[Turing 2013] Atheist Entry #9

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



There are purely practical reasons why any scheme to recognise and give legal impact to polyamorous relationships should be considered very carefully. There are however no moral arguments against it with a general and secular force. As in my view any religion’s sacrament of marriage is entirely their business and I have no religion, it is irrelevant to me, and I will be discussing only civil marriage in the below.

For example, in the case where four adults are married, two have children together, and then divorce – should the adults in the household who are not biologically parents to those children have any expectation of visitation rights? Presumably so – how though should these be balanced with considerations of stability for the child? If A and B are married, then later add C to their marriage, before A dies, then B and C add D to their marriage, to what extent is this the same marriage in a legal sense? If D is the last survivor of this marital group, should any spousal pension which went to B and C in respect of their marriage to A carry on to D?

Essentially do we treat a case where A and B and C are married as one marriage including three persons, or as three separate marital relationships, each involving two people? To what extent should the law try to recognise the fine shape and structure of a poly blob, and therefore specify it (A and B are the primary couple, with C, D and E as their secondaries; D is part of a primary couple with F while C and E are otherwise single) – and to what extent should it be more of an anything-goes “If you people A-F specify yourselves as a poly marriage, you are”?

Should there be any upper limit on the number of people who can join a poly marriage? Can close relatives both be members of one poly marriage? If yes, what proportion of close relatives as members of a poly marriage should be permitted?

If I could see a clear and consistent way of answering these questions, I would be in favour of poly marriage on those terms. At present I have not seen one. Permitting gay marriage requires only that one strike out “man and woman” write in “two people”, and leave the rest in place (freely consenting, not married to another person, not related, of age, etc). The structure of marriage remains, just who gets to jump through the initial hoop has changed.

Poly marriage is a much more radical change in the terms of marriage, and while I think poly relationships are a morally neutral choice in general (better for some people, worse for others), legal recognition and support for them is a non-trivial demand to make. A demand of “poly equality” is justified, but insufficient, without an idea of what that equality would look like, and I do not expect civil marriage to include poly marriage at least until a somewhat-coherent vision of poly marriage in a legal sense has been developed.



There is a difference between not administering medical treatment and actively ending life. Administering medical treatment against the wishes of the patient is morally wrong, and refraining from unwanted treatment is obligatory (in the case of an adult of sound mind, whose wishes are known to medical personnel, at least).

Actively ending life is permitted, but not obligatory – if a doctor cannot square euthanising a patient with their own conscience, that is their right, as long as they refer the patient to another doctor who will.
In a broader sense, I value life very highly, so you might expect me to oppose people committing suicide, let alone being helped into suicide. However, I value the life of thinking people who are capable of making their own decisions, and taking the core decision of whether or not their life continues away from people makes a mockery of that. It is more generally recognised that taking away someone’s right to try to continue their own life is a serious moral wrong, only justified under specialised circumstances; but the lesser-recognised corollary is that it is morally wrong to compel someone to continue living when they do not wish to. Life is a right, not a duty.

In the Wheel of Time series, the people of the Borderlands have a saying “Duty is heavier than a mountain; death is lighter than a feather”, recognising that their calling of defending the world against the Blight is of great significance and embracing death is running from their duty. Most of us, as important as we are to our friends and loved ones, do not have a calling of such cosmic significance. Our duty is lighter, but death can still be an escape, and I can’t find it in me to judge people who need that escape. It is a failure of society when someone kills themselves out of desperation or mental illness, but it is no failure when someone staring down the barrel of a terminal condition or a degenerative disease chooses their time and manner of their departure.

More broadly, it is possible to have a moral obligation to kill, in a case where this is the only way to save lives. Much more likely is having moral licence to use force in such a way that people may die, most commonly to preserve your own life or those of others. Certainly there is never a moral obligation to kill to preserve your own life – some people would rather die than kill, and that is their right.



I think that speculative fiction, and especially science fiction, is the best genre to explore and express my form of secular humanism. Science fiction at its best is about what it is to be human, and what humans are, and how humans flourish.

And this links back into humanism – whose focus and aim is on humanism and how humans flourish. An author who can write a good science fiction novel will show you a lot of their worldview and what they think makes people tick. Ken McLeod is a good example of this, writing techno-utopian/anarcho-libertarian/Trotskyist novels that give a really good sense of that worldview. David Brin gives a different one, and Ursula LeGuin a different one again. I don’t fully agree with any of them, but to show a worldview I fully agree with in a novel I would have to write it myself.
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.

