Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ideological Turing Test for Atheists

I came across a very interesting Turing Test-like exercise today. It's 15 people responding to a set of four questions. There are some atheists who were instructed to answer the questions honestly, and there are some Christians who were instructed to answer the questions as if they were atheists. The point of the exercise is, can you tell the difference?

If you want to take the test yourself, stop here and go take it. I don't want to sway your opinions by what I've written below. You can probably finish the test in two hours or so. I'm a slow reader and that's about how long it took me.

The answers I judged to be from Christians tended to focus on questions of atheism versus Christianity. The answers I judged to be from atheists tended to have a more pluralistic view of atheism versus religion in general. Also, I tended to judge personal stories to be more likely from atheists, and academic, philosophical explanations to be more likely from Christians.

I also used the guideline from textual criticism that "what is embarrassing or uncomfortable tends to be true", and any responses that shared anything like this seemed to me more likely to be written by atheists.

For the truly curious, here are my answers and reasoning. I refer to all respondents as "he" although I know that any or all of them may be women. Some seemed slam-dunk easy, but many were difficult to judge. I'm curious to find out how well I did.

#1 was a very cogent explanation of what an atheist might believe, and I couldn't find much to disagree with or suspect. Atheist.

#2 constantly talked about Jesus and compared himself to Christians. This Christianity-centered view suggests that the author is a Christian. Christian.

#3 admitted to a natural tendency toward belief. That's a very real phenomenon, and the fact that it is somewhat embarrassing to admit makes it more likely to be true. I don't think a Christian would put those words in an atheist's mouth since it would tend to weaken the atheist's position. Atheist.

#4 took a very black and white, negative, hostile, and unempathetic view of believers. This struck me more as a Christian idea of what atheists think of them, not a genuine atheist view of religious believers. Also, the "gods exists" near the beginning suggested that the text originally read "God exists" and then was changed to sound more like an atheist. The respondent also appealed to philosophers as authorities more than appealing to philosophical ideas on their own merits. This answer reads more like a position paper than a personal story. Christian.

#5 also reads like a position paper. I don't think an atheist would say that "anything which is true is known by the senses". We tend to realize how deeply flawed our own perceptions are. Also, an atheist would know that Uri Geller is not a skeptic, but a psychic fraud. The miracles required by this respondent are pretty ambiguous, which is what I would expect from a Christian, not an atheist. Atheists tend to hold God to very high standards of unambiguous clarity. He also takes a very negative and uncompromising view of believers, which is not the way I think an atheist would represent himself in a forum like this. Christian.

#6 is like #1 to me. Straightforward and honest, and from a personal point of view, not an academic one. And he made an offhand reference to the Trolley Problem, which suggests to me that he is actually familiar with secular ethics and has had many of these kinds of deep conversations. Atheist.

#7 struck me as a Christian at first, making lots of references to specifics of other religions in order to build credibility. But when I hit the "religion is true" part, I had to go back and rethink. This is something I might actually say myself, particularly with the reference to The Myth of Sisyphus. So now I tend to think this respondent is an atheist, but I'm less sure than for some of the others. Lean Atheist.

#8 frames atheism against a strongly Christian backdrop, and refers to "mainstream Christians", a phrase I have rarely heard from an atheist but often heard from Christians. The answers to the last two questions plausibly sound like they could be written by an atheist, though. Lean Christian.

#9 is sweet and to the point. No clues that this might not be a real atheist. Atheist.

#10 talks about Christianity constantly and makes a whole bunch of weak arguments against it. Seems like he's trying too hard. Christian.

#11 seems very personal, which I find compelling. He occasionally uses Christian-sounding language like "all of creation". But the way he talks, particularly the use of the phrase "post Christian" and his reference to G.K. Chesterton, makes me think that he was raised as a Christian but has left the faith. Atheist.

#12 reads sort of like #6 to me. His answers resonate with me. I also laughed out loud at "like pointing out that language or story-telling has persisted" and I tend to think that any entry that gets me to laugh in agreement is probably written by an atheist. He makes a few references to Christianity, including specific references to Calvinism and Paul's admonition of celibacy. But there's just enough snarkiness in his questions that I get the sense he's familiar with Christianity because he used to be a Christian. Atheist.

#13 is a difficult one. He uses the word "worship" many times and his answers seem mostly detached and academic, which strikes me as a Christian trying to portray an atheist. His reference to "modern theologians" at the end seems unlikely for an atheist. He also claims that the religious view is that "morality consists solely of obeying arbitrary taboos", which I don't think most atheists would really say. But his explanations and reasoning are generally very reasonable and believable. It's a toughie, but I'm leaning toward Christian. Lean Christian.

#14 is similar to #7 in some ways. Many academic-sounding references to different philosophies, which raised some alarms. But then an explanation of having studied philosophy in college, which mostly satisfied me. The last paragraph in particular was a very lucid and personal explanation of an atheist's way of dealing with the hard questions, and it convinced me this respondent is an atheist. Atheist.

#15 seems a little incoherent. I don't think an atheist would probably say things like "how could I ever believe one [a god] existed"? I thought for a while about the idea that "faith is the opposite of certainty". I have two thoughts about this sentence. First, I would tend to think that an atheist would say that faith is certainty (probably false certainty). Second, I find it unlikely that an atheist would hold up certainty as something to be desired. Most atheists I know have struggled hard to deal with the fact that uncertainty is inevitable, and that acknowledging and quantifying it leads to progress. Christian.

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