Thursday, January 10, 2013

OTF: Misreading my rebuttal.

John Loftus' defense of his Outsider Test for Faith (OFT) argument against Christianity is due out next year, I think from Prometheus Press.  He says he'll be responding there (in part) to my critique of that argument last year in True Reason.  Hopefully he'll offer a more robust argument than his usual phone-it-in blog rebuttals: argument is meat for the soul, and the yakiniku sauce is lying patiently in its little ceramic bowl, waiting for some good beef to come off the grill. 

Meanwhile, a doctor working in Nigeria, Mike Blyth, posted a polite 3 star review of True Reason on Amazon in which he took my chapter on the OTF especially to task.  He posted a longer review on his website.  While we're waiting for John's book to cook, let me respond to Mike, in some cases by pointing to things that he misses, or misreads. 

Chapter Six—John Loftus and the “Outsider-Insider Test for Faith” (David Marshall). Another weak chapter, but I give it special attention because of the importance of the question. In a nutshell, John Loftus’ Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) says that when evaluating the validity of their religious views, believers should try to analyze its claims as would an outsider, impartially weighing the claims of any religion.  For example, a Christian should apply the same rigor to the claims of Christianity as she does to those of Islam, a Protestant should be as critical of the evidence for his beliefs as he is for those of Mormonism, and so on . . .

Mike needs to distinguish between (a) this advice to examine our beliefs from an outside perspective, which I agree John gives, and I agree is fairly harmless (after all, I was giving something like it years before John ever thought of it, in Jesus and the Religions of Man), and (b) John's argument from the OTF against Christianity.

I explain this on the first page of the chapter:

Loftus' signature argument is what he calls the Outsider Test for Faith.  (OTF)  In its simplest form, the 'OFT' is just the contention that Christians should be skeptical about the faith in which they were (presumably) raised, as they are about, say, Islam or Inca worship of the Earth Goddess Pachamama.  But Loftus expects that if Christians dare view their religion from an objective, outside perspective, they will abandon it in droves.  The OTF is also presented as an argument against Christianity. (55)

What I'm arguing against is not the "simplest form" of the OTF, but Loftus' idea that it can be used as an effective argument against Christianity.  So Mike misrepresents my argument here pretty dramatically. 

For future reference, let's call these:

Argument (claim) A:  We should try to look at our beliefs from an outside perspective. 

Argument B:  The very existence of outside perspectives somehow undermines the truth of Christianity. 

Mike continues:

Marshall finds the OTF “somewhat amusing, coming from an atheist from Indiana” with limited experience of the wider world (i.e., an ad hominem already detracting from the argument because of who proposed it).

Here again already, Mike has simply misread.  These words follow the ones I just quoted:

. . . The OTF is also presented as an argument against Christianity.

I have found this somewhat amusing, coming from an atheist from Indiana, who has been surrounded by Middle Americana  all his life and never actually lived outside 'Christendom' or the secular humanist philosophie that is its rebellious stepchild.  By contrast, GK Chesterton told the story of a man who sailed a yacht to discover England, under the misconception that it was an island in the South Pacific.  This combined, he said, the 'fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the human security of coming home again. 

That has been my experience . . .

So what I find "amusing" is not A, the OTF simpliciter, but B, the apologetic use to which John Loftus puts it.  John tends to argue in a personal and autobiographical tone, and the OTF deigns to overcome the supposed personal cultural bias of Christians.  So I don't think it's at all out of place to point out that Loftus has no experience in actually living "outside" the two beliefs he is, in effect, comparing: Christianity and Secular Humanism.

But in no way can my quoted comment be construed as "ad hominem."  The fallacy of ad hominem means basing an argument on the irrelevant premise of a personal attack.  But this is a personal introduction to the argument that is to follow, it is not my argument itself.  I am explaining why I find John's championing of this argument (B, not A) ironic.  I explain why I find it mistaken, in the rest of the chapter.  And it is relevant to mention expertise, or lack thereof, as you begin critiquing an argument.   

Marshall, on the other hand, with extensive experience “far from the Christian ghetto” will give us a better perspective.

To give him credit, John freely admits my superior knowledge of non-Christian traditions.  This is one reason I'm curious what he will say in his book: if I were advising Prometheus Press, I would have suggested it have John team up with someone who knows more about the history and practice of world religions.  But maybe he's tried to "beef up" (pardon the pun) his knowledge of the subject.

