Tuesday, March 13, 2012

John Loftus "reproves" Christianity.

Our new e-book, True Reason, just came out yesterday, and already John Loftus, the target of one of my chapters, has responded. To give them credit, they do rise early in Indiana.  (Pity their governor isn't on the Republican ticket -- but 'nother topic, 'nother day.)

So let me match that, and show why John's "Outsider Test for Faith" may "reprove" Christianity rhetorically, in the sense of attempting to show it is wrong, but actually "re-proves" Christianity, in the sense of showing again why it is intellectually fitting that so much of the world has flocked to the banner of Christ.

A new book has hit the #2 spot of atheism categorized books on Amazon, True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism eds., Carson Weitnauer and Tom Gilson. The reason I was interested in looking at it was because David Marshall has a chapter in it on my Outsider Test for Faith (OTF). I wanted to see if Marshall did any better in his chapter for this book than what I saw on his blog which I subsequently reviewed in 4 parts. [Warning: Spoiler Alert. He didn't.] ;-)

Actually, I responded to those earlier blogs here already.  The purpose of this chapter was less to rebut Loftus, than to show that Christianity has in fact passed four different versions of the "OTF" more resoundingly than any other belief system, and it is worth asking why it has been found credible to thoughtful people around the world. 

I will say though that I appreciate Marshall taking this test seriously. I also appreciate his respectful tone toward me, which I will try reciprocating here. And I would have to say that for the most part he gives the test a fair hearing, as fair as one might expect from a person of faith. Marshall writes in a witty sort of way too.

I appreciate that.  John almost never bores people, which is an encouragement to "keep it pithy" when you're arguing with him.   

While Marshall takes issue with the OTF on several fronts, in the end he approves of it and claims his particular brand of evangelicalism passes the test. That’s oddly refreshing since so many other Christian intellectuals have rejected it outright.

What I approve of is the insight that a universal proposition is best tested universally -- that an ultimate statement of reality gains credibility if it fulfills the deepest truths discovered and developed by great civilizations.  I don't think all the points in John's specific argument are strong, or the logic of his formulation so persuasive.   

Nor am I shilling for "my brand of evangelicalism."  I am a Christian, and enjoy fellowship, intellectual as well as social, with Christians of many denominations.   

"The first premise of the OTF is the Religious Diversity Thesis: “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."

Marshall claims that while the "diversity of religious faiths" is genuine, it is also “deeply ambiguous.” And he notes G.K. Chesterton as saying that religions around the world commonly include four beliefs: in "God, the gods, philosophy, and demons." I’m not sure what philosophy has to do with this but yes, if we define a religious faith then it includes the belief in supernatural forces and/or beings. The diversity comes when defining their characteristics and qualities, which is the point. The diversity is about distinctive religious faiths spread into geographically distinct areas around the globe, not that religions by definition believe in supernatural forces and/or beings, which is obvious.

John is simplifying Chesterton's argument, here.  Chesterton noted that four elements, not one, seem to be universal.  (One could probably set the number higher, especially if you include moral intutitions that people around the world recognize.)   But why should we assume John's definition of diversity?  If his OTF means anything, why shouldn't it mean that the fact that people around the world, in every culture, believe in supernatural beings, makes that belief more credible than it would otherwise be?

In particular, widespread awareness of the Supreme God in non-Jewish cultures, while predicted by St. Paul and Augustine, was denied by Hume, Tylor, and Dawkins, among others.  In fact, they often argue that not finding a universal concept of God is evidence he doesn't exist.  Chesterton knew better. He had been reading Andrew Lang's The Making of Religion, and he was aware of the fact that a clear, fairly consistent concept of God could be found among hundreds of peoples, on all inhabited continents.

And that, even by Dawkins' logic, should make theism more credible.   

The second premise is the Religious Dependency Thesis: "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."

