30 Profound Quotes from Sasha Sagan’s For Small Creatures Such as We

Two weeks ago, I posted my review of Sasha Sagan’s beautiful memoir/humanist manifesto/love letter to the Cosmos For Small Creatures Such as We. I ranked it as one of my new all-time favorite books, and I recommended it as highly as I could, but still I feel that I can’t really put into words just how beautifully moving this book is. Only the book itself can do that. Hopefully my favorite quotes will give you a taste of what this book is really like!

1. “No matter how tempting a belief was, my father preferred to know what was true. Not true in his heart, not true just to him, not what rang true or felt true, but what was demonstrably, provably true.” p. 3

2. “Everything he taught me, everything he stood for, keeps me from believing that I will never be reunited with him. But our secular home was not cynical. Being alive was presented to me as profoundly beautiful and staggeringly unlikely, a sacred miracle of random chance. My parents taught me that the universe is enormous and we humans are tiny beings who get to live on an out-of-the-way planet for the blink of an eye. And they taught me that, as they once wrote, ‘for small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.'” p. 5

3. “Logic, evidence, and proof did not detract from the feeling that something was transcendent—quite the opposite. It was the source of its magnificence. . . . My parents taught me that the provable, tangible, verifiable things were sacred, that sometimes the most astonishing ideas are clearly profound, but that when they get labeled as ‘facts,’ we lose sight of their beauty. It doesn’t have to be this way. Science is the source of so much insight worthy of ecstatic celebration.” pp. 5-6

4. “I do not believe that my lack of faith makes me immune to the desire to be part of the rhythm of life on this planet.” p. 7

5. “We needn’t resort to myth to get that spine-chilling thrill of being part of something grander than ourselves. Our vast universe provides us with enough profound and beautiful truths to live a spiritually fulfilling life.” p. 15

6. “In fact, all over the world, for most of history, nature and religion were not just intertwined but inextricable. The universe was sacred. The gods and nature were not yet at war.” p. 38

7. “A philosophy requires more than just a list of things to believe in. These tenets must be illustrated in a way that moves you, draws you in.” p. 48

8. “My parents weren’t afraid that exposure to other belief systems would somehow harm me. The more I knew about what people thought, the better off I was.” p. 70

9. “. . . there is no shame in not knowing. Uncertainty is real. It need not be glossed over or buried. We can embrace it, even while we try to understand what we can.” p. 71

10. “. . . my parents instilled science in me not as a job but as a worldview, a philosophy, a lens through which to see everything. Just as not every Catholic is a priest, not every adherent to the scientific method is a scientist.” p. 72

11. “In those days, every encyclopedia entry I read felt like it was snapping in a new puzzle piece. I thought I might soon see the entire picture. But as I grew, I realized the puzzle had no edges, no borders. It went on forever in all directions. Every new piece just revealed how many more pieces were still missing. I came to understand that I could never get to the complete picture. So the metaphor changed. Instead of a puzzle, being curious became more like being a collector of small, beautiful objects, of which there are a seemingly infinite number on Earth, like seashells or stamps. I’d never have them all, but each new kernel of understanding was like a new, gleaming gem. When I learned something, I imagined putting it in a special box with my other treasures, seeing how they went together, how they matched or clashed. Learning became addictive, an obsession. Soon the urge to try to answer any lingering question was overpowering, each answer in turn eliciting another question, some parochial, some cosmic. The parochial ones are often maligned as ‘trivia,’ but every piece of trivia is a small clue to something else, a glimpse at how we fit into the universe.” pp. 74-75

12. “As with love, it’s our vulnerability that opens us up to something deeper. Our willingness to be wrong, to let go of our predictions and preconceptions, clears the way to more than we could have otherwise imagined.” p. 80

13. “I believe our cruelty toward one another, not sex or love of knowledge, is our original sin. It’s that for which we must really atone.” p. 83

14. “There is nothing more central to science than error correction. Scientists are not infallible. Quite the opposite. The greatest minds in history have often been wrong about lots of stuff. But the defining difference between science and religion is that you’re a better scientist if you take the ideas of the people who came before you, the people whose shoulders you stand on, the people who taught you everything you know—your teachers, your heroes, your mentors—and disprove them. Then you’ve done your job. Doing the same does not make you a better pastor, rabbi, cleric, or monk; upholding tradition does.” p. 90

15. “There is something about facing fear that defines growing up. Doing something hard, freeing yourself, taking your fate into your own hands—these are the portals into adulthood across the planet.” p. 107

16. “Political revolutions and scientific breakthroughs require the same unwillingness to accept authority on blind faith. They are born out of the same question: Why are things as they are? They celebrate our ability to evolve in the figurative sense.” p. 127

17. “We said the Pledge of Allegiance, a daily mantra purporting a God and a place where there is ‘liberty and justice for all.’ The God part I’m dubious about but cannot be absolutely certain either way. The ‘liberty and justice for all’ part is unequivocally a lie.” p. 128

