An Ideological Turing Test for Atheists and Christians July 8, 2011

An Ideological Turing Test for Atheists and Christians

Here’s an interesting experiment:

Leah at Unequally Yoked asked a group of 15 people (a mix of Christians and atheists) to answer a number of questions about god and religion.

The atheists were told to answer the questions honestly.

The Christians were told to answer the questions as if they were atheists.

Can you tell the difference between the two groups? Do we really know how the “other side” thinks? That’s what she wants to find out.

It’s modeled after the Turing Test, in which a human is supposed to decide whether the electronic conversation s/he’s having is with another human or with a machine.

You can take the test by clicking here. After answering a couple questions about your own background, you can see links to the 15 responses. For each, you’re asked whether you think it’s a Christian or an atheist. If you’re leaning one way but you’re not really sure, you can say “leans Christian” or “leans atheist.”

Because it’s a little annoying on the Google Doc to see the 15 different responses, use these links:

Answer 1
Answer 2
Answer 3
Answer 4
Answer 5
Answer 6
Answer 7
Answer 8
Answer 9
Answer 10
Answer 11
Answer 12
Answer 13
Answer 14
Answer 15

The polls close Sunday night, so do this soon if you’re interested!

I would ask that commenters refrain from discussing the individual responses below — just so the results are less tainted.

Leah plans to repeat the experiment in reverse afterwards — with Christians answering honestly and atheist trying to pose as them.

***Edit***: I’ve updated a few things on this post to clarify how the test works.

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  • Trace

    Hemant, this is too much like homework! So one set of answers is by real A and the other by some A poe…umh.

  • Rich Wilson

    What does ‘lean’ Atheist/Christian mean?

  • LeAnne

    yeah, however they devised the test is not too clear. guess i’m not filling it out.

  • Slider33

    It is not clear whatsoever what I need to do with these links. For shame, seems like an interesting experiment but I probably won’t mess with trying to figure out how to fill it out.

    Very confusing.

  • Erik

    2nd for the test is unclear.
    You’ve got a turing test in which a human is trying to pretend to be a human.This idea just doesn’t seem very interesting/useful.

  • pendragon

    I am wondering if they could have made this test harder to take, or its results harder to analyze.

    I am guessing “yes,” while thinking it would take some work.

    I have to be somewhere in an hour, I will come back to this when I have enough time to look at it.

  • Leah @ Unequally Yoked

    Sorry to hear the links are presenting problems for some people. I’m on a train right now, so I mostly only have phone Internet access, but I’ll gladly take tips from anyone who knows how to put hyperlinks in the prompts of a google form. Til then, you can copy paste the bitly links I put in as text into your browser, use the links Hemant put in above, or use this link to see all the answers in reverse order:

    Also, “lean atheist” indicates a lower level of confidence in your answer than “atheist.” It’s meant to be a Likert scale.

  • Trace

    Fine, I won’t give any hints 😉 I still think that some answers were written by Vulcans.

  • She could easily design a much more user-friendly test. I’m going to wait until she does.

  • Brice Gilbert

    It was really tough for me as most of the answers one could hear people in the comments thread on this website repeat. Even if it’s a stereotypical answer (I hate God, Religion scarred me emotionally, Religion is a conspiracy to control people) there are atheists who would say it. Get any Christian knowledgeable enough in the debate and I don’t think an atheist could tell the difference. I don’t know how much that matters though. What matters is the arguments and if they are sound. Should make a board game out of this like that Battlestar Galactica game where you have to pretend you aren’t a Cylon.

  • I’m confused – are there any Christians in the list?

    If there are then they must be uncharacteristically intelligent and ridiculously well-versed in atheism – so far nearly all of them have quoted books and / or philosophers.

    I guarantee I would not have been able to do any of this when I was a fundy…

  • Carlie

    “Which answer that best matches your belief about the religion of each contestant?” doesn’t make any sense. First, it isn’t a sentence. Second, which are the contestants?
    If it’s a Likert scale, make it a Likert scale rather than introducing odd terms like “lean”.

