Why Christianity passes the "Outsider Test for Faith," and Secular Humanism may fail.
In an earlier blog, I responded to an argument made by atheist writer John Loftus against Christianity, which he calls the "Outsider Test for Faith (OFT)." John answered me in a series of five blogs on his Debunking Christianity web site. I responded with a later, somewhat rushed post.
Here's the nub of the argument, in John's own words (from the book The Christian Delusion):
"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 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."
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 don't actually much mind John's conclusion, though I think both his first two premises are badly flawed, and conclusion (3) does not at all follow from them. But in this post, I don't want to rehash earlier points or respond to John's criticism and drag readers into a conventional Internet tit-for-tat.
Let me try something bolder. Let us consider the possibility that the OTF is actually a disguised argument FOR the Christian faith, and AGAINST secular humanism.
First, I amend the test to better reflect the true nature and difficulty of conversion. Then I show how three specific Christian teachings pass "OTF-2.0." After that, I argue that Christianity as a "package deal" has passed OTF around the world in a remarkable way, even all the bells and whistles of Jewish and European culture attached. (And that when it is rejected by entire peoples, it is usually for these irrelevant acrudements, not for the Gospel is itself.) Finally, I briefly consider the shorter and spottier record of Secular Humanism in meeting the challenge of OTF-2.0.
I. Amending the Test. This gemstone will, of course, need a little rubbing, to make it gleam in that light. Six facts must be polished to reveal the true import of OTF.
First, we must remember that most people have never had or taken time to carefully investigate any belief system. The 17th Century Jesuit missionary to India, Roberto de Nobili, noted,
"To preach the faith to simple and uneducated people and, with divine grace, to persuade them is not such a difficult affair. They are, so to speak, blank sheets on which we can write without hindrance. But it is a very difficult proposition when you have to teach men of learning, such as the Brahmins are, who not onnly are proficient in several sciences, but consider themselves the wise men of this world and the teachers of other men."
At the same time, Nobili pointed out that these same Brahmins would not even talk with Europeans dressed as Europeans usually were -- they were considered unclean. Still less would they listen to religious ideas from those they considered out of caste and impure.
Second, human beings are social animals. Since early man hunted mammoths in family packs, we have made important decisions in groups. This is true of evaluating religious claims as well: while no one person may do all the research required to decide about Christianity or secular humanism, they often assume, truly or falsely, that the group as a whole has done the research, and rely on the family or clan or tribal or national will. This also applies to those Nobili called the "simple and uneducated:" in Athens, philosophers scoffed at Paul, but in the countryside in Lystra, they stoned him half to death.
People feel, as Aristotle put it, that one "should attend to the undemonstrated dicta and opinions of the skilful, the old, and the wise." Their judgement or subjective opinion (γνωμη) may be in error, but should not be too quickly slighted.
Third, it is extremely hard for most individuals in most societies to go against their family, clan, tribe and nation.
Fourth, missions must open locked and guarded doors. Often people are impeded in choosing a faith for reasons that have nothing to do with the intrinsic value of that faith.
These reasons can be as elemental as life and death. A December 2010 poll showed that in Egypt and Pakistan, at least three quarters of Muslim respondents favored the death penalty for those who leave Islam. Death, torture, imprisonment, loss of job, and in some ways worst of all (for social creatures) ostrication, losing the love of one's family, have in many societies been normal consequences of converting.
In many cases, conversion to Christianity seemed to involve two terrible acts: (1) A repudiation of one's own traditions, and (2) Embracing the traditions of a dangerous foe.
At first, Christianity arrives from people who speak a different language, act strangely, eat weird foods, and (often) are perceived as a real or potential threat.
Even in the late 20th Century, in a free and innovative country like Taiwan, I found that about three quarters of the people I asked saw Christianity as "alien religion" ("洋教." Many agreed it was a good thing, and many agreed with specific Christian teachings, but its apparently foreign character made it hard for people to consider it fairly.
So we must not be naive. The dice, in most cultures, have always been loaded. It is simply not the case that most people over most of human history have had easy access to the facts as we do, or if they did, been socially in a position to choose a new faith if they wanted to.
For these reasons, the test Christianity and Secular Humanism must pass is not mainly of individuals. It must be of entire cultures, over periods of time, with allowance made for the innate conservativism of most human cultures.
