[Turing 2013] Atheist Entry #2

This is the second entry in the Atheist round of the 2013 Ideological Turing Test.  This year, atheists and Christians responded to questions about sex, death, and literature.  



I admit, when I heard that polyamory was going to be one of the topics of this year’s ideological Turing test, this wasn’t how I was hoping the question would be framed. The “sacramental” side is awkward to answer as an atheist, and I’m not quite sure what to say about the policy question. But then, I shouldn’t complain about a challenge, so here it goes (though the standard internet disclaimer I Am Not A Lawyer applies).

On a practical level, I don’t think polyamory is for everyone, but I think people who think polyamorous relationships (or nonmonogamous relationships more generally) never work don’t know enough poly people. (Or don’t know that they know them. Plenty of people in non-monogamous relationships aren’t out about that fact.) And on a moral level, I can’t even fathom why anyone would think nonmonogamy is automatically wrong regardless of whether it works for the people involved.

Legally speaking, I certainly don’t think there should be laws against adultery, and I think even fundamentalist Mormon polygamists should be left alone if they aren’t breaking any other laws (like age of consent laws). Whether civil marriage marriage should be open to groups of more than two people is (at least potentially) a more complicated issue, though.

I say “at least potentially,” because I’ve run across one polyamory advocate on the internet who insisted it wasn’ta complicated issue and that it would be a simple matter of repealing laws against bigamy. Color me skeptical, however. In the US, at least, marriage carries with it a wide range of legal privileges, some of which seem designed with only two people in mind. For example, it would probably not be possible to require employers and insurance companies that offer family health care plans to cover an indefinite number of spouses (at least, not without costing more, in the case of insurance companies).

Now, the issue of health insurance is going to be much less of an issue in rich countries other than the US, which generally have well-established systems of universal health care. And in fact, I’ve been told that many countries are, in general, moving to make legal marriage less important. If this is true, it lends plausibility to the point of view that the state should get out of the marriage business entirely.

I’m not suggesting that’s something we should try to do in the very near future, again at least not in the US. As I’ve already said, marriage is, legally speaking, a big deal in the US, and not having access to some of the associated legal privileges can be a huge problem for some couples, as we all should have learned by now from following the gay marriage debate. So whatever we do, it can’t be as simple as abolishing legal marriage tomorrow.

But maybe we should be looking at emulating those other countries where marriage has less legal significance. The Affordable Care Act, which tries to make health insurance affordable for everyone regardless of whether they or their spouse has a job that provides health insurance could, in a sense, be viewed as a step in that direction, and it’s a step I, for one, am very glad for.



I wrote this part of my entry well in advance of the deadline, and then decided to completely rewrite it in the middle of the Christian round after Scott Alexander, a psychiatry resident who blogs at SlateStarCodex.com, wrote a blog post which I recommend everyone read, titled, “Who By Very Slow Decay.” While you’re at it, go also read his, “In Defense of Psych Treatment for Attempted Suicide.”

The take away from these two posts, in reversed order, is that on the one hand lots of people who attempt suicide do so because they’re mentally ill, not just because of depression but also because of many other mental illnesses. These people, when they don’t succeed in killing themselves, tend not to try again and are often in fact very glad they didn’t succeed.  We need mechanisms in place to prevent these people from successfully killing themselves and to get them the treatment they need.

On the other hand, dying is unspeakably horrible, not just because you’re dead afterwords but because the process tends to be unspeakably horrible, and also slow. Having a dad who’s a health care provider, I could add to the examples Scott gives. Knowing all that convinces me it’s really important for people who want to be able to die as quickly and painlessly as possible when their only other option is to die slowly and horribly should be able to do the first one.

As for exactly what rules should govern assisted suicide and euthanasia, while I’m more sympathetic to consequentialism than most people, I have trouble swallowing the consequentialist view that there is never any moral difference between killing and letting die, and on a practical level (slippery slope arguments and so on) I think we have someone more reason to be worried about providing a lethal dose of a drug the proverbial unplugging of the machines. And within the first category, I’m less worried about providing patients with a lethal prescription to take themselves (which provides reassurance that it’s what they really want) than I am about doctors administering the medication.

