Some thoughts on the Outsider Test of Faith

Formerly a Christian minister and teacher, John Loftus now runs a website called Debunking Christianity. He explains why in his book Why I Became an Atheist. One of the reasons he’s an atheist is because of his so-called Outsider Test of Faith. He spells it out like this:

1) Rational people in distinct geographical locations around the globe overwhelmingly adopt and defend a wide diversity of religious faiths due to their upbringing and cultural heritage. This is the religious diversity thesis.”

(2) “Consequently, it seems very likely that adopting one’s religious faith is not merely a matter of independent rational judgment but is causally dependent on cultural conditions to an overwhelming degree. This is the religious dependency thesis.”

(3) “Hence the odds are highly likely that any given adopted religious faith is false.”

“4) So the best way to test one’s adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of skepticism used to evaluate other religious faiths. This expresses the OTF.”

I weighed in on this six months ago here, and I don’t see any reason to amend what I said then so I will reproduce what I wrote. Even if we grant (1) and (2), premise (3) does not follow. What does follow is

(`3) Hence the odds are highly likely that any given adopted faith is adopted without rational justification.

More could be said about what it means to be rationally justified on the basis of testimony from one’s parents and authority figures in the culture, but I will save that for another day. All that needs to be said here is that the lack of rational justification for a belief in a proposition does not affect the truth or falsity of the proposition. To get a better sense of this, replace religion with politics:

1. Rational people in distinct geographical locations around the globe overwhelmingly adopt and defend a wide diversity of political views due to their upbringing and cultural heritage. This is the political diversity thesis.

2. Consequently, it seems very likely that adopting one’s political views is not merely a matter of independent rational judgment but is causally dependent on cultural conditions to an overwhelming degree. This is the political dependency thesis.

3. Hence the odds are highly likely that any given set of adopted political views is false.

4. So the best way to test one’s adopted political views is from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of skepticism used to evaluate other political views.

But again, (3) does not follow. It may be true that as an American, whose first childhood memories of American politics were the speeches of Ronald Reagan, I adopted the view that Democracy was superior to Communism for overwhelmingly cultural reasons. Perhaps it is true that I was not warranted in believing my views were superior, because I had not been tested by an outsider. However, many living within the Communist systems of the day also adopted my views, and the eventually the day came when those Communist systems fell. Loftus should not find any of this controversial, because he sees himself as someone like those communist dissidents. He came to see that his religious beliefs were false from the inside as the dissidents did. However, atheists outside the faith who were simply raised in a culture of unbelief are, according to his test, like me believing the superiority of Democracy, because I was raised as an American during the Reagan era. According to his test, such atheists are not rationally justified.

However, as we have seen, insiders can test their cultural assumptions. The dissidents were able to do this without having to think like an American who grew up during the Reagan era. Loftus seems to have done this with regard to the existence of God, while Atony Flew has done this with regard to the nonexistence of God. The point is that insiders are privy to perspectives that outsiders are not, and are able to see weaknesses in their views better than those on the outside. This seems entirely plausible to me. The OTF, therefore, is neither necessary nor sufficient to properly test one’s beliefs.

Nevertheless, testing one’s religious beliefs is a sign of intellectual maturity. Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest detail the development of intellectual maturity in four stages.

(1) As we become aware of religions, philosophies, and theologies, we can think and speak of them fairly.

(2) Then we grow in an ability to evaluate alternative doctrines objectively by reliable criteria for truth.

(3) Mature persons do not remain in an undecided state but decide in favor of the most coherent account of the relevant data with the fewest difficulties.

(4) Having personally accepted a well-founded conviction, the grow in their ability to live by it authentically, state it clearly, defend it adequately, and communicate it effectively.

This seems to be a much better way to test one’s beliefs than to take on the assumptions of an (ignorant?) outsider or the “presumption of skepticism” as such a method doesn’t require a sufficient amount of intellectual virtue to properly test one’s beliefs.

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