The Outsider Test for Faith

[Written by John W. Loftus] Here's an edited version of my Outsider Test for Faith chapter, which I read to the Evangelical Philosophical Society. My book fleshes it out much better and responds to all known objections:

by John W. Loftus

The most important question of all when it comes to assessing the truth claims of Christian theism is whether we should approach the available evidence through the eyes of faith, or of skepticism. Complete neutrality, while desirable, seems to be practically impossible, since the worldview we use to evaluate the evidence is already there prior to looking at the evidence. So the question I’ll be addressing today is whether we should adopt a believing or a skeptical predisposition prior to examining the evidence for a religious set of beliefs. I’ll argue that a skeptical predisposition is the preferred one to adopt.

My Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) is just one of several arguments I use to demonstrate that when examining the evidence for a religious set of beliefs the predisposition of skepticism is warranted. There is overwhelming, undeniable and non-controversial evidence for the test itself that can be found in the sociological, anthropological, and psychological data. I’ll start with some of this data that forms the basis for the test. Then I’ll describe the test, provide some examples of what it demands of the believer, and defend it from six major objections.

There is a great deal of discussion among Christian apologists over Bayesian “background factors,” which play a significant role in assessing the truth of Christianity in general, the likelihood of the resurrection of Jesus, the probability of miracles, and the problem of evil. But the most important background factor of all for cognitively assessing the truth claims of religious faith is one’s sociological and cultural background.

The basis for the outsider test has been stated adequately by liberal Christian philosopher John Hick: “It is evident that in some ninety-nine percent of the cases the religion which an individual professes and to which he or she adheres depends upon the accidents of birth.” That is to say, if we were born in Saudi Arabia, we would be Sunni Muslims right now. If we were born in Iran, we’d be Shi’a Muslims. If we were born in India, we’d be a Hindus. If we were born in Japan, we’d be Shintoists. If we were born in Mongolia, we’d be Buddhists. If we were born in the first century BCE in Israel, we’d adhere to the Jewish faith at that time, and if we were born in Europe in 1000 CE, we’d be Roman Catholics. For the first nine hundred years we would’ve believed in the ransom theory of Jesus’ atonement. As Christians during the later Middle Ages, we wouldn’t have seen anything wrong with killing witches, torturing heretics, and conquering Jerusalem from the “infidels” in the Crusades. These things are as close to being undeniable facts as we can get in the sociological world.

Had we lived in ancient Egypt or Babylon, we would’ve been very superstitious and polytheistic to the core. In the ancient world, we would’ve sought divine guidance through divination, tried to alter circumstances through magic, and believed in the dreaded evil eye.

There are a whole range of issues that admit of diversity in the moral and political areas as well, based to an overwhelming degree on the “accidents of birth.” Caucasian American men would’ve believed with President Andrew Jackson in manifest destiny, our God-given mandate to seize Native American territories in westward expansion. Up through the seventeenth century we would’ve believed that women were intellectually inferior to men, and consequently we wouldn’t have allowed them to become educated in the same subjects as men, much less to vote. Like Thomas Jefferson and most Americans, we would’ve thought this way about black people as well, that they were intellectually inferior to whites, while if we were born in the South, we would’ve justified slavery from the Bible. If in today’s world we were born in the Palestinian Gaza strip, we would hate the Jews and probably want to kill them all.

These kinds of moral, political, and religious beliefs, based upon cultural conditions, can be duplicated into a lengthy list of beliefs that we would’ve had if we were born in a different time and place. Voltaire was right: “Every man is a creature of the age in which he lives, and few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of their time.”

Social conditions provide us with the initial control beliefs we use from that moment on to incorporate all known facts and experiences. That’s why they’re called control beliefs. They are somewhat like blinders. From the moment we put them on, we pretty much see only what our blinders will let us see, because reason is mostly used to serve them.

Michael Shermer, a former Christian turned atheist, has done an extensive study of why people believe in God and in “weird things.” He argues: “Most of us most of the time come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning. Rather, such variables as genetic predispositions, parental predilections, sibling influences, peer pressures, educational experiences, and life impressions all shape the personality preferences and emotional inclinations that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural influences, lead us to make certain belief choices. Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational belief, regardless of what we previously believed. Instead, the facts of the world come to us through the colored filters of the theories, hypotheses, hunches, biases, and prejudices we have accumulated through our lifetime. We then sort through the body of data and select those most confirming what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away those that are disconfirming. All of us do this, of course, but smart people are better at it.”