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  • Brendan Hodge

    I find myself leaning Christian on this one, mostly because I get the feeling from both of these that the author wants to be opposed to polyamory and euthanasia but can’t quite come up with solid justifications for doing so given the worldview he’s positing. However, that’s getting me to seven Christians out of nine entries in this round already, so either I’m over-suspicious or we have a 7-5 breakdown and all the rest are going to be solid atheists. (I came up with a 7-5 Christian/Atheist split on the first round too, so if the next three all strike me as atheist at least I’m consistent.)

    • Brutus

      Yeah, I can’t believe that people honestly think that the practical issues won’t be fixed almost immediately once the cultural issues are resolved.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        Yeah, sure, because magic is real and the culture defines reality, right?

        • Brutus

          No, because the people pushing for the change in recognition will be well-prepared for the outcome, and their choices will set the model for the future.

          Pretty much exactly the way that offering health insurance (and later, healthcare payment arrangements) to an employee and their spouse happened.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Yeah, right- because having the change in cultural status will magically make custody battles over children and odd divorces go away.

            You’re living in a dream world.

          • Brutus

            Oh, so custody battles over children and divorces are enough reason for a type of marriage to not exist? Dissolve hetero marriage, then.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Exactly the same as my conclusion. Civil marriage is an unreasonable government intrusion into private religion. Time to do away with it entirely.

          • Martha O’Keeffe

            To borrow a quote from Mark Shea, “Human history is divided into two phases – (1) What could it hurt? (2) How were we supposed to know?”
            Early push polyamorists may indeed have lovely, amicable arrangements where all parties are quite clear on what they want and how to deal with splitting up or bringing new members into the bond. But there is always a serpent in Eden, and I rather imagine that basic human nature is stubborn enough not to be that easily changed. We’re not all of us rationalists living in Berkeley who imbibed pacifist principles with our vegan organic biodynamic soya milk as babies 🙂

          • Brutus

            How will not providing legal or social recognition to a poly relationship which exists going to be better? Or is your assertion that failing to recognize a relationship makes it less likely?

          • Randy Gritter

            You seem to be suggesting that some small subset of intellectual elites can be happy with some weird sexual relationship but the rest of us can’t. That is not true. No human can be happy with polygamy or with gay marriage or with contraception or with fornication or with pornography. Not even vegan, pacifist, Berkeley rationalists. We are meant for greatness. We can find it by embracing celibacy fully or by embracing marriage fully. The rest is not just shallow. It is a desecration of the great gift of sexuality.

            So when you talk about legal recognition, what are you recognizing? That you have a sex life? That is pretty unremarkable. If that is all that is being recognized in marriage then we should not bother. What we should be recognizing is that this couple is in pursuit of something truly amazing. A covenant that truly embraces what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. To be naked and unashamed. To be fruitful and multiply.

            If society can grasp that then why bother with and legal recognition at all? It is hard. With adoptions you have to admit the state knows nothing about raising children. We can’t distinguish between a loving family and a motorcycle gang. They both involve sex so who are we to judge? So the state has to admit a willful stupidity. We refuse to see the elephant in the room so we do things that are bad for society.

      • Brendan Hodge

        It’s not that I don’t think the practical issues surrounding polyamory are huge (I think they are and that our culture would suffer serious damage by recognizing it legally and culturally as a good family form) but that most of the people I’ve run into who support polyamory wave those kinds of objections away with statements like “If it’s a fundamental civil right to have one’s relationships recognized, it doesn’t matter that there are practical difficulties to doing so. Abolishing slavery had practical difficulties but it was still the right thing to do.”

        Underneath that, I personally suspect, is that a lot of the folks pushing to expand the definition of marriage don’t actually take marriage that seriously as a social institution, they just take it as a form of social recognition and a goodie hand-out for certain state and employer benefits.

        • Brutus

          The ‘social institution’ is the biggest cultural issue involved. Nobody I have ever talked to has asked IF marraige-as-it-is-now SHOULD be a social institution.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            I thought the main argument against novel forms is that social evolution has pretty much proven that heterosexual monogamy works best for all involved, and thus should be a social institution to give us a competitive advantage over other cultures.

          • Brutus

            That is neither the main argument, nor is it well-supported.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Pretty well supported by history, when you see which societies became imperial and which didn’t.

        • Slow Learner

          So if an atheist does take marriage seriously as a social institution, would you not expect them to take pretty much the line above? As in, not saying polygamy is definitely wrong, but wanting to sort out some of the practical questions first?

