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Sunday, January 02, 2011

Response to John Loftus: The Insider Test for Outsiders

One trait of Christianity that I find intellectually exciting is how it helps us understand and appreciate the world's religious traditions. If you're an atheist, as C. S. Lewis explained, you have to believe that most of what people in every civilization have always believed was mainly wrong. The Gospel, on the other hand, digs deep into the heart of tradition and reveals forgotten and overlooked truth, bringing it out into the open, and invigorating it with new life.

Yet comparative religion has often been used to attack Christianity, and seems to have caused some to lose their faith. I have seen the question of how the Gospel relates to other religions brought up in all kinds of contexts -- in debates over the resurrection, in the Q & A after a talk about astronomy.

In his recent book, The Christian Delusion, atheist John Loftus argues for what he calls the "Outsider Test for Faith," his marque critique of Christianity. He also often supports this "OTF" on his popular Debunking Christianity blog. I posted a
rebuttal in September. Loftus has now responded, in four posts.

There's a lot of material here, and I won't have time to reply to it all right now.  (For later posts, follow the "Loftus" link.)


What I'd like to do in this post, is (a) reprise John's argument, and (b) note a few important problems I have with it, as formulated. (c) Then I'll respond to some of John's more relevant recent points. (d) Finally, and most importantly, I'll briefly explain why I think the "Outsider Test," rightly understood, should be beneficial to Christianity. I've written two books on roughly that subject already, and my ongoing dissertation (finish early 2012?); I'll be brief here.

A. In bare bones, John's argument runs 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."

II. A few basic problems. I pointed some out some problems with this line of reasoning in my original blog. Here are a few observations that strike me, reading it several months later:

First, points one to three looks like a deductive argument. For a deductive argument to work, you need two things: true premises, and a conclusion that logically follows from them.

Second, the term "diversity of religious faiths" is deeply ambiguous. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out, religions around the world commonly include four kinds of beliefs: in "God, the gods, philosophy, and demons," as he put it. This might be called the "lack of religious diversity thesis." In years of studying world religions, I have found Chesterton's observation to be essentially true. So the validity of (1) largely depends on what you mean by "religious faiths."

Third, Loftus' second premise is neither clearly true nor even truly clear. Often (as Loftus admits) people do adopt religions they were not socialized into as children; this is how Christianity and Buddhism spread. Even Americans born into one particular religion, do, as Michael Shermer shows (most of us knew this already), often rationally evaluate our beliefs. (Sometimes altering them in the process.) In most of the world, serious Christian faith is not the default position: even most American Christians go to secular schools, listen to secular music, watch secular movies, and (in extreme cases) even read John Loftus' blog. So the cultural dependency is partial, not "overwhelming."

One might, therefore, rephrase this premise as follows:

"Most people do not adopt their worldview solely as an independent rational judgement, but also largely in response to socializing influences of various kinds."

To this, I certainly agree, as, I think, would almost every sociologist. 

Fourth, John's initial conclusion -- point three -- does not follow from his first two premises, even in the defective form he uses.

The general form of his argument is: (1) Ideas about X vary; (2) The beliefs one adopts about X originate in one's culture, and in that sense depend on it; (3) Therefore one's beliefs are probably wrong.

"Why?"  I asked.

This seems to commit the generic fallacy. This is the idea that the origin of an idea disproves it: "Guino is Italian, so of course he thinks olive oil is healthier than corn oil!" Maybe Guino's cultural bias does incline him to favor the olives; but that doesn't mean olive oil isn't superior, or even that Guino doesn't hold to his belief for good medical reasons.


III. Response to John Loftus.

On second thought, given how much there is to say below, I think I'll save this for a later blog.

IV. Outsider as Insider: how world religions brings pagans to Jesus.

Christianity is the world's largest religion. It started out small. (This cannot be taken for granted: many religions evolve organically from broad roots.)  Christianity spread, not by the sword, as Richard Carrier falsely asserts (see Response to Carrier, "Did Christianity Spread by the Sword?"), but mostly by persuasion. (Unlike Islam and Tai Ping faiths.)

The first people to accept the Gospel were Jews who saw Jesus as the fulfillment of hopes and dreams that the Jewish people had held for many centuries. They were, in fact, both "insiders" and "outsiders" in relation to Christianity. Jesus said, "Don't think I've come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. No, I've come to fulfill them." Yet he also challenged many time-honored Hebrew conventions.

So did Matthew, Mark, Peter, John, James, Mary, and Paul adopt Christianity as insiders, or as outsiders? Originally they stood outside the Christian culture, but found Jesus to fulfill truths within their Jewish heritage.

