Twenty Inspiring Atheist Quotes

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about atheists is that we lack any purpose in life by virtue of not believing in a higher power (be it a monotheistic God, transcendent spiritual force, or some other supernatural entity or concept). Moreover, this lack of belief is said to not only deprive us of meaning, but also leaves us devoid of morality, happiness, and self-fulfillment — e.g. the angry, nihilistic atheist trope.

As an agnostic atheist myself, I can certainly attest to this not being the case. Not only do I adhere to the values of secular humanism — which include a firm, universal commitment to promoting the flourishing of the human species — but I find purpose in the beauty and experience of life itself: art, love, discovery, creativity, compassion, and more. The joys of connecting with people, improving the lives of others, broadening my sensory and intellectual horizons — these are what drive me to enjoy every day of my finite but fortunate experience.

Of course, I am but one person, so thankfully, an enterprising photographer named Chris Johnson has taken the stereotype to task by directly asking 100 atheists from where they derive joy and meaning in life. He plans to compile these answers in a book, A Better Life:  100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy and Meaning in a World without Godwhich will hopefully go a long way to dispelling this widely held notion.

Salon has highlighted 20 of these inspiring quotes, which I have listed below.

“Knowing there is a world that will outlive you, there are people whose well-being depends on how you live your life, affects the way you live your life, whether or not you directly experience those effects. You want to be the kind of person who has the larger view, who takes other people’s interests into account, who’s dedicated to the principles that you can justify, like justice, knowledge, truth, beauty and morality.”  – Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist

“In the theater you create a moment, but in that moment, there is a touch, a twinkle of eternity. And not just eternity, but community. . . . That connection is a sense of life for me.” – Teller, illusionist

“We are all given a gift of existence and of being sentient beings, and I think true happiness lies in love and compassion.” – Adam Pascal, musician and actor

“Being engaged in some way for the good of the community, whatever that community, is a factor in a meaningful life. We long to belong, and belonging and caring anchors our sense of place in the universe.”  – Patricia S. Churchland, neurophilosopher

“For me the meaning of life, or the meaning  in life, is helping people and loving people . . . The real joy for me is when someone comes up to me and they want to just sit down and share their struggle.”  –Teresa MacBain, former minister

“Joy is human connection; the compassion put into every moment of humanitarian work; joy is using your time to bring peace, relief, or optimism to others. Joy gives without the expectation—or wish—of reciprocity or gratitude. . . . Joy immediately loves the individual in need and precedes any calculation of how much the giver can handle or whom the giver can help.”  – Erik Campano, emergency medicine

“Raising curious, compassionate, strong, and loving children—teaching them to love others and helping them to see the beauty of humanity—that is the most meaningful and joyful responsibility we have.”  – Joel Legawiec, pediatric nurse

“Anytime I hear someone say that only humans have a thoughtful mind, a loving heart, or a compassionate soul, I have to think that person has never owned a dog or known an elephant.”  – Aron Ra, Texas state director of American Atheists

“I find my joy in justice and equality: in all creatures having opportunities for enjoyment and being treated with fairness, as we all wish and deserve to be treated. . . . While I enjoy the positive feelings of self-improvement, this fire pales compared to the feeling of joy that comes from having contributed something to the greater good.”  – Lynnea Glasser, game developer

“You’re like this little blip of light that lasts for a very brief time and you can shine as brightly as you choose.” – Sean Faircloth, author, lawyer, lobbyist

“Play hard, work hard, love hard. . . .The bottom line for me is to live life to the fullest in the here-and-now instead of a hoped-for hereafter, and make every day count in some meaningful way and do something—no matter how small it is—to make the world a better place.”  – Michael Shermer, founder and publisher, Skeptic Magazine

“I hope to dissuade the cruel parts of the world from their self-imposed exile and persuade their audiences to understand that freedom is synonymous with life and that the world is a place of safety and of refuge.”  – Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, writer

“I look around the world and see so many wonderful things that I love and enjoy and benefit from, whether it’s art or music or clothing or food and all the rest. And I’d like to add a little to that goodness.” – Daniel Dennett, philosopher and cognitive scientist

“I thrive on maintaining a simple awe about the universe. No matter what struggles we are going through the miracles of existence continue on, forming and reforming patterns like an unstoppable kaleidoscope.”  – Marlene Winell, human development consultant

