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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.
You are what you settle for.
This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men . . . re-examine all you have been taught at school or church or in any book, dismiss what insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.
—WALT WHITMAN, Leaves of Grass
Do not destroy what you cannot create.
Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.
—JOSEPH CONRAD, Typhoon
Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.
—G. K. CHESTERTON, The Innocence of Father Brown
—GALILEO GALILEI, writing to a colleague after being forced to retract his scientific observations by the Inquisition
Be fully awake to everything about you & the more you learn the more you can appreciate & get a full measure of joy & happiness out of life. I do not think a young fellow should be too serious, he should be full of the Dickens some times to create a balance.
—LEROY POLLOCK, in a letter to his son Jackson
Fast, Cheap, and Good . . . pick two. If it’s fast and cheap, it won’t be good. If it’s cheap and good, it won’t be fast. If it’s fast and good, it won’t be cheap.
—TOM WAITS, paraphrasing Jim Jarmusch
Listen to no one’s advice except that of the wind in the trees. That can recount the whole history of mankind.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
Beware the barrenness of a busy life.
Don’t EVER EVER EVER bother to go on a diet. . . . Just be you & get on with it, I cannot tell you how much time & energy you’ll save & how much happier you’ll be.
—EMMA THOMPSON, in a letter to her sixteen-year-old self
You practice and you get better. It’s very simple.
Think like a man of action; act like a man of thought.
The only teacher I had in college that ever gave us writers good advice said, “Run five miles every day and take aspirin.” The logic being that you’re going to be in your 40s by the time you have anything worthwhile to say, and to just be alive by the time that comes. And that turned out to be very solid advice that I never followed. Solid as a rock.
—JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN
The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second best time is now.
Don’t just be yourself. Be all of yourselves. Don’t just live. . . . Be life.
Leap and the net will appear.
Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.
—EDWIN LAND (inventor of the Polaroid camera in 1947)
—MARLENE DIETRICH, on love letters
There is no mistake so great as the mistake of not going on.
—WILLIAM BLAKE (attributed)
Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.
Never pass up a chance to have sex or appear on television.
Lots of people will tell you to follow your bliss: “Seek your passions, and money will follow.” This is true, but impractical. When you are starting out almost no one knows what their passions are, and you become paralyzed because you can’t give your all until you find your passion. A better strategy is to forget your bliss and to find your passion by mastering *something*, almost anything. As you master some skill, giving your 100% to it, you will inevitably move toward your passion, step by step, all the while earning a living. Most likely it will take all your life to find your bliss. So don’t wait for your passion. Just master something.
Read everything and be kind.
Quit now, you’ll never make it. If you disregard this advice, you’ll be halfway there.
Never take advice from anybody.
Dare to be naïve.
—R. BUCKMINSTER FULLER
When you are in the last ditch, there is nothing left but to sing.
What we bear is not so important as how we bear it.
First answers are usually knee-jerk. Second answers tend to be cute. Third answers to the same question sometimes tell the truth.
It is almost impossible to overestimate the unimportance of most things.
Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “What kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.
—RICHARD DAWKINS, in a letter to his ten-year-old daughter
Artists work best alone. . . . Work alone.
We cannot regard the future of the civilized world in the same way as we see our personal futures. It is careless to be cavalier about our own death. It is reckless to think of civilization’s end in the same way.
My advice is to do what you can this second. Big plans that rely on other people, new equipment, long periods of time . . . they’re no good. What can you do right now?
Gentlemen, in the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of champagne.
Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless—like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; you put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. . . . Be water, my friend.
We have to stop CONSUMING our culture. We have to CREATE culture.
It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.
—OSCAR WILDE, The Model Millionaire
Seek not the paths of the ancients; Seek that which the ancients sought.
—MATSUO BASHŌ, “Words by a Brushwood Gate”
Eat the present moment and break the dish.
Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself.
The best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain.
—HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW, “The Poet’s Tale; The Birds of Killingworth”
Understand that being able to say, “I don’t know what to do with my life” is an incredible privilege that 99% of the rest of the world will never enjoy.
Be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy, still be a man.
Only an amateur answers his critics. Read the bad reviews once, the good ones twice, and put them all away and never look at them again.
Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.
The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.
Do not fear mistakes, there are none.
Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.
Begin to live at once, and count each separate day as a separate life.
Never pay the slightest attention to what a company president ever says about his stock.
Always do what you are afraid to do.
—RALPH WALDO EMERSON
Solvitur ambulando. (It is solved by walking.)
Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.
—SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE
The chief danger in life is that you may take too many precautions.
There is more danger in a violence that you don’t face, when you continue to remain locked in a room with it.
Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.
I have found that the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.
—HARRY S. TRUMAN
Always remember: If you’re alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up. Who’s going to know?
Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are great not because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.
You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
I used to think as I looked at the Hollywood night, “there must be thousands of girls sitting alone like me, dreaming of becoming a movie star. But I’m not going to worry about them. I’m dreaming the hardest.”
Art and Creativity
The only things in my life that compatibly exist with this grand universe are the creative works of the human spirit.
I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life—the power to create.
—VINCENT VAN GOGH
To me, literature is a calling, even a kind of salvation. It connects me with an enterprise that is over 2,000 years old. What do we have from the past? Art and thought. That’s what lasts. That’s what continues to feed people and give them an idea of something better.
My future starts when I wake up every morning. . . . Every day I find something creative to do with my life.
Inspiration is necessary in poetry as in geometry.
Remember: information is not knowledge; knowledge is not wisdom; wisdom is not truth; truth is not beauty; beauty is not love; love is not music; music is the best.
—FRANK ZAPPA, “Packard Goose”
You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.
Drama is very important in life: You have to come on with a bang. You never want to go out with a whimper. Everything can have drama if it’s done right. Even a pancake.
All that is worth remembering in life, is the poetry of it.
The secret of a man who is universally interesting is that he is universally interested.
—WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS
My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us; the world is full of it, and you simply take as much as you require.
The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.
I suspect that one of the reasons we create fiction is to make sex exciting.
If you love what you do and are willing to do what it takes, it’s within your reach. And it’ll be worth every minute you spend alone at night, thinking and thinking about what it is you want to design or build. It’ll be worth it, I promise.
I occasionally have an anti-Roth reader in mind. I think, “How he is going to hate this!” That can be just the encouragement I need.