John Loftus’s Outsider Test of Faith ( Why I Became an Atheist Chapter 3)

Loftus introduces the Outsider Test of Faith (OTF) with a quote from Mark Twain: “The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.”[i] (As a side note, it is interesting that Twain should say this, given that anyone who’s read what he had to say about religion would find it strange to hear that he had any religious faith to doubt.) What Loftus calls the Outsider Test of Faith is really an argument from inconsistent revelations for atheism. The idea is that because there are so many mutually exclusive religions, their claims cancel each other out (or some version of this idea). Other popular atheists, like Richard Dawkins, are also very fond of claiming that religious faith is an accident of birth, merely a product of where you grew up, and that this deals a heavy blow to the veracity of religious claims.

Loftus gives us a convenient numbered summary of his argument at the beginning of the chapter:

“(1) Rational people in distinct geographical locations around the globe overwhelming adopt and defend a wide diversity of religious faiths due to their upbringing and shared cultural heritage. This is the religious diversity thesis ( RDVT). From this sociological/ demographic fact it follows that:

“(2) It is highly likely that adopting one’s religious faith is not merely a matter of independent rational judgment. Rather, to an overwhelming degree, one’s religious faith is causally dependent on cultural conditions. This is the religious dependency thesis (RDPT).

“From (1) and (2) it follows that:

(3) It is highly likely that any given adopted religious faith is false.”

What is Loftus trying to say? 

It is important to note here that Loftus constantly seems to change the conclusion of the OTF. In the above summary of his own argument,  he says as conclusion that any given adopted religious faith is untrue. But elsewhere  in the chapter he says “I’m not arguing that religious faiths are completely culturally relative and therefore all false because of religious diversity.”[ii] But that is actually what he says in the beginning of the chapter. And again, “The outsider test is simply a challenge to examine one’s own adopted religious faith as an outsider, with the same presumption of skepticism we use when examining the other religious faiths we reject.”[iii] So the conclusion of the OTF at the beginning of the chapter is that any given adopted religion is probably false as a result of RDVT and RDPT. But then he says that the conclusion of the OTF is  simply a defence of a more modest claim –  not that adopted religions are false but that religious people must evaluate their own religions rationally. So which is it? I will assume the numbered summary he has at the beginning of the chapter ( quoted above) is the correct version.

Watch your assumptions!

The conclusion (3) doesn’t follow at all. First of all, for these observations (1 and 2) to be a defeater for any particular religion it needs to be the case that all religions have the same amount of evidence going for them, or that all of them have no evidence. It needs to be the case that there is no way to rationally decide between religions. But this is a claim that needs to be defended. It cannot just be assumed. Even if all religions were false it is very unlikely that all of them have the same amount of evidence. Loftus claims “On the outside none of them [religions] have any plausibility. Unless one is on the inside as an adherent of a particular religious faith one cannot see. But from the outside, the adherents of a different faith seem blind.” So Loftus uses the irrationality of religions as an assumption in an argument for the irrationality of religious belief? (Can someone say “circular!”) He doesn’t give any reason for this very sweeping claim.

Is Loftus trying to say that the confidence of religious people about their own versus others’ religions is supposed to be metaphysically significant? it is unclear why we must regard people’s subjective confidence or lack of confidence about things as being metaphysically significant. People’s confidence or lack thereof does not have any impact on the truth of these matters, so why would the subjective confidence of religious believers against each other have any effect on which religion we regard as true? This would also apply to atheists who are confident in their own views as opposed to other metaphysical views.

Almost everything we believe is as a result of upbringing and cultural location not just religion

Secondly, what Loftus describes with the two “theses” is how difference of opinion is characterized in any domain that people value, whether it’s religion, politics, or some other matter. The “inside/outside dilemma” is no dilemma at all. You can appeal to intractable disagreement in any domain in order to rule out the existence of whatever those opinions are about or to undermine the rationality of what they’re about.

