# Culture, Biases, and Empathy

A few disclaimers before I start:

1. This is a complicated issue. While I may simplify definitions or arguments for the sake of making a point, I realize the truth is more complex than that.
2. I’m not completely sure about the conclusions, and this is not a topic that I am an authority on. Still, there are some things that I find so disturbing that I feel the need to say something, even if it is just armchairing.
3. Culture can be taboo, especially to criticism. I realize this.
4. I am going to throw in more caveats than usual, particularly because of the first three reasons. The last post I wrote in this area, on the social construction of progress, seemed to strike the wrong nerve even among some of my friends, so I’ll be extra careful here. I feel that I shouldn’t need to make such disclaimers, and hopefully this will clarify understanding rather than confound it.

The topic for today is the criticism of other cultures. In particular, we are very reluctant to criticize even a tiny facet of another culture, and while this is for good reason due to the not-so-friendly history of cultural superiority, I think we have overcompensated in the moral relativism direction and have ended up shielding even the worst culture-specific behaviors from criticism.

Wariness in Criticizing Cultures

As noted in the social progress post, much of our (post-)modern reservation to proclaim objective truths is well intentioned: to prevent future atrocities from happening as a result of the feelings of cultural superiority. The Holocaust comes to mind immediately, and European colonialism is another.

However, to (theoretically) renounce objective truth altogether would go too far. Then on what grounds do we have to say that stoning someone for adultery is wrong? Or rather, how can we criticize a culture that practices stoning as punishment for adultery? Or a culture with the punishment of 200 lashes for the crime of being raped? (Yes, you read that right—200 lashes not for the perpetrator, but for the victim.) We don’t have any grounds to make such criticism on at all, if we subscribe to extreme moral relativism.

Of course, this is an extreme scenario. The average person doesn’t watch a video of a woman being stoned to death and then say, “That’s okay because it’s okay in their culture and we have to respect that.” The reaction is outrage, as it should be.

Cultural Anthropic Principle

I want to take one step back and talk about a peculiarity in the logic of cultural critique: a selection effect on what we are saying. It is similar to an effect in cosmology called the anthropic principle: given that we are observing the universe, the universe must have properties that support intelligent life. That is, it addresses the question of “Why is our universe suitable for life?” by noting that if our universe were not suitable for life, then we wouldn’t be here making that observation. That is, the alternative question, “Why is our universe not suitable for life,” cannot physically be asked. We must observe a universe compatible with intelligent life.

A similar effect is found in some areas of cultural analysis. We have, for instance, many critiques of democracy written by people living in democracies. One might ask, what kind of criticisms do people make within a totalitarian state? The answer might be none: given that a writer is in a totalitarian system, their critique of the totalitarian government may never be published or even written in the first place for fear of imprisonment by the state. The net result is, given that we are critiquing our own political system, we are most likely in an open political system. This seems to answer the question, “Why is political analysis democracy-centric?”

The same principle applies to the criticism of cultures. More intellectually advanced cultures tend to be more open to self criticism and be more wary of criticizing other cultures. So, a culture that is wary about criticizing other cultures tends to be more intellectually sophisticated, and thus often are concerned with epistemological questions of cultural analysis in the first place and can often give a better answer than one that is less self-aware.

Cultural Exclusion, Bias

In any discussion with one person criticizing another culture, the go-to defense is, “You are not from culture X, so you cannot possibly understand X.” This seems to be a very exclusionary argument that implicitly denies the role of empathy. By saying “you cannot possibly understand,” one implies that there is something mysterious that cannot be shared with someone outside the group.

I’m all for people of different cultures to communicate and get along with one another, but the mindset of “you cannot possibly understand” seems to reinforce cultural divisions and deny the possibility for mutual understanding.

Along the lines of “you cannot possibly understand,” a related argument is, “You are from culture X, therefore your opinion is biased,” where X usually equals Western culture.

Of course opinions are biased! But it’s not as simple as biased vs unbiased (and does an unbiased person even exist?)—there is a whole range of biases along different dimensions. To reiterate my favorite Isaac Asimov quote:

When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

Interestingly enough, the context of this quote (source) is that it was in response to an English major who “…went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern ‘knowledge’ is that it is wrong.” Asimov’s response signifies that wrongness exists as not a dichotomy, but a scale. (It is kind of ironic that Asimov was the one who argued that wrongness is relative, to an English major in 1989.)

So yes, we are biased, but that does not mean we should just abandon cultural analysis. As we understand biases more, we get better at working around them and minimizing their impacts. One example is the anchoring bias, which says that if you are trying to guess a number but think of some other number beforehand, your guess will move slightly closer to that other number. For example, in situation (1), I ask you, “What is 1000 plus 1000?” and then ask you to estimate the price of a car, versus (2) I ask you, “What is a million plus a million?” and then ask you to estimate the price of the car. You will give a lower estimate in the first case and a higher estimate in the second case, even though it is the same car! To work around this, try to not expose someone to arbitrary numbers beforehand if you want an honest estimation from them, for instance. (For more on biases, see Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

Probably, we cannot eliminate all biases from our minds. But in regards to cultural criticism, bias cannot be used as a disqualifier. In 12th grade history, we had an essay where one of the points was to analyze and contextualize sources, e.g. looking for bias. Some of my classmates apparently had used the “you cannot possibly understand” mentality on the source analysis. Our teacher had to announce in class that “This author is not from country X and therefore must be biased when talking about country X” is not a valid scholarly argument. From my college experience, professors explicitly warn against doing this as well, so to be clear, my argument on cultural criticism is not targeted against academics (who I think are approaching things correctly), but against a popular/cultural sentiment.

This recent Buzzfeed article “Why Muslim Americans Are Giving ‘Alice In Arabia’ Major Side-Eye” is an apt example of this sentiment. It’s interesting that the criticisms are not of the content but of the context—that the writer is a white woman and therefore must be racist and cannot possibly understand Muslims. I won’t say too much more about it here, but it’s pretty interesting and solidly demonstrates the point of this post. It isn’t even criticism of culture so much as even portrayal of/writing about another culture. Which leads me to…

Personal Investment and Empathy

“You cannot possibly understand” as an argument seems to deny empathy. The point of empathy is you can understand someone else. More specifically, we are concerned with intercultural empathy, trying to understand another culture. There are plenty of people who come from multicultural backgrounds and who have adapted from one culture to another, so it happens all the time.