  • I just looked at the first two sets of answers. That’s a lot of text to go through. Many of us will be turned off and not have the patience to go through it (myself included).

  • Trace

    I agree Brice, and yet some seem too easy (or do they?).

    I know, can we carbon copy our guesses to Hemant and the ones with the highest number of correct answers enter some raffle or something (I am yet to get a freebie, sigh)

    Leah, I will send you my answers in the morning, hard to do from a mobile device. Thanks for the challenge!

  • Ed L.

    Confusing? Yes.

    Participating? No.

  • Jos

    Took the test. Don’t know how well I did. Not sure I want to know.

    I do know that I let my own biases about how atheists ‘should’ be colour my decisions, so there may very well be a few atheists on there I labeled Christans and vice versa.

  • Nakor

    Went through it. Took me quite a while. Most of the answers are quite long, though there are a couple that were much shorter. This would have been better if it was broken down into smaller chunks to do at a time.

  • Most interesting thing I’ve seen in the atheist blogosphere in weeks. I’ll take the test later tonight when I have more time.

  • Dan

    Confusing poll setup, but the idea was very interesting. Most of the answers were pretty good. Some were simplistic, but not so simple that an atheist couldn’t have written them.

    I am impressed if many of those answers were by Christians, even the simplistic answers were still much better than the stereotypes most Christians have of atheists (especially on the ethics portion). When I was a fundamentalist Christian I couldn’t have written anything nearly as convincing.

  • Fun.

  • adam

    I read through most of them and I have no idea, like Brice there were some statements that made me stop and wonder but ultimately I could still hear it coming from an atheist, so yeah I don’t know but I may still take the test for the hell of it.

  • Annie

    I too found it overly confusing. Maybe that’s the test? How many atheists are willing to while away hours trying to figure out how to take it? I have spinach to harvest before dark (and dinner), so I’m out.

  • It is presented badly, but the idea is pretty simple. Read each of the 15 responses and indicate whether you think each one really was written by an atheist, or written by a Christian posing as an atheist.

    I would recommend cancelling the survey phase now and redesigning its presentation. The explanation for [this phase of] the survey, the answer bubbles, and the texts to be judged really need to be on one page.

    My plan is to fill it out as-is and save notes. This is truly a great idea anyway!

  • Jess

    I think I may have messed up my answers. I thought lean atheist/lean Christian meant agnostic atheist/agnostic Christian.

  • Chris aka “Happy Cat”

    While the quality of writing is superior to Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy*, it’s almost as long.

    I can haz Klifnoats sumaree plz?

    *Before Larsson’s fans flame me, I only attempted the English translation of the first book.

  • Roxane

    I was impressed. The people they got to do this aren’t you’re average, garden-variety bible-thumpers. They cast into doubt our all-too-frequent assumption that we know their materials better than they do, and they don’t know ours at all. I had to rely on hunches–an emphasis there, a certain wistfulness of expression there, an interpretation of something that isn’t quite right. . . And most of them knew more about philosophy than I remember. It was an interesting exercise, and more challenging than I expected.

    And I couldn’t vote against one who was not very articulate, because there are atheists who are not brilliant or articulate.

  • Michelle

    I found it interesting, but I want to know, did those taking the test have access to online resources? I know one answer had a link in it so it made me wonder if some of the answers were copied and pasted from places. I wanted a spot to mark chat-bot for a couple of them.

  • Unless the authors make themselves known and identify themselves I can’t give a definitive answer for any of them, so I leaned one way or another on each entry. Knowing that half of them are false to begin with really gets my skeptic sense tingling.

  • anon

    A few answers had links in them. One linked to SMBC.

    I thought that it was pretty straightforward to guess who was who – but maybe I’m just overconfident! Looking forward to know the results!

    I liked this idea. Or +1-ed it, in new google+ lingo.

  • beckster

    Wish I had enough time to sit down and do this. I am working my way through a Rushdie novel right now though so I think I will focus on that!

  • oddboyout,

    Knowing that half of them are false to begin with really gets my skeptic sense tingling.

