Choose the theme of this year’s Ideological Turing Test

There are specialized comment rules for this post, make sure to read them before commenting.

In the inaugural Atheist/Christian Ideological Turing Test, I asked the participants to answer questions about evidence (What shapes your current beliefs?  What would convince you otherwise?).  That prompt turned out to elicit pretty dull and easy to predict answers, so, in 2012, I switched to a weirder theme and asked contestants to talk about authority and aesthetics.

And now “Sumer Is Icumen In/Lhude sing cuccu!”  (Which is quite apropos, as cuckoos are brood parasites — they’re good enough at mimicking the eggs of other birds that they can pass off their offspring to other birds’ nests).  So, it’s time to pick themes and formats for this year’s contest.

I’d quite like to experiment with something a little closer to the traditional Turing Test — chat transcripts, where contestants have to think on their feet instead of being able to prepare and polish their answers, but I’m concerned it will be gamed in boring ways.  Testers might default to asking trivia (“What was the Pope’s old name?”  “What are the criteria of the Lemon test?” etc).  So, I’d like to be persuaded into this format, but I need a way to set it up that incentivises the player and the proctor to be interesting.

To pass a straight Ideological Turing Test, you can always just try to rely on Poe’s Law and try to imitate the worst of the opposing ideology, confident that it represents some subset of the group.  The equivalent in a computer Turing Test is just cussing out the interlocutor.  Anger is very easy to duplicate; it doesn’t require you to listen to your partner.

Since these entries are public, I want to be able to learn a little more from them than what I could get trawling comboxes.  I like players to try to understand what the other ideology feels like from the inside.  What is your opposite number trying to protect?  Where do they anticipate threats?  What delights them?


One idea I’ve been kicking around is making everyone write on the four loves.  Not the Lewis book specifically, but storgephileoeros, and agape.  Do contestants think this is a useful taxonomy?  Have they got an alternate arrangement?  How do they find these categories differ?  Are any currently neglected?  How would you help strengthen/support them?

Players and judges will have more trouble anticipating the answers for a prompt along these lines.  That makes this not a very useful sorting criteria (heck, if that was we cared about, we’d stick with giveaway jargon and analysis of social connections).  But I expect it will make writers and readers think harder and differently about what matters most to opponents and what shapes their judgements.


So, have at it.  The floor is open for suggestions.  To make my life a little easier, I’m splitting the combox into specialized threads.  That means you should not be posting top-level comments.  You should only be replying to other commenters or to one of my category comments.  They are as follows:

  • Topic/Theme Suggestions – What ideas would you like atheists and Christians to play with, both as themselves and as they imagine their opposite number would?
  • Question Suggestions – Specific prompts/questions/tasks, as opposed to general topics above.
  • Format Suggestions – How would you set up a chat contest?  Are there other formats besides short essays I should consider.
  • Meta Thread – Have a comment about the Ideological Turing Test that goes beyond suggestions?  Critiques, philosophical discussion, etc goes here.
  • Double-Meta Thread – Complaints/discussion only of the way I’ve structured the comment rules for this post.
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  • LeahLibresco

    Topic/Theme Suggestions – What ideas would you like atheists and Christians to play with, both as themselves and as they imagine their opposite number would?

    • Niemand

      Sorry, did NOT read the post properly. Please delete my erroneous top level comment. I’m still going to suggest that the question of what makes a good person or a good act would be one that would be interesting and potentially enlightening to play with though.

      • Niemand

        Another thought on this is to have scenarios and ask each person to answer as a Christian or an atheist. For example, Your friend X tells you that she believes she is pregnant and asks you for help obtaining an abortion. What do you think is the moral thing to do in this situation and why?

        • I think the abortion question might be a bit boring, but I like the general idea.

          • Niemand

            It doesn’t have to be that question, that was just the first one I thought of. Another question might be: Your sibling, who has always had the same religion as you, has decided to convert to Christianity/announces that s/he is an atheist. What should you do? Is it moral to try to talk them out of their view? This one might be difficult as a Turing test because, again, I think that people of the same belief system may disagree seriously on how to handle the situation.

