An Atheist’s View on Religion

Scarlet A

In the past year I’ve written a bunch of posts on particular aspects of atheism and religion, but so far there are none that have laid out my views at a glance. So this is an open, informal post designed to do just that.

  • Identification: Agnostic atheist. I don’t believe there is a god (atheist), nor do I claim to know whether one exists (agnostic). (Though typically, the word “agnostic” can be used differently to describe someone who is “between” theism and atheism.)Agnostic_chart
  • Burden of proof: Those believing in a god must prove so. “I can’t prove the planet Kolob doesn’t exist, therefore I must accept Mormonism,” is a ridiculous statement, as is “I can’t prove fairies don’t exist, therefore fairies exist.” Equally ridiculous is, “I can’t prove God doesn’t exist, therefore God exists.”
  • Religion (general): Antitheism with respect to societal impacts. I think the harms outweigh the benefits. This is the primary reason I even post about religion in the first place.
  • Religion (specific): Islam is arguably worse than Christianity, as it justifies and is actively used to justify many violent actions. On the other hand, I don’t really consider Judaism to be a religion: 68% believe you can be Jewish and not believe in God. (I am probably biased in these views, as nearly every Jew I know is a secular Jew, whereas I know otherwise rational Christians who believe steadfastly in creationism.)
  • Religious people: With respect to individuals, I don’t treat religious people differently, since I don’t think it is their fault they were indoctrinated in a particular religion. I think the very devout are misguided rather than evil people, as I believe they are genuinely doing what they think is right. When someone does something terrible in the name of religion, my instinctive response is never “What a bad person!”, but more often along the lines of “Who brainwashed them into believing that!?” I would go so far as to say that the 9/11 hijackers, as well as all those Americans who perished, were victims of Islam, and that the truly bad people were the ones setting it up from behind the scenes. And, for example, I think the correct response to the Boston marathon bombing earlier this year should have been to consider conducting an objective criticism of Islam, but instead, we are too politically correct to do so, thus not helping to stop another such event from happening.
  • Fundamentalists vs. moderates: I don’t hold fundamentalists more accountable than moderates. Here is a link to my main post on this topic.
  • Activism vs passiveness: I think atheists do need to speak up, even at the cost of being perceived as “rude” or “angry.” So far, the main criticism of the “new atheism movement” is that it is rude and angry, not of the actual contents or messages of the movement. Here is the TED talk in which Richard Dawkins introduces this (30 min video):
  • Religion and science: The two are incompatible at the fundamental level—one teaches to not question anything, and the other to question everything.
  • Afterlife, ghosts, ESP, witches, UFOsreincarnation, etc.: No.
  • Morality: Just as a good law code is very complex, accounting for fringe cases and how to deal with ambiguous situations, so must a good moral code. A moral code simply stated in rules of “Do not X” is doomed to failure, especially if the rules are ambiguous, symbolic, self-contradictory, loophole-ridden, and cherry-picked to serve self interests. Here is a previous post on a better moral code, roughly utilitarian. In addition, with respect to large-scale views on morality, I agree with Sam Harris‘s criticism of “multiculturalism.”
  • LGBT rights, women’s rights, right to choose, feminism, universal education, universal healthcare, etc.: Greatly in support. It’s sad when one of the leading stories yesterday was that Saudi Arabian women were protesting a ban that prevented them from… driving. And when you think about the root cause of the opposition to these factors, you start to see a clear pattern with religion. I see all these issues as religious issues, and I don’t want society to fight the same battle many times, which is why I am also in favor of more vocal disagreement with religion. But of course, that would considered offensive, and the status quo is to care about the unjustified sensitivities of a religious group over the civil rights of millions.
  • Political views (on social issues): Liberal, as shown above.
  • What needs to be done: I have an outline for this but it can easily form a new post.

I’m sure there are missing things in this profile, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. I look forward to answering them.

Edit: Received a question on the religion and science compatibility. I agree that I have not quite expanded on the topic as much as the others, and I may write more about this in the future.

Edit 2: Here is the science and religion compatibility post.

Big Picture vs Detail Oriented Thinking

Chess_board

Big picture vs detail oriented thinking is usually portrayed as a dichotomy. It is one or the other, and even when the need for both is acknowledged, the two are still considered separate forces. Here is a section of an article that is one of the first google search results:

Typical of the Big Picture Thinker

  • You can quickly see patterns in complex problems.
  • You like to come up with new ideas and new projects.
  • You have a low tolerance for busywork, tedious errands, and filling out forms.
  • You are great at outlining what needs to be done, but filling in the details can feel exhausting.
  • You may have been described as right-brained.
  • When you have taken the Myers-Briggs assessment, you were an N.

