Jennifer Michael Hecht – ‘My atheist paradise — leaving our bodies to art’

This speech, slightly edited for publication, was delivered by Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt: A History, at the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s 32nd annual convention Nov. 7, 2009, in Seattle, where she received the Freethought Heroine Award.

Pictured left: Jennifer Michael Hecht (left) and Ursula K. Le Guin sign books.

The climate in atheism right now has suggested a certain kind of tension. As I go around and give talks and meet different people, I’ve been talking about what I call poetic atheism. It’s an alternative, in a sense, to an atheism that rallies only to science.

I’m a little critical of science. It overplays its hand sometimes. But for the most part, I’m not at all suggesting this as an alternative, but rather an “and.” There’s really no reason why we act as if we have to cede all the other aspects of culture to the religious world, and only cling to science as being the only side that’s on the side of the atheists.

In fact, almost all the great poets have conversations in their poetry about doubting God, and even go all the way to dismissing. It’s such a strong tradition that it’s almost amazing that we’ve missed it and that we haven’t been leaning on it as much as we could.

I’m sort of what I’ll now call a Reagan atheist — came in real early. I was still a pretty young person. I went for my Ph.D. in history and I was going to study history with cultural history, mostly looking at poetry and history in Europe. But Columbia University just kept threatening to hire a cultural historian and never quite did. While I was there, I fell in with the historians of science. I found it was just such an incredibly rich and poetic way of thinking about history.

I did my dissertation on a group of scientists in late 19th-century France who were such atheists that they formed the Society of Mutual Autopsy [in 1876] in order to cut open each others’ heads and prove to the Catholic Church that there was no soul. They did this for 30 years.

They all had come of age under the [Second] Empire, when the church had so much control of the culture that they really missed their youth. So that when, in 1871, the Third Republic comes in — it’s another eight years before it’s really a republican republic — and these guys are older, they have this sort of adolescent spirit.

They never got the chance to really be themselves. That’s why, after they formed the Society of Mutual Autopsy, they quickly begin to die, and they can dissect each other.

It sounds funny now, and it is. It was even funny then. They meant it to be. They knew that the Society of Mutual Autopsy was a provocative title, and they published their statistics all over the journals in France.

It’s funny now, because we don’t think of most people thinking of the soul as something you could disprove in such a straightforward way. But the reason that’s the case is because of them. That is, we forget that every time the religious move into a slightly more ephemeral, harder to disprove level, it’s because somebody pushed them there. It’s because we pushed the definition of soul and said, “No, I don’t think that the brain is just meat that holds this thing that’s the soul.”

This is about the time that Darwin’s On The Origin of Species comes out. It takes about 10 years for it to get translated into French, and it’s translated by a woman, Clémence Royer, who’s an atheist. She writes a preface that’s like an eighth of the size of the book, all about how this book means there’s no God. It’s huge in France, and actually takes about 15 years before Darwin disowns it and gets a more straightforward translation. But yes, evolution comes into France with a totally atheist pedigree. It’s an amazing story.

A little earlier, Paul Broca, whom you may have heard of from Carl Sagan’s book Broca’s Brain (which really isn’t much about Broca), had become the first person to find a relationship between brain morphology and personality, ability and traits. He finds what we still call Broca’s aphasia. If you have a lesion on the third left frontal circumvolution of the brain, you will have trouble speaking. It’s the first thing we find, that here’s this personality or trait of a live human being, and that you can do an autopsy after death and see this is where it is in the brain.

These anthropologists decided it was the proof to show the Catholic Church that the brain thinks. It’s weird, there’s no question. Consciousness in this meat is very strange. But it does seem to be the case, and there’s no reason to make up some more strange things and add to it. Why do that? So Broca joins the Society of Mutual Autopsy and helps conduct the first autopsies, and his is the third brain they dissect.

Like I said, they do this for 30 years. It’s hard work, this brain science, and Broca kind of got lucky. But in any case, these guys are not all such great scientists. As I dug into it I found they were atheists first. They used to have a “Diderot dinner,” which was a way of just slightly camouflaging what they were doing.

They would meet as atheists, and then when Broca and Darwin came out with their discoveries, they decided to go into anthropology, very specifically to make it an atheist vanguard, which they do. They get God off the stationery in France. They do a lot of small things that were almost tittered at, but it really is a huge change in culture, especially for France, which was, you know, the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church for centuries.