Recently, I also ran into the argument of “you are not personally invested in X, therefore you have no point in talking about X,” which is again a denial of empathy and an affirmation of total self interest. This argument was made in a comment to the social progress blog post, and the commenter ended with the following:

Your stakes in this critical project are low, and you’re yelling that from your desk chair for some reason.

I think the implication was that since I’m not a humanities major, I shouldn’t be interested in talking about the humanities. Really? In addition, this sentiment is simply historically wrong. From a previous blog post:

It is important to keep in mind that when groups do agitate for rights, their practical purpose is to convince whomever is in charge to give them rights. Just looking at American history, we see that every time there is a major social revolution granting rights to a previously discriminated group, the government itself contained extremely few, if any, members of that group.

Abraham Lincoln was white, and so was the rest of the US government when the Civil War occurred. When Congress granted women the right to vote, there were no women in Congress. And when the LGBT community first agitated for rights, no member of Congress of such an orientation had openly declared it.

According to the commenter’s logic, these rights revolutions should never have happened because there was no personal investment for any white member of Congress to support rights for racial minorities, or for any male Congressperson to support rights for women, or for the straight Congress to support LGBT rights, etc.

And according to the commenter’s logic, pretty much everything I talk about should not be talked about. I’ve spoken in the past about LGBT rights and perceptions, women’s rights, and the wealth gap, even though I’m straight, male, and will be working on Wall Street. So why do I write on these topics? One word: empathy. (Arguably, even my atheism-related posts are not really personally invested: I’ve never felt discriminated against due to my atheism. It’s sometimes more of giving a voice to those who are prevented from having one.)

“You are not personally invested in X” is not as common as the other sentiments, but I feel that it needs an explanation. Maybe we are so well conditioned to look for biases that we assume everyone must have some personal vestment/personal reason for doing something. Perhaps it does stem from similar lines of thinking to “you cannot possibly understand.” If you assume that everyone is purely self-interested, then this argument is not as ridiculous, but it’s still shaky at best.

In all, we must be careful in analyzing other cultures, minimize the impact of our biases, and use empathy to even try to understand those whom we don’t normally associate with. And most of all, we need to move beyond “you cannot possibly understand.”

# Atheist or Agnostic: A Confusion of Terms?

I often hear things along the line of “I’m an agnostic, not an atheist,” usually followed by one or more insinuations of atheists, such as:

• “I think being an atheist requires just as much faith as being a theist [so I’m an agnostic instead].”
• “Atheists are just as closed-minded as theists [so I’m an agnostic instead].”
• “Neither side can disprove the other, so it’s hypocritical for atheists to criticize theism [so I’m an agnostic instead].”

This misconception of agnosticism presumes that atheism and theism are diametrically opposed extremes, and that agnosticism is a sort of middle ground between them. Perhaps most believe the picture looks like this:

There are at least a couple of things wrong with this. First, neither theism nor atheism explicitly entail extreme, absolutely certain belief in anything. (Most theists I have talked to about this do not proclaim 100% certainty, and I do not know a single atheist who is absolutely certain that no gods exist. Though, the stats suggest that theism within the general population is more often than not accompanied with absolute certainty.)

Second, gnosticism deals with a separate issue from theism. Theism is concerned with belief, whereas gnosticism is concerned with knowledge. This is why I identify formally as agnostic atheist: I don’t believe there is a god (atheist), nor do I claim to know whether one exists (agnostic). To repeat myself, atheism does not necessarily entail 100% certainty that no gods exist, neither does theism necessarily entail 100% certainty that one or more gods do exist. This famous chart categorizes the distinction between belief and knowledge:

Agnosticism is not a third way between atheism and theism; it is a separate dimension altogether. This is usually as far as explanations of atheism vs agnosticism go. However, I would like to take this one step further.

More In-Depth

The chart above is misleading. It merely states what the areas are, not how the populace actually fits into them. Nor does it address the philosophical difference between the concepts of strong atheism and weak atheism (though it mentions strong atheism at the bottom). I will try to address these points here.

Here is the same chart but with areas adjusted for  the actual proportions of people within atheism and theism (crude estimation):

In addition, I have drawn an arrow to simulate folding this chart into a line:

Again, it seems that most atheists are agnostic rather than gnostic, whereas most theists are gnostic rather than agnostic. That is, most atheists do not claim to know their belief, whereas a majority of theists are 100% certain that their god(s) exist:

Combining the two diagrams together allows for a comparison of misconception vs reality, where the sizes of the arrows attempt to match the correct proportions of people:

For this reason, I find the claim very unreasonable that atheism is “just as extreme” as theism. It is simply not true, since most atheists fall under agnostic atheism, whereas most theists fall under gnostic theism. Only a gnostic atheist could be possibly as “extreme” as a gnostic theist (gnosticism being a necessary condition), but I would still argue the gnostic theist position is more extreme.

Namely, the categorization above applies to a general concept of god, not any god in particular. It is very possible to be a gnostic atheist regarding a particular god, such as how most Christians are gnostic atheists with regards to Zeus or Thor. “I just know Zeus belongs in mythology.” I think Christians would agree that being a gnostic atheist with respect to Zeus is not as extreme a position as being a gnostic theist with respect to Zeus.

So this is where the misconceptions and the qualms of atheism vs agnosticism come from. The words “atheist” and “agnostic” as used in the wrong definitions actually point to roughly the same group of people—agnostic atheists. The primary misconception is additionally preserved by several factors, including:

• People expect one-word answers for religious identity, thus it would be generally unwieldy for someone to answer “agnostic atheist,” and would instead answer either “atheist” or “agnostic.”
• On surveys, “atheist” and “agnostic” are usually mutually exclusive. Thus, you are forced to pick one.
• The word “atheist” has such a negative social stigma (mainly the result of religious propaganda) that many people would not want to deal with the repercussions of saying it, and would rather answer “agnostic.”
• Since many people would rather answer agnostic, this leads to a harmful feedback loop: if an atheist says “I’m an agnostic because atheism is just as closed-minded,” this perpetuates the negative stigma of “atheist,” which in turn causes more people to avoid using the term “atheist.”
• To some degree, the word “atheism” is also confused with the term “strong atheism,” and similarly, “agnosticism” is confused with the term “weak atheism.” Which brings me to…

Strong Atheism vs Weak Atheism

There is another misconception that atheism automatically entails the concept of strong atheism, which asserts that no gods exist. This is in contrast to weak atheism, which rejects the existence of gods without necessarily the positive assertion that no gods exist. The majority of atheists are weak atheists; in fact, I don’t know any strong atheists.