Christian philosopher Robert McKim concurs in some respects. He wrote: “We seem to have a remarkable capacity to find arguments that support positions which we antecedently hold. Reason is, to a great extent, the slave of prior commitments.” Hence the whole notion of “an independent rational judgment” is suspect, he claims. This is not to deny that Christian apologists defend their faith with reasons. Of course they do. These apologists, if they’re good at what they do, will be smart people. But as Michael Shermer also reminds us, “smart people, because they are more intelligent and better educated, are able to give intellectual reasons justifying their beliefs that they arrived at for nonintelligent reasons.”

Psychiatrist Dr. Valerie Tarico describes the process of defending unintelligent beliefs by smart people. She claims, “it doesn’t take very many false assumptions to send us on a long goose chase.” To illustrate this she tells us about the mental world of a paranoid schizophrenic. To such a person the perceived persecution by the CIA sounds real. “You can sit, as a psychiatrist, with a diagnostic manual next to you, and think: as bizarre as it sounds, the CIA really is bugging this guy. The arguments are tight, the logic persuasive, the evidence organized into neat files. All that is needed to build such an impressive house of illusion is a clear, well-organized mind and a few false assumptions. Paranoid individuals can be very credible.” In her opinion this is what Christians do and best explains why it’s hard to shake the evangelical faith. Of course, I don’t expect Christians to agree with her that this is what they do, but then they cannot deny that people of religious faith do this. What else can best explain why there is still a Mormon church now that DNA evidence conclusively proves Native Americans did not come from the Middle East?

I’ve investigated my faith from the inside as an insider with the presumption that it was true. Even from an insider’s perspective with the Christian set of control beliefs, I couldn’t continue to believe. Now from the outside, it makes no sense at all. Christians are on the inside. I am now on the outside. Christians see things from the inside. I see things from the outside. From the inside, it seems true. From the outside, it seems almost bizarre. As Mark Twain wisely said, “The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.”

This whole inside/outside perspective is quite a dilemma and prompts me to propose and argue on behalf of the OTF, the result of which makes the presumption of skepticism the preferred stance when approaching any religious faith, especially one’s own. The outsider test is simply a challenge to test one’s own religious faith with the presumption of skepticism, as an outsider. It calls upon believers to "Test or examine your religious beliefs as if you were outsiders with the same presumption of skepticism you use to test or examine other religious beliefs." Its presumption is that when examining any set of religious beliefs skepticism is warranted, since the odds are good that the particular set of religious beliefs you have adopted is wrong.

The OTF is no different than the prince in the Cinderella story who must question forty-five thousand girls to see which one lost the glass slipper at the ball last night. They all claim to have done so. Therefore, skepticism is definitely warranted. This is especially the case when an empirical foot match cannot be had.

The amount of skepticism warranted depends on the number of rational people who disagree, whether the people who disagree are separated into distinct geographical locations, the nature of those beliefs, how they originated, how they were personally adopted in the first place, and the kinds of evidence that can possibly be used to decide between them. My claim is that when it comes to religious beliefs a high degree of skepticism is warranted because of these factors.

Surely someone will initially object that this is quite draconian in scope. Why take such an extreme stance? It’s because that’s how religious people approach all of the other religious faiths but their own. If someone claims she cannot do this because no one can test anything without assumptions of some kind, then this test challenges the believer to switch her assumptions. If she simply cannot do this, then let me suggest doing what RenĂ© Descartes did with a methodological (or hypothetical) doubt, although I’m not suggesting his type of extreme doubt. Hypothetically consider your faith from the perspective of an outsider.

If she refuses to do this then she must justify having such a double standard. Why does she test other religious beliefs differently than her own? For someone to object that what I’m asking is unfair, she has the burden of proof to show why her inconsistent approach to religious faith is justified in the first place.

I’ll grant that what I’m asking is a tough thing to do. That’s because, as anthropologist Dr. David Eller argues, our culturally inherited beliefs are what we use to see with. We don’t see culture. We see with culture. Our culturally inherited beliefs are much like our very eyes themselves. We cannot easily pluck out our eyes to look at them. But we must attempt this if we truly want to examine that which we were taught to believe. Only the honest the consistent and the brave will ever do this.