“Math . . . music .. . starry nights . . . These are secular ways of achieving transcendence, of feeling lifted into a grand perspective. It’s a sense of being awed by existence that almost obliterates the self. Religious people think of it as an essentially religious experience but it’s not. It’s an essentially human experience.”  – Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, philosopher and novelist

“There is joy in the search for knowledge about the universe in all its manifestations.”  – Janet Asimov, psychiatrist

“Science and reason liberate us from the shackles of superstition by offering us a framework for understanding our shared humanity. Ultimately, we all have the capacity to treasure life and enrich the world in incalculable ways.”  – Gad Saad, professor of marketing

“If you trace back all those links in the chain that had to be in place for me to be here, the laws of probability maintain that my very existence is miraculous. But then after however many decades, less than a hundred years, they disburse and I cease to be. So while they’re all congregated and coordinated to make me, then—and I speak her on behalf of all those trillions of atoms—I should really make the most of things.” – Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics

Note that most of these statements are hardly exclusive to atheists; I am sure many spiritual and religious folks can relate with the sense of wonder that is inherent in the world around us, and derive their purpose from the pursuit of knowledge, experience, and a better world. But for atheists and others who do not find meaning from a higher power , these motivations and activities are potent enough in themselves, in essence taking the place of any religious or spiritual prescriptions.

I could go at length about this complex and personal topic, but as always these days, time is short, so I will leave you all to reflect on these quotes and perhaps share your own thoughts and motivations. As always, thanks for reading.

Six Maps About Religion in America

The Catholic church (blue) and Southern Baptists (red) dominate the map below, which marks the religion with the largest number of adherents in every American county. Blanketed red, the Bible Belt is alive and well. Members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in orange can lay claim to a smattering of Midwestern and Western counties, while Mormonism (gray) is, unsurprisingly, the largest religion in every Utah county and in chunks of Utah’s neighboring states.

 

Islam is the largest non-Christian religion in the nation, claiming 20 states scattered mostly throughout the Midwest and South. In the West, Buddhism is the largest non-Christian religion in 13 states. Judaism is the largest non-Christian religion in 15 states, mostly in the Northeast. Hinduism reigns in two—Delaware and Arizona. And the Baha’i claim South Carolina.

 

Brown and orange signify high diversity, while blue and blue-green signify those with very low religious diversity. Counties in many Western states and some New England states have high diversity, while there are pockets of low diversity throughout the middle of the country, Utah and the South.

The counties with the highest rate of religious participation, with red being the most and white the lowest. Utah, the Midwest and parts of the South reign supreme. Religious participation was lowest in California’s Alpine County (4.3 percent), Hawaii’s Kalawao County (3.3 percent) and Nevada’s Esmeralda County (3.1 percent). The latter two have incredibly small populations, so are easily distorted by the religious inaction of a few.

 

This table shows those counties with the highest number of congregations—defined as regular religious group meetings—per 10,000 people. The numbers were lowest in New York’s Bronx and Richmond counties, Michigan’s Macomb County and Nevada’s Clark County, where there were only four congregations per 10,000 people.

Source: Washington Post 

A new exposé of Mother Teresa shows that she—and the Vatican—were even worse than we thought

Eupraxsophy:

Very disturbing, though it confirms what I’ve already read and seen from other sources.

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

First Christopher Hitchens took her down, then we learned that her faith wasn’t as strong as we thought, and now a new study from the Université de Montréal is poised to completely destroy what shreds are left of Mother Teresa’s reputation. She was the winner of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, was beatified and is well on her way to becoming a saint, and she’s universally admired. As Wikipedia notes:

[She was] named 18 times in the yearly Gallup’s most admired man and woman poll as one of the ten women around the world that Americans admired most. In 1999, a poll of Americans ranked her first in Gallup’s List of Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century. In that survey, she out-polled all other volunteered answers by a wide margin, and was in first place in all major demographic categories except the very young.

The criticisms of…

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Are secularists slackers when it comes to relief efforts?

Eupraxsophy:

It should also be noted that not everyone who does good deeds — especially if they’re secular — feels the need to advertise their religion or ideology. We all do what we can regardless.

