Ideological Turing Test, Mark 2!

Ideological Turing Test, Mark 2! May 1, 2012

I really enjoyed the first iteration of the Ideological Turing Test for religion, which ran on this blog last summer, and I always meant to return to it at some point.  At the end of May/early June, I’m going on vacation for two weeks, which strikes me as the perfect time to have a lot of interesting prewritten posts ready for you all to parse.  I’ll open sign-ups soon, but today is only for discussing parameters of this year’s contest.

For those of you who have joined this blog since last summer, an Ideological Turing Test (phrase coined by Bryan Caplan) is a challenge to be able to imitate your ideological enemy well enough to pass for one of them.  (This is different than Poe’s Law, in which your opponent sucks so much that their true beliefs are indistinguishable from your parody of them).

So last year, there were four questions for atheists to answer and four questions for Christians and a mixed slate answered both sets of prompts.  People answered their own set truthfully and the other according to how they thought a Christian or an atheist would reply.  The responses were all mixed up, and readers voted on which answers were sincere and which were imitations.

Reading or participating in an Ideological Turing Test is a chance to check that you’ve actually got an accurate idea of how your interlocutors think, and it can catch you out on bad assumptions.  (My then-boyfriend coasted to an high pass in the Atheism round because a number of atheists didn’t believe Christians could enjoy SMBC).

Before I start soliciting participants, I’d like to get your feedback on revisions/alterations over the next few days.   If you can, be specific about what you’d like to format to change to not just what you want it to change from.  I’ve highlighted a few things I’d like to tweak below (divided into categories).



Too Much to Read – Fifteen essays (each answering four questions) was a lot to get through in a week, and, since voting happened at the end of the week, people read them all in one gulp and got a little fatigued.  I could switch to voting links at the end of each post, or every couple of days, but then I lose the opportunity to do any broader analysis of accuracy of voters across the whole slate of entries.  I think this is probably a worthwhile tradeoff, though.

Boo! Google Forms – I assume the frustration of using Google Forms would be diminished if you were voting on fewer entries at a time, but if people want to suggest free or cheap survey sites, I’m all ears.  I just want to be able to get the raw data into a spreadsheet in the end.

What Demographics to Track? – Besides just asking whether you think a given essay was written by an atheist or a Christian, I ask a couple things about you (which side you’re on, whether you’ve crossed over in either direction, etc).  Any other question you all think are particularly relevant or might lead to interesting analysis?



More Than One Set of Questions – If I’m doing this for two weeks, it might be fun to have contestants pick and choose from a group of questions, so the answers are more varied.  To avoid having the choice give the game away, I might let people pick what they answer for their ‘sincere’ side and make their ‘imitation’ round questions match the prompts chosen by someone on the other side.

Better Questions for Atheists – The atheist answers tended to be way more boring and uniform than the ones in the Christian round.  I think the questions need improvement.  Since atheism qua atheism is pretty dull, maybe these need to go a lot farther afield?

Denomination Specific Questions? – Being at Patheos means it’s easier to reach out to people in specific traditions.  Would you guys like a ‘Mormon Day’ or a ‘Non-Secular Jew Day?’


That’s what’s on my mind, but anything germane is welcome.

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  • Lukas

    I think the biggest weakness of the Turing test was the questions directed at the atheists… I think the questions resulted in boring answers which all pretty much took the form, “I’m an atheist due to a lack of evidence for God’s existence.” Some questions that might be better:

    1. Albert Einstein once wrote, “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility … The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.” Do you agree that the comprehensibility of the universe is something that ought to be explained in some way (if so, please do so), or should it simply be taken as a brute fact? Keep in mind here that Einstein was a physicist, rather than a biologist, so it’s probably more reasonable to assume he is talking about the laws of nature rather than evolution.

    2. Peter Kreeft writes, “To sum up the argument most simply and essentially, conscience has absolute, exceptionless, binding moral authority over us, demanding unqualified obedience. But only a perfectly good, righteous divine will has this authority and a right to absolute, exceptionless obedience. Therefore conscience is the voice of the will of God.” Explain why you disagree.


    • Emily

      I’m sorry but I don’t understand your first question. What do you mean by “the comprehensibility of the universe is something that has to be explained in some way” vs ” a brute fact”? Are you contrasting discovering the laws of physics (explanation) with merely living by them (physical existence), and asking why we should bother with the first? Or are you saying comprehensibility needs to be explained by something other than a “divine watchmaker”? I’m curious to know what you’re getting at here.

      • Lukas

        Regarding “brute fact” – explanations must stop at some point… otherwise you will end up with an infinite series of “why?”s. We might say that the laws of the universe explain things that happen in the universe, but that there is no explanation possible for the laws of the universe – they simply are. That’s what I was trying to get at with the phrase, “brute fact.”

    • I actually quite like the last question; perhaps because it is one that currently interests me quite a lot. The universe seems to be ordered in ways that adhere to our ability to logically/mathematically describe them. What are the consequences of that? (I think, though, that the question could be shortened. The quote is nice, but maybe not necessary for our purposes.)

    • Sigivald

      “To sum up the argument most simply and essentially, conscience has absolute, exceptionless, binding moral authority over us, demanding unqualified obedience. But only a perfectly good, righteous divine will has this authority and a right to absolute, exceptionless obedience. Therefore conscience is the voice of the will of God.” Explain why you disagree.

      I disagree because I disagree with the second sentence.

      It might be so that only a “perfectly good, righteous divine will” should have that authority over us, but that is not evidence that such an authority, felt, demands that there be a “perfectly good, righteous divine will” behind it.

      Likewise, we cannot assume that the conscience has a “right” to such obedience (nor, for that matter, do I hold – or know anyone that holds – that conscience is automatically perfect and has a right to demand our obedience – see the closing parenthesis), and thus we cannot derive from that “right”, such divinity.

      Conscience seems indistinguishable from inculcated moral principles, and I see no way that it can reasonably prove (or even strongly suggest) a deity.

      In other words, while we may (almost all of us do) have an internal “guide”, I see no reason to connect it to a deity – he’s grasping at straws.

      (Indeed, if it did, how would we explain the sociopath? Or those whose conscience urges acts everyone else finds wicked?

      God-as-conscience doesn’t explain that – indeed, I think it rather argues against it.)

  • Jay

    I’m glad you’re planning to do another round of this, and I like most of your suggestions. But I would strongly recommend against letting people choose which questions to answer, either for the “sincere” or “imitation” set. That seems like a major methodological red flag and risks introducing unnecessary selection bias. If you wanted to mix things up with a larger variety of questions, you could always just randomly assign everyone to answer smaller subsets of the overall set.

    Also, here are some possible questions for atheists. They’re less “how do you justify atheism?” and more “what does it mean to you, what do you do with it, etc.,” but that seems to be along the lines of what you’re looking for:

    1. Do you see a meaningful distinction between “weak atheism” (non-belief in God) and “strong atheism” (affirmative disbelief in God)? If so, how do you consider yourself, and why?
    2. How important is “atheist advocacy”? To the extent that atheists think it is important to spread their views, what would be the most effective ways for them to go about doing this?
    3. Should atheists be respectful of religious perspectives and the people that hold them? If so, which sorts of religious viewpoints are entitled to more and less respect?
    4. How important is atheism to your personal identity? In what ways is it connected to your other beliefs? How much does it end up influencing your actions and personal priorities?

  • I tend to agree with Jay on not letting people choose which questions to answer. Even if this isn’t a scientific study, my stat teachers are screaming in the back of my head about selection bias. But I think the bigger cost is that we will have less material for direct comparison- while it is interesting to see if you can take an argument in a vaccuum and determine if the author is an Atheist, it is also interesting to see which of two authors is more Atheist (or more likely to be Atheist). I tend to think that not having this comparision will make this a much more difficult judgement and decrease your signal-to-noise ration.

    • Also, I’m excited about this- I wan’t around for the last go-round. Maybe I’ll be able to start a flame war with myself..?

      • Jay

        AKA, troll nirvana.

    • I agree.

    • … my stat teachers are screaming in the back of my head about selection bias.

      There’s medication for that. (Side effects include reporting bias.)

  • Jay

    Actually, Jake’s point about trying to figure out which authors are more or less Atheist/Christian than others gives me another idea. Maybe instead of just voting “Atheist or Christian,” you could choose between “very likely Atheist,” “probably Atheist,” “probably Christian,” or “very likely Christian” (or just a 1 to 4 scale, if you wanted to make things simpler). One potential concern here is that everyone will just hedge their bets and vote the middle two options, but I would still like to see whether certain arguments strike people as dead giveaways, rather than mere suggestions.

    • Jay

      Never mind, I see that Leah used exactly such a system last time (I wasn’t around then). Keep it up!

  • Lukas

    I agree that you shouldn’t let people choose which question to answer.

    Of Jay’s suggested questions, #3 seems most likely to lead to interesting responses.

