The Oatmeal makes a significant mistake about insignificance

The Oatmeal makes a significant mistake about insignificance July 28, 2012

I’m a fan of Matthew Inman’s comics and his hilarious website The Oatmeal.

And I enjoyed almost all of his recent long cartoon titled “How to suck at your religion.”

It’s funny. It’s also thoughtful, provocatively irreverent and wise. Until near the end, where it stumbles badly.

Here’s the bit that goes wobbly:

Does your religion inspire you to help people? Does it make you happier? Does it help you cope with the fact that you are a bag of meat sitting on a rock in outer space and that someday you will die and you are completely powerless, helpless, and insignificant in the wake of this beautiful cosmic shitstorm we call existence? Does it help with that? Yes? Excellent! Carry on …

The problem is that third question — the long one, which makes three assertions. The first two are fine. The last one is partly fine, but contains one word which is really, really, really not at all fine.

That word is “insignificant.” And that’s just utterly wrong.

You are not “completely insignificant.” You are, in fact, precisely the opposite of that.

Now you may suspect that I’m objecting to this because I’m a Christian and thus subscribe to a sectarian belief-system that holds that you — each of you — is immeasurably valuable and immensely significant. And I certainly am a Christian and this certainly is, in fact, something that we Christians believe. It is a Christian belief — a thing that Christians believe.

But it is not only a Christian belief. It’s something my sect happens to believe, but not because it’s a sectarian idea. Everybody else believes this too.

Everybody. Not for sectarian reasons, but because it’s true. People are significant. People matter. All of them. All of us. You are significant. You matter.

That’s not just a sectarian belief I learned from Christianity. It’s also something I learned from Carl Sagan. And from Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

The most astounding fact is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on Earth the atoms that make up the human body are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, the high mass ones among them went unstable in their later years they collapsed and then exploded scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas cloud that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems stars with orbiting planets, and those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So that when I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up – many people feel small because they’re small and the Universe is big – but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant you want to feel like a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.

You are completely significant. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

(But don’t let it go to your head, either. Everybody else you’ll ever meet is completely significant too.)

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  • But it is not only a Christian belief. It’s something my
    sect happens to believe, but not because it’s a sectarian idea.
    Everybody else believes this too.

    Everybody. Not for sectarian reasons, but because it’s true. People are significant. People matter. All of them. All of us. You are significant. You matter.

    That’s not just a sectarian belief I learned from Christianity. It’s also
    something I learned from Carl Sagan. And from Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

    And from any number of Doctor Who episodes where the Doctor gives a beautiful speech about “one little human being — that’s the most important thing in the universe.”

    Some fans find that theme a bit cheesy and twee, but I think it’s absolutely essential. It’s what the show is about. And sometimes it’s just good to hear it said.

  • All the hearts and flowers for the Concrete Blonde quote. I always loved that verse, even if it made me cry. 

    I love that song.

  • Anonymo

    Why the ‘um?’  Were you straining to think of it, or were you straining sarcastically because you think it’s self-evident?

  • Caravelle

    I don’t think it’s self-evident at all, but I agree the “um” was probably on the sarcastic side. I say “probably” because I’m tired and I don’t exactly remember the mental context I made that comment in. I think I might have been reacting to the tone of your comment, that said things with an air of authority that contradicted the little information I knew on the subject, so I interpreted it as opinions being presented as fact, which I tend to resent.
    I sincerely don’t want to offend you with this by the way, which I realize is a pointless thing to say (especially when I started out with sarcasm, but then again I think presenting opinions as fact in this context is problematic, which I would have felt justified a dismissive response), but I’m a bit too tired to respond like a normal person so I’m trying to put all my cards on the table instead.

    So my question would be, what do you base the advice you gave Baby_Raptor on ?

  • Jay

    I am, at least, statistically significant, in that measurements justify 95% or greater confidence that I exist.

  • AnonymousSam

    Wait, wait, wait… Christianity tells us that we’re not insignificant? This, the religion which gave us such song lyrics as “how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me“? The religion which gave us such prose as Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which expounded on how vile humans are and how right God would be to smash us into the dirt, and how we’d deserve every second of agonizing torment in Hell? The one which gave us the concept of how every human on Earth, forever and ever, is almost irredeemably stained by the things their hypothetical ancestors did at the beginning of time?

    Did I step into a different paradigm again?

  • Turcano

    I guess that depends on whether a universe is considered unique just at this moment in time or throughout its history, and most of the opinions from quantum physicists lean towards the latter.