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

You might be aware, from discussions on the internet, about Joe Klein’s slur on secular humanists in his recent Time magazine piece on returning veterans performing public service.  Klein mentioned, after seeing church groups helping out after the Oklahoma tornado disaster, “funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals. . . ”

That kind of canard is bruited about all the time, and a needed palliative for it has just been published in the Atlantic, in a piece by Katherine Stewart called, “A Catholic, a Baptist, and a secular humanist walk into a soup kitchen. . . ”  It’s a good critique of the notion that only the religious help out in disasters—a notion that carries with it the idea that religion but not secular humanism promotes morality.

Stewart points out several facts.  First, people in relief organizations like the Red…

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Poll: America losing its religion

Originally posted on CNN Belief Blog:

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN) - More than three in four of Americans say religion is losing its influence in the United States, according to a new survey, the highest such percentage in more than 40 years. A nearly identical percentage says that trend bodes ill for the country.

“It may be happening, but Americans don’t like it,” Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief, said of religion’s waning influence. “It is clear that a lot of Americans don’t think this is a good state of affairs.”

According to the Gallup survey released Wednesday, 77% of Americans say religion is losing its influence. Since 1957, when the question was first asked, Americans’ perception of religion’s power has never been lower.

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Growth of the Nonreligious: Many Say Trend is Bad for American Society

That’s the conclusion of a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and it’s not terribly surprising given the widespread antipathy towards non believers (especially self-declared atheists). Also unsurprising is the fact that White Evangelical Protestants had the least favorable views (78%), followed by Black Protestants (64%). Continue reading

America’s Most Secular and Religious Cities

The Barna Group is an Evangelical Christian polling organization that focuses on the state of Christianity in the United States. Most of its research consists of determining the demographic and ideological makeup of American Christians. According to its official mission statement:

The ultimate aim of the firm is to partner with Christian ministries and individuals to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States. It accomplishes these outcomes by providing vision, information, evaluation and resources through a network of intimate partnerships.

Given this goal, the Barna Group is considered a reliable and trustworthy source regarding Christianity — after all, since it wants assist fellow Christians in engaging with one another or reaching out to secularists, its imperative to provide only the most accurate information available.

So, I thus far trust its conclusions, including the following study concerning America’s most secular cities. See where yours ranks (my hometown and current residence, Miami, Florida, is pretty high at 20th place).

The group’s criteria for determining irreligion were as follows:

Barna Group tracks the following 15 metrics related to faith, which speak to the lack of Christian identity, belief and practice. Read more of Barna Group’s research on the “Nones,” secularization and post-Christian America.

Post-Christian = meet at least 60% of the following 15 factors (9 or more factors)
Highly Post-Christian = meet at least 80% of the following 15 factors (12 or more factors)

1. do not believe in God
2. identify as atheist or agnostic
3. disagree that faith is important in their lives
4. have not prayed to God (in the last year)
5. have never made a commitment to Jesus
6. disagree the Bible is accurate
7. have not donated money to a church (in the last year)
8. have not attended a Christian church (in the last year)
9. agree that Jesus committed sins
10. do not feel a responsibility to “share their faith”
11. have not read the Bible (in the last week)
12. have not volunteered at church (in the last week)
13. have not attended Sunday school (in the last week)
14. have not attended religious small group (in the last week)
15. do not participate in a house church (in the last year)

Interesting stuff, although perhaps not terribly surprising, as most of the cities are in regions well-known for their secularism (the Northeast and the West Coast). A number of large Southern and Midwestern cities weren’t far behind though.

Meanwhile, the organization provides a list of the country’s most “Bible-minded” cities, based on an interesting metric: not only individuals who report reading the Bible in a typical week and who strongly assert the Bible is accurate in the principles it teaches. After all, many avowed atheists have read the Bible, while many pious Christians haven’t. By measuring both the knowledge and attitude toward the Bible, one can get a rough approximation of religiosity.

Unlike the previous study, this one offers a pretty detailed breakdown:

On trend with much of the New England area, cities within the state of New York were on the lower end of the Bible-minded rankings. As for patterns in the three other most populous states, the research reveals the following.

