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.

Ok, here we go.  My occasional comments are in italics.


“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


“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:)


“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


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



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

The Buddha


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

La Rouchefoucald


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

Alfred, Lord Tennyson


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



“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


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

Horace Mann


“Nothing is worth more than this day.”



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

The Buddha


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



“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


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

Alan Perlman


“Nothing is certain but uncertainty.”

G.K. Chesterton


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

Stephen Leacock


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



“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


“My life is my message.”

Mahatma Gandhi


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



“Forever is composed of nows.”

Emily Dickinson


“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


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

Albert Ellis


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

Jack Kornfeld


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

Martin Esslin


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

Deepak Chopra


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

Alan Perlman


“In the end one only experiences oneself.”

Friedrich Nietzsche


“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


“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


“Too much talk will include errors.”

Burmese proverb


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

Zen Proverb


“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


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

G.K. Chesterton


“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


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

Zen saying


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

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche


“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


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

Henry Miller


“I know that I know nothing.”



“A root is a flower that disdains fame.”

Kahlil Gibran


“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


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

Winston Churchill


“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


“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”


(Today, most people aspire to be pebbles, and both religion and culture urge them to be.)


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



(A critique of the Western cult of busy-ness, of constant activity/consumption.)


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

Eric Butterworth


“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


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

Kenneth Patchen

(The philosopher’s problem.  But most people don’t think enough.)


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

Publius Syrius


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

Elbert Hubbard


“Life is a candle before the wind.”

Japanese proverb


“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


And my current fave…

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

Yamamoto Gempo Roshi


Fellow heretics and unbelievers, send me your suggestions!



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Comment by Alan Perlman on June 20, 2012 at 7:43pm

Davey...thanks for the kind words.  These are actually a by-product of my speechwriting career (see "Writing Great Speeches" on amazon). I learned to love aphorisms. These have been field-tested: they actually bear some practical application to life, unlike most of the holy books.  (I'd never use these in executive speeches - just collected them for my own use.)

Also, I appreciate your compliment on my blog/rantings.  I'll try to keep it interesting.

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 18, 2012 at 2:46pm

Rich...Humanity is divided into two classes: (1) those who can accept the truth of your proposition -- and this aceptance brings appreciation, humility, even a sense of the absurd...and many other good qualities of mind -- and (2) those who simply cannot.  Call it a kind of arrested development: these religious people, like two-year-olds, are unable to accept the idea that they are not the center of the universe.  Everything happens for them.  Millions of them believe that Jesus and the Rapture will come during their lifetimes

Appreciate your readership.  I'll try top make it worthwhile.

Comment by Rich Goss on June 18, 2012 at 10:44am

Thanks, Alan.  I appreciate the compliment.  I had the honor of having been in a French Lit class at NYU of Professor Floyd Zulli, who was the first individual to present a college course on TV in a show called Sunrise Semester during the ‘60s.  He was the personification of the French term homme de lettre, and a real character.  His favorite authors were Emile Zola and Gustav Flaubert.  The former was a courageous genius, way ahead of his time.  We could use him today.   


The word “Paramiography” isn’t seen very often but dates back to Old English. doesn’t even list it.  If you goggle it, what comes up but my crazy paramiography on fart jokes! as if I were the only writer using the form.  I wrote the piece as a lark for my blog on A/N a couple of years ago.  I never pushed it; there’s a lot of ethnic humor in there and it’s not PC.  But to me it’s funny as heck.

My favorite quotation is the one by G. Gaylord Simpson who’s discussed in Mirror Reversal.  To me, he is very important historically in that he was a major contributor to the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis starting in the ‘20s.  This is the period when genetics was discovered and developed as a science and confirmed Darwinism.  Genes, mutations, chromosomes all came of age during this period.  The mechanism of evolutionary change became evident.

His exact quote is:  “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind."

I wish religious people would consider its importance.  We’ll never be able to solve humanity’s problems if powerful leaders rely on a God that doesn’t exist.  The universe is indifferent to us.

I’ll follow your blog.  Thanks for your interest in my writing.

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 17, 2012 at 10:59am

Rich...Excellent collection, thanks so much.  And after 20+ years of speechwriting and using quotes, I didn't know the word for a thanks for that, too.  I will check out your novel.  I too am pessimistic that humans will abandon religion, even as it continues to spread suffering and death.  The "genes...memes" quote is my favorite in your collection.

On politicians: The real definition of a "gaffe": when a politician, in an unguarded moment, says what he/she really thinks.

"The Atheist's Bible" (HarperCollins, 2007) is another rich source, with many outrageous quotes, e.g, "Civilization will not attain its perfection, until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest" (Emile Zola).  