Eventually in 1905, they get separation of church and state. They weren’t finding new things, yet they kept doing it, and they were advertising it in places so that people all over France joined and sent in yearly dues.

I actually went to France and I didn’t know this stuff existed, but I found this box of their material, down in the basement of the Musée du Louvre. In any case, people all over France joined. The dues they paid were to help defray the cost of sending their brains to Paris for the anthropologists to dissect when they died.

What I found was that this really was a secular version of Catholic Last Rites. These people lived in a culture that was so infused and suffused with the burial rites within the Catholic Church that they kind of transmuted them, and they had these materialist deathbed scenes. They kept relics of each other. They wrote these testimonies, these confessionals, about why they were so angry with the Catholic Church, why they believed in science and why they believed in the future and in progress.

But it felt a little sad to know that whereas with the religious version, you yourself were going to be part of the future paradise, here they wanted to attach their death in some way to the progress of the future. It was sort of anthropology of anthropology.

Ancient atheist tradition

When I was trying to do general research on atheist groups through history, I found I really couldn’t trust any of the books that were out there. Most of them were from the religious side, and they argued that there were no atheists anywhere. The few that were from the atheist side, I’m afraid, were also a little bit too skewed to be of real use.

So it seemed straightforward to me to go through history and put together the atheism that I knew was there, because if you’re an atheist you notice it when you’re reading these little monographs of history. Throughout all these different cultures, there it is. But then when you look at the surveys, it disappears. I guess people just don’t want to take it on.

What amazed me when I started doing the research for Doubt was that not only was there atheism through all of known history, but it was a very cohesive movement — a movement that knew about itself in all these different periods, so that the early heroes were the heroes century after century.

Epicurus was one of the great ones. Ecclesiastes and Job, two books that are in the bible, were both taken as atheist tracts that could be read, and were read, and were reinterpreted to argue this point throughout history.

The earliest atheism I found that was clear and as straightforward as you could want were the Carvaka, the ancient Carvaka in 600 B.C. in India. They were before the Buddha, and we think the Buddha was influenced by them. The Buddha says that his program is all, there’s no spirit to it. It’s just like exercise. You do it, and you will be released.

But the Carvaka say that all of religion is human made. They say if there could be a soul without a body, there would also be mangoes hanging in the air without a tree, but there aren’t. They say if, when your parents die, you burn them on a pyre so that they’ll go to heaven, why not burn them now and save yourself the trip? They say the priests made it up to make money, and they go all the way to saying nature is sufficient. Nature is sufficient. Look at how it makes itself by reproducing patterns. It falls into patterns. The most-complicated patterns stick and they stay and they reproduce. And they say there’s no reason to make up some extra thing.

Just as you see the world now, the same things that are making it happen now must have made it all come into being. They’re really quite sophisticated.

They really even go all the way to what we think of as Hume’s idea of not really being sure of cause and effect, because one happens and then the other happens.

They get to some freaky edges because they go all the way with it. It lasts for centuries and centuries, the Carvaka. Everything we have of it, as with so much of the history of doubt, is from polemics against it. Because all of it was burned except these brilliant arguments against it that quote long passages, whole stories, whole texts. It’s funny that way.

Equally funny is how much we find atheists among the priests’ children, because they’re the best educated. We see that in culture after culture, and again these things get saved. What also gets saved is the atheism of famous and important doctors, whose work is so lauded in the culture that people just don’t throw the stuff away, even though some of the texts are just about how the natural world is all that there is, and it’s sufficient. This is before the notion of science, but they don’t have any trouble at all.

Look, Democritus had no electron microscope. How did he come up with atoms? The answer is pretty straightforward. How could all of this be here? What’s it all made of? If you have a herring and you cut it in half, you have two pieces of herring. How many pieces can you cut it up into? Do you get to a point where something is so small that it’s no longer a herring, but some building block?

It’s a conceptual idea, just the way a tree blooms out a flower and then an apple from it, and then if you keep watching it rots and then goes back and it disappears. It’s just like the ocean waving. The wave isn’t so much there; it just clearly comes into being and goes with the substance, remaining the same.