    I didn’t see anything that indicated the ratio. Did I miss it? I thought we were just being told there are some Christians in there.

  • Chelsea

    I think this was super cool. It was pretty time-consuming, yes, but worth it. Pretty hard too! I agree, I could never have pretended so well as a Christian. Can’t wait to see how I did.

    Instead of “Lean Christian/Atheist”, it should be “Probably Christian/Atheist”. This eliminates the ambiguity in which it seems to imply that the candidate is “leaning” towards Christianity or atheism.

    Most interesting thing I’ve seen on here in a while.

  • Roxane

    @Michelle: Even if they had online sources, it looks to me like there was a lot of effort put into it.

    It made me think about where I was drawing my us/them lines–because we all have them.

  • Carol

    I don’t have the patience to read all of that…I am curious to see the results though…

  • rufustfirefly

    I decided not to take it when I read that atheist is a religious affiliation.

  • mouse

    I would very much like to see MY results because I marked a distinctly large portion as being one group and am now certain I was wrong about many of them.

    That was nifty, thanks.

  • Bruce

    I read all the responses closely, but didn’t do any further research around the survey or the site. I’ve never visited UY before. I checked atheist for each and every one. I didn’t see any breakdown of what the ratio of christians to atheists was supposed to be and didn’t look for one. I’ve seen plenty of surveys where instead of a variety they were all the same to prove some sort of meta-point. I hate that.

    For me, there are two primary reasons for not believing in god 1) lack of evidence 2) lack of necessity. Each answer cited one reason or the other or both. If there were a few genuine christians responding, I say call me a sucker and well done for doing your homework.

  • Read them all carefully and spent some time explaining my decision procedure. Can’t wait to see the results.

  • metacodger

    An interesting but incomplete idea, poorly executed. Please put some more effort into making it understandable and usable.

  • AteoAbsurdo

    If I hadn’t thought Christians were mixed in, I also would have marked them all down for atheists.

    As it was, there seemed to be the occasional phrase, perspective, or word most online atheists wouldn’t use. Just a kind of “feel” from the writing style as to whether the author was trying to prove something or just give insight into their beliefs. Even so, all of them could have been atheists.

    I kept a record of my answers. Hope to check them out soon!

  • Matt

    I’ve only read through the first half dozen responses so far, but I’m kind of surprised how many people have answered the “evidence of god” question with “well I’d believe in god if I had a personal experience that I cannot explain.”

    Maybe I need to hit up some local American Atheist/CFI meetings and talk to more atheists.

  • Erik

    I get it, this was a trick to get some of the christian contestants to research our viewpoints so thoroughly that they begin to understand us. Eventually, the mass conversions will begin!

  • Ryan

    Those were surprisingly hard. How much time did the essayists have, and did they have access to the web? It wouldn’t have been hard for someone to cobble together a list of atheist responses to the questions if they had a few days and Google. But it doesn’t tell us how an average and unprepared Christian would think an atheist would respond.

  • Andrew EC

    I thought the Christians-posing-as-atheists were marked by a) excessive use of buzzwords that they do not understand; and b) asserting the inverse of common (and bad) apologetic arguments.

  • itchy

    I’m with the others who say if I didn’t know (or wasn’t told) some were not atheists, I’d mark them all as atheist.

  • nathan


    I’m guessing there was a larger sample of participants, with random ones chosen to answer? There was only 1 out of them I thought was for sure a christian.

    I’m curious how the next one pans out, to see if some atheists (whichever ones they chose) are good at emulating christians fairly and accurately. If they are as well-researched as these, I’d imagine we’d have some of the best arguments for christianity all in one place.

  • Regina Phalange

    Much more difficult than I thought. As others have stated, if I hadn’t been told that some of the answers came from Christians, I would never have guessed. But since I was suspicious, some things didn’t sit right and I think I was able to pick up on the clues. There were some points made that sounded like a slight misinterpretation of a legitimate idea, but I’ve seen that on every atheist blog I’ve read as well. (Apparently we aren’t perfect or something?)
    I am impressed by their knowledge though. I know I wouldn’t have been able to pull that off when I was a Christian. And I’m fairly certain I don’t actually know any Christians who could either – and I know a lot of Christians.