  • Aaron

    Sounds like fun. But why does it have to be “Atheist vs. Christian?” Are Jews like me supposed to lie in both responses? What we be lost if you broadened it to “Atheist vs. Monotheist” or “Atheist vs. Theist?” That way, Christians can answer truthfully with their faith, and other faiths can respond within their traditions.

  • 1. I would prefer that if you add other faiths (which would be really interesting to me, especially w/Judaism) you make that a separate thing, rather than just part of a more general atheists vs theists round.

    2. For both sides, maybe something along the lines of, “Which parts of being [atheist/Christian] are hardest for you? When have you come closest to doubting your beliefs?” I don’t mean to fetishize doubts here–intellectual types like me tend to think that tormented belief is more sincere and *~*interesting*~* than mere humble perseverance, when that’s clearly false–and I know there’s a risk of reducing beliefs to personal quirks of psychology, but I think you might get some interesting answers.

    3. I really want some way of making atheists talk about art or music or awe, like, anything sublime, but I’m not sure how best to draw that out. Maybe just be very direct and ask if there are any artworks (movies etc count) which really capture the way they see life? I’d also be interested in whether and how they practice gratitude for things where there is no obvious human to thank–this isn’t something I ever thought about when I was an atheist, but it’s really interesting to me now. That might be too much of a niche question though. Maybe, “What legitimate needs do you see faith filling for believers, and how do you meet those needs in your own life?” That skates near your question #4 but I think goes in a different direction.

    • Dara

      I think that Eve’s getting at something really necessary about the sublime. Alternate constructions that might get at that:

      -Can you try to describe the last moment of genuine awe you had?
      -Do you think anything (art, nature, the human mind or spirit, etc.) can’t successfully be approached with reason? If so, what? If not, what do you say to those who do?

      • Dan

        I don’t understand why I can’t see something sublime and reason about it. To say that reason and the sublime are diametrically opposed is, as far as I can tell, an unnecessary artificial restriction.
        As an atheist, I certainly do have moments of awe. It’s interesting that people want to relate moments to awe to faith. The former seems to be a perfectly human response to our world, while the latter seems to involve accepting beliefs without proper justification. I don’t see why there should be a connection between the two. It’s similar to how religious people will often talk about “mysteries”, but will readily give explanations for those mysteries as well. If something is truly mysterious then it is precisely that — and we shouldn’t give an explanation, theistic or otherwise.

    • Nothing more need be said, Mdm. Libresco. Mdm. Tushnet has it all wrapped up.

    • I agree on #2.

    • deiseach

      Could do a knock-out round kind of thing, where the first batch is atheists and theists, then when they’ve been winnowed out (e.g. all the atheists correctly identified and the theists correctly identified), move on to “Spot the Catholic/observant Jew/really convincing liar”. That might kill two birds with one stone – address Aaron’s point about non-Christians and Eve’s question about who is what faith.

    • Dan

      “Maybe just be very direct and ask if there are any artworks (movies etc count) which really capture the way they see life?”
      Isn’t this obvious? We have Carl Sagan, Symphony of Science, Neil Degraase Tyson, etc. I have had moments staring at the night sky that felt particularly rapturous, and brought tears to my eyes. But I don’t see any connection at all between those feelings and this:

      “‘What legitimate needs do you see faith filling for believers, and how do you meet those needs in your own life?'”

      I don’t see why feeling awe should lead one to have non-rationally justified beliefs.

      As far as your issue on thankfulness, I don’t understand why I would feel a *directed* thankfulness in those events which transpire without them being guided by an obvious intelligence. Depending on the situation, I might feel *lucky*. But that’s different.

  • I’m glad you are doing this again. It is definitely a fun activity. 🙂

    I have a suggestion for method and scoring that may or may not work, but I’ll suggest anyway. First, make the answers short, like 100 words. Gather the answers from each contestant and sort them by question. Put each set of questions in a big “pot” (maybe some website can set up random face-offs?). Then put up two random answers to the same question and then ask the scorer to judge “which is more atheist/Christian?” This will pit all the answers against each other in pairs (lowering fatigue, hopefully) and give you relative magnitudes of “atheist” or “Christian” once the data are correlated. E.g. if in the face-offs one answer consistently ranks “more X” then it will turn out to be most X in the end. This will give comparative data not only by contestant but also by question. Could be interesting. But might be too hard to implement.

    I’m borrowing this idea from Galaxy Zoo ( ), by the way, where they have periodic face-offs between pictures to get the galaxies classified correctly, in case I’ve described it so poorly that it makes no sense.

    • Peter S.

      I’ll second the recommendation that you limit answers to 100 words.

    • I don’t agree about such short answers. It may not be possible to say anything interesting in 100 words. I’d say 250-300 should be available for each question. 300 words per question x 4 questions (the number last time) = 1200 words, which is a first-year university paper. That seems the bare minimum for a contribution to the conversation, and I don’t know how you would claim to be able to judge between respondents on anything less. Of course, if contestants think they can whittle their argument down into haiku form, they would be free to do so. (100 words.)

  • I used to read SMBC. But then I read one on the long-debunked conflict thesis that runs so contrary to, you know, history that I thought it was finally time to put it out to pasture.

    I like math humor and religious humor, but this is one man who clearly knows more about math than religion. And to this day, I can’t see why anyone could say that the free will solution could have any effect on God’s omniscience but for one exception: Mr. Weiner wanted a clever symmetry.

    (And the dick jokes grate after a while. Give me XKCD any day.)

    • Ray

      You Christians who claim the conflict thesis is a myth remind me of the southerners who claim that the US civil war had nothing to do with slavery. Did the church not ban ALL books on heliocentrism until 1758? Is creationism in the modern day not an almost exclusively religious phenomenon? (Even members of the Catholic Church, whose leadership has at least nominally made peace with evolution, are far more likely to be creationist than the non-religious.) And of course, on the other side, has the national academy of science not been overwhelmingly atheistic since at least the early 20th century?

      Yes, some of Draper and White’s examples were wrong or exaggerated. And yes other ideological institutions (like Soviet Communism, which supported Lysenkoism, and German National Socialism*, which suppressed the work of Jewish Scientists like Einstein) have suppressed science they didn’t like. And yes, the Church has on occasion funded science it did like (Much like the Stalinists and the Nazis, so we’re setting a pretty low bar here.) Sometimes, the more heretical members of the Church (like Galileo! How dare you claim him as a point against the conflict thesis after what the Church did to him. — and, yes, I’m aware he was only THREATENED with torture) even managed to do science the Church didn’t like.

      As far as the free will defense/omniscience thing. I think it’s pretty clear the problem arises if you accept the moral premise that if you know in advance that your creation is going to perform evil acts, you are morally culpable for those acts — which seems like a pretty reasonable premise to me. There are also a number of conceptions of free will that deny that freely chosen actions can be predictable (i.e. known in advance,) or at least deny the general ability to make predictions of the “you will deny me three times,” sort, where you tell someone what they are going to do, before they do it. Long story short, if you can’t come up with a halfway plausible argument that free will is either incompatible with God’s omniscience, or at least isn’t exculpatory for God if He is omniscient, you either aren’t very bright, or you aren’t trying very hard.

      *Sorry for the Godwin, but it’s rather hard to find non-outrageously-evil institutions that openly ban books on science and philosophy. (And yes, I’m aware that the Catholic Church stopped doing this — in 1966! )

      • Anonymous

        I can come up with halfway plausible arguments for a lot of things that are wrong. In fact, I do this with my students all the time to see if they can figure it out. It doesn’t mean anyone should realistically believe them.

        Is having a child inherently an act of evil? How about creating inanimate things that you know will be used by others to perform evil acts? This one, I’ve actually struggled with, since my industry is very closely interwoven with the defense industry. Is someone who creates tires which happen to be purchased to go on military vehicles morally culpable in the same way as someone who designs guidance chips for missiles or body armor for troops? What if you just lay the mathematical groundwork for their new algorithms? Does it matter what exact type of application those algorithms are for? I think moral culpability, especially in the presence of multiple consciousnesses, is not the straightforward thing you make it out to be.

      • Irenist

        “Did the church not ban ALL books on heliocentrism until 1758?”
        Not exactly, although the fact that my Church used to ban books at all is admittedly shameful.
        Anyway, they banned books advocating heliocentrism as fact rather than hypothesis. Such books could be published “donec corrigatur,” i.e., amended to claim that their system was a hypothesis that mathematically accounted for astronomical observations. As it happens, although Newton’s laws and Kepler’s heliocentric ellipses were far more theoretically satisfying than the geocentric epicycles of Ptolemy or the heliocentric epicycles of Copernicus (a Catholic priest), they could not satisfactorily explain the absence of stellar parallax. The Lutheran Tycho Brahe had a scheme wherein most of the planets revolved around the Sun, but the Sun revolved around the Earth, which if I recall was able to provide accurate predictions of astronomical observations while surmounting the parallax problem. Bradley’s 1729 discovery of the aberration of light (implying heliocentrism) doesn’t predate the 1758 lifting of the Index prohibition by much, and Bessel’s observation of stellar parallax (which cinched the case for heliocentrism as fact) wasn’t until 1838. So book banning–period–was misguided and tyrannical, but the specific “conflict thesis” reading of history overstates the case. It’s not altogether wrong that the ban retarded science, though: Protestant England’s Newton used Kepler (while the uncorrected Kepler was still on the Index in Catholic countries), and presumably lack of access to Kepler would have been an awful burden on science in Catholic countries.

