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Secular Wisdom

Introduction 

If secular humanists don’t look to God, the Bible or the Quran for their wisdom, where do they get it?  From other human beings, of course.  It turns out that people have been thinking and writing for a very long time about how to live a good life. 

 
I’ve noticed that many of the same ideas keep showing up, across geography, history and culture.

 
The following collection provides practical advice about how to think, behave, and regard others, the world, and life in general. 
 
The quotes represent generations of refinement of human wisdom.  And they’re easy to understand and apply.  No spin needed.

This page contains my favorites.  You’re welcome to suggest your own.

You’ll notice a predominance of Zen wisdom. I’ve been an unofficial adherent for many years. Zen appeals to a secular humanist because of its simplicity, practicality, rationality (yet there’s a lot of verbal sophistication), and resonance with experience. It requires no leaps of faith whatever, but shows us how to find the miraculous in the mundane.

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“There is no need for for temples, no need for complicated philosophy.  Our own brain, our own heart is our temple: The philosophy is kindness.” 

The Dalai Lama

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“Watch your thoughts; they become your words. Watch your words; they become your actions. Watch your actions; they become your habits. Watch your habits; they become your character. Watch your character, for it will become your destiny.”

Rabbi Hillel

(My all-time favorite how-to-live advice. The absolutely essential first step to enlightenment/mental health — and you’ll see this theme over and over in the quotes — is to realize that there is a “you” who can separate from and even control your thoughts and actions. Most people spend their lives on auto-pilot. My #2 and #3 all-time favorites follow:)

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“How can you come to know yourself? Never by thinking, always by doing. Try to do your duty, and you’ll know right away what you amount to. And what is your duty? Whatever the day calls for.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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“Year after year on the monkey’s face…a monkey’s face.”

Basho

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“All things that are born must die. Work hard for your own freedom from sorrow.”

The Buddha

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“When we are unable to find tranquility within ourselves, it is useless to seek it elsewhere.”

La Rouchefoucald

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“Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control — these three alone lead to sovereign power.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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“My religion is to live and die without regret.”

Milarepa

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“Religion is like a beautiful gift box: the wrappings are so pretty that few dare to open them and find there’s nothing inside.”

Alan Perlman

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“Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves.”

Horace Mann

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“Nothing is worth more than this day.”

Goethe

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“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts.  With our thoughts, we make the world.”

The Buddha

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“There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

Epictetus

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“A human being is a part of the whole called by us ‘the universe,’ a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and the affection of a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of understanding and compassion to enbrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Albert Einstein
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“Don’t complain — or Fate, like a tough Jewish parent, will come back there and give you something to cry about.” 

Alan Perlman

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“Nothing is certain but uncertainty.”

G.K. Chesterton

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“Life, we learn too late, is in the living, in the tissue of every day and hour.”

Stephen Leacock

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“Learn to wish that everything should come to pass exactly as it does.”

Epictetus

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“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit.  The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”

Marcus Aurelius

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“My life is my message.”

Mahatma Gandhi

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“Drop the question of what tomorrow may bring, and count as profit every day that fate allows you.”

Horace

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“Forever is composed of nows.”

Emily Dickinson

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“The wisdom of this world consists in manking oneself very little, in order to avoid many knocks; in preferring others, in order that, even when we lose, we shall find some pleasure in the event; in putting our desires outside of ourselves, in another ship so to speak, so that, when the worst happens, there will be something left.”

Robert Louis Stevenson
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“I teach U.S.A., Unconditional self-Acceptance: You always accept yourself no matter what you do.”

Albert Ellis

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“Those who are awake live in a state of constant AMAZEMENT!”

Jack Kornfeld

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“The dignity of a man lies in his ability to face reality in all its meaninglessness.”

Martin Esslin

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“Today is the youth of your old age, and what you do today affects an outcome thirty or forty years from now.”