    Did I step into a different paradigm again?

    Yeah, pretty much. Fred devotes a fair amount of time and energy to modeling a fairly different understanding of Christianity than what Edwards wrote about.

  • Turcano

     Perhaps this is where definitions become important.  When I’m talking about significance in this sense, I mean the ability to affect change on a given scale, and that the larger the scale becomes, the smaller a person’s significance becomes.  My significance on the global scale may be extraordinarily tiny, but it still exists.

  • AnonymousSam

    I know he believes in a Christianity which focuses on the virtues of humanity and not upon condemning it, but I’ve never heard the phrase “Christianity is responsible for my heightened state of self-esteem!” nor anything resembling it.

    If Fred was in charge of Christianity, I’d probably still be Christian.

  • Anonymo

    I base my advice because, in my (admittedly meager) experience, there is no problem, ever, in any situation that exists, has, existed, or ever will exist, that cannot be solved by following this formula:

    1)  Identify the problem.
    2) Determine why it is a problem.
    3) Determine what a problem-free or ideal state would be.
    4) Determine what differences there are between the present state and the problem-free or ideal state.
    5) Itemize those differences as intermediate stages.
    6) Figure out how to attain those intermediate stages.
    7) Tally up the cost in attaining those intermediary changes.
    8) Cost-benefit analysis on achieving the problem-free or ideal state, based on the cost of those intermediary stages.
    9) Determine whether the effort and cost of those steps justifies the end result.
    10a) If yes, get to work.
    10b) If no, learn to appreciate where you are now.

    In short – figure out what you want, figure out what you need to get what you want, figure out how you get it, decide if it’s worth it, and get it.  No reason to make things more complicated than they are.

    This is not my opinion, this is my deep-seated orthodox theological conviction.  Whether that’s just code for ‘strongly-held opinion’ is not for me to say.

    Or, as it’s been said, strength to change what can, serenity to change what can’t, wisdom to discern, etc.

  • Caravelle

    That’s all very nice and meta, but the post I was replying to wasn’t about problem-solving in general, it was recommending a specific strategy to solve a specific problem, and making specific statements about why some people fail at implementing that strategy.

    What were those specific recommendations and analyses based on ?
    And while we’re at it, now that we’ve got the “um” issue out of the way, what would you say of the alternate hypothesis I suggested for why some people fail at implementing your strategy ?

  • Tonio

    Would it be fair to characterize Edwards’ stance as the theological version of battered person syndrome?

  • Guest

    Well it’s his blog so I assumed he meant significant to him.

  • Anonymo

    Those specific strategies were based on the general principles of inductive reasoning, or to say, ‘it usually works for most situations, so I predict that it will work in this situation on the basis that this situation is essentially congruent with other situations where this has worked.’  In my own in-depth experience with myself, and precisely 3 people I have known in-depth in my life with whom I have had these discussions, the basic ‘goal-focus’ solution seems to work; for lack of evidence to the contrary, it seems acceptable to me that this method, while not guaranteed to be the best possible solution, will resolve itself successfully.

    If people grade others on different standards than they grade themselves, well, it seems to me that being able to project a sense of internal wellness correlates with internal wellness – that is to say, there are some people who /project/ wellness that do not /have it,/ but there are no people who /have/ it but don’t /project/ it.  Correlation may not indicate causation, and one could make the statement that ‘internal unwellness that misrepresents itself is inferior to internal unwellness that represents itself accurately,’ but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion.

    So, in retrospect, I do think you bring up a valid concern, but I don’t think it necessarily detracts from my overall statement – it’s simply another factor to take into consideration.  to say that some fail because of the reason I mentioned does not preclude that some fail because the reason you mentioned, or vice-versa.

    ‘Anonymo’ is a silly antonym; I’ll start referring to myself as ‘Hexep’ after this.  We are one and the same person.

  • Hexep

    In fact, it’s not even an antonym, it’s a pseudonym.  No excuses from me for that one, yeesh…

  • AnonymousSam

    Mine is an antonym though. Or maybe just an oxymoron? :D

  • You’re different from everyone else, but you’re not more different than everyone else.

  • In its very early years, Christianity was responsible for any sense of self-worth at all among a lot of women in it. Jesus and his followers said women were not just sex toys and breeding things — they said women were every bit as worthwhile as men, and had the same kind of souls. 

    Unfortunately, Christianity took a sharp and nasty turn when it was welded to patriarchal power. But even so, many women in the millennia since have found in it the one place in their culture that said they were not just sex toys and breeding things.