        “Is creationism in the modern day not an almost exclusively religious phenomenon?” Yes.

        ” (Even members of the Catholic Church, whose leadership has at least nominally made peace with evolution, are far more likely to be creationist than the non-religious.)” Among politically conservative Catholics, I’d imagine you’re right. Of course an atheist “creationist” is a bit of a contradiction anyway. Atheists have historically been prey more to things like Lysenkoism and phrenology than junk science that requires a Creator. I think the “spiritual but not religious” demographic, btw, is probably ground zero for quantum woo and anti-vax foolishness.

        And of course, on the other side, has the national academy of science not been overwhelmingly atheistic since at least the early 20th century? Certainly. But unless you’re making some sort of argumentum ad verecundiam (atheists=scientists=smart -> atheism=true=scientific), I don’t know if this implies any *necessary* conflict between science and religion. The demographics of the liberal academy (scientists included) skews atheist right now. (Although scientists are less atheist than humanities scholars, IIRC, and I don’t think there’s a “conflict thesis” for that.) Historically, pagans, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and others have all made distinguished contributions.

        I think religion has, when given too much societal power, overstepped into realms proper to other groups like science or the state. As part of the civil society of democratic states enjoying a separation between church and state, I think religious folks can contribute to a metaphysical and epistemic pluralism that can keep debate fresh, without (thankfully) having the power to start banning books or some such awfulness–thanks in large part to the laudable vigilance of atheists like you for strict separation.

      • deiseach

        Dear Ray, it wasn’t Galileo’s science the Church didn’t like, it was his theology. Also, it was probably a bad idea to write a book where you put the words of the Pope into the mouth of your Dumb Hick character, especially when the Pope in question is the guy holding the Dominicans off your back.

      • You know what’s funny? I learned about the conflict thesis being wrong from an atheist historian.

        About once every 3-4 months on forums like we get some discussion where someone invokes the old “Conflict Thesis” and gets in the usual ritual kicking of the Middle Ages as a benighted intellectual wasteland where humanity was shackled to superstition and oppressed by cackling minions of the Evil Old Catholic Church. The hoary standards are brought out on cue. Giordiano Bruno is presented as a wise and noble martyr for science instead of the irritating mystical New Age kook he actually was. Hypatia is presented as another such martyr and the mythical Christian destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria is spoken of in hushed tones, despite both these ideas being garbage. The Galileo Affair is ushered in as evidence of a brave scientist standing up to the unscientific obscurantism of the Church, despite that case being as much about science as it was about Scripture.

        Suppose we granted Galileo and Hypatia, which no sane man would. Who else? In the thousands of years of Christian darkness, surely there’s one other.

        • Ray

          Being an atheist does not make someone automatically right. Nonetheless, the problem is not so much that your atheist historian is wrong (he’s not,) you’re just overinterpreting him. The conflict thesis is a very specific idea — in particular the idea that the Church consistently acted with the primary intention of suppressing science. This is a silly idea, which can be wrong even if the church was a totalitarian power-hungry anti-democratic organization that systematically suppressed any idea perceived to challenge its legitimacy, whether that idea was right or wrong, and even if that behavior had the effect of impeding the progress of science. There is ample evidence of both — or do you not think burning heretics and banning books is an impediment to science? There is also ample evidence that the Church has a habit of attempting to co-opt ideas that it cannot successfully suppress, even if it initially opposed them, (pagan holidays, Aristotle, Heliocentrism, evolution (the Catholics proper never made a big stink about this, but their founding documents plainly contradict it, even as interpreted by such eminent Catholic scholars as Ussher), maybe someday the Church will even embrace the idea that Jesus had biological siblings, since that’s clearly the strongest argument against mythicism.) This co-option pattern is what the SMBC was all about.

          1)It’s not really clear what if any science was done by Hypatia. I generally doubt she did anything significant, but that would not have made a very interesting movie, now would it. As far as historical accuracy goes, Agora seems about par for the course in the sword and sandal genre. The general thuggishness that characterized the Christianization of the Roman Empire under Theodosius was spot on. That the anti-Christian factions were less virtuous than portrayed does not vindicate what the Christians did.
          2) So what if Bruno was a new age crank. Newton was a heretic who denied the trinity, and wrote more extensively on the occult than on science. How would he have fared if the 16th century roman inquisition was still in force? How would atheists like Dirac, Feynman, and Darwin fare for that matter.
          3)There really wasn’t much science to suppress during the thousand years of christian darkness — or really the centuries that preceded them — I never said paganism, emperor worship and neo-platonism were good for science either. Heliocentrism is easily in the top 10 most significant scientific discoveries in the past 2000 years, and it was really the only one the Church was in a position to suppress in any meaningful way, and suppress it did.

          • “That the anti-Christian factions were less virtuous than portrayed does not vindicate what the Christians did.”

            The point is that what those who killed Hypatia did had zero to do with science (or with Hypatia being a woman or a pagan for that matter). It was simply the brutal civic politics of Alexandria. So why is she constantly trotted out as a martyr for science and reason?

            “So what if Bruno was a new age crank. Newton was a heretic who denied the trinity”

            The difference is that Newton wasn’t *just* a heretic, he was also a scientist. Bruno, however, was nothing more than a New Age crank who never did anything remotely approaching science, even according to the standards of his day. So, again, why is he constantly rolled out as an example of a martyr for science?

            “There really wasn’t much science to suppress during the thousand years of christian darkness”

            Well, apart from the work done by Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa on everything from optics to kinematics and even a hypothesis about abiogenesis. Yet not one of these guys was suppressed or oppressed by the Church for any of this inquiry, let alone imprisoned or burned. So why is this period constantly presented one where the Church suppressed inquiry about the physical world?

            “Heliocentrism was really the only one the Church was in a position to suppress in any meaningful way”

            Really? The Church wasn’t in a position to suppress the discovery that the ancients were wrong about the equator being impassible? The Church wasn’t in a position to suppress the idea of William of Conches that life arose from the soil and developed over a long time by natural processes? It wasn’t powerful enough to suppress Medieval speculations about optics, the nature of light and everything from the nature of rainbows to the refraction of raindrops. Yet it suddenly found the balls to suppress heliocentrism? Something is oddly wrong with your picture. It seems to be because of a general ignorance of the period in question.

          • PS BTW _ Ussher was not an “eminent Catholic scholar”. Wrong church. Look up “the Church of Ireland”.

          • Ray

            Ok. My Bad on Ussher. I temporarily forgot there were Anglicans in Ireland. I’m pretty sure the Catholic Scholarship from Augustine onward interpreted the Bible as supporting if not proving a young Earth, but whatever. As far as the rest:
            1) Galileo made more significant contributions to science than all the people you listed combined (at least if you don’t count pure mathematics.) And as I mentioned before, as did Irenist, the Church banning works supporting Heliocentrism was not isolated to Galileo. It seems to have affected both Kepler and Newton (although they were eventually published with disclaimers a la those lovely stickers southern baptists like to put on their HS Biology texts.) Even if this was the only screw up on the part of the Church, it was a colossal one.
            2)Burning heretics at the stake seems unforgivable, even if the heresy had no intellectual merit whatsoever. That said, Bruno seems more of a scientist than you give him credit for based on his Wikipedia article (and the plurality of worlds bit seems at least tangentially related to the charges brought against him.)

            I’ll grant you that the church wasn’t nearly as heavy handed in the Middle Ages as it was in the early modern period. At the same time, the Church’s intellectual monopoly did not seem to lead to a whole lot of fruitful scholarship (at least not in comparison to the post-reformation period, when the Church was no longer setting the intellectual agenda.– not that the Protestants were better, but they at least broke the Christian religion up into smaller weaker factions.) Maybe this is just a coincidence or due to a common cause (say the printing press enabling progress in science as well as challenges to Church authority.) But then, the previous period of major intellectual progress (Hellenistic science up to around 200 AD) was also accompanied by skeptical attitudes towards religion. So, whatever the cause, scientific progress does seem to correlate with the weakening of religious institutions.

          • For a general overview of Christendom for the period between about 1400 to 1800, consider The Dividing of Christendom, by Christopher Dawson. For history of science, consider checking out Mike Flynn’s blog. He has several posts about attitudes towards the natural world in the Middle Ages and Modern periods, and memorably wrote on “<a href=" Autumn of Modern Science.”