Typical of the Details Thinker

  • You think about things in great detail and sometimes miss the big picture.
  • While you are certainly smart, others may joke that you lack common sense.
  • You would prefer to edit or tweak a plan than to come up with it from scratch.
  • Highlighting study notes doesn’t work for you, because you end up highlighting everything.
  • You may have a tendency to over-think things.
  • You have excellent attention to detail.
  • You may have been described as left-brained.
  • When you have taken the Myers-Briggs assessment, you were an S.

While this may be a good indicator of which type of thinking is more dominant, it doesn’t look at the two in combination. For me, big picture and detail thinking are very intertwined.

I’ve always considered myself a big picture thinker, and I even have the N on the Myers-Briggs test. In addition, I consider some of the worst arguments to be the ones where something is taken out of context. Generally I don’t try to bog myself down with details, but often the two types of thinking aren’t mutually exclusive; sometimes the application of big picture thinking requires an enormous attention to detail. Whether a large-scale plan succeeds often depends on the tiny details.

In chess, the big picture vs the details is analogous to strategy vs tactics. Strategy provides you with overall guidance: should I attack the kingside or the queenside, should I seek to trade a bishop for a knight? Tactics govern how such plans actually take place: if I attack the kingside this way, then my opponent will play this counter, then I will play this move, etc. I try to keep a balance of strategy and tactics, as having one without the other can lead to disaster.

I guess an analogy would be that to get somewhere, you need a map and a car. Having a map without the transportation is useless, and having a car but no idea how to get to your destination is futile. Though if you had to pick only one, I guess having the car is a better idea.

Big Picture Thinking Requires Details, and Vice Versa

The big picture vs detail oriented thinking comes up a lot in political/economic/social debates. Often it’s the knowledge of many related facts that leads to a more accurate big picture understanding. To take a not super-controversial topic, consider the funding and effectiveness of NASA. We know that it has declined significantly since landing on the moon. And we know that landing a human on Mars should be done soon, and we could argue that if only NASA had more funding, we could be much further in space exploration.

Of course, the previous is a pretty naive representation of the NASA situation. During the 1960s, we were at the height of the space race in the Cold War, and NASA was considered not only as an institution for scientific research, but also an institution for national security. Landing on the moon was inspirational not just as a feat of humanity, but also as a feat of us beating them. In addition, as many inventions come from military purpose, there are obvious military implications of having satellites in orbit around the earth, but there are much fewer in having any on Mars. And the economic investment would take much longer to return. You could keep piling on more relevant details to get a better picture.

The point is, to get a good high-level understanding of something requires extensive knowledge of the details surrounding it.

On the other hand, making sense of small details often relies on seeing the big picture. Every bit and fragment of the news makes more sense the more you understand current trends. Events that seem unrelated may very well be correlated, but the correlation may only be visible from bird’s eye view.

For example, LGBT rights and the abortion/women’s rights may seem unrelated, but there is a common denominator: religion. Resistance against LGBT rights and abortion are both connected to religious beliefs in the same way, and even the arguments for resisting either movement come almost solely from religious arguments. This is why on this blog I discuss religion a lot but rarely LGBT rights or abortion—dealing with the root cause is more imperative than dealing with the symptoms.

In all, both big picture and detail oriented thinking are important, and one needs both of them to have a deeper understanding. Without the big picture or the details, one has a limited grasp of the situation.

On Senior Year

Cornell Tower

I’m a couple of months into my final year of school. This post is a reflection on my senior year so far and the Cornell experience in general.

Differences

Senior year has been quite different from any other year. This is largely due to a more carefree attitude resulting from having post-college employment already lined up. In addition, this is the first semester in which I don’t have to take any distribution requirements, so I get to take whatever I want.

At first glance I seem less incentivized to do work. But in fact, it has made me more productive than ever before. Not having to research companies/grad schools, fill out applications, prepare for interviews, etc. frees up a lot of time. I feel much less stressed than in earlier years, and I feel happier in general. I now have the time for introspection, to put aside the act and think about what I truly care about.

Cornell

Cornell

Even though I am majoring in math, most of the greatest classes I’ve taken were not in the math department. Intro classes in astronomy by Steve Squyres and sociology by Ben Cornwell were very eye-opening. Computing in the Arts (by resident genius Graeme Bailey) was a refreshing multidisciplinary class that truly combined everything together. And in math, the honors intro sequence (2230 & 2240, by Ravi Ramakrishna and John Hubbard respectively) shattered and rebuilt what I thought math was.