For another example, say you lived 4000 years ago and someone asserted that the Earth was a triangle. Without having to assert that Earth is not a triangle [strong], you can be doubtful that Earth is a triangle [weak]. To doubt the triangle Earth theory, you do not necessarily need some alternate explanation. This is why the claim, “Because they don’t believe in a god, atheists must believe that something came out of nothing and that everything is materialistic” is invalid—atheism doesn’t not entail any belief; it is nonbelief. In addition, note that gnostic atheism is even stronger than strong atheism, as it entails not only an assertion but also knowledge involved in making the assertion.

However, the atheism diagram is often mislabeled with strong atheism as atheism and weak atheism as agnosticism:

In this terminology, I would identify as weak atheist with regards to belief (I don’t believe there is any god, but I don’t make the positive claim that there do not exist any), and weak agnostic with regards to knowledge (I don’t think it’s possible to know right now, but it may be possible in the future—it is provable but not falsifiable). And again, there is a distinction between the concept of a general god and the particular god of Christianity.

From my experience in talking to people, much of the time when they say “I’m an agnostic, not an atheist,” what they really mean really comes down to “I’m a weak atheist, not a strong atheist,” or “I’m an agnostic atheist, not a gnostic atheist.” Sure, this is a semantic difference, but it has a lot of real world implications due to equivocations of atheism with strong atheism and of atheism with gnostic atheism. It certainly confounds people who are thinking about these things and it enables completely wrong arguments to be made against atheists.

Of course, there’s still a lot more to cover. For example, I haven’t even addressed the atheist vs deist vs theist distinction yet, which is concerned with whether a god currently interacts with the world or not. A deist might believe an all-powerful being created the universe 13.8 billion years ago but hasn’t touched the universe since then, whereas a theist believes that a god still interacts with the world today. But this wasn’t too relevant in the atheist/agnostic distinction this post is concerned with. I hope this clears at least some of the confusion surrounding these terms.

In addition to “atheist” and “agnostic,” there are many more terms that can make the conversation even more confusing: humanist, secularist, freethinker, nonreligious, rationalist, etc., each with different connotations. This may be in a future post.

# Are Science and Religion Compatible?

With the current reboot of Cosmos, the age-old question of whether science and religion are compatible has presented itself in mainstream once again.

If we were to answer this very methodically, we would start questioning the semantics of “science,” “religion,” and “compatible.” The conventional definitions are broad enough that given particular arrangements of definitions, the answer can be made yes or no without much disagreement.

Suppose I frame the question as, “Can someone who considers themselves to be religious also believe in science?” The answer is a factual yes. But what if I frame the question as, “Can someone who asserts a literal interpretation of the Bible believe in a 13.8 billion year old universe with our origins in natural evolution?” The answer is a logical no.

This kind of disparity shows that if two parties are uncareful, debating whether science and religion are compatible can turn into a useless argument of semantics.

Religion and Science as Methods: Asserting vs Searching

This 1893 illustration by Orlando Ferguson, called “Map of the Square and Stationary Earth,” posits the Earth as, well, not completely flat, but at least much flatter than a globe. Interestingly, at the bottom of the diagram, several Bible verses are pointed out as “scripture that condemns the globe theory.” They include, as stated in the illustration:

And his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.—Ex. 17:12

The world also shall be stable that it be not moved.—1 Chron. 16:30

The four corners of the earth.—Isaiah 11:12

It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth.—Isaiah 40:12

He that spread forth the earth.—Isaiah 52:5

…and several more which also do not seem to be explicitly condemning of the sphere theory.

Contrast Ferguson with Eratosthenes, a Greek mathematician who lived in the 3rd century BC who used a systematic method of measurement, shadow lengths, and the tools of geometry to estimate the circumference of the earth circa 240 BC:

Using this process, Eratosthenes estimated  the circumference of the earth to be the equivalent of 39,690 km, which is amazingly close to the actual circumference of 40,075 km. It becomes even more amazing if you consider that the known world was not very large in Eratosthenes’ time.

Now what was the point of this comparison other than to show that one guy was really smart and the other was an ignoramus? Answer: There is a clear difference in methodology. Ferguson presupposed that the Bible must be true, and built his map attempting to follow the Bible, e.g., literally with four corners. (“But clearly ‘four corners of the earth’ is a metaphor!” How do you know that?) Eratosthenes set up an experiment to find the angle theta from the center of the earth between Alexandria and Syrene, and then solved for an equation using this value to find the circumference of the earth.

That is, religion asserts truth, whereas science searches for truth. This is where the fundamental disagreement arises.

Ferguson asserted that the Bible is true, and thus any “evidence” must be valid if it affirms the Bible and invalid if it contradicts the Bible. (See confirmation bias.)

Eratosthenes’ experiment does not assert or presuppose that the earth is a sphere beforehand. If it turned out that the earth was flat, Eratosthenes would have measured the angle theta to be zero, and then deduced that the world was indeed flat. Instead, he measured an angle of 7.2 degrees, indicating a curvature of the earth which he then calculated. One method uses circular reasoning (“Because it says so in the Bible”), whereas the other uses an actually legitimate process.

Only a very small portion of people still believe in the flat earth model. So, enter the geocentric model (see the Galileo affair). This is apparently still a common belief: as recently as in a 2014 poll, one in four Americans believe that the sun goes around the earth.

I don’t have a problem with these beliefs in themselves. Ignorance is a good justification for them (not justifying ignorance itself), i.e. if I were not educated or did not have the tools of science at my disposal, and I just used my natural intuition on the shape of the earth, I would probably say it is flat. There is nothing immediately obvious to suggest otherwise. After all, nearly every civilization in antiquity independently came up with the idea that the earth is flat. However, if I am presented with all the overwhelming evidence that the earth is round, and I still reject all of the evidence and still assert the earth is flat because I believe some book must be true because it says it’s true, that would be a much worse offense.

In the paragraph above, you can replace the flat-earth/round-earth phrasing with creationism/evolution, and the same argument would hold.

But this can lead to various useless discussions of semantics. What about a religious Christian, for instance, who doesn’t take the Bible literally and can accept scientific facts that are contradictory to literal interpretation? Is this person really “religious”? What about a person (not necessarily religious) who accepts all the relatively older facts that science has shown over time, such as gravity, round earth, and evolution, but refuses to believe the latest advancements in neuroscience? Is this person really “scientific”? (What about a Scotsman who puts sugar in his porridge? Is this person a true “Scotsman”?)