          • Martha O’Keeffe

            Since I very nearly started a row with a family member on similar grounds, I’d be interested to see how answers to that question would shape up 🙂

        • Slow Learner

          I think the *why* is the key bit here, but yes, with the why this is a good question.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        Maybe reading comprehension questions? There seems to be a lot of that going around in both Christian and atheist circles (for instance, I recently had a very paranoid Christian respond to a post that contained the phrase “which of course can never be solved with violence” indicating that he thought I was inciting violence).

    • I second Niemand that some kind of ethics questions would be good.

    • Colin Gormley

      I may need some help formulating the question but:

      What are the minimum number of assumptions one has to assume are true before one can reason rationally?

      I find that in most discussions that involve differing opinions people no longer walk thought the reasoning chain to a common assumption. Thus most discussions devolve into dueling worldviews without any attempt to explain how one got to that point by working from assumptions that both parties hold.

      • Slow Learner

        A bit too high-level to lead to much of a discussion here, I think.

    • Martha O’Keeffe

      Free will. I’m interested to see is there a point of agreement between what I consider Classic Calvinism and the new science of consciousness lot who argue that there isn’t such a thing as ‘the will’ – do you disbelieve in ‘free will’ because you believe in ‘the bondage of the will’ or because you believe ‘there’s no such thing or entity as ‘I’ involved’? I’m also interested to see where my understanding of Calvinism and the ‘new’ Calvinism differs, and on the other side, what the argument about personality versus consciousness and is it at all meaningful to speak of “choice” when there is the idea that everything is pre-programmed into us by natural selection and the physical laws of the universe?

    • George

      I second Free Will. I’d love to see where people of different beliefs fall on the question of free will. I would especially like to hear what some self described scientific materialists actually think about the issue. I’m sure it is much more interesting and intelligent than the caricatures usually imply.

    • 1. I like Niemand’s suggestion–what makes a good person or a good act–well enough.
      2. I would be interested in something like, “What does atheism/Christianity uniquely offer?” or “What problem (societal, personal, etc.) do you think atheism/Christiainity better prepares you or helps you to solve than another worldview does?” People would then be free to quarrel with a functionalist take on their perspective, if they wanted to quarrel, but I’d like to see an answer more complex than C S Lewis’ (“That’s easy. Grace.”).
      3. As for the four loves: that could work and I’d find it very interesting, but that sure requires specific knowledge to answer. Also, does anyone know if there’s good empirical research to indicate that the four loves are useful constructs?

      • LeahLibresco

        Re #3, no idea. I keep struggling with them, so my suggestion was partly a way to make everyone help me (or at least suffer along side me).

      • Slow Learner

        I have a strong reaction against the four loves, though that may simply be my Lewis-allergy springing back to the fore again.
        Ditto to the suggestion on what makes a good person/good act. I might be wrong, but I think I would struggle to write a non-consequentialist view, so it might be a good differentiator.
        (I can sort-of-grok non-consequentialist moralities, but then my mind protests “But it leads to worse consequences!”…)

    • KG

      1) The role of women in society. Why is it appropriate or inappropriate to exclude women from the highest positions of leadership in the church or other organizations? (Note that this is not a question about how men and women are generally different – it is a question specifically about leadership)

      2) Homosexuality. Why is it important or unimportant to persuade a homosexual that they’re morally or spiritually harming themselves and others by being physically attracted to someone of the same gender and/or seeking societal acceptance of said attraction?

      3) Contraception. Why is it important or unimportant to campaign against the use of contraceptives from a moral perspective? (This is probably separate from the question of whether their use works toward or against the goal of reducing the total number of abortions that occur).

      I choose these topics because they are among the places of most significant divergence between Catholic and non-Catholic morality. I worry that conversations about other moral topics will be boring because there is generally a lot of overlap between Catholic and non-Catholic morality, at least when it comes to concrete topics instead of abstract beliefs.