What about the first Gentile Christians? In relation to Greco-Roman tradition, people like Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine were clearly "insiders." Each first approached the "Galilean sect" from the outside looking in, and not always liking what they saw. Yet much within their own culture -- the theism that had spread among Greco-Roman philosophers, the heroic example of the sage, Socrates, and his willingness to die for truth, the moral teachings of the Stoics, and much else -- also encouraged them towards faith in Jesus.

Origen saw this clearly:

"If anyone were to come from the study of Grecian opinions and useages to the Gospel, he would not only decide that its doctrines were true, but would by practice establish their truth, and supply whatever seemed wanting, from a Grecian point of view." (Contra Celsus, Book 1, chapter 2)

Justin similarly called Greek philosophers "tutors to Christ," a term Clement used as well:

"Philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, until the Lord should call the Greeks."


Ancient peoples had powerful incentives to reject Christianity. Few people easily ditch their own traditions, and while Christianity fulfills much in Greek tradition, it also challenged many things -- the gods, popular sports, popular cults. In effect, it turned everyone into a Jew, which was not a popular thing to be. Not to mention, of course, the fact that you might be fed to a lion for falling Jesus.

But over a brief 350 years, beginning at almost zero, Christianity passed that remarkable "outsider test." By the time of Constantine, it had become a force to be reckoned with. By the time of Theodisius, most Greco-Romans at least claimed to be Christians.

How is Christianity doing today?


Africa: One hundred years ago, there were few Christians in sub-Saharan Africa. Now there are more than 400 millions Christians in this region -- Christianity took, and passed, the OTF in Africa, with flying colors.

Latin America: A century ago, there were few evangelicals in Latin America, and most Latins belonged to a syncretistic "Christo-paganism." Today there are tens of millions, and many Catholics seem to have become more orthodox in their beliefs. South and Central America, too, took, and passed, OTF for orthodox Christianity.

China: Some 60-90 million Chinese have taken the OTF, and found that Christianity passed, and converted, in the past 20 years. Most others have probably not yet really considered Christianity, or been reluctant to convert for non-rational reasons -- cultural inertia, some persecution, love of sin, unexamined atheistic propaganda, continued anger over 19th Century "Christian" imperialism.

Why have so many believed? Those I've talked with have given many reasons, often involving miracles, or a search for truth.

My roomate in seminary in Taiwan many years ago, a bookish young man with shelves of translated works on existentialism, told me what he found attractive about Christianity was how it combined truths of different Chinese belief systems -- I think he mentioned Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

Having studied this issue for many years, I believe Chinese find in Christianity something that is both "outside" and "inside" their religious tradition, challenging errors in it, but as a friend.

The Muslim World: A month ago, I talked with a former Islamic legal scholar from an African country, in his apartment in the UK. I asked, "When you were imam at this mosque, would you have agreed that a person who converts out of Islam should be killed?" "Oh, absolutely!" He replied.

My friend did convert, and left home, because he took the "OTF," and Christianity passed.

Probably at least a million or more contemporary Muslims have done the same, despite the manifest dangers, and despite their natural attachment to their own cultural traditions. How many more would convert, if those barriers were lowered? There's no telling -- we may have only seen the beginning, so far.

Can you best tell the value of a house from inside, or outside? Both, of course, are important. Depending on how you keep things up, the "insider test" can be quite misleading. You also need to compare other homes for sale, and get a feel for the market.

To really appreciate the value of Christianity, it does help, I do think, to go outside it, either historically (by studying what Christianity fulfilled and changed in the ancient world), or geographically (by getting to know other religious traditions).

But we are human, and what is human is common to us all.

Religions are not, as many skeptics assume, a "zero-sum game." (Like the fruits at the market by the Taipei temple I photographed at top right, from which you are required to pick one, and leave the rest.) What made Christianity persuasive for Justin and Clement, and for my Taiwanese friend, helps persuade me of its truth as well, though unlike them, I begin, in part, as an "insider" to the Christian faith.

Christianity provides a larger map of the world. It embraces and includes the deepest truths as known to Socrates, Zeno, Epictetus, Confucius, Lao Zi, and informed modern "outsiders" who become insiders, like G. K. Chesterton, Scott Peck, Rene Girard, Robert Coles, Alexander Solzhentisyn, Rodney Stark.

So in one sense, while I think John forumulates and uses it wrongly, I approve of the OTF. As Francis Bacon put it:

"A little or superficial knowledge of philosophy may incline the mind of man to atheism, but a farther proceeding therein doth bring the mind back to religion." (Bacon, The Proficience and Advancement of Learning)

If the test means anything, empirically, it is that Christianity must possess remarkable reserves of plausibility, to have convinced so many people, in so many cultures, to risk so much, to follow Jesus.

17 comments:

Adam Omelianchuk said...