  • What if someone needs something they cannot get? Are you going to tell someone who can’t find a job that they should appreciate being jobless, someone with cancer that they should appreciate it, someone with severe depression to just snap out of it? A woman in an abusive marriage to just up and leave when if she left she’d be homeless, and her husband has said he’ll murder her if she leaves? 

    I don’t understand how you can believe life is that simple.

  • AnonymousSam

    This must have been before the many parts equating women to property were added to the Bible. All the “a woman must be silent,” “I do not permit a woman to have authority over men,” “take of the women what you will to sire sons” parts.

  • Most people couldn’t read. Plus, Jesus said everything was new, so much of what we now call the Old Testament could be discarded. “There is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” Jesus appearing to women, Jesus valuing a female prostitute over males in authority, Jesus sitting down and talking theology with women, Jesus touching and healing women, etc.

    But yes, much of it was before Paul, and especially before the codification of what we now call the Bible. A bunch of powerful men sat down and decided what would be called sacred and what would be called heresy, and they would kill anyone who said otherwise. And they did then proceed to kill anyone who said otherwise for over a thousand years.

    Even so, even after the codification of the Bible by a bunch of powerful men, even after they could read, many women often turned to the Bible for solace and inspiration. The entire Bible all together makes no sense at all — everyone picks and chooses. They chose those parts of the Bible that said, “you are human and God loves you, and God particularly cares for the powerless like you,” and not the other parts.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The way the Bible is often applied by modern religious conservatives =/= the way it was necessarily applied at the time it was written.

    Plus, you’re comparing contemporary standards on equality to a very different culture a very long time ago. Saying that a woman must be silent in church now is a huge departure from the standard in the rest of my society. But in a culture where it was previously forbidden for women to participate in religious ceremonies at all…the emphasis is different.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Wow, you must have only ever come across easy problems.

  • Hexep

    Then what do you do, when you need something you can’t get?  Your choices are a) get it or b) make do without it.  If getting it is off the table, then you’re only left with making do.

    What do you tell people to do if they can’t find a job, have cancer, or are stuck with abusive relationships?

  • Hexep

    It depends on your point of reference, I guess.  All of our problems are easy compared to, say, the plight of the the Brazilian favelas, or copper miners in the Congo DR, or life on a rice paddy in Myanmar.

    I feel that you are objecting to something that I’m saying, but I don’t understand what it is.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    You assume a lot about what “our” problems might be. How do you know none of us are working in those conditions, or love someone who is? You’re assuming something about everyone reading this blog. How do you know that we all have the point of reference of the comfortable middle class in free societies?

  • Hexep

    Bluntly, because people with the point of reference of comfortable middle class (or even uncomfortable lower class) in free societies have access to computers, and are either native English speakers or have studied it well-enough as a second or third language (indicating access to language training schools) that this thread is essentially free of punctuation, grammar and spelling mistakes.

    Yes, I went back and counted.  I found three.  One was mine.

    If you’re a native English speaker, then you’re overwhelmingly likely to be from the United States, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, or South Africa.  With the exception of South Africa, all of these countries have a high human development index, putting them out of reach of things like favelas, rice paddies, and blood diamonds.  These countries have rich people and they have poor people, but only South Africa has any number of people living at under $2/day/PPP, very few of them speak English or have access to computers.

    However, there are lots of people who study English as a second language.  In fact, English is – to my knowledge – the only language in the world that more people have as a second language than a first.  But reading and writing cannot be taught through casual osmosis – they must either be learned in a school, from a teacher, or they must be learned through very dedicated personal study.  Both of these things require a level of education and financial security that place people out of the reach of killing famines and paramilitary death-squads.

    To address my specific three examples:

    1) Of the three options I presented, the Brazilian favela is the one most likely to have internet access, what with the brilliant work that President Lula da Silva did with Bolsa Escola, but I am told that the most common second language in Brazil is Spanish, not English – meaning that most English speakers would have had to study it on their own initiative, meaning they had some degree of private wealth and leisure time.

    2) Most copper mining in the Congo DR is done in Katanga province, which is, in fairness, one of the more developed regions of the country.  However, leaving aside the question of the language barrier – which I already covered in point number 1 – Congolese copper mining doesn’t pay very well, and Gecamines, the state-owned mining company, has been dealing with labor agitation, work-to-rule, and strike action for some time now.  This suggests that its employees are not making enough money as they feel they should, which means that they are probably on a tight budget, which means that they probably aren’t on the internet.  In any case, most of the mines are too far from Lubumbashi to make day trips into town to visit a netbar.  You can see them all on Google Earth; the Wikipedia page for ‘copper mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo’ has a list of all their lats & longs.