18. “If an idea cannot stand up to scrutiny, it should be discarded. That’s the way of scientific discovery. And the pathway toward a more perfect union. . . . Acknowledging and enacting the need for progress doesn’t mean one doesn’t love their country.” p. 131

19. “To the best of my knowledge, no star sign has ever been subjected to the kind of discrimination that has all too often come with skin color, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, or religion, but there is a parallel. Saying ‘I know what kind of person you are because I know one thing about you’ smacks of the same laziness of assumption that fuels the isms.” p. 144

20. “Astronomy and astrology used to be one thing: the real observations of the stars and planets intertwined with our fears and wishes about what they meant. They began to be pulled apart in the seventeenth century. Ideas were tested. Some could stand up to scrutiny, and some could not. But the same instinct pulls us toward both astronomy and astrology. My parents took great pains to teach me, and many millions of others, that we are truly and literally connected to the universe. We don’t need to make up reasons why or how, or look to the specific movements of the planets at the moment of our birth to determine who we are.” p. 145

21. “Up in that chair; looking at the beautiful and good man I married and at the legacy of the beautiful and good man I lost, I felt not that everything was perfect but that everything was a poem, precise and sublime in its depth and truth.” p. 170

22. “The ritual of sex fulfills so many of the promises of religion: the miracle of creation, a feeling of transcendence, a chance at a kind of afterlife as children carry on your DNA. These are the qualities we usually ascribe to the divine, not the profoundly human. What if instead of sex being associated with sin, with dirtiness, with shame, it was considered part of the glory of nature?” p. 173

23. “Maybe if sex wasn’t so powerful we wouldn’t burden it with so many rules, so many societal expectations. Maybe this explains our compulsion to try to tame it. Like everything enormous, wondrous, and scary in nature, it evokes both glee and anxiety. Like fire, like weather, like everything wild, the intensity of nature evokes fear in us. But we’re part of nature. And sex is one moment in which we can almost grasp that.” p. 179

24. “Perhaps the connection [between the moon and femininity] comes from the parallel natural cycle of our bodies. Or maybe it’s because, for so much of human history, women have been allowed so few roles besides reflecting the light of their fathers, husbands, and sons, the way the moon reflects the light of our star.” p. 190

25. “Each of us, no matter our beliefs or lack thereof, is wrestling with the deep knowledge that whatever comes next, this, what we are experiencing at this moment, will end with total finality. Whether we find nothingness or somethingness, it will be new and different from existence as we know it. For even if you believe in, say, reincarnation, life at another time in another body would be profoundly different from what you are experiencing today. Whatever is next, it comes for all of us. Even the seven stars of the Pleiades will die someday. Instead of putting it out of our minds, instead of ignoring our fears, let’s honor them, talk about them, and take pleasure in the light a little longer, before it’s gone.” p. 212

26. “Part of being secular must include an acceptance that any socioeconomic advantage you were born into was just random luck in the chaos. I would hope this would inspire a sense of moral duty to give to the less fortunate. . . . If there’s no rhyme or reason to why you grew up with three square meals a day, if there is not a great safety net of justice in the universe, we humans must create one for one another.” pp. 226-227

27. “I will never tell Helena that a big jolly man is coming down the chimney to eat cookies and leave her gifts. I won’t tell her that her grandpa Carl is watching over her. Or that there is a man who created everything and lives in the sky. But I will also never stop her from choosing her own path. I don’t know who she will be or what she will believe. But it will be up to her. Authority—a parent or a church or a government—cannot enforce belief. Or lack thereof. She will have to be true to herself. Because ‘the only sin would be to pretend.'” p. 240

28. “Before Christmas and Hanukkah, before monotheism or any other kind of theism, our ancestors were staring up at the stars, trying to gather clues about the changing of the seasons, the passing of time, and what the darkness might bring. The idea of marking the longest, coldest night with the knowledge that the warmth and light is not too far off, that is ancient. And no matter where we’re from, what religion we are, or to what ethnic group we belong, we can be sure that our ancestors, all of our ancestors, contemplated Earth’s place in the universe with awe. For them, it was sacred. And it still can be for us. Even more so because science has brought us a deeper understanding of the mystery and beauty of nature than our ancestors could have ever dreamed.” p. 241

29. “So much of recent human history has been a process of taking individual phenomena out of the magic or religious column and putting it in the scientific column . . . . Somewhere in that process we lost the awe. I suspect this was partly a matter of delivery. We don’t teach children science (or math, for that matter) with the passionate enthusiasm of the best preachers. And we ought to.” p. 259

30. “No matter what the universe has in store, it cannot take away from the fact that you were born. You’ll have some joy and some pain, and all the other experiences that make up what it’s like to be a tiny part of a grand cosmos. No matter what happens next, you were here. And even when any record of our individual lives is lost to the ages, that won’t detract from the fact that we were. We lived. Were were part of the enormity. All the great and terrible parts of being alive, the shocking sublime beauty and heartbreak, the monotony, the interior thoughts, the shared pain and pleasure. It really happened. All of it. On this little world that orbits a yellow star out in the great vastness. And that alone is cause for celebration.” p. 260

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