That said, the worst case scenarios people imagine for countries like the Netherlands (people being pressured into euthanasia against their will) have, to the best of my knowledge, failed to materialize. Because of that, I’d be tentatively supportive of similar legislation being introduced in this country (not that that will happen anytime soon). I definitely think existing laws in Washington state and Oregon are better than completely prohibiting physician assisted suicide.


You can vote on whether you think these answers were written by a Christian or an Atheist here.  Comments are open to discuss the substance of the post and for speculation about the true beliefs of the author, so please vote before looking at the comments.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • TheodoreSeeber

    My first “Likely Atheist” vote combined with a “Quite a lot, I’d like to have coffee with this person” vote. Mainly for mentioning Scott Alexander, who despite being on the other side of the fence than me when it comes to euthanasia, totally solidified my beliefs on hospice care.

    And thanks to Leah and our author for leaving the links in; I hadn’t returned to Scott’s site recently, and yes, his missive on suicide is even better than his one on euthanasia.

    • Berry

      Scott’s site is pretty much the best.

  • Dan

    I voted atheist because the writer is thoughtful and a bit unsure of her positions–an impostor would probably use a stronger voice.

  • Jakeithus

    I have to say likely atheist. Not exactly sure why, but the personal touches push it over the top.

    • Brutus

      I saw the over the top personal touches as being indications of false authorship. They seem like something that a genuine author would omit.

      it’s very informative towards the original purpose of the ITT that I’m looking for style clues rather than content clues.

      • Dan

        I’m looking for style clues as well and came to the opposite conclusion. I think an exercise like this can always lead into a Princess Bride-esque “Battle of Wits.”

        • Brandon B

          Where you can win by building up an immunity in advance?

        • LeahLibresco

          Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

          • Berry

            Are you subtly trying to encourage us to cheat and switch goblets?

          • Guest

            No no. We should build up an immunity to the poison so it doesn’t matter which goblet we drink.

          • Berry

            That is exactly what Leah wants us to think.

          • Martha O’Keeffe

            I always thought that would have worked better as with Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin, in “The Purloined Letter”:

            “I knew one about eight years of age, whose success at
            guessing in the game of ‘even and odd’ attracted universal admiration. This game is simple, and is played with
            marbles. One player holds in his hand a number of these toys, and demands of another whether that number is even or odd.

            If the guess is right, the guesser wins one; if wrong, he
            loses one. The boy to whom I allude won all the marbles of the school. Of course he had some principle of guessing; and this lay in mere observation and admeasurement of the astuteness of his opponents. For example, an arrant simpleton is his opponent, and, holding up his closed hand, asks, ‘are they even or odd?’

            Our schoolboy replies, ‘odd,’ and loses; but upon the second trial he wins, for he then says to himself, ‘the simpleton had them even upon the first trial, and his amount of cunning is just sufficient to make him have
            them odd upon the second; I will therefore guess odd;’ – he guesses odd, and wins.

            Now, with a simpleton a degree above the first, he would have reasoned thus: ‘This fellow finds that in the first
            instance I guessed odd, and, in the second, he will propose to himself, upon the first impulse, a simple variation from even to odd, as did the first simpleton; but then a second thought will suggest that this is too simple a variation, and finally he will decide upon putting it even as before. I will therefore guess even;’ – he guesses even, and wins. Now this mode of reasoning in the schoolboy, whom his fellows termed ‘lucky,’ – what, in its last analysis, is it?’

            ‘It is merely,’ I said, ‘an identification of the reasoner’s
            intellect with that of his opponent.’ ”

            Switching the goblets is mere cheating; taking a therapeutic dose of poison to build up immunity is cleverer, but again it depends on mechanical effect rather than reasoning ability – you just have to be careful that you built up immunity to iocaine and not, say, arsenic, else your cunning precaution avails you nothing. The contest is better in the BBC “Sherlock” pilot, since the cabbie is pitting his wits against Sherlock’s as to which is the poisoned pill, but unfortunately we never get to see if Sherlock did choose the right pill or not.

  • Kristen inDallas

    much more convincing than the first post. And it reads very casually and naturally.