    3) I was in Myanmar as recently as February ’11, and I couldn’t access Patheos from there.  So that’s out.  Only 0.3% of Burmese have access to the internet anyway, according to the Global Post, and most of them live in Yangon – and thus, being city-dwellers, are certainly not rice farmers.  In any case, most Burmese bloggers would be Thudhamma Buddhists – as most Burmese are of any description – meaning they’d probably feel great sympathy with my points, as we are comrades.

    And that, O reader mine, is how I know.  Inductive and deductive reasoning, Sherlock Holmes-style.

    I don’t know what you’ll do with this information, but you’re free to the taking of it.

  • Turcano


    In fact, English is – to my knowledge – the only language in the world that more people have as a second language than a first.

    French too; nearly 2/3 of French speakers have it as a second language, mostly in Africa.

  • LMM22

    “To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold… that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle.”

    Argh. As a chemist, that quote pains me to no end. Don’t speak of thermodynamic miracles unless you know exactly what you’re saying.

  • LMM22

    I can tell you that I am loved, and not tell you who loves me, and still have conveyed information…Similarly, I can be reassured by the thought that I am significant, even if I don’t know or even think about who or what I am significant to, or what I signify to it/them. The issue here is that ‘significant’ and ‘loved’ are both transitive verbs, but they call for very different objects. The object of “love” is a specific item. “Significant” demands a scale.

  • LMM22

    I also don’t really like the Tyson line.  It’s neat and all that we’re made of stuff that used to be part of bigger stuff, but so’s my chair, and so’s a cloud of gas floating deep in space….  Tyson’s “connectedness” doesn’t require life; it only requires being.  Now, consciousness of that connectedness is something distinctive, but I’m not sure that’s a promising direction to go with this.

    Sagan (I believe) had the quote that “we are the way for the universe to know itself.” Beahan, one of the members of Reasonable Doubts, expands on this theme. That’s what Tyson is getting at (and, I suspect, probably says at one point during the recorded conversation).

    The issue, for me, is that what religion offers — some promise of individual significance on a cosmic scale — just isn’t available from the hard sciences. Ever. (*) Those mathematical equations that define the way everything we know behaves, those chemical reactions that made you — none of them *care*. None of them *can* care. When the sun goes out (or, if we’re lucky, at the heat death of the universe), you may have had a hundred thousand descendants, but what you do won’t have altered anything. Short of a thousand advances only seen in science fiction, the farthest galaxies we can see will never care about you.

    It gets worse, of course. All those peasant villages that were killed off entirely by the Black Plague, all those tribes wiped out by smallpox epidemics — any self-contained civilization or tribe or cluster of people that dies out completely — those individuals don’t ‘matter’ to the future of humanity. What they’ve done collectively — altering the landscape, perhaps, a few artifacts they’ve left behind, maybe a few places they’ve traded with at some point — might have altered places that survive, but their descendants are gone, as are their myths and traditions and knowledge. Anything any one individual has done is gone.

    Saying people are more important than chairs is an acceptable moral judgement, (**) but it’s one that isn’t guaranteed by any sort of universal law or scientific premise. Science doesn’t offer fuzzy assurances. The comforts it offers are ultimately cold. Take what you can get.

    (*) “Soft” — i.e. social — sciences *do* offer some promise of significance, but that’s only because they begin with the premise that human beings are worth studying. Move away from that and the assertion falls apart.
    (**) Albeit one that none of us actually holds to. Your friends are more important than chairs to you. The people you know are more important than chairs. But if *everyone* were more important than chairs to you, no one would *have* chairs, because we’d be expending every resource we have on preventing catastrophes and providing every person on the planet with excellent medical care and preventing accidental deaths.


    “Significant” demands a scale.

    I’m not sure it does, actually.

    When I am most depressed, the belief that I am significant to certain people — that I matter to them, that my presence in their lives makes a difference to their lives, that they care whether or not I exist — is one of the things that keeps me going.

    And I certainly seem to treat my presumed significance to them much the same way the presumption of love… sure, I could press for details in both cases (“do you really love me? how much? how do you know?” etc.) but I generally don’t; I am satisfied merely to know that I am in this relationship to another person. (Or, if I’m dis-satisfied, I’m aware that getting more precise answers to those questions won’t really help.)

