The Idea of an Outsider, a Further Critique of Thomas Talbott, Part 2

On pages 15-20 of Christian philosopher Thomas Talbott’s “The Outsider Test for Faith: How Serious a Challenge Is It?,” he critiques the idea of an outsider.

Talbott has two arguments in this section. First he struggles to find a relevant sense for the idea of an “outsider” and says “the position of an outsider appears to have no role to play in the test itself.” And as he sees it, the standard “is not an outsider’s skeptical stance towards Christianity; it is instead the Christian’s own skeptical stance towards other non-Christian religions.” But Talbott notices a problem here, for “not all Christians adopt the same dismissive attitude towards other religions.” Furthermore, “Whatever complicated factors may figure into someone’s adopting a given moral, religious, or metaphysical perspective, these same factors will likewise make an outsider’s perspective appear less than fully cogent.”

What can be said about this?

Talbott and other apologists like him have mastered the art of Definitional Apologetics. No matter what a critic says, Christians will break a word or phrase down into several different senses and then claim they don’t know what the critic is talking about, in good Socratic fashion. Words are notoriously difficult to define. Define a normal human being, or pornography. If you do not want to face the full force of a criticism against your faith just do Definitional Apologetics. Talbott also does this with the phrase “extraordinary claim,” for he doesn’t know what one is in the face of a concrete example like a virgin birth, or a resurrection or an ascension into the sky (WTF?). How can I be expected to carry on a reasonable discussion with someone like that? Because of these questions Cratylus in Socrates’s day didn’t think anyone could communicate at all. After reading Talbott’s paper I’m wondering if Cratylus was right after all! ;-) I don’t think I could satisfy Talbott since it just doesn’t seem to me he would accept it. He could always gerrymander around what I say. That’s just what delusional people do.

In any case I’ll respond for the people who are really interested in having a discussion, knowing in advance what believers like Talbott do. An outsider is someone who is skeptical of a different religious faith. There, that should be adequate. I think anyone who has read what I have written can understand what I mean if they want to. One might even call the OTF the “Skeptical Test for Faith,” and I have said that on occasion. The title of an argument is not the argument itself. The title is to get people’s attention and the OTF title provides the most poignant example of what it means to be skeptical for most people because most people are skeptical of other religions. The OTF asks believers to be as skeptical of their own faith as they are of the religious faiths of others.

I have found most of the criticisms of the OTF are asking it to be something that it is not. That’s like asking arguments against divine hiddenness to show God does not exist. Such arguments are not designed to do this, and likewise the OTF is not designed to do everything either. Talbott says he is not that skeptical of other religions. Instead he wants to learn from them. But I’m sure he knows what it’s like to be skeptical of snake handlers, six day creationists, hellfire and brimstone preaching, Scientologists, Cargo Cults, Militant Muslims, and Mormons though, so why the disingenuousness? He either knows what it’s like to be skeptical of other religions or he does not. Which is it? Even if he does not know what it’s like to be skeptical (and who is he trying to kid anyway?) the OTF targets the faiths of an utterly overwhelming number of people with a force they have probably not considered before. And even if complicated factors may figure into how people evaluate faiths that’s just the nature of people, something I have no remedy for, nor can I be expected to solve.

In any case, if there is a God who wants us to believe in him or fry in hell, then that kind of religion might fall under the force of the OTF more so than others, since whatever complicated factors there are in adopting and evaluating one’s faith, you would expect such a God to help these people get it right.

Secondly, Talbott argues he doesn’t know how a person might one go about adopting an outsider perspective, or the skepticism of an outsider. He asks, “Should Christians merely pretend that they have never encountered the Christian faith, or pretend that they do not believe it, or pretend that they have considered it and then rejected it? If so, how are they to manage such a feat?” He ends by saying that “many of our deepest convictions…are simply not under the control of our wills. For in general, you cannot both believe that some proposition p is true and, at the same time, disbelieve it in a sense that the skepticism of disbelief entails.”

Here Talbott continues with Definitional Apologetics, so I’ll just note this again. Furthermore, I find this to be an odd criticism of my argument. Is the OTF now subject to the criticism that it doesn’t include a manual on critical thinking or a detailed explanation of the sciences? If people need help knowing how to be skeptical then something is wrong. All people need to do is hear an extraordinary claim (something Talbott has never heard) and they already know how to be skeptical. It’s easy to doubt since there are so many ways to be wrong. In any case, people should begin by taking science classes, critical thinking classes, reading books outside their comfort zone, engaging other believers, and so forth.

The sociological, anthropological and psychological facts that are the basis for the OTF should be enough for reasonable people to doubt their faith in some measure. The OTF then is designed to produce this doubt given these facts. I am not just asking people to doubt. I am giving them reasons to doubt. I’m trying to help believers see what it’s like from the outside. I’m trying to show them what it means to be skeptical of their own faith. This should be good enough I would think. Why should I reside in one of Talbotts’s gerrymandered intellectual districts? The OTF does this work on its own. People already know what it’s like to be an outsider to a different religious faith. I need not explain this to them in detail. And I’m arguing that they ought to consider that perspective as much as they can knowing in advance no one can fully step outside one's own shoes. Why should that even be required? Just because that cannot be done does not mean it shouldn’t be attempted to a greater degree. Talbott is suggesting that because we cannot be totally skeptical we shouldn't be skeptical at all, or it seems. If so, that's idiotic to me.

No wonder I say that dealing with delusional people is trying to catch a greased pig.