[Turing 2013] Christian Entry #3

[Turing 2013] Christian Entry #3 July 17, 2013

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



First, polygamy should be legal. Civil marriage is a whole different beast from religious marriage (I specify “religious” rather than “sacramental” because not all denominations or religions believe that marriage is sacramental and I want to acknowledge that), and there is no legal reason to outlaw civil polygamy. The idea that it would lead to greater inequality for women is unfounded; it would be sexist to allow polygyny and still outlaw polyandry or polygynandry, of course, but that’s not what contemporary polygamy activists are fighting for. Inheritance, divorce, and taxation could be tricky, but legal complexity is not grounds for a practice’s criminalization. There isn’t sufficient evidence to show that polygamy is harmful by any secular definition of harm. (Speculation about what a polygamist marriage would look like does not count as evidence.)

Second, there’s no reason to say that polygamy is a sin. The Bible does not forbid it. Solomon’s problem was polytheism, not polygamy, and the two do not share sin with the prefix. (Also, I’m not sure how religious pluralism is such a bad thing.) Titus 1:6 applies only to elders/deacons. I could give similar answers for any Bible verse you offered. Further, most of the theological models that Christian churches have made of marriage and/or sexual intercourse–covenant, flesh-fusion, construction paper and glue, etc.–are not number-dependent. (Even if they were, I don’t think overly simplified metaphors are logically binding anyway.) So, lacking strong empirical evidence that polygamy is always harmful, there’s no reason for Christianity to outright forbid polygamy.

That being said, I think that polygamy is often imprudent. The Quran famously limits a Muslim man to four wives, and even then only if he can satisfy all of his wives’ material, emotional, and sexual needs, which is doubtful. I would argue that we adopt a similar approach, with the recognition that most people will not be able to satisfy multiple spouses’ needs (even excluding the financial one, because these days there’s no reason they couldn’t be a five-earner household). So in most cases I would advise against it…but because I’ve heard that it works well for some people, I would not advise against polygamy universally. In particular instances it might be advisable: for instance, while conjoined twins usually do not share husbands or wives, it is quite understandable when they do. And in populations with a drastic gender/sex imbalance, polygamy might be a practical necessity. Some kind of ethics of polygamous marriages would need to be developed, probably ad hoc, as need arises, for those who decide to engage in it. This ethics would pertain to the relationships between all members, including those who share a spouse but are not married to each other, and it would govern the usual things like emotional honesty and expression, sharing of responsibilities, decision making, and time management, but also other matters which we likely could not predict in advance.



“Is euthanasia acceptable?” is the wrong question. The correct question is, “How do we ethically respond to another person’s desire to commit suicide or assisted suicide?”

From what I can tell, the church has focused on the wrong question from early in its history: Clement drafted a condemnation of suicide in response to aspiring martyrs who thought suicide might be a moral good, since in a willing death one emulates Christ and draws nearer to him. Note that even Paul felt a similar temptation in Philippians 1:21-24; in those verses, it does not appear that Paul believed suicide would be an affront to God or a violation of the sanctity of his life. I had a professor who argued that Augustine’s equation of suicide and murder was prompted by pagan claims that Christians ought to encourage suicide. Early responses to suicide were thus based on a wholly different kind of suicide than euthanasia, yet this logic remains the basis for many Christian responses to a person’s desire to commit suicide.

A better and more ethical approach would recognize that the majority of suicide attempts are made in extremis. This makes suicide different from most acts, which are not characteristically performed in comparable situations (though of course any act might be committed in extremis as a coincidence). Sometimes those contemplating suicide are not in possession of their full rational faculties (ie. they have a mental illness), in which case we might be expected to intervene, but in other cases it is not so clear that being in extremis makes a person unreasonable. Their decision to pursue euthanasia might be a fully rational one, and for this reason we cannot claim the same grounds for stepping in and co-opting their agency. Further, regardless of how much rational agency the person has, our response must first and foremost be charitable. We must cast no stones and we must alleviate the suffering of our neighbours. Moreover, we must recognize the limits of our empathy, of our ability to understand another person’s suffering. This is the ethical imperative which constrains us, and it determines how we must address the question, “Is euthanasia acceptable?” We must not add to their suffering by making moral proclamations against them. We must do our best to support an ill person if and as long as they live. The question of euthanasia’s acceptability remains ultimately to those who are seriously considering euthanasia. In practise, this means that we must act as though it is morally permissible, though of course we can struggle with the question further if someone seriously asks for our advice, so long as we remain charitable.

