John Loftus' Outsider Test for Faith

Last night as I was replacing bookmarks thanks to my new install of Windows, I stopped by my old Christian stomping ground at Randal Rauser's blog. I was dismayed to see the self-indulgent 'critique' of John Loftus' new book. You have to love the pomposity of a statement like "his book is beset by cognitive biases and lack of epistemic virtue as I have demonstrated in parts 1-9 of this review" — not argued, mind you, but demonstrated. Checkmate, atheist!

Anyway, the old curmudgeon brings up a sensible point:
[Loftus'] test is generally presented as a punctiliar event or delimited process of religious self-examination. This too limits its value, for human beings always need to check our biases and cultivate epistemic virtue. We are forever works in process. You don’t pass a single test and then get confirmed as “clear” (and that includes Tom Cruise). Consequently, Loftus’ so-called outsider test conveys a very misleading impression that one can pass a particular test and then be found rational in perpetuity. That is dangerous self-delusion.
This is one of those rare circumstances in which I find myself in strong agreement with a Christian apologist, especially one so persistently cantankerous.

This is how John Loftus originally phrased the 'OTF', as he likes to shorthand it:
If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you would be a Muslim right now, say it isn't so? That is a cold hard fact. Dare you deny it? Since this is so, or at least 99% so, then the proper method to evaluate your religious beliefs is with a healthy measure of skepticism. Test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to the faith you are evaluating. If your faith stands up under muster, then you can have your faith. If not, abandon it, for any God who requires you to believe correctly when we have this extremely strong tendency to believe what we were born into, surely should make the correct faith pass the outsider test. If your faith cannot do this, then the God of your faith is not worthy of being worshipped.
I've always thought Loftus' 'test' works just fine as a general principle of skepticism, but fares rather poorly as an argument regarding the truth or falsity of any particular religious claim. It may be the case, improbable as it may be, that the Lord and Creator of the entire Universe decided to make the mostly illiterate, frequently barbaric and not particularly advanced tribes of the Bronze Age Israel his sole 'chosen people', to whom he revealed the one correct faith, sitting idly in Heaven as all the other thousands upon thousands of cultures spanning the globe throughout history worshiped the wrong gods. I mean, believing such a thing takes a pretty extraordinary degree of intellectual compartmentalization, but its sheer prima facie absurdity doesn't prove it false.

Ed Brayton has quipped that studying other religions is one of the best ways to lose your faith in the religion you were raised with, and I think he's right, for several reasons. Firstly, recognizing that our cultural upbringing intrinsically subjects us to ethnocentrism and in-group/out-group biases very quickly leads one to treat with skepticism the notion that the religion that they happened to be raised with, or happened to be surrounded by in their culture, is the one correct one out of all the thousands spanning human history. Lucky you, just being lucky enough to be raised in the culture that worships the correct God and, perhaps, even so lucky as to go to the church or the seminary which happens to have the correct nuanced theological understanding of the correct God.

Secondly, when one studies religion from an anthropological perspective (as in Pascal Boyer's exceptional book Religion Explained) and understands how religious beliefs form and change as well as how they are integrated into cultural norms, the illusion that one's religion is uniquely true becomes much harder to entertain. One sees that their own religion is subject to the same cultural forces that have shaped every other religion ever, and that their beliefs are nothing extraordinary or special.

And finally, there is research which shows that people mold God into a reflection of their own sociocultural biases. This is hardly surprising; anecdotal observation reveals that religious people have a remarkable tendency to believe that God's outlook mirrors their own in important ways; the key distinction is that the religious person thinks that God has informed their outlook, when science reveals the opposite to be true — God is created in man's own image.

Religion is on the decline in the West, and has been for some time. In the age of the Internet, with communication making the world smaller and smaller, an insular ethnocentric perspective becomes far more fragile than it once was. John Loftus' OTF doesn't demonstrate any religion to be false, but it does highlight the sheer cognitive compartmentalization that believers must hold to in order to sustain their innumerable idiosyncratic religious perspectives. To break out of this cognitive prison, people don't necessary need to be exposed to some 'sophisticated' philosophical argument; they just have to see that the world is bigger than the space in their heads.


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