Take the Ideological Turing Test

My guest blogger alumnus, Leah of Unequally Yoked, has proposed a very interesting challenge for Christians and atheists alike which she calls the "ideological Turing test":

One of the greatest gifts of my time at Yale has been living, writing, and arguing in a community of smart people with whom I fiercely disagree... The imitation test has helped me make sure I really understood what I was rejecting and, in the end, embracing.

Unless your enemies are purposefully contrarian... there is something they find uniquely compelling about their ideology. To imitate them, you need to know what that is and understand why it moves people. It doesn't matter if the benefits of an ideology are outweighed by its drawbacks; unless you can recognize the good as good, no partisan will ever trust your analysis of their creed.

And, unless you're uncommonly brilliant and perceptive, it will do you a lot of good to confront the merits of the other side.

The basic idea is that both Christians, and atheists posing as Christians, will answer a slate of questions aimed at people professing a Christian viewpoint. Then the atheists, and Christians posing as atheists, will answer a similar slate of questions for people professing an atheist viewpoint. Finally, a panel of judges will read all the answers and see if they can tell the difference between the people who genuinely hold each viewpoint and the ones who are merely trying to imitate it. (See here for more detailed rules.)

The point of this exercise is that, if you can convincingly argue the other side's position, it's good evidence that you truly understand it and aren't merely rejecting it out of ignorance. I think this will be a fun game to play, and the outcome, regardless of what it is, should be interesting fodder for discussion and analysis. My only concern is that this may be a difficult game for the Christians - answering convincingly from the atheist viewpoint might require what they'd consider blasphemy - but if they're willing to play along, that's up to them.

If you'd like to help out, either as a participant or as a judge, leave a comment here or or on Leah's blog, or e-mail me or her (leahDOTlibrescoATgmailDOTcom). Leah tells me we particularly need more questions targeted at the atheist viewpoint, so if you have suggestions for those, please propose them.

June 25, 2011, 3:57 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink15 comments
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Poll and Feedback: Proposed Advertising Policy

Since the beginning, I've resisted having paid ads on Daylight Atheism. But I'm wondering if the time has come to change that, and I'd like to know what readers think of the idea.

I've been thinking about this because, lately, I've been getting a more-than-usual number of e-mails from strangers who want me to promote their projects or give them financial help. The other week, there was one from a liberal Christian pastor who deplored how right-wing Christianity has become and wanted my help to raise funds for a documentary he was making that would, he claimed, get Christians back to "what God and the Bible say". (That one went into my "unclear on the concept of atheism" file.) This week, there was one from an atheist group asking me to spread the word about a new secular charity they're starting, and one from a P.R. agent for an indie film that he boasted was sympathetic to the atheist viewpoint, among others.

I want to do my part to help build the secular community, and I'm always willing to support worthy efforts toward that end. But I realize that I put my own credibility on the line when I endorse one of these projects, and I'm wary of asking anyone to spend time or money on an effort I personally know nothing about. (Also, I'm a little annoyed by the emotionally manipulative language in some of these appeals - in particular, the film promoter, whose e-mail read less like "We think this is a great film that your readers would enjoy," and more like "If you don't see this movie, the Christians win!")

It occurs to me that the best way to deal with e-mails like this would be to have paid ads, so people who write to me seeking publicity could just buy one. But until now, I've never had ads on this site because I personally find them distasteful. I know that some bloggers have them to defray hosting expenses, which has never been an issue for me - Daylight Atheism is my hobby and I have no problem paying the bills for it. But it would be a neat and simple way to handle requests like these, and it could be useful if the site ever does grow to the point where hosting would become a financial burden on me.

I haven't made up my mind about this by any means, and I'm hoping for some feedback about it. I'm still considering how I could implement ads if I do have them. One way would be to have small textual or image ads in the sidebar (no animated ads, I promise that). Another would be to have "sponsored posts" like some other sites do, though I worry if that wouldn't keep a sufficiently clear separation between my opinions and paid advertising. So, what do you think?

What would you think of ads on Daylight Atheism?

  • I have no opinion one way or the other (10%, 42 Votes)
  • I detest paid ads of any kind (11%, 46 Votes)
  • I wouldn't mind sidebar ads, but wouldn't like sponsored posts (65%, 281 Votes)
  • I wouldn't mind sponsored posts, but wouldn't like sidebar ads (2%, 10 Votes)
  • I wouldn't mind either kind of ad (12%, 56 Votes)

Total Voters: 435

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June 20, 2011, 12:12 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink26 comments
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Photo Sunday: Toledo

More pictures from my Spanish trip. Click the link below to see:

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June 19, 2011, 2:37 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments
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Link Roundup and Facial Hair Update

As regular readers may remember, when our team of underdog bloggers triumphed last month in a fund-raising contest for Camp Quest, I vowed to grow a beard so as to prove that PZ Myers wasn't the only atheist overlord out there who could boast of manly facial hair. Well, that experiment is underway as we speak.