Marshall says this is not obvious since many of us live in pluralistic cultures. He says cultural dependence is not overwhelming but nonetheless he admits, it “is real.” Now this depends on what we consider to be a culture. For a boy who is home schooled by snake handlers or a girl raised by KKK parents those are the only cultures they know. This is the smallest level of culture, one’s immediate family and relatives. And although the internet allows different perspectives to be heard, some countries limit what the people in their countries can access. There are many Christians who don’t have any friends or relatives who are not Christians themselves. But the fact is that the culture we are a part of greatly influences what we think.

John is really conceding my point, here: what he is talking about is not "overwhelming" influence.  Almost all Americans attend high school, and most go to college.  Most public education promotes secular values.  I say this having substitute taught in many public schools, and attended a state university.  Few Christians in modern America for the past 40 years have been deprived of the viewpoint of secular humanists. 
Join our Bible study?
Of course one is more likely to be a Christian, or a secular humanist, in America, than in Saudi Arabia -- among other things, for the obvious reason that infidelity in Saudi Arabia is sometimes punished by death. 

Based on the Religious Diversity and Dependency theses I argue “it is highly likely that any given adopted religious faith is false.”

Marshall questions this. He rhetorically asks, “If we adopt certain beliefs because we have been taught them, does that really mean they are probably false? Obviously not. The general form of Loftus’ argument is: 1) Ideas about X vary among cultures; 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.”

No, no, no. It depends on the nature of that which we were taught. As I said in “The Christian Delusion”:
The amount of skepticism warranted depends not only on the number of rational people who disagree, but also whether the people who disagree are separated into distinct geographical locations, the nature of their beliefs, how their beliefs originated, under what circumstances their beliefs were personally adopted in the first place, and the kinds of evidence that can possibly be used to decide between the differing beliefs. My claim is that when it comes to religious faiths, a high degree of skepticism is warranted precisely because of these factors.
This makes the OTF so broad one wonders why bother with it, anymore.  "What kinds of evidence can be used to decide between beliefs?"  Yes, of course, and that's what atheists, Muslims, Christians and New Agers have been arguing about for centuries, without the OTF.  The point of the OTF must be to give us some new source of insight, besides all that.  If we circle back to classical apologetics, then we Christians will take out our Craig and Habermas and Plantinga and Lewis, and skeptics can take out their Flew and Ehrman and Russell and (if they want) Dawkins, and we're back to Square One.

What I propose in that chapter is four distinct versions of the OTF that work together, and are independent of these classical apologetics (and also John's subjective guesses), and give us new, more objective insight into the truth or falsehood of different beliefs. 

That which we were taught to believe based on science is on the surest grounding we can share. You won’t see one scientist in one distinct part of the globe providing evidence that the earth is 6000 years old, and another one in a different distinct part of the globe providing evidence that demons cause sicknesses, and still another one providing evidence that the sun revolved around the earth, while another one provides evidence that hell exists in the center of the earth. But that’s what we have seen from religion. Given that religionist have so many unevidenced beliefs taught to them on their mamma’s knees they should be skeptical of them when becoming adults.

But God, I argue, emerges from all continents.  And the facts of Jesus life, and the influence and content of Christianity, are historically verifiable.  This is not science, but it does belong to the realm of public knowledge. 

Marshall opines that
Skeptics like Loftus commonly reply, “But you don’t have to take heliocentrism or the health benefits of olive oil on faith; you can prove them scientifically, unlike religion!” But who does? How do you know that electrons circle the nuclei of atoms? That earth contains a core of iron and nickel? Or even that you have two lungs? If we had to personally prove everything by the scientific method—no peaking at Wikipedia! Nothing on the web, or in books, or in classrooms, or even in academic journals, is itself “scientific evidence!”—we’d all toss our hands in the air and remain ignorant savages.
What did he just say? Wow! No wonder I say Christianity is a delusion that makes otherwise intelligent people stupid. Is he really suggesting that non-scientists like myself, who have never done the experiments themselves, have to take the findings of science on faith?