People can observe that without having advanced science. They can also just look around and say, “If I don’t believe in any sort of extra story, there must be some other explanation, and it must have something to do with the way nature reproduces itself.”

‘Here be dragons’

The thing about relying entirely on science is it misses a lot of the subtleties that you can get by looking at some of the other factors that have been around the whole time.

For one thing, it misleads us into thinking that before science, there couldn’t really be atheism, and there is atheism all over the world throughout history. There are places where it disappears for a while, but it’s never gone entirely.

I thought when I wrote Doubt that there would be a section in the middle where I said, “Dark Ages, you know, here be dragons,” and then we would come back. There is no such thing.

The Roman Empire sort of collapses east, so that all the philosophers, all the people who know all the philosophy are in Byzantium, and when Justinian and Theodora kick them out, they go farther east. They go into the Muslim world, where they’re welcomed because they’re all such great doctors, because philosophy and doctors go together at this point.

They’re chased, as they’re translated from language to language to language, all the way around the Mediterranean. But when the Muslim world has it, that’s the Muslim Golden Age.

By the time Islam comes around, the Jews and the Christians thought the age of prophets was over, so the Muslims had to find some way of arguing that they, too, were prophets. They looked to Deuteronomy, and it says miracles make for prophets. So the evidentiary miracle of Islam is the Koran. That’s what they came up with.

The atheist Muslims, who, as I said, are these best-educated people, sit around and make fun of the Koran. This goes on for a good hundred years. Then that, too, is sort of chased out, and it comes back into Spain. Maimonides gets it. And you get negative theology, which is incredibly secular stuff, saying you can’t even say God exists (but they’re saying that it’s within negative theology).

We have not had much evangelism within atheism throughout history. Throughout most of history, you know where we are — we’re in the universities. You come and find us. We don’t have to do outreach. What’s changed now are a couple of things. One, Freud changed a lot. Freud was one of the first of the great atheists who said: Let’s try to convert everybody. He said they deserve it. They deserve the truth.

Before it had always been: Let the fools have the nonsense, but, if you have compassion and you do think people have the capability of going through some difficult periods but then coming out to reality, well then you’re sort of honor-bound to try.

[Pierre] Bayle is the first one, 200 years before Freud, saying that it’s very clear that morality is human. We have famous atheists of great morality. Spinoza is one that’s always brought up. Spinoza keeps using the word “God,” but he says it’s exactly the universe. There’s nothing extra that’s God. Which everyone immediately understood as pantheism, which everyone immediately understood was atheism. He never denied it, but he himself kept using this notion.

Another thing I was very concerned with was how come there were so many brilliant people who seemed to believe in God through history? But when I looked, what I found is, they don’t! They like the word. St. Augustine says, look, I was going to be an Epicurean, that was enough, I was going to be a Platonist, that was enough. None of these have ideas of God in them.

Plotinus later takes one of the o’s out of the “good” that Plato talks about and makes that into the God. That’s Plotinus.

Science is not static

Throughout history, the notion that we can do this all by ourselves remains strong. But I think it’s worth pointing out: Science changes a lot. You don’t necessarily want to say that you’re getting all the strength of your intellectual meaning from something that changes every decade, such as medical science. It’s tough. Certainly when you get to physics and cosmology, you get a couple of centuries’ worth.

For example, if you like the Renaissance, you like the art. You don’t want to use their toilet paper. You don’t want to use their child-rearing manuals, and you don’t want their science. It’s not that science isn’t good, but it’s a method. The very method has in its own concept the notion that it’s fallible, that you’re going to be adding to it, that you’re going to be fine-tuning it. That’s the methodology you want to use.

But so much of life is about human experience. And human experience doesn’t all fit into the science box. Maternal love can be understood through selfish genes, but that’s not what’s going on between a mother and a child. It feels like it flattens that experience to look at it that way. So we tend to look at them in two separate places, right?

We understand it this way, and then we feel it over here. But that’s entirely unnecessary, because it’s real because it’s real. If there is no God — and there isn’t — then we made up morality. And I’m very impressed.

People say they like the idea of a God because then we’re being watched. Someone else has meaning. What could that even mean? Why would you want a record more than you want the chord? The reality of our lives is the reality of our lives; it can’t get any realer. Meaning, the meaning that we feel, is the meaning.