Deepak Chopra
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“Marriage is a thousand acts of forgiveness — EACH DAY.”

Alan Perlman
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“In the end one only experiences oneself.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

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“Live each present moment completely, and the future will take care of itself. Fully enjoy the wonder and beauty of each instant. Practice the presence of peace. The more you do that, the more you will feel the presence of that power in your life.”

Parmahansa Yogananda

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“Simplicity doesn’t mean to live in misery and poverty. You have what you need, and you don’t have what you don’t need.”

Charan Singh

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“Too much talk will include errors.”

Burmese proverb

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“Before enlightenment: chopping wood, carrying water. After enlightenment: chopping wood, carrying water.”

Zen Proverb

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“Nirvana is the Buddha’s word for freedom, not for death. It is his answer to the problem of common unhappiness, to the anxiety that is encapsulated most clearly in the fear of death. Nirvana, as the late Zen master Roshi put it, is the capacity to maintain one’s composure in the face of ceaseless change. The key, from the Buddha’s perspective, is to find nirvana through overcoming one’s own self-created obstacles to that compusure. The path to nirvana means working with one’s own reactions to the change that surrounds us, to the change that we are.”

Epstein, in Going on Being

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“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly understood; an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”

G.K. Chesterton

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“We know only that our entire existence is forced into new paths and distrupted, that new circumstances, new joys and new sorrows await us, and that the unknown has its uncanny attractions, alluring and at the same time anguishing.”

Heinrich Heine

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“The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”

Zen saying

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“Every morning, our first thought should be a wish to devote the day to the good of all living beings.”

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
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“A religious worship service is nothing but hour upon hour of brown-nosing to nobody. Like bullfighting and strip clubs, it is legal but degrading, and I would rather not attend.”

Alan Perlman

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“If we have not found heaven within, it is a certainty we will not find it without.”

Henry Miller

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“I know that I know nothing.”

Socrates

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“A root is a flower that disdains fame.”

Kahlil Gibran

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“One thought follows another without interruption. But if you allow these thoughts to link up in a chain, you put yourself in bondage.”

Zen saying

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“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Winston Churchill

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“I have just three things to teach:
Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”

Tao te Ching
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“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”

Confucius

[Today, most people aspire to be pebbles, and the culture urges them to be. — AMP]

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“Ordinary men hate solitude. But the Master makes use of it, embracing his aloneness, realizing he is one with the whole universe.”

Lao-tsu

[A critique of the Western cult of busy-ness, of constant activity/consumption.]

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“More important than learning how to recall things is finding ways to forget things that are cluttering the mind.”

Eric Butterworth

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“Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.”

George Sand

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“Think enough and you won’t know anything.”

Kenneth Patchen

[The philosopher’s problem. But most people don’t think enough.]

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“Each day should be passed as if it were our last.”

Publius Syrius

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“Do not take life too seriously. You will never get out of it alive.”

Elbert Hubbard

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“Life is a candle before the wind.”

Japanese proverb

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“1. Get enough food and eat it.
2. Find a place to sleep where it is quiet; sleep there.
3. Reduce intellectual and emotional noise until you arrive at the silence of yourself, and listen to it.
4. “

Richard Brautigan

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And my current fave…

“There is no murder worse than the killing of time.”

Yamamoto Gempo Roshi

17 Responses to “Secular Wisdom”

  1. on 02 Jan 2007 at 8:47 pmBrenda

    Great quotes. I look forward to more!

  2. on 28 May 2007 at 5:31 pmJennifer

    I love your site and I just finished listening to your interview on Infidel Guy podcast. Our family is secular and it is tough (especially for me and the younger kid) because we homeschool the younger son and, as you probably know, 99.9999% of the homeschoolers are big Bible believing Christians. Most of the families want nothing to do with us. It can be lonely. I loved the idea of reclaiming Jewish rites in a secular humanist way, such as the Hanukkah festival naming humanistic ideals. I think we should try something like that for the winter solstice this year.