Is this logic accessible to a non-Christian? I suspect that the previous paragraph’s logic would be; while my reasoning is rooted in my understanding of the Gospels, I tried to base it in anthropology rather than explicit citations of Scripture or theology.


Bonus Question

Despite the fact that I most often read fantasy, magic realism, science fantasy, and horror, and that those are the genres I prefer to write, I would have to say that the genre which would best fit my beliefs would be the mystery novel—but it would have to be the kind which isn’t neatly tied up at the end. (To be fair, I do read and watch a lot of mysteries, especially things like BBC’s Sherlock and supernatural procedurals like The X-Files.) I base this on the fact that most of my criticisms about other people’s claims and beliefs have something to do either with epistemology or anthropology, probably both. In mystery novels, characters try to close the gaps in their knowledge, but at the same time they must often act in spite of having woefully insufficient information. This characterizes my view of human endeavour. The only bit that would not fit is the great reveal, which I would need to destabilize. Further, I am intellectually concerned with community formation and maintenance (though I do not act enough on this concern) and I am incredibly preoccupied with morality. Mystery novels, based as they are on the rupture and repair of a social and moral order (ie. a community), would capture this preoccupation too. Perhaps if you can imagine a mystery novel that trades off between Card’s character and ideas factors, rather than the events factor which usually dominates mysteries, you’ll get a sense of my most ideologically efficient genre. It might be worth noting that I surprise myself with this conclusion; my hypothesis for this exercise would have been some kind of fantasy or magic realism in the vein of Jorge Luis Borges or The Fire Horse.


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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  • EMMilco

    This is a very respectable entry, though I largely disagree with the poster’s conclusions. I could imagine a very thoughtful liberal anglican writing this. On the other hand, I could also imagine an atheist who had a background in Christian theology writing it, and writing it more or less sincerely (which is probably the coolest part about this post). I’m really on the line. All of the citations up front scream “Christian”, but the content of the post makes it difficult to tell if it’s an Atheist or a liberal protestant. I say “likely Atheist”, but possibly because I would have more respect for an Atheist who is able to produce these positions than a Christian who holds them in earnest.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    This one was very interesting. I wibbled a bit, but in the end went for “likely Christian”, as I think that this could be one from the progressive/liberal/inclusive/pick your label side of the fence. The proposal that we switch from thinking about euthanasia as a question of “Do we give X group the right to end life?” to “Do we permit X group to end their own lives?” was neatly done, and although I would argue with the conclusions for both questions, the reasoning hung together better – I felt – than the previous two entries.

    Funnily enough, it was the answer to the bonus question that finally clinched it for me on the “likely Christian” decision. “I’ve read this kind of love of ambiguity before!” I thought, and I recalled where and in what context I saw it 🙂

  • Brendan Hodge

    I disagree with the author on a whole lot, but this one strikes me as sounding like a set of beliefs a real and well spoken person would have in a way that the previous two did not. I’m going “Likely Christian”, and I have to say that if it’s an atheist writing its a very smart and well read one.

  • Jakeithus

    I’m thinking likely Christian as well. Although it certainly could be written by an atheist as well, the fact that it draws heavily on, but exists just outside much of traditional Christian thought, makes me believe it was arrived at naturally. If not written by a Christian, I would say it was a longtime Christian who has recently converted.

  • Brandon B

    I am disappointed by the arguments in this entry. The author demonstrates a clear understanding of many of the particular arguments about polyamory and euthanasia, but fails to address any of the theological principals which have lead traditional Christian theologians to their conclusions.