      • Kite

        I’m not sure that the fake atheist responses to the questions would be very interesting. Besides which, those three topics are debated all over the place. It’s fairly easy to predict what the responses from each side would be. Maybe a topic that’s had less exposure in the media would be better? Like, Euthanasia, polyamorous marriages, whether animals other than humans can be considered ‘people’ or should have rights, should children be sent to schools that are segregated by religion, what is the limit of what can be explained by Science and is it necessary to have seperation between church and state? These are all topics where Catholics diverge from most atheists but they’re not quite as much in the media as the topics you suggest.

        • KG

          I like many of those topics, like euthanasia and religious segregation of schools.

          Regarding the topics I suggested: The fact that they are debated ubiquitously means that they draw the differences between Catholic and non-Catholic morality into sharp contrast. And since the point isn’t to debate them here, but to test how well each side understands the other, they seem like they could be useful. I do acknowledge that Poe’s law is a threat here. But if the participants take care to dive deep beneath the bumper sticker level in their responses, this could be very interesting.

          Also, an aside: I think the differences between what many atheists and Catholics think about the limits of science are much smaller than you suppose. The bigger difference concerns the non-scientific explanations of those things that both sides agree can’t be explained by science.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            I agree that there actually is a fair bit of diversity on both sides, especially if you define Christian as broadly inclusive. For example, Kitzmiller in Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover was Catholic. Ideas about non-human rights and abortion are all over the map on the atheist side. And views of science are a pretty good litmus test for which people on both sides are only responding to the most publicly visible debates.

    • Randy Gritter

      I would ask something about sex, something about death, maybe a famous miracle like Fatima or Guadeloupe. I might ask about a non-Christian religion like Islam or Mormonism. I might be interesting to hear an analysis of a story or maybe a movie. Maybe Life of Pi or something that touches religious themes a bit differently.

      • LeahLibresco

        Year Three: Sex and Death is something that certainly entertains me to pitch. Polyamory and euthanasia?

        • I would vote for that!

        • KG

          Would you be able to find a sizeable population of participants, atheist or otherwise, who support polyamory?

          • Even if most people did not support polyamory, it would be really interesting to find out why they wouldn’t. I suspect different people would oppose polyamory for wildly different reasons (which would also might make it tougher to fake your opposite, since you’d have to arrive at the same conclusion for different reasons).

          • LeahLibresco

            Bingo. (And, since I’ve moved to Berkeley, I know a bunch of atheists who practice polyamory).

          • Wow. First Yvain, and now you. It’s like people are conspiring to convince me to move to the Bay Area.

        • Martha O’Keeffe

          I’d love those topics, because (a) I’d like to see if any atheists take the lazy way out of just lifting chunks from the Catechism and (b) how either side would phrase its arguments when arguing as an opponent (do the Christians have a stock model atheist in their head that they think believes x, y and z and do the atheists have a stock model Christian that they think believes p, q and r and do both sides think that their model represents the whole?)

        • YES to polyamory and euthanasia.


            I would totally want to participate if those were the subjects. Thinking about how I’d do this one (for both the “atheist” and “Christian” answers), I’m already getting ideas that I’m really excited about.

    • InkDuBlog

      I like the subject of love–maybe making it broader and talking about the nature of love? This way it opens it up for the four loves to be mentioned as well as other views to be dragged in. Maybe love and sacrifice?

      • Slow Learner

        Yes, this could be an interesting one.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      A good one that recently showed up in my blog: Given Deism as a likely scenario, is it possible to *conceive* of everything you believe has happened in history happening with a non-theist, non-interventionist God?

  • LeahLibresco

    Question Suggestions – Specific prompts/questions/tasks, as opposed to general topics above.

    • Niemand

      Possible questions for the four loves theme:

      How do you define each of the loves? What is an example of each type of love?

      Example Person has problem X in his/her life. How would a person who feels each type of love react to that problem? Which would be most helpful to the person with the problem?

      I suspect that this may not be a good Turing Test, though, since I suspect that the answers will be at least moderately orthoganal to belief system.

      • LeahLibresco

        Though maybe I’ll want to solicit guest posts in this vein…

  • LeahLibresco

    Format Suggestions – How would you set up a chat contest? Are there other formats besides short essays I should consider.

