Turing and Truth

British actor Benedict Cumberbatch is a crowd and critic favorite, starring in popular roles such as Marvel’s Doctor Strange, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit trilogy, and Sherlock Holmes in BBC’s extremely popular Sherlock. In 2014, he added another memorable role to his career with his Oscar-nominated portrayal of the troubled genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.

The film tells the heartrending story of Alan Turing, a British cryptanalyst who helped break Nazi codes during World War II. Though he did much to help the war effort, his work has been historically under-appreciated, partly because of his homosexual interests. Turing was arrested and charged with indecency for a relationship he was having with another man. Given the option of jail time or forced hormonal treatment, Turing chose treatment. Two years after his conviction, Turing was found dead from cyanide poisoning in what was presumably a suicide.

Turing’s story is a sad one filled with heartache, disappointment, and injustice. Whether one supports homosexuality or not, we must admit that what was done to Turing was wrong. Turing deserved to be treated with dignity and respect because he was made in God’s image, rather than being defined by his sexuality and in need of being “fixed.” (For some, this raises questions about the harsh instructions in the Old Testament about stoning people who participated in homosexual activity. For a helpful discussion of this tricky topic, see the resource section below).

The British Government has now recognized Turing for his accomplishments during the war and formally apologized for its treatment of him. The film does a good job of highlighting both Turing’s work and his struggle with homosexuality. However, the movie does more than just tell Turing’s story.

In this scene, Turing has been brought in on the charge of indecency. In an attempt to understand him, the investigator asks him about some of his work. What follows appears to be a conversation about machines; but if we pay attention to the subtext, we will see that something deeper is going on.

Truth or Opinion?
Given the full context of the film, it is obvious that Turing isn’t just talking about machines, he’s talking about homosexuality. He asks, “Just because something thinks differently from you, does that mean it’s not thinking?” The point is obvious. Turing prefers homosexuality, does that mean he’s not a thinking human like the majority of people who do not identify as homosexual? Of course, identifying as a homosexual does not somehow make one less human. However, because we are upset about the injustice that happened to Turing, we may be tempted to follow his reasoning too far.

You see, Turing has fallen into the postmodern trap. The postmodern worldview has taught us to believe that there is no such thing as truth, that we only have our own preferences and opinions. There is no real right or wrong, only what we prefer or don’t prefer. So Turing argues, “You like strawberries, I hate ice skating, you cry at sad films, I am allergic to pollen.” We’re meant to assume that sexual choices are just like preferences, tastes, and opinions, not matters of right and wrong.

Notice that the first three examples he uses are tastes and preferences. Supposing you were to tell me that you didn’t like strawberries. What would you think if I said, “You’re wrong!” You would probably think me a little odd. After all, not liking strawberries is not an issue of right or wrong, it’s just your personal taste. You happen to hate strawberries, I happen to like them. As much as we might be tempted to make this a matter of absolute right and wrong (how could anyone not like strawberries?), we are talking about opinions, not facts.

However, the fourth illustration that Turing uses (“I am allergic to pollen”) is not a preference at all. In fact, I’m sure that if Turing had a choice, he would prefer not to be allergic to pollen. The point is, that being allergic to pollen is not something that we can do anything about. You either are allergic or you are not. It doesn’t matter how you feel about pollen or whether you would like to be allergic or not. This is a truth claim. We can know it to be true or false, unlike his first three examples, which are claims about our opinions and how we feel about things.

Seemingly without noticing, Turing confuses the two categories by lumping everything together into the preference category. If we aren’t paying attention, we may miss this. For Turing, sexual choices are a matter of opinion, not right and wrong. He prefers homosexuality, you prefer heterosexuality. That’s all there is to it. Before going on to consider the logical fall-out of this view of truth, let’s take a moment to consider why God does not see our sexual choices as a simple matter of opinion.

Christianity and Homosexuality
Christians have traditionally taken a strong stance in favor of marriage between one man and one woman for life. Any sexual relationship outside of that union is considered errant and contrary to God’s design (See Lev 18:22, Rom 1:26-27). Men and woman were made for each other. Biologically they fit together in ways that two men or two women do not, and because of this, a male and a female together can create new life. It’s worth pointing out that the Bible doesn’t forbid homosexual acts just because God doesn’t happen to like them or because he’s trying to be a killjoy. According to Scripture, homosexual sex (along with heterosexual sex outside of marriage) is contrary to his design and does not lead toward human flourishing (See 1 Cor 6:9-10, Rom 1).

We should also note that being attracted to someone of the same sex is not the same as acting on that attraction sexually. All humans are subject to different temptations. However, just because we are prone to a particular type of temptation does not mean that we cannot, by God’s grace, submit it to him and yield to his desire for us. (The same goes for those who are tempted to lust after someone of the opposite sex who is not their spouse.) There are dozens of stories of people who are attracted to someone of the same sex submitting that desire to God and living a life of self-control in this area.

Given what has been laid out, let’s take a moment to think about how the movie affects our beliefs and behavior. Because the movie is well-made, we are likely to become emotionally invested in the story and rightly feel sympathy for Turing. Our thought process probably goes a little bit like this: (1) Turing identified as homosexual. (2) Turing was mistreated because he identified as homosexual. (3) Therefore those who do not support homosexuality are all persecutors.

This may sound logical at first, but if we look closer we will see that our conclusion does not follow. In reality, there are plenty of people who disagree with homosexuality and yet treat homosexuals with the love, dignity, and respect they deserve as God’s image-bearers. Proper reasoning would go something like this: (1) Mistreating those who identify as homosexual is wrong. (2) Turing identified as homosexual. (3) Therefore, mistreating Turing for identifying as homosexual is wrong.

The Postmodern Failure
The British government was wrong in its treatment of Turing, but we need to know why they were wrong. They weren’t wrong because the cultural mood on homosexuality has changed. They were wrong because mistreating humans (in this case, through things like forced hormonal treatment) is always wrong. This is a universal and objective truth.

This is where the postmodern worldview fails us. Postmodernism has rejected the idea of universal truth that applies to everyone at all times and in all places. If we follow the idea that there is no objective truth, then there is no reason why mistreating those who struggle with homosexuality would always be wrong. By Turing’s own reasoning we could only say that although we may not prefer them being mistreated or we may not like the idea, it really isn’t a matter of right and wrong. The British government at the time had their own opinion on homosexuality and could do what they wanted.

Of course, this reasoning is illogical and appalling; but it is exactly the sort of reasoning we get if we take postmodernism to its logical conclusion. By contrast, the Christian worldview provides something entirely different. Scripture teaches that every single person who has ever walked this earth bears God’s image, despite the fact that we are all broken by sin. This is the reason that God forbids murder in Genesis 9. To assault and mistreat another human is an attack on God himself.

This is a truth that is true for all people at all times and in all places. As Christians, we have the ability to say that what happened to Turing was wrong, not just because we don’t like it (and we don’t like it), but because Turing was made in God’s image. However, it does not follow that because mistreating people for their sexual choices is wrong, that all sexual choices are acceptable or just a matter of opinion. Christians need to call out the kind of injustice that was inflicted on Turing and others, while standing firm on the truth laid out in Scripture: that what God intended was for man and woman to join together in an exclusive relationship for life, love, and human flourishing.

Sign up here to receive weekly Reflect emails in your inbox!

Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.