  • Brandon B

    My two cents is that

    “And on a moral level, I can’t even fathom why anyone would think
    nonmonogamy is automatically wrong regardless of whether it works for
    the people involved.”

    is not something you should ever put into an argument. “My position is obviously correct” is not an argument. I try to be very careful about anything I’m taking for granted, and the author has to know that a large portion of the audience disagrees with this “obvious” statement. It’s not going to be persuasive.

    • Brandon B

      A note: the fact you think something is obvious and someone else doesn’t might be useful information, and talking about why you think it’s obvious might let to a fruitful discussion. It still has no place in a composed argument like this.

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com/ Christian H

      While not an argument, I could see why an author would include it in this context. It at least explains why the author hasn’t rebutted any of the typical arguments against hir position: zhe doesn’t know of any that aren’t just dogmas stated with certainty (which often prove difficult to rebut, since they require no evidence which you could kick out). Perhaps this is an admission of weakness, or maybe it’s an observation that you can’t mount an argument against a non sequitur but must just point out what it is.
      (I’m not saying that arguments against euthanasia are non-sequiturs, but they might appear so to this author.)

      • Brandon B

        Even if the author believes the opposing arguments are non-sequitors, it’s not too much to ask to spend a few sentences saying so. Making an argument without properly dealing without counterarguments is like fencing without bothering to parry.

        If opponents of polygamy never gave reasons for their position, the it would be a “dogma stated with certainty.” However, they do give reasons, and we saw plenty in the Christian entries.

    • Randy Gritter

      You miss the point. It is sentimentalism. He is not talking logic. He is talking emotion. There are reasons he can imagine why it might be wrong. I am sure he gave them when he wrote his Christian version. He just can’t imagine someone being so mean. Telling another person what they say makes them happy is wrong. How could you? That is the essence of sentimentalism. Cut off rational thought by pulling out an emotional trump card.

      It amounts to moral cowardice. I won’t say something is wrong because I fear opposition. Someone is going to call me intolerant or prejudiced. It completely paralyzes moral reasoning. That is why he can’t fathom it.

      • avalpert

        Projecting a bit?
        I doubt it is that he can’t imagine being so mean; more that he can’t imagine someone being so dense to insist something must be inherently wrong even when presented with evidence of it working positively for some. That’s the kind of dogmatic stance in the face of contrary evidence that truly paralyzes moral reasoning.

        • Randy Gritter

          I would say that anything you suggest as morally wrong, anything at all, you are going to have to deal with examples of people who say it works for them. If wife-beating works fine for some, do you have to be dense to suggest it is wrong? Would that paralyze moral reasoning to say so? Quite the opposite. Being unwilling to say anyone is wrong will paralyze moral reasoning.

          Morality that simply affirms what we are doing is of no value. A moral code that calls us to something better is what we need. That means it has to tell us when we are wrong once in a while.

          • avalpert

            Well, if the wife in that example says (honestly, and we can discuss what the realistic ability to obtain that hones answer and under what conditions but for the sake of argument let’s assume she is able to) that it works for her I’m not sure why it is our place to assert it is morally wrong for them. And where is the line drawn then – cigarette burns? whips? taps on the ass? and why is the line drawn there?

            I don’t know that I agree with your assertion that what we need is a moral code that ‘calls us to something better’ and there are plenty of moral codes that have claimed to do so but would be dismissed today as barbaric.

          • Randy Gritter

            I am not saying it is impossible to make mistakes when choosing a moral code. I don’t think accidentally pursuing something barbaric is a huge risk. Choosing something that changes every time our feelings change or public opinion changes. I think that is a bigger danger. It should not be completely unchangeable. Some development should be possible. Still anytime we can change our morals then our morals can’t change us. Having our morals change us should be the goal.

  • Mary E.

    I went with “Likely Christian” because I am Christian and this seems like something I could have written, based on what I have heard from my friends and acquaintances who are atheists, or who lean towards atheism.

  • JWP

    Leah: This is entry #2, but the header says “This is the first entry…”

    • LeahLibresco


  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Likely atheist, based on the unmooring of morality and civil rights – no legislating against adultery, because we can’t legislate morality, but hesitation about extending unlimited rights as currently legalised to unspecified persons.

