Science vs. poetry?

I was listening to Archbishop Desmond Tutu being interviewed on NPR this morning, and was struck by the language he used to describe his relationship with God:

I am learning to shut up more in the presence of God. Previously you have a kind of shopping list that you bring to God. But more and more, you are trying to grow, in just being there. Like when you sit in front of a fire in winter — you are just there in front of the fire. You don’t have to be smart or anything. The fire warms you.

As an atheist, I won’t dwell on my usual qualifications and objections: that I respect Archbishop Tutu for his courageous fight against apartheid; that his language explicitly demonstrates religion’s tendency to “shut up” or stifle intellectual inquiry; that the goodness of the human spirit that he believes in would be equally valid without a supernatural explanation; and so forth. But what caught my attention was the power of his simple metaphor: God is a fire that warms you. The archbishop was speaking like a poet.

Which made me think about the relationship between religion, science, and poetry.

It’s no secret that religion has always claimed poetry as an ally. Religious art and language are full of symbols, of images standing in for the invisible; what is expressed is merely a shadow of the inexpressible. As 1 Corinthians 13:12 puts it, “now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” This is poetry (and the King James Bible is one of the greatest works of poetic language that exists) and the metaphor of seeing imperfectly through a glass seems to serve as a metaphor for metaphor itself, for the act of getting at the essence of something not directly but indirectly: by sliding up to it sideways, catching a glimpse of it out of the corner of one’s eye, grasping at its shadow. It’s a different way of thinking, a way of taking leaps in the dark rather than putting one foot in front of the other.

It’s the shift in thinking that’s required to solve riddles. It’s been interesting trying out riddles on our daughter, and seeing how she’s slowly (but not quite yet) getting the hang of metaphorical thinking: the thirty white horses on a red hill are really teeth; the woman in a white gown with bright yellow hair, who grows smaller the longer she stands, is really a candle. This is the art of reading symbols, of taking wild imaginative leaps. It’s the essence of poetry, and poetry is absolutely a major mode of expression in religion.

It makes me wonder if the vantage point of poetry allows us to come at the conflict between science and religion in a new way. Here, for instance, is the biologist Richard Dawkins talking to Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury:

In trying to explain why he believes in Biblical miracles, the archbishop speaks of “certain moments when there is an opening in the world in which the underlying divine action comes through in a fresh way. Take the birth of Jesus. Here we have a long history of preparation for the coming of God in a new way; here you have a particular life, that of Mary, opening itself up to the action of God in a certain way; and then something fresh happens which is not a suspension of the laws of nature, but nature itself opening up to its own depths.”

Dawkins is right to point out that it doesn’t really make any sense; it’s poetic language, and Archbishop Williams acknowledges as much — even sheepishly admitting that it’s perhaps “a way of wriggling out of hard questions.” Dawkins says, “I of course love poetic language, but there does come a time when you worry that people are going to misunderstand it.”

Another incident, this one from Greg Epstein’s book Good Without God:

When I recently attended one of the [Unitarian Universalist Association’s] impressive national gatherings, I was struck by the two opposing narratives I heard regarding the presence of Humanists and atheists in the movement. On the one hand, I heard a story about a Humanist who stood up at a large conference question-and-answer session and vented his frustration at what he saw as the excessive godliness of much current UU practice. At the end of the remarks he asked, “Are you going to miss us when we’re gone?” On the other hand, there was the speaker’s response: “Why can’t you just let us have our metaphors?”

Why not let religion (or even Religious Humanism) have its metaphors? Well, as Dawkins points out, there’s a danger that people will take the metaphor for scientific fact. But as much as I agree with him, I wonder if we are still missing something here, something important about the difference between poetic and rational language, something about the power of myth and story to capture elusive human truths.

Is there a conflict between poetic truth and empirical truth? Is the problem simply that one side, religion, sometimes confuses what’s poetic (the interior reality of the human psyche) for what’s literal (the exterior reality of the universe)? On the other hand, does the other side, science (or at least its most militant atheist supporters), show an unwillingness to appreciate metaphor and symbol as a valid force in organizing people’s perceptions about their lives and their place in the world?