    The author seems to rely on a shallow sort of legalism. This is evident in a number of points: in the first half, the author implies that if the Bible doesn’t explicitly discuss polyamory, it must be permissible.The author distinguishes the example of Solomon by asserting that “[his] problem was polytheism, not polygamy”, but ze does not substantiate this claim. I find this last remarkable, because it is a minority view. In the second half, repeated use of the phrase “in extremis” might make the author look more learned, but it contributes nothing to the strength of the argument – it’s like gold leaf on a bridge. I can’t say whether the phrase is being used correctly, since this is the first time I’ve ever seen it.

    This sophistry is coupled with a poor understanding of theology. The first half makes no mention of theology of the body (I don’t claim to fully understand theology of the body, but I know it’s really important for Catholics), and other theological treatments of sexuality are given a one-sentence dismissal as irrelevant. In the second half, no mention at all is made of the inherent value of life. Instead, the author focuses on alleviating suffering, which, while not unimportant, is only part of the discussion.

    From a Christian standpoint, the assertion “We must not add to their suffering by making moral proclamations against them” is absurd. Admonishing sinners is a spiritual work of mercy. If someone’s soul is imperiled by their sin, then we have an obligation to alert them to the danger. “I’m not sure religious pluralism is a bad thing” also betrays a lack of understanding of basic theology.

    To be fair, I know there are a lot of Christians who actually hold these views, but I don’t think any of them know what they’re talking about. The author is either an atheist or a heretic.

    • Anonymous

      Coincidentally enough, it was the first time I had seen in extremis as well. And then I saw it again about thirty seconds later in an AskHistorians AMA on the Apollo program. *Am searching comment history now for a preoccupation with morality or a desire to be Turing’d*

    • Darren

      “The author is either an atheist or a heretic”

      Amusing. Leah should have included that as a category.

      • LeahLibresco

        If I had, it would have read. “The author is either a heathen or a heretic.” I’m a sucker for alliteration

        • Darren

          Then again, since every Christian is a heretic by at least
          one other Christian’s definition… Potato
          v. potato…

          The alliteration would have been awesome, though.

          Reminds me of this amusing religious joke
          (perhaps linked to in Leah’s journal itself?).

          • Randy Gritter

            You are right, Protestantism has real trouble defining what exactly makes one a heretic. Catholicism does not have that problem. It not only defines one orthodox set of Christian doctrines for all times and all places, it also defines which doctrines are central and which ones Christians can legitimately disagree about. So we can say coherently,

            Unity in essentials,
            Freedom in non-essentials,
            Charity in all things

            BTW, I have always loved that joke.

          • Darren

            “You are right, Protestantism has real trouble defining what exactly makes one a heretic.”

            Yeah, about the only heresy universally acknowledged by Protestants is Catholicism…

            I have a few jokes of my own, mostly focusing on Baptists:

            Jews do not recognize Jesus as the messiah, protestants do not recognize the authority of the Pope, and Baptists don’t recognize each other at the liquor store.

            Why don’t Baptists have sex standing up? Someone might think they were dancing.

            Thank you!

    • Cole J. Banning

      I think the failure ” to address any of the theological principals which have lead traditional Christian theologians to their conclusions” may have have had as much to do with the fact the author was working under a word limit as any thing else. To properly take on the principals underlying soi-disant “traditional” Christian thought on the subject would have required explicating them first, and the author may have been more focused on making their own argument than it regurgitating an argument they didn’t find persuasive.

      • Brandon B

        Anyone who is giving an argument has an obligation to somehow give their argument a foundation. If, in the limited time allotted, the author had given an intellectual foundation to zer argument (a set of axiom, an authoritative text, or whatever), or at least an outline of a foundation, then I would find it reasonable to skip over alternatives. However, no such foundation has been given. The author merely lists the statements ze disagrees with.

        And don’t kid yourself about Christian tradition being “soi-disant” (“self-proclaimed”, to save everyone else a trip to the dictionary). Christianity is centuries old, with theologians writing in every century, and there are plenty of theologians and historians who can tell you which ideas have survived to influence Christianity as we know it today.