To resolve some of the ambiguity, let’s look at scientists, a category which has a relatively clear definition.

“But there are scientists who believe in God!” Yes, there are! In fact, a whopping 7% of the National Academy of Sciences believes in a god, the other 93% being atheists and agnostics. The figure is not as extreme for scientists in general (Pew):

And for specific affiliation:

Going from general public to scientists, atheists increase representation by a factor of 8, agnostics by a factor of 5, and Jews by a factor of 4, while evangelical Protestants decrease representation by a factor of 7. What does this mean? Assuming the data is accurate, this implies (1) atheists/agnostics/Jews were filtered out and more likely to be scientists in the first place, and/or (2) somewhere along the process of becoming a scientist, some Christians de-converted. Since changing one’s religion is relatively rare (and this doesn’t explain the Jewish case), it must be explained mostly by (1), that certain groups are more prone to becoming a scientist to begin with, i.e. a selection effect.

Explaining why Christianity is negatively correlated to science is still an interesting question that would deserve an entire post. However, if I had to give a single answer, it would be the social stigma against science (largely Christian-perpetuated).

Another interesting question is explaining why the percentage of Jewish scientists is 4 times higher than the Jewish percentage in the general population. Even though being a Christian decreases your chances of being a scientist, being Jewish increases it significantly. If I had to give an answer here, it would be that Judaism is far more open-minded than Christianity in America, because most American Jews consider being Jewish as more a matter of ancestry/culture rather than as a matter of religion (source):

So, at least part of the increase in the number of Jews from the general population to scientists can be explained by justified comparison to the increase in the number of atheists.

Declarations of Compatibility

Many religious denominations today have declared that that scientific concepts like evolution are not in conflict with their faiths. But it’s one thing to declare something and another to show it. In the history of religion’s acceptance of scientific ideas, the enormous delay is more telling than the final admittance of wrongness, which could come centuries later. The Galileo affair in the early 1600’s was not apologized for by the Catholic Church until 1992 under Pope John Paul II. Even as late as 1990, Cardinal Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI) gave a speech using this particular quote by Paul Feyerabend (source):

The Church at the time of Galileo kept much more closely to reason than did Galileo himself, and she took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s teaching too. Her verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and the revision of this verdict can be justified only on the grounds of what is politically opportune.

An even more recent fact took a century and a half to be admitted, and only in part, by official Catholic doctrine: evolution. While On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, it was not until 1996 that John Paul II officially accepted evolution. Even so, in the acceptance letter, he included the following caveat (source):

Theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.

It’s hard to take seriously an organization that refuses an idea so fervently only to attempt to vindicate it centuries later. In the United States, 46% of the population still believe in creationism (source), while a further 32% believes in theistic evolution, with God as an agent in evolution (which kind of defeats the purpose of evolution).

Of course, the slowness of religion to adopt ideas is not just confined to scientific truths. What were some justifications for slavery during the US Civil War? Let’s hear some not-so-well-known quotes by Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy (source; going to list multiple to make it clear I’m not just taking one of them out of context…):

“If slavery be a sin, it is not yours. It does not rest on your action for its origin, on your consent for its existence. It is a common law right to property in the service of man; its origin was Divine decree.” ~Davis

“African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing.” ~Davis

“My own convictions as to negro slavery are strong. It has its evils and abuses…We recognize the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him – our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude…You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.” ~Davis

“It [slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts…Let the gentleman go to Revelation to learn the decree of God – let him go to the Bible…I said that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible, authorized, regulated, and recognized from Genesis to Revelation…Slavery existed then in the earliest ages, and among the chosen people of God; and in Revelation we are told that it shall exist till the end of time shall come. You find it in the Old and New Testaments – in the prophecies, psalms, and the epistles of Paul; you find it recognized, sanctioned everywhere.” ~Davis

Of course, we can find many, many more recent examples in views expressed on women, interracial marriage, and homosexuality. But this article is on religion and science, so let’s get back on topic.

The point of bringing up these social examples is to demonstrate that religion is not “compatible” in the sense that it has supported homosexuality all along (which it obviously hasn’t). Rather, 100 years in the future, when homosexuality is regarded like having green eyes is today, religious advocates will claim that the fact that religion ended up accepting homosexuality is evidence of its compatibility with homosexuality.

To make it explicit for the science case, in no way was evolution compatible with religion when Darwin was around. Only after one and a half centuries, after revision of doctrine and turning some things into metaphors instead of literal truth was it officially declared that they can they be logically held together. That is, when two contradictory ideas are held together, one has to budge (unless doublethink). In the case of evolution, it was religion that budged. Same with the heliocentric theory: in the 1600s, heliocentrism and religion were not compatible. Only after religion changed into something else was it compatible.

This again raises the question of what we mean by “compatible.” Say Bob and Joe are in a room, and each time this happens, Bob cannot stand Joe and beats him up. We take Bob out and put him under an anger management program, but directed only at Joe. That is, now when Bob and Joe are in the same room, Bob is nice to Joe, and in fact they become friends. However, when you put anyone else in the same room with Bob, Bob will unfailingly beat that person up, until you train Bob to be nice to that particular person.

If I ask, “Are Bob and Joe compatible,” the answer might be yes, only after the psychological treatment. However, if I ask, “Is Bob compatible with having a new person added to his room,” the answer is no. I think this is analogous to religion and science. Religion was at first incompatible with heliocentrism, but after a grueling long time, now it is not. Religion was incompatible with evolution, but after a long time, now it is not. However, religion is incompatible with science as the method, the process of adding new people to the room. Religion is compatible with particular areas of scientific results after rejecting them for as long as possible. However, to be actually compatible with adding new people to the room, Bob needs to be subjected to a session where he learns that beating up anyone is wrong, not just certain people. Whenever religion learns a lesson, whether it’s heliocentrism is right or evolution is right (or slavery is wrong), it never applies that lesson to anything else. (“Oh I understand that it’s wrong to hate on interracial couples now, let’s hate on gays!”)

To the question, “Are science and religion compatible,” my answer is a qualified no.

# The Construction of Social Progress: Can Civilization Move Forward?

In the past year, I have used the term “social progress” in 6 different blog posts. It referred to various topics, including LGBT rights, women’s rights, and views on race, not to mention advances in medicine and technology. Implicit were the assumptions that civilization can move forward, and that having having a more equal society does constitute social progress.

