Friday, July 15, 2011

The Ideological Turing Test Contest

Julie Robison at Startling the Day forwarded a link to me, leading me to the “Ideological Turing Test Contest” at Unequally Yoked (with its catchy slogan “A geeky atheist picks fights with her Catholic boyfriend”). The idea of the contest was to have a somewhat random sample of Christians and atheists write answers to certain questions, first from their own perspective and then from the other perspective, and then have everyone try to guess which side wrote what answers.

Rather than directly participate, I thought I’d just make some observations. I don’t intend to spend any time picking apart the answers; when people have written hundreds of rather thick books trying to justify belief and unbelief, I can’t expect attempts at “clinchers” in 200 words or less from either side.

The first observation is this: Leah (the blogger) was attempting to identify whether atheists or Christians were more prone to postulate “straw man” arguments. But whether it’s by the very nature of the arguments or because, by her own confession, Leah wasn’t attempting laboratory-level rigor, it was very difficult to separate the real posts from the notional.

There were a couple of times where I said “Oh, what a giveaway!” for Christians posting as atheists, and likewise one example where I thought the post might have been an authentic liberal Catholic but was most likely an unbeliever shamming belief … if there’s much of a difference. On the other hand, there was one — one — post that I knew for certainty was written by a thoughtful atheist, while there were at least three I knew had been written not only by authentic Christians but real Catholics.

On the whole, though, most of the posts were just convincing enough that you could say both sides had studied the other well. If I had to guess, I’d say eight Catholics, four room-temperature New Atheists, and three atheists that had really studied well.

One other observation I can make: There are many reasons for becoming a Christian, some logical and some not, some good and some not. Therefore, if I were judging from the first Christian prompts alone, I wouldn’t have been able to guess; all the first answers could have been written by real-world Christians.

By contrast, while people can be incapable of belief for any number of reasons, there are generally only three reasons given for “rejecting the God hypothesis”, none of which are particularly logical or convincing: “no evidence”, “God is unnecessary”, and one which we could call the argument from inexplicable incuriosity, which could be phrased very quickly as “we don’t really need an answer to why it all exists”.

Of the fifteen atheist answers, the only one I was morally certain had been written by an atheist offered none of these explanations. Instead, this one person took the tack that all religions, regardless of how flexible they were, at some point required a dogma or two that forced them into conflict with observable facts. While I disagree with the author there (of course), the answer was so thoughtfully written that I’d have to applaud the author just for that fact alone.

That’s not to say that none of the Christian first-prompt answers were thoughtful; indeed, I would say that in some respects the atheists gave more thought to their “Christian” responses than they did to their own beliefs, though the “liberal Catholic” response was almost a parody. I’ve often said that, as dangerous and despairing as atheism is to the soul, a well-thought-out atheism poses a formidable challenge to Christians, forcing us to think our beliefs through. Rather, the fact that the Christians were generally able to mimic atheist thought so closely simply shows that New Atheism, cut off from its philosophical roots and relying on a handful of memes, is becoming an intellectual wasteland of reflexive dogmatism and historical revisionism.

All things taken together, though, the whole exercise was interesting and enjoyable. I recommend it to your attention … especially as the vote on the Christian answers is closing soon!