I asked a set of eighteen year olds to tell me if they saw any evidence of a greater reality in William Blake's poem 'A Poison Tree'.
What's a 'greater reality', asks Rebecca?
We define the crawlspace gap between agnosticism and atheism, and suddenly a thought strikes. What do they believe in?
Rebecca doesn't believe in anything. She qualifies this: she believes in the Big Bang and evolution, but that's all. She doesn't see a pattern, a higher purpose or a greater reality.
Sarah concurs, but adds that she finds it incomprehensible that creatures of such complexity as us could be alone in the universe. She posits different dimensions.
Phoebe suggests that there is something that created the Big Bang, but she doesn't know what, and would not necessarily call it God.
I ask Sarah if perhaps in one sense complexity itself could be called god? She isn't sure but agrees that God does not have to be a grey bearded man in the sky, who determines our fates. She thinks, and tilts her head to one side. Yes, perhaps complexity coud be a kind of God.
Jon posits his theory of parallel universes, and that our species' dominance relies on very small evolutionary advantages. He suggests that the insects could be part of God's plan. That perhaps man is some viral accident delaying the true progress of the insect species. We chat for a while about what would happen if water crystallised, or if spiders learnt to act in unison, until Sarah decides that perhaps there is a God for each species.
Jon builds on this: perhaps there is a spider God?
Sarah runs with it: perhaps God is a spider?
It's getting out of hand. Alex, the only churchgoing christian in the group, remains silent, appears uncomfortable.
I shift the conversation, ask what they make of Blake's representation of the individual's relationship with God. It's only their second lesson on Blake, and brows furrow, as they try to encompass what they know and what they detect.
Sarah suggests that for Blake, nature itself is God.
Phoebe pipes up: no, Blake's not saying that. God is within us, is an examination of our soul.
Alex finally speaks: Blake goes further than that, though. God is complex thought. The ability to see into nature, see into our selves, and to apply thought and reason to natural impulses. That's what separates us from creatures, she says. Conscious, rational thought. It's a potential within us, but it's not inherent. That's what Blake thinks is God.
And the others pause. Think. Nod.