"The Outsider Test for Faith:" Where John Loftus goes wrong.
John Loftus is a popular atheist writer, a former student of William Lane Craig who edited the book The Christian Delusion. John kindly send me a pre-publication copy of his book. I found myself in strong disagreement with some of the contents, so rather than recommend the book, I bought my own copy and critiqued it. (See my disputes with Hector Avalos and Richard Carrier over the role of Christianity in Nazism and science on the christthetao.com web site, and the ongoing debate with Avalos in earlier blogs here.)
In this blog, I'll challenge John's prize argument, in chapter 4, "The "Outsider Test for Faith Revisited." This is an argument John promotes with all the pride of Thomas Edison showing off his new light bulb; and with some results, apparently. I'll begin by questioning his assumptions about faith. Then I'll examine his "Outsider Test," and explain why it does not work as an argument against Christianity, though it might work as paraphrase of the truism that one should be intellectually fair to beliefs one does not share. Finally I'll critique other assumptions John makes in his essay.
I. Faith? John begins his chapter with a comment about faith that those who have read my books will know I can't pass by in silence:
"The most important question of all when it comes to assessing the truth claims of Christian theism (or religion in general) is whether we should approach the available evidence through the eyes of faith or with skepticism."
In Christian thinking, "faith" is not something that is opposed to reason, as Loftus does here. As far back as Judges, Gideon conducts a rational experiment in faith: "If You are really speaking, God, make the dew rest on this cloth, and everything around it remain dry." As I show in my "Gullible Dweebs?" posts, the first Christians also came to faith in part through skepticism. I have also shown, in "Faith and Reason," that Christian thinkers down through the centuries have usually understood faith and reason as complementary, not locked in some zero-sum battle to the death.
This fundamental misundertanding about "faith" undermines Loftus' chapter, and permeates what skeptics who buy his argument say about the matter. Here, for example, is a recent comment on Loftus' blog:
"This to me is one more example of how the poor old believer is forced to simply pull up the drawbridge and live in Happyland, content with 'Faith' and all that wonderful pseudoscience . . . "
In reality, Christian faith in the true sense is exactly what created modern science itself.
So what is Loftus' Outsider Test for Faith?
II. An Outline of Loftus' Argument. John summarizes his argument in four points. I'll quote each point, offering preliminary responses to each point as I go along. This is not quite fair, because Loftus expands and defends these points later -- but a blog is a blog, not a journal essay. I'll quote some of Loftus' supporting arguments later, and offer rebuttals or responses. Then I'll offer a general evaluation of the main question here: should Christians adopt an agnostic stance to evaluate their own beliefs? And finally, open the issue up for discussion.
"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."
(a) People also "adopt and defend" a wide variety of skeptical ideologies because of where they were born and how they were brought up. Most young Chinese, for instance, are taught atheism in school, and millions will parrot those teachings back to you, if you ask them their views. (I've heard some do this!) Most young Danes, presumably, will similarly parrot back secular humanist views.
(b) Religious diversity may not be as great as Loftus assumes. In every culture, for instance, people believe in spirits, and in most cultures, life after death. Not only Christians, Muslims, and Jews (almost half the world's population!), but also many Hindus, Chinese, and Japanese who do not belong to these groups, believe in one Supreme God.
(c) True, in every culture, only a minority usually converts to some worldview other than what they were brought up in. But usually that is because of social disincentives, not because "intelligent people" have all fairly and honestly considered the evidence for other religions.
In some Muslim countries, for instance, convert out, and the penalty is death. Mohammed himself approved this penalty, and you often hear of it being carried out in countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. This has also happened in recent years in Hindu countries, and historically in Buddhist and Christian countries as well. The cruelest retributions against conversion out have occured in some communist countries.
Most social pressure is less extreme, yet remains effective at keeping people "in the fold."
So while "rational people" accept a variety of faiths partly because of geography, the intellectual content of those beliefs may not always be as diverse as people usually assume -- G. K. Chesterton's Everlasting Man is good on this. And uniformity of beliefs can be the product of oppression in some cultures.
(2) "Consequently, it seems very unlikely 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."