Yes and no.  Those exact words, note, come from the mouth of my hypothetical skeptic -- someone like John.

Read the rest of the book, John.   By "faith," I mean something different from you do, as have most Christian thinkers. 

I believe what scientists tell me, for the most part, for good reasons.  They aren't entirely "scientific" reasons, though.  They are the kinds of reasons that Aristotle referred to in his book on politics: "faith" in the theories of the Earth's core and solar radiation that explains the Northern Lights -- has been tested and found plausible by the "wise, old, and skillful" in our apparently competent civilization.  Scientific theories like that seem to generally make sense -- though not always.  Don't ask me how particles can influence one another instantly across galaxies, for instance. 

Most Christians believe in God and in Christ partly from personal experience and knowledge, and partly for similar reasons -- smart people they trust, who have studied the issues in depth, say it is so.   As Origen pointed out in the 2nd Century, that's inevitable, and useful for society.  Few people had time to study all the issues for themselves in his day, and no one can do that now.  We rely for our knowledge on one another. 

I find that ridiculous since scientists agree on a vast accumulated amount of findings and because in areas where I have checked for myself scientists are right.

In areas I have checked, scientists have sometimes been right, sometimes wrong., and often in disagreement.  Perhaps Loftus has not checked enough, in some cases. 

So should we be skeptical to accept that the earth revolves around the sun until we can test such an idea for ourselves? Well, in one sense I see no harm in it. As we test that which we were taught to believe there will come a point, very quickly I might add, where we learn to embrace the scientific method, and we will become more scientifically literate in the process, and as we do will come to trust science even in those areas where we haven’t tested what we were taught to believe. I would welcome this. It would eventually cause us to reject our inherited religious faiths.

But no one will ever have time to do this, except with a tiny fraction of what he or she believes. With the exponential explosion of knowledge in our day, civilization requires implicit faith in facts that we can only check in small part.

I have had the opportunity to check the facts related to Christianity, far more than to, say, the physics of airplane flight, on which I have also often depended.  But there are only so many hours in the day.  

Nonetheless, Marshall goes on to make some more irrelevant observations. He claims that converts are hard to make. Asking believers in certain parts of the globe to take the OTF and leave their faith will lead them to be tortured and killed. This is very unfortunate, but so what? How is this any type of criticism at all?

The point, which I think was clear, was that there are strong reasons why people in other cultures would not rush to belief in a foreign religion, even if it were true.  One does not need to suppose Christianity is inherently implausible, to explain why Saudis or Indian Brahmins or Chinese literati did not rush to believe it.  What needs to be explained, is why some have, despite overwhelming social pressure against conversion. 

Marshall also presents what I call the Gamaliel Test for Faith as found in Acts 5 when advising the Sanhedrin what to do about the budding Christian sect: “A Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

This is ignorant superstition. No one in their right mind should ever conclude that if a religion succeeds in getting a sizable following it must be true.

Nor do I make that argument, of course.  But John is proposing that we test beliefs by whether they appear plausible from outside our own cultures.  And I am saying -- right on!  But let's not make this a theoretical exercise, what John THINKS people outside Jewish culture (where Christianity originated) found credible.  Let's not locate this exercise in fairyland, which John also does.  Let's make this an historical test.  Let's see what intelligent people searching for truth in cultures around the world in fact found credible. 

In that sense, Gamaliel is not being "superstitious" at all.  He is thinking rationally.  If God is behind Christianity, man cannot stop it.  True, it might succeed even without God's help.  This hurdle is a necessary, but not sufficient, one for the Gospel to leap over. 

That's why I mention five "religions" that have "passed" this historical version of the OTF to some extent (less than Christianity, though) -- including John's own Secular Humanism. 