  • Niveker14

    Hmm…. This isn’t one of those “trick” experiments where it turns out they were all atheists or christians and the survey taker was purposely misleading us to see how many we’d guess incorrectly “knowing” some of them are fakes and some of them are real….

  • A few of the responses really screamed “pretender” to me, but in my line of work, I spend a lot of time looking for subtext that is betrayed by the connotations of words and phrases that people use and the way that they use them. There were some respondents who were very clearly atheists, but they were probably brought up as Christians. The difference between them and the Christian respondents I wasn’t totally sure about was small, but I think I sussed them out.

    I agree with pretty much everyone that the format made this a little difficult (thank FSM for tabbed browsing!) and that it did take a lot of time, but I enjoyed myself.

  • I.I.

    To answer some of the doubts that have been raised — I’m a participant in the test (one of the fifteen respondents), and I’m a Christian. So I can definitively say that there is at least one non-atheist answering!

    More generally, no, the point of the exercise is not at all to “trick” anyone. It’s simply to see how well each side knows the arguments of the other. And as anyone who’s tried to teach or tutor knows, the best test of knowing a concept or argument is trying to explain it to someone else.

  • Dan Covill

    Really, really needs 14 “Next Question” buttons, with the evaluation choice at the bottom of each response. Very hard to manage.

    Interesting, though. I thought the answers to “What would make you believe” were the most different. I had 7 A’s, 2 A ‘leaners’, 3 C’s, and 3 C ‘leaners’.

  • Surgoshan

    Darn. I was hoping to learn if I was right or not. 🙁

  • Bacopa

    I read a lot of the entries, but got bored/confused about how to answer, so I gave up. I’m gonna just do this by keywords. For instance, one of the responses used the word “foundational”. I’m voting “Christian” on that one. Only atheist who uses that word is AronRa.

  • Nick

    What’s the point of taking this? It’s too long and cumbersome an exercise just to see if you can discern a “true” atheist from a Christian masquerading as one. The effort taken to read and judge 15 entries deserves a bigger Hallelujah (lol!) moment.

  • I didn’t read all the text on all of the answers. I was left with mostly atheist, a couple leaning atheist, and 1 leaning christian.

    I.I.: Do you mind explaining how you were interviewed? Specifically, did you have the internet and time to build your response or were you speaking on the moment. Thanks.

  • Greg

    My big problem with this is that it doesn’t seem to have been a true Turing test, in that everyone was given time to formulate their answers (see: links given in a couple of them). I would have thought any Christian who was willing to do this would have been able to do a bit of research for their answer. This wouldn’t mean that they understand the atheist position, just that they did research for that particular question.

    Even if none of them did, the possibility still makes it very hard to judge.

    I also don’t think the questions were all that helpful, but maybe other people will disagree there.

    I came away with 8 atheists (3 pretty sure and 5 leans), 7 Christians (2 pretty sure and 5 leans)

    Incidentally, Bacopa – I’m an atheist and I use the word ‘foundational’. :p

  • cat

    Accomodationists vs liberal theists-so hard to tell apart!

    I think the red flag issues for me tended to be those who seemed worshipful of science but had really weird ideas about what science does. I do know atheists who are really science obsessed to the point of being pretty stereotypical, but they at least tend to have a good grasp on how scientific proof works. If you come off all science worshippy and ignorant about science and actually believe those things, you should be rather embarassed.

  • Ubi Dubium

    I thought this was really interesting. The christians did better at this than I would have expected. I’m eagerly awaiting the second half, where we see if the atheists did as good a job at pretending to be christian. And I also want to know the affiliation of the participants, and if liberal christians were better at fooling us than then fundies.

    I’m also glad that we as judges were asked our affiliation, because I want to know if atheists are better at spotting fake atheists and christians are better at spotting fake christians.

