Finally: my ideological Turing test Christian round strategy

At long last, Leah Libresco has posted the answer key for this year’s ideological Turing test, so now I can finally talk about my strategy for my entry on the Christian side. When Leah suggested making the topics for this year’s polyamory and euthanasia, I begged her to do it. Which in retrospect may have tipped off at least one person to what I was going to do, namely try to write a very liberal Christian supportive of euthanasia and especially polyamory.

I admit, I had doubts about this plan. I expected some people to vote the entry as atheist just because I wasn’t doing a “standard” Christian point of view. I considered switching to an evangelical or Catholic point of view, but didn’t… not because I expected my original idea to win, but because my original idea was more fun, dammit! But within the constraint of writing a very liberal Christian, I did everything I could to make my entry convincing.

So how did I do?

A few people mentioned in the comments in the post itself mentioned that while the entry was very convincing as a liberal Protestant, they never the less reasoned it was more likely to be a good fake. When I saw those comments, I mildly encouraged: could have done better, but evidence I did well under my self-imposed challenge. But the real test, of course, was the final vote tally. So how did I do in that?

Well, as expected, not great… 57% of voters voted “likely Christian” or “very likely Christian,” putting me behind almost all the real Christian entries and most of the other atheist ones (I’m not sure how to count Joy, the “ambiguous” / “culturally Christian agnostic” entry in that tally, or any other tally relevant to the test for that matter). But you know what? I was still voted more Christian than Christian H, the one real liberal Christian among the pool of contestants. Given that, I think I can say MISSION FUCKING ACCOMPLISHED.

Note that given that there were 6 Christian entries and 5 atheist entries, and one real liberal Christian and one fake liberal Christian, being extra skeptical of the liberal Christian entries turned out to be a bad strategy. I’m not saying this to dis the people who voted mine a fake, because I made the same mistake voting Christian H’s entry “very likely atheist.”

In fact, I feel dumb not thinking that the entry might be Christian H’s specifically – I knew that he had participated in the 2012 ideological turing test, and that his honest entry heavily voted “fake,” just as happened this year. In the future, it might be a good voting strategy to specifically be on the lookout for which entry might be Christian H’s, but vote liberal Christians as fake otherwise.

My attempts at deviousness

To explain my strategy for writing my entry, I’m going to start by talking about a strategy I didn’t use: just make what you think are plausible arguments for the other side’s positions. This might sound like a sensible strategy at first, but I feel fairly confident it’s a bad one. To see a good example of how it goes wrong, take a look at Ozy Frantz’ entry.

I feel bad picking on Ozy here, because we follow each other on Twitter and ze seems like a nice person, but I found hir entry to be the easiest to vote on by far, and ze did the worst of all the entries, so… the problem, as I wrote in the comment thread on the entry, was:

The biggest thing that stuck out about this entry for me is that the author seems to be trying to use liberal premises to argue conservative points. Now there are some people who have such idiosyncratic views, but odds overwhelmingly favor author being a liberal author trying to come up with arguments that ze would find plausible. However, the goal is not to come up with the arguments that you would judge to be the best, but to convincingly mimic the other side.

The problem is that people don’t just have object-level disagreements, they disagree about what constitutes a plausible argument and even what vocabulary is appropriate for talking about certain issues. In Ozy’s case, key give-aways were saying that our society is very patriarchal and ableist and that “Even polyamorists admit that polyamory requires a high level of communication and self-awareness.”

To avoid this issue, I attempted to create an entire fake persona with her own writing style and ideas about what made for a plausible argument. I say “her” because I consciously envisioned my character as female, which may have actually come across in the writing – a friend of mine told me it did, and one commenter said it reminded him of a former girlfriend of his.

Creating this ficticious persona involved doing some things that really felt like I was contorting my brain into funny shapes in order to do. For example, one thing that annoys me about liberal Christians is how rarely (it seems to me) they ever directly say that conservatives are wrong about anything. So I can be talking to a person who I suspect rejects Biblical inerrancy, but it can be difficult to get them to say so.

Thus, I made a rule that I would never directly say anyone was wrong about anything. Instead, I talked about the “limitations” of a certain approach, what’s “appropriate,” and suggested “a more helpful approach.” On the other hand, a big part of my image of liberal Christians is trying to insist fundamentalists aren’t “true” Christians, hence the reference to “Christians”-emphasis-scarequotes in the answer on euthanasia.

