Thoughts on “The Christian Delusion” (The Outsider Test for Faith Revisited)

So the last essay in the first chapter is by John W. Loftus, the editor of the work, and where he revisits what he is most famous for, “The Outsider Test For Faith”.  Now, I’ve criticized “The Outsider Test for Faith” myself, and so on reading this chapter didn’t find his defenses all that strong myself.  But why I want to take on the chapter in more detail is because there are some interesting philosophical implications to what he says here … implications that I don’t think he sees.

So, a quick reminder of what the Outsider Test for Faith really is.  Loftus noted that religious people reject the miraculous claims of other religions, and reject the claims of other religions to having truly divine entities, and yet are completely convinced that their miracles are true and their entities are divine.  In addition — and this is the argument that he most relies on — which set of miracles and which set of divine entities they believe in depends greatly on the cultural context they were raised in.  If someone was raised in a Christian culture, they will be completely convinced that Christianity is true and that all other religions are false, but if someone was raised in an Islamic culture, then they would be equally convinced that Islam is true and Christianity is false.  What Loftus’ test asks religious people to do, then, is step outside their cultural context and examine their own religion using the same standards that they use to evaluate and reject the others, and if they do so rationally and honestly he is convinced that they would have to reject their own religion as well and become atheists, with an additional implication that this method is, in fact, why most atheists are atheists, and that if religious people follow his method they will come to reject their religion for the same reasons that atheists reject all religions.

One of my main objections to the OTF is that it fails because religious people don’t reject the religions of other people for the reasons that Loftus thinks and not for the reasons that atheists reject them.  This entire chapter only makes that more clear, because both Loftus and the author of the previous essay, Jason Long, are pretty aggressive in calling religious beliefs ridiculous and nonsensical, but it seems to me that the main reason they — and many other atheists — believe that is because of their attachment to naturalism.  The problem is that no religious person rejects other religions because they are making supernatural claims, as they all accept that at least some supernatural claims are true (the ones their own religion makes).  So Christians do not reject Judaism because it posits miracles, but instead because Judaism does not accept Christ as the Messiah.  And they do not reject Islam because it includes divine entities, but because it, again, doesn’t accept Christ and Christ’s message properly.  And the converse is also true.  Judaism rejects Christianity because it is obvious to them that Christ is not the Messiah (because he didn’t bring peace to the Earth) and Islam rejects Christianity because they do not properly accept Muhammad.  So for the most part, they accept that those religions at least and in general all other religions could be true and are not inherently ridiculous. They just happen to think them wrong because they clash with beliefs they already hold.  So it’s never going to be the case that if they step outside of their own cultural context that they will think of their own religion the same way that atheists do.  They might come to a rejection of their own religion on the basis that from that perspective theirs doesn’t seem more reasonable than the other religions, but that wouldn’t be what Loftus would be advocating for with the OTF … and many of them may well follow the epistemological principle of “Maintain your own beliefs unless you have reason to reject them”, and that kind of minor “Mine doesn’t seem inherently better than other religions” is not a strong enough reason to do that.  At that point, the debate between someone like myself and someone like Loftus is epistemological, and not something that the OTF could settle.

Loftus tries to deal with some objections, and I think these can be sorted into three main categories:  denying that the beliefs of Christians and others are as tightly tied to their culture as Loftus asserts, arguing that even if those beliefs are formed primarily from that culture that doesn’t make them false, and arguing that atheists like Loftus have equally culturally formed and yet equally deeply held beliefs that they are unwilling to give up, and don’t consider themselves irrational for holding.

Let’s look at the first category.  What the objections have pointed out is that Christianity has been successful in areas that are not traditionally and cultural Christian, and that Christians and members of other religions change from the religion they grew up with all the time.  Loftus’ attempts to defend his view against these charges are … underwhelming, to say the least.  Basically, his refutations here end up arguing that those people are not converting rationally and so are not using the OTF at all, and so it’s not a valid objection to his claim.  But this misses the point of the objections.  The point of these objections is that contrary to Loftus’ assertion and assumptions, people come to believe in religions that weren’t part of their cultural background all the time.  Which means that there are perfectly natural mechanisms that would cause a Christian to convert to another religion that don’t involve the OTF.  Thus, if religious people maintain the religion of their culture, they do so because they find that the new religion doesn’t fit their view of the world as well as their original religion, because if it did, as we’ve seen, they would have converted.  What this suggests, then, is that there’s no real need for the OTF for people to convert from the religion of their culture, and so Loftus would have to argue that while whatever method they are using could work, it’s not a proper way to do it and so they would have to use his OTF.  But then Loftus loses the big argument for why the OTF is needed, which is that you have to step outside your cultural context and the beliefs you were raised with to come to the conclusion that your religion is false.  Clearly, these examples prove that isn’t true.  Thus, is argument would have to be that we all ought to do that as a normative claim, and not one that follows from the descriptive idea that we would never be able to assess our own religion in a way that would get us to reject it without doing so.  We definitely could, so why should we use his method other than that he thinks doing so will bring us closer to the conclusion that he wants us to draw?

