2015 and What I’m Thinking About


Effective Altruism

One thing I’ve never discussed on this blog is effective altruism. It is basically a movement to optimize doing good, and it does so by number crunching rather than by random donating. Here are a couple of main results:

  • Certain charities are 10 or 100 times more efficient than others. The most effective of them all is to distribute mosquito nets to sub-Saharan Africa, according to the famous site GiveWell, which ranks charities in effectiveness.
  • A high income earner can create more social impact than a social worker. The idea is that a software engineer earning $100,000 a year and donating 50% of it (to efficient charities like above) can generate a lot more good than a non-profit worker. The site 80,000 Hours has more about this.

I am fine with this movement and I really enjoy the discussions it causes. I would defend effective altruism against many of its usual criticisms.

But I am still personally skeptical for now. Which brings me to…


One thing about working in trading is that I now see everything in terms of markets. (Tyler Cowen’s blog often highlights “markets in everything“.) I naturally think about the cost and value of everyday things and decisions. This mindset probably makes effective altruism become more understandable. If every $3000 in mosquito nets saves one life, why would I ever donate to my alma mater?

Yet the same market mentality also raises some questions. I believe people are generally good, that markets are generally efficient, and that companies are generally beneficial to society. So when billions of dollars go into a tech company like Facebook (market cap of $300 billion as of this post) instead of anti-mosquito nets, there is probably a lot of hard-to-measure good that Facebook is providing and which is widely ignored.

Disenchantment with the Left

I wrote only 3 blog posts this year, and sadly two of them were about terrorist attacks in Paris. Back in college I blogged about atheism, and I kind of want to get into this again considering the Paris tragedies, and I believe that combating religion is still important.

That is also why I am becoming disillusioned with being a liberal. Both in the media and on my Facebook feed, people are too afraid (of being called racist or worse, Islamophobic) to criticize Islam and its role in the attacks. The Koran says to do horrific things to infidels, and it is emphatically not a tiny minority that believe this literally.

Liberals do a great job standing up for women, LGBT people, and religious minorities—in America and Europe. But in entire swathes of Islamic countries, in both the Middle East and Africa, women are considered second-class, legally beaten by their husbands, and even sentenced to 200 lashes for the crime of being raped. And we liberals just look the other way because it would be racist and colonialist to criticize their culture. (That last sentence is just out of anger, I hope nobody actually thinks that.)

Here is a very graphic New York Times video from just yesterday, showing a woman literally beaten and stoned to death by a mob, in a public space in broad daylight, because of rumors she burned a Koran. Can you really watch that and claim Islam had nothing to do with it?

My other disillusionment with being a liberal is the whole safe-space/microaggression/trigger-warning/check-your-privilege movement, which I talked about previously.

Anyway, I want to make a hobby out of writing in 2016, and I’m not sure if I should stick with tame topics like effective altruism and markets, or also include charged ones like religion and politics.

Bonus: My 2015 Reading List

  • The Occupy Wall Street Handbook, Various Authors: This is a compilation of essays written on the Occupy movement. I read this to challenge my positive views towards Wall Street, but I was mostly unpersuaded. The essays presume that you are against Wall Street and then talk about the movement or stats about inequality, without much attempt at persuasion.
  • A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Burton G. Malkiel: A decent chronicle of the rise of finance and Wall Street.
  • The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko: An eye-opening book about American attitudes on saving, spending, and the accumulation of wealth. It provides so many instances where two households have the same income yet have vastly differing net worths, even when age, location, education, previous incomes, etc. are similar.
  • Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: I expected Atlas Shrugged to be pure evil based on so many peoples’ hatred of Ayn Rand and this book, but I actually enjoyed it. At least within the story, I cheered at the end. Does this make me a bad person? I definitely agreed with the reverence of scientists/inventors/creators.
  • On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: We are all familiar with classics in literature, so why not in science? Its force and detail are impressive.
  • Average is Over, Tyler Cowen: The title says it all. Jobs will increasingly cluster towards high-wage and low-wage, with little in between.
  • The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen: Good discussion of low hanging fruit in economic growth.
  • The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan: Excellent treatise on voter rationality and the public’s views on economic issues, and how frighteningly different they are from economists’ views.
  • The Intelligent Investor, Benjamin Graham: I didn’t find it very useful.
  • The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker: A useful writing-style guide.
  • The Price of Inequality, Joseph Stiglitz: I had a similar reaction as to the Occupy handbook. It basically listed some facts but wasn’t that convincing. I mean, I agree that too much inequality is bad, but this book somehow made the case weaker for me. It had at least one “are you kidding me” moment.
  • Humans Are Underrated, Geoff Colvin: An interesting take on the idea that machines will take over even more jobs than today and that jobs will be all about human-to-human interaction.
  • Islam and the Future of Tolerance, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz: A very refreshing, actual dialog between an unapologetic atheist and a pro-reform Muslim. More discussions like this need to exist.
  • Brief Candle in the Dark, Richard Dawkins: Full of captivating and often humorous tales of Oxford, science, and atheism.
  • You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), Felicia Day: Really, thank you so much for creating The Guild and this memoir. It also feels good to read another person’s experience with World of Warcraft.