  • Florida: Though in the South, most of the major cities on the peninsula rank near the bottom middle of Bible-minded cities, including West Palm Beach (28%, ranked 53rd out of 96 markets), Tampa-St. Petersburg (27%, rank: 57), Orlando (25%, rank: 64), and Miami (24%, rank: 70). The exceptions to these patterns are in the northern part of the state, including Pensacola / Mobile (45%, rank: 13) and Jacksonville (41%, rank: 20). These two cities are more on trend with other Southern states and likely reflect more of a native Floridian or Southern population and fewer transplants than the Southern Florida cities.
  • California: In addition to San Francisco being among the lowest rated, most of the major California cities are in the bottom third of the rankings. The Los Angeles media market represents a pretty normal range for California cities with 24% of the residents being Bible-minded (ranking 68th out of 96 cities,). San Diego (24%, rank: 74), Sacramento (24%, rank: 72), and Fresno / Visalia (25%, rank: 66) were also bunched in the same range. Bakersfield, CA stood out as being among the most Bible-minded cities in the Pacific states (39%, rank: 26).
  • Texas: As part of the traditional “Bible belt,” Texas stayed fairly true to trend, with most of it’s major cities ranking in the top half of Bible-minded cities. Dallas / Fort Worth ranked as the top Bible-minded city in Texas (38% Bible-minded, ranking at 27th) over San Antonio (36%, rank: 33), Houston (32%, rank: 39) and Austin (29%, rank: 48). Notable exceptions to the Bible-mindedness of Texas cities were Harlingen / Weslaco / McAllen / Brownsville (28%, rank: 56), Waco (27%, 59), and most significantly El Paso (23%, rank: 80). These exceptions are likely a result of these markets having a higher percentage of Hispanic Catholics, who are less likely to engage the Bible.

This didn’t surprise me. California is a large and diverse state with around 35 million people, and it’s long been split between it’s secular and liberal coastal and southern regions, and its more religious and conservative north and central ones. The influence of its large and typically pious Hispanic community can certainly be felt.

Meanwhile, Florida and Texas are fast-growing traditionally conservative states that are receiving an influx of immigrants and northerners, many of whom are irreligious or non-Christian. Demographically, they’re also fairly young and urban, two features that characterize secularism in the United States. Even among the fast-growing Hispanic communities in these states, there’s been a growth in both irreligion and Evangelical Christianity. This state of transition is reflected in the fact that both of these traditionally conservative states have become “purple” politically, although established Republicans continue to maintain most of the political power.

Here’s more analysis:

Among the nation’s largest 30 cities, 10 of them are in the top half of the Bible-minded market rankings, while 20 of them are in the bottom half. Generally speaking, the more densely populated areas tend to be less Bible oriented. Only three of the most Bible-minded cities are among the largest 30 cities—Charlotte (7th), Nashville, TN (14th) and Raleigh / Durham, NC (22nd). The other 22 top Bible-minded markets have fewer than 1 million households.

Still, among the largest markets there are many more relatively Bible-minded cities, including Dallas / Fort Worth (27th), Atlanta (28th), Indianapolis (32nd), Houston (39th), St. Louis (41st), Cleveland (43rd) and Detroit (46th).

Philadelphia (28%, rank: 52) is among the most Bible-minded cities along the eastern seaboard, ranking slightly higher than the aforementioned Northeastern cities as well as Washington, DC (25%, rank: 63) and Baltimore (26%, rank: 60).

Chicago is the nation’s third largest city, and while it tends to be a bastion of many evangelical organizations, ranks between New York and Los Angeles in terms of Bible-mindedness (23%, rank: 76th). Colorado Springs, CO, which is also home to many Christian organizations, is right in the middle of the pack (29%, rank: 51st). By comparison, Denver is ranked lower (71st) with about one in four individual’s qualifying as Bible-minded (24%).

In the Northwest portion of the country, the cities are all fairly similar, with about a quarter of the population being Bible-minded, including most notably Portland OR (25%, rank: 65th and Seattle, WA (24%, rank: 69th).

I also find the commentary at the very end interesting, as it sounds like something out of a marketing agency (indeed, George Barna, the group’s founder, expressly stated that his aim was to provide “research and marketing expertise as a service to Christian ministry”).