            Perhaps the best rebuttal is to agree with you.

            I’ll grant you that the church wasn’t nearly as heavy handed in the Middle Ages as it was in the early modern period.

            Yes. This is when the Church had the most power. Granting your characterization of the power of the Church and the attitude of the Church, we come to the conclusion that, therefore, the Church as the Church did not do much to suppress or oppress science. To this, someone — not necessarily you — may say:

            Ah, but what about “What did the Church do to encourage science?” Surely it got in the way!

            Alas, too true. Scholasticism produced nothing a dumb ox and dumber Thomists. We must count ourselves lucky that the Church did not uproot all evergreen creepers during its confused reign over Europe. Universities, you see, are a natural outgrowth of ivy plants.

            P.S. As per heliocentrism, consider that the evidence of the day was still largely against it.

          • Ray

            Ubiquitous, if your only historical argument is a sarcastic reply to something I didn’t even say, your position must be very weak indeed. And now I find on the other thread that you yourself let your emotions get in the way of the overwhelming evidence for AGW and evolution (Take your arguments with said evidence to and , though. I’m not interested in the digression right now.) What’s a man to conclude?

            So, here’s how I see the situation. Church power reached an apex from the 11th through early 16th century. There’s very little to distinguish what passed for science in Europe at the time from what had been going on in the Muslim world a few centuries earlier. And European science was decidedly inferior to Indian science at the time (see e.g. the Kerala school, Hindu-Arabic Numerals etc.) From about 1600 onward, Europe was unquestionably the leader in science, and you could point to obvious advances every hundred years or so. You wouldn’t need any great historical knowledge to tell the difference between the state of science in 1650 and 1550, 1750 and 1650, 1850 and 1750, or 1950 and 1850. OTOH, prior to about 1550 there was very little to distinguish the centuries of scholarship apart from the occasional fad (Aristotle became trendy in 13th century Europe. The church initially opposed it, but only by condemnations — the dubious middle ground between outright persecution and reasoned argument. Then in the 14th century they changed their mind, and ironically, the interesting scholarship was anti-Aristotelian or at least ambivalent to Aristotle — e.g. William of Ockham.)

            So what do we learn here:
            1) There was very little science done before 1600 that we would be particularly surprised to find in the lost works of Archimedes or some classical Muslim scholar, say.
            2) The Church was lousy at setting priorities for research — they always seemed to be fighting the last war, so to speak. Not terribly surprising for human politicians, but it seems frankly pathetic for an institution that claims special access to divine revelation.
            3) The acceleration in the advance of science looks suspiciously coincident with the first widespread opposition to religious authorities in Europe.

            I don’t think the outright suppression was what really slowed down science (after all it didn’t work in the 17th century.) That’s a moral issue, which would remain even if the scientists they censored or persecuted turned out to be wrong. What I think slowed down science was the presupposition that the Church knew what it was talking about. (After the reformation, this was no longer an unshakable truth, but a matter of political loyalty. Even if you were Catholic, the dissenting views were impossible to ignore.)

            I’m not entirely certain that mine is the correct historical account (it’s surely an oversimplification, as are ALL historical accounts.) But to reiterate my point, the fact that the “conflict thesis” is rejected as an overarching explanation for everything that happened in Christian Europe over the last 1700 years does not refute any of the following claims:

            1) Granting political authority to the Church on the order of what it enjoyed in the middle ages would be bad for the future of science.
            2)The methods of science, along with current scientific and historical knowledge, are sufficient justification for the rejection of Church authority.
            3)The acceptance of the theological claims of the Church is a scientific mistake.
            4)The Church has historically behaved in the way described by the SMBC comic.

          • I’m not sure how any of what you says follows, nor do I see anything to indicate that you’ve read the rather enjoyable essays I linked to. Nor do I recall caring all that much about evolution one way or another.

            Science may mean one of two things:

            1. Idolatry of the efficient cause to produce man’s more complete subjugation of nature and ever more Way Kool Stuff, to use M. Flynn’s turn of phrase.
            2. Organized, rational inquiry of the natural world.

            Your use of “achievement” to measure scientific progress seems to belie your understanding of science as a method for making Way Kool Stuff. But that is not science so much as engineering. I use “science” in the manner of No. 2. Perhaps this will clear up any confusion. It is in contribution to the second definition of science which we must credit Christian moral and philosophical principles and the men who distilled them.

            By the way, did you know Mendel was a physicist? Too bad his holy obedience got in the way and he joined in with his monastery’s research.

          • I should not have posted in haste. I apologize for the snark.

            In any case, there’s a nice panel discussion on the subject of the Rise of Modern Science on YouTube. It begins with the definition of the term, and continues with some jocular banter for the better part of 7 portions.

            If you are really interested in the subject, it is most watchable.

          • Ray


            I have looked at most of your links. The one thing that really strikes me, though, is how biased your collection of sources is. All the people you are quoting, but one, are committed Roman Catholics. And your single atheist source, Tim O’Neil, clearly has an ax to grind against the Conflict Theisis. (It’s not so much his factual claims that indicate this to me, but the emphasis — the repeated posting about “Agora”, the offhanded hyperbolic comments about “The fantasy of the hole in science created by Christianity” being “The dumbest thing on the internet” in a review of a book that had nothing to do with the effect of religion on the history of science.) I do not think these views are representative of the full range of opinions among historical scholars.

            Other big problems I see with your “the dark age is a myth” theory:
            1) Why is the concept of a dark age so popular? You can maybe attribute it to ideology as far as 19th and 20th century scholars go (although even atheists like Tim O’Neill seem susceptible to ideological bias in the other direction too.) You could perhaps say the same for protestant scholars (although you still need to account for why protestantism became popular in the first place — which is hard to do if you see the Catholic Church as an unwavering paragon of virtue.) But what of people like Petrarch, Bruni, and Biondi, who originally invented the concept. What do us moderns know about the 14th century that was not available to these three? And how is trusting the modern opinion over the 14th century opinion even compatible with claiming the scholarship was every bit as good in the middle ages as it is now?

            2) What specifically are the great scientific insights that separate Archimedes from Galileo? Why did they take 1800 years to discover? (Ironically the only thing I can think of that seems remotely plausible is observational technology, like better telescopes and clocks. But of course this doesn’t count, since it’s just technology, not science. Right?)

          • 1. “My personal theory is that the Black Death was really a bad thing …” To compare the Summa — a standard textbook of the day — and the quadrivium with the politicized science of today and Marxist liberation sexual criticism is left as an exercise to the reader. A greater proportion of the population was trained in logic as compared to any point of history before or since. You do not have to be against against AGW — I am not against it, nor am I particularly for it; I am agnostic — to be disgusted with the absurd behavior of the Messrs. at East Anglia.

            2. God arranged the world by “measure, weight and number.” The heavens are merely a created thing, subject to secondary causes and an internal nature. “This is a theory of how the things in the heavens really move, not just a beautiful Ptolemic way of thinking about them.” More and more in that vein, and I have a strong feeling that I’m missing huge touchstones, in the manner of the Condemnations of 1210–1277, or Aquinas’ baptism of Aristotle, or the same man’s admonition that to use one’s given God-given talents is to glorify God.

          • Regarding the “unwavering paragon of virtue,” I am curious as to your source, for the InterWeb has at least one contrary source.

          • Ray

            Your plague theory doesn’t work. The famous plague happened in 1348. 5 years too late. I have no doubt it was a bad thing, but it does not appear to have inspired Petrarch. Also, there were two major outbreaks of plague in the 17th century, and the label that stuck to that century was “enlightenment.”

            Petrarch wrote that history had had two periods: the classic period of the Greeks and Romans, followed by a time of darkness, in which he saw himself as still living. In around 1343, in the conclusion to his epic Africa, he wrote: “My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last for ever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance.”[16] In the 15th century, historians Leonardo Bruni and Flavio Biondo developed a three tier outline of history. They used Petrarch’s two ages, plus a modern, “better age”, which they believed the world had entered. The term “Middle Ages,” in Latin media tempestas (1469) or medium aevum (1604), was later used to describe the period of supposed decline.

            As for this claim:
            “A greater proportion of the population was trained in logic as compared to any point of history before or since. ”

            This seems dubious, and if true at all, I suspect it is based on a very restrictive definition of training in logic (i.e. excluding mathematical logic, the sort of logic taught in computer science etc.) Do you have a citation?

            Finally, you say you are not a knee jerk defender of the Church, but you seem very reluctant to attribute any negative consequences to things the Church has done in the past, at least in this conversation.

