unifying cosmic awe), and art, the very art of the poem, are historically sufficient to float the human heart across the sea of life’s troubles. Of course, it only works if you are aware of it. That’s where Poetic Atheism comes in, as my proselytizing is really just a vehicle for the delights of secular culture.
I shall soon return with another classic poem dear to the atheist’s heart – something perhaps about the delightful permanence of impermanence (I’m thinking Shelley but also have a think on how long those Gettysburgian lines about being forgotten have gotten remembered, I envision a posthumous wink from Lincoln just thinking about it)? Or should it be some solace for the grief?
Catcha on the flip  

Evolution vs. The Argument from Providence
Interview with Prof. Axgrind
ISIS Violence IS Religious
Lessing’s Broad Ditch and Brad’s Lesser Ditch
About Amy Lepine Peterson

Amy Lepine Peterson teaches ESL Writing and American Pop Culture at Taylor University, but spends most of her time making a home in the cornfields for her best-friend-husband and two (frankly adorable) children. Look for her with a french press of coffee and a book or a screen, plus a little one on her lap, thinking about education, mothering, theology, tv, movies, music, and sustainable habits of living.

  • Pete Hoge

    I stopped searching for meaning
    when I realized that it was
    inherent in nature already.

    If the world could speak it
    would tell me "live".

    It would also tell me:

    "accept decay".

    I like what you say about us
    being animals but I think we
    are more sophisticated than
    the average primate.

  • Chris


    Have you read Ursula Goodenough's 'The Sacred Depths of Nature'? She tries to articulate a 'religious naturalism' – science-based, non-believing spirituality. It might not be too far from 'poetic atheism.'

  • The Peak Oil Poet

    i would suggest that the best atheism poems might not be about atheism at all but about searching for alternative meanings in theistic foundation documents

    even better is if the alternative meanings have support from the more scientific side of theism – eg exegesis

    let me give an example

    the first 3 Commandments would seem to be about "God" – you know, hairy faced fella up in the sky

    but in fact they are not – for two reasons

    1. exegesis leads you to have to accept that that the concept of God in the Old Testament is subject to wide debate – from on the one hand something undefinable in principle to something more comically human

    2. The context in which people communicated philosophical concepts would have been to a large degree bound by the available concept pool – you can only describe things with words you have at your disposal and those are founded in the world views of those around you

    as an example consider the 10 commandments themselves – or at least the first 3 – what other way of seeing them might there be in the light of the above that would provide a non-theistic interpretation?

    here's an attempt (it's called breaking three breaks one and two)

    i'll tell you first i'm not a Jew
    a Muslim? No, i'm not that too
    i'm not a Christian that's for sure
    a Buddhist? No, not any more

    but i have always loved the Word
    the Ten Commandments that i heard
    when i was young i learned them well
    and now i'm old i've this to tell

    the three or four that are the first
    their meaning is in truth immersed
    old Moses gave us words profound
    their truth is such a solid ground

    the first – "there is no truth but all"
    it's infinite – there is no wall
    no boundary to what can be
    no limit to the truth you see

    it's seems so simple yet it's not
    the greatest of the Jew's Mitzvot
    like quantum physics: if you know
    you don't! Confused? To study go!

    the second – is the most abused
    and many a scholar's been confused
    it talks of idols – gold or wood
    a face on God is not so good

    don't fool yourself is what it means
    a piece of truth's not what it seems
    you can not isolate one bit
    and then in homage bow to it

    i wonder if you understand?
    so take a look at your right hand
    is that the truth? is that hand you?
    your fingernail is that "you" too?

    The Truth you can not subdivide
    and cast the unknown parts aside
    the Wrath of God will strike you down
    and in your foolishness you'll drown

    and while we're talking number two
    here's something you should never do
    don't claim that God is this or that
    He's merciful or tall or fat

    because you see that's number three
    to claim you know and make decree
    to "swear to God" you know the truth
    as if you were some clever sleuth

    the Law dictates "do not assert"
    the power of words is power to hurt
    it's only in a court of Law
    that you'll be sworn to what you saw

    so don't mislead your fellow man
    don't lead him to some Promised Land
    don't seek to rule or lie to win
    don't claim you know where to begin

    those three above are all you need
    the fourth means study them and heed:
    each week one day is set aside
    to know you should by them abide

    one final word before i go
    my words above are claims you know
    i've broken number three it's true
    and breaking that breaks one and two


  • Luke Talley

    This talk about the relativity of meaning in community, finding meaning in nature, etc., just doesn't add up to me. Who gets to be in the privileged position when meaning is determined by a specific community?

    In response to Pete, how exactly did you figure out that meaning "was inherent in nature already." Further, what if me understanding of meaning is different? Who says which is the appropriate way to look at the world? Also, where did you get the idea, "If the world could speak it would tell me "live"?

    Most of these statements sound poetic and enlightening, but to me they merely sound confusing. I would appreciate a response to these statements. Thanks.

  • Pete Hoge

    Luke I find meaning in nature by
    observing it. It tells me that
    life is it's purpose. I do not
    think nature is a personal force
    that is really speaking with me.

    I am not speaking as an authority.

    I simply stated my opinion.