Smaller stylistic things I did, that I would never do writing in my own voice, included:

  • Capitalizing True at one point even though it wasn’t at the start of a sentence. (Why do people do that? Okay I guess it was partly a sneering thing in my case.)
  • Saying, “Polyamory as I understand it is based on equality, openness, honesty, consent, and mutual respect.” (I’m more likely to say, “yeah, if everyone’s honest with each other, why not?” rather than giving a long list of values.)
  • Suggesting “it would be arrogant of me to do that” is a reason not to do it. (In real life, I often wear arrogance as a badge of pride.)
  • Denying God would will anyone to die a slow, agonizing death and not remotely noticing the whole problem-of-evil issue. (Self-explanatory.)

But the number one thing I’m proudest of, on a “twisting my brain into funny shapes” level, is this sentence: “I see the Bible as a record of people’s experiences with the Divine, filtered through their own understanding of the world and cultural assumptions, rather than a word-for-word dictation by God.” I have no idea what this even means.

The sentence was a triumph of bullshittery, drawing on skills I had not used since that time in undergrad I had to write papers for a professor I hated (my refusal to use those skills in grad school probably had a lot to do with why I dropped out). To some extent, I envisioned my character as someone who had gotten through many religious studies courses by constantly guessing the teacher’s password until such statements had become second nature.

I also did at least one sneaky thing that had absolutely nothing to do with the intended purpose of the ideological Turing test, and that was dropping the large hint that my character lived in San Francisco (in spite of the fact I have never lived in San Francisco, though I have gone to the Bay Area to visit family several times). My reason for doing that was I knew that there were probably few Christians like the one I was portraying reading Leah’s blog, so I wanted to hint that maybe this was someone Leah knew personally from living in the Bay Area.

Things that (maybe) didn’t work

The San Francisco thing may have backfired, as Gilbert cited it as a deciding factor in his deciding I was an atheist (apparently assuming, incorrectly, that that part would be true regardless of whether I was telling the truth about the rest). On the other hand, it may have been a wash, as Brendan Hodge referenced it in giving his reasons why he voted “likely Christian.”

One thing I’m pretty sure was a mistake was the comment about how “so many people in the world don’t have access to basic health care (not to mention food and clean water).” This was mentioned by Gilbert as evidence the entry was fake, and this drives me crazy, but he’s probably right. Empirically speaking, I guess global poverty is something few Christians care about (A friend of mine who was raised Catholic told me Catholics have a long tradition of caring about poverty in your own metaphorical back yard, it’s global poverty where they fall down.)

I suppose it’s significant that this is one of the few places in my entry where I let my past liberal Christian self seep into the alter ego I’d created. By my early teens I’d heard (though I couldn’t quite believe it) about the number of people living around the world on $2 a day, and even though I’d only vaguely heard of Peter Singer, it seemed obvious that that probably meant it would only take a little money to make their lives a lot better, just a little forgoing of trivial luxuries. It somehow seemed to make sense alongside Jesus saying to sell everything you own and give the money to the poor.

But the fact that I used to think that way as a liberal Christian doesn’t mean including it in my liberal Christian entry was smart. The problem with basing an ideological Turing test entry is that a coverts/deconverts to be likely aren’t typical representatives of their position. In this case, I wonder if there’s an issue of grokking effective altruism meaning that in the long run, you’re also going to see that all the proposed solutions to the problem of evil are bullshit.

ETA: Gilbert further explains what he meant to say on the charity issue, making some very good points, here.

Analogies for animal rights: civil rights vs. the antiwar movement
William Lane Craig rationalizes his lie about Ehrman
Kris Komarnitsky’s Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection
Why I’ve decided to start deleting jerky comments more often
  • Herro

    If you want to imitate a “smart” liberal Christian I would suggest using hyphens a lot to string together words, e.g. : the not-yet-but-almost-here, the god-as-subject

    • andy

      and never, NEVER, NEVER!! mention homosexuality. EVER. Just avoid the topic

    • Chris Hallquist

      Ooh, that’s clever. Wish I’d thought of that one.

  • guest

    I think saying ‘I’m a Protestant and Protestants generally only…” is a give-away because you are distancing youself.

  • Gilbert

    For the record, caring for the third world isn’t suspicious per se, and I didn’t mean to imply that.

