An Atheist’s View on Religion

Scarlet A

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking of a Topic to Write About

clock

From 4 to 9 pm today, I’ve been intermittently trying to come up with a blog post topic. Yes, writing is painful, but thinking of a topic can be even more painful, since you are haunted by the fact that you still haven’t put words on the page yet.

In the end, the topic I chose was the process of thinking of a topic. Yeah, time for a meta blog post.

Most advice in thinking of a topic to write about is obvious. Write about what you are passionate about, write in an atmosphere that suits you, write from your unique experiences, etc. You can find all this typical advice in a google search (there, I even googled it for you, you’re welcome).

Instead, I’ll write about learning from personal writing habits. Of course, my writing habits are largely based on my personality type: an indecisive, perfectionist INTP. This leads to the following habits:

  • My writing times are extremely spontaneous. I have written articles months in advance before posting them, but more often than not I have no idea what I am going to write about until I actually write something at the last minute. And then, there are days which I publish multiple posts, like last week.
  • Productivity usually occurs in bursts. There are moments when I can write a lot, but usually I am rethinking something over and over. This happens in coming up with a topic as well: I can spend 30 minutes not knowing what to write about, and then come up with three fresh topics in the next 2 minutes.
  • I am more productive when I have many things to do. In fact, when I have significantly more time, I end up not being that much more productive. It’s when I have no work to do that I can’t think of a topic to write about.

Heck, I actually ran into this issue before:

If I had a number one enemy, this would be it. You might have encountered this too. A lot of times I would hit the NEW POST button on WordPress and just sit there for the next five or ten minutes not knowing what to write about. Eventually I get sidetracked, maybe check email and Facebook, sometimes StumbleUpon, then abandon the blog post altogether. Even worse, sometimes I’ll think of the perfect idea for an article, then when I get back to my room to start writing, I don’t have the faintest idea what it was.

Perhaps in coming up with ideas, I should follow my own advice from two years ago:

To avoid forgetting ideas, you should best write them down. To come up with ideas is more difficult. You could try idea-generating sites to start out. WordPress this year started its PostADay project; bloggers try to make a post every day for the year. Each day, the site chooses a topic that bloggers can optionally select for their posts. Today’s topic, for example, is “What’s the most trouble you’ve ever been in?”

There are plenty of other ways to find writing topics. Reading the news is definitely a good way, as there is often bound to be an article that you can write about. Talking with people is great as well. Other people always have great ideas—make sure you cite them though.

I’ll certainly keep this in mind.

In addition, I find I am significantly more productive when closer to a deadline for schoolwork and writing. Hence it might seem worth it to artificially hasten the deadline to be productive at an earlier time.

So far, a successful tactic has been forcing myself to have a topic prepared by Saturday, so on Sunday I can write about it and not have to worry about coming up with the topic. This week, I did not do so, and as a consequence I did not begin writing until 9 pm.

Anyways, write down your ideas and stay posted for next week.

(Of course, in the middle of constructing this article, several topics occurred to me. There should be some corollary to Murphy’s law regarding this: When something good can happen, it will only happen at the worst possible time.)

Cultural Values

Plato

After looking over some posts from this blog, I realize I almost never post anything having to do with being Asian American. Out of 384 posts so far, only one directly relates to this topic, and even that was only in response to another article.

This post will explore my experience as an Asian American and also why I never talk about being one.

Pride in American Culture

Perhaps there is a second article on my views of being an Asian American, though again, it was only used as an example in a larger context. The post, “Pride in Things Out of Your Control,” criticized being proud of something that is based on luck. One of the most relevant examples I came up with was my cultural/national identity:

The key difference is that nationality is something I could theoretically change. Had I the inclination, I could feasibly move to some other country than the US. Yet no matter how much I might want to be of some other race, I can’t revoke being Chinese. Thus I cannot be proud of being Chinese in race, but I can be proud of being American in nationality.