Thirdly, this is a good example of the genetic fallacy – that the origin of something defines it’s current nature. The origin or cause someone has for adopting a belief has no impact on the truth of that belief. People often believe true things for the wrong reasons and there is a difference between saying that a particular person’s belief is irrational and that his belief is untrue. At most, 1 and 2 only implies that religious people who believe merely based on the testimony of their parents and society are believing irrationally. But this implies nothing about the truth of those religions or about the religious beliefs of other people who came to their conclusions in different ways. But even on this more modest rendition of the OTF, which says that it only undermines belief based on testimony, there is a problem. First, it does not consider Reformed Epistemology, which maintains that belief in God is basic ( see my critique of Loftus’s critique of Reformed Epistemology here). Second, consider that any of the scientific beliefs that the average Western person believes today or believed in the 16th century in Europe have exactly the same characteristics as Loftus’s claims about religion above. Whether you believe certain scientific truths are dependent on historical context, cultural context and upbringing. You would not believe any scientific truths today if you were not taught it at school or were you not in  a 21st Century Western country. Living in 21st century America means you will believe those scientific truths, but living in 15th century China means you will not believe those things. Most of what you believe about the world, you only believe because adults told you to, or because your peers believe it, or because you were influenced to believe it by your culture. You can reduce any particular belief to it’s sociological, anthropological  or psychological causes, not only religious beliefs. None of this is of any consequence in determining whether those beliefs are true or false. This applies just as much to atheism and other secular beliefs, or any other knowledge claims, as to any specific religion. Atheism is as much dependent on cultural context and sociological factors as religion. The development of atheists and atheism is likely in society that have cultural elites that are secular or atheistic, and more likely in a culture which have certain metaphysical beliefs which make atheism more likely. Living in Scandinavia, being rich, being male, being Jewish all make it more likely that you will be an atheist. Atheists also tend to have very similar social attitudes. You can do this with any belief whatsoever. Living in Britain in the 21st Century makes it much more likely that you will be an atheist than if you lived in Saudi Arabia during the same time. None of these facts have any consequence for the truth of these beliefs.

We all know that atheists follow the evidence where it leads 

You might say that atheists are present in many cultures. But Christians are represented in many cultures as well. The tacit assumption here seems to be that atheists or agnostics reach their conclusions through rationality but religious people do not. This is another implicit presupposition that Loftus never defends. Atheists love to claim that they reached their conclusions purely through rationality. But is that really the case? In other words, the tacit assumption is that atheism is always believed rationally but religion is not. Even if this were true, would it follow that religion is false? No it would not. Loftus does not seem to make a distinction between something’s truth (metaphysics) and whether it is believed rationally (epistemology), which means he takes irrational belief by adherents of an ideology as evidence against the truth-claims of religion. But is it true that atheists mostly believe atheism rationally? It seems unlikely that they are, in general, motivated more by reason than religious people, since almost everyone, especially about things that will affect our lives as much as this question, will have a strong emotional draw to one side or the other. The psychology of belief applies to atheists as much as to religious people.

The OTF is Self-Defeating

The OTF seems to be self-refuting, because if the “easy confidence” with which we dismiss other’s metaphysical beliefs undermines our own, then this applies as much to the atheist, agnostic or other secular person as it does to religious people. Indeed, the implication of this point is that something like relativism is true, because holding any view point at all which is easily dismissed by others would be vulnerable to this objection. This means that relativism is true and relativism is self-defeating. But apart from that, the test implies that the conclusion it is arguing for ( agnosticism or atheism) is also undermined by the test, making it worthless as an argument for those positions. It is tantamount to the belief that “you should be skeptical of views you are inclined to hold” or “you should be skeptical of views your peers or culture hold.” This platitude, as we already saw, becomes self-defeating, because that would mean that you must be skeptical of the OTF itself if you are inclined to hold it.

Also, there seems to be something of a tacit assumption that all of religion is cut from the same cloth. It is only the case that you must be suspicious of your own point of view given the falsity of another point of view, if there is a significant or relevant similarity between the point of views that would make the dismissal of one, a dismissal of ( or evidence for the falsity of) the other. Just think about how absurd it would be if we said that because scientists often disagree with one another, therefore science is false. Or, because people disagree on politics, this means there is no optimal political system. Or, because people disagree about morality, there is no such thing as right or wrong. Or, because there are logical fallacies, there is no such thing as rationality. This doesn’t follow at all. You must evaluate each view independently. You cannot rationally dismiss a view simply because there are people who disagree with it. The Outsider Test of Faith then is a poor argument for atheism or for religious skepticism.

[i] John Loftus, Why I Became An Atheist, Kindle Edition (Amherst: Prometheus Books, p. 64)

[ii]  Ibid., 65

[iii] Ibid., pg. 67

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