First, the large range of Bible-minded scores—from 52% in the highest markets to 9% in the lowest—shows just how diverse the nation’s population can be, from city to city. The rankings reflect an overall openness or resistance to the Bible, and in some markets half or more of the population claim to be open, while in other areas the proportion that is open to the Bible is more like one in ten adults. These gaps make a significant difference in the tone and tenor of conversations about Christianity, morals, public education, and spirituality, among many other topics.

Second, although there are outliers—cities in which the Bible-minded rankings are significantly above- or below-average—the overall picture that is painted depends on one’s vantage point. The least sanguine way to analyze the results would be to emphasize the lack of Bible-mindedness in America; in 91 out of 96 markets a majority of the residents are not Bible minded.

However, a more optimistic way to view those markets would be to look at those cities with at least one-fifth Bible-mindedness—meaning those areas where at least one out of five adults are open to engaging and esteeming the Bible. Among some researchers, this proportion—20%—is often thought to be something of a social or technological “tipping point” (for example, once one in five people had mobile phones, the momentum toward more people owning mobile phones began to grow exponentially). In this analysis, 83 out of 96 cities in the U.S. have at least 20% of their residents qualifying as Bible-minded. Christian leaders should recognize that most of the major cities in the nation continue to have basis for biblical engagement among a significant share of the population.

As ministry leaders in particular, it’s important to keep both vantage points in tension. Whether you live in a city ranked in the top half of Bible-minded cities or in the bottom half of Bible-minded cities, there are still tens of thousands of people to reach regarding both the message of the Scriptures and their importance. However, no matter what type of city you live in, there is also a significant remnant of Bible-minded individuals. The key is to not merely “preach to those insiders” but instead to equip and empower those who do believe with a strong and relevant message to take out into their communities, vocations and spheres of influence. They are the tipping point and can have great influence on the greater city.

Take all that as you will. Personally, I find it disquieting to speak of Christianity as if it were some product to sell, but of course, that’s not surprising given my own secularism.

How We Discuss Religion

Dawkins is perhaps the most recognizable face of atheism, and one of the most vocal critics of religion. I’m sure most readers are familiar enough with him to know that he’s a controversial figure that’s derided even by many secularists for his harsh and uncompromising approach towards religious belief (which he explicitly considers to be a form of delusion).

Some time ago, he got in a spat with Will Hutton of the Observer, who, among other criticisms, takes issues with Dawkins’ style. The pugnacious nonbeliever responds to these arguments in a piece in the Guardian, “What is the proper place for religion in Britain’s public life?Continue reading

Reflection on Atheist Identity

The label “atheist” is so odious and stigmatized that even many atheists themselves shun it (admittedly, myself included sometimes). Interestingly, most national polls report a higher number of people who “don’t believe in God” than people who explicitly identify as “atheists” (usually by a margin of 2 to 1). The position of non-belief is less disquieting to the irreligious than the term used to describe it – the quaint result of generations of demonization, condemnation, and prejudice. The negative connotation of atheism is so pervasive across the public consciousness that not even the godless themselves can shake it off and be at ease with it. Continue reading

Eupraxsophy:

NPR is on a roll with secular topics lately! I’m glad to see them give rare attention to “The Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll. More people should know about the eloquent Ingersoll, who was considered one of the greatest orators of his time, if not in American history.

His insightful observations and brilliant arguments – often done with both humor and courtesy towards believers – are still relevant to this day. The man was a dedicated humanist well ahead of his time in terms of his ethics (for example, his attitudes on women’s right were more progressive than even his contemporary free-thinkers). I highly recommend you give this program a listen, as I think anyone can appreciate Ingersoll’s sincerity, wit, and moral clarity.

The US has a long and fascinating history of secular freethought, beginning with many of our own founding fathers, yet the average American still sees irreligion as a recent, and often frightening, development.

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

From yesterday’s National Public Radio’s “On Point” show, Tom Ashbrook discusses The Great Agnostic, Robert Ingersoll, whom you surely know by now.  Ashbrook has two guests (Susan’s book is new, and she’s quite eloquent about the man):

Susan Jacoby, author, “The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought.”

Dale McGowan, writes the secular parenting blog “The Meming of Life.” Author of “Parenting Beyond Belief” and the upcoming “Atheism For Dummies.” (@memingoflife)

The show is 47 minutes long, and I recommend it. At 5:20, you can hear a rare recording of Ingersoll’s voice!

h/t: Kurt

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