Hmmm. Here are some of my impressions after reading Loftus's four premises. 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.

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 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 religious faiths. This expresses the OTF.

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, these 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 without having to think like Atony Flew. 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.

Adam Omelianchuk said...

Hmmm. Here are some of my impressions after reading Loftus's four premises. 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.

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 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 religious faiths. This expresses the OTF.

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, these 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 without having to think like Atony Flew. 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.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Adam. Sorry for trouble you had posting -- maybe I should set it to automatic, and then delete the spam, porno, and hate mail later.

You put the matter well, I think. John seems to vacilate between two different interpretations of OTF: (a) as an argument against Christianity, and (b) as an argument for approaching Christian, or any other, belief from a more objective perspective.

Probably simply abandoning (a), and purging everything in his writings that suggest it, and going full-time with (b), would solve most the problems with OTF -- though of course it might also ruin the argument's value for him.

Adam Omelianchuk said...

No problem, David. Sorry for all the typos. :)

Tommy said...

"If the test means anything, empirically, it is that Christianity must possess remarkable reserves of plausibility, to have convinced so many people, in so many cultures, to risk so much, to follow Jesus."

This sounds to me like a combination of the "no one would die for a lie" argument and the "argumentum ad populum," where it's allegedly true because so many people believe.

Both of these arguments are flawed because people have often died for false beliefs. Take the Heaven's Gate cult for instance. They killed themselves over a false belief.

The other argument makes no logical sense because while many people might agree something is true that fact does not validate the truthfulness of the belief. Because the Greeks all believed in their Gods that must make them true. But wait, you don't believe in the Greek Gods. Why not? They all believed.

Mark said...

Yo man I read this blog about your book notlong ago and this atheist totally thumped you. I didn't know it was possible for one person to be so wrong! Nice blog LOL

matthewlawrencealmy said...

Tom, you said:
"This sounds to me like a combination of the "no one would die for a lie" argument and the "argumentum ad populum," where it's allegedly true because so many people believe.

Both of these arguments are flawed because people have often died for false beliefs. Take the Heaven's Gate cult for instance. They killed themselves over a false belief."

To characterize his argument this way seems to be as simplistic as Loftus's premises. His point was that vast amounts of diverse people have adopted the Christian faith despite cultural pressures that included but were not limited to threats of death. Because Christianity has crossed cultural boundaries quite effectively in the face of great cultural hostilities towards it doing so, it does not fit so neatly into Loftus's premise as Loftus would like. Its novelty in this regard sets it apart from other belief systems and thus it may merit closer examination. After all, is not the scientist looking for the anomaly? What you have offered I believe is what is referred to as a "straw man argument."

David B Marshall said...

Tommy: Matthew puts the matter well. My argument is limited:

"If the test means anything, empirically, it is that Christianity must possess remarkable reserves of plausibility, that it has convinced so many people, in so many cultures, to risk so much, to follow Jesus."

Of course there are better arguments for Christianity, some of which I make elsewhere.

Also, Greek polytheists usually did not risk their lives for their beliefs. This is a contrast many historians draw, and one reason why Christianity won out -- see, for instance, chapter 3 ("Epidemics, Networks, and Conversion") and 8 ("The Martyrs: Sacrifice as a Rational Choice") in Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity.

Tommy said...

Thanks for the response guys but I have an issue with the statement that what i offered was a strawman. How so? David’s argument rested upon the belief that 1. People willingly were persecuted or died for their beliefs (or were threatned) and 2. Many people from all around the world believe this. It’s the same thing is it not? So it looks like neither of you answered my argument.

matthewlawrencealmy said...

Tom,
it seems that you were attempting to make a comparison between people risking their lives for their beliefs and people such as the Heaven's Gate cult actively inflict ing death upon themselves. It is very easy to "knock down" the Heaven's Gate cult for more than obvious reasons but because that scenario has no relation whatsoever to people risking social rejection, persecution, and possible death for their beliefs, that "argument" is nothing more than a strawman.

It also seems that you were attempting to make a comparison between "argumentum ad populum" and David's argument that there may be more merit in examining a belief system that shows a capability to cross cultural boundaries than John Loftus was willing to admit. Again, as before, it is very easy to "knock down" the argument that "something is true because everybody believes it." The reason that this is also a strawman is, as before, because of the lack of any kind of relation to David's argument. David never purported that Christianity is more likely to be true because "many people from all around the world believe in it."

On a side note, the "no one dies for a lie" argument is far more subtle than you characterized it. There is a very narrow group for which the "no one dies for a lie" argument applies which does not usually include the devotee. It is usually reserved for the religious leader/prophet and the inner circle disciples who have access to behind the scene information. That would be those who would be in a position to know that something which was being presented as true was in fact a lie. (the ones who know about the trap door in the stage for instance)

I hope this clears thing up a bit.

