Jennifer Michael Hecht: The Wonder Paradox

Atheism, Authors, Humanism, Podcast, Secular Grace
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This week’s guest is Jennifer Michael Hecht, bestselling author of Doubt: a History plus many  other works. Her latest book, The Wonder Paradox: Embracing the Weirdness of Existence and the Poetry of Our Lives comes out this week!

Jennifer is a poet and historian and in this interview, she makes a solid case for the important place that poetry—and other art forms—can have in our lives. 

“It’s got to be a poet who says, ‘This virtue still matters,’ because we’re at a moment where we don’t even know what to do with things that are not fairy tales but also not physics.”

This is a great conversation that you won’t want to miss!



The Wonder Paradox: Embracing the Weirdness of Existence and the Poetry of Our Lives


Previous appearance on the podcast


“…a poetic way of looking at our lives can do a lot of the same jobs that religion can do, and we need to explore that.”

“We have these profoundly complicated feelings, and how do you express that? To some degree, it is inexpressible…but poets are going to try and capture that ambiguity.”

“The main poetic subject really is to look at things that are kinda too hard to look at…the inner experience of mortality, that inner experience of ambition despite mortality, which is the paradox that all of us have to face.”

“You don’t need to collect hundreds of poems. You need to seize on a few, return to them and let your life grow on them and their intricacies grow on you.”

“It’s got to be a poet who says, ‘This virtue still matters,’ because we’re at a moment where we don’t even know what to do with things that are not fairy tales but also not physics.”

“What is between the factual and the nonsense is the whole realm of humanity.” 

“When you see the larger scope of how human beings manage the fear of dying, you don’t look around for a replacement for heaven anymore.”

“There are many rituals in any given faith that specifically welcome everybody, that welcome outsiders…You can do the ones you’re invited into.”

“Human beings aren’t robots. Rituals weren’t for God. The rituals were always for human beings, and it’s good for us to keep doing them.”

“The next generation is going to believe bad things if we don’t give them good things [to believe].”

“I call myself a ‘poetic realist,’ and I call myself a ‘poetic atheist.’”

“I feel very strongly that the way to the future is pluralism and rationality. I believe in those things so much that any indoctrination is not going to be what I want.” 

“…you gotta go out and be with people…[and] you need some time alone to think.”


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“Waves” track written and produced by Makaih Beats


NOTE: This transcript is AI produced ( and likely has many mistakes. It is provided as rough guide to the audio conversation.

David Ames  0:11  
This is the graceful atheist podcast United studios Podcast Network. Welcome, welcome. Welcome to the graceful atheist podcast. My name is David, and I am trying to be the graceful atheist. Please consider rating and reviewing the podcast on the Apple podcast store, rate the podcast on Spotify, and subscribe to the podcast wherever you are listening. Shout out to all my patrons. If you too would like an ad free experience of the podcast you can become a patron at any level at atheist. If you are in the midst of doubt or questioning or deconstruction, you do not have to do it alone. Please join us at deconversion anonymous where we are trying to be a safe place to land for those people who are questioning doubting and deconstructing. You can find us at Special thanks to Mike T for editing today's show. On today's show. My guest today is Jennifer Michael Hecht. Jennifer is one of my intellectual heroes and she has written a new book called The Wonder Paradox: Embracing the Weirdness of Existence and the Poetry of Our Lives. Jennifer was previously on the podcast four years ago and 2019 where we discussed her book doubt history. Jennifer is one of those people who is able to capture the joy and wonder of life from a secular perspective and put it down on paper. I describe her as one of the very few people on the vanguard of ritual and meaning for nonbelievers. She coined the phrase a graceful life philosophy. We discussed multiple phrases that she coins in this book, including interfaith lists, cultural liturgy, dropped by in lie ceremonies, and poetic atheism. Jennifer is a historian and an academic but she is first and foremost a poet. And that comes through in her writing. And in our discussion here today. The Wonder Paradox: Embracing the Weirdness of Existence and the Poetry of Our Lives is out March 7, please go out and get this book. It is absolutely amazing. Here is my conversation with Jennifer Michael Hecht.

Jennifer Michael Hecht. Welcome to the Graceful Atheist Podcast.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  2:45  
Thanks so much for having me,

David Ames  2:46  
Jennifer. It amazes me. But it was four years ago that you and I chatted about your book doubt. That was all the way back in 2018. You were so kind to come on then the podcast was two months old, I think at the time. So it's like, what a transformation since then. And we were discussing the fact that you are currently at that time writing Wonder Paradox, which is your new book that is out on March 7. So I'm so glad to have you back.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  3:14  
Thanks so much. I'm really delighted to be here. And Wow, you've grown and served so many people. And it's just amazing thing you've you've managed to do here.

David Ames  3:22  
I appreciate it. Yeah. And I think the I think the listeners are probably sick of hearing me recommend your writing. Almost anytime anyone asks me about books at all, you are at the top of that list. So you remain my intellectual hero. Thank you so much for the work that you do as well. I won't go all in on your your bone a few days. But I think your bio is understated. It says that you're a poet and a historian. And that is there's a lot packed into those two words. I think you've been a professor or you've written a number of books, including academic books, you want to talk just a bit about the work that you've done over the years.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  4:03  
Sure. You know, I started out as a poet, and I thought I would do really I was in high school sort of college college and I thought I'm gonna write poetry. But I wanted a day job. My father, until very recently was a history. I was a sorry, a professor of physics, at Delphi on Long Island. And so the idea of teaching the idea of going to graduate school so I think I thought about, about doing history of literature, history of poetry, but in graduate school, I fell in love with the history of science, and have very poetic it was how how very much in order to do science. You have to try as hard as you can to go from one rational idea to the next, but one does history of science. By unraveling that, and that is much more of a sort of, by your guts feeling to realize well, how how would certain ideas, perhaps stay in a certain line of thinking longer than they should have, and then sort of try to figure out, oh, it was stuck to this and that all of this kind of work is much more cultural and literary. But doing the history of science, of course, brought me into the history of atheism. And I was already an atheist, and I was just overjoyed to see such weird and interesting people. You know, I wouldn't say that all atheists through history have been as weird as the group that I happen to find when I was doing some history of science work for my PhD. And found some some early anthropologists, they'd really sort of invented anthropology in a sense, and they were atheists, and they were, they saw what they were doing as, as a way of promoting atheism, their science. So this is not in the history, the way we look at any of these subjects. So that was an immediate Oh, this is fun and weird, and I gotta track this down. And that experience made me realize, oh, every time I try to find a straight history of atheism, there isn't one out there. People were either making everybody atheists or nobody atheist. So that work was a delicious side slant that took me you know, that became my main branch of how I was operating in the world, to bring that kind of history of atheism, history of religious doubt, history of debt, religious doubt, that leads people to new religions, not always to agnosticism or atheism, a whole bunch of varieties of watching the ways that sometimes ritual disappears. But faith stays sometimes faith disappears. So all of that kind of work, for the longest time was somewhat separate from my poetry. And I read poetry as well as write poetry and I and I've taught on the graduate level. So yeah, eventually those things were going to come together and they finally have is our ex, I'm really looking at the ways that, that the, that a poetic way of looking at our lives, can do a lot of the same jobs that religion can do, and that we need to at least explore that at least all of us just up a click of observation about how these things operate in our lives, you gain, you gain some power, you gain some peace, just little adjustments, of naming some of the real things that are happening around us, you don't even have to seek to change them. Just naming does a tremendous amount. And that's where, where the book starts just talking about that phenomenon.