Marshall’s critique is too long to be summarized here, but it is mainly directed against the reasons Loftus gives to justify the need for the OTF.  In other words, Marshall does not, for the most part, give reasons why Christianity passes the OTF but rather why the OTF is not strictly speaking necessary.

This is quite mistaken.  (As Mike himself seems to recognize later, as we'll see.)  In fact I give not one but FOUR reasons why Christianity passes the OTF, uniquely among world views, including John's own Secular Humanism:

So while I think Loftus formulates and uses the Outsider Test for Faith wrongly, I approve of it.  I think Christianity is affirmed by this test in four ways, or in four versions of the test:
1.  The test of history.  In a straightforward sense, Christianity has attracted more believers from more ethnic and cultural groups that any other religion.  If the OTF shows anything empirically, it shows 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.
2. The test of prophecy.  In Genesis 12, God tells Moses, "All the peoples of the earth will be blessed through your seed."  From early Genesis to the end of Revelation, the Bible is abuzz with predictions that the Good News will spread to the "ends of the Earth."  Those hundreds of prophesies have demonstrably and remarkably (if you think about how improbable they must have seemed on a remote hill in the Levant, or on a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee) come true.
3. The Insider Test . . .
4. The Insider-Outsider Test . . . 

So Mike misses the point (s) badly.  While I do point out some difficulties in Loftus' arguments, especially Argument B, the main point of the chapter is that the OTF properly construed supports Christianity as it supports no other belief system, including John Loftus' own Secular Humanism, in not one but four ways.
That should be kept in mind, while reading Mike's response to my criticisms of Loftus' version of the OTF:  

For example, Marshall disputes Loftus’ claim that people “overwhelmingly adopt and defend a wide diversity of religious faiths due to their upbringing and cultural heritage.”  Loftus is saying, in other words, that people tend to follow and defend a religion not because they have selected it after careful consideration of its merits but because that is how they were raised.  Not so fast, Marshall says, “Peel away the labels, and many beliefs seem to be universal or at least very widespread.”  Furthermore, some people do rationally evaluate their faith and some do convert.  “So cultural dependency is real, but not ‘overwhelming.’

That is true.  I also point out that openness to other religions varies a lot.  Loftus originally formulated the OTF by noting that "99%" of people born in Saudi Arabia are Muslim.  I note that of course most Saudis (not necessarily 99% of people born in Saudi Arabia) are Muslim!  The penalty for converting out is death!  And Christian worship is banned throughout the kingdom! 

In other parts of the world, people are often shunned or disowned if they convert to Christianity.  Often for some very understandable reasons.  It is against this headwind that Christian missions has blown.  In the West, by contrast, people are pretty free -- even socially -- to convert to most any religion or ideology they like. 

Such societies should not be simplistically compared. 

Next, Marshall claims that Loftus is saying, in effect, that beliefs we adopt from our culture are generally false.  Marshall implies that under the OTF principle we would have to question all our knowledge and be critical of everything passed down by our culture, including scientific knowledge. We would need to prove for ourselves that the earth circles the sun, that we have two lungs, etc.

John doesn't say that, but his argument entails it, as I show. 

My point is that Loftus is committing a form of the genetic fallacy: the idea that the origin of an idea disproves it.  But even if I originally derive my belief in God from having been born in West Seattle and heard Christian sermons since childhood, that in no way undermines that belief or makes it suspect, any more than my belief in Saturn and its rings is illegitimate because I grew up hearing about them.

Mike demurs:

I don’t see this at all.  Loftus is not arguing that we should reject all cultural knowledge, but only that we should be willing to examine it in certain cases.  Of course we cannot prove every bit of knowledge for ourselves from first principles, as Marshall says in reduction ad absurdum. Marshall gives several examples of useful, trustworthy cultural knowledge.  The overall argument appears to be, “We don’t need to rationally examine our faith, it’s just one of those things we can accept from our culture.”  Ironically, this line of thought suggests that no one of any religion needs to critically examine it; let us all accept our cultural religion and just be happy!

Mike misses my point here, again.