Perhaps it takes a poet to cast a new light on religion that yields new insights. In her fascinating book Doubt: A History, Jennifer Michael Hecht — a historian and a poet — sees two concepts operating simultaneously within religion: first, that human concerns mean little in the context of the vastness of eternity (i.e., the universe is non-human and value-neutral); and second, that God has plans that will eventually satisfy “the sense of justice and narrative that we have in our heads” (i.e. the universe does have inherent purpose and meaning). We exist between these two contradictory ideas, and most of us, she says, walk the line.

Strikingly, she says the following about the function of religion, which I think is precisely what poetry itself does: “The sage tries to help contemplative people hold both of these thoughts in their minds.” To make the connection between two unrelated or even opposing ideas is perhaps beyond the capacity of pure logic, but it is exactly what poetry is best able to express. How can I love and hate someone at the same time? How can a beloved one at once bring me to the heights of ecstasy and the depths of despair? Certainly there are biological and neurological explanations for this — but the experience is best captured in a sonnet, or a song.

Hecht goes on:

Jesus supported the idea that God created the world with purpose and care — an example of a preacher reading human-type meaning into the universe. But he also said to give up daily-life contests, habits, and even family bonds, to learn to see them as meaningless — an example of a preacher imposing the nonhumanness of the universe onto daily life. The Hebrew Bible says that vengeance is the Lord’s, meaning the fairness that human beings crave really does exist in the world outside our heads. But the Hebrew Bible also says that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, that time and chance happen to them all. Almost all important religious figures and texts make both of these impositions (meaninglessness on the human world, meaning on the world beyond human control), because the chief issue of religion is the breach between these two worlds.


Religion is not the only discipline to address these concerns, but it is the one by which human beings have attempted to integrate these two realities through practices and emotions as well as ideas. […] With religion, the point of the exercise is enlightenment; it is to teach us to live, well and wide awake, in our strange place between meaning and meaninglessness. Great doubters are concerned with this same area: they seek to understand the schism between humanness and the universe, and they very frequently do it through acts — rituals, meditations, life choices — as well as ideas.


Great doubters have been as profoundly invested in [the questions of existence] as have great believers, and they have offered a bounty of answers, addressing not only what we might believe, but also how we might achieve this belief through study and practice, and how we ought to live. Without God to answer the question of virtue, some have taken on extraordinary codes of morality themselves, as the only way left to solve the breach between what we are and what we wish to be. The history of doubt is not only a history of the denial of God; it is also a history of those who have grappled with the religious questions and found the possibility of other answers.

So, no, I’m not willing to let religion off the hook whenever it discourages scientific inquiries into the empirical nature of the universe, nor when it calcifies people’s moral attitudes and leaves them unable to come up with fresh thinking about modern problems. Still, there is a beauty and sometimes a wisdom to the poetic modes of religious thought that I think nonbelievers sometimes too easily dismiss.

I should also point out, however, that religion doesn’t have an exclusive claim on the power of poetic language. The proponents of science, reason, and humanism have also been able to tap into the heightened sense of wonder that poetry provides. In his documentary Enemies of Reason, Richard Dawkins has said: “The word ‘mundane’ has come to mean ‘boring and dull.’ And it really shouldn’t; it should mean the opposite, because it comes from the Latin ‘mundus,’ meaning the world — and the world is anything but dull. The world is wonderful. There is real poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.”

And for poetic language, we need look no further than Carl Sagan, whose lyrical descriptions of the universe certainly approached poetry; as some have demonstrated, you can weave his cadences beautifully into song.


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3 responses to “Science vs. poetry?

  1. Wonderful videos. I’d seen the Sagan one before, but it still moves me, and underscores the fact that the natural universe is so unbelievably awesome that it seems almost silly to just make shit up instead of finding out the truth through observation and reason.

    I have no problem with people using books and metaphors to contemplate ethical issues — even if one of those books is the Bible. It’s when they insist that fantasy is fact just because it’s more comforting to them that I call shenanigans.

    Popped over her from FlickFilosopher, BTW. Hello! Now you have a legion of one more. B)

  2. I’d seen a few, but none of the new ones. Thanks for re-directing me to the site! Have a good weekend!

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