      • “I think the failure ‘to address any of the theological principals which have lead traditional Christian theologians to their conclusions’ may have have had as much to do with the fact the author was working under a word limit as any thing else.”

        Author here: Yes. Also, I thought other things–like the section on what moral polygamy might look like–was worth losing basic explication for. Also, when I originally wrote this, I was expecting there to be some sort of chat or conversation structure in the Turing Test, in which people would likely have put me to the test on this subject. I suppose ought to have edited it a bit better after that idea was nixed, but, you know…

    • Oh, I’m sure many people consider me a heretic. I even self-identify as a heretic some of the time. Then again, who isn’t considered a heretic by someone?

  • Huh. Really surprised by the people who thought this entry was Christian. For me, I was certain this was written by an atheist after reading the sentence about not being sure how religious pluralism is a bad thing. Lots of Christians are pro-religious pluralism, but there are also strong anti-pluralistic currents in Christianity, and I’d expect an actual Christian to have some hint of a response to those currents.

    This is ESPECIALLY true given that the sentence comes immediately after ze cited the fact that according to the Old Testament, Solomon screwed things up majorly for Israel by being led astray into the worship of other gods (by his foreign wives). There needs to be some kind of gesture in there towards a reason why that doesn’t mean religious pluralism is a bad thing.

    Edit: here’s the relevant Biblical passage.

    • Melody

      The same line (about not being sure pluralism is a bad thing) made me think it was written by a Christian trying to make me guess atheist. However, some of the comments at the end made me think exactly the opposite. In the end I went with “likely Christian” but I am still not sure. Whoever did this post did a good job!

      • Um, I don’t think the honest entries are supposed to be making people try to guess wrong.

        • Melody

          True. …But they are trying to prove they know how the “other side” thinks.

          • Brandon B

            Yes, and they will try to deceive us when they write as an atheist in the next round.

        • LeahLibresco

          Correct. The Christians are all writing their true beliefs in this round.

    • Martha O’Keeffe

      You think that the contradiction between “religious pluralism is what got Solomon into trouble, not polygyny” and “religious pluralism is not a bad thing” demonstrates that this person is not sincerely Christian (in his or her own mind)?

      Let me point you towards a sermon given by the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church where she tosses 2,000 years of exegesis of this passage from Acts, as traditionally understood, out the window and seems to be saying that demonic possession is a beautiful, holy gift of spiritual awareness and a slave girl being economically exploited by her masters as a soothsayer due to this demonic spirit (or mental illness, if you prefer that reading) is the spirit of God at work in her.

      • I don’t think the contradiction itself demonstrates that, so much as the lack of any attempt to address the contradiction.

        • Martha O’Keeffe

          Actually, I see a bit of that too, and the general rationale behind it seems to be “You are Hindu/Buddhist/Sikh/Animist/Pastafarian – good for you! However, we as Christians can only criticise other Christians or those exemplars in the Scriptures held up to us to admire.”

          So it would be consistent (from that viewpoint) to criticise Solomon as falling away from following Yahweh (because Solomon was Jewish and is one of the forerunners to Christian faith) but criticising someone who was natively a polytheist would be seen as both rude (imposing Western standards on other cultures) and as “putting God into an awfully small box” (if you’re not in the Abrahamic traditions, that does not mean that God cannot work salvation, or that you cannot come to salvation, in your tradition).

          It’s the same reasoning where Christians who argue for inclusion of LGBT people in the congregation, for non-celibate LGBT ministers in their denomination or who support marriage equality and are pushing for church blessings/marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples address the condemnation by St. Paul of arsenokoites by variously translating it as meaning “paederasts, child molesters”, heterosexuals engaging in same-sex acts, or rapists/those engaged in abusive or exploitative relationships but not as meaning what we would nowadays define as homosexual or same-sex attracted people.

          In other words, yes, they do argue that St. Paul was saying “Straight people shouldn’t have gay sex but he never meant gay people shouldn’t have gay sex”.

    • First, my response to Gilbert on the pluralism issue: “That’s my bad on ‘I’m not sure how religious pluralism is such a bad thing.’ What I should have said was, ‘I’m not sure how the state’s formal recognition of the religious pluralism existing among its subjects is such a bad thing,’ which is what I meant. (I would still argue for my original claim, but it’s not relevant in the context of my entry.)”

