05 September 2012

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 6

I was wrong when I said that the only author with whom I was familiar is William Lane Craig. I'm also familiar with David Marshall, who has been a frequent visitor to John Loftus' blog Debunking Christianity. Appropriately, Marshall spends this chapter critiquing Loftus' "Outsider Test for Faith", or OTF.

As I do with every chapter, I'll begin by reiterating that in reading this book, I'm not expecting to be re-converted to Christianity. I'm just looking for some arguments that will provoke me to re-examine some of my core beliefs.

Like the previous chapter, this chapter is much better than the first few chapters in the book simply because while I did not find Marshall's arguments persuasive (big spoiler, I know), he didn't hinge his arguments on dishonesty and distortion the way Carson Weitnauer and William Lane Craig did.  As far as I can tell, he represents John Loftus' position fairly – although, as I'll argue, he misses the side of the barn with the actual argument.


Chapter 6: John Loftus and the "Outsider-Insider Test for Faith"

After a wordy introduction, Marshall begins by quoting Loftus' summary of the OTF:
  1. 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.” 
  2. 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.” 
  3. Therefore, it is “highly likely that any given adopted religious faith is false.” 
  4. In practice, one should hence test one’s religion “from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of skepticism used to evaluate other religious faiths.”

The first premise

He then begins addressing what he sees are problems with the arguments. My comments follow:
For one thing, “diversity of religious faiths” is genuine, but deeply ambiguous. As G.K. Chesterton also noted, religions around the world commonly include four beliefs: in “God, the gods, philosophy, and demons.” 2 In years of studying world religions, I have found his observation to be largely true. Peel away labels, and many beliefs seem to be universal or at least very widespread. This could be called the “lack of religious diversity thesis,” and should be kept in balance with its alter ego.
Having done a fair bit of study in comparative religion, I find Marshall's assessment to be astoundingly naive. The definition of "god", or perhaps "gods", as well as the role that various gods play, varies widely. Even more variance lies in how humans believe they are supposed to commune with gods. Just how widely do these kinds of things vary? I can confidently state this thesis, which I think supports the OTF:

No two cultures that are geographically isolated will share any concept of gods. Their god or gods will have different names, different powers, different roles, different characteristics or properties, will interact with the world differently and to different degrees, and must be appeased differently. 

Naturally, there will be some very general similarities across cultures, and there is a reason for this. Pascal Boyer argues in Religion Explained that certain god-concepts are more likely to be successfully culturally transmitted than others, and the success of particular god-concepts is in turn heavily influenced by the type of culture (tribal god-concepts have distinct qualities from god-concepts in industrialized nations, to use a broad example).

I'm inclined to believe that if there were One True God™ with omnipotent power, he would probably be vastly better at communicating himself to humanity, particularly given that disagreement over god-concepts has led to extraordinary bloodshed.

The second premise

Marshall continues:
Nor is Loftus’ second premise as obvious as he makes it sound. Often (as Loftus himself admits) people do adopt religions they were not taught as children.
In the grand scheme of things, that really doesn't happen very often. And while this isn't directly relevant to the OTF, the simple fact that people adopt another religion does not mean they have engaged in critical inquiry or rational thinking. What is relevant to the OTF is that religious choice is overwhelmingly influenced by culture. Someone raised in America is vastly more likely to convert from one Christian denomination to another, or even to Judaism or Islam or atheism, than they are to convert to Jainism or Santal. That actually raises another thesis of mine that supports the OTF:

People do not discover religion independently of sociocultural influence.

That is to say that while two scientists working in isolation on opposite sides of the Earth could both discover General Relativity (and indeed many scientific discoveries have been duplicated independently), no two geographically isolated people of faith could discover – or ever have discovered – the same god or gods. Again, I find this utterly in conflict with belief in One True God™.
Also, atheist worldviews seem as “culturally dependent” as any other. Loftus has claimed that “Atheists do indeed take the OTF. That’s why atheists are atheists in the first place.” 4   But in fact, people also “adopt and defend” skeptical ideologies because of where they were born and how they were educated.
Well duh. All knowledge is to a large extent dependent on where one lives and how one is educated. Loftus does not argue that people are not taught about atheism (or any other non-religious position). The difference – and one that Marshall overlooks throughout the chapter – is that cultural heritage is, quite overwhelmingly, the primary driver of the transmission and preservation of religious beliefs.
Most atheists today live and have been raised in communist countries, where denying religion is the default position. (A broader survey conducted under the direction of Menchen, Johnson, and Stark, et. al., showed that about two-thirds of Chinese claim no religion.)
False. Most atheists are in secular democracies such as the UK or in Northern and Eastern Europe. "No religion" is not the same thing as "atheist".


The third premise

Here Marshall trips up:
Finally, even with these caveats, one must ask, does Loftus’ initial conclusion— point three— really follow from the premises that precede it? If we adopt certain beliefs because we have been taught them, does that really mean they are probably false?
No, of course not. But that wasn't Loftus' thesis. He argued that cultural heritage is the primary driver of religious affiliation, not that the mere teaching of ideas renders them less credible. Marshall says that the OTF "appears to commit the genetic fallacy", which it doesn't because it's not his claim that the beliefs are wrong because they rely primarily on cultural heritage – only that their probability of being true, since they all have contradictory claims, is individually low.

Marshall then wanders even more astray, rambling on about science being taught as though that is somehow a valid analogy. Then he unleashes this whopper of a facepalmer:
At a Neolithic town site in the Fertile Crescent, archeologists found seeds from more than a hundred different plant species. These seeds represented a cumulative knowledge of edible plants that had been tested and handed down from generation to generation, and would ultimately pave the way for civilization. This was culturally transmitted knowledge, accepted by each new generation based on human testimony, not “scientific testing.” Did that make it false? Obviously not.
First, the OTF only argues that any individual religion's probability of being false is high, not that being transmitted primarily by cultural heritage makes it false. Second, Marshall is conflating any sort of vaguely defined "cultural transmission" with cultural and familial heritage as Loftus stated. And finally, that is actually an example of a sort of primitive empiricism – the seeds are tested, the results passed on and verified independently, etc. It's obviously lacking the rigorous controls of modern scientific methodology, but it's a far cry from simply believing whatever is passed down.  


The missionary position

Marshall then spends the rest of the chapter on a long and useless tangent about missionary work, essentially arguing that because Christianity made converts over the centuries, it passes the OTF. However, Loftus never argued that religion is spread only by cultural heritage; only that it primarily is. Even if you count all the conversions – many of which were through conquest – the overwhelming majority of religious affiliation is still determined primarily by where one lives.

And you gotta love gems like this (emphasis mine):
If Christianity were not also often seen as a friend to non-Western cultures, it would be a miracle for it to have spread as far as it has. It has often been recognized as a friend. And miracles in fact sometimes occurred.
Golly, they did? Well I guess we'll just take his word on that. I mean really. Who do believers think they're fooling when they pull stuff like that out of thin air?

And of course Christians, and Western culture in general, often forged unions across cultural barriers. And being that Christianity is an evangelical religion, and given that it was usually being preached to superstitious, uneducated peasants and tribesman (as it is today in Africa – one of the few places it is still spreading), it's not that big of a surprise that it was successful. None of that changes the fact that the strongest predictor of religious affiliation, by far, is geography.


Finishers

Marshall doesn't leave without tossing in an asinine appeal to the majority fallacy:
If you’re an atheist, you have to believe that most of what people in every civilization have always believed is wrong.
Not really. As Richard Dawkins said, we're all atheist with respect to thousands of gods. We atheists just go one god further.

He even manages to toss in the claim that fulfilled prophecy bolsters the case for Christianity. Not only is it nonsense, but it has nothing to do with the OTF.

One final whopper that I want to address:
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.
I've heard this lots of times. Apparently it's not a big deal that there are a bit under 2 billion Muslims or a bit under 1 billion Hindus, but it's a big deal that there are a bit over 2 billion Christians [source] Please. Virtually every religion has had followers who have been persecuted, marginalized, ostracized, hated, feared, etc. I mean if there's any one religion that should get points just on the sheer tenacity of its followers in the face of persecution, why not give it to the Jews? They stuck out the Inquisition and the Holocaust for crying out loud. No other religious group has faced such systematic persecution.

Marshall failed. His case against the OTF was weak and misguided, and his case for Christianity was rife with fallacies. I ought to point out, too, that were it not for my OTF-like experience, I would never have deconverted. But you can read more about that here.

Oh, and here's Pascal Boyer talking about how religion is transmitted:


 


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