Progress and Postmodernism

As it turns out, this type of thinking is not a given. Under postmodernist thought (whatever this phrase means), the idea of social progress is taken skeptically and questioned. Granted, the questioning is done with the noblest intention. Postmodernists argue that metanarratives of progress have, in the past, led to the cruelties of European colonialism, Fascism, and Communism. In each case, those who thought they were more civilized or who thought they could bring about a more civilized society ended up being brutal tyrants. Progress was thus a tool by which the rulers ruled the oppressed. Progress was and is, in the extreme, nothing more than a social construct.

I wonder if this fervent skepticism toward social progress is an overreaction. While I could write an entire post or more specifically about this, I reject postmodernism overall and consider myself under post-postmodernism, remodernism, metamodernism, or whatever word you prefer to describe the cultural state after postmodernism. Admittedly, I recognize that my own thoughts cannot be fully disentangled from postmodernist thought (which is itself a postmodernist way of thinking), but I can try to move forward.

The reason I bring this up is that postmodernism and progress are more intricately tied than just a loose sentiment that progress doesn’t exist. Postmodernism also rejects objective truth (either to some degree or often all-out); if you have been in an English class, you’ve probably learned that all truth is subjective. Herein lies another issue, as the concept of progress entails that society is objectively moving forward, that there is some objective truth, a conflict with postmodernism.

To add one more grain to the heap, there is a modernist vs postmodernist dichotomy between prescription and description. The significance of this is that modernism and progress are inherently compatible: modernism tried not only to describe the world, but also to prescribe that we should try to achieve social progress (even if it did not reveal how). Postmodernism, however, as a purely descriptive framework, is incompatible with the concept of progress; it could not advocate for social progress even if it were not a social construction. (This leads to a chicken and egg problem: Does postmodernism reject progress because it rejects prescription, or does it reject prescription because it rejects progress?)

The Existence of Social Progress

Despite the postmodern rejection of progress, it is very easy to show that progress does exist. Ask any postmodernist if they would rather contract polio or measles or chicken pox right now, or not contract any of them. Clearly, everyone agrees there is some objective truth and an objective scale of progress on health and medicine. “But that’s falling into the technology trap,” one might object, “you cannot tie together technology and progress because of nukes.” But this is like saying Einstein’s 1905 paper on special relativity was was the cause of the Cold War. This type of thinking misses the big picture, and it misses the fact that technological advancements have made the world a much better place.

Even then, supposing you are still against technology despite medical or other technological advances, say you are not a heterosexual, white male. Would you rather live in the United States of 2014 or 1814? Does your answer not signify the existence of progress?

What about even if you are a heterosexual, white male, would you rather live in the England of 2014 or 1314? That is, would you rather live in a society with the homicide rate of 1314, or in a society with a 95% lower homicide rate? (p. 61 of this book)

Here is the Social Progress Index, which ranks countries based on aggregate scores on Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing, and Opportunity:

Using numerical data is a modernist approach, and a caricature postmodernist might flinch upon seeing the United Kingdom as being considered more “progressed” than Nigeria. Of course, we must be very cautious at how we interpret this data. For instance, the UK’s higher position than Nigeria does not constitute grounds for invasion and colonization as it may have in the modernist era. But these numbers do form grounds for critical analysis.

Yes, much of progress is socially constructed. Many of the earlier (i.e. modern) approaches were naive and led to atrocious results. But the solution is not to forsake progress altogether, but rather, to gain a matured understanding of it. This first step towards true progress requires the acceptance of progress, the rejection of postmodernism.

# 10 Surprising Mathematical Facts

Since “10 Mind Blowing Mathematical Equations” is one of my most popular articles, I decided to write another math list.

Plenty of things in math are downright uninteresting. Who cares that the area of a circle is πr², or that a negative times a negative is a positive? Why should this interest us at all? Perhaps the answer can be found in the most unexpected results, the counterintuitive facts that have sometimes eluded even the best mathematicians.

The birthday paradox says that if there are 23 people in a room, there is a more than 50% chance that two people have the same birthday. It seems counterintuitive because the probability of having a birthday on any particular day is only 1/365.

But the difference relies on the fact that we only need two people to have the same birthday as each other. If, instead, the game was to get someone with a birthday on a particular day, such as March 14, then with 23 people, there is only a 6.12% chance that someone will have that birthday.

In other words, if there are 23 people in a room, and you choose one person X, and ask, “Does anyone else have the same birthday as X,” the answer will probably be no. But then repeating this on the other 22 people increases the probability every time, resulting in a net probability of more than 50% (50.7% to be more precise).

2. Mandelbrot Set (Looks Like This)

The Mandelbrot set is a set of complex numbers that, when iterated according to a certain formula, do not escape to infinity. Based on the simplicity of the formula itself, which is z -> z² + c, you would not expect such a complex figure to arise.

When you zoom in on the Mandelbrot set, you get an infinite number of smaller Mandelbrot sets, which in turn have infinitely more… (This kind of behavior is typical among fractals.)

It really captures the idea of worlds within worlds, universes within universes. Here is a video of a zoom (among many on YouTube). I think it’s absolutely mind blowing.

If you still don’t think theoretical math is awesome after seeing that video, I don’t know what to say.

The Banach-Tarski paradox says that you can split one shape into two perfect copies of itself. More specifically, it says that given a solid ball in 3-dimensions, it is possible to break it into a finite number of pieces and then arrange them back into two identical copies of the original ball.

Of course, it’s highly counterintuitive, and it’s considered by many to be the single most paradoxical result of mathematics. After all, in real life, we never see one object suddenly turning into two copies. In fact, it seems to defy the conservation of mass in physics, which says that mass should be preserved; shouldn’t the result, with two objects, have twice the mass of the original?

Well, not if the original mass was infinity. Then doubling infinity is still infinity, so there is technically no breaking of laws. For a layman explanation of the Banach-Tarski paradox, see this article I wrote in 2010.

4. Monty Hall Problem

This infamous problem is stated as follows:

Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

No one I know has gotten the correct answer on the first try. Surprisingly, the answer is that it’s better to switch!

Rather than trying to explain the details of the problem here, I will refer you to the Wikipedia article, which does a very good job at exposition. The story is pretty funny too:

Many readers of vos Savant’s column refused to believe switching is beneficial despite her explanation. After the problem appeared in Parade, approximately 10,000 readers, including nearly 1,000 with PhDs, wrote to the magazine, most of them claiming vos Savant was wrong (Tierney 1991). Even when given explanations, simulations, and formal mathematical proofs, many people still do not accept that switching is the best strategy (vos Savant 1991a). Paul Erdős, one of the most prolific mathematicians in history, remained unconvinced until he was shown a computer simulation confirming the predicted result (Vazsonyi 1999).