This is something I still stand by, and it is the reason I almost never talk about being Asian. From the same article:

I happen to be Chinese, but I have never felt proud of being Chinese, simply because I had no choice whatsoever in being born Chinese. In fact, I would far more strongly identify as “American” rather than “Chinese,” since there are some things I actually can make decisions between, e.g. Eastern vs. Western philosophy, cultural values, and freedom of speech; and in each case I agree more with the American side.

What exactly are these differences in philosophy and cultural values?

Liberalism and Freedom

As much as we like to joke about the shortcomings of the American political system, the US government is a blessing compared to the Chinese government.

The freedoms we take for granted in America are nonexistent in many areas of the world, China included. Here we can slander the government, mock politicians, and even negatively portray the president. Try doing that in China. Actually, don’t.

We have not just the freedom of speech, but also the freedoms of thought and information. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are inaccessible in China, largely because the government doesn’t want its citizens to learn any information from people of other cultures, as they would be too difficult to censor. For instance, they surely wouldn’t want people knowing about the Tiananmen square massacre (even though most people have probably heard of it but aren’t sure whether it is true).

Tiananmen Square Tank

In addition, we have a corporate media, which is at least far better than a government media. While they can go over the top sometimes, at least our news agencies deliver shocking news when it exists. On the other hand, the government media is very unreliable and is fond of covering things up. I recall a train derailing that provoked a lot of controversy when the government did not say anything about it for a long time. There’s also the Beijing smog incident, where the central media understated the extent of the problem and Beijing citizens had to resort to the US embassy’s particulate readings to get a sense of how bad the pollution was.

Now, enough of the government. Even within the US, there are many cultural differences between Asian Americans and Americans in general.

Creativity and Individualism

The most relevant difference for me is that American culture puts so much emphasis on the individual, and this I strongly agree with. In the post, “A Chinese Kid’s Response to ‘Chinese Parenting,’” I talked about how there were a lot of forced ritual activities, but I failed to emphasize in that post how the activities were all staple Asian activities that did not even remotely try to set one apart. Play the piano? Yes, I’m sure that will set you apart from all other Asian kids. Go to Chinese school? Study for the SAT? The whole system was really formulaic and focused as much as possible on conforming. (I ended up quitting the first two and not even starting the third. Instead, I learned chess, played the trumpet, figured out how to code, read novels, and started a blog.)

Sure, a conforming society might be good if the sole aim is to keep order, as in a police state. But for society to advance, for technology to be revolutionized, for literature to be written, for art and music to be made—these all requires creative feats by the individual. This is yet another reason I cannot stand Chinese culture: there is almost no promotion of creativity.

Voyager

The Rebel

Very similarly to individualism, the rebel archetype, which is about the worst thing possible in Chinese culture, is cherished in American culture (and Western culture in general).

The Master said, ‘In serving your father and mother you ought to dissuade them from doing wrong in the gentlest way. If you see your advice being ignored, you should not become disobedient but should remain reverent. You should not complain even if in so doing you wear yourself out.’

—Analects of Confucius

Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.

—Oscar Wilde

Oscar_Wilde

Education vs Learning

There is a well-known stereotype of Asians placing so much emphasis on education. However, the point of this emphasis at least early on is almost solely for grades and test scores, not to actually learn stuff. I wrote earlier in the year about how even in college, there is an insane amount of GPA-centrism.

Here is an excerpt from the Chinese parenting post which summarizes my view on grades (written regarding high school):

Not that I cared less about education; in fact, it was quite the opposite. I became learning-focused instead of grade-focused. In class, I would be the one asking bizarre questions about material that seemed only remotely connected to the curriculum, but I never asked such a cringe-inducing question as “What percent of the grade is this assignment?” or “Is this for a grade?” or “Is this going to be on the test?” or, my favorite one yet, “Is there extra credit?”—and by the way, I’ve heard these countless times in high school from my Asian peers.

A Mark Twain quote on this topic:

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

—Mark Twain

mark_twain

Conclusion

In summary, the reason I rarely ever talk about being Asian American is that I identify culturally as American, and I don’t find Asian cultural values worth preserving. Yeah, that sounds pretty harsh, but that’s what I have to say.