I am not arguing that one shouldn't question our beliefs: I admit that this is healthy  (Argument A).  I am arguing that the fact that some of us grew up with Christianity should not be taken as, in and of itself, an argument against Christianity.  (Argument B) 

That would also apply to other religions.  A Muslim or Buddhist might do well to "think outside the box" of his or her cultural assumptions, to see if their belief in Allah, or in the sea goddess Ma Zu, is really plausible, if it can be believed outside of the Arabian desert or a fishing boat in the South China Sea.  But that doesn't mean they should assume their beliefs are "highly likely" to be wrong just because a lot of other people in other countries think something else, for God knows what good or bad reasons.

The science parallel should make this obvious.  Of course we should question M Theory.  Of course we should ask if the Elephant-and-Turtle Hypothesis is true.  But we shouldn't discard either theory just because our teachers taught it to us, on Sunday morning, or during the week.
Marshall then sidesteps the OTF entirely with the claim that Christianity’s validity is proven by the number of its converts.  Honestly, this is what he claims: “Is not this vast movement of hearts and minds over centuries and continents, a more objective test of the Christian faith than the abstract mental exercise of an Indiana skeptic?” (gag).

I'm not sure what Mike is gagging on.  John takes his own subjective impression in these matters very seriously.  I think that the weight of authority of the "old, wise, and skillful" (as Aristotle put it) in thousands of cultures down through time, is more objective than John Loftus' somewhat myopic flow-of-consciousness argument from inside the Western fishbowl.   

Why shouldn't we take the impression of billions of people, included many of the greatest minds in history, into account? 

But no, I don't say the "validity of Christianity is proven by the number of its converts."  What I point out is that Christianity has passed the OTF many times, more than any other faith, in the eyes of intelligent people, and in the teeth of great cultural reluctance, which I explain.  And that is not an easy thing to do. Loftus completely ignores the sociology of religion, and how hesitant people are to convert cross-culturally. 

Loftus is making a demographic argument.  Why is it illegitimate, even gag-worthy, for me to reply according to his own premises?  And why is it illegitimate to take into account the opinions of so much of humanity -- which is kind of what the OTF is about, isn't it? 

To explain why demographic success does not likewise justify other popular faiths, Marshall says that Islam and Communism were spread mainly by violence, few Chinese were really serious Buddhists by modern times, and secular humanism (which he counts as a faith) “is watered-down Christianity, a weed that grows in fields plowed by the Gospel.” He says nothing about Mormonism or other Christian derivative sects/religions. Neither does he address the issue of why, if Christianity spreads because it is true, there are so many incompatible versions of it.

Christianity spreads because it is found plausible, not because it is true.  And that's the issue that (I think) the OTF addresses. 

I am not claiming that the OTF proves Christianity.  Nor am I saying that the history of religions could support no other belief system -- in fact, I name five that could probably make this argument, to some extent, including Secular Humanism. 

I am claiming, though, that if history and human opinion do matter, and if the OTF has any validity, then Christianity passes the test of human opinion over cultures and centuries, better than any other belief system, including that of John Loftus.  And yes, I do think that is significant, especially given my three other arguments.  But of course it is not conclusive. 

Marshall ’s central argument in the chapter’s final section, “Fulfillment,” is that religions are really not all that different, anyway.

Ouch!  Now that is really far off.  Religions are vastly different.  This is the point at which one begins to demand that critics quote one directly, in context, and accurately. 

He blames atheist Loftus for thinking we have to choose which one is true:
Loftus makes the same fatal mistake James does in his theology of religions: “At best there can only be one true religion in what we observe to be a sea of hundreds of false ones . . .” (99)
Imagine that, who could be so closed-minded as to think that there is only one true religion? Not a thinking Evangelical Christian, apparently.

What I'm arguing against is the notion that non-Christian religions are just "true" or "false."  Both of these notions are too simplistic.  Jesus said he came to "fulfill," not abolish, Judaism, for one thing.  And of course we agree with Muslims that there is one good, creator God.  I think I explain this point in enough detail: it should be enough just to ask Mike, "Please read it again, and this time, read more carefully!"  But I will quote some key sentences again, below. 

Marshall goes on to “demonstrate” that Christianity is the fulfillment of all religions.