At the end of the month, I'll post before-and-after pictures with the results. In the meantime, the beard is still in an incomplete state, and I don't want it seen by the prying eyes of search engines until it's in its full glory. But if you want to see updates, I've been posting them every week or so on my Facebook wall - so if you're a fellow user of that sinister privacy-robbing corporate behemoth, why not send me a friend request? My friends list is sadly short compared to some of my fellow bloggers, and I'd like to take steps to rectify that.

And you know, it's the strangest damn thing, but ever since I started growing this beard, I've begun to find marine invertebrates unaccountably fascinating. Here's a mini-link roundup of some stories I've come across that I thought were worth sharing:

June 18, 2011, 5:22 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink9 comments
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Photo Sunday: Madrid

As I've mentioned, my wife and I took a trip to Spain last month to celebrate our first anniversary. I'm not going to inflict all my vacation photos on you, but we did see some sights that are relevant to the kind of thing I usually write about on Daylight Atheism. If you're interested in seeing more, click through to view the rest of the post.

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June 12, 2011, 1:09 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink6 comments
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The Evil Overlord Has Fallen!

On a brighter note, the Camp Quest fundraising contest pitting the atheist blogosphere against PZ Myers has come to a close... and as the smoke clears, a tattered flag is waving defiantly among the heaps of squid. Yes, the once unthinkable has happened: Barad-dur has fallen, the Death Star has been destroyed, and our motley coalition of underdog bloggers has toppled the evil overlord himself!

The awesome Stiefel Freethought Foundation jumped in in the last few hours of the competition with a matching offer, which helped both sides boost their totals, but it helped us more. As reported by Amanda Metskas, executive director of Camp Quest, these are the final tallies:

Team Awesome: $13,550.06
Team PZ: $13,016.01

Matched amounts:
Team Awesome: $1,868.73
Team PZ: $1,640.00
Total Match: $3,508.73

Team Totals (with matches included):
Team Awesome: $15,418.79
Team PZ: $14,656.01

Grand Total Raised: $30,074.80

OK, now I know what some of you are saying: in the last few days, PZ switched tactics and started urging people to donate to our team so we'd have to do the forfeits we had on the table. I responded by commanding everyone to donate to his team, so as not to reward this skulduggery. And since our team raised the higher total in the end, PZ technically got what he wanted, so shouldn't he be considered the winner?

But you know what? I'm just going to forget about all that. Frankly, there were so many schemes and counterschemes running at once, I'm no longer sure who was rooting for whom. Since everyone's real intentions are unknowable, I'm just going to go by one simple principle: Big numbers are good. Bigger numbers are better. And since our numbers are the biggest of all, that means we're the winners! And (as the band winds down and the confetti slowly settles), we can exult forever in our glorious victory, and that's the last I ever need to say about....

Oh. Right. I, um, sort of offered to do something too, didn't I?

Well, you see, it's like this: Earlier this month, PZ made a crack about us in the opposition lacking "manly facial hair". Not one to let such a jibe go unanswered, I vowed to grow a beard in the event of our victory, so as to prove that we of Team Awesome were no slouches in the testosterone department.

True, at least I'm not publicly humiliating myself by singing karaoke like Greta, or videotaping myself falling off a bike like Jen... but it's hot here in NYC, damn it. The last thing I need is more insulation. But I gave my word, and I suppose I have no choice but to keep it.

So, here's how it's going to be. I'll mow my face tonight, and then after that, no more shaving till the end of June. I figure a month ought to be more than enough to prove the point. I will, of course, post before-and-after pictures so you nosy people can see the results for yourself.

June 1, 2011, 5:47 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments
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On the Treatment of Guest Authors

Hi folks,

Now that I'm rested, I've been catching up on the posts written by my guest authors, as well as the 200+ comments they attracted. I'm mostly up to date now, and I have to say a few things about the way they were treated.

In particular, I want to speak to Leah's posts on mockery as a component of atheist strategy. I knew as soon as I saw those posts that they'd draw some sharp ripostes, which is fine. I'm not averse to people disagreeing with my guest authors - as some commenters noted, I personally differ with Leah regarding the wisdom of the PZ Myers "Crackergate" episode. I expect that anyone who posts on Daylight Atheism, either as an author or as a commenter, will be able to handle criticism. But a disappointing number of comments went well beyond that, crossing the line into rudeness, vitriol, and unwarranted personal attacks.

I'd prefer not to name names, but let me say that I find comments like "I hope Adam is back soon" to be highly offensive. I made my choices for guest authors because I had confidence in their abilities, and I interpret any personal slight against them as a personal slight against me. (There were some that were even more vicious and obnoxious, which I deleted. You know who you are.)

