March 25, 2019 | 44° F

Humanist focuses on atheist expression

Bringing out a less technical side of atheism, author Jennifer Michael Hecht spoke to University students about her research on the idea of “Poetic Atheism.”

This version is an alternative to New Atheism, which Hecht believes is overly materialistic and based in science.

“Throughout most of history, atheism has not been materialist and scientific — it has been based in the humanities,” she said at a discussion sponsored by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Rutgers University.

Hecht began studying the history of atheism when she encountered a 19th century French organization called the Society of Mutual Autopsy, whose members dissected each other after death and held an atheistic view.

“I found there was no good history of atheism, and that’s why I wrote [about it],” she said. “Everything I could find on the history of atheism was either so pro-atheist that every smart, good person in history was one — which I knew wasn’t true — or they were anti-atheist.”

In her own atheism research, Hecht came across a variety of humanist and atheist sentiment in poetry.

“When I looked back through history at a lot of my intellectual heroes who believed in God, I found what they actually believed about the universe was, in many cases, not any different than what I believe,” she said.

She said if early intellectuals were aware of modern-day social and political issues, they may not have written about God as much.

“So why were they using this word ‘God?’Because they liked it, for the same reasons that I don’t like it,” she said. “That is, if there were no social or political issues, I might use the word too, to mean the beautiful feelings we have between each other or the glory of a sunset.”

She also speculates that many poets, like William Shakespeare, were non-believers.

“If all of the great poets were believers, they would have been religious writers,” she said. “They didn’t believe dominant stories about what meaning is … John Keats, he never mentions Jesus. In Shakespeare, there’s none of this kind of religious thinking.”

Hecht also noted that although she has the capacity to understand religious sentiment, she cannot wrap her head around the supernatural aspect.

“I can feel all the feelings that people call religious, and I don’t think ill of them. I just don’t think [these feelings] point to anything else, to the supernatural,” she said.

Even two books of the Bible, Job and Ecclesiastics, have aspects of humanism in them, she said.

“Job is a book of passionate screaming at the idea that there could be anyone making all this [the world] fair,” she said. “The other [biblical] book praised through atheist history is Ecclesiastics. This is an incredibly secular book.”

Hecht wrote “The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology in France, 1876-1936,” “Doubt: A History,” and “The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think is Right is Wrong,” along with two volumes of poetry on atheism.

She has a Ph.D. from Columbia University and teaches in the graduate writing program at The New School and the MFA program at Columbia.

James Palmer, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, was happy to hear a speaker on atheism at the University.

“I’ve watched atheist videos on YouTube, but this is the first time I’ve heard an atheist speaker … It’s a very homogenizing experience,” Palmer said.

Barry Klassel, the University’s humanist chaplain, said his organization booked Hecht to speak because she is an expert on the history of atheist thought.

“[Hecht] is an eloquent advocate for how poetry and the other arts express the ultimate beauty and wonder of the natural universe,” Klassel said.

By Daniel Garber

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