    I agree about you can’t legislate morality (although you could argue that, for instance, when we have laws about stealing that is precisely what we’re doing) but I think you can make an anti-polygamy argument without invoking religious morality.

    The euthanasia question made me nod my head in approval of quoting Scott’s posts, because they are a great jumping-off point for discussion.

    I don’t think this answer would convince someone with a strong view pro- or anti-, but it would be the start at least of a discussion. And I must say, I would have liked to know this person’s taste in literature or literary genres :-)

    • Anonymous

      Stealing is not the example you want. Try animal cruelty.

      • Martha O’Keeffe

        Why is stealing different? It affected me on a profound emotional level when I had my purse robbed, I tell you that!

        • Anonymous

          I’m thinking in terms of Constitutional tests. You can fit stealing into the category of public safety. It’s just a harder argument; you can try to get there, but it will be a more difficult road. Animal cruelty, on the other hand, is so clearly and obviously based merely on morality that it takes no effort to argue… and absolutely devastates the idea that “you can’t legislate morality”.

    • Darren

      “…but I think you can make an anti-polygamy argument without invoking religious morality…”

      Care to illustrate? Running through the Christian round I did not find one that did not appeal to religion or tradition, or tradition based on religion.

      • Martha O’Keeffe

        For instance, you could say that you have no opinion as to whether or not fornication is a sin, or that you don’t care tuppence about what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms because you don’t assign a moral value to sex (outside of issues of consent, perhaps).

        But if permitting multipartner arrangements to be formally recognised as legal entities under contract law happens, then how does that affect the rest of us? And it’s no good saying it won’t affect wider society, because – for one instance – we have a form of practical polyamory, where couples cohabit, split up, form new pairings, and children result from these arrangements. There are men with several women on the go, and women with several ‘boyfriends’ and this does have a definite affect on the children. We do have divorce in Ireland, but it’s still not that uncommon that couples separate, don’t bother to divorce, move in with new partners – so that they are still legally married to X but Y is their new spouse, for all practical purposes (e.g. a former Taoiseach – Prime Minister of Ireland – Bertie Ahern, who separated amicably from his wife, had a new partner for years – and I believe his wife likewise had a new partner – but they never got around to divorcing even when that was made law).

        So when you have people dependant on, for example, social welfare payments for single parents (important disclaimer – I do NOT believe women get pregnant for easy money or that, in the American term, “welfare queens” exist; this is NOT what I am saying), or children of unstable homes that require social workers and the care organisations of the state to be involved, and matters such as something as usual and local scale as someone eligible for council housing who commonly changes addresses (and needs to be rehoused every time) when she breaks up with the latest boyfriend (and I know personally of one example of this from my work in a school), then this does affect society not on a moral basis but on a purely (a) economic basis – you have to pay for this out of the public purse and (b) effect on the children and their access to education, a psychologically stable upbringing, their attitudes and expectations etc. which, again, the state ends up involved in – at best, social workers, at worst, the prison system when it comes to picking up the pieces.

        So would liberalisation of multiple partner arrangements – whether you call them marriages or domestic partnerships or what have you – be an objectively good thing? Without needing to consider “is this adultery, is this fornication, is this a sin”, you can argue as to whether or not – on a purely secular basis – you think this would work or not.

        • Darren

          Nicely answered Martha, thank you.

          I see now a different tack, and perhaps this was your point and I overlooked it before.

          I do not quite think that Atheist #2 is actually saying “we can’t legislate against immorality”. Such a statement is utter hogwash and, if he were making it, would likely peg him as an “I’m a poor atheist with no moral compass and so I cannot tell anyone anything is wrong, ever” straw man. After a careful second reading, I do not find such hints, though.

          Of course we can legislate against immorality, that is exactly what we legislate against. If we do not outlaw adultery, it may be because we consider it morally acceptable (or neutral), or we may consider the (global) harm of increased government surveillance of private citizens required to enforce such a prohibition to be worse than the (local) harm of the occasional (or not so occasional) infidelity. But it is not because we are trapped in a paroxysm of moral relativism.

          Same for polyamory, (save that the analogy breaks down as adultery is defined as non-consensual on the part of the injured party).