For the record, I'm pleased with all the guest posts and the conversation they inspired. Ideas like this are a valuable contribution to the discourse of the atheist community, even on the points where I don't fully agree with them. Although I believe that mockery has a place in our strategy, it's also necessary that we occasionally remind ourselves of the equal importance of civility and productive engagement. Leah's strategy isn't always the one I'd choose, but it has its place, and the many enlightening conversations that take place on her blog between atheists and religious believers are proof of that. She's emphatically not one of the Mooneyites whose only goal is to get other atheists to shut up, and I wouldn't have invited her to guest post if she was.

It seems there are some people who don't know what the word "accommodationist" means. In its original sense, that word was used to describe those who believe that religion and science occupy strictly non-overlapping spheres of thought, and that we must never argue that science disproves any religious belief. It's since widened somewhat to include those who urge atheists to stop criticizing religious belief or publicly expressing our atheism. But it's never referred to those who merely express the opinion that mockery and ridicule sometimes aren't the best strategy. If that's the definition of accommodationism, then I'm an accommodationist. (But it isn't, and I'm not.)

I don't like having to write posts like this, but it needed to be said. If Leah chooses to return to finish this conversation, as she's said she will, I trust she'll be treated with more civility.

June 1, 2011, 12:46 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink30 comments
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I Have Returned

By Ebonmuse

Greetings, all. I'm back safely from Spain - actually, I was back yesterday, but pretty much went right to bed when I got home to sleep off the jet lag and recover from general sleep deprivation. (You see, we were in Barcelona on Saturday night, which was when the home team won an important soccer match. The people were very enthusiastic in their public displays of approval, resulting in neither my wife nor I getting much sleep the night before our flight...)

In any case, I'm feeling rested and refreshed and more than ready to take up the reins of Daylight Atheism again. Many thanks to my guest admins, Leah, Ritchie and SuperHappyJen, for writing posts and looking after the site while I was away. I'm still catching up on comments, but things were certainly lively in my absence!

I'll have more to say about my trip soon, but for now, let me just say this: Spain is a beautiful, vital, romantic country with an almost ridiculously picturesque countryside, with vast fields of fiery red poppies and golden sunflowers, endless groves of olive and orange trees, mountaintop windmills, solar farms, and beaches and coasts overlooking the intense blue of the Mediterranean. It has spectacular art and architecture from every era from the Roman empire up to the modern day. And it has an abundance of the most morbid and gruesome religious iconography I've ever seen.

Despite its secular population and plummeting rates of church attendance, Spain bears the stamp of its long history as a Catholic theocracy. Churches and cathedrals dot every city, and most streets are named after Catholic kings, saints or religious figures. And all its churches, as well as most of its museums, contain endless depictions of Jesus being flagellated, Jesus being crucified, Jesus' dead body being taken down from the cross, and so on, all of them executed in all the gory and graphic detail that the greatest painters and sculptors of the Renaissance could conceive. It's not just Jesus who's shown suffering these torments, either: Peter being crucified and John the Baptist having his head cut off are also popular subjects.

This fixation on suffering is part of a larger, morbid fascination with death and martyrdom that's very much on display in the churches. One of the cathedrals we visited had the preserved, severed arm of a long-dead martyr on prominent display. The chapel where the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella are interred offers visitors the chance to descend into the crypt and see their lead-lined coffins. And in one cathedral we visited, the tour guide told us about the 600-year-old mummified body of a saint that's brought up from the crypt once per year and laid on the altar, in an open casket, as part of a popular festival that draws families. (She related with great amusement how parents warn their disobedient children that the dead saint would rise from his coffin and grab them if they didn't mend their ways.)

Anyway, I'll have more to say about that soon. I see there are a few important stories which happened while I was away, particularly the Damon Fowler case, which I'd like to tackle as well.

A couple of business items:

• The Rapture went off, or rather failed to go off, precisely on schedule. As predicted, Harold Camping has rejiggered his timetable to claim that May 21 was a "spiritual" event (where have we heard that before?) and that the rapture and global devastation he predicted are now delayed to October 21. (Predictably, there was no apology to the followers who quit their jobs or spent their savings to promote his message.) But it seems that he's now hedging his bets: he says that they "don't need to talk about it anymore", and the new, redesigned website no longer has any mention of the date.

• As I mentioned earlier this month, Team Awesome is still competing with PZ Myers in our fundraiser for Camp Quest. We put a variety of forfeits on the line depending on who wins... and, well, PZ made a snide remark about his adversaries lacking "manly facial hair", so I might have offered to grow some of my own in the event of our victory, just to make it clear who's got the testosterone around here. Only now I see that the dirty scoundrel is throwing the match!

