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.

The Importance of Making Civility a Habit

Civility really is a more broad term compared to being considerate. Civility is simply just being nice, and it’s not only an attitude of benevolence, thoughtfulness and relating to other individuals. It also entails a real, active interest in the well-being of communities and even concern for the health of the planet. You have to really do an effort in order to be civil. And being considerate is a part of being civil.

– Abdulla M. Abdulhalim, in Seven Habits Of Considerate People by Alena Hall of HuffPo

As someone who was steeped in the values of good manners and conscientiousness from early childhood — thank you mom and dad — I am fortunate to know firsthand how personally and existentially fulfilling it is to do good in the world; whether it is going out of your way to help a loved one or strange, offering a kind word, or simply smiling, we must not underestimate the value of any kind deed, however seemingly mundane in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, none of us are consistent in this regard; I have had many regrettable lapses in patience, courtesy, and altruism. We all do. But that’s what makes being considerate and civil so valuable: it takes effort and mindfulness, and therefore shows a strong commitment to be as continuously thoughtful as possible. That sort of active interest and concern, as highlighted by Abdulhalim, is precisely why we must all strive to make such behavior a collective habit. It inspires others to do good and in the aggregate leads to a better world.

I am fortunate to have had a broadly positive experience with humanity; to have encountered and continued to encounter good, decent, and well-meaning people who display the better (but woefully underrated) aspect of human nature. Were it not for my fortunate and loving upbringing, and the example set by all those who were kind to me and kind in general, perhaps I would not hold onto the optimistic view I have of human nature (one that has nonetheless been tested time and again).

But ultimately, being civil and considerate should be a given in almost every circumstance or interaction. While the article highlights the importance of balance — of learning when to say no, for example — it is also clear that we have to dare to be kind to our fellow humans even if it seems counterproductive and hopeless in the first place. After all, change has to start somewhere, and how will we ever bring out the best in ourselves and others — and in doing so, help elevate the human condition — if we do not take that first step in showing just how we are capable of?

Happy Birthday Red Cross

On this day in 1864, twelve European nations signed the seminal First Geneva Convention, which established “the basis…for the protection of the victims of armed conflicts” and with it what is now called the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), conceived and founded by Swiss businessman and social activist Henry Dunant and Swiss jurist Gustave Moynie. 

The organization served as both the catalyst and enforcer of the convention’s articles, which were history’s first legally-binding rules guaranteeing neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers, field medical personnel, and specific humanitarian institutions in an armed conflict.

The first of several such conventions, this watershed moment for both international law and humanitarianism launched the wider Red Cross Movement (now known as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement), which is comprised of several distinct humanitarian organizations geared towards protecting human life and health, ensuring respect for all human beings, and preventing and alleviating human suffering.

The ICRC is one of several institutions in this broad movement, along with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and 189 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Together these groups number around 97 million volunteers, members, and staff across the world, making it by far the largest movement of its kind in history. The Red Cross and Red Crescent remains the most enduring and universally recognized symbol of humanitarianism and compassion. 

Video — The Transformative Power of Classical Music

As I write this post, I am listening to a compilation of classical music that includes such greats as Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and  Tchaikovsky. Rarely do I feel more focused, motivated, and at peace than when I indulge in such music. It has helped me endure many of my darkest or most stressful moments, helping to both rouse my spirits and soothing my soul (in fact, work has never been better since I made a point to listen almost exclusively to classical music — just a correlation to be sure, but still a strong one).

The following TED Talk by British-born composer Benjamin Zander takes a delightful look at the power of classical music, not just in terms of its technical and artistic qualities, but with regards to its impact on one’s thoughts, emotions, and soul. As he sees it, classical music cultivates and unlocks our love for all new possibilities, new experiences, new connections. It is an enchanting argument I am inclined to agree with, both from experience and his video.

While we are on the subject of classical music, you can find a downloadable album of 99 classical music pieces for just $5.99 on Amazon (the series also has 99-track albums for a number of other classical greats, such as Chopin, each ranging in price from $4.99 to $6.99 as of this post). My moral and productivity at work have never been greater!

 

 

 

 

Hero of the Week — Maria Bashir

Maria Bashir II Maria Bashir

 

Maria Bashir is the Chief Prosecutor General of Herat Province Afghanistan (the second largest jurisdiction in the country), the only woman to hold such a position thus far. Her fifteen years of experience as a civil servant has brought her into conflict with criminals, the Taliban, and corrupt policemen. When the Taliban took power in 1996, she was barred from working and instead spent her time illegally educating girls at her home. 

She was called back into service in 2006, focusing on rooting out corruption and eradicating the oppression of women. She has handled hundreds of cases amid death threats and assassination attempts, one of which nearly killed her children; subsequently, she has a retinue of around 20 or so bodyguards while her children are in virtual hiding.