The lesson is, don’t trust your intuition.

5. Gabriel’s Horn and the Painter’s Paradox

Familiar perhaps to calculus students, Gabriel’s horn is a shape that has a finite volume but an infinite surface area (both are straightforward to check with integral calculus).

A popular way to make this into a real-world problem is to imagine painting the shape. The painter’s paradox states that it is possible to completely fill the horn with paint (finite volume), but it is impossible to completely paint the horn’s inside (infinite surface area).

The Koch snowflake is a shape, along similar lines, that has finite area but an infinite perimeter. In fact, the Mandelbrot set, from #2, also has finite area and infinite perimeter!

6. Basel Problem

$\displaystyle 1 + \frac{1}{4}+\frac{1}{9}+\frac{1}{16}+\frac{1}{25}+\cdots =\frac{\pi^2}{6}$

The only item to appear both in the 10 equations list and in this list, the Basel Problem says that if you take the reciprocal of all the square numbers, and then add them all together, you get pi squared over six.

If you’re a normal, sane human being, it was probably completely unexpected that the stuff on the left side has anything to do with pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

7. Abel’s Impossibility Theorem

$\displaystyle x = \frac{-b \pm \sqrt{b^2-4ac}}{2a}$

Most of you in high school have seen the quadratic equation, which tells you how to solve the degree 2 polynomial equation ax² + bx + c = 0.

But the story doesn’t end there. In the 1500s, mathematicians solved the cubic equation (degree 3), which is just one step up: ax³ + bx² + cx + d = 0. The corresponding solution is far more complicated:

Thank heavens you didn’t have to learn that in high school. But let’s go one step further. How do you solve a quartic equation (degree 4): ax⁴ + bx³ + cx² + dx + e = 0? At this point, the formula is absolutely ridiculous:

I dare you to click on that and scroll through the whole thing.

Now breathe a sigh of relief, because I’m not going to show you the formula for the next step up, the quintic equation (degree 5), ax⁵ + bx⁴ + cx³ + dx² + ex + f = 0, because it doesn’t exist! It’s not that we haven’t found it yet; we actually proved it’s impossible! In fact, for any polynomial with degree 5 or higher, there is no solution in roots.

8. There Are Different Levels of Infinity

Yes, some infinities are bigger than others. Technically, infinities have a property called cardinality, and an infinity with a higher cardinality than that of another infinity is the larger one. (Regular numbers have cardinalities too, but the cardinality of an infinity is always higher than that of a mere number.)

There are still many counterintuitive facts about cardinalities of infinity. For example, are there more integers than even integers? You would think that there are, since you’re missing all the odd integers. But the answer is no, they have the same cardinality. Are there more fractions than integers? Nope, there are just as many integers are there are fractions.

However, Georg Cantor showed that there are actually more real numbers than there are fractions. The real numbers are often referred to as the continuum, and for a long time, it was conjectured, but not known, that there is no level of infinity between integers and the continuum; this conjecture became known as the continuum hypothesis.

It turns out that the continuum hypothesis is neither true nor false in the normal sense. It was proved that it can be neither proved nor disproved. (Read that sentence again.) More precisely, Paul Cohen proved that the continuum hypothesis is independent of ZFC, the standard set of axioms for mathematics.

9. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem(s)

Basically, it was proved that some true things cannot be proved. There are various layman formulations of this result, and I’ll list a couple here:

• Any sufficiently powerful system has statements which can neither be proved nor disproved. (E.g, continuum hypothesis.)
• Any sufficiently powerful system cannot prove itself to be consistent, even if it is consistent.

These became known as Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. Not surprisingly, these had huge implications in not just math but also philosophy.

10. Fermat’s Last Theorem

The Pythagorean theorem says that in a right triangle, a² + b² = c²Now suppose we force the variables to be integers. So the solution a=3, b=4, c=5 is allowed, but a=1.5, b=2, c=2.5 is not allowed, even though it fits the equation. It can be shown that there are an infinite number of solutions with a, b, c all integers.

But what happens if we take this one step up? How many integer solutions are there to a³ + b³ = ? The answer is none. The same happens with abc: no solutions.

$\displaystyle a^n + b^n = c^n$

In fact, Fermat’s Last Theorem states that for any exponent higher than 2, this equation has no integer solutions. This famous problem, conjectured in 1637, took nearly four centuries to solve, being proved finally by Andrew Wiles in 1995.

# What Is the Best Superpower?

We often have discussions in our apartment on the most arbitrary topics. One time, we debated the question: What is the best superpower?

Despite the catchy title, this post is not really about the best superpower. Sure, it talks about that a lot, but that’s not the main point. The main point is about how messy a debate can be when the rules and terms are ill-defined.

What Is a Superpower?

From the start, it was unclear what was meant by “superpower.” It was implicitly understood that something completely all-encompassing like omnipotence is invalid because it is too broad, but this wasn’t formally forbidden. The only thing that was formally forbidden was any superpower than entailed having multiple other superpowers, like wishing for more wishes (but it gets fuzzy as to what counts as one superpower and what counts as multiple).

Being a smart-ass, instead of answering with the usual answers like telekinesis or mind control or invisibility or flying, I suggested the power to move subatomic particles. Let’s just call this particle manipulation for short.

From a naturalist perspective, i.e., physics, particle manipulation encompasses most other plausible powers (hold on for what “plausible” means):

• To move a large object, you just make quadrillions of quadrillions of particles move in the same direction.
• To start a fire, you make the particles move faster.
• To create something out of thin air, or to regenerate any injury, you rearrange particles from the air into atoms and molecules to get what you want.
• To control someone’s mind, you manipulate the neurons directly and make certain connections fire and others not fire.
• To defuse a world war, you could just vaporize every nuke into air.
• To become infinitely rich, you could just turn lead, or any other material, into gold, or into dollar bills.

However, my friend who initiated this discussion, and whose own answer was mind control, thought this answer I gave was “implausible” or “unrealistic.” So what is plausible and implausible? What is realistic and unrealistic?

Doesn’t the word “superpower” imply that it is NOT real? Why does moving a nearby object with your mind seem “realistic”? Does it take a lot of mental power or concentration? Are you limited in the number of objects you can control? Do I always write blog posts that have 7 questions in a row?

