The Outsider Test: Treat Your Religion Like You Treat Others

So, in in keeping with my acceptance of the atheist challenge on sophisticated atheist philosophy, I picked up John W. Loftus’ “The Outsider Test for Faith”, as recommended by Jerry Coyne. I read it today, and plan to comment on a number of things over the next little while on it. Today, I’m going to start with Loftus’ central conceit: the idea that, at its heart, all he is doing is asking those who are religious to treat their own religion the same way they treat others.

Essentially, Loftus claims that people who are religious and who believe that there is only one True religion — theirs — reject all other religions on the basis of his view of reasonable skepticism, which I’ll get into more later. But suffice it to say that he claims that for the most part we all reject other religions because we don’t think that they have sufficient evidence for their claims and treat them generally skeptically. However, he says this in Chapter 4, on page 76 in the paperback edition:

Most believers argue that other religions are false simply because they take it for granted that theirs is the one true faith. … They do this based on their faith. Given that they believe the tenets of their faith are true, those other religions must therefore be false. … But this method is faulty to the core. It’s begging the question. It first presumes what they believe based on what they were raised to believe. When they argue in this fashion it is nothing short of special pleading on behalf of their own culturally adopted religious faith. What they need to show is that their own faith can be justified.

But on the very next page, he reiterates what the OTF (Outsider Test for Faith) is supposed to represent:

The OTF is simply a challenge to examine one’s adopted religious faith … with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject.

Except, he already conceded what we all already knew: religious believers don’t examine other religious faiths with that level of skepticism. Instead, they simply note that it is not their religious belief and conflicts with their religious belief, and so it must be false. So, Loftus is definitively not simply asking religious believers to treat all religious faiths the same, including their own. He is definitively positing a specific way one ought to approach religious beliefs, even though most people don’t actually do that. This has two major consequences for him:

1) Throughout the book, Loftus defends the applicability or reasonability of the test by appealing to the idea that he is merely asking religious believers to evaluate their own religion the same way they evaluate other religions. He does this over and over and over and over. But since that isn’t what religious believers do, all of those defenses fail. Loftus may want religious believers to do that, and think it’s the only rational way to evaluate religion, but that isn’t what they’re doing now. While they aren’t treating their religion — ie what they believe — the same as new potential beliefs, the method they’re actually using simply doesn’t allow for the OTF to get off the ground, as they’d be required to treat the other religion as true to make that work. That’s actually impossible since it would require accepting multiple incompatible beliefs, so Loftus needs to first get the religious to adopt that his way of evaluating religions is the right one, and then ask them to use it to determine the reasonability of their religion. Which leads to the second consequence …

2) Because he’s now making a normative claim and not just a claim about what people are currently doing, he needs to justify that his way of viewing religions and evaluating them is the one that we ought to follow. I, personally, do see some value in not re-evaluating currently held beliefs — even those that we learned at “Mama’s knee” or, rather, culturally — without having sufficient evidence to think that the belief is wrong. This is a major epistemological difference between myself and Loftus, and one that I’ll address later. But he does need to establish this view, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time doing that, and that’s really where the battle is, and where I think a lot of the challenges that he dismisses with the constant “I’m just asking you to do what you’re already doing and have already accepted!” counters are aiming at: saying that his method doesn’t work and so no one does and no one can use it.

Now, an aside about another defense that Loftus constantly uses. One of his main goals is to solve the problem of religious diversity, and therefore to converge on the one true answer, whether that is a particular religion or no religion at all, which is the view that he at least currently favours. So he constantly demands that people who challenge his method have to come up with a method that will solve the problem of religious diversity better than his. There are a few problems with this demand. The first is that just because his method might solve the problem of religious diversity, that doesn’t actually mean that it’s the right method. We definitely are able to say that his method resolves it in an invalid way if we think that it will come to the wrong final conclusion, and if that conclusion is that there is no right answer we ought to be suspicious of how easily it snips away all competing theories; Loftus needs to be able to say that his method could get the right answer if one existed. Second, just because a method resolves the conflict more efficiently and so is better at solving that problem from that perspective does not mean that it ends up with the right answer. This follows from the first point: the method may prune away the right answer instead of just the wrong answers. Third, it is possible that there is no way to solve this problem; we may not be capable of resolving which religion is the right one, or if any religion is or can be right. So, for all of these reasons, one can indeed say that his method is wrong without providing a better alternative by some arbitrary standard, acceptable to Loftus. So this defense will not save his method if it can be shown to be problematic.

I hope to pull out a few more issues over the next little while to examine in some detail, if I don’t get distracted by shinies [grin].


5 Responses to “The Outsider Test: Treat Your Religion Like You Treat Others”

  1. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    I agree with him, there should be no belief exempt from questioning, for which ever reason he has, like trying to disprove it. His mistake is trying to hide is true intention.

    We must accept religious knowledge is imperfect, it’s a man made guessed approach to the metaphysical world.

    His method will quickly show the incompatibility of religious beliefs which obviously leads to the conclusion that all of them are wrong to a larger or lesser degree yet this is no reason to discard the basic belief of the existence of a metaphysical reality.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I’m not claiming that a belief should be exempt from questioning, just that questioning is not enough. If you find that a belief is questionable, then to me that says something that isn’t surprising for a belief, and a problem for a knowledge claim. But it doesn’t justify neutrality, necessarily, let alone rejection as Loftus asserts later.

  2. Loftus: Criticizing the Outsider Test | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] of religious diversity, I’m going to start criticizing it without proposing an alternative. I gave the reasons why in my first post on his book. In looking at the test itself, I’m going to essentially rely on the Outsider Test being the […]

  3. Coyne Gets Philosophical … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] an appeal to Loftus. I’ve already talked about how Loftus’ view of how we treat religions like ours doesn’t, in fact, reflect how we actual… We do not, generally, reject them because we subject them to a scrutiny that we won’t subject […]

  4. Unapologetic … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] to be that it’s mostly used for apologetics, and philosophy should not be used for that. Since I commented on “The Outsider Test” (and found it lacking) I have purchased this book and will hopefully read and comment on it at some […]

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