A Turing Test For Religion

Inspired by Bryan Caplan’s ideological Turing Test, atheist blogger Leah Libresco proposes a religious Turing test to measure the extent to which Christians and atheists understand the arguments of the other side [HT: Bryan Caplan]:

Just like Caplan, I’d like to put my money where my mouth is and play in an ideological Turing Test against a Christian blogger. We could both answer a selection of questions posed by Christians and atheists or we could each write an argument for and against the side we support and then briefly rebut the two arguments the other one had produced. I’m flexible and open to suggestions.

Debates over religion have many parallels to political debates. Public ignorance about religion is almost as widespread as political ignorance. And most people react in a highly biased way to evidence and arguments that go against their position on either subject.

A religious Turing test, however, poses challenges that a political one does not. Liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism are rough equivalents of each other in as much as all of them are ideologies that try to delineate the appropriate role of political power in society. Atheism on the other hand isn’t really an equivalent of Christianity in the same sense. Atheism is just denial of the existence of God; it is not a comprehensive moral system. That’s why thinkers as divergent as Ayn Rand and Karl Marx could both be atheists. By contrast, Christianity goes far beyond merely asserting that God exists. It also incorporates many other theological doctrines (e.g. – that Jesus Christ is the son of God), and various ethical commands. The same goes for Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and many other religions. Thus, simulating a Christian who is well-informed about the arguments for his religious views is a tougher challenge than simulating an atheist who is comparably knowledgeable about atheism. Christianity covers a much wider range of issues than atheism does.

Nonetheless, last year’s Pew survey of public knowledge of religion suggests that atheists and agnostics are, on average, more knowledgeable about religious doctrine than theists. Atheists and agnostics (an average of 6.7 correct answers out of 12) even outscored Christians (6.0) on questions that specifically tested knowledge of Christianity. Though it’s also fair to note that some subsets of Christians such as Mormons (7.9) and white evangelicals (7.3) did better than the atheists and agnostics did. Mormons (20.3 correct answers out of 32) also achieved a statistical dead heat with atheists (20.9) on the overall survey, as did Jews (20.5). I speculated on the reasons for these groups’ relatively high knowledge levels here.

Knowledge of basic facts about religion is not the same thing as knowledge of more detailed arguments for and against various religious claims. I think I understand the most basic tenets of Christianity (the kind of information covered in the Pew survey). But I know very little about the arguments for them that Christian theologians have developed (with the partial exception of arguments for the existence of God). Libresco’s proposal might give us some evidence on the extent to which atheists and Christian’s understand their opponents’ more in-depth arguments; though obviously it would be a mistake to generalize too much from one small-N study. She reports that at least two Christians have expressed interest in participating in her experiment. So stay tuned.

UPDATE: Libresco describes the details of her experiment in this follow-up post.

UPDATE #2: Obviously, as in the case of political ideologies such as liberalism and libertarianism, there is a good deal of internal diversity among Christians. For example, there are significant theological differences between Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians, and also between theological conservatives and liberals within each of these groups. That further complicates the the task of the Turing simulator. There is also some diversity among atheists as well, though perhaps less than among Christians because atheism, as such, covers fewer questions than Christianity does.