Durkheim, at the end of the 19th century, said that what we thought was God is the community. And that’s a really potent notion. What we thought was God, what we thought was religion, isn’t falsified by the fact that we don’t believe in God.

You can lean back into the everlasting arms of humanness. We’re here, too. That feeling of being able to lean back into something larger than yourself, that feeling of communing with something you can’t entirely explain, all that is part of the human experience. We don’t have to reduce it or take it apart. We get to just enjoy it. But we have to somehow separate that from the philosophical belief if we put all of that into science.

Isn’t this life enough?

I’m often at universities, and lately I’ve been bringing up the vampire stories to say, see? Nobody thinks eternal life has no problems. It’s a real problem. Half of the Earth, the Eastern world, had the idea of constant rebirth, and they wanted out. That’s what satori is; that’s what nirvana is: Get out.

While we’re alive, we’re hardly using this life. We’re hardly using the moments that we are actually in. Who wants another? It’s sort of our business to pay attention here. The notion of our departed friends — hey, they made it into existence, and now they’re safe in the first reel.

It doesn’t change anything to have some other creature out there that you put all of these other things on. These emotions are fundamentally human. It’s in poetry and philosophy that human beings have expressed that throughout history. I was extraordinarily moved by finding out, in writing Doubt, how cohesive this is, how many men and women have been involved. How much it’s been consistent through the Middle Ages, where only now historians are translating the heretics’ papers of the Inquisition — and a lot of them aren’t just heretics who believed different malarkey.

A lot of them say, I don’t believe any of it. They say they don’t believe any of it partially because they’re aware of the ancient texts of criticism and general critique of all sorts of supernatural things, but also sometimes just because they look around and they say, this world is not providential. This world isn’t fair. Why pretend it is? Morality seems more human. The universe, not so much.

In Doubt, I talk about the way that we’re human and the universe isn’t. And religions are all about either saying that the universe really is human, it really does have love and intention and memory and purpose and narrative, and other religions try to get all those things out of us, a sort of a Zen approach. We are like the universe, without ego. The universe does seem to be a place, not a mind.

It has rocks and space, and brains are usually gray and squishy. In my experience, there’s really no crossover.

Need to get ‘out’ more

People throughout history have known doubt, have cherished it, nurtured it and shared it with each other, but as I said, usually not in an evangelical way. But folks, with democracy, we have no choice. Freud gave us a little bit more hope that we’re not just destroying people’s dreams.

For a long time, I was hesitant about trying to bring the message elsewhere. You know, why should I bother the people who like believing these things? But then I realized, if I love someone, I do that work, right? I’m not going to leave them believing in things that aren’t the case. I want them to have the best reality possible. And so with that notion, I decided that I would have to risk speaking what I saw to be the truth, to allow people to have the best tools possible to deal with a very strange situation.

There is no magic of the Trinity that’s weirder than consciousness. This is it. We have all the magic. It is what it is, and it doesn’t make it any more special or magical to add something extra to it. What makes it special and magical is to share it, and also to commune with it in oneself.

Religion has a few things right: community, meditation and ritual. By meditation I mean either thinking nothing or dwelling on good texts on a sort of regular basis — to remember the situation that we’re in. Because if you forget it, it comes back and smacks you.

You have to remember death. You have to remember what the situation is. Because it makes life much richer, and it also protects you from too much surprise.

It would be wonderful if more of us knew the history of atheism, realized that we’ve been sold a bill of goods. It’s the Cold War that really shut down the 20th century’s ability to see our own history. It’s time to get rid of that. The most murderous tensions are no longer with an atheist state but with a fundamentalist world. There’s more freedom now to start looking at that, and changing that. But we’re in kind of a wonderful time. There’s potential for change, we feel the change already happening, and the answer about when we’ll be more able to be entirely out is up to us.

The more out we are, the more out we can be.

Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of award-winning books of philosophy, history and poetry. Her Doubt: A History (Har–perOne, 2003) demonstrates a long, strong history of religious doubt worldwide from the origins of written history to the present day. Hecht’s The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism and Anthropology (Columbia University, 2003), won the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s 2004 prestigious Ralph Waldo Emerson Award “for scholarly studies that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity.” She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and teaches at The New School University.

Freedom From Religion Foundation