          • Ray

            Oh. and “measure weight and number.” Are you trying to tell me that the Greeks measured the radius of the Earth, the distance to the moon, and the distance to the sun (this last one was in retrospect more of a lower bound, but impressive nonetheless.) without ever having this insight? Do you think Archimedes “eureka” moment regarding the King Hiero’s crown, was because he had discovered a “beautiful Ptolemaic way of thinking about it?” Never mind the sorts of things Plato and Pythagoras might have said about such things, which iirc are similar to those quotes from Christian Europe. Either way, I don’t buy that it should have taken 1800 years (I don’t think you can blame all of this stagnation on the Church, but you seem to be denying that there’s anything to explain in the first place.)

          • Regarding Plutarch: Even then, Latin Christendom knew about the Roman Empire through the eyes of Latin Christendom. Centuries of copying manuscripts Christians favored — philosophy, what there was of math, &c. — selectively presented the case for a Roman Empire Christians found favorable. So it is no accident that Rome seemed all the more glorious by Western Christendom’s standards when Western Christendom took pains to highlight what Christendom believed were best parts of Rome. And this, over centuries and centuries.

            Regarding Greeks: As the Chinese, they did not systematically do so. They did, from here to there, as a man idly sniffs the roses, do certain Things of Merit, or as the odd rose-sniffing enthusiast snorts a great deal so did certain obsessives. But if done with curiosity or obsession it was not done with faith and certainty and power until it met the great insights that,

            1. This can be done with regularity, systematically;
            2. This should be done with regularity, systematically; because
            3. Doing so pleases God, as per Aquinas. (citation: I took it from Human Accomplishment by Charles Murray, p. 403, though probably that is not even a secondary source.)

            Greeks had geniuses and architects of whole disciplines, but no culture has a monopoly on those. Christendom, on the other hand, invented bricklayers. (This distinction between architects and bricklayers, though not their application here, is also taken from Human Accomplishment.)

            I invite you to read the link provided, if you haven’t already. I give Christians no credit where credit is not due. In fact, I’m harsher on them than even the New Atheists. I may seem a kneejerk defender of the faith in this discussion only because the faith was synonymous with Europe in the Middle Ages.

            However, here I mean only to be a kneejerk defender of the truth; you’ve only just cited your first source, and one which is not insurmountable. In fact, Petrarch, if accepted at the face value you presented him, fleshes nicely with the best of Christendom, enhancing the explanatory power of M. Flynn’s theory. I will not, without reason, abandon the cause of defense of the Middle Ages on your word, when I have a medievalist and a whip smart sci-fi author on my side, many cogent explanations of the existing data, and more data with less apparent guesswork. Show me the evidence.

            That said, I will happily admit that “a greater population” is from memory a point take from — you guessed it! — M. Flynn, in the afterword to his Eifelheim. (Besides a near-Mary Sue, this is no paean to Christendom.) I do not, sadly, own the book, so I cannot provide a closer citation of his meaning or his source. In an unnested comment below, I will explore the reasons I trust this explanation of history.

        • Ray

          Oh. And just to head of the obvious objection: “but science co-opts ideas too.” Yes, that’s true, but modern scientists do not claim their legitimacy by way of apostolic succession from the previous generations of scientists who opposed such currently accepted ideas as continental drift and the cosmological constant. Hence, they don’t tend to waste as much time trying to find excuses why their predecessors weren’t “really” wrong (or at least not wrong about anything important.)

          Likewise, I don’t use the authority of Draper and White to justify my assessment that religion is based upon factual* mistakes and has historically been harmful to the progress of science. Therefore, the fact that they were poor scholars has no bearing on the truth of that claim.

          *I would say, to paraphrase Quine, that belief the resurrection of Jesus, like the belief in the Gods of Homer is a scientific mistake, but that would set off a debate on the definition of science — basically, the question of whether the scientific process allows you to attach Bayesian priors to claims that are not empirically testable. I think it pretty clearly does — otherwise I couldn’t scientifically reject young earth creationism — since “The Earth is 6000 years old” is at least as likely as “the Earth is 6000 years old, but the empirical evidence is identical to that which would be produced by a 4.5 billion year old Earth”)

          • Good thing you didn’t bring it up. You might have provoked an extended argument regarding the difference between a scene set at the cusp of historical inquiry and one legitimately lost to the legends of antiquity’s antiquity. Notwithstanding a respite as brief as my great-granddaughter’s marriage to your scoundrel of a great-grandnephew, this argument would have lasted to the fifth generation.

            By the time our clans would exact mutual annihilation in a weak orbit around 2101 Adonis, thirty-five souls would have gone to their reward. (In deference to the customs of your family, this number would not have included the sixty-one-point-one-two-five sacs of component atoms similarly dissipated.)

    • Irenist

      SMBC will always have my affection for this comic:

  • As far as demographics questions go, I’d be interested in knowing what sorts of religious communities the voters regularly encounter, not just the ones they grew up with. (Region might help, too.) So, are most of the Christians you know Catholic, Mennonite, LDS, Methodist, Pentacostal, United? Are most of the atheists existentialist or postmodernist? How often do you hang with Hindus and Taoists? That sort of thing. This will be hard to track quantitatively, yes; it’ll require text responses. But it might be interesting to see whether encountering a diversity of people is more likely to make someone accurate, say, or whether a familiarity with Catholic communities (even if you’re not Catholic) can make you better at spotting phony Catholics but maybe not, say, phony Jews for Jesus. (Of course, this doesn’t account for people who just read a lot about religion…)

  • Really sorry for going crazy on comments tonight, but I’m getting excited.

    This is very idiosyncratic, but I’d be interested in both atheists and whatever-your-other-category-will-be (or you could do religious and non-religious, so you can include non-theistic religious folk like Buddhists and Confucians, etc., and non-atheist non-religious folk, like formal agnostics) answering the question, “What would you say is wrong with the world, and what seems to you to be the way to resolve this problem?” I’m taking this question from Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One, which I am reading. ( But it might be interesting to see how people answer this, because there would be different ways for a Christian to explain “sin,” and this might be a fruitful way of seeing whether non-Christians can tell a convincing story about it (or to tell a convincing story about exile, pride, etc). On the flip side, it might be interesting to see Christians try to explain the problems of the world without relying on sin (and Jews without relying on exile, Muslims without relying on pride, etc.).

    • … but then it won’t be a Turing Test, where the point is to fake out knowing the other side. Having more than one side will unbalance the test, and having a side which is not common or known to all readers will also unbalance the test.

    • Wait, I can simplify my questions.
      For Christian responses: “How do you explain or think about sin?”
      For atheist responses: “What is the world’s greatest or most central problem, and how do you suggest solving or mitigating it? (Or is this a coherent question?)”
      Because in many ways these are the same question, and are simple questions to ask (while remaining hard to answer), but represent a lot of diversity within worldviews and even more difference between worldviews. And they could be retooled for other traditions if you go that route.

      • I like the original phrasing better. I would spontaneously interpret your proposed atheist reformulation as asking for the problem of our time rather than of the human condition. Probably I’d answer “a materialist culture/solution: don’t know’ rather than ‘sin / solution: the cross”.

        Basically the question of what’s wrong with the world presupposes the fundamental and hard to verbalize experience that there is something wrong with this world and the biggest problem question doesn’t.

        Now some atheists simply don’t have that experience, but I think that’s the boring ones. The answers of interesting atheists would be very interesting for me because it is a point I find very important that is normally ignored in atheist apologetics.

        But the phrasing would need some work, I don’t know a really good way of putting that question to an atheist.

        • OK, right, the original question is better for atheists. I see that. I think explicitly asking for what sin means would still be good for the Christian version, since someone could just answer, “What is wrong with the world?” with, “Sin,” and we still wouldn’t know what that means.

  • Diadhuit

    Yay! I discovered your blog thanks to the test! I really liked it! In “What Demographics to Track?” you should add the mother tongue and the level of Theological/Philosophical English comprehension. Since I’m Italian mother tongue and my English is not good enough, I didn’t understand all the answers but I tried to do my best. I added a comment in the notes saying that you could choose to discard my opinions, but maybe there is someone else who is not English mother tongue who wants to participate.

  • I”m going to chip in a vote against having more than two categories of contestant simply because the Turing test is about one side passing for one other side. If you add more groups to the pool then it has to be in separate tests, otherwise contestants will have to pose as Christians, and Jews, and Hindus, and XYZ, and only your best religious studies scholars will get very far with that. Plus the work of being a contestant would increase a lot.

  • leahlibresco

    Ooh, another question I’d like feedback on. Last time, I know some people were deliberately imitating ‘boring’ atheists and they did quite well (partially because the questions lent themselves to boring answers. I’d like to incentivise imitating smart people on the other side. Is it enough just to pass this preference on to the participants? Would it be helpful to have a secondary prize for the most compelling entries (sincere or faked) on both sides?

    • I think the efficacy of that strategy is itself interesting data, but we already have that data, so if you want to avoid a repeat, I think better questions would be a good start already. Asking the participants would also be helpful, I think, though it requires trust. (Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, though?) Giving prizes for the most compelling might produce the same problem you had last time (ie. people not wanting to participate in case they accidentally did too good a job), unless you have a scheme for dodging that hurdle (which, admittedly, is one you’ll already need to dodge).