    The entrants in this were self-selecting, so that will bias this somewhat. If someone were not already confident they could do a good job in impersonating the other side, they probably would not have signed up in the first place. I considered signing up, but being twenty-five years out of religion didn’t think I’d do the best job, so didn’t volunteer. I’d love to see this test done with a more random selection of people.

  • Heidi

    ADD alert. Bored now. Didn’t even finish reading the first one. Sorry. Not doing that much work w/o getting paid.

  • Lars

    Did anyone else have a flashback to Blade Runner and the scene with Leon answering questions to determine if he was human or a replicant?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Roxane: I was impressed. The people they got to do this aren’t you’re average, garden-variety bible-thumpers…

    Yes. I’m guessing these were all college students. And I didn’t see any of the common, extremely annoying stereotypes, such as “I’m an atheist so I can do immoral things and not be punished for them.” I thought the question on ethics was the most revealing. I don’t know how many atheists and how many pseudo-atheists were test subjects, but I’m sure I got a few wrong.

  • Norickayer

    I am not at all confident in my ability to differentiate between atheists and intelligent, well-meaning theists in disguise.

    Any of the answers could have been written by atheists. When responses used Evangelical Christian buzzwords- well, many atheists grew up in that environment. When the answers showed a worshipful attitude or misunderstanding of science- well, no one said atheists had to be rational (well, someone probably did, but I’m not saying that).

    That said, I marked one as definitely Christian and a few more as “leaning” that way.

  • Did any of them claim to have faith in a deity? I scanned through them rather quickly but unless someone claims a religion I would treat them as if they didn’t have one.

  • Claudia

    I’m having a really hard time with the “lean atheist” and “lean Christian” categories. What does that even mean? Distinguishing an atheist from what appear to be Christians extremely well versed in atheist positions is hard enough, how the hell am I supposed to differentiate a Christian from someone who only “leans Christian”?

    The test itself is extremely difficult. There’s only one I’m fairly certain is a Christian and one or two others I could tentatively guess lean that way. One commenter in the test expressed it well; it’s hard to see how someone could lay out the atheist position so well, argue it so convincingly, often with scholarly references to scientists and philosophers, and actually fail to be an atheist.

  • Manduca

    Sorry. Ordinarily I like to do this sort of thing, but it’s just way too hard even to figure out what to do.

    Whoever designed this needs to rethink it from the ground up.

  • Justin Miyundees

    I agree with the comments of how successful the Christians were! I’d predicted it was going to be simple, but maybe when you’re competent at fooling yourself, it gives you a leg up on fooling others! However, kudos to the fakers in the survey, they made it tough.
    Furthermore I applaud the effort as an extension of the dialogue as I was reminded of Julia Sweeney’s memoir when she said she had “put on the ‘no god’ glasses” just to see how the world looked. Once she did, there was no going back to the delusion, so BRAVO!

  • efrique

    Erik said (comment #5):

    You’ve got a turing test in which a human is trying to pretend to be a human. This idea just doesn’t seem very interesting/useful.

    You should take another look at Turing’s original proposal then – because he actually does the same thing.

    The Imitation Game

    Turing’s original game, as we have seen, described a simple party game involving three players. Player A is a man, player B is a woman and player C (who plays the role of the interrogator) is of either sex. In the Imitation Game, player C is unable to see either player A or player B, and can communicate with them only through written notes. By asking questions of player A and player B, player C tries to determine which of the two is the man and which is the woman. Player A’s role is to trick the interrogator into making the wrong decision, while player B attempts to assist the interrogator in making the right one.

  • Claudia:

    It’s not how they lean, it’s how you lean. So if you’re not sure but you think they’re more likely a Christian than not, you put “lean Christian”.

  • Without any sort of dogmatic world view attached to atheism, being an atheist is just a way to describe one’s standing point on the question, “is there a god?”, it’d be hard to tell an educated Christian’s reply from atheist’s reply. We have so much variety within our group, the word, “Atheist” becomes even an argument point over capital or lowercase…

  • Leah Libresco

    The second round (with an improved interface) is now open for voting here:

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