Sunday, April 22, 2012

My 5 Favorite Freethought Quotes

Now that I've done five installments of my Powerful Thoughts series, I thought it might be a good time to go back through and pick my five favorite quotes from among them. There were so many great ones that it was almost impossible to choose, so I made a Google doc for my 15 favorites. Here are the top five along with my comments:
5. "Answers are a luxury enjoyed only every now and then. So early on, learn to love the questions themselves." –Neil deGrasse Tyson
Curiosity is a great thing because it so often gives rise to discovery, but sometimes the answers elude us. It's easy to grow impatient and settle on the first convenient explanation that comes along even when the real answer is still out there. So we need to value the process of forming and testing hypotheses as much as actually arriving at conclusions—to value the journey as much as the destination. It requires us to think of unanswered questions not as obstacles to be overcome, but as invitations to explore our world.
4. "Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." –Thomas Jefferson
How wonderful it is that the same man who authored this quote was also a central Founding Father and our third president. We needed someone of his wisdom to guide this country in its formative years. During this period of American Enlightenment, intellectuals were already starting to question Christianity and embrace deism. But in a letter offering advice to his nephew, Jefferson had the audacity to suggest something that would be unthinkable to most people at the time.

The quote, highlighted on a page of the original letter.
This encouragement of radical, intrepid questioning should be an inspiration to skeptics everywhere. And he follows this by steamrolling the most common obstacle to investigating one's faith—the fear of divine retribution—in a way that beautifully echoes Galileo's disbelief that "the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use".
3. "Forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today." –Lawrence Krauss
Plucked from a legendary 2009 physics lecture entitled "A Universe From Nothing," this statement on our origins may at first seem shallow in its irreverence, but I don't see it that way. Too often religions like Christianity rely on the beauty of ideas rather than their truth, making reality look cold and alienating by comparison. People take solace in God's invisible guiding hand and fear that a world without him would be desolate, chaotic, meaningless.

But Krauss shows that in some ways, the natural world can beat the supernatural even at its own game. An innocent god-man being tortured and killed on our behalf is an inspiring tale (if a gruesome and illogical one), but it can't hold a candle to the breathtaking magnificence of cosmology. All the heavier atoms in your body—the oxygen and carbon, the nitrogen and calcium—had to be forged within the blazing furnaces of stars. They later became supernovae, exploding so chaotically that they briefly outshone entire galaxies, forming nebulae rich with heavy elements that then collapsed to form solar systems—and eventually, in our case, intelligent life. Here's Neil deGrasse Tyson again, describing this process:

As Carl Sagan said, "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself." Truth, it seems, is far more worthy than fiction of our awe and admiration.
2. "Mythology is someone else's religion, different enough from your own for its absurdity to be obvious." –Anonymous
What a perfect summary of the double standard inherent within every exclusivist religion in history. It's so easy for Christians and Buddhists and Muslims to look at each other and scoff at those other peculiar beliefs, all while retaining an intense blind spot with regard to one's own. So persistent is this bias that even I as a former Christian suffer from it, despite my deconversion.

This is why I love Daniel Dennett's suggestion that schoolchildren be taught a mandatory, neutral, fact-based class on world religions. Only the most cripplingly stubborn parents could object to an impartial presentation of alternative belief systems. Yet many students would come out with a more critically informed view of each religion—including their own. The more information kids can access about religions from all cultures, the less likely they are to succumb to the ingroup-outgroup bias that allows religious exclusivism to thrive.
1. "I had no need of that hypothesis." –Pierre-Simon Laplace
This famed quip was in reply to none other than Napoleon, who told Laplace, "They tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator." Laplace's response encompasses so much in just a few words: the principle of parsimony, the relentless march of science, the ever-diminishing God of the gaps. Although it was probably just an offhand remark, his calm yet firm rejection of God as explanation is emblematic of the human race's steadily increasing storehouse of knowledge.

No need of that hypothesis.

After millions of years of cowering at shadows, we have finally begun to crawl out from the darkness and into the light. We need only to let our eyes adjust to the dazzling brilliance we've discovered. It is my hope that for any incredible explanation that lacks equally incredible evidence, we, as a civilization, will soon have no need of that hypothesis.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoy your blog. Stumbled upon it while googling.