David Ames  8:06  
You know, it's interesting that you say naming things, because I think you are amazing at kind of coining a phrase or a word, we're gonna go over some of them in our previous conversation. And he talked about graceful life philosophies, which I felt was such a beautiful term, and you know, evocative, and there's a number in this book, I do want to get the subtitle out. So the book is called The Wonder Paradox,: Embracing the Weirdness of Existence and the Poetry of Our Lives. And it is out in early March, march 7 of this year. I wanted to begin with you, Jennifer, by kind of confessing that, you know, I'm the cretin. I am the the troglodyte here, and that poetry isn't a significant part of my life or not something that I'm cognizant of. So I think reading, reading this book made me more aware of where poetry tends to be more with music for me personally, but it you know, where poetry was, in fact, a major part of my life. So So let's begin by just talking about why poetry What is it about poetry that you think has such meaning for human beings?

Jennifer Michael Hecht  9:16  
Well, I do believe that, in a sense, when I say poetry, I'm speaking about art. And I'm even speaking about the poetic aspect in science. And some scientists are good at ethics explicating that but of course, who's going to be best at doing this kind of poetic work is people who have trained themselves to think in terms of very densely packed, rich ideas that because of the way they use language, are a little bit fluid in the places where, if you lock it down, you're only getting half The truth, right? Nobody totally loves their loves other human beings loves everybody in their lives and totally hates them. But we have these profoundly complicated ID feelings, right? And how to express that? Well, the answer is, to some degree, it is inexpressible the way that humans feel about their lives. But it's poets who are going to try to capture that ambiguity. But I think what you said at first is so important that I think that a lot of people experience, let's guess, 10 poems in the course of a year that just crossed their desk because of today, because of the inter webs, there's no question that's where it's happening. But in the past, it happened by many other ways that we used to have the advice columnist Ann Landers, and she was constantly being asked where a certain line of poetry came from, and then she would print the poem, and people would keep that piece of paper on their refrigerator. For decades, I mean, there have been many different ways where, and I walk into people's homes, and nowadays I look around, and I will often see some kind of poem on the world, on the wall, often a good poem. And they, and they, the people, somebody put that on the wall, because they had that kind of connection to it. Now we do it on the internet, and what is it that happens, you read it, and sometimes it doesn't work for you, you don't read it all the way through. But every once in a while, not infrequently, you read one of these poems, and you, you know, it makes you take in a moment of breath, you have a slight moment of a change in perspective about who you are in the world. In fact, that's the main poetic subject, the main poetic subject, really, is to look at things that are kind of too hard to look at most of the time. And that's where we get our gigs, right? What what nobody else is talking about. And what is that, that's that inner experience of mortality, the inner experience of ambition, despite mortality, which is just a paradox that each one of us has to negotiate and, and the idea that the culture rightly tells us that an adventurous life is one at home, building things or out there forging ahead, and you can't kind of do both, at least not at the same time. All these paradoxes that we live with, that poetry sees as its main business, so when these poems, you know, maybe 10 lines of have an idea across your desk, and it means something to you. I'm suggesting that that's a great place for us to grab that poem. Keep keep it safe, return to it. Don't you don't need to collect hundreds of poems you need to seize on a few and return to them and let your life grow on them and and their intricacies grow on you. And most cultures in society have had something like this, but in the non religious world right now, we are lacking in some of this conversation.

David Ames  13:23  
Yeah, that's that's kind of a summary of that, of what you've just said, you say that poetry can help us make up for the loss of the supernatural can connect us to one another, and to meaning in our lives. And I think that's what I really connected with with this book. I feel like you and just a handful of other people in the world are on this vanguard of you know, how do we live a full meaningful life secular people with the wonder with the or with the the full range of human experience instead of what can sometimes be a hyper rationalist perspective that denies the emotion and human experience?

Again, how do you feel like poetry brings particular to lead to secular people, this sense of meaning?