      • Anonymous

        Are you requiring that none of their arguments appeal to religion or tradition? That’s kind of a ridiculous bar, considering the question prompt. The bar should be whether a set of their arguments that don’t appeal to religion or tradition can be extracted if necessary.

        (…and I’ll just ignore the fact that you added “tradition”, when clearly tradition is far broader than religious morality… and the purpose of an appeal to secular tradition can easily be to point out the secular consequences of changing that tradition.)

        • Darren

          “Are you requiring that none of their arguments appeal to religion or tradition?”

          Sure, why not? Imagine we have a clean slate and a legal pad and we want to build our perfect society. Without holy books or the inertia of “that’s not how we have done it before”, is item #1 on our pad “1 Man + 1 Woman = 4-ever!”?

          If it is for you, that’s fine with me, you have my attention. Why?

          • Anonymous

            You seemed to be using the ubiquitous presence of appeals to religion/tradition in the Christian section as evidence that one cannot make an anti-polygamy argument without them. That seems like a ridiculous jump, considering the fact that the prompt asked them to discuss sacramental marriage. I would expect them to mention those things… regardless of whether they could distill out an argument that meets your “clean slate” criteria.

            Btw, (and this isn’t really in response to you in particular Darren) I would like to take a moment to sit back and remember the days long past when homosexual marriage was discussed ad nauseum on this particular website. It’s amusing to think about all the people who said, “Look, homosexual marriage has nothing to do with polygamy. It’s a totally different thing,” in response to those who said, “Look at the foundations that are leading to your conclusion. They have other logical consequences, too.” Now, we’re hearing that you simply can’t argue against polygamy without appealing to religion/tradition… since, of course, there’s only one possible alternative… ya know, that thing that we swore didn’t imply polygamy. If that isn’t a Bayesian prediction… trollolol.

          • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com/ Christian H

            In my country, our Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to tell us that allowing same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy. It was interesting to see which people said, “That’s preposterous,” and which said, “I should hope so.”
            (We have, at a national level, allowed same-sex marriage. The Supreme Courts recently ruled against polygamy, but it did get all the way to the Supreme Court. Make of that what you will.)

          • Anonymous

            Bowers to Romer was 10 years. Seven more for Lawrence. Another decade for Windsor. I haven’t read your Supreme Court’s ruling, so I don’t really know how they’ve based their distinction or how susceptible it is to the passage of a few more years. Of course, winds of change can come in either direction (or in other directions). What remains is the logic. It was said before, “If you’re embracing that logic, this is a consequence.”

            I’m curious, though… not following Canadian politics much… which groups said which? Are you speaking about a division within the supports of SSM, or a division along that line? There is some division within the supporters of SSM nationwide here, but I was really just referring to the specific environment in these comments.

          • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com/ Christian H

            This was /within/ liberals and socialists, not between more distinguishable groups. It was just interesting to see that 1. a lot of people found Harper’s claim preposterous and desperate and 2. there were some people who maybe did think it was preposterous (as slippery-slope arguments often are), but would like to see polygamists use the momentum on same-sex marriage to their advantage nonetheless. For one, I thought it was preposterous (largely because Harper’s argument wasn’t “Look, there are logical implications,” but, “If we re-define marriage this time, GOODNESS KNOWS how we’ll re-define it later,” which is a sillier argument), but then when I started noticing the polygamy activism picking up, I was tres amused.

          • Darren

            Anonymous said, “You seemed to be using the ubiquitous presence of appeals to religion/tradition in the Christian section as evidence that one cannot make an anti-polygamy argument without them.”

            Not really my intent, I just had run across precious few non-religious / non-tradition objections, Martha volunteered that such arguments could be readily generated, so I asked for a few. I did not demand they be convincing, just credible, and was rewarded for the asking.

            “Look, homosexual marriage has nothing to do with polygamy.”

            Well, it is fortunate that you do not lump me into that category, because I never held any such view. The parallels between SSM and 3+M are obvious – those who made claims otherwise were fools or liars. Given the political nature of the discussion, I suspect the later, but then again people manage to convince themselves to believe all manner of foolishness when they are ideologically committed.