Comment by Rich Goss on June 16, 2012 at 6:03pm

Alan, I’ve always been fascinated and intrigued by the literary technique called Paramiography:  The compilation of pithy sayings, maxims and words of wisdom. 

Here’s a list I compiled over the years, most I wrote myself or adopted from other writers.  Many are used in Mirror Reversal, my “atheist novel,” advertized in the ad to the right as I write this.

Hope you like it.  It’s mostly fun stuff but yet contains some profound considerations worthy of your time and thought.   

To wit:


Everything is a trade-off. (From Mirror Reversal)

If politicians are so religious, why are they so corrupt?  (Rich Goscicki)

I know that God would never send me to hell for refusing to abandon reason. (From Mirror Reversal)

When we’re young we seek to spread our genes; when we’re old we seek to spread our memes.  (From Mirror Reversal)

The only time politicians tell the truth is when they’re smearing one another in a negative campaign.  (Rich Goscicki)

“C’mon, do I have to write you a memo? What can I say? We evolved from oversexed primates; that’s not my fault. Let’s make the best of it.” (From Mirror Reversal)

We remain in the Dark Ages. But maybe some day, scholars, writers, artists and teachers in the local schools will be respected more than warriors, athletes, and egotistic pop-culture celebrities. (From Mirror Reversal, after Sir Edward Gibbon)

With religion and superstition so powerful here, it’ll take centuries before humanity can evolve into a spiritual entity. (From Mirror Reversal)

If a shop has two barbers, always go to the messy, disheveled one. It’s obvious they do each other’s hair.  (Rich Goscicki)

Most people look at war, crime and corruption and say, “Its human nature and it’ll never change.” A few say, “That’s the way it is because the political, corporate and religious alphas want it that way and it’s got to change.” (From Mirror Reversal)

The very pillars of society – the judgment of right and wrong -- are decayed and corrupt. (From Mirror Reversal)

God isn’t an underachiever; He’s a complete dropout. (From Woody Allen)

We have to stop acting like sheep.  (Rich Goscicki)

The endmeme is real and threatens the future of all life on the planet.  (Rich Goscicki)

Getting old ain’t for wimps.  (Bette Davis)

The greatest spectacle of Nature is the Cosmos itself.  (From Carl Sagan)

We are not what natural selection had in mind because there is no mind.  (Rich Goscicki, from a quotation by G.G. Simpson) 

His father was a venerable and respected police officer who never took a bribe except when he needed money.  (From Mirror Reversal)

And you know what else she taught those poor kids?  That we’re all animals.  And animals were the inventions of plants to help ‘em spread seeds around, being plants can’t walk around by themselves.  Can you beat that?  The purpose of human existence is to eat a bunch of cherry pits and crap ‘em out all over the place!  .  (From Mirror Reversal)


Comment by Alan Perlman on June 16, 2012 at 10:28am

Thanks to Neil and Michael for your contributions.  Underlying Neil's quote is the need for a principled way to get at the facts.   I'm always amazed by people who think they have the facts because the Bible says so, or (more subtly) they are working from phony, false, or obsolete data. 

Climate change is one of those issues.  We can't personally measure ocean temps or examine ice cores ourselves, so we have to take somebody else's word for what the facts are.  The question is, whose?  Obviously, silencing dissent and attacking the messenger are ways of not dealing with facts that one would rather not deal with.  Eventually, reality will tell us, incontrovertibly, whether the world is warming and by how much, but by then it might be too late.

Comment by Neil Craig on June 16, 2012 at 6:25am

I suggest "

“What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” – what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!”
Robert A. Heinlein
Unfortunately you will find that by no means everybody claiming a scientific view has such respect for facts. for example for some time I asked various people on "scienceblogs" to produce some facts indicating the catastrophic nature of global warming. The result was not any attempt to produce facts but censorship from that site and that one of its more neurotic members, a Mr Skip Evans pursued me on my own website  commenting obscenities and asserting that by deleting these obscenities I was a "Nazi".
Obviously I would not wish to descend to such depths, though I would say that you would have to censor real discussion rather than obscenities to be a Nazi.
I note that there is a Mr Skip Evans contributing to this site, on the other hand my stalker claims to be a different person of that name - the original being a commenter on "scienceblogs", located near Madison WI who worked for NCSE & claims to be a scientist, studying global warming & "published in the finest journals". If your contirbuter does not fit that description he ought to know that there is such an obscene, lying, idiot around who may besmirch his name.
Comment by Michael R on June 15, 2012 at 11:50pm

Divide and Conquer - Mindfulness - by Shinzen Young

"A phenomenon cannot overwhelm you as long as you can divide it into manageable parts ... By separating thought into ... parts, we divide its gripping power ... What gets conquered is the drivenness, congealing and unconsciousness that affect thought and are responsible for it being perceived as a problem."



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