Let me look next at the idea that they hold beliefs that are equally cultural and equally strongly held without having any better justification for them (whether or not there actually is a stronger justification for them available).  The biggest section of this is an examination of the objections of Victor Reppert, who uses the examples “rape is wrong” and “representative democracy is a better form of government than monarchy”.  Loftus first admits that some of the beliefs we hold that way may not be necessary, but then presents a defense of those specific beliefs from Richard Carrier.  While I won’t go into them in detail, they are basically his standard ones:  someone who considers what a woman who is raped will feel will conclude that rape is wrong, and someone under a monarchy who properly understands democracy would clearly prefer the latter.  The interesting point here is that what Carrier is engaging in here to defend these propositions is in fact clearly apologetics.  He is rationalizing a justification for these beliefs, and those justifications are … dubious, to say the least.  For the first place, that something makes people feel good or bad doesn’t mean that the belief is true.  If a religious person said that the feeling that people get from being religious makes them happy enough and that losing that belief makes them depressed enough that we should hold the religion to be true, both Carrier and Loftus wouldn’t accept that as an argument, so we have no reason to accept it in the rape case either.  And that someone in the past might think that democracy is better doesn’t mean that it is, and they’d reject that sort of argument for religion.  So Loftus’ supposed defenses are the precise sort of rationalization that he wants religious people to give up using his OTF.  So that doesn’t really work to support his point.

And he needs to demonstrate that we can and do hold these beliefs for reasons beyond that we take them from our culture, because any belief that he has to accept he holds because he got it from the cultural context and yet that he doesn’t want to give up opens the door for Christians to say that they treat their Christianity the same way, and so he could not claim that they are necessarily irrational for maintaining that belief simply because it’s one that he rejects and thinks ridiculous.  Especially since the main belief that drives them considering Christianity ridiculous, as I’ve already noted, is their belief in naturalism, and I have raised problems with naturalism (which is why I reject it).  If my and other objections have merit, then Loftus cannot claim that his belief in naturalism is justified, but he would be unlikely to simply reject it.  Ultimately, he considers religious ridiculous because of a belief that he has and religious people clearly don’t.  This changes this all to a debate over fundamental beliefs, which is one that the OTF cannot settle.

Which leads to the final category:  that just because a religious belief is culturally formed doesn’t mean that it’s false.  In order to pull off this argument, Loftus relies on an implicit and at times explicit statement that culturally formed beliefs are not reliable.  He contrasts this with science and even epistemological skepticism which are methods he considers to be reliable.  The problem is cultural beliefs are reliable.  Cultural beliefs become cultural beliefs by standing the test of time.  Yes, some of them could turn out to be false, but that is true of science as well.  And if Loftus claims that science tests and corrects its beliefs, we can see that cultural beliefs are corrected by its own methods as well.  If a cultural belief stops working, the culture will eventually abandon it as we see in the Western world with the shift from monarchy to democracy.  It may take longer for cultural beliefs, but ultimately if a cultural belief stops working it will be abandoned and replaced.  Thus, lots of cultural beliefs are indeed true, some of them are wrong, but for the most part enough of them are true to consider it reliable.  What this would mean is that we are always rational to maintain a cultural belief unless we have good reason to think it false, and as I’ve noted before I don’t think they are.  Loftus could try to argue that science is more reliable, and so we should trust science over cultural beliefs, and science says that Christianity is false.  But even if we accept that epistemology says that we should accept science over cultural beliefs, this would change the debate from us needing to take the OTF to an argument over whether science really conflicts that strongly with religion.  And since I myself have raised philosophical objections to naturalism, it cannot be because of science’s methodological naturalism or else Loftus and myself would be arguing over whether that is valid.

What this means is that as we go through this essay we discover that the OTF is unnecessary.  People change religions and even become atheists without it, and there is little reason to think that their approaches are completely invalid as opposed to being them trying to build the most consistent worldview they can.  At any rate, we don’t need to step outside the culture to change or drop religion.  We all hold cultural beliefs and fundamental beliefs without necessarily having proper justifications for them all the time, and in fact some of those are the very beliefs that cause atheists to consider religion ridiculous, thus reducing the debate to a debate over which sets of those beliefs we should accept.  And finally, a lot of those discussions will be over what epistemology is the right one to use, and we need to settle those questions before we can assess whether the OTF is necessary or even useful.  At the end of the day, the OTF is a method that Loftus promotes because he thinks it will be more likely to turn religious people into atheists, but that in and of itself should make us suspicious of using it unless it really is the right approach … and given the reliability of cultural beliefs I don’t think it is.  Ultimately, then, it is not the case that Christians who refuse to take the OTF are really engaging in a double standard because that’s not why they reject other religions in the first place, and there are a number of good philosophical reasons to be suspicious of it.


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