This is similiar to my point (c) above. The word "faith" here is misleading, though, as may be the word "religious." It would be more objective to say, "adopting a worldview is usually not just a matter of independent rational judgment." Otherwise we prejudice the issue against certain kinds of worldviews, and sneak in a misconception of why Christians, at least, are supposed to believe.
Also one must distinguish between free societies and societies in which choice is constrained by government, clan, or family. Most people in non-Christian countries lack freedom and / or opportunity to consider Christianity. In most Christian countries, there is relative freedom and opportunity to consider Marxism, secular humanism, Islam, or Buddhism.
(3) "Hence the odds are highly likely that any given adopted religious faith is false."
Here Loftus takes his most blatantly fallacious step. Problems with this step are numerous:
(a) What does "highly likely" mean? The term is ambiguous for a quasi-deductive argument of this sort.
(b) Why is the conclusion supposed to follow from the premises?
(c) A hidden premise that might allow it to follow (and that Loftus defends later, see below) would be, "Culturally derived beliefs are unlikely to be true." But why would one assume that?
My culture has taught me many things that I might not believe in, say, ancient Rome, or among the Yali in Papua New Guinea. My belief that Earth circles the sun is "culturally dependent." I was taught this belief in school, and have never proven it scientifically for myself. I believe it by trust in my teachers. Does that mean it is "highly likely" to be wrong? If not, then (3) does not follow from (1) and (2).
(d) But, you say, someone HAS proven that the Earth revolves around the sun. (If not exactly "circles.") Yes, and are you assuming that no one has rationally demonstrated the truth of the religious belief system in which I was raised? I disagree. Maybe I am wrong, but the analogy derails us from the Outsider Test into conventional apologetics. If there is good reason to believe the Christian faith, then the Outsider Test is invalid as an argument against it. If there is no such reason, then the Outsider Test is unneeded.
(e) Since atheist belief systems are ALSO culturally dependent, does Loftus think it is "highly likely" that they are false, too?
(f) All in all, this is simply a non sequitur. The conclusion does not follow from the premises. (Even if the premises were clear and plausible.)
"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."
It seems there may be an even bigger problem with Loftus' argument than those mentioned above. This is a failure to understand how religions relate to one another.
This is a topic I've written a lot about. My first book, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, and second, Jesus and the Religions of Man, both present a radically different perspective on how Christianity relates to non-Christian religions than the one Loftus seems to take for granted. I'm now finishing a doctorate on the same subject.
How to put this succinctly?
Religion, in the best Christian thinking, is not a zero-sum game.
The religions of the world are not like so many fruits in the market, from which (having only one dollar) you must choose a single item, and leave the rest.
Jesus said, "Don't think I've come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. I have not come to abolition, but to fulfill." (Mt. 5: 17) This applies, I have argued, not only to Judaism, but to the deepest truths in other spiritual traditions as well.
In other fields, too, the best test of a new theory is not whether it completely displaces prior theories, but whether it incorporates whatever truth is to be found in them. Kepler didn't refute the idea that the planets revolve around the sun. He built on the discovers of prior astronomers, and refined them. Einstein didn't render Newton's model of gravitation useless. He showed that it was a special case, still useful for everyday observation.
It is a singularly "fundamentalist" way of thinking, that one must choose one religion, and discard the rest. In some cases, one must make choices. Either God is one, many, or not at all. But one doesn't need to choose between Yahweh, Elohim, theos, Allah, and Shang Di: the one only-existing Creator God is recognizable under many aliases.
So much for theism. When it comes to specifically Christian doctrines, Loftus' argument seems to ring even more hollow.
Why should we deny that Jesus died for the sins of the world, because some people in Sichuan Province or Uttar Pradesh never heard about it, or don't immediately recognize its truth when they do? The West took hundreds of years to come around -- why not give the Chinese and Indians time to mull things over, like a mustard seed that grows into a tree and gives shelter to many birds, to which Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven?
Why should we doubt that Jesus rose from the dead, because we first heard about it in Sunday School? We may be told about planets in Monday school. If either belief is untrue, sure, discard it. But in the interum, why should the assumption that our teachers (any day of the week) were ignorant be the default position?
