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.

coral underwater with sunlight looks like brain
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

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Your genetics influence how resilient you are to the cold

What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science

Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.

Keep reading Show less

Harvard study finds perfect blend of fruits and vegetables to lower risk of death

Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.

Credit: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
  • The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
  • Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast