Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Loftus Attacks! Part Uno

I’m getting the feeling that maybe John Loftus feels he didn’t do too well in our debate on Unbelievable.  (The first part of which can be found here, the second part should be posted this coming Saturday.)  How else to explain his multiple posts since then, first complaining that he didn’t get enough time, then attacking Randal Rauser (of all people), and then a series of three posts critiquing my book?

Well, great, after all these years, and many posts on both sides, John finally gets around to actually trying to rebut some of my arguments -- sort of. 

So let’s take a look at his first post, and what he claims I get wrong. 

Predictable Preliminary Trash-Talking

I've decided to write more than just one post about Dr. David Marshall's “rebuttal” to my book The Outsider Test for Faith (OTF).

Call me David, please. 

But How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story is not a “rebuttal” to John Loftus.  With due respect to John’s considerable ego, it is about much bigger topics: the work of God in the world, the role of Jesus in uplifting humanity, the story of the human race from the Christian point of view, an answer to the question, “How do religions relate to one another?”

John is a convenient jumping-off point, not the destination. 

I will attempt to show why Marshall's book, How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story,is really bad. In fact, it's so bad I'm using the word "refutation" for what I'm about to do to it.  I hardly ever use that word because refutations are usually unachievable in these kinds of debates.  

Go for it! 

If I'm largely successful then it also says something about Dr. Randal Rauser, that he will say and endorse anything in order to defend his Christian faith.

I don’t believe that for a moment.  Actually, read his blog, and you find that Randal is pretty choosy about what Christian artifacts he will endorse.  It follows, then, that Loftus will probably NOT be successful, or he’s wrong about the logic. 

“No educated intellectual worthy the name would have written Marshall's book.  No educated intellectual should think it's worthy of any kind of a blurb either.”

This is disproved by the fact that I am an educated intellectual, and I did write the book.  And not just Randal Rauser, but Win Corduan (Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Taylor University), Miriam Adeney (an anthropologist who teaches at Seattle Pacific University), Ivan Satyavrata (an Indian theologian), Don Richardson, Nick Peters, and Brad Cooper, all of whom can only be described as “educated intellectuals,” in some cases much more so than John, have also thought the book worthy of a blurb -- indeed, in most cases of high praise indeed. 

But let’s skip the naval-gazing trash-talking of the wrong person, and get to the substance of John’s critique. 

Why do I make use of an admittedly “flawed” argument?

Loftus begins by quoting Arizona Atheist on a short earlier version of my argument that I wrote for a chapter of True Reason:

Each of David Marshall’s arguments against the OTF fail. His next tactic, regardless of how illogical it may be, is to argue that Christianity has passed the OTF “billions of times.” (59)  If an argument is by its nature “flawed,” as Marshall contends, how then, can he possibly believe arguing that “billions” allegedly passing this flawed test is proof that Christians have come to their faith in a rational manner? See more here.

This is a simple-minded critique indeed, as I have come to expect from Ken. 

First, Ken is engaging in equivocation here.  He is playing a shell game.  Where’s the nut?

I claim the OTF, as formulated by John Loftus, is flawed.  I then reformulate and make use of it. 

This is a normal procedure.  If your glasses are dirty, you say “Heaven’s!  My vision is flawed with these dirty lens!”  You wipe them off, and then put them on your nose!  What a contradiction!  You CLAIMED your glasses were dirty, but still used them!  What a hypocrite you are! 
This is a common procedure in science, history, in every field where flawed human beings improve on flawed procedures to come to imperfect but still valuable conclusions. 

And even if we don’t improve the instrument of vision or research, of course we can still use flawed instruments to reach valuable procedures.  The SAT test is, as everyone who teaches it, flawed in many ways, yet we use it to learn something real about the English ability of students. 

After more such asides, including a shot at philosopher Matthew Flanagan, Loftus promises to “correct some egregious errors” I allegedly make.  In his first post, he names, and in his own mind corrects, three such errors.  That will be enough for us to deal with in the remainder of this post.

II. Who Invented the Outsider Test for Faith? 

”You should know first that (Marshall) erroneously claimed to have written about the OTF six years before I did right here.  Below are the screen shots:

“I wrote about the OTF six years before John ‘invented it,’ as a matter of fact.”

John responds:

“I don’t claim to have invented this test, since it has been bandied about for millennia wherever there were skeptics.  I do claim to have defended it better than anyone else, as far as I can tell.  I read what Marshall said in his 2000 book.  He repeated it on pages 182-83 of this new book I’m refuting.  There is nothing he said that had not been said before him by G.K. Chesterton, using different words.   It is merely a repackaged Chesterton, which Marshall did not acknowledge as coming from him.

Remember, Loftus is claiming to describe “egregious errors” on my part here, so egregious that no real intellectual should have endorsed my book, let alone written it. 

So what’s the error supposed to be? 

At first Loftus says my error is to “erroneously” claim to have written about the OTF six years before he did.  But actually, I did. 

The context here is important.  I had just written three chapters about the failures of three revolutions: Marxist, Sexual, and Aquarian.  The following three chapters would be about the moral and existential virtues of Christianity, then after that, would come three chapters arguing that God is real, and that miracles really happen.  Then I would conclude by showing how the truths in many different religions point to Jesus Christ as ultimate truth, in various ways. 

At this pivotal point in the book, here’s what I write.  Does it not sound like the suggestion that we should evaluate Christianity from an “outside” perspective or two?  (Which is precisely what I will do in the rest of the book?)

“What should a Christian say to an idealist setting out on a journey?  Seek the good in every spiritual tradition and cherish it; but don’t be naïve.  Allow yourself to become desperate enough to be heretical, and even desperate enough to be orthodox.  Give credit where credit is due, but also blame where blame is due.  Take ideals seriously enough to live by, even die for.  But be careful to whom you open your heart.  Follow each star to the place where it leads.  Then come and look again in a town called Bethlehem. 

“What is it you are looking for?  Look, then, for a god among the gods of humanity.  Look for a guru among the gurus of humankind at whose feet to find enlightenment.  Wear tennis shoes out upon the holy hills of the Incas.  Shake clouds of dust from ancient manuscripts of the sacred libraries of Lhasa and Alexandria.  Ponder every sect, tribe and teacher from Tierra Del Fuego to Tibet.  Then come, open the New Testament.  Look again at the life and teachings of the man who said of the Jewish writings, ‘You investigate the Scriptures, because you suppose you have eternal life in them, and they bear witness to me’” (John 5:39).

That is, most literally, a call for an “outsider test for (Christian) faith.”  Of course I did not mean that my version exactly anticipated John’s version. 

So there is no “error” here, let alone an “egregious” one that proves I am no true scholar. 

As for my not giving Chesterton credit, those are my words and thoughts.  It is possible he influenced my thinking on this point (I cite him elsewhere in the book), but I had been in Asia for more than a decade already by this time.  And in my first book, had described my own “outsider” moment that pointed me to Christ, which I experienced a full sixteen years earlier, at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

So I was talking from experience, not just parroting a book or an abstract idea. 

“Egregious Error Two:” Is the OTF an argument against Christianity, or not?

This is a little weird.  Loftus continues: 

“Another of the many errors of Marshall’s is that he says I present the OTF “as an argument against Christianity.” (p. 7.)  Now I do think the OTF is a good argument against faith, but in my book I go overboard to say it's merely a test for faith.  I demand Marshall to show us book chapter and verse where I say anything different.  He cannot do that.”

Sure I can.  Page 19, first full paragraph:

“As a nonbeliever, I use the outsider test, in the third stage, to argue against religion in general and Christianity in particular.”

Though it’s hard to refuse Loftus’ point here, because he seems to be saying both that (a) he does not use the OTF to argue against Christianity and (b) he does.  I am egregiously wrong and not a true scholar to say John presents the OTF as an argument against Christianity.  But he does think, and argue at length, that it IS a good argument against Christian faith.

I think I’ll just step off that Merry-Go-Round, let it spin as long as John wants to sit on it, sit under an elm have a rocky-road ice cream cone, and wait till it stops spinning.  It’s all the same to me whether John wants to use the OTF to attack Christianity or not: let him settle that in his own mind, without me getting in the way. 

Just one more, then we’re through, at least for this round.   

“Egregious Error Three: is Religious Diversity Complete, or Absolute?”

Here we come to a truly important issue: how religions or belief systems relate to one another.  The problem here is that Loftus and his fellows have adopted hand-me-down versions of exclusivism, which holds that only one religion can possibly be true, the others must be simply and solely wrong.  I maintain that reality is more complicated than that, and that Christian makes room for the genuine complexity that we find in the world of religions. 

Loftus complains:

“A third error of Marshall’s is that he dismisses my understanding of religious diversity as ‘superficial.’  He opines that this is the ‘most essential problem with Loftus’ version of the OTF.’ (p. 10).  He tries to inform the uninformed that the diversity of faiths ‘is genuine, but in some ways superficial.  As Chesterton noted, religions around the world commonly included four beliefs: in God, the gods, philosophy, and demons.’  Agreeing, Marshall says, ‘Peel away labels, and many beliefs seem to be universal or at least widespread.’  Then he concludes, ‘If widespread disagreement renders a religious tenet less credible, then agreement must render it more credible.  One cannot make the argument, without implicitly admitting the other as well.’ (p. 18-19)

Now in what follows I aim to hold him to that.  Either "widespread disagreement renders a religious tenet less credible" or not.  I'll deal with his claim that agreement must render something more credible later, and dispute it depending on the issue to be solved.

That should be fun, since atheists invariably use diversity of beliefs to discredit particular (non-atheistic) religions.  (Religions, in other words, that compete with their own.)  Let’s see if John can find a way to have his cake and eat it. 

”Marshall should know there are major disagreements even about these four minimal beliefs.”

Of course.  As there are about the nature of the moon, say.

“Religionists accept the existence of one Supernatural Being (i.e., one God), or they accept many Supernatural Beings (gods, goddesses, angels, spirits, ghosts, demons) or they accept one Supernatural Force (Process theology, Deism) or many Supernatural Forces (i.e., karma, fate, reincarnation, prayers, incantations, spells, omens, Voodoo Dolls), or some sort of combination of them.  Religionists also disagree with each other over who these Beings and/or Forces are, how they operate, and for whom they operate.  Everything else is up for grabs.”

This is a confusion I address in this book, actually. 

As I show, awareness of one God who is described by a long list of common traits crops up on all six inhabited continents.  This Being tends to be recognized across cultural boundaries.  This is why here in China, even my Buddhist partner talks frequently about “Shang Di,” the same word the ancient Chinese, and the Christians down the road, use for the Supreme Being. 

But He was quite distinct from spirits in general.  In China, as in the West, in India, in Africa, and in the Americas, there were numerous spirits who were distinct from God in being created or coming into being, in being lustful and imperfect, even scheming and cruel, in having only local and very partial knowledge, even in being fated to pass away.  The disagreement is really not that great.  Here in China, as in Greece, supernatural beings are sometimes associated with nature, or with ancestors.  There is no hard line between “gods, ghosts, and ancestors” as a well-known anthropology work described them. 

The continuity among cultures on these two points, along with the idea that some spirits are evil, is quite impressive.  If atheists argue that disagreement among cultures shows all religions are probably wrong, as Loftus does, then agreement should push in the opposite direction. 

”I’m really at a loss to respond to what Marshall said about me, given what the reader will find quoted on pages 34-36 of my book. I'm tempted to ask if he can even read. Take a look:

”Professor of anthropology David Eller tells us, as I quoted in my book, that
there are many religions in the world, and they are different from each other in multiple and profound ways.  Not all religions refer to gods, nor do all make morality a central issue, etc.  No religion is ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ of all religions; the truth is in the diversity.”

I didn’t say anything about morality, though of course moral intuitions are also universal.  But awareness of spirits are in fact pretty nearly universal among cultures.  Even “atheistic religions” like Buddhism are in practice quite aware of them. 

“When it comes to belief in god(s), Eller writes,

“Many or most religions have functioned quite well without any notions of god(s) at all, and others have mixed god(s) with other beliefs such that god-beliefs are not the critical parts of the religion. . . . Some religions that refer to or focus on gods believe them to be all-powerful, but others do not. Some consider them to be moral agents, and some do not; more than a few gods are downright immoral.  Some think they are remote, while others think they are close (or both simultaneously).  Some believe that the gods are immortal and eternal, but others include stories of gods dying and being born . . . not all gods are creators, nor is creation a central feature or concern of all religions. . . . Finally, there is not even always a firm boundary between humans and gods; humans can become gods, and the gods may be former humans.”

In fact, every major religion and almost every culture of which I am aware, is keenly aware of spirit beings.  In every culture that I have studied (I do not deny the possibility of exceptions), there are both helpful and unhelpful spirits, though all may be dangerous, and most may be manipulable.

That includes all the major traditions. 

“Eller continues:

“Ordinarily we think of a religion as a single homogeneous set of beliefs and practices.”

Who is this “we?”  I think no such thought, and make no such claim.  Is Eller thinking this himself?  Or putting words in “our” mouths?

“The reality is quite otherwise: Within any religion there is a variety of beliefs and practices—and interpretations of those beliefs and practices—distributed throughout space and time.  Within the so-called world religions this variety can be extensive and contentious, one or more variations regarded as "orthodox."

This is the usual scholastic drumbeat of diversity.  You can never generalize about anything, there are always exceptions.  That’s how you get ahead in academia: by pointing to anomalies. 

Of course there is diversity.  But what Chesterton said was, and remains, true.  Within that diversity, there are also commonalities.  If Loftus is going to use diversities to attack “religion” (aside from his own), he also needs to take commonalities into account. 

And Chesterton pointed to four -- not absolute universals, but general apprehensions that transcend any given culture, any given continent. 

“Eller concludes that

“…Religion is much more diverse than most people conceive. . . . “Religion” does not equal “theism” and certainly not “Christianity,” let alone any particular sect of Christianity. Indeed, there is no specific religion or type of religion that is really religion, the very essence or nature of religion. . . . Not only that, there is no central or essential or uniquely authentic theism but rather an array of theisms . . . . “Christianity” consists of a collection of Christianities including Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. And there is no central or essential Protestantism: it is a type of Christianity/monotheism/ theism/religion with many branches. No one Protestant sect is more Protestant or more religious than any other. . . . In fact, there is no “real” Christianity at all, only a range of Christianities.”

Again, no one is claiming that “religion equals theism.”  In fact, I would say the atheist religions are also diverse -- hundreds of schools of Marxism-Leninism, Freudianism, Objectivism, an array of atheistic forms of environmentalism, feminism, certain High Church and Hindu and Buddhist schools of thought.  If diversity in details undermines the truth of general statements, then atheism is doomed with the rest of us.

From which it follows that there is no “real” Secular Humanism, only a “range of Secular Humanisms.”  Fine, but what does that have to do with my argument? 

I am not claiming (and also showing) that there is no diversity, I am claiming there is also often surprising continuity.  And that if the diversity means something bad for the truth of religion, why shouldn’t the continuity mean something good?

“So I do understand the nature of religious diversity.  Marshall does not. For instance, there is nothing when reading Marshall's book where he shows us he understands there are various Christianities, nothing.  As far as the reader is concerned he’s defending the one and only Christianity, his, without so much as telling us which one that is.  If anyone has a superficial understanding of religious diversity it is Marshall.  Now I know he knows different.  He cannot help knowing the various denominations and spectrums of theologies among Christianities.  It’s just that when it comes to calling me superficial it never occurred to him to acknowledge this fact about Christianity, something I am all too aware about.  It's one of the reasons I am not a Christian, since Christians cannot agree among themselves.”

Here were my claims, again, in case John has forgotten them, though this is how he cited me:

“Diversity of faiths ‘is genuine, but in some ways superficial.  As Chesterton noted, religions around the world commonly included four beliefs: in God, the gods, philosophy, and demons.’  Agreeing, Marshall says, ‘Peel away labels, and many beliefs seem to be universal or at least widespread.’”

I admitted diversity was genuine.  I argued, though, that “many beliefs,” including those four, are at least widespread, in some cases perhaps even universal, in some sense. 

Where has that been refuted, again?  By quoting boilerplate comments from David Eller about religious diversity?  I wrote my MA on the True Buddha movement, examining three rows of idols from India, Tibet, China, and Israel over thousands of years of religious history with the head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Washington, nearly 20 years ago.  This is old news. 

My book is new news, and John Loftus does not appear to know how to handle it.  

”This is getting too long.  Done for now.  The best is yet to come.”

One would hope so, but we’ll see.   


Patrick said...

A muslim could come along and take your flawed (in his view) test, fix it by substituting Koran for bible and Mohammed for Jesus and then proclaim that the fixed version of the OTF now shows that Islam is the one true religion and Allah the one true God.

In fact, anyone of any religion can take your flawed version of test, fix it by changing the Christian references to ones in their religion and then proclaim that their religion passes the fixed OTF. There is nothing really in your test that prevents this, is there?

David B Marshall said...

No, he couldn't, Patrick. I consider this objection in the book, and show why it doesn't hold water. You apparently haven't read the book, or weren't awake while you were "reading" it.