For her courage and tenacity, Bashir has received the 2011 International Women of Courage Award and been recognized among The 2011 Time 100. I recommend reading her interview with the United Nations here; unfortunately, most of the information about her is three or four years old, so I am unaware of her current efforts and predicaments. Thankfully, she seems to still be alive and working as a prosecutor, doing everything she can to better her country and its future .

Needless to say, Maria Bashir is an incredible hero and role model, to say the least. 

An Amazing and Heartwarming Way to Learn a Language

ADWEEK recently featured a simple but innovative way to address two seemingly unrelated issues at once: teaching young people English while giving lonely elderly people someone to talk to.

FCB Brazil did just that with its “Speaking Exchange” project for CNA language schools. As seen in the touching case study below, the young Brazilians and older Americans connect via Web chats, and they not only begin to share a language—they develop relationships that enrich both sides culturally and emotionally.

The differences in age and background combine to make the interactions remarkable to watch. And the participants clearly grow close to one another, to the point where they end up speaking from the heart in a more universal language than English.

The pilot project was implemented at a CNA school in Liberdade, Brazil, and the Windsor Park Retirement Community in Chicago. The conversations are recorded and uploaded as private YouTube videos for the teachers to evaluate the students’ development.

“The idea is simple and it’s a win-win proposition for both the students and the American senior citizens. It’s exciting to see their reactions and contentment. It truly benefits both sides,” says Joanna Monteiro, executive creative director at FCB Brazil.

Says Max Geraldo, FCB Brazil’s executive director: “The beauty of this project is in CNA’s belief that we develop better students when we develop better people.”

Needless to say, this is pretty touching and inspiring stuff. I’d love to see more programs like this take off between other countries. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind participating in one myself.

Check out the heartwarming introductory video below. What do you think?

The James Bond of Philanthropy

In my view, with great wealth comes great responsibility. It gives you the capacity to do tremendous good or harm in the world, far more than the overwhelming majority of fellow humans. A little-known Irish-American businessman named Chuck Feeney exemplifies the incredible moral potential that the world’s richest can exercise if they so choose. Forbes did a piece on this amazing philanthropist in 2012, likening him to James Bond for his uniquely low-key and strategic approach to charitable giving:

Over the last 30 years he’s crisscrossed the globe conducting a clandestine operation to give away a $7.5 billion fortune derived from hawking cognac, perfume and cigarettes in his empire of duty-free shops. His foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, has funneled $6.2 billion into education, science, health care, aging and civil rights in the U.S., Australia, Vietnam, Bermuda, South Africa and Ireland. Few living people have given away more, and no one at his wealth level has ever given their fortune away so completely during their lifetime. The remaining $1.3 billion will be spent by 2016, and the foundation will be shuttered in 2020. While the business world’s titans obsess over piling up as many riches as possible, Feeney is working double time to die broke.

Feeney embarked on this mission in 1984, in the middle of a decade marked by wealth creation–and conspicuous consumption–when he slyly transferred his entire 38.75% ownership stake in Duty Free Shoppers to what became the Atlantic Philanthropies. “I concluded that if you hung on to a piece of the action for yourself you’d always be worrying about that piece,” says Feeney, who estimates his current net worth at $2 million (with an “m”). “People used to ask me how I got my jollies, and I guess I’m happy when what I’m doing is helping people and unhappy when what I’m doing isn’t helping people.”

What Feeney does is give big money to big problems–whether bringing peace to Northern Ireland, modernizing Vietnam’s health care system or seeding $350 million to turn New York’s long-neglected Roosevelt Island into a technology hub. He’s not waiting to grant gifts after he’s gone nor to set up a legacy fund that annually tosses pennies at a $10 problem. He hunts for causes where he can have dramatic impact and goes all-in. “Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model,” Bill Gates tells FORBES, “and the ultimate example of giving while living.”

I highly recommend you read the rest of the article, as it eventually discusses the nuances of Feeny’s character and his rather sophisticated philanthropic methods. The amount of wealth he is donating in both proportional and absolute terms is staggering enough without the added humility and strategic approach.

It is unfortunate that amid ever-higher rates of inequality — best epitomized by the fact that a mere 85 individuals own more wealth than around half of the world’s poorest people (3.5 billion) — most of the world’s elites aren’t following in Feeny’s footsteps, or at the very least donating more than a mere percentage of their assets. There’s a lot of untapped potential out there, and even a number of us who are comfortably well-off could be doing more.

The Man Who Cultivated Malala

By now most readers no doubt know of Malala Yousafzai, the brave teen activist who advocated for education and women’s rights in a Taliban-dominated part of Pakistan before nearly dying  at the hands of a Taliban gunman. The assassination attempt — which has done little to silence her — rightly elevated her to international attention while highlighting the plight of women and girls in Pakistan and the brave efforts of reformers like Malala to change the status quo.