      And on another note, I’m starting to lean towards what Brian Green is saying. At the very least, you don’t want everyone to try to pass for a Hindu and a Wiccan as well as a Christian and a Jew. Maybe there’s another way to rig it–you can try to pass for the religion of your choice, and religious folk can of course give their own? There would be problems with this, too, though; if an atheist or agnostic gives a Zoroastrian answer, how many people would be really qualified to assess that answer? This might skew votes, too: people will assume that atheists will pretend to be either Christians (the one they’re most familiar with) or something very small population-wise (one they figure no one will be familiar with), and vote by that as much as by the quality of the answers.

      I don’t think you want to assign atheists to different religions, though, which might not be fair to an atheist who knows a lot about Christianity and Judaism but really very little about Islam, which you happened to give them. And I do think you should make this open to non-Christian religious folk…

    • Glad to see this is happening again, getting people to play Devil’s Advocate against their own position is a great way to generate meaningful debate. I’d love to participate if you end up having an empty spot!

      As to providing a prize for the most “compelling” essay, I wouldn’t do that. I think that if you make the questions more provocative, you might be able to avoid the pitfalls of a boring answer. Some interesting questions could arise from asking about whether atheists think a jump from methodological naturalism to metaphysical naturalism is warranted, whether moral realism can be justified without God (or if the error-theorists are right), and what an atheist might expect the universe to look like if God did exist (inspired by Peter Van Inwagen’s “massively irregularity” theodicy).

    • Would it be helpful to have a secondary prize for the most compelling entries (sincere or faked) on both sides?

      That would be brilliant, should someone suggest the idea. I hope someone thinks of it.

    • Some of the atheists also imitated dumb Christians, though less successfully so.

      Separating the realness and compellingness votes does seem like an excellent solution.

      The other possible solution would be to try to control for general argumentative quality.
      One radical way to do that would be to publish the sincere and the fake answer together and have only one vote. That way nobody could make the fake personality much dumber than the real one. A downside is that for some questions and people that would lead to two near-identical texts with different conclusions. Another way to do it would be asking for two texts on “unrelated things you want to talk about” and randomly attaching them to the two answer sets.

      But your own solution is probably best.

  • GeoSmiley

    I would be interested in something like:

    “Do you experience your inner life (emotional, relational, etc.) on exclusively Christian/Atheist-Scientific terms, or do you have other rubrics for dealing with that aspect of your experience? If so, what are these other rubrics?”

    That might be too vague or wide-ranging, though.

  • Dave

    One of the Questions for atheists should have them argue for an epistemic standard that 1. includes other moral and physical truth claims based on sense evidence but 2. excludes truth claims based on religious experience. Anything else is just a shadowplay where people playing the atheist role get to ignore the modern serious philosophical arguments for religious positivism.

    • Irenist

      That sounds intriguing. Could you say more about what you mean by “religious positivism”?

      • Dave

        I was quite rushed when I wrote this comment; probably would have been better to say “religion as a properly basic belief under so-called ‘reformed epistemology.'” (Which arguably cashes out to the same thing as what “religious positivism” would mean to certain types of political theorists, but it makes sense to use the actual terminology philosophers use…) See, e.g. Basically the argument is that it’s difficult to conceive of a standard for justified belief in basic building block claims about the world that doesn’t ultimately have to consider the following two claims as having equal footing: “people feel religious sentiments about the existence of God, so God likely exists” and “people feel sentiments about the existence of bricks, so bricks likely exist”.

  • Christian vs. Atheist is the only roundup that makes sense, especially given the explicit nature of your crossover blog. If you want to get more specific, it’s Catholic vs. Atheist, because those are the only groups you write about with any regularity. You are not going to get very good essays on folks pretending to be a Hare Krishna or a Hindu nor would we be able to vote on them meaningfully. Even if you pull from other blogs, your voting community is pretty much still just us black folks. Or did you include groups other than “Christian” and “Atheist” and “Misc. Math Blogs” in your old, public blogroll when you had one?

    Besides, if you’re going to have multiple surveys, keep at least some factors stable.

    • That said, if you do mix them, interesting possibilities could be made if your regulars were regulated to being spectators. Suppose you got Muslims of the subcontinent to pretend to be their friendly Hindu neighbor, and vice versa. But really, won’t such games make your Turing Test less a measurement of interfaith understanding and more a kind of absurd reality TV show parody?

      No, if this Turing Test is going to get your readers involved in any meaningful way, it certainly as yet only makes sense to do again Christians vs. Atheists.

  • Excerpt of The Everlasting Man, from its chapter titled “God and Comparative Religion”

    Comparative religion is very comparative indeed. That is, it is so much a matter of degree and distance and difference that it is only comparatively successful when it tries to compare When we come to look at it closely we find it comparing things that are really quite incomparable. We are accustomed to see a table or catalogue of the world’s great religions in parallel columns, until we fancy they are really parallel. We are accustomed to see the names of the great religious founders all in a row: Christ; Mahomet; Buddha; Confucius.

    But in truth this is only a trick; another of these optical illusions by which any objects may be put into a particular relation by shifting to a particular point of sight. Those religions and religious founders, or rather those whom we choose to lump together as religions and religious founders, do not really .show any common character. The illusion is partly produced by Islam coming immediately after Christianity in the list; as -Islam did come after Christianity and was largely an imitation of Christianity. But the other eastern religions, or what we call religions, not only do not resemble the Church but do not resemble each other. When we come to Confucianism at .the end of the list, we come to something in a totally different world of thought. To compare the Christian and Confucian religions is like comparing a theist with an English squire or asking whether a man is a believer in immortality or a hundred-per-cent American. Confucianism may be a civilization but it is not a religion.

    In truth the Church is too unique to prove herself unique. For most popular and easy proof is by parallel and here there is no parallel. It is not easy, therefore, to expose the fallacy by which a false classification is created to swamp a unique thing when it really is a unique thing. As there is nowhere else exactly the same fact so there is nowhere else exactly the same fallacy. But I will take the nearest thing I can find to such a solitary social phenomenon in order to show how it is thus swamped and assimilated. I imagine most of us would agree that there is something unusual and unique about the position of the Jews. There is nothing that is quite in the same sense an international nation; an ancient culture scattered in different countries but still distinct and indestructible. Now this business is like an attempt to make a list of Nomadic Nations in order to soften the strange solitude of the Jew. It would be easy enough to do it by the same process Of putting a plausible approximation first and then tailing off to totally different things thrown in somehow to make up the list. Thus in the new list of nomadic nations the Jews would be followed by the Gypsies; who at least are really nomadic if they are not really national. Then the professor of the new science of Comparative Nomadics could pass easily on to something different; even if it was very different. He could remark on the wandering adventure of the English who had scattered their colonies over so many seas and call them nomads. It is quite true that a great many Englishmen seem to be strangely restless in England. It is quite true that not all of them have left their country for their country’s good. The moment we mention the wandering empire of the English, we must add the strange exiled empire of the Irish.

    For it is a curious fact, to be noted in our imperial literature, that the same ubiquity and unrest which is a proof of English enterprise and triumph is a proof of Irish futility and failure. Then the professor of Nomadism would look round thoughtfully and remember that there was great talk recently of German waiters, German barbers, German clerks, Germans naturalizing themselves in England and the United States and the South American republics. The Germans would go down as the fifth nomadic race; the words Wanderlust and FolkWandering would come in very useful here. For there really have been historians who explained the Crusades by suggesting that the Germans were found wandering (as the police say) in what happened to be the neighborhood of Palestine. Then the professor, feeling he was now near the end, would make a last leap in desperation. He would recall the fact that the French army has captured nearly every capital in Europe, that it marched across countless conquered lands under Charlemagne or Napoleon; and that would be wanderlust and that would be the note of a nomadic race. Thus he would have his six nomadic nations all compact and complete and would feel that the Jew was no longer a sort of mysterious and even mystical exception. But people with more common sense would probably realize that he had only extended nomadism by extending the meaning of nomadism; and that he had extended that until it really had no meaning at all. It is quite true that the French soldier has made some of the finest marches in all military history. But it is equally true, and far more self-evident, that if the French peasant is not a rooted reality there is no such thing as a rooted reality in the world; or in other words, if he is a nomad there is nobody who is not a nomad.

    Now that is the sort of trick that has been tried in the case of comparative religion and the world’s religious founders all standing respectably in a row. It seeks to classify Jesus as the other would classify Jews, by inventing a new class for the purpose and filling up the rest of it with stop-gaps and second-rate copies. I do not mean that these other, things are not often great things in their own real character and class. Confucianism and Buddhism are great things, but it is not true to call them Churches; just as the French and English are great peoples, but it is nonsense to call them nomads. There are some points of resemblance between Christendom and its imitation in Islam; for that matter there are some points of resemblance between Jews and Gypsies. But after that the lists are made up of anything that comes to hand; of anything that can be put in the same catalogue without being in the same category.