Caplan’s book discusses anti-market bias, and I feel like I did had lower expectations for books that were pro-market and higher expectations for ones that were anti-market. Both sides surprised me.

Science Cannot Disprove Leprechauns


It looks like the religious trolls are at it again, this week in a Time article, “Why Science Does Not Disprove God.” Of course, they always manage to omit the identical statement that science cannot disprove leprechauns. But if you were convinced by the impossibility of disproof of leprechauns as a sign to believe in leprechauns, you’d be treated as a lunatic.

Biology, physics, mathematics, engineering, and medicine help us understand the world, but there is much about life that remains a mystery.

Duh, that is why scientists around the world are still searching for the truth. No one claimed there is no mystery left (except, ironically, a conclave of religious fundamentalists who think that a holy book answers everything).

A number of recent books and articles will have you believe that—somehow—science has now disproved the existence of God.

What? The very intro sets up the straw man for the rest of the article. Aczel claims to be criticizing the proposition that science has disproved the existence of God, a proposition that has been uttered by no one. Let’s see him continue:

A number of recent books and articles will have you believe that—somehow—science has now disproved the existence of God. We know so much about how the Universe works, their authors claim, that God is simply unnecessary: we can explain all the workings of the Universe without the need for a “creator.”

Is that misleading or what? Aczel equivocates the extremely strong claim that “science has now disproved the existence of God” with the much weaker claim that “God is simply unnecessary.” But he ignores the weaker claim for the rest of the article, preferring to attack the strong straw man claim.

But does this vast knowledge base disprove the existence of some kind of preexistent outside force that may have launched our Universe on its way?

Uh, again, no one is arguing that.

But has modern science, from the beginning of the 20th Century, proved that there is no God, as some commentators are now claiming?

Who are these commentators?

But [science] has not revealed to us why the Universe came into existence, nor what preceded its birth in the Big Bang. Equally, biological evolution has not brought us the slightest understanding of how the first living organisms emerged from inanimate matter on this planet, and how the advanced eukaryotic cells—the highly structured building blocks of advanced life forms—ever emerged from simpler organisms. Neither does it explain one of the greatest mysteries of science: how did consciousness arise in living things? Where do symbolic thinking and self-awareness come from? What is it that allows us humans to understand the mysteries of biology, physics, mathematics, engineering, and medicine? And what enables us to create great works of art, music, architecture, and literature? Science is nowhere near to explaining these deep mysteries.

These mysteries are precisely the frontiers of science. Aczel is using a classic “god of the gaps” argument, that what science currently doesn’t know must be God. This was refuted as early as ancient Greece, by Hippocrates: “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end to divine things.” There’s no reason currently to suggest that mysteries like consciousness won’t eventually be explained by neuroscience.

I could keep on going, but Aczel’s article is a mess, and this blog post almost dignifies it too much. Just remember that we don’t know everything there is to know yet. Therefore, leprechauns exist.

Dismissing Things Without Evidence



In middle school, I used to stay up late and listen to a radio talk show called Coast to Coast AM. The show dealt with many topics, focusing on the supernatural or paranormal. While occasional talks were on real science (they brought on Michio Kaku as a guest), the vast majority consisted of things like psychic powers, auras, numerology, UFOs, alien abductions, crop circles, Bigfoot, astrology, conspiracy theories, the Illuminati, the New World Order, collective consciousness, spoon bending, ghosts, near-death experiences, quantum healing, astral projection, clairvoyance, and other wacky phenomena.

Of course, I have no problem with the expression of unpopular views, and I have written several times in support of their expression. It’s not like Coast to Coast AM is being promoted in the school curriculum, at which point I would take issue. However, this particular category of beliefs, namely superstition, is generally harmful because it promotes thinking in a highly irrational and naive way. Especially in the social media age, we cannot afford as a society to succumb to believing in whatever pops up on our newsfeeds.

But surely this is just a tiny minority of people, right? This is the typical response I get when I speak out against superstition, and it seems sensible because I usually talk about this with highly educated people who automatically dismiss this kind of stuff. However, the numbers for the general populace may be discouraging. From a December 2013 Harris poll (the link is broken so here is a Google cache link), the numbers believing were: 42% in ghosts, 36% in UFOs, 29% in astrology, 26% in witches, and 24% in reincarnation. This is not including religious-based superstitious beliefs, with much higher numbers such as 72% in miracles, 68% in angels, 58% in the devil, and 57% in the virgin birth.