    Actually that part would make particular sense for a liberal Christian. Some of those rarely spend an hour without referring to the Millenium Development Goals. (The charge of caring only locally is closer to home for Catholics, though we too have loads of third world organizations, but then you weren’t portraying a Catholic.)

    It’s just that the cultural embedding of this particular mention was off. Your fake Christian directly connected this to the idea of an equivalence between not helping and actively harming, which is an argument more typical for the efficient charity crowd. In this context it sounded like a subtleization of the “you don’t really care for life because Africa” cudgel an atheist might use to avoid the actual argument on a bad day.

    An actual liberal Christian would more typically associate third world aid with recognizing the image of Christ or being prophetic like Amos or overcoming structural sin or that kind of thing. On some level you must have noticed this, because you lampshaded it as “a weird reaction”.

    In other words, it’s not about caring for the third world, it’s about buying into the specific efficient charity cult including all of the theory. That part actually is more likely for a Less Wrong kind of person than for a liberal Christian.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Fascinating. I guess I had trouble getting that part right because I see a continuity between what I believed as a liberal Christian teenager and my current support for effective altruism.

  • UWIR

    When I hear that there are people whose daily income is less than $2, I find “Wow, there are people who are incredibly poor” a less reasonable reaction than “Wow, the way in which we measure the income of third-world countries is seriously flawed.” I mean, yeah, there are people whose standards of living are significantly less than hours, but if we try to quantify that and find that their standard of living is one hundredth of ours, that has to seriously call that metric into question.

  • Darren

    “I see the Bible as a record of people’s experiences with the Divine,
    filtered through their own understanding of the world and cultural
    assumptions, rather than a word-for-word dictation by God.”

    But wait, isn’t that very close to the official Catholic line? At least when they are in appologetics mode… Pretty sure I could picture Irenist from Leah’s blog saying something very much like…

  • Christian H

    I’m late to this (I just got here from Leah’s), but I want to reply as the token liberal Christian. (I actually don’t like that term, but I guess it fits.)

    I voted for you as Christian (as you may have seen) not because I agreed with all of your reasoning, but because I thought you were funny in places, and the sense of humour seemed appropriate. I didn’t think that would be easy to fake. Apparently it was, or at least it was easy to transfer. So, in future, you can use that to convince me again; I’ll probably fall for it again.

    What I didn’t think is that your position was entirely like that of the liberal Christians I know, but that didn’t count against you because I assumed that American liberal Christians might be different from Canadian ones. Also, you were writing for public and not for, I don’t know, me personally or other liberal Christians, and often folks try to hedge bets in those cases in order to avoid scaring people away. This makes some liberal Christians (like me in the past) say really weird things, trying to sound like they fall in what they think the conservatives will find acceptable while actually not saying anything the conservatives will find acceptable.

    Also, in reply to this: “In the future, it might be a good voting strategy to specifically be on the lookout for which entry might be Christian H’s, but vote liberal Christians as fake otherwise.” I was surprised that more people didn’t do this already. Like you, I pretty seriously signposted that I was going to participate. However, in previous years there’s been a guy named Sweet Pea participating in the Turing Tests, and he’s also left-ist, so maybe voting liberal Christians as fake otherwise will backfire.

    And if you ever catch me dodging the question and not saying that something is wrong when I think it’s wrong, I would be pleased if you called me out on it. I hadn’t noticed that liberals (generally, not just Christians) do that until now, and I can see how it would be annoying. (I might not capitulate if I have reasons for mincing, but if it’s a habit I’m unaware of, it would be good to know when I do it.)

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Fascinating – the reason I voted for you as “Likely Christian” was because in your entry you said out of the gate “I’m a Protestant”. I tend to be literal-minded about tests and questions on forms in general, so I assumed you were telling the truth about that (and not speaking in the assumed persona of a Christian).

    I don’t know what I would have voted had you not made that kind of a straightforward statement; you were convincing as a liberal Protestant of no particular denomination, though I did find what you said re: sacraments confusing as I said in my comment, since the liberals I interact with tend either not to bother with the specifics of sacraments (so that having a cup of coffee and enjoying the moment could be a ‘sacrament’) or they embrace the seven sacraments of more liturgical traditions but put their own twist on them (e.g. a Stations of the Cross of the Earth, all about the environment and recycling and climate change and so on).

    Had you not said “I am a Protestant” but left in the bit about “There are only two sacraments”, I probably would have pegged you as atheist writing as liberal Christian. But on the whole, you were fairly convincing, so congratulations!