Now the man who has been most fundamental to Malala’s courage, her father Ziauddin, is entering the spotlight for his uniquely progressive role in helping his daughter realize her remarkable potential on her own terms. “Why is my daughter so strong?” Yousafzai asks. “Because I didn’t clip her wings.” A simple but profound point about the role that parents should play in their children’s lives, especially within societies that seek to oppress and stifle them.

Check out his incredible and inspiring TED Talk below. It’s well worth your time.

It’s beautiful to see how much this son and daughter team have managed to defy stereotypes and societal pressure to become mutually reinforcing and supportive of each other, leading as much by example as through activism. I can’t wait to see what amazing things they’ll accomplish in the future, especially as Malala begins to realize her dream of continuing her education and no doubt learning more about how she can help the world.

 

Eight Cool Photos of the Monuments Men

I’m not sure how the upcoming film will turn out, but the real-life story of the “Monuments Men” is certainly amazing. I wish I had the time to get into it, but here’s a brief summary: in 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program — whose staff was known collectively as ” Monuments Men” —  to help rescue art and cultural property from obliteration or looting during World War II.

Previously, there had been academic and cultural institutions working to identify or protect European art that was in danger of destruction or plundering. But as the war intensified and the Allies advanced into occupied territory, these groups realized that military and government support was needed, and took their concerns to Washington to spur action. At its peak, the MFAA unit comprised 345 men and women from 13 countries, which included a mix of servicemembers and some of the foremost curators, art historians, museum directors, and other cultural figures.

By 1945, the group sifted through more than 1,000 stashes of art to identify and save an estimated 5 million pieces of artwork and cultural items, mostly stolen from wealthy Jews, museums, universities, and religious institutions. Even six years after the surrender, a smaller group of about 60 Monuments Men continued scouring Europe as private art detectives. Most of the unit would go on to serve in universities, museums, art galleries, and archives across the world.

Anyway, you can check out some of these great photos here. I hope the new film, which I am interested in watching, does this amazing and under-appreciated effort justice.

The Small Christmas Truce

Many readers have probably already heard of the famous Christmas Truce that occurred on the Western Front of the First World War in 1914. Although largely overshadowed by the sheer scale of death and brutality that characterized this first truly global conflict, it nonetheless continues to inspire people generations later with its message of hope and humanity amidst even the most unlikely circumstances.

As we all know, the Second World War would eventually outdo its predecessor by an unspeakable margin, both in death and barbarism. Given the existential nature of that conflict, a similar truce on the scale of World War I’s was unlikely, and indeed there’s no record of any such good will having occurred — except for one small but powerful event.

On a snowy Christmas Eve in 1944, a German woman named Elisabeth Vincken, who lived on the Belgian-German border, was preparing Christmas dinner with her 12-year-old son Fritz, when they heard a surprising knock on the door: three American soldiers, one of whom was badly injured, had gotten lost in the midst of the brutal Battle of the Bulge, the last major conflict on the Western Front.

Although they were armed, the soldiers, who looked no older than their mid-teens, didn’t burst in. She took pity on them and invited them in from the cold for Christmas dinner — an offense punishable by death (neither side spoke the other’s language, but they got by on broken French).

As she and her son prepared their food, there was another knock at the door; a 23-year-old German corporal and three other soldiers (two only sixteen) wanted to wish her a Merry Christmas, but were lost and hungry. Despite the incredible risk, Elisabeth told them that they were welcome to come, but there were others inside who they would not consider friends. The corporal asked sharply if there were Americans inside and she said there were — and they were lost, cold, and hungry like they were. When he stared her down, she stood her ground and asserted: “It is the Holy Night and there will be no shooting here.” She then asked both the Germans and the Americans to leave their guns outside and come together for dinner, which they all surprisingly did.

Despite the initial (and understandable) tension, relations between the men became cordial after dinner, with both sides shedding tears when Elisabeth said grace. The Germans even provided some wine and bread, and one of them, an ex-medical student, tended to the wounded America. This truce lasted through the night and into the morning. The German corporal told the Americans the best way to get back to their lines and provided them with a map and compass; he even told them how to avoid German territory. In the morning, all the soldiers took their respective weapons, shook hands, and left in opposite directions.

Elisabeth, her son, and her husband survived the war, although all three have since passed away. The fate of all but one of the soldiers is unknown: Ralph Bank, an American, still kept the compass and map provided by the corporal that saved his life. Bank would eventually meet up with an older Frtiz decades later, thanking him and his mother for taking them in.

Though this was a mere flicker of hope and goodwill relative to the massive level of death and suffering that transpired before and after, it’s nonetheless an important reminder of the capacity for human beings to transcend violence and hatred even in the most unlikely circumstances.