Much of our intuition of superpowers comes from the film industry (and thus indirectly from the comic book industry). Before getting bogged down with more philosophical questions, let’s appreciate some good old superpower usage in X-Men: First Class!

Observe the amount of concentration required in the first scene, compared to the relative ease in the second.

The second act is arguably more difficult: it requires control of a scattered collection of objects rather than just one, the control is required at far range, and the change in velocity is much greater. It’s hard to say which is more valid or realistic.

What Powers Are Valid?

Because the particle manipulation power was considered too strong, we decided to forbid it and use only well-known superpowers, to avoid some of the questions as to what was considered a superpower. But this clarification did not come at the beginning, it was more of a change of rules halfway in.

Even so, if you look at the comics, some powers are significantly stronger than portrayed in film. It’s still arguable that Jean Grey’s powers, especially as the Phoenix, are valid and are much stronger than most of the ones we talked about later in the discussion. Even so, do we count these powers separately? Are telepathy and telekinesis separate, or are they included together like in Jean’s case?

Magneto, for instance, is mostly known for him namesake, magnetism. But according to science, electricity and magnetism are really the same force, so does control of magnetism also come with control of electricity? According to Wikipedia:

The primary application of his power is control over magnetism and the manipulation of ferrous and nonferrous metal. While the maximum amount of mass he can manipulate at one time is unknown, he has moved large asteroids several times and effortlessly levitated a 30,000 ton nuclear submarine. His powers extend into the subatomic level (insofar as the electromagnetic force is responsible for chemical bonding), allowing him to manipulate chemical structures and rearrange matter, although this is often a strenuous task. He can manipulate a large number of individual objects simultaneously and has assembled complex machinery with his powers. He can also affect non-metallic and non-magnetic objects to a lesser extent and frequently levitates himself and others. He can also generate electromagnetic pulses of great strength and generate and manipulate electromagnetic energy down to photons. He can turn invisible by warping visible light around his body. […] On occasion he has altered the behavior of gravitational fields around him, which has been suggested as evidence of the existence of a unified field which he can manipulate. He has demonstrated the capacity to produce a wormhole and to safely teleport himself and others via the wormhole.

Thus, from a logical and consistency perspective, I found it difficult to reject the validity of powers such as these. We essentially watered down telekinesis to being able to move objects within X meters and within sight range.

Telekinesis vs Mind Control

Among the remaining, weaker powers, the debate ended up being between telekinesis and mind control. More and more rules were made up on the spot. Once it was established that one power was generally stronger, the other side tried to state some technicality that would limit the power, and thus bring both back to equal levels. At this point, I thought the debate was pointless because we already conceded so many of the better powers, and then kept limiting the remaining powers because of arbitrary, subjective reasons such as being “unrealistic,” which was the main counterpoint. This seems absurd, because you are debating superpowers in the first place—they’re not supposed to be realistic!

It seemed like a debate regarding “What is the highest whole number?” At first we got rid of infinity (omnipotence was not allowed). Getting rid of really strong powers turned into “What is the highest whole number less than 100?” Then when one side says 99, the other side uses a limiting argument basically saying, “The same way numbers over 100 are not allowed, 99 is absurdly high and should not allowed either.” It then becomes “What is the highest whole number less than 99?” And so on.

While there was some semblance to rational debate, it was clear that on the big picture scale, there were essentially no logical points being discussed. It was a matter of imposed fairness. “It’s unfair that your superpower gets to do X and ours does not, so yours is invalid.” But this defeats the purpose of the question in the first place, which was to determine which one was the best. It devolved into the question, “Given that a superpower does not exceed some power level N, what is the best superpower?” Of course, the answer will just be ANY sufficiently good superpower, restricted enough to be at level N. In this case, making up rules on the spot completely defeated the purpose of the question.

Conclusion

There were a bunch of other complications in the debate, but overall it was pretty fruitless. The rules of the debate, namely allowing one to make up rules spontaneously, defeated the purpose of the debate in the first place. It was not completely pointless, however, as it showed the need for setting clear guidelines at the start, and for being consistent.

# Explained: 11 Ways Christians Are Like Atheists

Last time, I wrote a post called “11 Ways Christians Are Like Atheists,” which got quite a few more views than normal. It was a satirical piece, and from the reactions on some sites, it was clear that some people did not grasp the sarcasm, instead thinking it to be a serious post. I think it is worth spending some time explaining the references behind it and to explain why I wrote it the way I did.

The primary motive was to expose the framing bias in the question, “How are atheists like Christians?” by demonstrating it in the flipped question, “How are Christians like atheists?” When you ask, for instance, “How can an atheist be as moral as a Christian?,” the question presupposes that atheists are less moral than Christians and even by answering the question at all, you are conceding that presupposition, no matter how well you answer it. This is because the answer will boil down to trying to explain a secular moral framework, but will hardly convince a Christian who already believes that a theist framework is the best possible approach.

Hence, my method of getting Christians to see this is to flip the question around. When you ask, “How can a Christian be as moral as an atheist?,” now we are presupposing that atheists have the moral high ground and it is up to Christians to prove that they can be as moral.

But there was a secondary motive as well. To further the comparison, I not only flipped around not only the questions, but also the answers, to match the abysmal quality of argument and patronizing tone common to theist arguments. Theists make plenty of terrible arguments that even the worst atheist arguments don’t compare to. There are plenty of Christians, for example, who are seriously making the argument that atheists secretly worship the devil, yet no atheist seriously accuses Christians of secretly worshiping Hades, Greek god and ruler of the underworld.

Obviously, point #4 (Christians must secretly worship the devil) is not a serious claim that Christians secretly worship Satan, but to draw an analogy to the claim that atheists secretly worship Satan. In fact, I think my argument is quite flawless:

Atheists don’t even believe the devil exists, so how could we worship it? Christians, on the other hand…

I’m going to revisit each point and explain some of the story and satire behind them.

1. Christians also defer to science for *almost* everything (“Atheists also have faith”)

Here I argued that Christians primarily use products (computers, phones, tablets, vaccines, cars) or actions/thoughts (washing hands, going to a real doctor, gravity) that come directly from the result of science and reason. They rarely, if ever, go against scientific reasoning (outside of thinking about God). It is a response to Christians arguing that atheists also use faith.