Furthermore, some conversions are more impressive than others. Conversion to Christianity has almost always been socially and often physically dangerous. In some countries, especially Islamic countries, and some periods of European history, it can also be risky to come out as an atheist. But while atheism may be seen as repudiation of tradition, it is usually not seen as involving allying oneself with "the Franj," or "the Crusaders."
Fifth, other barriers have impeded the spread of faith.
Christianity was born into a world of tribes. Perhaps some twenty thousand different ethnic groups, each speaking its own language, were scattered across the globe. Most were at war with their neighbors. Fundamental beliefs could not pass freely from one mountain valley in Guang Xi province, or one village in the Amazon rainforest, or one tribal band on the Great Plains, to the next. Each was an animal with a tough hide and claws that scratched and teeth that bit. (Indeed, many had such totems.)
In such a world, evangelism could only proceed slowly. Paul was hounded and whipped and imprisoned from village to village, but he was in some ways lucky: most the towns he visited spoke Greek or Latin, had met Jews and understood some of his references, and were subject to Roman law. Outside that circle, man could be even more wolf to man: violent northern European tribes, Arabs, Africans speakings thousands of mutually-incomprensible languages across an unbridgeable desert, the vast, peopled, defensive plains, deserts, and jungles of Asia, and then endless oceans to other quarellsome continents.
Evangelism could not, under any circumstances, be the work of a day, a century, or probably even a millennia.
Sixth, if people need to be treated as groups as well as individuals, belief systems should also be broken down into specific tenets. Christianity invokes a series of claims about the world: a good God, Who created the world, speaks to humanity, sends prophets, sent his Son Jesus, who did miracles, taught truth, died and rose again.
The package theology called "Christianity" may be impeded by cultural or geographical barriers, even while the people who reject that package accept, or already believe, some of its constituent tenets.
With that introduction, let us consider the record of these two faiths in passing, in this ammended sense, the "Outsider Test for Faith."
(II.) God or non-God?
The idea of God clearly has passed the "outsider test for faith."
300 years ago, David Hume claimed that at the time of Christ, the whole world was polytheistic: "It is a matter of fact incontestable, that about 1,700 years ago all mankind were polytheists." This was a bit of an exagerration -- Hume did not know that many tribes were aware of a "High God" similiar to the God of the Bible. (Though they also usually believed in other spirits.)
But certainly, the theism that arose in Judaism, and then was adopted by Christians and Muslims, has crossed barriers with remarkable success. Today, about half the people in the world today believe in God in the Judeo-Christian sense. My survey in Taiwan found many non-Christians there who believed in a supreme God. Even in Japan, where Christians are less than 1%, and the government tried to snuff out theism by 200 years of murder and mayhem, when I surveyed my students, I found that about one fifth believed in a personal God who created the world.
III. Redemptive Sacrifice
The idea that "without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins," is almost universal. This seems almost to be a fundamental intuition. Red ochre is often found in prehistoric graves, which seems to be a substitute for blood. Sacrifice is central to the earliest Indian texts, the Rig Veda, (which even speaks of Prajapati or God sacrificing himself for human salvation), the Chinese Classics, in Indonesia, Africa, and in much of the world.
The Gospel does not simply affirm this intuition -- it fulfills it, and by fulfilling it, ends actual blood sacrifice. Rene Girard has written profoundly on the social implications of that.
IV. Need for a Savior
All the world, it seems, is looking for a Savior: Messiah, Christ, Sanatan Sadguru, Sheng Ren. I argued, in True Son of Heaven and Jesus and the Religions of Man, that Jesus fulfills many of these prophecies in remarkable ways.
So in this case, too, Christianity passes passes the "outsider test" from the inside.
It is remarkable how universally the figure of Jesus seems to have been accepted as ideal, in cultures around the world, even as fulfilling vastly different ideals, as I attempt to show.
V. Christianity as a Package Deal
Why does John Loftus create a web site in Fort Wayne, Indiana, half way between glacier-scoured Lake Michigan and Lake Erie, in the northern American plains, trying to debunk beliefs about a politically-powerless peasant who lived 2,000 years ago on a piece of semi-desert where Asia, Africa and Europe come together?