Gamaliel might go ever further.  He might note that God promised Abraham (according to his Scriptures) that the "seed of Abraham" would prove a blessing to all the world.  He might note that this promise is repeated throughout the OT.  He might say, "If God is behind this, it will ultimately overcome all cultural barriers, and bless the Chinese, by ending foot-binding.  It will bless the Japanese, by starting the schools for girls.  It will bless Africa, by ending the slave trade.  It will bless John Loftus, by forming a civilization in which a nation like America and a state like Indiana can exist, providing science, education, and human rights for Mr. Loftus to enjoy."   

Would that be an irrational argument?  I don't see why.  You might think my facts are wrong (they are not), but there is nothing irrational about thinking that if God exists, he would like to see people on Planet Earth treat one another better, or even that He asked Jesus to help us do so. 

Just think Buddhism, Islam, or even Scientology. But that’s exactly what Marshall does, who wrote: “Christianity is one of just a few belief systems that can be said to have passed the OTF, and to have done so most spectacularly...The real intellectual challenge is, how do skeptics explain the unique empirical success of the Gospel?”

Two words: Superstitious people. The fact that a religious faith has succeeded in a society says nothing about whether it passes the OTF, otherwise Scientology has passed the test. The question is whether any faith can reasonably pass the OTF.

This is just begging the question, by assuming everyone who isn't John Loftus or a disciple, is an ignorant, superstitious dimwit. 

A real-life version of the OTF has the additional advantage, aside from being empirical rather than imaginary, of treating people with respect, following Aristotle's wise insight. 

Marshall also thinks that I make a fatal mistake when I say, “At best there can only be one true religion in what we observe to be a sea of hundreds of false ones . . .” Appearing to be an enlightened Christian he claims “the first premise of Christianity is that Judaism is true. After all, the Bible has two halves, and the first half is longer. That makes at least two true religions. This principle can be extended, to some extent, to the deepest truths in other spiritual traditions as well.” And he says, “Jesus came to fulfill, not destroy, the most fundamental foundations of African religion.”

Come on now Marshall. You simply do not believe your own rhetoric. You can’t. It’s empty. Empty rhetoric.

Maybe I should take an "outsider test" about my own beliefs about what I "really believe in regard to fulfillment."  Would my belief that I really do believe in fulfillment, and have in fact written two books and a dissertation defending it, appear credible to John Loftus?  If not, perhaps I should abandon my unwarranted belief that I really know what I think. :- )

Judaism denies Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

This is anachronistic.  Christianity accepts Judaism -- the Judaism of the OT, not the rabbinical Judaism that rejected Jesus in later centuries. 

The Judaism of the OT describes a Messiah, also a Suffering Servant, who resembles Jesus more than anyone else who has ever lived.  We have debated this subject, in regard to the remarkable prophecy of Isaiah 52-3.  In any case, the point is what Christians accept -- the OT.   You can't just say Christianity rejects or denies Judaism.  One might argue that Christianity embraces more elements of the OT, than most modern schools of Judaism.

Yet you believe that's who Jesus is. Your faith is opposed to Judaism at a fundamental level. You cannot deny this.

I do deny it, and deny it emphatically -- unless we define "Judaism" anachronistically, as you seem to want to do.  N. T. Wright is one who has done very good work on this subject.  The Gospel is a tree that grew from this soil, not an asphalt parking lot put in after the ground wave paved clean. 

And the same thing goes for the many other religions around the world. You do not share their faiths even though you might find agreement about this or that in one religion and that or this in a different one. The only thing they all agree upon is that a supernatural force and/or beings exist, and that’s it.

No, that is not it.  Again, this is the subject of two of my books -- Jesus and the Religions of Man, and True Son of Heaven: How Jesus FULFILLS the Chinese Culture.  It is also the subject of my dissertation, now essentially complete. 

Please do your homework on this subject, if you want to talk about it.  Your comments on this subject are simply hand-waving reaction, with an apparent desire to wish away the whole, fascinating topic.  You show practically no awareness of the field. The study might do you good, and help you develop your OTF in more depth.   