Summary: So is it wise to adopt an agnostic position as we evaluate the religious faith we belong to, and were perhaps raised in?
I admit for me this question is a little academic. Although I grew up in a Christian home, and have never left the faith, all my life I've been surrounded by the writings and ideas of (in particular) atheists, Buddhists, and Taoists. Like Joni Mitchell, I think I do see clouds from both sides, now -- reading atheist books, I often feel like the wrinkled old lady in the first pew who can sing all the hymns by heart.
My wife was raised Buddhist and converted to Christianity in her twenties.
On balance, the act of stepping outside oneself and reconsidering one's beliefs may be helpful at some stages of our journey. I think people of different beliefs will almost always learn a great deal by extending themselves in that way. But when we do, what should we look for?
Look for, not one religion that is as right and rigid as crystal, and all the others totally wrong. Instead, look for something alive. Look for a map of reality that takes into account miracles (sorry, they do happen!) as well as mice. Look for a map that puts God in heaven (as we have known, for thousands of years), and follows a good guru, who loves the poor, feeds the hungry, and loves women in a holy manner. Try to incorporate primitive insights about sacrifice and redeem them.
Additional problems. Loftus makes some good points in the chapter as a whole, and his tone is generally reasonable. I gave the chapter three stars out of five in my Amazon review. While we're doing the debunking, though, let me offer constructive criticism of some other points later in the chapter:
"We swim in a Christian culture. It's hard to argue Christians out of their faith because they were never argued into it in the first place. Elsewhere, Eller has argued that 'nothing is more destructive to religion than other religions.'" (82)
This is doubtful on three counts. First, many Christians were "argued into" their faith, including many who grew up in Christian homes. (I doubted quite a bit. What important argument for atheism does not occur spontaneously to a thoughtful young person? C. S. Lewis and others in effect argued me into a faith I already held.)
Second, my impression is that those who convert from argument are usually harder rather than easier to deconvert.
Third, Eller is wrong in his sociology. In fact, India, likely the most religious country in the world, is also among its most diverse. Religions have vied with one another there for thousands of years. In Nigeria, Christians and Muslims are about evenly divided, with some animists -- and I am told almost everyone believes in God. In Singapore, large numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Free-Thinkers,and Muslims do not destroy religious faith, but create a "hot-house" atmosphere where a variety of religions thrive. The same seems true of Taiwan and Hong Kong, where I lived for some six years altogether.
In fact, Eller seems exactly wrong: as sociologist of religion Rodney Stark argues, the more competition there is in religion, the healthier for religion the market seems to become.
"When it comes to religious faith, an overwhelming number of believers adopt and defend what they were raised to believe by their parents in their respective cultures." (83)
True, usually, more or less. Religious belief is often tied to tribal identity, and sometimes conversion "out" is harshly punished. But tens of millions of Chinese have converted to new religions in recent years.
Looking at my experience, all four the siblings in my family now identify themselves as Christian. But two of us went through periods of doubt. It's true none of us would consider converting to, say, Islam -- for the obvious reasons. But I've met many western Buddhists who were born into Christian or skeptical households. I've also known hundreds of converts to Christianity -- including my wife, who grew up Buddhist.
And a lot of people convert within religions, from one sect to another. My Grandmother was a Pentacostal, my Dad was a Calvinist; I am neither, though appreciate some of both. So there is more changing of views that Loftus credits, especially in free societies.
"The other method Christians use is on much firmer ground. They use David Hume's evidentiary standards for examining miraculous claims to the faiths they reject. They also deconstruct these other religious texts by assuming human rather than divine authors. They adopt a methodological naturalist viewpoint to test these other extraordinary claims . . . " (86)
One should not "assume" that the Qu'ran or Book of Mormon is not divinely inspired: read them and find out! Loftus also seems to be assuming that a book must EITHER have a "human" OR a "divine" author. This may be his fundamental (ist) mistake. For alternative views, see The Truth Behind the New Atheism, chapter 6: "Is the Good Book Bad?," or (for an in-depth discussion) see Nicholas Wolterstorff's Divine Discourse.
