Could You Pass as Your Ideological Opponent?

I read with dismay this story about town hall meetings, which have gotten more contentious in recent years.

So what happened to the town hall?

…[T]he tools of citizenship and activism have changed with the advent of YouTube and new, more aggressive strategies from activist groups on both sides. Somehow, an event that was once all about listening has become all about shouting. It now counts as a defeat if one’s opponent is allowed to make a point in peace.

Incidentally, the comments prove the article’s point.

By contrast, consider the Ideological Turing Test. A group of atheists and a group of Christians were asked to answer questions anonymously (e.g. what’s your best reason for being a Christian/an atheist?). The goal was to pass themselves off as members of the other group. Through open voting, readers tried to discern whether “person #6” was an atheist posing as a Christian or a Christian speaking as herself, and vice versa for the atheist questions.

The responses and results are fascinating and fun. I haven’t crunched all the numbers or read everything on the site, which is not scientific, it should be said. But I did note that in the atheist contest, the top three people identified as atheists were actually Christians. In other words, the Christians were able to represent the atheist point of view well enough to fool the audience.

I’m not sure what to make of that. My initial thought is that doubt in God is actually a component of religious faith, not the antithesis to it, so it’s not hard for a self-reflective Christian to put on that point of view. Or maybe we just fake sincerity really well? (It’s a joke. No pile-ons.) There were also atheists that were able to “pass” as Christian, but not as many as the other way around. But numbers aside… what a cool experiment.

Adam Hamilton, a pastor whom I admire greatly, did a sermon series several years ago on world religions. The purpose was to build respect and see what Christians could learn from other forms of religious piety. He interviewed interfaith leaders in his community and even included video of these leaders in the service. He said his goal was not to build a straw man to knock down, but to represent the other religion’s point of view so accurately that those religious leaders could sit in the front row of his church and say, Yes, that is who we are.

It’s the Atticus Finch thing: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” I do that sometimes as an intellectual exercise, when I hear something on the news that really ticks me off: What might lead a person to come to that conclusion? But it’s hard work, and I don’t do it enough.

We don’t do it enough.

But we could. And the world would be a thousand times better place.

Fewer Angry McShoutertons, please.

More Adam Hamiltons and Ideological Turing Tests.

– – – –

footnote: the original turing test


8 thoughts on “Could You Pass as Your Ideological Opponent?

  1. anne says:

    this isn’t a comment on today’s post, but a request for the topic of tomorrow’s post. our small group is looking for a non-treacly, thought-provoking book to enjoy together over the coming months. perhaps you could post some great suggestions here.

    over the years i’ve read a number of books that you’ve suggested and i don’t think i’ve ever been disappointed, but i’ve always read them on my own, not as a part of a small group. looking forward to what you might suggest.

  2. When I was in high school, my Jewish youth group did a “mock trial” about the Holocaust. I was one of the attorneys defending the Nazis. Afterwards, I had a couple of people come up to me and my partner and confide that we had made our case so much better than The Jewish People attorneys, but the jurors understandably felt they couldn’t exactly vote that way as part of the trial itself.

    • MaryAnn says:

      Interesting… were you proud or horrified or…?

      • Correction: a couple of decades fuzzed my memory; I actually defended the Soviet Union against a charge of crimes against the Jewish people.

        I was fascinated and saddened that my opposing legal team was so unable to to support their position. It was also very useful for me to attempt to justify what many felt was unjustifiable, humanizing those who had been cast as monsters.

  3. Keith Snyder says:

    Another possibility is that the only Christians non-religious people ever encounter are either the ones in the news, or the ones at work who love to argue with atheists. So that’s who they try to emulate in the tests.

    • sherry says:

      I think it may be that the only Christians non-religious people KNOW they encounter are the ones you mention above. It is the quiet Christians living out their vocations that are hard to spot in the wild.

      • Rachel Heslin says:

        That was my take on it. Christians who walk the walk more than they declaim the talk are harder to identify as specifically “religious” to the casual observer.

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