      Second…look, I don’t think that Bible is a perfectly accurate depiction of the historical period of Solomon. And that claim was a throw-away point tangential to the overall argument about polygamy and not necessary for my overall argument, so I didn’t (and still don’t) think I really needed to support it. Perhaps I should have excluded it entirely, but I also didn’t want people to think I was really supporting state-sponsored religious discrimination, either. Which is why I brought it up. My apologies if I was confusing or unclear…but I don’t really see why I would be obliged to spend any more words on a tangent.

  • This one is fairly difficult.

    I was tempted to say Christian, because an atheist would be unlikely to try something so extreme.

    Still, I think this doesn’t quite fit together for someone actually caring for Christianity except as an argumentative cudgel. For example, the tactical fundamentalism on polygamy doesn’t quite fit together with the contextualizing on suicide. And the ” I’m not sure how religious pluralism is such a bad thing.” line doesn’t fit in at all. Also, the self-assessed incredible preoccupation with morality doesn’t fit with the summary dismissal of speculation on the nature of hypothetical marriages. Finally, I would expect a real version of such an atypical Christian to be more defensive about their opinions being Christian and less about them being secularly accessible.

    Overall this looks like the arguments an atheist would google up to make a pitch to a very liberal Christian, not the other way around.

    • “I would expect a real version of such an atypical Christian to be more defensive about their opinions being Christian and less about them being secularly accessible.”

      Ah, yes, that’s a very good way to describe the thing that was bugging me.

    • “Finally, I would expect a real version of such an atypical Christian to be more defensive about their opinions being Christian and less about them being secularly accessible.”

      Bear in mind that the prompt specifically asked if the logic would be accessible to a non-Christian reader. I assume that the author was simply answering it.

    • Martha O’Keeffe

      Oh, the religious pluralism bit didn’t disturb me; I’ve seen plenty of liberal (I hate using that label but I can’t find one that fits better; ‘heterodox’ is maybe a little strong) Christians doing the “many roads to God, Jesus is a way not the way, Jesus is the way for me but Buddha/Krishna/Mohammed/Cthulhu may be the way for you” bit – the “putting God in an awfully small box” comment back in 2004 by the newly-elected Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, Katherine Jefferts-Schori, which ruffled some feathers amongst American Episcopalians.

      “Finally, I would expect a real version of such an atypical Christian to be more defensive about their opinions being Christian and less about them being secularly accessible.”

      No, the attitude I’ve seen has been that their opponents (either within their denomination or outside it) are on the wrong side of history. Secular accessibility is the badge of being right, in their view.

    • 1. I don’t know what you mean by “caring about Christianity.” I care about living my life morally, in alignment with the coming Kingdom, etc. etc.; I believe that God wants that moral living from me, and that Jesus’ incarnation was, in part, an expression of God’s desire of that from me. But “Christianity” seems like a really vague thing to care about.

      2. The “tactical fundamentalism” is my defensiveness about my opinions being Christian. My formative years in Christian argument took place in Protestant-dominated fellowships; in that context, if you’re afraid Christians will reject what you’re saying as a Christian, then thump the Bible a bit, even when you don’t feel like it (I never feel like it). At least they’ll have to argue with you instead of just dismiss you. But I’ll grant you that opening my list of reasons I don’t think polygamy is a sin with the Biblical stuff is misleading, because it makes it sound like the Biblical reading was the most important of the four rationales I gave, whereas it’s simply the one I wanted to get out of the way.

      3. That’s my bad on “I’m not sure how religious pluralism is such a bad thing.” What I should have said was, “I’m not sure how the state’s formal recognition of the religious pluralism existing among its subjects is such a bad thing,” which is what I meant. (I would still argue for my original claim, but it’s not relevant in the context of my entry.)

      4. I am very preoccupied with morality, but I will always dismiss speculation. I cannot imagine how a person could act morally if they were basing their actions on stuff they made up or random things they posit with woefully insufficient information.

