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10 atheist quotes that will make you question religion

From psychology to neuroscience, what we believe is not nearly as relevant as why we do.

Photo: Daniel Hjalmarsson / Unsplash
  • Belief systems arise to address the time and social conditions of each era and culture.
  • Your relationship to your community and environment is very influential in what you believe.
  • Neuroscience explains many of the questions as to why we believe in the first place.

When I was studying for my degree in religion, I was most fascinated by what people believe. The fact that members of the same species could invent such diverse ideas about the invisible speaks volumes about the human imagination. During that period, I recognized how essential place and time were in the formation of religious ideologies. Regardless of your belief system, we can agree that the creation of Christianity today would look nothing like the historical accounts we rely on.

It was neuroscience that stopped me from focusing on what and begin to investigate why. Why do we believe in anything metaphysical? What function do gods play in our psychology? Why do we resist the fact that we might not be right, sometimes to the point where we'll murder opposing tribes?

Environmental and genetic conditions conspire to create what we feel (or don't) about the ethereal. I get it: Many religious believers think they've got the special sauce, some hidden insight revealed only to their tribe. Yet so many conflicting ideologies cannot be right; there must be something else at play, and that thing is our unique biology.

The first few quotes below are big-picture social questions, while the remaining come from neuroscience and psychology books. They are not all atheistic per se, but they do point to the fact that humans tend to think very highly of themselves and what we believe, and that there are biological explanations for why we feel the way we do. The more we recognize that, the more likely we are to stop thinking there is only one way to discover truth.

On ego

"How much vanity must be concealed—not too effectively at that—in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan?" — Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Here comes logic

"Monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: To argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe—and He's evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief." — Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

The difference is often language

"In America, belief in the unreal seems to be very fungible. Individuals don't so much abandon religious fantasy in favor of reason as find different fantasies that better suit their particular excitement and credulity quotients." — Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire

A Buddhist approach

"Mindfulness accepts as its focus of inquiry whatever arises in one's field of awareness, no matter how disturbing or painful it might be. One neither seeks nor expects to find some greater truth lurking behind the veil of appearances. What appears and how you respond to it: that alone is what matters." — Stephen Batchelor, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist

Enter Darwin

"Comprehension, far from being a Godlike talent from which all design must flow, is an emergent effect of systems of uncomprehending competence: natural selection on the one hand, and mindless computation on the other." — Daniel Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds

The physical can be spiritual

"Evolution simply happened—foresightless, by chance, without goal. There is nobody to despise or rebel against—not even ourselves. And this is not some bizarre form of neurophilosophical nihilism but rather a point of intellectual honesty and great spiritual depth." — Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self

Superego

"Supernatural thinking is simply the natural consequence of failing to match our intuitions with the true reality of the world." — Bruce M. Hood, The Science of Superstition: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs

Out of body is still in the body

"Out-of-body flight "really happens," then—it is a real physical event, but only in the patient's brain and, as a result, in his subjective experience. The out-of-body state is, by and large, an exacerbated form of the dizziness that we all experience when our vision disagrees with our vestibular system, as on a rocking boat." — Stanislas Dehaene, Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts

Randomness produces beautiful (or efficient) results

"If you let something tumble long enough, it comes out almost perfect. Such is the power of random collisions and patience, and that constitutes the sum total of nature's intelligence. All the rough edges, the flaws, the things that don't work are systematically dispatched by natural selection. What remains and carries on into the next generation and the next after that and so on are the advantageous aspects, what does work what makes survival easier. And survival is the fuel of natural selection." — Rodolfo R. Llinas, I of the vortex: From Neurons to Self

"Everything happens for a reason"

"A long line of research in cognitive science has documented that people make causal attributions about events as a means of maintaining personal control. It is the feeling that things are spinning out of control that motivates the human brain to find a pattern in events and try to predict what is going to happen next. The left-brain interpreter thus will be activated whenever the individual senses a lack of control. Superstitions and conspiracy theories can be seen as the societal consequences of the interpreter's drive to find a causal explanation for events that are seemingly out of control." — Ronald T. Kellogg, The Making of the Mind: The Nueroscience of Human Nature

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  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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