To the Christian theist the challenge of the outsider test means there would be no more quoting the Bible to defend the claim that Jesus’ death on the cross saves us from sins. The Christian theist must now try to rationally explain it. No more quoting the Bible to show how it’s possible for Jesus to be 100% God and 100% man with nothing left over. The Christian theist must now try to make sense of this claim, coming as it does from an ancient superstitious people who didn’t have trouble believing Paul and Barnabas were “gods in human form” (Acts 14:11; 28:6). The Christian theist must not assume prior to examining the evidence that there is an answer to the problem of horrendous suffering in our world either. And she’d be initially skeptical of believing in any of the miracles in the Bible, just as she would be skeptical of any claims of the miraculous in today’s world supporting other religious faiths. Why? Because she cannot start out by first believing the Bible, nor can she trust the people close to her who are Christian theists to know the truth, nor can she trust her own anecdotal religious experiences, since such experiences are had by people of all religious faiths who differ about the cognitive content learned as the result of these experiences. She would want evidence and reasons for these beliefs.

The outsider test also challenges believers to examine the social and cultural conditions of how they came to adopt their particular religious faith in the first place. That is, believers must ask themselves who or what influenced them and what the actual reasons were for adopting their faith in its earliest stages. Christian, just ask yourself whether the initial reasons you had for adopting your faith were strong ones. Just think about the problems you’ve experienced in your churches along with the intellectual problems you wrestle with in meetings like these. If you could go back in time knowing what you know now about how Christians behave in the church would you still choose to believe? And those initial arguments that convinced you to believe would surely be thought of by you as simplistic and unworthy of your consideration today. Just ask yourself if you would’ve become a Mormon instead, had a joyous friendly Mormon group approached you at that same vulnerable time in your life. Most all of us, most all of the time, do not have good initial reasons to accept our religious faith, which from that time forward acts like a set of blinders with regard to how we see the evidence. We just end up believing what we were taught to believe by people we trust in a Christian dominated culture.

At the very minimum, a believer should be willing to subject her faith to rigorous scrutiny by reading many of the best-recognized critiques of her faith, most of which are written by other professing believers. Evangelical faith, for instance, can be thought of as a small branch out on a limb called Christianity which is attached to a huge tree called religion. The debate should start by settling the question of which Christianity represents true Christianity in our world today. Then too today’s Christian faith bears little resemblance to the theologies and the ethics of the Christianities in the past, and it will bear little resemblance to future Christianities because the Christian faith is like a chameleon, ever changing with the progression of knowledge. But once that debate between Christians is settled, if that’s even remotely possible, the next debate is between Christianity and all other religions on the planet. I claim evangelicals cannot win the first debate, much less the second one. Cultural anthropologist Dr. David Eller is right: “Nothing is more destructive to religion than other religions; it is like meeting one’s own anti-matter twin.” (p. 233).

Nonetheless, if after having investigated your religious faith with the presumption of skepticism it passes intellectual muster, then you can have your religious faith. It’s that simple. If not, abandon it like I did. I suspect that if someone is willing to take the challenge of the outsider test, then her religious faith will be found defective and she will abandon it along with all other religious faiths, like it has me.

Answering Six Major Objections:

One: Religious believers will all object that the OTF does not show their particular religion to be false simply because it’s an overwhelming sociological fact that we believe based upon when and where we were born. William Lane Craig asks, “How does the mere presence of religious worldviews incompatible with Christianity show that distinctively Christian claims are not true? Logically, the existence of multiple, incompatible truth claims only implies that all of them cannot be (objectively) true; but it would be obviously fallacious to infer that not one of them is (objectively) true.” He’s right about this, as are Muslims and Mormons who can say the same thing with regard to their respective faiths. After all, someone can be right if for no other reason than that she just got lucky to be born when and where she did.

But how do you rationally justify such luck? This is why I’ve developed the challenge of the outsider test in the first place, to test religious faiths against such luck. If the test between religious faiths is based entirely on luck, then what are the chances, based on luck alone, that the particular sect within Christian theism that one adheres to is correct?

Two. It’s objected that there are small minorities of people who choose to be Christian theists who were born and raised in Muslim countries and that people can escape their culturally adopted faith. This is true. But these are the exceptions. Christian theists respond by asking me to explain the exceptions. I’m asking them to explain the rule. Why do religious beliefs dominate in specific geographical areas? Why is that?

When it comes to these converts, my opinion is that most of them do not objectively weigh the evidence when making their initial religious commitments. They mainly change their minds due to the influence and believability of the evangelist and/or the wondrous nature of the religious story itself. They have no initial way of truly investigating the proffered faith. Which evangelist will objectively tell the ugly side of the Bible and of the Church while preaching the good news? None that I know of. Which evangelist will tell a prospect about the innumerable problems that Christian scholars like yourselves wrestle with in meetings like this? None that I know of. Which evangelist will give a prospect a copy of a book like mine along with a copy of a Christian apologetics book, and ask her to read them both before making a decision? Again, none that I know of.