Jennifer Michael Hecht  14:24  
One of the things that I'm seizing on is the notion that a lot of us are already getting meaning from our lives and from art and literature, and science. But we haven't taken that one little step of saying that this, that the things that we do to nurture those feelings are a kind of I I'm very careful to not say replacement when I'm writing because these are the Religious doesn't come first, right? In the society, it's in the culture, it's in religion, and it goes back to society back to certain culture, all of these ideas are not. But for us, if we're speaking, especially in terms of sort of American, Christian or post Christian audience, we're looking at very specific things that were lost. And that we can look at and say, Well, what, what's missing there, and it really takes not being too furious or to a vengeful at religion, you have to understand I have listened to enough of your show to to get a sense that a lot of the people in your audience were raised in religion in a very toxic way. Now, I met many, many people and have stayed in touch with people from from the middle of America, but but who have that experience, and so I'm very, you know, I was very sort of traumatized myself and coming to understand it. Because, you know, because of what I do, people tell me a lot of stuff. Sure, I can imagine, but, but where I come from in terms of where I live, which I live in Brooklyn, and I write for other literary and educated people around the world, and I hear from them. So I'm writing to people who might be pretty much thinking that religion is neither their friend nor foe, right? They just feel that modern life is modern life. And that in what I call drop by and lie religion, though, I don't mean it in a mean a negative way. I really think sometimes it's the only way you get to get together with maybe your family. But it's worth thinking about, if the only times you do go to a house of worship is just drop by and say things you don't believe. And so, you know, I look in the book at ways of avoiding that, but but the specific notion that there are a lot of people who just feel atomized and alone. And if they were to realize how many people no matter what religion they started from, are really trying to guess try to make a better world try to try to stoke and fan compassion and empathy and just attempting to do the right thing. Even that notion of the right thing. It's got to be a poet, who says virtue still matters, because because we're at a moment where we don't even know what to do with things that are not fairytales, but also not physics. Right? What what is, is in between the factual and the nonsense is a whole is the whole realm of humanity. Right? In the book, I say, you know, with our white coats on we can I understand that love is about facial symmetry or something, you know, making a good partner but, but we live these questions and explaining it doesn't explain it away. We live here, and it's where I want to live. And where I live is full of emotion and meaning. I wouldn't say much justice, but that turns out we have to work on but, you know, love is real. And we know that it is something and we know sometimes we're not even experiencing it. Sometimes we're left out in the rain. But the notion that love is real, there's a bunch of things that we can put in that category. Right? And and we forget that and I think meaning is one of the things that's in that category. We don't it's not easy to take it apart and say where it comes from. But what in the human experience can stand up to such a question really were asking, you know, how much more can we know about it and in different kinds of ways, but certainly the idea of explaining it to the point where it doesn't exist when here we are all living in meaning and living with love and if all of its difficulties. Yeah, it becomes important to champion the poetic again to say we can't we don't always we're not always doing that kind of research experiment. Sometimes we're doing one that's more internal.

David Ames  19:46  
Actually, yeah, the chapter on love poetry, you know, I felt myself just gets swept away and some of the stories you're telling like, you know, you kind of compare and contrast rom com versus kind of more a deeper that maybe more painful perspectives on love in poetry and story. That was just it was definitely captivating. And it's one of those things where I think what you said that really struck with me was like, you know, I've been coupled for a couple of decades now and then getting excited about other couples that you know, who are kind of in the middle of that that infatuation phase man that poetry is, is attempting to, to capture the chaos and the joy of all that.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  20:27  
That's right, and, and also to sort of celebrate all sorts of versions of love, including the kinds that in our society, we, you know, except for that sort of single image of older people walking down the street holding hands, we tend to celebrate new love rather than the love that we say we believe in which wraps families and puts down roots.

Another thing that sweeps all around, this is something that for me, I made up kind of as a joke, at first, I was just writing and I came up with the term the interfaith lists. And it just made me laugh, the interfaith less, you know, because the interfaith was such a specific moment in in mid 20 century, and though it survives on in some ways, but the interfaith was made me laugh, because, oh, well, it's not clearly an exact term, it's just saying that there are so many of us all around the world, from all sorts of religious backgrounds who have these positive, warm feelings and base our progress and action in terms of both science and, you know, trusting in the other people who are who are really working in the direction that we want to see the world go in, including climate change, and all these kinds of issues to realize that, that the interface lists the people who perhaps are, you know, on a given holiday, or something are feeling a little left out from those public celebrations. But once we realize that there are a couple of us in any gathering around a Christmas tree, for instance, you start to be able to feel the people like you who are out there in the world, I don't want to talk too much about my last book, which was a stay a secular argument against suicide. It really did learn from that experience, kind of I learned to feel the people out there. Because when someone in your world, even pretty far out, does take their life, you realize what they meant to you? And what a soul not doing that meant to you because you suddenly feel a tear in the fabric way over there. Yeah. And that just made me learn to when can you feel the fabric? When do we feel that we're connected? And how can you know, how can we enhance that feeling so that we're not alone. And that definitely came into this book and saying, you know, we're already doing a lot of the things that I'm talking about. I'm just saying, if we can become a tiny bit more aware of them, right? naming a few of their parts, we can start to just build a song, just the tiniest bit better life makes a big difference.