"The Christian theist must now try to make sense of this claim, coming as it does from an ancient superstitious people who didn't have trouble believing Paul and Barnabas were 'gods in human form' (Acts 14:11, 28:6.)
Luke didn't believe Paul and Barnabas were "gods;" rural hicks in Lystra did. (Paul and Barnabas had cured a fellow townsman who had been lame since birth -- one can understand why this impressed the people who knew him!)
The ancient Greco-Roman world also contained many sophisticated, skeptical people, some of whom became Christians. See my recent "Dweeb" blog on the cagy Eusebius, for example.
"The 'many gods' objection to Pascal's Wager destroys the wager's force since we must first decide among the various gods which one to wager on." (87)
Problems:(a) Pascal had already given many reasons to believe in Jesus. The Wager was not made in a vacuum, as skeptics often assume.
(b) God is not comparable to polytheistic gods. Athena or even Zeus do not control one's destiny after death. Anyway, Greek intellectuals had already largely come to recognize that these deities were just masks for a single all-powerful Creator.
(c) Anthropology shows that awareness of the unique Supreme God is common in many cultures around the world. So it is not at all arbitrary which god you believe in.
On William Lane Craig:
"So would Bill have believed in the first place if he knew then what he knows now? . . . I dare say that if he knew what he does now and hadn't already chosen to adopt his faith, he would not have believed in the first place." (88)
Why, then, does Craig regularly defeat atheist opponents in debate? (As neutral, and even atheist, observers often admit?)
If the most learned atheists in the Western world can't convince a non-Christian audience Craig's arguments are wrong in public debate, why shouldn't Craig buy his own winning arguments?
"The one thing we can and should trust is the sciences. Science alone produces consistently excellent results that cannot be denied . . . We can personally do the experiments ourselves." (89)
Questions:(a) Doesn't mathematics produce "consistently excellent results?" Or must we define "science" to include "math?"
(b) Doesn't human testimony, when used carefully, produce good results? Most of what we know about the world comes from what reliable people, like teachers and authors of textbooks, tell us. In some cases, we risk our lives based on a single bit of testimony -- at an intersection, I sometimes ask my wife if a car is coming. On a runway, pilots may ask an air traffic controller if it is safe to land.
(c) Does vision count as science? Go to a football game, and would you rather have eyes, or a good science text in braille?
Science is based on logic, philosophy, mathematics, the sense, and peer interaction. Math and logic and even vision more immediate than biology or physics. Other ways of knowing things -- ask a travel agent, your most honest friend, the teacher -- are also consistently useful, especially when we make use of multiple sources of information, and test its reliability in various ways. Some forms of science are more reliable than some sources of testimony, but few are as reliable as math or simply logic. And there's a tradeoff -- what you gain in reliability, you often lose in breadth. One cannot live by science alone.
(d) What modern experiments can you do personally, as Loftus suggests? Do you have a particle excellerator in your den? Can you check the mass of extrasolar planets on your bathroom scale? In the real world, we are in practice forced to trust the claims scientists make for the same reasons we trust our teachers: they strike us as credible.
Faith Again: On pages 94 and 95, Loftus attempts to justify the bias his OTF seems to give in the direction of atheism, by rebutting the claim Timothy Keller (and others) make that atheist worldviews also require faith. Loftus claims in response to William Lane Craig that he "knows" that there is a material world, "and that I can reasonably trust my senses:"
"For example, when it comes to the possibility that I'm presently living in a virtual, Matrix world, rather than the real world, that scenario cannot be taken seriously by any intelligent person . . . I see no reason why there would be any knowledge of the Matrix by people living in it, since the Matrix determines all of their experiences . . . " (95)
I think Loftus is confusing a particular movie with the scenario it illustrates. It is certainly the case that some intelligent people DO take the scenario that the world is some sort of simulation seriously. One atheist philosopher, another told me, put the odds of the world being unreal at about one in five. (Don't ask me how he calculated this -- taking the rationality of his own brain for granted, still!)