Some Christians have such a messed up understanding of atheists (not necessarily their fault; indoctrination is very strong) that they cannot fathom someone just not believing in something. It’s the “You always have to believe in something” sentiment that is poisonous to understanding. However, rather than getting into the faith argument, my tactic was to turn it around and claim how Christians use science for almost everything.

2. Christians secretly doubt the existence of God (“Atheists secretly believe in God”)

This is one I’ve heard only a few times but it is really funny every time.

And yet…

Again, the point of my article was to flip this around on Christians, thus claiming that Christians secretly doubt the existence of God. I could have gone further, to outright claim that Christians secretly deny this existence of God, but it had to be somewhat believable, at first. Note that points 1-3 are semi-reasonable, to set up a surprise for the rest of the article.

3. Christians don’t believe in Zeus, Thor, or Vishnu either (“Atheists must believe in something“)

Like in #1, it is commonly claimed that atheists must believe in something. Again, rather than directly addressing this point, I gave the argument that Christians don’t believe in any of the other myths, so if they didn’t believe the Christian God, they wouldn’t necessarily believe in something else. In addition, the framing was a reversal of a famous quote:

Instead I framed it as “Christians just stop one god short,” to fit the theme of making atheism the norm and trying to fit Christians into the norm.

4. Christians must secretly worship the devil (“Atheists must secretly worship the devil”)

The screenshots from the intro should suffice. 🙂

5. Christians can also be intelligent (“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” Psalm 14:1)

Starting at this point, the article starts taking a patronizing attitude towards theists as theists normally do to atheists. Obviously, the claim that “Christians can also be intelligent” presupposes that there is some reason to believe that Christians are less intelligent. This, of course, is a mirror of the standard claim that atheists are fools for not believing in God. The Psalm verse is plain evidence of that.

In addition, in the writing itself, I threw in some typical theist debate fallacies such as:

• pointing to certain statistics as if they were the most relevant (the National Academy of Science statistics for general intelligence),
• linking to claims made by a media site that in turn talks about (and may have motive in exaggerating) the results of a research study (the atheists have higher IQs study),
• attempting to be “fair” but actually being very demeaning (“But this does not mean all religious people are unintelligent”), and
• downright patronizing (“Some are indeed very intelligent, and indeed, even they can contribute positively to human knowledge”).

A few more sentences in there and it would have been a genuine gish gallop.

6. Christians can have morals too (“Atheists can have morals too”)

This is one of the biggest points to address. It’s somehow assumed that Christians are moral and atheists have to somehow justify themselves.

Everyone asks, “Can atheists be moral?” But very few people turn it around and ask, “Can Christians be moral?”

The point of bringing up homosexuality was that atheists generally have no problem with other people being homosexual, whereas Christians are either (1) fond of being intolerant of homosexuality and denying rights to homosexuals, or (2) accepting of homosexuality and therefore ignoring parts of the Bible. So while the Christians in (1) are simply immoral, the Christians in (2) have based their morality on something higher than an ancient text (yet still revere it to some degree). In the case of homosexuality, it is apparent that the more moral the Christian, the less one follows the Bible. This raises the question, to what degree can a Christian be moral? And if someone is not following the Bible, how is that person a Christian?

The second example was the prison demographics. While a small portion of the population to begin with, atheists represent an even smaller portion of the population in prison, by a factor of 34. Of course, there are other factors involved; e.g. atheists tend to be better educated than average, and better education is negatively correlated with prison. However, it’s doubtful that adjusting for education/other parameters could explain the factor of 34. With these two examples alone, one would think that atheists are generally more moral than Christians, and it would be up to Christians to demonstrate that they can be as moral as atheists.

7. Christians can also have humility (“Why are atheists so arrogant?”)

Again, instead of explaining that atheists are not arrogant, the point was to show that Christians are only more arrogant.

“Atheism is the arrogant belief that the entire universe was not created for our benefit.

…and that contrasts with the humble religious belief that the most power creature ever created the entire universe of over one hundred billion galaxies, each of which contains over a hundred billion stars like our sun, and then waited for about fourteen billion years, and then picked one of the one hundred billion galaxies, and then picked one of the hundred billion stars within that galaxy, and then picked one of the planets circling that star, and then picked one of the millions of species that existed on that planet, and then picked one individual of that species and said ‘I really think I’ve got to tell that guy to stop gathering sticks on the sabbath.’”

The prayer point is another interesting point I’ve heard, that praying for something should never happen since that inherently shows questioning of God’s plan, that you know better than the creator of the universe.

8. Christians can also experience awe and wonder (“Atheists can also experience awe and wonder”)

To flip this around, how can a Christian possibly feel awe? If you believe in a God that is truly omnipotent and infinite, then creating and managing the entire Earth is a trivial task; entire universes can be created on a whim. Then how could one tiny thing in a miniscule corner of a planet among billions of them in a galaxy among billions in one universe among infinitely possible universes, be inspiring of awe?

The second part is a direct reference to an Oprah Winfrey interview with swimmer Diana Nyad. Nyad is an atheist, and when she talked about this on Oprah’s show, a hilarious exchange occurred, in which Oprah stated Nyad could not be an atheist, to her face.

“After all, if a Christian proclaims to be in awe, isn’t this Christian really an atheist, since only an atheist can truly be in awe?”

9. Christians can also be happy (“Can atheists be happy?”)

Of course, the argument that Christians cannot be happy because they are in perpetual fear of hell is a satirical argument, but it’s actually quite hard to argue against. On the other hand, happiness is something everyone can have, even religious people.

10. Christians can also love (“Atheists are incapable of love”)

There’s plenty of great answers to this around the web. However, if you flip the question, how can Christians love? If they’re merely commanded to love by the Bible, to try to maximize their chances of getting into heaven, how is it actually legitimate? “It’s hard to call this fake display of affection ‘love,’ but I guess we’ll let it slide.”

11. Christians can be good people too (“Atheists can be good people too”)

Even more, there’s somehow this notion that if you’re good, you must secretly not be an atheist.

This is indeed one of the most flawed assumptions of American society. Christianity is automatically associated with good, despite the terrible things that have been done, and are being done, in the name of God. Conversely, anything other than Christianity is associated with evil. This is really one of the paradigms that must shift for society to progress.

Conclusion

The last paragraph drew some attention because of the blatantly patronizing language, but that was the point (“Given time, they will see the error of their ways…”). It was, in fact, largely a paraphrase of this quote towards the end:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. “But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!” But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Yes, “even” the atheists. How modest.

The speaker of that quote was Pope Francis.