David Ames  23:38  
Yeah, absolutely. You actually, you know, you're answering questions I haven't asked yet. But like, I felt like Wonder paradox was an extension of stay. And how that's relevant to my audience is, they come from a very conservative theological background, typically, and and then when they lose that they have the believers in their lives telling them well, you have no justification for your morality, you might as well be a nihilist, that kind of thing. And kind of the entire purpose of this podcast and these discussions is to say no, you this is a human experience, all that wonder are human things and like you get to keep that with you. And I feel like that is the through line between those two books that all of this is is the human experience and it's wonderful in our interconnectedness with one another is a way that that builds that up to remind us that we are not on an island alone and that there is great meaning in us being together with one another.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  24:38  
Yeah, and there's tremendous pain in being a human being but that's true pretty much no matter what you believe not what you believe you're gonna have to struggle with it when the pain is hard and you're gonna have to struggle against you know, egotism when when you're feeling super happy because you know, the The, the idea for me is it, you know that you want to lean on something that for you is pretty steady. Right? And so for me, you know, I so to lean on human beings is a great leap of faith, but at least I know they exist. And I know I am one and I, every once in a while have it in me to be able to lean out and help someone else. And, and yeah, the, the, the magic of that is, is what I mean by the poetry of our lives and, and also the, the beautiful repetitions that happen through life. Again, it's something that we can, we can coax ourselves to be able to notice and see. And it is it's just, it's just that little extra bit of joy and control that make life a little bit more more worth living. But I mean, especially outside of a religious framework. And I say that from kind of an American point of view, I will say the book because I've spent the last however many years I'll say decades now I got my PhD in 1995. So I have been studying the history of religions and the present day of religions all over the world since then, and that has made me into a person who finds even the word atheism. So Christian centered in a way. And so are Judeo Christian centered or the world is mostly filled with people who don't have a single god with a single morality and an afterlife where you go on having what tea and cookies with your relatives where you actually have things. So even if there are afterlives in these other religions, they are not like the Christian afterlife, where I do go on actually doing things. And, and that's a big deal for people who are coming out of Christianity to realize that, that it's not just a matter of loot, losing the supernatural, it's losing this particular very specific religion at a specific moment in history. And, and it creates, you know, a shadow version or a chasm in just the shape of where you thought you had this special, special characteristics of life of not dying of these things. And, but when, when you see the larger scope of how human beings manage fear of dying, you don't look around for a replacement for heaven anymore. What what what human beings mostly do is not looking in that direction, they place the the big contest of life, all in terms that are not about that, that idea that death is a chasm that you're gonna fall off and that chasm is the empty space of heaven that it's it's x Christians that are most worried about that. And that tells us that you can focus elsewhere. It's not a matter of, of just being up just having lost something. You walk into a larger world and see oh, people have been a mad seeing this life and a lot of different ways. And yeah, it's amazingly freeing. Absolutely. Right. It for for audiences who are very much in that world, it still feels you know, I can remember after doubt, doing a talk in Salt Lake City, they invited me I went, you know, yeah, it out, like, who invited me and how that happened. And there were a lot of people in that audience who who came because they knew who I was and wanted here they came from far and wide kind of thing. But there were also students at the, at the community college. And and some of the questions were, well, what about the miracles? You know, that's a very long swing between kinds of questions that I'm getting. But and yeah, sometimes I know that, that the message I'm giving right here is going to sound like it's, it's yeah, it's a step away from religious pain. It is because I'm saying to people, when you land all the way on this shore, and you're just going through the motions of these dead old rituals, and you feel a little hypocritical All and you feel a little letdown, you can put some of the meaning back in by thinking about that moment with a poem, bringing that poem back in and thinking about the other people in the world who are celebrating in a similar way, with their families with that ritual. You know, what I'm saying brings up the question of cultural appropriation, people have to think carefully before they do other people's rituals. But there are many rituals in any given faith that specifically welcome everybody, welcome outsiders, for all sorts of reasons. But most often, because everybody knows that feeding outsiders is a blessing, right? So that happens in all sorts of cultures. So you can do the ones you're invited into. These days, we intermarry in such a way someone in your families related to a holiday, you might want to try out in that kind of way.

But mostly what I'm trying to say to people is that human beings aren't robots and rituals weren't for God, the rituals were always for human beings. And it's good for us to keep doing them. You can invent new ones, if you want. And I think on some level, every family does just out of, you know, sure, you're close enough to where they have ducks. So you have to do the ritual with chicken, it's just how it is. But when people start to say, Okay, I'm gonna make up a whole bunch of rituals on my own. Well, then you're asking other people to do your wacky ideas, and sometimes it's just not going to fly. Whereas if you say to people, Look, I know this is bizarre, but what we're going to do is going to cut down this tree, we're going to make a circle of like, you have all these odd things, but everybody's been doing them forever, and look around and Miles is doing. So it's a lot easier to just insert some of your own ritual into that. But I think a lot of people still feel I know that a lot of people feel guilty and confused, let down and hypocritical, saying words, they don't believe in situations that they couldn't help be in. And they alternative for them as nothing. So what I'm saying is, I hadn't joined the party, here's how to make sure you have some meaning. Realize that the rest of us from all sorts of different things are doing the same kind of thing. And then the fun is okay, so then how can we make all of this more fun and delicious? One thing, the next generation is going to believe bad things if we don't give them good things. Yeah. See that?

David Ames  33:02  
Everywhere? Right? Yeah. So you've been circling around the holidays and your term have dropped by and lie, for sure. That is a sentiment that, that we hear from people who have gone through this faith transition to say, you know, what do I do at Christmas? What do I what I do at Hanukkah are my My favorite tradition. And I think the message that that comes across in wonder paradox is that you get to own that you get to mix and match, you get to build new traditions that you don't have to be left, high and dry. And then ultimately, you can also just participate, knowing that this is a human ritual, and do it anyway.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  33:43  
Right, and, and, you know, I'm basing these kinds of claims on a lot of History and Sociology. So that, and and all these years of just studying the varieties of ways that things have gone in history, and then going out and being invited to give these talks, and I didn't even realize there was an atheist movement until I wrote out, it didn't. They just started inviting me. That started that was just old white guys in the room. Right. And that changed while I was there, you know? Um, that came out in 2003.

David Ames  34:23  
Yeah, that was right. Right. Before there's kind of the explosion of it. Yeah.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  34:29  
And, yeah, enough, so that I was sort of able to look at at what was going on just in the beginning. So yeah, it's been having all these different experiences of learning about the stuff I'm talking about, but then going out into the world to give talks, where I'm invited, so I'm not going into sort of hostile crowds. I'm going to places thought they've liked the message, but very often religious places because they're interested in these questions. And hearing so much specific trouble around ritual ritual having to do with holidays, as we've discussed a little bit, but also rituals having to do with funerals, weddings, and baby welcoming ceremony. Were were other things that are heard a lot. And I've also heard some people's little solutions that made it into the book as just sort of templates for how people do negotiate these things, sometimes rather beautifully. But yeah, the I think that there's a way in which what I'm arguing for is almost the sort of poetic common sense of a lot of secular people living today, I was just able to spend these decades being able to show why indeed, we are doing things that make sense and have historical strength and muscle to them. Beautiful poetry already exists. And yeah, very much saying, I think we're doing smart things. And here's some of the reason why you should feel good about them instead of conflicted.