    Of course, maybe that’s an aberration of mine, and everyone else treats significance as you describe here, as subcategorizing differently from love. I can really only speak to my own experience here.

  • LMM22

    When I am most depressed, the belief that I am significant to certain people — that I matter to them, that my presence in their lives makes a difference to their lives, that they care whether or not I exist — is one of the things that keeps me going.

    Ok, significance as a *concept* may not demand a scale. But the statement “I am significant” — which you were comparing to “I am loved” — definitely does.

  • Caravelle

    But if *everyone* were more important than chairs to you, no one would *have* chairs, because we’d be expending every resource we have on preventing catastrophes and providing every person on the planet with excellent medical care and preventing accidental deaths.

    I find it problematic to assume that this is true. It could be, but it isn’t obvious. It depends on how much effort it takes to keep 7 billion people healthy and alive, vs how much effort 7 billion people can exert. I’m not convinced at all that the former is greater than the latter, and if it isn’t then there’s a surplus of effort available to humanity, and that could be used to make chairs.
    (of course there’s the additional wrinkle that it’s not just about effort, it’s also about resources, and while effort scales up with population resources don’t – or not linearly at least).

  • LMM22

    It depends on how much effort it takes to keep 7 billion people healthy and alive, vs how much effort 7 billion people can exert. I’m not convinced at all that the former is greater than the latter, and if it isn’t then there’s a surplus of effort available to humanity, and that could be used to make chairs.

    Ok, that was a bit of an exaggeration, but my point still stands: if *all* people were more important to the speaker than any particular chair, they would have no chairs, because they would have no money to buy chairs.

    Another point is that we’re not *just* talking about the resources and effort needed to keep seven billion people alive: we’re talking about the resources and effort to keep their *descendants* alive indefinitely. In short, we’re not just keeping people healthy — we’d be actively preventing global warming and environmental destruction, we’d be actively researching new antibiotics to replace those that bacteria are becoming resistant to, we’d be actively preventing outbreaks of new diseases and constructing infrastructure to protect against even the most remote dangers. Chairs and other objects require some amount of triage (“okay, everyone in the world is fed — we can start building comfortable chairs now” — “no, wait, we still can’t cure *all* forms of cancer! and we still haven’t banked up our defenses against asteroid impacts or supervolcanoes!”), which, by definition, is impossible if we’re making that sort of collective judgement.

    This is, of course, an extremist position, but it’s one that’s *mandatory* if one wishes to believe that “people are more important than chairs” is not just a moral law (as even virtually all religions believe) but one that’s physically guaranteed by science.

  • Again, there are occasions when I understand “I am significant” to mean that I signify something to someone… that is, when I understand it to imply the existence of a relationship.

    But, again, my usage certainly isn’t definitive, and perhaps I’m simply using the statement incorrectly.

  • Brad

    Has anyone here seen (or heard of) the musical, It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman? One of the songs (by the team that did Bye Bye Birdie) addresses this very point. It’s called “We Don’t Matter At All.” The first part is sung by a scientist trying to impress Lois Lane:

    Oh sure.
    Every hundred years or so
    We come up with a Ghandi
    Or a Michelangelo.
    Ain’t that dandy, we say!
    Then we muck things up in the same distorted way!

    So here you are
    An ernest girl reporter
    And you think you’re something special 
    In this vast eternal sea!
    You and I
    We’re just about as special as a walnut or a fly!
    We don’t matter at all!
    We don’t matter at all!
    We don’t really matter at all.

    And Lois replies:

    Wrong approach!
    To me I’m much more special
    Than a walnut or a roach!
    Oh, we matter, we do!
    What’s the matter with you?
    People really matter, after all!

  • No, all our problems are not “easy compared to” the people you list. They may possibly be less extreme (though many of them are not), but that does not make them any easier.

    As for what I do when someone tells me about a problem they have: I listen. People are not math problems, and I am not here to solve them. Which is good, because life cannot be solved like math problems can. If someone asks my advice, and I can think of advice, I will give it based on their particular circumstances.

  • Tonio

    I’ve never seen it and I’m a huge fan of Superman. I had the impression that the production was as campy as the Batman TV show that debuted that same year. From your description, the scientist appears to be a well-worn straw man.

    Do you think Inman might be invoking a similar straw man about atheism in an ironic or provocative way? He’s the same cartoonist responsible for Hamster Atonement.

  • Dedfg

    No, we’re all pretty much completely insignificant.