            I will, however, go on record now as saying that SSM and 3+M does not logically imply pedophilia, bestiality, Ghost-Horse marriage, or robo-sexual marriage. ;)

          • Anonymous

            All sounds well. However, given that you agree with me that animal cruelty laws are based purely in morality (and are already suspect under Lawrence), wouldn’t you claim that bestiality is already implied? Sure, a dog can’t enter a marriage contract (and the people who were mentioning such a thing were either fools or liars), but an adult’s behavior in the privacy of the home (whether sexual or cruel) with an animal is pretty clearly approved.

            We could discuss normalizing relationships with animals, following the example of people who legit love and care for them in addition to having what seems like mutually-agreed-upon sex (I’ll use that phrase to pre-empt what is always a long discussion on what gets packed into “consent”… and also, don’t ask me to find these examples… I just remember reading a blog or two from a link on reddit (yea, reddit is definitely the cause of the weirdest things I’ve ever read)). However, we don’t even need to go down that route, because animal cruelty is out, too (I’ve looked at Virginia’s “combined animal cruelty statutes” recently; bestiality (and “unnatural acts”… I don’t even know if this whole thing is technically still in force anyway) is technically in a different section, but it falls under the designation of combined animal cruelty statues). Wow, I went even further overboard with parenthetical statements than I usually do. Sorry for what probably ended up being a tough parse.

          • Darren

            Anonymous said, “wouldn’t you claim that bestiality is
            already implied?”.

            Nicely said!

            No legal person in an animal to enter into a marriage
            contact, but what of consensual sex? Animals not competent to give consent, but
            does it matter? Considered property and subject to their owner’s whim.

            Is it cruel to have sexual relations with an animal? In some
            cases yes, in others perhaps not. What if the animal is dead? One can kill and
            eat a chicken, why not have sex with it first?

        • Darren

          “and I’ll just ignore the fact that you added “tradition””

          Fair enough, I did add “tradition” quite unsolicited, just a bit of pre-screening on my part.

  • Evan

    Tough one. If I were playing (I’m not), I imagine my atheist response would look very similar to this, which makes me lean Christian. But there are a few sentences that I cannot imagine a Christian writing even when trying to be an atheist, primarily: “dying is unspeakably horrible, not just because you’re dead afterwords.”
    I think a Christian would have written: dying CAN BE…; and would not have made the joke about being dead, because: 1) they don’t believe death is the end, and 2) if they were pretending to believe death is the end, there would be nothing horrible about being dead, because by then you’re gone.

  • Anonymous

    Another btw. It’s good to see you again, Darren. I was just thinking about you a day or two ago while listening to Peter Adamson and Sarah Byers talk about Augustine and the Stoics. There was a bit where they talked about the Stoics thinking that bad things happen to good people, and therefore, we need to find a way to explain why they’re not really bad things at all. It just reminded me a bit of your solipsist/p-zombie thoughts…

    • Darren

      “Another btw. It’s good to see you again, Darren.”

      That is kind of you to say. Where you also “Anonymous”
      before Disquis?

      Yes, had to take a bit of a break, there. Was having trouble self-regulating my posting time and frequency, and the rate at which I was royally pissing people off was also a good indicator that perhaps I was doing something wrong. :)

      • Anonymous

        Yea. It’s probably past time that I actually post under a unique name here. I was getting comfortable to that point before Leah converted. When that happened, the environment here changed a lot, and I just kinda backed off and only occasionally dove in.

        • Darren

          “Famous Original Anonymous”…
          or is that “Original Famous Anonymous”

          • Anonymous

            Anonymous is famous, but I’m not him… or, well, them. I’m also not famous on my own. I’m just a STEM academic with an unhealthy affection for law and philosophy (among many things). As far as Original… I’m not the first Anonymous, but I am an Anonymous who I think has some original ideas (perhaps not original in the sense of “no one has ever thought of them before”, but original in the sense of “I personally have never heard anyone use Lawrence to go after animal cruelty laws (and couldn’t find much in that vein either via google scholar or with a quick stop by the law library to check a few animal law references), so why don’t I try that and see where I can get intellectually with it…”)