David Ames  36:16  
I think one of the things that really helped me is, it's an idea that you expressed in wonder paradox that I've also heard from people like James Croft, and Anthony pin. And the concept is just that everything is secular, meaning, religion and ritual are our human inventions. And so everything is secular, and it flips it on its head a bit to say, I haven't lost anything. I, you know, everything is secular, I can you know, I can participate, how I want the specific quote, and in your book, you say, but surely religion is a human creation to organize human needs for celebration, gathering, meditation, inspiration, and comfort. And I also like the way that Anthony Penn put this, he basically said, religion is the human collective search for meaning. And I feel like that that's in the zeitgeist right now. And it has a lot of relevance for this audience as well that, you know, coming out of that, again, you haven't you haven't lost anything, you can just recognize the humanity in it and recognize your own humanity.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  37:19  
Yeah, I think that's great. I think that's really good. Of course, once everything is religion, we're back into a kind of swampy language. We can put that aside and say, Okay, this is a beautiful formulation and not need to associate it with everything. Because we can step back and say, relive religion can be a template for hypnotizing and controlling and abusing people, by people who for some reason seem obsessed with sort of power and control and all sorts of things that we know, a religion does that make people want to break out of it. The in the book, I use the interfaith lists, and I associate myself with that, but I also call myself a poetic realist, I call myself a poetic atheist, and I still am a poetic atheist, I just want to make clear at all times, that there's a ton of things I don't believe in, God doesn't really have that special place in that category of being nonsense. For me. There's a whole range of human behaviors that I look at as saying, Well, you know, that kind of story doesn't do a thing for me, because of aspects of its nature that make it in into the wound category, right? But all of this is subjective. Like when, when does a moment you know, and so we define our terms, right. So, in the book, I say, you know, sacred is something that is a word that predates the religious and people use it to mean what people hold sacred. In the social sciences today, this is how I'm using, but I don't use the word spirituality in the book. But people use it to describe me and they're not really wrong, because, again, this is muddy language territory. Exactly. So I invented a term partially because yes, when you invent a new term, in order to try to be more specific, you also realize how inadequate the old terms are, and you find new associations. So you know, when anything you make up that doesn't work doesn't stick so you don't have to worry about that. Unless you're, you know, trying to be a historian. I'm really careful. You know, I only make up terms when I really feel they don't know how else to speak about the thing is matter of fact, I tend to make them up for myself as a shorthand, because I need a way to write about something and that I realize, oh, I should use this term more. But yeah, I like poetic realist because it doesn't really need a definition. realist I believe in, you have to be careful with the term realism. Of course, it's had some artistic moments where people used it more. The reason I've avoided it in the past was because people who believe in religion believe what they're doing is real. So what does it even mean to whereas rational at least has a, you know, they believe they're being rational too. But we do have a definition of rationality that it's a little bit more separate, right. But I felt that once I said, poetic realist, it was like saying poetic atheist, but with a little bit more reach. But you'll notice I almost never say poetic atheists without poetic realists without working poetic atheist in into the conversation because I want people to know, I am still an atheist and one full of fire and brimstone. You don't be right, you you do a grace, relate the ascent doing a poetic atheist? What are we trying to do? We're up against a wall of people who are rightfully very angry, and using anger as the way of communicating where they're at. But there's just too much you lose in that in that kind of fight. Right? Exactly. Yeah,

David Ames  41:21  
I tried to make it clear that the anger is super valid. And you might sit in that for a while, but you don't want to remain there forever. Right? You want you want to get out eventually.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  41:31  
Right. And it's good for people to know where to go in the culture to find different types. I mean, not that we have to be locked into what we are. And I think anybody listening for anger in anything I do can find it. You know, yeah, I feel very strongly that the way to the future is pluralism. Rationality. Yeah. I believe in those things so much that any indoctrination is not going to be what I want and any kind of retrograde ideas that are not based in rationality. Right, right. But within that spectrum, within that world, we do need people to know where they can come if they want to feel big, interesting. feelings and ideas that live in the world. We believe in you and I need Yeah, not find somebody who's furious at religion because that story is only one part of what we're what we're talking about.

Without doubt, I even was constantly at pains to make the distinction between people who were arguing against fables. And I include the resurrection of Jesus as a fable. It's a story that didn't happen, because it's too much not what happens, right? Yes, exactly. Then there's another kind of person who says they believe in God who really believes in something awfully like poetry, progress and love. And they tell me, I believe in God, and I tell them, they don't and we happily can break bread together. Exactly. There's really no difference in what we believe. Because there are many people who choose to say they believe in God and choose to relate to the world, believing in God, just you know, just like there are atheists who still believe the universe is going to bring them something that's often close. Right? So, so yeah, I think it's, it's super important that people know, yeah, there are atheists who are taking into account a very, very wise kind of belief and still saying, Well, for me, it the big reason not to do that is because it gets you you don't focus on how to make the human world stronger and better. You're still assigning a little something out there. So for me, that's not my direction, right? But, but it's really important to say, yeah, there are all these different distinctions. And sometimes you're you're in one where you say, you know, I I'm not in a place where I need to be arguing against the parables. You know, I know that there's something well, there's some there are different conversations everywhere. It's so important to be meeting people where you're meeting people, as I met them, when at when the doubt talks were, well, the pandemic gave us put a stop to a lot of uh, yeah, hearing that people are so abused by religion or abuse by powerful people who just happened to be hitting them with the Bible. Yeah, that they really need this conversation to take place on all these different levels in a slow burn to really see what's, you know, in some of this stuff with our parents. We never saw it out right. We just get stronger we learn how to deal.

David Ames  45:03  
Man, there's so much there I want to respond to I'm gonna let me just do a quick lightning round and just say, I agree with you that I think I've generalized beyond just religion to say, you know, traditions that are rigid, that lock a person into a certain view of the world that may not be true. And so it you know, it is beyond just the religious context, but anything that is that proves itself to be untrue in one way or another. And I think the, what you were describing there about the, the closeness and you, you and I discussed this last time about the ardent believer and the ardent atheist have more in common than the kind of the middle masses. But I often say that the, you know, the most dangerous word in the English language is God in that, you know, you can be in a room of 1000 people, and you say the word God, and there are 1000 different interpretations of what that actually means. And I've liked that you kind of work with the messiness of the language, it's so hard to say anything about like, spirituality. You know, as when we get close to that some of these concepts and what we really mean is about the experience of being human, but all of the verbiage implies something else, not because that can be very difficult.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  46:12  
Right? Well, you know, I mean, when you're working from the Abrahamic religions, you got Moses coming down with morality written in stone, are for what isn't, it isn't written in stone, constantly take into account the context and the situation and what's going on. So it's, it is kind of comic Yeah.