    • One thing you could do with the chat contest is to make it a debate, get people competitive about it so they want to win even when they’re taking the opposite side from their actual position. That means you not only prevent them from emulating the worst of the opposing side; you give them an incentive to try to emulate the best.

      You wouldn’t even need 3rd party interrogators, you could pit contestants against each other. You could set it up so that in 1/4 of the conversations, both contestants are taking their real position, in 1/4 both are atheists, in 1/4 both are Christians, and in 1/4 the contestants have swapped positions. Audience members would have to judge the test without knowing which condition obtained. Heck, you could even keep contestants in the dark about whether their partner for a given round was an atheist or a Christian, and let the contestants get in on the judging that way.

      • I suppose I’d be afraid of mercenary strawmen: people who will deliberately lose when arguing as what-they-are-not.
        Also–and this is entirely personal–I hate debates and debate formats.

        • I’m not sure what they’d accomplish by doing, since the idea would be for all to be revealed at the end.

    • 1. Let’s all remember that some people cannot participate if the time investment is too much or too specific (ie. simultaneous debates likely not an option).
      2. My recommendation for form would be simple enough. People write shorter position statements than last year, forward it to (let’s say) two questioners, who each respond with one question which the contestant must answer. (I say “two questioners” because it would probably be best to have a Christian and an atheist questioner for each entry.) You would either need a lot of questioners or make the questioners read a fair amount of submissions, I suppose. If boring questions is the concern, maybe only recruit people who have a history of asking insightful questions? Or–and this would be a lot of work for one person–have someone vet all of the questions before they go to the contestants.

      • Another idea: the commentariat can ask as many questions of the original submission as they like, and someone (the contestant, Leah, a moderator) can choose one or two questions that they will answer.

    • Slow Learner

      I think a chat could be very interesting; should be manageable as long as you match people up with others at least vaguely within the same timezone (for instance, if you match me up with someone on the US West Coast, they will get home from work when I go to sleep, go to sleep when I go to work, and go to work when I get home) and allow a few days for them to have their chat.
      Then one of them sends you the chat logs, you anonymize those, and post them.

  • LeahLibresco

    Meta Thread – Have a comment about the Ideological Turing Test that goes beyond suggestions? Critiques, philosophical discussion, etc goes here.

    • I like the idea of the Ideological Turing Test, but couldn’t get into following it when one of the topics was aesthetics. I understand the impulse to change things up, but the connection to religion there was just too unclear.

    • Niemand

      Meta-query about the past tests: At least one person (you) has changed her designation since the test. I note that you were particularly good at convincing others that you were Christian in the Christian questions section. Have others changed their designation/beliefs since then? I’m curious about whether a person who can argue the contrary point of view well is more likely to take that position eventually, as your anecdote would suggest.

      • Randy Gritter

        I would think anyone who has seriously considered conversion or actually converted will be good at this. I suspect I could fake being a Calvinist because I was one until age 40. An atheist? I have never seen that as actually appealing so I suspect I would struggle once you get outside the common lines of discussion.

    • Kite

      It occured to me just now that people will suggest topics they’re familiar with and that because they’re familiar with them, they’ve probably seen at least some of the arguements from the opposing side already.

    • Niemand

      This may be wandering into “none of your business” territory and if so I apologize, but…Leah, what field are you in? If you’re in a sociology or psychology related field, have you considered trying to make this exercise publishable? I think you’d need an IRB approval and I’d suggest professor level help with the design, but I think this sort of test could be made into a formal study and might provide an interesting insight into how people think about religion and morality.

  • LeahLibresco

    Double-Meta Thread – Complaints/discussion only of the way I’ve structured the comment rules for this post.

    • LeahLibresco

      I so appreciate everyone’s rule following!

  • Niemand

    I’m not sure this is the sort of thing you’re looking for, but a question I’d like to see explored is “what is a ‘good person’?” Or, if you don’t like categorizing people as good versus bad, “what is a ‘good act’ or maybe ‘good ideology’?”

  • Y. A. Warren

    I would like to see the questions formulated to look for agreements among the defined place of humanity in the the belief systems of all world religions, including Deism.