Consider what barriers the Gospel overcame to get to Indiana. At every step -- from Jesus to the disciples, the crisis after Jesus died, persecution from defenders of Jewish orthodoxy, transmission to Greek and Latin cultures, then to Egypt, Libya, Gaul, Spain, England, Saxony, 300 years of persecution from defenders of Greco-Roman culture, Islamic invasions, Norse invasions -- each step represented choices, usually by thousands of individuals.
Often those choices were a matter of life or death. Often they involved ostricism. Often they involved identifying with hated foreigners.
True, Christianity was never entirely an "outsider" faith. Always it seemed to fulfill deep and ancient sacred hopes in each civilization. But the barriers were high.
We should not ignore the elephant in the room -- the fact that to become the world's largest religion, Christianity faced, and passed, the OTF millions of times.
Where, today, are there no Christians?
It may be hardest to find Christians in some Muslim countries. Maybe also in North Korea.
Why are Christians hard to find in Saudi Arabia or Omar? Do you need to ask! According to Mohammed, the penalty for leaving Islam and embracing another religion should be death. This rule was accepted throughout the Muslim world, and remains the assumption (as Pew Poll showed) for the vast majority of Muslims at least in two large Muslim countries. (I recently asked a friend who had been an imam and Muslim legal scholar in Africa: "When you were still Muslim, did you think it was right to put converts to Christianity to death?" "Absolutely!" He replied.)
Aside even from that, there is tremendous social pressure against conversion to Christianity, for obvious historical and religious reasons.
Nonetheless, a Coptic friend from Egypt tells me that hundreds of thousands of Muslims have converted to Christianity there. He may be exagerrating, but many certainly have. Thousand of Iranians and Algerian Berbers have also converted in recent years, and probably two million Indonesians a few decades ago.
My friend converted, he says, when he heard the audible voice of God.
In China, Christianity was associated with barbarians, imperialism, and the Opium Wars for hundreds of years. Many early converts were also killed. Communist education teaches atheism, which is why (according to a recent study) 66% of Chinese say they have no religion. Most Chinese still only have a hazy idea of what Christianity is about, and most young people scoff at religion, as they have been taught to do.
Still, over the past few decades, some 60 million mainland Chinese have converted to Christianity.
Christianity is also beginning to spread in Nepal. In India, members of a movement called Christ bakhti attempt to retain Hindu culture while trusting in Jesus. What this shows is that while few Indians are "Christians" yet, what India largely rejected was not the Gospel, but Western imperialism and cultural forms that came with it.
Triumphalism would be misplaced: Christian faith is not an easy thing, and each of us faces choices every day. But it seems clear that, given a fair chance, and taking the real world into consideration, Christianity does not fail the Outsider Test for Faith, but passes it in a remarkable, unprecedented way.
VI. Does Secular Humanism pass OTF?
The core tenets of Secular Humanism, as explained by Paul Kurtz, involves four simple assumptions: (1) There is no God; (2) or afterlife; (3) One should be concerned for oneself; (4) and for other people. One might distinguish western secular humanism, which usually accepts democracy, from Marxism, a non-democratic form of secular humanism. I see Secular Humanism, defined in this way, as probably the leading atheist faith in the Western world.
The last two tenets are, of course, accepted by almost everyone. So in order to make a convert, Secular Humanism needs only to convince you of two simple facts. You don't need to go to church, tithe, get baptized refrain from sleeping around (always a selling point), or (usually) die a martyr's death.
Still, most Secular Humanism seem to be either (a) an elite faith, bred in western universities, and fairly rare in the real world, or (b) a top-down faith, believed on government authority. (Maybe the two are related: education, many secular humanists have affirmed, is the key to a God-free future.)
This is just a thought, and maybe I'm wrong. But it seems that Christianity, both in parts and whole, has passed OTF-2.0 with flying colors. Secular Humanism certainly has easy appeal, and a fairly large congregation, but has yet to prove it can succeed without wholesale government sponsorship.
Update: In this post, I mostly assumed for the sake of the argument that there is, or can be, some validity to OTF 2.0. In a follow-up post, re-christening it the Argument from Transcultural Plausibility (ATP), I argue that in two ways, it may indeed carry some weight.