David Ames  46:50  
Couple more things. One other term that I think you coin that we've been circling around is this idea of cultural liturgy. So some of the, you know, the rituals that we go through that are that are, in fact, secular already. And I thought that was a beautiful term that we need in the world.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  47:05  
Thanks. So one of the reasons that cultural literacy liturgy seems so important to me at and again, just to give a sort of example of, for instance, we could talk about just the, you know, colored lights at, at holiday time that are, at this point, their cultural liturgy, rather than a religious artifact for many people. But, but also, you know, we go to weddings and see the same poem there. And we think, Oh, this is trite, or used or cliche. And who would say that about a biblical prayer, right? Oh, you know very well, that whatever was good enough to get in that book, whatever people keep saying that helps. And it helps partially, just because you've seen other people get married to it. So that consistency is not a bad thing, it's a good thing. And that's something that really needed to be said, so that there are poems and music that are already cultural liturgy, and that we should encourage each other to embrace them. If you see a great poem read in a movie, and you want to incorporate that you don't have to think of that as something on original. We don't want original at a funeral, or we, we want something to hold on to something to be able to revisit that stays strong for us, because it was already there. Yeah. So that that became a really important thing to be able to see that there already are some things like that, that while no individual person could plant the flag and say, Now, this is cultural liturgy, we can notice that the whole culture is gently moving towards, in a way certain things and we can situate ourselves in that world. Yeah, as you said, Before, you can know that why isn't your natural and real relationship with the religion you were born into just as valid as the people who encountered that religion a century, two centuries, three centuries ago. And, and I can show you that those people changed their religion because it match how they lived. They it happens every generation. And And there, there are generations that move towards and away from what we would call unbelief that we don't even realize was unbelief for them because we certainly grew over it. So yeah, that's that's part of the reason that this book that's really, you know, it's really my heart. But if he did, it needed constant, it needed the scaffolding up history who would have believed well, not only scaffolding that the historical example about how all This stuff changes makes you feel braver to reinterpret. And also just to not think that everything we're doing today must be bad, right? It is the invention of the future.

David Ames  50:13  
A couple things on that one, I like to, like a thought experiment for people is to say, you know, if you had a time machine, and you can go back to any point in time in the history and be amongst the believers of that time, would you do that? And do you think that you would recognize it? And you know, I think my intuitive response to that is that, no, it would be radically different. Even if you drop the Christian into Jesus's time, right? It would be unimaginably different than what they think it is. Because of just the constant change.

Another thing that leapt out at me that you talked about is, in this idea of coming up with your own traditions that you talked about, somebody asked you and you said, Well, we made it up. And they asked you, can we do that? And then you said, well, Who's stopping you? stopping us? I love that, like, you know, we have the ability to make those new traditions for ourselves.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  51:17  
That's right. And and what gives us that ability is some kind of authority, which if you can't find it outside yourself, it only takes out, it only takes flicking that switch on in your head to realize oh, okay, that means me. I think it's, it was especially interesting for Jews, because we have this notion of a kind of most orthodox down to a most reform, which is not reality really. It because they come in at different times come into America, I mean, and so these things are all just, it's really quite a mess. But the sense that there's a more orthodox version of your religion can make you feel like, oh, they wouldn't believe in the stuff I'm doing. So I should add a little bit more. And this was a realization Oh, they wouldn't believe in what I'm doing anyway. If I add a ton more, because the person I'm doing it with is the wrong faith three generations back or something. And I can't fix that. And I won't fix it. Nor do I believe in the distinction being made. And so now I'm angry and up against it. Right? If you think it through you, you feel like rejecting it. But yeah, if you if you start from there and say oh, they already don't, nothing I do is going to make the absolute orthodox feel like I'm doing it right? Yes, you can save yourself. Okay, well, then whose team Am I on? And I'm on the team of of other people who are trying to make a more beautiful world for our kids in the next generations. And, and that is a clarifying moment. Yeah.

David Ames  53:00  
A very freeing Absolutely. For Hank, I believe you give this thought experiment to your students. You said you wake up tomorrow morning and can't find anyone, anywhere. By all indications you're alone on the planet. What do you do that you say to your students? Sorry to do that to you. But most of you were headed for an existential crisis anyway. So this way, I'm here to get you out. Again, I loved I think this I think in our previous conversation, we talked about how we each kind of have to go through and the culture itself and us individually have to go through these deep questions. Anyway, over and over again, that there is no kind of free ride that we have to ask these these hard questions and get through it. And this seems to me like a very personal one, you know, what is meaning for you if you were the only person on earth?

Jennifer Michael Hecht  53:47  
Yeah, absolutely. Isn't it so interesting, and so much depends on how you interact with other people. So I think that I'm kind of a gregarious, but Ultra introvert. Okay, I really, whether nature nurture, I am going to be very engaged for a long, long time on my own before I even look up notice that Oh, right. Eventually it happens but I have so many projects in the house that I can forget to go out and without it being a sad thing on Yeah. I mean. So I think that I am always lecturing people ongoing you got to go out and be with people because that's the message I need. Okay, because naturally my I don't need the message. You need some time alone to think right? I know I forget that other people need need to practice that and to you know, so I have that's more something I have to remind myself and I do of course, but And that question about the world being empty for me I'm was something that, you know, interaction with students eventually kind of threw that back at me to sort of look at myself and see that this idea of the end of the world, I've been showing it to people partially because I want to show them how connected we are. Much everything would stop it for us individually, if everyone else went away. And when you're talking to college students, they it really is an original thought for a lot of them that even three meals a day with a fork is a thing. Why should we three meals a day and even these tiny little questions of, of how we live that I can show them through travel? Right, you can see that when you go to another country. And I think it's always important if somebody has been to England where you know the language, but you still don't know how they behave. It's still another country. Yeah. And, of course, you can get farther and farther away from anything, you know. And it is a classic, classic idea that the past is, is another country, I would ask people that question because it was a way for me to remind myself how much I need people. And I would imagine in the thought process that what would save me was again, some sort of project that I would put my life into, even if I was alone, I would find, and that project would be very human based, right, because I'm a human being. But whatever it would be, would be based on continuing the values that I was sort of started in. But so it's an isolated way to be very public. But I think that what was so important for so many people that they would always come back to it and want to talk about it is this notion that that whether you're alone or with people that were making the meaning together, and you can enhance or decrease that, that connection, and that when it comes down to it. It's really just us, it's just us and, and mortality is the problem that were handed, or each one of us is handed. And if you don't think much about that, you still may think about the idea of the choices that you make in a single lifetime. And you want to let you want to live the life that you want to live. And just that that is a burden that each of us comes into life with, if we're lucky, write the script for us. And there's tremendous processing that we have to do. And so that's why the book is divided up into sort of problems that people would have problems like shame, or, you know, problems, about how to talk about death, outside of heaven to young people, really specific kinds of problems. Then there's one chapter that's on holidays, that's a very broad look, that kind of invites you to think about the specific things in the holidays you like either the song or the drink that goes with that how to really sort of parse through what what you bring into the holidays, and what you might be able to tinker with in order to connect the holiday with a specific emotional experience that religions most religious holidays, they either they're commemorating a historical thing sometimes, but very often, it is about exploiting shame, getting over your shame, sometimes having to recognize it first face it, apologize to people. And those are very often about fasting or bathing going to where certain river is just even thinking about these things can help us realize, oh, human beings throughout history have suffered this weird thing of shame. Yeah, how we've coped with it, and then showing how it's coped within Shakespeare poem and that so they're short chapters that deal with very specific issues. Yeah,

