The Atheism/Religion Turing Test

[Update: the “Christian” answers are now available, and voting is open.]

A few weeks ago, Paul Krugman set off a debate by claiming that liberal economists could do a very good job at explaining what conservative economists think, but the conservatives just don’t understand the liberals. Regardless of the empirical truth of that statement, the idea is an important one: when there is a respectable disagreement (as opposed to one where the other side are just obvious crackpots), and important skill is to be able to put yourself in the mind of those with whom you disagree. Conservative economist Bryan Caplan formalized the notion by invoking the idea of a Turing Test: could a liberal/conservative do such a good job at stating conservative/liberal beliefs that an outsider couldn’t tell they were the real thing? Ilya Somin, a libertarian, actually took up the challenge, and made a good-faith effort to simulate a liberal defending their core beliefs. I actually thought he did okay, but as he himself admitted, his “liberal” sometimes seemed to be more concerned with disputing libertarianism than making a positive case. Playing someone else is hard!

Obviously it would be fun to do this for religious belief, and Leah Libresco has taken up the challenge. She came up with a list of questions for atheists and Christians to explain their beliefs. She then recruited some actual atheists and Christians (they’re not hard to find) and had them answer both sets of questions. You can find the (purported) atheist answers here — I think the purported Christian answers are still forthcoming.

Now, of course, the fun begins: vote! Go here to take a short survey to judge whether you think each answer is written by a true atheist, or a Christian just fudging it. At a brief glance, it looks like there are a few answers where the respondent is clearly faking it — but it’s not always so easy. I’ll be curious to see the final results.

  1. I bet the Christians will fake it better. True believers have nothing to prove; they can adopt other positions without cost to their ego.

  2. I know several conservatives who can state liberal or at least moderate positions fairly. Thing is, though, these same people are currently in the process of jumping ship. The true believers I meet usually tell me I believe in nationalizing the toilet paper factories or introducing Sharia law, etc.

  3. Ah, now needing your opponents to be strawmen isn’t a sign of one comfortable with their beliefs. It’s worth noting that Christians have been following false idols since the Disciples – Jesus himself noticed that. But as far as I can tell atheists aren’t arguing against God so much as the Christian story. Looks like a 0-0 draw, points missed all round.

  4. No atheist would be stupid enough to read through all those questions and take her poorly designed test. Life is too short.

  5. @keith: “But as far as I can tell atheists aren’t arguing against God so much as the Christian story.”

    I’m confused – are you trying to be funny by introducing a strawman immediately after criticizing such thing? If not, then… clearly you haven’t read anything that, e.g., Sean has written about religion. Or Dawkins, or Dennett, or Taner Edis, or…

  6. I simply meant that as far as I know Atheists only have a problem with the ‘God’ character from religious stories, while remaining agnostic on bigger issues. If the aim of the test is to uncover delusions, it appears that the opposing sides are at least fighting over the same patch of arid land. (I capitalised ‘Atheists’ to avoid redefining the word.)

  7. Actual atheism is stupid. You might as well devote conscious effort to believing in the non-existence of my friend Chris.

  8. I agree with Keith #1, Christians will have an easier time time faking it. Even a poor Christian apologist is better at his craft than an skilled proponent of the atheist position. The Christians have had nearly two millennia to sort out their arguments so they are quite used to creating and setting light to atheist straw men.

  9. @keith I don’t think most atheists are arguing against Christian beliefs as much as they are arguing that there is not enough evidence to reject the null hypothesis.

  10. I reject the null hypothesis from personal experience. It’s probably in Christian texts that personal experience is the only way you’ll know, as their stories are at least *based on* something real. So are atheists arguing because the means of knowing is contrary to the scientific method? That’s like arguing with people who claim to have met Chris that there isn’t enough evidence in favour of Chris. I’m not sure what to make of that. Sounds like informational dictatorship.

  11. Early philosophical texts had conjectures about the solar system being a series of crystalline spheres that rotated around the Earth, and that was based on “real” personal experience and observation. Subsequent experiments proved that it was not the case. It’s possible that *now* we don’t have instruments or an experimental design to detect god’s influence and we will in the future, just like the ancients did not have the tools that we have at our disposal now. However to say that knowing god is contrary to science and god can never be detected is to make an untestable hypothesis. If someone was arguing that Chris does not exist, then it would be fairly easy to set up an experiment to observe him.

    People who believe in a god that actively intervenes in this world are making an extraordinary claim that this undetectable being exists, created the universe, and sits in a place of judgment. If you choose to believe it, that’s fine, but there is no evidence to reject the default hypothesis that this creature does not exist.

    Atheists should also have no problem adopting a position without “cost to their ego” because science says follow the evidence. If there was empirical evidence in favor of the existence of god, and atheists did not change their views, then they would become the group making the extraordinary claim that is irrational.

  12. I would find faking Christianity really hard at least for those of us that weren’t actually raised in the faith. I know roughly what Christians believe, but expressing it in a way that sounded sincere would be very hard.

  13. Creutzfeldt, you’re mixing gods. When talking of a god who strokes his beard in judgement it’s Atheists versus Christians, and I’m sure there are book deals in it but it’s not intrinsically interesting. Actual atheists can be introduced to God, like Chris, one at a time or en masse, but if the introduction is necessarily personal then when you write it up the next guy reading it doesn’t meet God, he just sees a story – heck, it never gets past peer review! That isn’t the fault of the people who know God.

  14. ‘Atheist’ is a catch word for all non-believers. Anyone, including an atheist, who argues for or against god will also tell you that your dog knows why you laugh at Seinfeld.