Again, this is not what I attempt to do.  This is a caricature of my actual argument:

Loftus makes the same fatal mistake . . . "At best there can only be one true religion in what we observe to be a sea of hundreds of false ones . . . "

As Lewis once pointed out, that is the position an atheist is forced to adopt, but not a Christian. Indeed, as a former pastor, Loftus ought to know better: the first premise of Christianity is that Judaism is true . . . Jesus said, 'Don't think I've come to do away with the Law and the Prophets.  I have come not to abolition, but to fulfill . . ." This principle can be extended, to some extent, to the deepest truths in other spiritual traditions as well. 

Where do I say that Christianity is fulfillment of all "religions," or that they are "not that different?"   No, what I am saying is that Jesus (not Christianity) fulfills "to some extent" truths "in other spiritual traditions."  This is something great Christian thinkers have recognized for millennia: St. Paul at Athens, Justin Martyr, Clement, Augustine, Mateo Ricci, C. S. Lewis, Pope John Paul II. 

The difference is like that between saying, "One can find edible foods in the fields, meadows, and waters of Attica," and saying, "Everything in Attica is healthy and ready to swallow."  One essential characteristic of Fulfillment Theology is critical dialectic: we recognize error and sin as well as truth in every religious tradition.  (Yes, including our own.)  We don't just naively swallow everything that comes near our open and undiscriminating mouths. 

Mike does, fortunately, quote me accurately on some of the examples I give:

          “John Mbiti describes African perceptions of God that agree with what the Bible says about him in rich detail. . . . Jesus came to fulfill, not destroy, the most fundamental foundations of African religion.”
    “It is a singularly ‘fundamentalist’ way of thinking that insists one must choose one religion and simply dismiss everything in the rest.”
    “The deepest truths in each great tradition find themselves not only fulfilled but strengthened in Jesus, and great errors corrected, while he ‘takes away the sins of the world’ in a collective, social sense as well as for individuals.”
He asks about this:

What does any of this have to do with the Outsider Test for Faith, anyway?  Remember, the OTF simply says that one ought to evaluate the claims of one’s own faith with the same rigor as he applies to outside faiths.  How has Marshall answered this challenge so far?

For one thing, as explained, I am rebutting one of John's (common, but simplistic) notions about religion: that believers must either completely accept them as "true" or completely reject them as "false."

I am also arguing (following the eminent historian of religions James Thrower) that the most plausible hypothesis about reality should take into account truths to be found in many different traditions:

In general, a good theory is not one that completely displaces prior theories, but one that incorporates what truth can be found in them.  Kepler didn't refute the idea that the planets revolve around the sun, but described their motion more economically and accurately.  Einstein didn't render Newton's model of gravitation null and void.  He showed that it was a special case, still useful for everyday observation.

I don't know if I need to underline these words when the book is published in print, or what.  I really don't want readers to miss the point.  I would like them to grapple with these ideas, which I think are important (as Mike himself admits) not just because they happen to be mine, but because they touch on how one should understand the great thoughts of humanity, and how they can help us piece together a coherent understanding of the world. 

Surprisingly, Mike ends his post by saying,

In case all these arguments were unclear or inadequate, however, Marshall adds a final summary of “four versions of the [OTF]” which affirm Christianity . . .

Mike then gives a short summary of my four arguments, mentioned earlier, and then adds sarcastically:

So there you have it, the OTF answered once and for all.

Yes, I  rather think it is. 

The irony is that in reading this synopsis, however, Mike ought to realize that indeed, his critique of the chapter shows that he is "unclear" about what I am actually saying.  Because earlier in his blog he wrote:

In other words, Marshall does not, for the most part, give reasons why Christianity passes the OTF but rather why the OTF is not strictly speaking necessary.

Which is it?  Does this chapter mostly argue that the OTF is not needed?  Or that the OTF is useful, and Christianity passes it? 

Of course, I do both: argue that (B) is irrational and simplistic, but that on (A) Christianity does better than any other belief system, including Secular Humanism. 

C. S. Lewis warned that a writer should expect his readers to misread what he writes if it is at all possible to do so.   I suspect he had the "New Atheists" of his own day in mind.  Anyway, I thought I wrote a pretty good chapter, and hope people will get a copy of the book and read it.  A magazine I sometimes write for has accepted it for publication, and some skeptics have said good things about it.  But the chapter is long and contains ideas that many readers may find new.  Perhaps I shouldn't complain if it gets misread, occasionally. 

We'll see if John Loftus does any better. 

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