Read an Excerpt
CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOULLESS
From the mystery of the vast night sky to the sweet return of birdsong in the spring, our universe is filled with wonders we have only just begun to explore and understand. I’ve always found inspiration in the beauty of nature, in relationships with people I love and admire, and in the art and culture of the world around me. And while I’ve discovered plenty of inspiration in libraries and bookstores, it’s never been in the “Inspirational” sections, because amidst all the shelves of “inspirational” books, I never encountered a single one that spoke directly to those of us with a secular outlook. Where, I wondered, was the book that collected and reinforced the feeling of awe we feel contemplating the cosmos and our place in it, our amazement at the puzzle of life itself, for those who are not religious? Where was the motivating quote of the day for nonbelievers?
Where, I wondered, was the Chicken Soup for the Soulless?
Here, I hope.
We all need a little inspiration now and then—and that includes the atheists, the skeptics, the agnostics, and the “spiritual-but-not-religious” among us. You know who you are: As of 2012, one-fifth of the American public claims no religious affiliation at all, and we’re growing in numbers each year across the Western world. As historian Jennifer Michael Hecht writes, “The earliest doubt on historical record was twenty-six hundred years ago, which makes doubt older than most faiths. Faith can be a wonderful thing, but it is not the only wonderful thing.”
The Inspirational Atheist is for the growing population of humanists who believe that life has meaning when we live it meaningfully. Freethinking people are drawn to the secular humanist worldview because of the intellectual freedom and the ethical responsibility it demands. Nonbelievers do not practice kindness because some mythical figure tells us to; we do good because it is the right thing to do. The Inspirational Atheist is a book of wonderful things. And even more than that: a book of hundreds of revelations in which no one goes to Hell.
Because there is no Hell.
“Things are the way they are in our universe,” wrote astronomer Brian Greene, “because if they weren’t, we wouldn’t be here to notice.” And since we are here and we are able to notice, the effort we make to understand and appreciate our universe is surely one of humanity’s highest callings. We can trace that effort to understand back at least forty thousand years to the prehistoric art of cave paintings. In those handprints and hunting scenes our ancient ancestors first distinguished themselves by choosing to interpret the world around them and not merely survive in it. That spirit of inquiry and irrepressible human curiosity led us tens of thousands of years from the caves of El Castillo and Chauvet to the human-made mountains of the Egyptian pyramids, from the massive force and mysteries of Stonehenge and Easter Island through the doomed frescoes of Pompeii and on to Galileo’s delicate sketches of the moon viewed by telescope for the first time, and eventually to the breathtaking image of Neil Armstrong’s first footprint on the lunar soil in 1969. Those ochre-spattered handprints on dark cave walls point directly to the stark gray footprint on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, an unbroken line of human creativity and exploration, forty thousand years of seeking to understand the universe and our place in it. And just as those handprints survived tens of thousands of years in the darkness, so our human footprints will remain on the surface of the moon for millions, perhaps billions of years, with no earthly breeze to erase them.
The quotations collected here are reflections on this quest and a reminder of that journey. What has always set freethinkers apart is their willingness to see the world as it is, not as they wish it to be. And it is this courage and this tradition of truth seeking that are responsible for humanity’s singular stature on planet Earth. This book brings together some of humanity’s greatest insights on the subjects that all people, faithful or not, return to in times of joy, stress, and challenge, and assembling them together as one collection helps us appreciate the common values we share. It’s a feeling expressed by the poet Archibald MacLeish in 1968, when the Apollo 8 mission brought back the first photos humans had ever seen of Earth viewed from space. “To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats,” wrote MacLeish, “is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold—brothers who know now they are truly brothers.” And sisters, of course.
Not everyone quoted in this book is an avowed atheist. But every bit of wisdom here can inspire us—all of us—to appreciate our world as we strive to understand it. Care has been taken not to include people whose religious faith was the defining aspect of their identity, so while I continue to be inspired by the words and actions of many people of faith including, for example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Sojourner Truth; and Simon Wiesenthal, they and many others are not included here out of respect for their religious commitments.
It’s easy for believers to find their fellows in faith; that’s why organized religions organized in the first place. But the nonreligious are by nature independent, which makes it more challenging for freethinkers to find their philosophical sisters and brothers. The Inspirational Atheist is an attempt to help create that sense of community, and as this book reveals, it is a community that has existed for thousands of years, spanning all the Earth’s continents. “Mortal men subsist by change and transference by one to the other,” wrote Lucretius in the first century BCE, “and in a short space of time, the tribes of living creatures are changed by successive generations, and, like the racers, deliver the torch of life from hand to hand.” We need one another, as Lucretius wrote, not only for love and affection, but in this great human project, passing on the torch of life from hand to hand, hoping to advance the cause of human understanding. As nonbelievers, we look to our fellow humans and not to the supernatural for support and inspiration. Isaac Newton, one of history’s greatest geniuses, wrote that “if I have seen further, it is by standing on ye shoulders of giants”; his own scientific discoveries were built on the work of those who came before him. No man or woman, however brilliant, can hope to understand the mysteries of the universe alone.
The Inspirational Atheist is ultimately intended not as a strident call to arms against religion but as a rationalist’s sincere invitation to optimism and wonder. While some books may emphasize the “a” in atheism—“without”—The Inspirational Atheist emphasizes what atheists have with them all the time: the rarefied sensitivity of the noticer, the appreciator, the creator of the good and the beautiful. We create the beauty in a flower by noticing and appreciating it is there. Much like Homo sapiens, flowering plants have only existed on Earth for a relatively short time. Yet among all living things on Earth we humans are perhaps the only species able to appreciate and even re-create a flower’s beauty in a painting or drawing, something we’ve been doing for thousands of years. These acts give meaning to our existence . . . and we are born with that power.
Iris Murdoch once observed, “People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.” It’s my hope that the thoughts collected here will remind every reader of the amazing privilege we all share of waking up in this universe, noticing the flowers, and creating lives of meaning every day.