    • Immediately earlier, Chesterton writes:

      I will advance the thesis that before all talk about comparative religion and the separate religious founders of the world, the first essential is to recognize this thing as a whole, as a thing almost native and normal to the great fellowship that we call mankind. This thing is paganism; and I propose to show in these pages that it is the one real rival to the Church of Christ.

      Constructive suggestion of my own: What of Paganism of any stripe vs. Christianity vs. atheism? A three-way argument might work, but it would require each participant to write an essay first on paganism, second on any stripe of paganism and third from the perspective of the Catholic Church (of any rite). This strikes a nice balance, I think.

      Eternal contenders for the eternal city. Who will win? Will it be the Republic, the Empire, or the Vatican?

      • I’m really not on board with reducing Christianity to Catholicism. First off, this means non-Catholic Christian participants would need to fake both entries. Second, many of the atheist participants would be able to do a good job faking an evangelical and a bad job faking a Catholic, which would defeat the point. And third, it is not the case that Leah talks only about Catholicism here; much of what she discusses is not bound to the Magisterium (in part thanks to Protestantism’s historically absorbant qualities, and in part thanks to Catholicism’s more recently absorbant qualities).
        Also, I’m not sure you can reduce all other religions to “paganism.” That centralizes Christianity in a way that makes sense ideologically but not sociologically or historically, and it also means Muslims and other staunch monotheists are joined to Hindus and other exuberant polytheists. This would be shirk to a Mulsim; it’s offensive and it doesn’t really account for what Islam is.
        Even if we do say that the wide-open floor is a problem (and you’ll see that in later comments on this thread I start to come around to the idea that it is a problem), and I still think your suggestion here is Catholic-centric.

        • I still think your suggestion here is Catholic-centric.

          I happily agree. This blog, and composition of our religious commenters — myself, Irenist, Ted Seeber, deiseach, Gilbert, Mark Shea, Eve Tushnet, largely off the top of my head, and those I know of — is Catholic-centric. My suggestion holds a mirror to the community and the content of Mdm. Libresco’s writing. I know, for in an alternate universe her blog adopted this name: Yudowsky vs. Chesterton.

          Besides, having Catholicism to kick around will force:
          1. More entertaining atheist essays, in part because
          2. Catholicism is something solider to kick around, especially because
          3. Folks here all have some experience and understanding of Catholicism already, if not extensive experience, and everyone has an opinion uniquely about the Church. Not everyone has an opinion on Unitarianism or other small fish.

          If pagan synthesis within a category bothers you, I can live with that. Pagan inclusion at all would be a forced, absurd religious egalitarianism, given the direction of our forums here. When was the last time a man here referred to Hindoos more than rhetorically? No, the real argument at this blog is between Catholics and atheists, for that is and always has been the most interesting argument.

  • I would be very interested in data on what exactly does the unsuccessful fakers in. So perhaps there could be an additional question “Why do you think this entry fake/real?” with . You’d have to think about answer options. Of the top of my head I’d say language and terminology/cultural details/comprehension of arguments/(un-)usual belief-combinations/typical areas of interest/I know exactly who this is/other (explain). But “other” probably should be divided further, so it would need some more thinking.

    – This would probably only work if you go with the continuous votes. It sounds like too much for one great final voting form.
    – It might give people ideas for judging criteria and that might change their natural intuitions.

    Also wee! I’m exited you’re doing this again.

    • leahlibresco

      I’m interested in this idea (I did have an open prompt in the last go round, but it meant I ended up kind of swamped by data). More suggestions for checkbox options, anyone?

      • Game theory? I remember doing a bit of that last time: “If a person were trying to fake this, would they be willing to say such a thing, given that it seems highly implausible to me and therefore would seem even more implausible to them,” etc. I didn’t do much of that, but I imagine some people will.

  • Lisa

    Maybe you could ask the atheists:

    What, if anything, do you “believe” in or accept on “faith”? Do you see a distinction between “faith” and “accepting something as true without proof or evidence”? If so, what is the distinction?

    • Cous

      Yes, PLEASE have a question like this. Having each person define faith is an excellent idea – there’s a lot of difference even among theists about what faith is, and I get the sense that atheists and believers are often talking about completely different types things when they use the word “faith,” not just disagreeing about whether there’s enough evidence for a specific type of faith.

      Leah, in response to your talking points:

      2. Boo! Google Forms – offers free accounts, and you can definitely export survey results as CSV. They limit you to a couple hundred questions unless you buy a full account, but there’s a lot of great features (e.g. randomization of question order).
      3. What Demographics to Track? – I’d be interested to see which essay the voters most agree with, i.e. “Which one of these most accurately represents you own views?” to compare that to which posts the voter found to best represent atheism and Christianity. And ask people what their field of study and/or last completed level of schooling is.

      2. Better Questions for Atheists – since you’re asking Christians how they read the Bible, ask the atheists as well. And ask both sides what books they would recommend to someone who’s not on their side but is thinking about switching.

    • I really like the ‘explain faith’ question. It’s a point on witch both sides feel the other side just doesn’t get it, so it’s ideal for a Turing test. But I think it would produce more interesting answers in the Christian set, where people would have to paint a sympathetic picture. In the atheist set it would be one of those questions asking for a boring atheist.

      The question about taking anything on faith actually is a question for atheists. But I think it’s mostly a counter to a specific debating point some atheists might not even hold. So I’d say that one is less interesting.

  • Lisa

    As far as demographic questions, I don’t want to suggest something that would turn this into a political Turing test, but….If carefully done, it might be interesting to collect data on whether people self-identify as liberal or conservative. Because I think in today’s society, political identity has more influence than religious identity on how one *articulates* her beliefs. I think that a liberal Christian might have more in common with a liberal atheist than a conservative Christian, and a conservative Christian more in common with a conservative atheist than a liberal Christian, in terms of the vocabulary, rhetorical devices, and the analytic patterns employed in their arguments. Put another way, I bet a defense of atheism from Ayn Rand, for example, would sound very different from a defense of atheism from, say, Karl Marx. And a defense of Christianity by Ross Douthat might sound very different from a defense of Christianity by Nicholas Kristof. (Not the best examples, but they’ll suffice to make my point, I guess.)

  • Ray

    On the atheism is “boring” issue: I think you will continuously get boring responses if you try to ask questions that directly address the existence of God. If you are an atheist, the question of God’s existence is one of the least interesting questions you can ask about the world aside from the fact that a lot of people seem to get it wrong.

    More interesting questions will be along the lines of

    “What do you think are the most important mistakes believers make in concluding that God exists?”
    “Why do believers find first cause arguments appealing?”
    “Why do you think believers trust religious leaders more than secular academics?”

    Also, the one religion related thing that I think is MORE interesting if you’re an atheist — the Bible. If you take away the presupposition that the correct interpretation of the documents therein must be morally uplifting, applicable to the present day, and not scientifically misleading, you can see the whole thing as a window into the way that people in the ancient middle east thought and experienced their lives in a much more desperate situation than anything most of us are familiar with. It’s not very impressive work for an omnipotent omniscient omnibenevolent being, but it’s very impressive for the ruling class of a small country surrounded and often conquered by neighboring empires, at a time with no good long distance communication, very spotty record keeping, endemic violence, and vastly inferior medical technology.

  • Leah: I jacked up the code on a comment you’ve yet to approve. Any chance you could be a dear and fix it, afterwhich deleting this comment?


  • we can explore these observations, which I provide off the top of my head:

    1. Christendom trained in logic, emphasizing it to a fault. See, again: Quadrivium plus the university, though each was different then than we know them now.
    2. So did Greece and Rome, but in a lesser way. Also, these were slave economies.
    3. In Christendom, serfs could become rich, or profess vows, or gain scholarships, nearly as freely as any time since and much more freely than in Greece or Rome.
    4. In Christendom, universities rather than schools became the norm of learning.

    Ergo: It is reasonable to suppose that pre-Black Death Christendom had a greater proportion of the trained in logic than Greece and Rome.

    5. In the immediate years of the division of Christendom was not only a division of curricula, but the subjugation of a serf class as subjected below a ruling class. See: Germany and England especially, where barons gained power at the expense of the king and his subjects.
    6. This division of theologies, and the explosion of exploration and colonization, absorbed Europe’s intellect and interest more than anything else in intervening centuries between then and now. Not incidentally, philosophers directly broke with scholasticism and, similarly, the Aristotle pre-Death Christendom baptized.
    7. In the last century especially, this break with Aristotle and proliferation of Christian sects has produced little more among Western philosophers but the magnification of doubt and idolatry of metaphysical uncertainty. See: Descartes, Hume, et al.
    8. Meanwhile, science as known has grown in utility and popularity, though the population at large only learns about technical things if they want to use them. Unless a thing is useful to know, it is not known. As logic is not deemed useful to know, it is not as much taught or as rigorously.
    9. Despite the obsession with utility among physical things, there is an obsession with emoting oneself among the softer things of humanities.
    10. We see the ultimate expression of this when we see, as I mentioned earlier, the difference between the universal major of the quadrivium and the many particular majors which include Marxist Literary Criticism. There are many engineers today, but most university graduates — not just most other majors — are somehow not grilled on logic.