I would usually criticize religion more than superstition, but in this post I make an exception. Even as religious belief is on the decline (see numbers in the Harris poll or also in a Pew Research poll), superstition is on the rise. According to the Harris poll, only 24% of matures (68+) believe in ghosts, but 44% of echo boomers (18-36) do. Astrology increases from 23% to 33%, and witches increase from 18% to 27%, when you go from the oldest to the youngest generation.

The Role of Evidence

Every belief mentioned in the previous section shares something in common: there is zero credible evidence supporting them. Of course, those who believe such things often think they have evidence, and this is almost always explained by confirmation bias, selection bias, or being simply misled. Only when you get to some forms of religious belief do you run into people who claim they do not need evidence at all (“I don’t need evidence, I have faith”). Fortunately, when debating superstitious people as opposed to religious people, you at least agree that you need evidence, but might differ as to what constitutes evidence. (A conspiracy theorist will shower you with evidence.)

In the paranormal, it is especially easy to construct signal out of noise, or beliefs out of nothingness. Take something like astrology: Someone writes an extremely vague, all-encompassing description of life, and it generally matches anyone. The reason it seems to fit you specifically is that the vague wording (“something important recently happened in your life”) triggers several biases:

  • you are selectively looking for things that fit the description (selection bias),
  • you ignore things that don’t fit (confirmation bias),
  • you find something that you didn’t originally view as important, but now it must be important because of the prediction (circular reasoning), and
  • you note the importance of something long after the fact (hindsight bias).

The rational person is not immune to biases, but at least is aware of them and tries to look at evidence from a more objective perspective. After all, systematic analysis of evidence is the main criterion that separates real science from pseudo science.

A Priori Dismissal

Suppose you read a story in the news today about a new Bigfoot sighting. How much evidence would you need to dismiss it? I would claim it is almost none. You would realize the probability of the existence of Bigfoot is so low in the first place (well under 1%, possibly 0%), that it would take a significant amount of evidence to convince you otherwise. The burden of proof is on the sighter. Given the advent of universal smartphone ownership, it would seem easy to simply snap a picture of Bigfoot when you saw one. In this case, you do not need evidence against to dismiss it.

The point is, if a Bigfoot article appeared in the news today, then without reading any of it and without having any evidence of its being a hoax, you could safely dismiss it as a hoax, as it has been every time. Again, I am not saying that every person who has sighted Bigfoot did so to perpetuate a hoax—I think some people genuinely saw something they personally couldn’t explain. However, there’s quite a leap of logic to go from “I don’t know what I saw” to “It was Bigfoot.”

Imagine that you find the following title in today’s paper: “Scientists find conclusive proof of Flat Earth theory.” Without having to be a scientist yourself, you have enough intelligence (hopefully) to conclude that the article is wrong, even without reading a word of it.

Some friends I talk to have actually pointed out that I am perhaps too dismissive. For instance, last year this Carrie promo video made its rounds on Youtube:

If you don’t want to watch it, basically a hoax is set up so that someone appears to be using telekinetic powers in a cafe, and onlookers are fearful and in a state of shock.

We discussed what we would have done in that situation. Everyone else said they would have been scared !@#&less in that scenario, but I said I would have known it was a hoax and thus have stayed calm. Of course, nobody believed me. Given this post, judge for yourself.

Hitchens’ Razor

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

This philosophical tool allows you to dismiss many kinds of statements. If someone just claims, “There is a leprechaun in my backyard,” you can dismiss it even if you have never met this person before and have never been to their backyard.

Hitchens’ Razor differs slightly from the idea in the previous section: the aversion to believing in Bigfoot, even if there is “evidence” in the form of extremely shaky and blurry cam, comes more from statistical improbability than from philosophical concern. Christopher Hitchens’ statement applies more to abstract claims that sometimes cannot be justified in the physical world, i.e. religious claims.

The title refers to both interpretations of “without evidence”: dismissing something that has no evidence for, and dismissing something that has no evidence against. Namely, if there is no evidence for, you do not need evidence against.

More relevant to purely superstitious claims that can be tested is Carl Sagan’s “razor”:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

It is generally true in real life that the more absurd a claim is, the more justification it requires. If you claim the Malaysian flight 370 is on Mars, you better have some very convincing pieces of evidence supporting it.

Overall, I just ask that we think more rationally, especially in response to the media and to questionable stories. We simply cannot afford to slip back into an age of superstition.

Out of Context

When talking about religion, I often get the “out of context” objection. It’s hard, for instance, to understand what the Bible says about women without bringing up 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” And it’s hard to talk about morality without this passage:

As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace.  If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor.  But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town.  When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town.  But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder.  You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you. (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

But of course, it’s just taken out of context so all the violence and rape is fine. Here is a hilarious YouTube video by NonStampCollector on this topic.

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.

What About “Religious Scientists”?

“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.

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.


1-atheist-based-on-faith-2 1-atheist-based-on-faith-3

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.


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.