    An agnostic is a person who holds that since no one can know anything about the supernatural, we should just go about our business until god tells everyone, everywhere, what he expects.

    Oh, and if he just talks to you alone, you are probably in trouble.

  15. Actual atheists can be introduced to God, like Chris, one at a time or en masse, but if the introduction is necessarily personal then when you write it up the next guy reading it doesn’t meet God, he just sees a story – heck, it never gets past peer review! That isn’t the fault of the people who know God.
    —————————————–
    No, in that case, it would be the fault of god who decided to grant people the gift of critical thinking and then demand that they suspend it, but only for him.

  16. What you’ve done there is outed yourself as an Atheist, because that was incoherent and mis-aimed. What I wrote made perfect sense to anyone thinking rationally. Use ‘Chris’ if it helps you understand why atheism is stupid (or weirdly dictatorial) and why Atheism is a false idol working with Religion to milk the weakminded.

  17. I think Keith’s approach makes a lot of sense. It amounts to a strategy of “I won’t play this game,” which is sensible since this particular game of figuring things out cogently cannot be won by his side and, in any case, it isn’t the game that Keith cares about.. I think that atheists should make the corresponding move. Arguing about the existence of God is rather pointless since what the opponents are up to is not something amenable to arguments. If you come up with an intellectualized version of religious ideas, i.e. a theology, that treats religions like Christianity as a theory about the universe, so that you have something that can be argued about, the proposed “theory of everything” doesn’t make the cut of hypotheses worth considering.

    It is especially obtuse to act as if were objectionable that believers will not identify the object of their belief even in the most general way (animal, vegetable, mineral, Being, a particular being, etc.). It’s no wonder that nobody does dimensional analysis on the Trinity since, to use an old and somewhat philistine locution of the pragmatists, the cash value of belief in god is loyalty to one’s in group and loyalty is not a thing. Which is the same reason atheism upsets people so much. It is perceived as treason, albeit the believers use mythology to represent the disloyalty as an affront to a god. And when Keith claims that he finds God in his heart, one can hardly be surprised since we know how God got there. The Easter egg the kid finds is not the cosmic egg. Mommy and Daddy hid it there for him to find.

  18. I think these kind of tests are good ideas. I am an atheist and after taking the test I’m a bit more confident that we can win (or at least, both sides will do badly), but of course I don’t even know how I did. If we lose there really are no excuses. As long as the writers are serious, this is about whether each side really understand the other side’s position, and how are we going to judge whether the other side’s position is valid when we don’t even understand what they are?

    In addition to the competitive aspect, I hope this exercise will also help everyone dig deeper and find the best arguments on the opposing side. Too often on internet debates (and even debates offline) we hide behind straw-man views of the opposing side, which is hardly conducive to a polite and instructive exchange of ideas.

  19. Jim, if you need ‘something to be argued about’ maybe it’s a hint you’re on the wrong track intellectualising God.

  20. Your ‘Chris’ analogy does not work unless your friend Chris is invisible, leaves no heat signature, eats nothing, goes nowhere, has no job, consumes nothing, takes up no space, is undetectable to science and only talks to you. If your friend Chris is someone who people have just not met, then it is easy enough to design an experiment to demonstrate that he exists. If you’re trying to do the “I’m going to argue like a religious person” routine, it’s not very coherent or successful. Unless that is your point, in which case congratulations, you’ve suckered a person on the internet into taking you seriously for a brief period of time.

    If you are going to make the argument that god created people and granted them free will (i.e. the freedom to gain knowledge and to think critically) but the existence of god must be taken by relying on authority (which is the opposite of thinking critically), then that is a hollow stance to take. If you are going to say that there is a nondenominational god-force out there that started the Big Bang and then walked away without interacting with anything, then it seems a lot easier to believe that the Big Bang happened without the giant cosmic finger on the “On” button. If you’re going to argue that god is a voice that speaks only to you, in your head and that people can only discover it as part of a deeply personal experience- then what evidence is there that what they are feeling comes from an external source (i.e., an actual god) instead of inside their own mind? There is none.

    Either something exists or it doesn’t, either it can be tested or it can’t. There is no ‘industry’ or profit motive to atheism, it is just saying, “I’ve weighed the evidence, and I don’t buy it.” It’s not stupid to require proof of a sensational claim. If you want to believe that whales still exist because Captain Kirk and Scotty traveled back in time to save them and that Star Trek 4 is a documentary, that’s great- but until I see evidence that you can time-travel by doing a slingshot around the sun, I’ll just assume that was fiction too.

  21. I think that atheists should make the corresponding move. Arguing about the existence of God is rather pointless since what the opponents are up to is not something amenable to arguments.
    ——————–
    To some extent I agree. It’s inconsistent for an atheist to complain about people pushing beliefs on them and then turn around and try to change someone else’s beliefs. I don’t care what Keith believes in, so long as it isn’t hurting anyone else. My mother is religious and it is probably a good thing for her. So long as it is not harmful to others and the government does not make decisions based off of religion, atheists should leave religious people alone. In fact, there is a pretty good chance that attacking the beliefs of religious people will just force them to double down.

  22. @keith:

    I’m just curious what position are you trying to argue for in this sequence of posts? From post #1 and #12 it appears that you are a Christian and you are trying to defend this belief, whereas from post #3, #6, and #15 it appears that you are not interested in defending Christianity (including the “Christian story”). In post #18 you went ahead to lump atheism and religion together.

    If you are defending agnosticism, here’s my favorite quote on this: agnosticism is atheism writ genteel, atheism is agnosticism writ aggressive 🙂