The Swinging Pendulum: Talent vs Hard Work

Last week we had as guest speakers IS 318 chess teacher Elizabeth Spiegel and other interesting people from the documentary Brooklyn Castle. This was a highly relevant talk as we had a great number of amateur chess players in the audience, incidentally in time for the finishing days of our summer chess tournament. (In addition, Elizabeth and IS 318 students had visited JS before.) In the Q&A, there was an interesting section about the roles of talent and hard work. At dinner we discussed it more in depth, with respect to both chess and skills in general.

Elizabeth had some interesting things to say. A particular student played chess in a very creative and original fashion, a telltale sign of talent. For most players, however, hard work is far more important.

By far the most interesting point was about the amount of time dedicated to chess by some of the students: up to 20-30 hours a week. In turn, the fact that IS 318 was a relatively economically disadvantaged school was in some ways an advantage, as many of the students had nothing else to do. Thus they had an incredible amount of time to study chess. Their competitors from wealthier areas often had other extracurricular activities, and thus did not spend as much time on chess.

At one point the documentary went to the 2009 National Scholastic Grades tournament (I was there!), where IS 318 had a stellar performance:

The first place in the 8th grade section was Canyon Vista Middle School. Funny how life works, isn’t it?

It was also interesting to think about the distinction between areas where talent seems to play more of an effect. For example, child prodigies thrive in chess, math, and music, but not so much in literature, art, and finance. Perhaps the extra layers of complexity make it more difficult to do without specialized knowledge coming from long hours of study or experience.

My view was that hard work is far more significant, though I used to have a more mixed view. Last December I wrote a post on Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, a book which is in the same camp as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. These have probably influenced my views greatly.

Finally, an undisclosed party member gets credit for the name of this post. He compared the general consensus on hard work vs talent to a pendulum: It used to be too far in the talent side, but now it has swung a bit too much in the hard work side. So the question now is, is talent underrated?

Blogging, Chess, and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

Since the summer began, I have again fallen into an inconsistent posting schedule, one of the things I was trying hardest to avoid. One of the reasons is that I still have retained a perfectionist attitude, that to write something, it needs somehow to be interesting or insightful, and in addition, written well. Otherwise, I thought, someone else would have just written something that is strictly better.

But as a result, I end up scrapping many of my drafts and never following up on them, and I rarely actually publish anything. Of course, this relates to other areas of life as well. I often try very hard to avoid situations where I could make mistakes, rather than just making mistakes and learning from them.

This summer I have been getting back into chess, and a few weeks ago I noticed something that I had never noticed before. It was in a game of blitz chess, or speed chess, where the clock is as much the enemy as the person seated across is. In general I played moves fast, but the moment I made an error, I froze up and wasted a lot of time. Quite fittingly, we had earlier in the day a lecture about illusions and cognitive biases, including the sunk cost fallacy. The rational thing would have been to keep playing fast, reasonable moves to keep a time advantage. However, after making the blunder, which was losing a Knight if I recall correctly, I kept thinking about how to recover the piece instead of just playing reasonable moves. My teammate, who was also the person who gave the talk, rightfully yelled at me to keep playing quickly when I froze up.

This story is a lesson in thinking rationally even in unfamiliar or just downright messy situations. In general I catch my mistakes quickly, thus it is rarely an issue in everyday activity or even in an interview. But in chess (and in trading), there is no taking back a mistake, only continuing on making good moves even with a bad position.

Perfectionism, while sometimes useful, is something I am trying to shake off. I will post on a regular schedule (it really is like the fifth time I’ve said that), perhaps put up a few chess games, and try to make some mistakes. A weekly posting schedule, namely every Sunday, seemed to work well for a while, so I am bringing that back online. Enjoy!

(Edit: Don’t worry math people, I’ll try to resurrect the math blog too.)

Pride in Things Out of Your Control

The topic for today is: Can you be proud of something that is out of your control?

I started thinking about this last week, when someone claimed to be proud of belonging to a particular house at Harvard University. This seemed quite reasonable, and perhaps rational, until he admitted the following caveat: the house assignments were entirely random.