    Great site, great insights, and great interview — thanks for being out there and giving a voice to such an important movement.

    Jennifer

  3. on 29 May 2007 at 12:57 amAlan

    Hi Jennifer….

    Thanks for writing. You are just the kind of person I am trying to connect with.

    My message is: let humanists get past anger, find a public voice, offer something positive, and seriously question (and get influential people to seriously question) the basis of religious fantasies and to point out the harm they do, thus drastically reducing religious bigotrty and violence and promoting peace and botherhood.

    Tentative names for the movement: Secular Humanist Revival/United Movement (SHRUMs) or PHI (Positive Humanists International).

    Thanks again. If I know people like you are there, I will preach reason and truth til my dying breath. ;) Hope you’ll stay in touch.

    Alan

  4. on 05 Jun 2007 at 7:20 pmNancy

    These quotes are so inspiring. I am going to print them and put one on my mirror each morning. I hope that by reading itand re-reading it, it will become a part of my life and values.

    Thank you for taking the time to share these with so many people.

    Nancy

  5. on 06 Jun 2007 at 7:24 pmAlan

    Hi Nancy,

    I don’t know if my earlier message reached you. I’m so glad you liked the quotes. Pass them on if you like.

    As a speechwriter, I learned to love quotes (and I’ve seen a lot of them!).

    shalom,

    A.

  6. on 28 Jul 2007 at 3:25 amSimon

    “Since everything is but an apparition, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may as well burst out laughing”
    Longchenpa

  7. on 28 Jul 2007 at 4:49 pmAlan

    Hello, Simon….

    Yes, to laugh at the absurdity of it all is immensely healing.

    shalom and metta,

    Alan

  8. on 25 Sep 2007 at 6:46 amed

    First, I appreciate the time you take to deal with everyone who emails a comment; that takes dedication to the truth (as one sees it).

    Second, I want to say that theres a quote that my apply to us all here:

    “Nothing is new in the world, just the history we do not know”.

    Third, we need an ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ATHEIST THOUGHT (through out the ages) to be written and scholarly reviewed - sort of a ‘bible; lol. It must include philosophical works, history, and politics. This can be done on the web and published in print if good.

    I just hope it dont start some sort of religious war, lol.

  9. on 25 Sep 2007 at 5:21 pmAlan

    Hi Ed,

    You’re right about the Secular Wisdom. The principles of a good life have been known for quite a while. They are few, simple and obvious, but very difficult to practice on a regular basis. That’s why I have a variety of quotes — some may resonate with some people, others, with others.

    Thanks for your kind words. I had indeed intended to create a cyber-meeting place so that folks could share views (and the Muslims know where to find me :0) and Jews could know that a fully-developed Humanistic Judaism exists and is available. To the extent that I have a calling for the rest of my life, this is it: to advance the cause of reason until it triumphs — or religious psychotics destroy us all. Together we’ll find truth.

    I would bet that the “atheist compendium” book has been done. The ideas are out there, and so are the thinkers, but they mostly talk to people who agree with them. Religious superstition dominates the mass media and politics.

    Secular humanism (I feel very strongly that we’ve got to re-brand) needs celebrity, cash, PR, and, in the Muslim world, Muslims.

    shalom,

    Alan

  10. on 29 Dec 2007 at 10:30 pmJose

    “Watch your thoughts; they become your words. Watch your words; they become your actions. Watch your actions; they become your habits. Watch your habits; they become your character. Watch your character, for it will become your destiny.”
    Rabbi Hillel

    (My all-time favorite how-to-live advice. The absolutely essential first step to enlightenment/mental health — and you’ll see this theme over and over in the quotes — is to realize that there is a “you” who can separate from and even control your thoughts and actions. Most people spend their lives on auto-pilot. My #2 and #3 all-time favorites follow:)

    Hallo.Could you please tell me if that source is confirmed? I´ve been looking for the source of that magnificent sentence and I couldn´t find it. I´d not be surprised if the source a rabbi cause I think jews have a sixth sense to analyze the word and write brilliant sentences about life.I´m catholic anyway :) Thanks.