David B Marshall said...

John believes two facts undermine Christianity: (1) "Religious diversity," that people around the world hold different beliefs, and (2) "Religious dependency," that our beliefs depend largely on our cultural heritage.

But in fact, Christianity is widely accepted in most countries that allow it. The Gospel has crossed numerous cultural barriers in becoming a universal faith, and been accepted as the fulfillment of different religious traditions.

What does that mean? It doesn't simply and directly prove that Christianity is true, I agree. But I think it does make it more plausible, for a few reasons.

I've been wanting to give a more positive answer to John's OTF, explaining in more depth why it actually renders Christianity more believable. I haven't had the time, yet, and am working on other papers right now, including my dissertation on Fulfillment Theology. But probably within a month I'll post or publish a more detailed argument.

Dr H said...

=====
"If you're an atheist, as C. S. Lewis explained, you have to believe that most of what human beings in every civilization have always believed was mainly wrong. "
=====

Not just "if you're an atheist."

--The Earth is flat; Earth is at the center of the universe; mental illness is due to possession by "demons"; fire requires the addition of "phlogiston"; space is permeated by an "ether"; maggots arise by "spontaneous generation" from rotting meat; appropriate treatment for frostbite is to rub the frostbitten part with snow; enslaving other human beings is acceptable; there are only four elements; women can't/shouldn't be educated; black cats bring bad luck; "white man's burden"; "manifest destiny"; heavier-than-air flight is impossible; an human being can't possibly run a mile in under four minutes; tomatoes are poisonous; fairies, ogres, and leprechauns exist... --

-- most of what human beings in every civilization have believed really -is- wrong.

Dr H said...

======
But in fact, Christianity is widely accepted in most countries that allow it. The Gospel has crossed numerous cultural barriers in becoming a universal faith, and been accepted as the fulfillment of different religious traditions.
======

While Christianity has not been exclusively spread by the sword (although it was spread in exactly that way through most of the Middle Ages), it has crossed a great number of cultural barriers essentially through cultural imperialism. Missionary invaders sent into other "primitive" cultures, for example, for "their own good".

Deliberately overwhelming someone's culture and traditions to impose your own is a form of violent conquest, regardless of whether it is done with actual swords, by imposing a church bureaucracy, or as an ulterior motive accompanying allegedly humanitarian aid.

David B Marshall said...

Dr. H: Christianity has seldom been spread either literally "by the sword," or through any form of coercion. Probably more often, it's been welcomed in the teeth of force or cultural or political pressure. See my response to Richard Carrier, "Did Christianity Spread by the Sword?"

http://christthetao.homestead.com/debates.html


As you can see, I break down Christian missions into twelve cultural eras, and analyze each one. Only in two of them was force an important element in the spread of Christianity. One of those was indeed the Middle Ages, but even then, the Gospel only occasionally spread to northern Europe by force, as under Charlemagne.

You seem to concentrate on the 12 era I discuss, the spread of the Gospel to tribal peoples. I don't think you're being fair either to the missionaries, or to the tribals. To get a better picture of how it really worked, read Peace Child or Lords of the Earth or Eternity in Their Hearts, by my friend Don Richardson, or Spirit of the Rainforest, by Mark Ritchie, or Mountain Rain, about the Lisu in China. Another great book that talks about this so-called "imperialism," is From Far Formosa, which I recently blogged about. These are all great reads, and will I think enlighten you considerably.

Anonymous said...

"Ancient peoples had powerful incentives to reject Christianity. No one easily rejects their own traditions, and while Christianity fulfills much in Greek tradition, it also of course challenged many things ......Not to mention, of course, the fact that you might be fed to a lion for falling Jesus."

Sorry-this assertion is false.
The Romans were pluralists through much of their history of conquest tending to see local 'gods' as manifestations of their own pantheon. The Hindus were major pluralists incorporating diverse 'gods' from various sources-after all 'all is one'. The Greeks had competing cults and were largely tolerant as well. It was only the jealous little desert 'god' that demanded the altars and idols of the defeated by reduced to rubble.

There was also not that long a period of persecution of christians being persecuted between the 'what is a christian phase' and the 'in this sign shalt thou conquer' establishment of a state religion.

(ManhattanMC as anonymous again)

David B Marshall said...

Manhattan: Which assertion is false? You quote me making five, and then don't challenge a single one of them.

If you're going to post here, please do keep your eye on the ball; this is not a dumping site for corroded vats of vacuous blather.

David B Marshall said...

Manhattan: Which assertion is false? You quote me making five, and then don't challenge a single one of them.

Please do keep your eye on the ball, here.