      5. Gilbert, I’m a bit disappointed that you didn’t recognize me this time! I thought the dismissal of systematic theology and the rampant liberalism would tip you off again.

  • Anonymous

    I’m again rather split. I find the polyamory response intellectually vapid, mostly ignoring the relevant arguments and their foundations. On the other hand, the euthanasia response is an intellectually respectable slight of question.

    The biggest problem for picking Christian/atheist is twofold. First, if I find a response intellectually vapid, I don’t weigh the directionality of the broad argumentation very high. Nuances and cohesiveness to expected beliefs just don’t mean much. Second, by shifting the euthanasia question, the author is able to speak mostly just about contextualization… which is almost always a common ground. That leaves me with isolated and peculiar notes. I’m calling atheist on this one for three reasons:

    1) Religious pluralism. This bites a really big bullet. A person would need to either be quite intellectually shallow or quite intellectually deep to feel comfortable biting this bullet while continuing to label himself Christian.

    2) “I could give similar answers for any Bible verse you offered.” Again, either incredibly naive and overconfident or far more familiar with the topic than comes across. Most Christians can imagine interesting biblical argumentation that they’re not able to trivially dismiss.

    3) “…full rational faculties… fully rational one… rational agency…” I imagine the word choice is naturally likely to be different for many Christians. Maybe cognitive… but likely something that can account for the author’s preoccupation with morality (especially since there are strong strains of plurality/relativism floating around).

    • EMMilco

      re: (3), Christians use “rational faculties” etc. quite a lot. The sort of Christian who embraces religious pluralism, maybe less so.

    • Author here.

      Re 1: Quoting my reply to Gilbert: “That’s my bad on ‘I’m not sure how religious pluralism is such a bad thing.’ What I should have said was, ‘I’m not sure how the state’s formal recognition of the religious pluralism existing among its subjects is such a bad thing,’ which is what I meant. (I would still argue for my original claim, but it’s not relevant in the context of my entry.)”
      Re 2: Or I have been trained in critical reading skills (English Master’s student) and Biblical exegesis (Religious Studies minor, took courses in the Bible), and have argued with lots of people about the Bible, and so if I am overconfident, it’s at least not irrationally so. Or I spent quite some time Googling Christian opposition to polygamy, read every single Bible verse quoted, and only made that claim after assuring myself that I thought every single one of these oppositions misread the Bible, and I could support my opinion if pressed. But I don’t want you to think that I’m dismissing other interpretations as trivial: I just didn’t have space to address them all, and didn’t think that work would be as interesting as talking about what a polygamous morality might look like.
      Re 3: I picked up that word from Unequally Yoked and its commentariat.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I voted likely atheist, mainly because the only people I’ve ever heard argue for euthanasia were light agnostics. I really think Leah needs to separate the three essays- if it was on polygamy alone, I’d consider it likely Christian, because many, many Christians of my generation are uncomfortable with gay marriage, but think that the activists have a point that civil marriage being linked to sacramental or religious marriage breaks the first amendment, and in the long run, that’s where this argument for polygamy comes from.

  • Slow Learner

    Torn between “Atheist” and “Unorthodox Christian who hasn’t shown their workings”.
    I lumped for atheist, because I assumed an unorthodox Christian reading this blog would be aware of how many Catholics frequent it and thus of whose orthodoxy they are likely to be judged against, and adjusted their answer accordingly.

    • LeahLibresco

      Christians answer honestly in this round. They don’t adjust their answers to match the other entrants.

      • Slow Learner

        Yes, but if I were a Christian answering this, I wouldn’t want a plurality of Christians to think I wasn’t one! Likewise I would be most upset if a majority of atheists were to call my answer “likely Christian”.

        • Martha O’Keeffe

          I’m a bit amused by the notion that I constitute part of a Catholic Inquisition (oh come on, you knew I was going there) on Leah’s blog. Yeah, I’m sitting here with my Nun-Issued Knuckle-Smacking Ruler shaking my rosary beads at the screen if I judge your answer is insufficiently orthodox or rigorous 🙂