Three. It’s objected that merely because rational people disagree about something does not justify skepticism about a particular claim. On the contrary, I think it can and it does. The amount of skepticism warranted depends on the criteria I mentioned earlier. Rational people don’t bet against gravity, for instance, because there is evidence for it that was learned apart from what she was taught to believe in a geographically distinct location. She can personally test it. I’m claiming religious beliefs are in a different category than the results of repeatable scientific experiments, and that this claim is both obvious and non-controversial. Skepticism is best expressed on a continuum, anyway. Some belief claims will warrant more skepticism than others. I’m claiming that religious beliefs warrant probably the highest skepticism given the sociological facts. At the risk of offending believers here, religious beliefs, like beliefs in the Elves of Iceland, the trolls of Norway, and the power of witches in Africa, must be subjected to the highest levels of skepticism given both the extraordinary nature of these claims and how some of these beliefs are adopted in the first place.

Four. Someone may object that my argument is self-defeating. They’ll ask: “Do my cultural conditions overwhelmingly ‘determine’ my presumption of skepticism? If so, then, as Alvin Plantinga questions, are my beliefs “produced by an unreliable belief-producing process” too? If not, then why do I think I can transcend culture but a Christian theist can’t transcend her culture?” In answer I think it’s extremely difficult to transcend our culture because, as I mentioned before, it provides us with the very eyes we use to see with. But precisely because we know from anthropological and psychological studies that this is what culture does to us, it’s possible to transcend the culture we were raised in.

[Example] We know that people do not truly see or hear reality as it is. What we see is filtered by our eyes. What we hear is filtered by our ears. We see and hear only a very limited amount of data in the world. But if we saw and heard the whole electromagnetic and sonic spectra we’d basically see and hear white noise. We know this even though we can’t actually see or hear the white noise for ourselves. We also know that the ground we walk on is moving like a swarm of bees on the microscopic level. So it’s this scientific knowledge about the world which leads us to be skeptical about that which we see and hear.

The same thing is can be said when it comes to anthropological and psychological studies that show we should be skeptical of that which we were led to believe, even though we can’t actually see anything about our beliefs to be skeptical about. And the OTF is as sure of a test as we can come up with to examine our culturally adopted beliefs.

The truth is that my argument is not self-defeating at all. It suggests we should doubt what we believe. It’s not self-defeating to say the odds are that we are wrong. After all, we’re talking about the odds here. Agnostic philosopher J. L. Schellenberg deals with this same type of criticism in these words: “Now this objection can be sound only if my arguments do indeed apply to themselves, and it will not take much to see that they do not.” For there is a huge difference between defending a religious set of beliefs as the one and only correct set, and denying that a set of religious beliefs is justified. His claim is that the adherents of any given religious set of beliefs “have not successfully made their case; it bides us to continue investigation . . . because skepticism is always a position of last resort in truth seeking contexts.”

Five. In arguing that one’s religious faith is overwhelmingly adopted by the “accidents of birth,” have I committed the informal genetic fallacy of irrelevance? This fallacy is committed whenever it’s argued that a belief is false because of the origination of the belief.

I don’t think the genetic fallacy is as much of a big deal as people think it is, especially in religious contexts. If someone has a paranoid belief about the CIA spying on him and we find that the genesis (or origin) of his belief comes from him taking a hallucinogenic drug like L.S.D., then we have some really good evidence to be skeptical of his paranoid belief, even though we have not actually shown his belief to be false in any other way, and even though by doing so someone could say we have committed the genetic fallacy. So in a like manner if we can determine that the origins of the earliest Christianities were created purely by ancient superstitious human beings, we have good grounds for skepticism. But even more to the point, if all of our beliefs are completely determined by our environment then that’s the case regardless of the fact that by arguing for this it commits the genetic fallacy.

Still, there is no genetic fallacy here unless by explaining how believers first adopt their faith I therefore conclude that such a faith is false. I’m not arguing that these faiths are false because of how believers originally adopted them. I’m merely arguing believers should be skeptical of their culturally adopted religious faith because of how they first adopted them.

Six. One final objection asks whether this is all circular. Have I merely chosen a different metaphysical belief system based upon different cultural factors? I deny this, for I have very good initial grounds for starting out with skepticism based upon the sociological, anthropological and psychological facts. Methodological procedures are those tests we use to investigate something. How we go about investigating something is a separate issue that must be justified on its own terms, and I have done so here. Someone cannot say of the outsider test that I ought to be just as skeptical of it as I am about the conclusions I arrive at when I apply the test, since I have justified this test from the facts. One must first dispute the outsider test on its own terms.