  11. on 01 Jan 2008 at 10:21 pmAlan

    Thanks for your kind comments about Jews. One aspect of Jewish culture is verbality and disputatiousness — e.g., Freud and Marx. Jews analyze everything. Lots of great Jewish psychologists and psychiatrists.

    I’ll check the quote. But the important thing, to me, is not WHO said it…but the fact that SOMEBODY did. It is true, human, non-theistic wisdom.

    shalom,

    Alan

  12. on 30 Jan 2008 at 4:50 amed

    I think Kung Fu Tzu said it. [Actual name is Kǒng Qiū]

    Also, you might appreciate his version of the ‘golden rule’ :

    Adept Kung asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?”

    The Master replied: “How about ’shu’: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?”

    Analects XV.24, tr. David Hinton

    And

    “What one does not wish for oneself, one ought not to do to anyone else;
    what one recognises as desirable for oneself, one ought to be willing to grant to others.”

    (Confucius and Confucianism, Richard Wilhelm)

    [551 BCE to 479 BCE]

  13. on 01 Feb 2008 at 12:04 amAlan

    Ed,

    Spritual teachers throughout the ages have postulated this simple principle, but people don’t get it. Would you want me not to kill you over my religious beliefs? Then don’t kill me over yours!

    My omission of the Golden Rule, in any of its forms, is either an egregious error or a cultural assumption. I will flatter myself and assume the latter.

    Everybody’s been exposed to it, I thought. I’m trying to offer fresh material — non-religious ways to look at the mind and the world.

    Some people never acquire the basics. Why are there so many religious believers among the inmates of penitentiaries? Can it be that they are so bereft of morality that they find the ancient texts — thou shalt not kill! — tremendously insightful?

    shalom,

    Alan

  14. on 01 Feb 2008 at 6:40 amed

    Its not as obvious as it seems at first.

    Inmates get ‘religion’ after being in prison and losing all hope for themselves in ‘this world’- their only hope is the ‘next’.

    History is an account of violence for political, religious, social, economic, psychological, and personal reasons; violence that results in the death of the ‘opposition’.

    The ‘commandment’ not to kill is very subversive in the sense that it changes the underlying assumption of how to behave to those who wish us harm.
    This is why ‘pacifist’ teachings seem ‘radical’- most people tend to respond to threats and violence with threats and violence.

    The ‘golden rule’ is also ’subversive’, as we may wish to treat others as we find fit to achieve our goals; and not as we wish ourselves to be treated.

    By killing others, we clearly violate it.

    This is the link between the ‘thou shall not kill’ and the ‘golden rule’.

  15. on 02 Feb 2008 at 12:23 amAlan

    It’s hard to believe most people haven’t heard of the Golden Rule/Categorical Imperative in some form or another. But for the reasons you cite — learned violence — they find it REALLY difficult to implement.

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments.

    shalom,

    Alan

  16. on 09 Dec 2010 at 4:09 amcharles

    Yeah right on, Jews analyse everything thats why the most number of people who go to see pychiatrists ARE jews!!

    Neurotic! Because the evil Talmud made them that way.

  17. on 11 Dec 2010 at 8:55 pmAlan

    Charles,

    Why am I getting so many comments from you all of a sudden? I appreciate the attention. Pass my posts on to other believers.

    I do agree with the connections between Jews and scientific/verbal analysis, psychoanalysis, psychology, jurisprudence…any activity involvong words and discourse.

    Your last sentence is complete nonsense, for which there is no proof. The worst thing we can say about the Talmud is that it’s way too concerned with God and his commandments. There’s some good insights in there, but much dross.

    It is not evil. And books don’t make people crazy. Get a grip, Charles.

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