In any normal situation I would let this go, but in our internship there is a strong emphasis on thinking rationally, and I was chatting with people I consider to be highly rational. So I raised the issue and we discussed it briefly, but it was not really resolved. I am continuing my thoughts on it here.

Pride in Luck

Imagine a game where you roll a fair 6-sided die. If it lands on a 6, you gain $10; otherwise, you lose $10. The expected value of this game is negative (on average you lose $6 per game), so one would be a fool to play it. But suppose you did play the game once, and it landed a 6, netting you $10.

Can you be proud of rolling a 6?

I would argue that you cannot be proud of rolling the 6, as there is nothing you did that affected the chance of rolling it. (Even further, I would argue that you cannot even be proud of choosing to play the game, as it has negative expectancy with a significant chance of loss.) It is irrational to be proud of something that happened by chance.

Biological and Geographical Luck

Similarly, can you really be proud to be a member of whatever race you belong to? Personally, I would answer no: I happen to be Chinese, but I have never felt proud of being Chinese, simply because I had no choice whatsoever in being born Chinese. In fact, I would far more strongly identify as “American” rather than “Chinese,” since there are some things I actually can make decisions between, e.g. Eastern vs. Western philosophy, cultural values, and freedom of speech; and in each case I agree more with the American side.

The key difference is that nationality is something I could theoretically change. Had I the inclination, I could feasibly move to some other country than the US. Yet no matter how much I might want to be of some other race, I can’t revoke being Chinese. Thus I cannot be proud of being Chinese in race, but I can be proud of being American in nationality.

Because of this way of thought, I have never understood the point of racial clubs and organizations. I won’t speak out about other racial groups in America due to lack of knowledge, but I will say that Chinese organizations I have encountered in the US seem useless, cultish, and indoctrinating, to the point of being as bad as religious organizations. Every Sunday for a while, I had to go to a completely useless, mind-numbingly boring, tradition-ladden “school” which, of course, cost my parents quite some money. But I’ll save that rant for another day.

Elsewhere in geography, many people are proud of football or basketball teams—of the city in which they grew up or are currently living. Unless you specifically moved to some city for the sole purpose of being with its sports team(s), it is irrational to be proud of a local sports team just because you happen to share, by luck, some geographical vicinity.

In a similar way to geographical luck, biological luck defines us all more than it should. Survived some disease? Good for you, you happened to have had certain beneficial genetic mutations and proper health care. Tall? Again, a matching assortment of genes and nutrition. Hair or eye color? Genes. Male or female? Just a difference between XY and XX. It is just nonsensical for someone to be proud of being these.

Pride in History?

American Flag

So now, having established that I am proud to be an American, the question remains as to whether I can be proud of something that happened earlier in its history. After all, I have no control over the events of the American Revolution, just as I have no control over the roll of dice. However, the difference is that the American Revolution and its leaders were not an accident—they were forged from the values of the Enlightenment.

Then what makes it rational to be proud of the Enlightenment? I think the reasons listed above, for why it is justified for me to be proud of being American but not of being Chinese, provide the answer: one can and should be proud of philosophical and cultural values (though not necessarily of the culture in which one was born). Even now, the path of independence and freedom from tyranny is a slow and hard-fought process. Events like the American Revolution, even though they are long into the past, are then indeed something to be proud of. Happy Independence Day!

Edit (7/21/13): I wrote a follow-up.

My Spring 2013 Semester (Part 2)

Part 1 can be found here.

I’m finally done with the semester. As I wrote in part 1, this has been my busiest semester at college. Most of the time was spent on one class: CS 3410, or Computer System Organization and Programming. I’ve probably spent twice as much on this class than all of my other classes combined.

On the other hand, I did learn a lot from this course. While I do not regret taking it, this kind of workload does call into question the decision to go for the CS degree. As I wrote before, going for the CS degree will negatively affect my ability to take more advanced math courses. Even this semester, I felt I had almost no time to study math on my own. In my math classes I was pretty much doing the bare minimum so that I would have time to work on CS. Next semester I will most likely be going pure math.

Relatively-Prime-Grid-Points

Anyways, for the summer I have an internship in New York City, with one week in London.