In the end Marshall is one who approves of the OTF with the above quibbles and irrelevancies. He joins Victor Reppert on that score.

Now all he needs to do is to do it. For as I have already said, when believers criticize the other faiths they reject, they use reason and science to do so. They assume these other religions have the burden of proof. They assume human not divine authors to their holy book(s). They assume a human not a divine origin to their faiths.

John has a completely mistaken notion about how I research other religions, and what I find when I do.  He is arguing from the depths of ignorance, here.  Let me recommend another fascinating book: "Lao Zi and. the Bible," by the Chinese philosopher Yuan Zhiming. 

Marshall thinks his faith passes the OTF but that’s to be seen. No more special pleading, begging the question, empty rhetoric, or non-sequiturs. No more punting to faith or using the omniscience escape clause. No more quoting the Bible to solve an intractable problem like the atonement or trinity or incarnation. Marshall will now have to make rational sense of them. No more explaining away the barbarisms committed by Yahweh. Now he will have to explain them.

I have never done any of these things.  It is actually John, from his apparently omnipotent warren in northern Indiana, who is pretending to know why people around the world have converted, without asking them, or knowing who they are, simply presuming their ignorance and superstition. 

Join me, John, in doing serious research in the world of religions and mission history.  It's a lot of fun.  Done right, it might help you regain your respect not only for God, but also (with due allowance for sin) even for your fellow man.


Anonymous said...

"no peaking at Wikipedia"

You forgot the [sic]. This is one reason I can't take Loftus seriously. The man cannot write nor speak proper English.

RD Miksa said...

Dear Mr. D. Marshall:

First off, I just wanted to say that I am a big fan of your books, so please keep writing (I am a published author myself)!

In addition, on the topic of John Loftus' OTF and your consideration of it, I wanted to draw your attention to a fairly lengthy response (over 22,000 words) to the OTF that I have recently posted over at The response is called "Taking Over the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF): How the OTF Supports Theism, Supernaturalism & Intelligent Design (and Why It Matters).

If you had the time, I would love to hear your thoughts about this response.

Thank you and take care,

RD Miksa

David B Marshall said...

Miksa: Thanks! I followed the link and read some of your argument. Looks good so far, though as you said, in need of some minor editing. Maybe I'll print it out, and read it more carefully, tomorrow, and then give you a better response.

I like the tone you take, though, and your general approach.

RD Miksa said...

Dear Mr. D. Marshall:

Thank you very much for taking the time to look at the argument; it is greatly appreciated. And I would love to hear your comments, especially given your involvement with the OTF.

And please note that if you would like me to e-mail the paper to you in a Word Document, please feel free to e-mail me at MiksaRD [at] hotmail [dot] com, and I will e-mail the paper to you as soon as possible.


RD Miksa

Morrison said...

The biggest problem with Loftus is that he is a liar.

Case in point, the new edition of WIBA is now out.

In it, he gives one main reason he deconverted, and that is because he couldn't answer the questions that kept coming up.

BUT THE PROBLEM the earlier edition of WIBA he specifically said, again in Italics, that there were THREE MAIN REASONS he deconverted, two of which were emotional.

Once this becomes more obvious, John will explain it by saying that he was going through a divorce at the time he was editing the new edition, and also that at that time he was "drinking himself to sleep" (those were his words) and thus this all just a mistake.

Sure, John, sure.

Seriously, David, I don't know why you spend such time on him.

He is a fake, and he knows it...that is why he can't control his anger.

David B Marshall said...

Morrison: If you read the chapter, you'll see this isn't about John Loftus. It's about Jesus, human history, and the search for truth. John has set the volleyball up above the net. My goal is to spike the ball, and I think the chapter succeeds in doing so. John's faults or my faults are beside the point.

One thing John is gifted at, is the raising of interesting questions.

I take it you have personal reasons to dislike the man? Please don't tell me about them: they are none of my business.