David Ames  59:26  
I have to tell you, let's see, I've got I've got this note here somewhere that I laughed out loud, and I'm probably going to murder the German name here. The HC HC minutes twist on Heraclitus seems to be playfully denying the religious idea of washing oneself internally in a river you can't get clean even once. I love that and the reason I do is like my first philosophy, one on one with Heraclitus said, you know, the idea of that changes the only constant in the world and the predecessor to him was saying, you know, you can't step in the same river twice. And he's the one who said you can't step in the same River wants anyway, I just that was a little personal present to me. So thank you. I love that

I want to hit my last two topics that you talked about marriage a fair amount and the the ceremony of it. But I also wanted to just draw out pertinent to my audiences when somebody has gone through this faith transition, and they are still married to a believer. So a couple things I think are really useful there. You talked about strong bonds can go along with fierce contrary forces. And you also say it also shows that love is a mess, a serious mess. And there's a lot of deconstruction, excuse me, destruction and remaking, total destruction, total remaking new substance remade form, married people are separate, yet united. And there's some hope in there. I think it parallels the st. Perell concept of a second marriage to the same person. But like that happens, just a little personal note that happens to be true in my life. I'm married to a believer. And I know lots of people kind of need to hear that message. We talked about change being constant, and also the individuals in a marriage and the marriage itself is constantly changing as well.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  1:01:17  
Yeah, absolutely. And specifically, the issue of being married to someone who's still in religion. So interesting. My husband's from a Catholic background, but also, but I think, you know, we've definitely over the last 23 years come to a lot of, of understandings fresh together of the world so that, you know, you build a new world. Yeah, I think it's a really interesting problem. And I think that it's like, I feel like, yeah, I feel like people are operating from similar values in lots of different ways. Right? And so yeah, my husband coming from this Catholic world, and me coming from a secular intellectual, Jewish kind of world. And, you know, he was in Hoboken. I was on Long Island, we met in the middle and, you know, the Lower East Side. And, and we, so we have all this background that was different. But, you know, we grew up watching the same commercials on TV, like, there's so much, you know, not every place in the in the world can you just say, dibs and point to something and everybody knows that, that means dibs. There's all sorts of shorthand. And I think sometimes you you do end up taking on some huge challenge in your marriage. But you don't realize that two people who are both Christian or atheist, but one is from a different country, and there are a lot of these people. They have this endless need to explain really basic terms that you and your wife may have so much that you just know, bedrock, common language. So yeah, you're putting on top of it something, you know, there's no, there's no fully diminishing the challenge of that. Sure. No, having a different, you know, especially if, you know, you have different ideas for what you would want the kids to be and stuff like that. That's challenging stuff. But I do think, yeah, if you had if you also were from different countries, you know, you have something on your

David Ames  1:03:39  
hands. Yeah, that'd be challenging. Yes.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  1:03:43  
Remembering sometimes there's these tremendous commonalities that can support, you know, two trees going in opposite directions on the top of that.

David Ames  1:04:05  
And then the last topic is the chapter on death. And I feel like this is an area that we need to talk about so much more, right, and that religion has tended to own but the thing that really leapt off for me was you were talking about travel for the purpose of spreading ashes can send mourners on a physical adventure to a loved place. And that actually, again, just happened to be my experience. I lost my mom in 2016. And about a year later, I went on a road trip to California took her ashes to the beach. And I found like, that was such that process. I went by myself, I didn't take family with me and like, you know, being alone and literally physically having her ashes lit, you know, grieving on the drive there. That whole process was really deeply meaningful for me and helped me to close out that chapter and feel like I didn't have to say, well, she's in a different place. I I knew she was gone. And I could I could let just absorb that during during that trip. And I think that, in particular for newly secular people, death is difficult. And, you know, how do we process that? How do we how do we build rituals around that that are non religious that still give one comfort?

Jennifer Michael Hecht  1:05:19  
Yeah, absolutely. Your story so, so meaningful to me and, and it really is, once again, a case of like, how you did all the right things for your heart. And, and yet we're in we're not even a full century into Americans commonly cremating their loved ones, right. And so here, we have a sort of by accident, by default, because we came up with this idea of, well, you know, I don't have to bury the ashes. So where should they go. And because we do think of wonderful places, they are very often at a distance. And so without having planned it, we've created this new cultural liturgy. But but one that I would say is like, it's in a very early phase, it's not named. And people have, you know, they feel a bunch of different ways about it, especially, for instance, it takes most people quite a while to take those ashes and do something with them. Yeah, and your guilt all over the place about it, I hear it from you know, famous people just chatting, oh, I still have any, and they seem upset. Whereas when, once you notice, oh, this is part of the process for a lot of people, they need to sit with this for a second. And, and whatever that means, when you realize that everybody's trying to figure this out. And there are some beautiful things that are, that are coming into being. It's, again, it it collapses, the cultural and the sort of ex religious, but what it mostly does is it gives us a way to talk to each other and be together and to try to try to think of ways to comfort each other through this strange experience.