This sort of skulduggery cannot stand. I hereby order you all to contribute to PZ!

May 30, 2011, 6:57 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink15 comments
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News Round-up

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

I just thought I’d do a quick whirl through some stories of note in the papers this week:

Firstly, and probably most obviously, the Rapture failed to materialise. The herald of doom for this event, Harold Camping announced his shock and surprise that a literal, physical Rapture did not arrive in exactly the way he prophesised. Instead, the Rapture was of a spiritual nature, and we are still on track for a 21st October Armageddon. To his credit, he did guardedly offer an apology to those who feel wronged by him (and much good may it do them). I confess I raised an eyebrow that he’d make another prediction dated for so soon. He might have fumbled his way through one failed prophecy with most devotees still loyal, but surely two in the space of five months will be a fatal blow to his credibility? Or am I crediting his followers too much?

Secondly, a doctor in Britain is being threatened with the sack for refusing a written warning for counselling patients with talk of Christian faith. Alone, the incident might be unremarkable, but what troubles me particularly is the way it has been portrayed in the British media. Many of Britain’s leading papers are none-too-subtly right wing, and though the church holds far less power and influence in Britain than in the USA, the right still equates Christian values with traditional British values to be conserved at all costs while society goes to Hell in a handbasket. Taken along with the Christian van driver who would not remove a crucifix from his work van, and a couple who owned a B&B and were sued for refusing double beds to non-married couples, citing their religious beliefs for justification, the pattern is hauntingly familiar: religious people feel entitled to special dispensation and feel discriminated against when they do not get it. The papers report it this way and a worrying number of their readers dance to their tune. Sensationalism still works, even on an audience semi-aware to look out for it.

Debate rages over whether the world’s last remaining samples of the smallpox virus should be destroyed. The lethal virus was officially eradicated in the wild in 1979, leaving only small samples in laboratories remaining. But fears that samples could be stolen and used for biological terrorism have prompted fresh pleas for their destruction. In truth, this issue has been smoldering at the World Health Organisation for the last 25 years, lost in a cycle of deferring verdicts and appeals.

Seven Italian scientists were indicted this week in Italy for not predicting the April 2009 earthquake which devastated L’Aquila. Weeks before the quake, locals were worried by tremors, but the seismologists described a big forthcoming quake as “improbable”. The following disaster killed over 300 people. On the 20th September, the scientists will face charges of manslaughter. Many scientists have rallied around and tried to defend their colleagues – there is still no reliable way to predict an earthquake. A devastating case, and once which raises extremely important questions about the faith we should place in science and the culpability we should lay at the door of the experts.

Finally, I'd like to indulge you all in a bit of British trash. Our papers have been rather preoccupied with a story about a top, well-respected footballer, married with children, who was found to have had a six-month affair with a model and ex-reality TV star. So far, so unsurprising. But the case is of note firstly because of its legal implications - the footballer took out an injunction against his former lover, while she was thrown to the wolves. This sparked, as much as anything, a rethink of the uses of injunctions for personal cases. In the end, the truth got out via Twitter, and the police could not prosecute several thousand people breaching the injunction. But it also makes me reflect on a particular essay by Richard Dawkins in which he decries sexual jealousy. Far from being the appropriate default response for a jilted lover (justifying, apparently, all manner of revenge), he argues, we humans should try to rise above such jealousy. I'll leave it for you to savour in his own words here. It's an old essay, and the particular affair which prompted it is unrelated, but still it is a very stimulating read.

May 27, 2011, 12:58 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink6 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup

I noticed a few stories this week that I haven't had time to write more about, but wanted to mention briefly:

• So-called "psychics" defraud their gullible customers out of thousands of dollars, usually through laughably obvious ploys in which they claim the client's money needs to be "cleansed". Can we please regulate these con artists already? Or should we even try - do the suckers deserve what they get?

• And proving that corruption and hypocrisy crosses denominational lines, a Greek Orthodox "holy man" is sentenced to 15 years in prison for raping two women by convincing them that having sex with him was the only way to rid themselves of curses.

• Couldn't have put it better myself: Stephen Hawking says that the afterlife is "a fairy story for people afraid of the dark".

• The tight link between religion, education and income in America. The non-religious are up there, although it's Hindus, oddly enough, who take the crown.

• And although this is in no way related to atheism, it was too cool not to share: Google is lobbying Nevada to legalize self-driving robot cars, which the software giant has been quietly testing for some time.

I've always thought driving was a tedious chore, and I can't wait for cars that can do it for me. Not only would it be extremely convenient, it'll almost certainly be safer: a robot car never falls asleep at the wheel, never drives drunk, never lets its attention wander, and ought to be able to react to hazards much faster than a human. We are entering the future, and I for one can't wait to see it!

May 17, 2011, 8:11 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink15 comments
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