          • Brendan Hodge

            You know, I’m not sure…

            I would think that one could get there a couple ways:

            – Argue that recognized social institutions should be chosen to maximize happiness with the largest number of people and that oppressive forms of plural family are more common than egalitarian ones. (This requires a willingness to say “this may work for you, but it doesn’t work for most people, so we’re banning it” that a lot of people seem unwilling to go for these days.)

            – Take a sort of Burkean conservative line that a culture should stick with the social institutions it has, while maybe arguing that as a concession we should seek not to actively make things hard for poly families even if we also decline to recognize them.

            – Come up with some sort of explanation based in biology, though I’m not sure I find that hugely likely.

            I certainly don’t think that non-theism necessitates supporting polyamory — however when I did a bit of informal research after seeing the questions for the contest this year I wasn’t able to find any non-theists (and surprisingly few liberal protestants) in my circle of acquaintance who didn’t think that polyamory should be recognized as a legitimate form of marriage/family. There seems to be a strong cultural current right now that nothing sexual between consenting adults can be socially disapproved of.

      • Martha O’Keeffe

        Wait a moment until I pick myself up off the floor where I am currently rolling around laughing.

        Dear sir, madam or other – the practical issues (will) be fixed almost immediately once the cultural issues are resolved? And how long will that take, pray give me an indication?

        Because we’re still trying to wade our way through the morass of post-traditional marriage breakdown – case in point, a recent case where a judge mandated that a child couldn’t be called “Messiah”. That’s not my point here – my point is that this came to court because the two parents couldn’t decide what last name to give their child.

        Only two people and they couldn’t agree on something as basic as “my surname, your surname, hyphenated name”.

        And you think polyamory will be beer and skittles once human nature is overcome and nobody is jealous, nobody has a bad break-up, nobody falls out of love with X and falls in love with Y, nobody wants to be compensated for their share of paying the mortgage now they’re moving halfway across the country to a new job…all the other reasons people nowadays go to court to have settlements made about money and contracts and who is responsible for what?

        Yeah, I won’t hold my breath waiting on this.

        • Brutus

          I’m not demanding that problems that exist with hetero marriage not exist with poly marriage. Why are you? Naming conventions of children should be resolved well before the birth, but I don’t expect them to be.

    • alexander stanislaw

      Yeah, I’ve found myself much more suspicious of the Atheist entries than the Christian entries.

  • Dan

    This one was a coin flip for me, ended up guessing atheist.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Just posting to say that I did vote, and to keep track for myself so I don’t throw the numbers off. Not that the google form would let me vote twice, but I prefer not to find out.

    Brendan, I think you forget that many atheists were raised Christian and WILL respond subconsciously as Christians despite their conversion.

  • Jakeithus

    Really tough one for me to have a thought on. I’ll probably go likely atheist, based on the disapproval of polygamy on legal difficulty. I tend to see that argument crop up more often from atheists, rather than focus on the principle behind the topic.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Voting likely atheist, good argument, definitely lost me with “Wheel of Time” quote (I hate that series with the burning fury of a thousand blazing suns).
    Quick side-note that not all religions (even amongst Christian denominations) consider marriage to be a sacrament, but that’s nit-picky on my part.

    • If nothing else, this Turing Test has taught me a lot about your fiction preferences (no coming-of-age, no Wheel of Time; a good understanding of Othello). Now I’m wishing this was true of much more of the commentariat.

      • Randy Gritter

        The bonus question was the most interesting. I did suggest something about death and something about sex. The trouble is that both were more about politics. What should the law be? To me that is a more boring question than, “What is the truth about sex and death?” That is where atheism and theism have the big differences. I just don’t think the legal angle was quite as effective as the fiction angle.

  • victoria

    Voting very likely Christian. The beginning of the first question definitely read to me like they considered the default frame to be a religious one.

    And while it is absolutely possible for an atheist to believe in objective morality I couldn’t get a good handle on the author’s framework and justification for making statements about things being morally justified/obliged. At times it seemed like a teleological argument (like the end of the marriage question); at times it seemed to be utilitarian (the paragraph after the Robert Jordan quote); at times it seemed to be principilist (stating that it is an inherent moral wrong to compel someone to continue living when they don’t want to). Like I said, none of those arguments are out of bounds for an atheist but it seems odd for the same person to use all of them if they are in fact borne of strongly held beliefs.