The Idea of an Outsider, a Further Critique of Thomas Talbott, Part 1

On pages 15-20 of the paper written by Christian philosopher Thomas Talbott, “The Outsider Test for Faith: How Serious a Challenge Is It?,” he critiques the idea of an outsider. Let me begin with pages 15-16.

First let me say that whenever it comes to defending any argument critics will offer objections that the author may not have initially considered. This comes as no surprise since authors cannot usually anticipate everything. Even if they can anticipate additional objections they cannot say everything they know in an initial article or chapter. It’s an ongoing dialogue of learning as we go, in making the best case in light of new objections, in responding to these additional objections, and in refining or revising the argument in light of them. That’s why many articles in the journals end up being made into whole books. It looks as if that will happen with my OTF someday too.

Let’s see if I can fairly and accurately sum up what he says as I proceed. Talbott questions whether the outside perspective is the proper one when examining other religions. He refers to anthropologists who tell us that the best way to appreciate another culture and its religion is to do so from the inside, and that when believers do this they find “similar spiritual insights that might not be obvious from the outside” that might reveal “complementary rather than competing religious traditions.” From this he suggests “one should adopt a kind of Insiders Test for Faith (ITF),if I may speak rather roughly and inaccurately, as a means of assessing a religion other than one’s own; that is, one should be just as open to possible spiritual insights in another religion as one is to such insights in one’s own religion.” For “a given Christian and a given Muslim may have some very different beliefs about God. But again, it simply does not follow that they worship a different God.”

What can be said about this?

I wonder if there is a common denominator that all religionists share besides the fact they all have a faith based foundation. You should see anthropologists argue about how to define a religion. As best as I can tell a religion includes beliefs about supernatural beings and forces, so they all agree on that score. But they diverge widely after that. And they can all learn from one another too. In fact, I encourage religionists to sit down and talk at length to each other, to visit their shrines, read each others holy books, participate in their rituals, and so forth. They can start by going to their forums. I think doing so will liberalize any believer, so yes I’m in favor of this wholeheartedly. I think it will show believers that there are sincere rational people who disagree. They will find when doing so that all believers share the same foundation in faith, which is an unreliable way to come to the truth. It will force them to look for a better alternative than faith to decide between them, and I have offered one in the OTF. Faith is no alternative to the OTF at all. When faith is a foundation anything can be believed. This can never be known better than actually discussing religions with other religionists. As David Eller, an anthropologist, has said, “nothing is more destructive to religion than other religions; it is like meeting one’s own anti-matter twin . . . other religions represent alternatives to one’s own religion: other people believe in them just as fervently as we do, and they live their lives just as successfully as we do . . . the diversity of religions forces us to see religion as a culturally relative phenomenon; different groups have different religions that appear adapted to their unique social and even environmental conditions. But if their religion is relative, then why is ours not?” [Atheism Advanced: Further Thoughts of a Freethinker (Cranford, NJ: American Atheist Press, 2007), p. 233].

The problem Talbott, is that many believers do not typically do what you propose. They reside in their little cultural church conclaves, they only read approved theological authors, only go to approved conferences, camps, colleges and seminaries. And when they do engage the “other” many times it merely liberalizes them rather than ask them a much more fundamental question: “Why do you adopt a faith based foundation in the first place?” Religionists must be forced to consider the basis for their religion and deal with it, for that’s the only fair and impartial way to evaluate it. The OTF asks believers to consider the foundation for their faith fairly and as impartially as humanly possible with no double standards. There is nothing wrong with asking religionists to do this. In fact, it seems to be the fundamental question you wish to escape from. And it does not say in advance what you might conclude, only that this is the way to do it.

More later…

[First published 6/19/11]