I believe in the reality of the external world -- that's why I'm blogging. But Keller and Craig are right to say we can't prove it -- nor do Loftus' arguments manage the trick.
"The word faith must be reserved to apply in this context (ie, justification for religious beliefs -- DM) to beliefs that cannot be empirically tested and aren't needed to explain anything, like ghosts, angels, demons, and gods."
A Being more intelligent than humans would not be subject to the same empirical tests we use for rocks, rhubarb, and rabbits. "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." This does not mean there is no evidence -- it means that if we are in the driver's seat, we are not seeking God, we must be seeking something less than ourselves.
It does not follow that religious faith cannot be empirically tested, or that no such evidence is provided -- Christians have almost always maintained that there is plenty of such evidence. But in the end, we are the ones tested, not God.
"Finally, atheists do indeed take the OTF. That's why atheists are atheists in the first place." (97)
True, often atheists were raised in religious homes, and came to reject their early beliefs, not infrequently for rational reasons in part. But most atheists in the modern world have lived and been raised in communist countries, where denying religion is the default position.
Many westerners become atheists in their teens, when they were not really in a position to evaluate Christian claims at the highest level. And of course not all of them are in the mood to be fair, either. Judging by my experience, angry, Madeleine Murray O'Hare type atheists, while probably not the majority, are no small minority, either.
It would be highly naive, then, to assume that atheists convert away from faith for purely rational, objective reasons.
"Therefore, anyone, and I mean anyone including myself, who leaves the default agnostic position and affirms and answer, any answer, has the practical burden of proof." (98)
This seems fair enough. Let me translate into the short, clear words like those George Orwell recommended: "If I say I do not know, then I do not need to say why. If I say I know, then I should say why."
The Bible, too, tells us to be "prepared to give a reason" for the hope that is within us. When John Loftus and the Bible agree, it could be one has found truth.
"I'm arguing that the source of most people's religious faith is an unreliable one, coming as it does from the geological accidents of birth. It produces many different and irreconcilable religious faiths that cannot all be true." (99)
And I have argued that Loftus' argument does not work. First, much in different religions can in fact be reconciled. (There is almost nothing n the Analects of Confucius or the Dao Dejing or Epictetus that a Christian has to argue with.) Second, the fact that God transcends cultures is at least weak evidence that He is real. Third, just because people in Muslim countries are not allowed to believe in Jesus as Savior, and most Hindus and Chinese have lacked the opportunity to believe in him, in no way makes the Gospel story unlikely to be true. The conclusion simply does not follow from the premises.
"At best there can only be one true religion in what we observe to be a sea of hundreds of false ones . . . " (99)
As C. S. Lewis pointed out, that is the position an atheist is forced to adopt, but not a Christian. Much about each of the world's great religions can be considered true, in some cases even divinely inspired, by dedicated Christians, as I argue in some of my works. If you're an atheist, though, you have to write off almost all of what the rest of humanity has always believed as one big blunder.
"But I know of no skeptical person in today's world who would ever want to morally justify rape. Believes like the acceptibility of rape (and honour killings) are based on religious faiths and ancient texts . . . " (100)
Rape is, of course, a common activity in the animal kingdom, and is based on biology. The present strictures against rape are the result of a series of cultural influences that were by no means pre-ordained, and that can dissolve. The Yanomamo, after all, do quite a bit of raping without "ancient texts." Might it have something to do with sex?
"Most Christian thinkers from Tertullian to Luther to William Lane Craig have all disparaged reason in favor of faith." (102)
Faith, by my definition (inspired by what Christian thinkers have actually said about the subject for thousands of years, rather than silly modern myths), means "Holding to and acting on what you have good reason to believe is true." By that definition, reason is an intrinsic part of faith.
In any case, it is suspicious that two of Loftus' three examples are the same that Dawkins gives -- Luther and Tertullian. Alister McGrath has shown that the famous Tertullian quote that purports to prove he did this is taken out of context. (Dawkins' God, 99-101)
But perhaps John can cite the exact words William Lane Craig, his old teacher, used to "disparage reason." It would be good to have this claim in context.