But the learning extended far beyond classes. I’ve met some really amazing people here from all over the country (I wanted to say world, but that would be a lie). And of course, the Cornell experience wouldn’t be complete without seeing famous people, whether through lectures, connections, alumni status (Bill Nye), or even pure coincidence (*cough* Bill Murray).

The Future

It feels strange knowing this will be my last year of school. If you count kindergarten as a grade, that’s school for 17 years consecutively, and that could have been more if I were going to grad school. I’ve lived the vast majority of my life in the academic life, and it feels like almost a relief to be headed next year into the real world.

Is the Virtual World Really An Escape from Reality? (Part 2)

On September 17th, Blizzard announced that they would be removing the auction houses in Diablo 3. For gamers, this may seem like a very strange move. It is very rare that a company will remove a significant feature of a game, especially when there is no stated replacement plan.

Real World Finances

But from a sociological perspective, this is a very interesting move that signifies a reaction to the merging of the virtual and real worlds. It seems like the warnings from Jesse Schell in 2010 are manifesting. Last year, Diablo 3 launched with two widespread auction houses, allowing players to trade their virtual items. The gold auction house used in-game currency, while the real money auction house used… real money. Real US dollars. And other worldwide currencies.

The Diablo 3 Real Money Auction House. The $250 max buyout is the limit.
The Diablo 3 Real Money Auction House. The $250 max buyout is the limit.

As I said in part 1, the virtual world, used to be an escape from reality:

One of the strongest effects of these games was to cause players to disregard socioeconomic stratification that existed in the real world. In the virtual worlds of RPG’s, everyone starts equal and has the same opportunities.

From an extensive CNN report on gaming:

A professor: “…people do not feel they have the freedom and kind of  their own power to change their own social roles and their own identities. But in cyberspace, people do not remember… your wealth.”

However, Facebook (among others, though Facebook arguably had the largest effect) changed this with microtransactions that allowed players with more wealth in real life, or more willingness to use the wealth, to translate it to in-game wealth. Schell’s talk has a lot more on how Facebook changed gaming.

But despite the influence of Facebook, many gamers stayed on non-FB games. It took Diablo 3 to have a large enough impact on affecting socioeconomics within a game. To some degree, those who were wealthier in real life were wealthier in the game. And to some degree, it was impossible to progress forward unless one was already wealthy.

In one sense, Blizzard’s removal of the auction houses signifies a break from the trend of the ever increasingly tangled web of real and imaginary.

An Efficiency Problem

Of course, we cannot discount Blizzard’s stated reasons for removing the auction houses:

When we initially designed and implemented the auction houses, the driving goal was to provide a convenient and secure system for trades. But as we’ve mentioned on different occasions, it became increasingly clear that despite the benefits of the AH system and the fact that many players around the world use it, it ultimately undermines Diablo’s core game play: kill monsters to get cool loot.

Indeed, the problem was that there was too much trading and the system became too efficient. I actually wrote a lengthy post about this on the Diablo 3 forums last year, called “Why the Auction House is the Main Problem,” which was also mathematically oriented. This article was highly rated and was spread around the interwebs.

Basically, the problem was that the increased market efficiency from the auction houses allowed the average player to obtain much better items than they otherwise would, thereby short-circuiting the actual game.

Although it seems fairly obvious now as to what happened, the sentiment at the time was that the real money auction house was causing the main problems, but that the gold auction house was fine. Before my thread, I don’t recall anyone making a coherent argument against the efficiency of the gold auction house.

The Future of Gaming

Thus it is not all that surprising that Blizzard is removing both auction houses. And even considering Blizzard’s official reason, it is interesting that the economic system in the game has so many analogs in real life.

A vision of the future virtual world, from part 1:

It will not be a place where we can set aside our real world and escape our problems for a few hours. It will not be a place where we have fun or meet people we would never see otherwise and talk about the little things in life without worrying about our financial position.

Instead, it will be an extension of the real world and everything in it. Those who are wealthier in the real world will have more options in the virtual world, and those who are poorer will remain poor. Ultimately, if virtual reality does not return to its roots as an escape from reality, people will end up escaping the virtual world as well.

So given the recent news, perhaps we are not quite as firmly on that road as we were last year—a wrench has been thrown in the works. But in the end, the real and virtual worlds are still on a collision course. We should definitely be prepared.