David Ames  1:07:10  
I think the crux of Wonder paradox is in this sentence, much ritual seen as religious is a fundamentally poetic, artistic amplification of the natural sacred. I love every word in that sentence. That the ritual aspect, the coming together the funeral, however, whatever the thing is, right? It is important that we physically act out these things. And there's some there's something meaningful in that, and necessary as a human being.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  1:07:40  
That's the I specifically, say over and over, because it's something that I can miss if I don't pay attention. I can intellectualize and think well, I'm thinking about washing my hands like that is I made that metaphor up to show myself thinking about washing your hands forever, will not get your hands clean, right? There are, you know, things if you want to put your heart through a difficult passage, you do have to sometimes do things. Yeah. And that's something that only by by compare and contrast between when I do and when I don't, that I know for sure for myself, that showing up matters for reasons I do not have to understand. For myself, and for the people around me,

David Ames  1:08:23  
Jennifer, I could talk to you for hours someday, I want to be in the same physical place as you and just you know, buy you the beverage of your choice and just sit and listen to you forever. Need to wrap up, unfortunately, can you tell people how they can get the book. So your name Jennifer Michael Hecht, and the book is called wonder paradox and it is out March 7. How can they get the book

Jennifer Michael Hecht  1:08:44  
and it will be? You can contact book or It's with FSG. For us, Drew Macmillan. And yeah, it'll be in all the bookshops. And also, there'll be audible and Kindle. And forward to hearing from people. It's pretty easy to find me from my website, and I'd love to hear from people.

David Ames  1:09:05  
Yeah, and the website is Jennifer Miko, hex is That's right. That's correct. Okay, so we will have of course, links and things in the show notes. Jennifer, it was such a joy to speak to you again, thank you so much for the thinking that you put down on paper is more meaningful than you know. It's just very important. So thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Jennifer Michael Hecht  1:09:25  
I really appreciate it.

David Ames  1:09:32  
Final thoughts on the episode? This is one of those times where I just want to read quote, everything she said in the book and everything she said in the conversation. Please go back and listen to the episode again. Please go out and get Jennifer Michael hex book, The Wonder Paradox: Embracing the Weirdness of Existence and the Poetry of Our Lives. It is out March 7. You can get it on Amazon and various other booksellers. So many things In this conversation that leap out at me, number one, as I said at the beginning of the conversation, poetry isn't something that I consciously think of on any kind of regular basis. Reading this book, I realized how much poetry is in my life and what an impact that it has. And so I appreciate Jennifer just revealing that to me in her writing. As I said in the intro, Jennifer is amazing at coining terms. Language is so difficult. The term atheist has so much baggage has so much unintended implications. It has been very difficult to find words to describe ourselves. Secular Humanist has a lot of meaning to me, but means almost nothing to the general population. She talks about inter faithless as a way of describing ourselves, and Jennifer calls herself a poetic realist or a poetic atheist as another way of trying to describe someone who doesn't have a belief in the supernatural but also experiences blunder and joy and love, and the all of the experience of being a human being. I loved her concept of drop by and lie, if you've ever been in a church service as an unbeliever. And in particular, if you've been at a wedding, or some very high ceremony example of that, you really can feel very false for being there really does feel insincere, and yet you are obligated to be there. I think the most important thing that Jennifer is saying that Anthony pin is saying that James Croft is saying that I am saying is that these are all human experiences. My favorite line of hers in this conversation is that human beings are not robots. Rituals weren't for God. The rituals were always for human beings. And it's good for us to keep doing them. I absolutely love that. I could keep re quoting everything but please go read listen to the conversation. Jennifer Michael hex book is The Wonder Paradox: Embracing the Weirdness of Existence and the Poetry of Pur Lives. It is out on March 7, go get the book and you will find out why I still consider Jennifer Michael Hecht, my intellectual hero. Jennifer, I want to thank you for being on the podcast. As we said in the interview, the first time you came on was two months into the podcast. I'm so happy to be able to help promote your book here. And thank you again for putting into words, a graceful life philosophy that we can embrace and experience the fullness of being a human being. Thank you, Jennifer. The secular Grace Thought of the Week is just how worth it the human experience is. The theistic worldview will say that non believers, atheists agnostics, the interfaith plus whichever term you prefer to refer to yourself as that we have no reason for living, we have no reason for morality, we have no reason for being good to one another. And my experience, and I think Jennifer Michael hex experience is the exact opposite. On this side of deconversion, I realize how important our lives with one another are. For those of you who have ever had times of depression, or questioning whether life is worth it, my answer is emphatically Yes. Jennifer Michael Hecht's answer is emphatically Yes. The other book that Jennifer wrote is called stay and is all about the secular reasons for living and experiencing life and why it is worth it. And the Wonder paradox takes that the next step of not just, why live but how to thrive, how to have the fullness of the human experience. One of the main themes that keeps coming up in all of her books, in this podcast and in various other places is our connection to one another. For those of us who are in a healthy place, we have to take on our obligation to love other people to to reach out to people to know that they are loved, so that they know that they are cared for in a way that maybe our previous faith traditions provided and we no longer have those things. And for those of you who might be in a pretty lonely place right now, you need to know that there are people who care about you, there are people who love you, and there are people who are invested in your life, you can always reach out the deconversion anonymous Facebook group, we are trying to be a safe place to land for those people who are doubting, questioning and deconstructing, as well as those people who are just lonely. You are welcome. We want you to be there. If you need more immediate assistance you can reach out to recovering from religion their website has a way to connect with somebody immediately you can begin talking about your experience. If you're in crisis, and you're in the United States, you can call 988, the suicide prevention hotline. And you can also reach out to the secular therapy project to find an ongoing therapist. So there are resources for you if you need them, you are not alone. Next week is the four year anniversary of the podcast. I have our lien, Mike T. Jimmy, Colin, and Daniel on to talk about our favorite movies, television programs, books that talk about the themes of deconversion and secular grace, you would be surprised it shows up a lot. And we just generally have a good time and celebrate the four years. So join us next week for that. In a couple of weeks, our Lean interviews David Hayward and that is an amazing conversation. As I hinted out last week, I will be doing a promotional exchange with mega the podcast and I'll be having Holly the rat on the podcast in April. So be looking forward to that as well. Until then, my name is David and I am trying to be the graceful atheist. Join me and be graceful. The beat is called waves by MCI beads. If you want to get in touch with me to be a guest on the show. Email me at graceful for blog posts, quotes, recommendations and full episode transcripts head over to graceful This graceful atheist podcast a part of the atheists United studios Podcast Network

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