    Summation: Today, even engineers are grilled on only the logic they need to know. Back in the day, everyone was grilled on all but all logic known.

    Ergo, it is reasonable to suppose that pre-Death Christendom had a particular, unique charism of a training in logic which outstripped every Western society before and since. When we see the chasm between Western and non-Western thought, we can extend this to the Hottentots and Aztecs and all the rest of the world. Perhaps the best illustration of this: Because of Latin Christendom, names in taxonomy and of logical fallacies are in Latin.

    So what I say is, I believe, reasonable, given the broad brush of history above, as incredible as it seems at first. This, rather than M. Flynn’s word or a conspiracy of Catholics, is why I took it for being probably true.

    • Incidentally, what of the original questions: What are the names of other scientists repressed by Catholicism? If opposition is so pervasive, who else? And what’s up with Mendel and Lemaître? And if the Church suppressed Albigensianism, can it truly be said to be allied with unreason?

      • Ray

        The Albigensian Crusade? Seriously? If you seek to convince your opponents by force of arms rather than reason, you are no friend of reason, whoever your enemy is.

        And what’s up with Mendel and Lemaître? They were both very good scientists. As were atheists or agnostics like Halley, Darwin, Dirac, Feynman, Weinberg, Gell-Mann, Turing, Chandrasekhar. I’m sure I could find more. I find it interesting that your list of good Catholic scientists is equal to my list of Scientists who actually suffered punishment at the hands of the inquisition (as opposed to just censorship by the Church, in which case I could expand my list quite a lot.)

    • For the record: Two sources I don’t have access to did turn up on a Google search, namely “The Effect of the Black Death on English Higher Education,” which itself cites “The Black Death and Men of Learning.” The former seems favorable to a “little effect on enrollment” side, and the latter an older work regarding something more like M. Flynn’s contention. But neither of these seems to address the “greater proportion” claim of M. Flynn.

      For what it’s worth, he is professionally a statistician. I do not believe he would knowingly play fast and loose with proportions, and he strikes me as an intellectually honest sort to boot. Further problems with this point I will address to him and, if he responds, present back to you.

    • … It is reasonable to suppose that pre-Black Death Christendom had a greater proportion of the *population* trained in logic than Greece and Rome. …

    • Of course, I enthusiastically agree with this sentiment:

      Being an atheist does not make someone automatically right.

      In fact, I’m tempted to strengthen it.

    • Ray

      The first part is plausible, but not definitive. The second part I don’t buy at all. Medieval Europe was mostly illiterate, and only a tiny fraction of the literate went to the universities: see e.g. . Notice that there were only two universities in the whole of England during the period we’re talking about, and the population wasn’t that much smaller than the modern population. In the modern US, 30% of the population has a bachelor’s degree or better. I suspect that we’d be beating the Medievals if even 5% of our university students ended up taking a logic course meeting your exacting standards.

      You’re also dead wrong on the timing of serfdom. Wikipedia ( ) says:

      This arrangement provided most of the agricultural labour throughout the Middle Ages. Slavery persisted right through the Middle Ages,[20] but it was rare, diminishing and largely confined to the use of household slaves.[citation needed] Parts of Europe, including much of Scandinavia, never adopted many feudal institutions, including serfdom.

      In the later Middle Ages serfdom began to disappear west of the Rhine even as it spread through eastern Europe. This was one important cause for the deep differences between the societies and economies of eastern and western Europe.

      In Western Europe, the rise of powerful monarchs, towns, and an improving economy weakened the manorial system through the 13th and 14th centuries, and serfdom was rare following the Renaissance.

      Serfdom in Western Europe came largely to an end in the 15th and 16th centuries

  • Ye Olde Statistician

    from the 11th through early 16th century. There’s very little to distinguish what passed for science in Europe at the time from what had been going on in the Muslim world a few centuries earlier.

    a) If this is so, then how was it that by 1500 already the Latin West was so far ahead of the House of Submission? Answer: study the logistic curve and note carefully its shape. Or watch a house being built. The initial phases seem to take forever with very little obvious change to a naive observer, while the final phases seem go lickety-split. But it might could be that laying a firm foundation is more important than the bells and whistles later added.
    b) The muslim world in its early phase, before natural philosophy sputtered and died, can also be called the Eastern Christian world with such Christian centers of learning as Alexandria and Antioch and Constantinople. The House of Wisdom in old Baghdad was staffed and run by Nestorian Christians (e.g., Hunayn ibn Ishaq and his nephews) and the translation of Greek works into Arabic was facilitated by their earlier translation from Greek into Syriac. The East remained largely Christian for a long time: at the time of the “first crusade”, Egypt was still 50% Christian and Antioch was still both Greek and Christian. (Hence, Baybar’s massacre of Antioch.)

    Of course, what lies in the distance often blurs together, so you may not discern the differences between what a handful of muslim faylasuf wrote in the teeth of societal opposition and what the Latin West did after the Volkerwanderungen came to an end. Meanwhile, the science of the 2010s seem vastly different from the science of say the 1970s. Being closer, we can pick out details. But “all that ancient stuff” looks pretty much the same.

    One answer to your question can be found in Toby Huff’s book The Rise of Early Modern Science. The Latin West was the first society to embed the study of logic, reason, and the natural world into the society at large. Everywhere else we have brilliant individuals in isolated splendor, coming and going, but no societal interest. The Chinese had no word for “logic.” (Their current word is a borrowing from European languages.) And their term for “teaching” is the same term used to describe force-feeding a duck to make it fat and plump for Peking Duck.

    A primary barrier was the inability to measure anything much beyond lengths and weights. Even mechanical clocks (a Latin West innovation) could measure time only in the broadest increments prior to the invention of the vernier. But a fruitful comparison could be made between the impact of the telescope in the Latin West (a Scientific Revolution) and its impact when taken to China, Mughal India, and the Osmanli Empire (nothing). Huff’s second book, Intellectual Curiosity, covers the history and importance of the look-glass.
    + + +

    Meanwhile, on the main topic let me suggest two All-Purpose Responses:
    1. All Purpose Christian Response: God did it!
    2. All Purpose Atheist Response: Is just IS!

  • Ray

    To Ubiquitous and Statistician if you’re still checking.

    I see a lot of random facts chosen to fit the hypothesis that an attitude specific to Christian mysticism was the key factor in triggering the scientific revolution, but I don’t see a lot in the way of unbiased hypothesis checking. How are you measuring intellectual progress? is it something hyper-specific that could easily be chosen specifically to make your hypothesis come out the way you want it to (like having a common university course going by the name of “logic”)? And I have no idea whatsoever how you’re measuring your causative agent. It can’t just be the presence of Christianity as a powerful institution — since by your own admission, Christendom was not the most prominent center of intellectual progress for the first 1000 years of its existence, nor have Christians been the dominant intellectual force of the past 150 years or so (arguably the most productive period in the history of science.) Your methodology appears no more than the following: Every time something good happens, find some Christians, and every time you find Christians, find something good to say about it or make an excuse involving an external cause. This is nationalist history applied to the Christian ideology, not an honest investigation of the true causes of things.

    Anyway, it’s pretty hard to make a case that a philosophy named after a pagan philosopher (Plato or Aristotle) from the 300s bc was a crucial innovation of Christianity in 1200 AD. Further, if you’re going to excuse the first 700 years of stagnation in Christendom by appealing to the chaos of the migration period. Why can’t the Muslims make the same excuses based on the Turkic and Mongolian invasions. It all seems very convenient.

    Honestly, I don’t see any obvious way to distinguish the Oxford Calculators from the Kerala School or the Maragheh observatory, except that the first happened in the same region of the world that would later give rise to the real scientific revolution in the 17th century. My best guess as to the factors that put Europe over the top:

    1) The printing press (which had more to do with the metalworking and milling economy that was uniquely thriving in Europe than it did with the Church. See e.g. to see the factors that led to that. Not that I take this to be definitive, but it at least illustrates that you can explain a lot of the prosperity of the high middle ages, such as it was, without appealing to any specifically European ideology.)
    2)Wealth from the Americas (Europe was the nearest part of temperate Eurasia to the Americas, so this one just looks like dumb luck.)

    Now I’m sure you can name all kinds of names of historians who will support any interpretation of the facts that you’d like, but if you’re going to appeal to authority rather than finding some objective way to test your hypothesis, at least appeal to a consensus of experts rather than picking out those that agree with you.