Poetic atheism: other voices

Once we’re attuned to this kind of rapturous embrace of the real, it seems to pop up everywhere.

Here’s Neil deGrasse Tyson, practically religious in his description of our oneness with the universe:

And here’s Carl Sagan, in what might well be a riposte to Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”:

It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.

— from Pale Blue Dot

And Sagan once again, responding to a poem — sent to him by a reader — that yearns for a God to guard against feelings of cosmic insignificance:

I think there is a very general truth [expressed] in this poem. I believe everyone on some level recognizes that feeling. And yet, and yet, if we are merely matter intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there’s nothing here but atoms, does that make us less or does that make matter more?

–from The Varieties of Scientific Experience

The science journalist Natalie Angier calls it “transcendent atheism”:

From my godless perspective, the devout remind me that it is human nature to thirst after meaning and to desire an expansion of purpose beyond the cramped Manhattan studio of self and its immediate relations. In her brief and beautiful book, “The Sacred Depths of Nature,” Ursula Goodenough, a cell biologist, articulates a sensibility that she calls “religious naturalism,” a profound appreciation of the genuine workings of nature, conjoined with a commitment to preserving that natural world in all its staggering, interdependent splendor. Or call it transcendent atheism: I may not believe in life after death, but what a gift it is to be alive now.

And here is Ursula Goodenough herself, from The Sacred Depths of Nature, which is practically a Daily Devotional filled with such insights:

I think of the ancients ascribing thunder and lightning to godly feuds, and I smile. The need for explanation pulsates in us all. […] Explanations taking the form of unseen persons were our only option when persons were the only things we felt we understood. Now, with our understanding of Nature arguably better than our understanding of persons, Nature can take its place as a strange but wondrous given.

The realization that I needn’t have answers to the Big Questions, needn’t seek answers to the Big Questions, has served as an epiphany. I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and I let their enormity wash over me. I assimilate the vastness of the distances, the impermanence, the fact of it all. I go all the way out and then I go all the way down, to the fact of photons without mass and gauge bosons that become massless at high temperatures. I take in the abstractions about forces and symmetries and they caress me, like Gregorian chants, the meaning of the words not mattering because the words are so haunting.

Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe. The gasp can terrify or the gasp can emancipate. As I allow myself to experience cosmic and quantum Mystery, I join the saints and the visionaries in their experience of what they called the Divine…


The celebration of supernatural miracles has been central to traditional religions throughout the millennia. The religious naturalist is provisioned with tales of natural emergence that are, to my mind, far more magical than traditional miracles. Emergence is inherent in everything that is alive, allowing our yearning for supernatural miracles to be subsumed by our joy in the countless miracles that surround us.

After this particular passage she quotes Whitman, whose poetry indeed seems to share a profound kinship with the sentiments expressed here. (Although, as he seems to say in “Learn’d Astronomer,” his path to a transcendent embrace of the cosmos acknowledges science but does not go through science — an idea I hope to tease out when I write a more in-depth post on the man.) Goodenough also plays fast and loose with the definition of “miracles,” and I suspect that not every scientist will agree with her apparently passive acceptance of Mystery — what about curiosity? what about the passion for discovery? surely she has these as well — but the joy she derives from a knowledge of How Things Are is perfectly clear.

Finally (for now), the excellent and inimitable Tim Minchin:

Isn’t this enough? Just this world? Just this beautiful, complex, wonderfully unfathomable natural world? How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap manmade myths and monsters? If you’re so into your Shakespeare, lend me your ear: To guild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw perfume on the violet — is just fucking silly. Or something like that.

— from “Storm”



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2 responses to “Poetic atheism: other voices

  1. Oh wow – great collection of quotes. I’m a big Minchin fan & found this page by searching for that Carl Sagan quote. Thank you.

    • You’re welcome! Thanks for reading. And yes, Tim Minchin rocks. I’m intensely curious about the “Matilda” musical he composed, and I hope it comes to the States sometime.

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