The Outsider Test for Faith is the Antidote to Confirmation Bias

[Written by John Loftus]
First let's define confirmation bias from Wikipedia, which... a tendency for people to prefer information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, independently of whether they are true. People tend to test hypotheses in a one-sided way, focusing on one possibility and neglecting alternatives. This strategy is not necessarily a bias, but combined with other effects it can reinforce existing beliefs. The biases appear in particular for issues that are emotionally significant (including some personal and political topics) and for established beliefs that shape the individual's expectations.

It's granted that we all have this bias, all of us, to certain degrees. It's part of the human condition.

Speaking specifically about religious faiths, let me contrast this with The Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) which calls upon believers to test their own geographically inherited faith with the same level of skepticism they use to test the religious faiths they reject. I argue that adopting this test is the best and probably the only way to overcoming any confirming bias when it comes to one's inherited religious faith.

It is being argued by Professor Randal Rauser that ex-Christians like Dan Barker and others who have written chapters for The Christian Delusion are basically no different when they argue for non-belief. He sums up a recent post by asking and answering a question:
[A]re any of us motivated simply by a burning desire for actual facts, an intense craving to truly fill in the blanks of knowledge? I doubt it. But then if atheists are no better off on this count, neither can we say they are categorically any worse off. And with that, let's all concede that we begin on the same ground, a self-interested desire to know, more or less. Link.
In the first comment after his post SilverBullet wrote:
Critical thinking is specifically about eliminating self interest. Loftus' outsider test of faith is specifically about eliminating self interest. [This comment is the last one on the page--you read them in order from the bottom up].
I agree. Continue reading upward for the other responses, including mine.

One of my points is that it appears to me confirmation bias is what we do when it comes to beliefs we hold dearly and want to be true. When I was a believer I was infected with it, deeply, as was Dan Barker and others. We wanted it to be true. We had invested a great deal of time and effort into defending our faith. But we were shocked and dismayed that even with this bias our faith was a sham. It was heart-breaking and completely contrary to what we had expected. I have not heard from any former Christian who describes it any other way. We did not want to conclude what we did. We went kicking and screaming into unbelief.

Now it might be claimed that as atheists we too are infected with a confirmation bias to defend what we have concluded. Okay, since all human beings suffer from this to some extent. But it was emphatically NOT how we arrived at our current positions. We wanted Christianity to be true. We preferred it. We were immersed in it. Our lives were wrapped up in it. We were also extremely bothered and even scared of being wrong, since we did not want to go into everlasting punishment.

Testimonies of conversion or deconversion coming from both sides of the fence, whether it's Christians who leave the fold, or atheists who join the fold, have only a limited amount of persuasive weight. The weight of them depends on who it is, how much he or she was immersed in their former views, how many people switch their views from one side to the other, what their stated reasons are for switching, and the consequences that these fence switchers must face in terms of social benefits and eternal threats. As such, I think deconversions away from the fold have much more weight because of each and every one of these factors.

Take just one of these factors as an example. What does an atheist have to gain if he switches sides and joins the Christian fold? He gains many social benefits and eternal rewards (that's the promise anyway). Now consider what a Christian has to gain if he or she leaves the fold. Apostates face a great deal of social approbation along with the threat of eternal punishment. Under which set of conditions will confirmation bias be more intense for which group of fence switchers?

Answer: Deconverts away from the fold, hands down.

Listen to what Dan Barker said about leaving the fold: was like tearing my whole frame of reality to pieces, ripping to shreds the fabric of meaning and hope, betraying the values of existence...It was like spitting on my mother, or like throwing one of my children out a window. It was sacrilege
Right that.

Is there anything comparable for this when an atheist becomes a Christian? I think not. Not by a long shot. Look at the social benefits for an atheist to convert to Christianity for instance.

C.S. Lewis was an atheist who converted to Christianity through a long process, even though he was no fundamentalist. He is such a hero to Christian believers his books still top the charts in the apologetics category over at Amazon.

The most famous recent atheist who became a deist, Antony Flew, was showered with attention by Christians, parading him around like he was a hero, even helping write his last book which surely will sell more than any other book he's ever written. I wonder what kind of advance they gave him?

Lee Strobel became a believer to keep his marriage together, and look at him now. He too is a hero among Christians, making more money off his books then he ever dreamed of doing.

J. Budziszewski is another one who was an atheist-turned-Christian, and his name is also bandied about as a hero. [It seems as though Christians have so few heroes who left atheism that if one switches sides they will be treated as heroes].

David Wood is another self-proclaimed atheist who turned Christian and he too touts that as a significant fact. But his conversion came out of juvenile delinquency and serious mental/physical problems, so can his conversion really significantly count when he was not the intellectual atheist that I am?

I have been asked to come back to the faith as well, with promises of having a large church, a number of speaking engagements, and/or superior books sales when I write about my re-conversion. They would love to parade me around as a hero. [The problem here is that I cannot answer my own arguments expressed in my books, so the first question they would ask me is to argue with my former self and I couldn't do it].

But what social benefits await a Christian who leaves the fold for atheism in comparison? Little or nothing. What eternal reward is promised? Nothing but non-existence.


RD Rauser said...


It seems you want to argue the following:
(1) the move from organized religion to atheism is more existentially difficult
(2) Therefore the confirmation bias is less operative in the move from organized religion to atheism
(3) Therefore those who have converted from organized religion to atheism are more trustworthy than those who have converted from atheism to organized religion.

Maybe sometimes. Other times not. Just try being an atheistic junior faculty member at the philosophy, psychology or biology department of most universities and you'll appreciate the enormous difficulties with a conversion to Christianity.

I suggest you focus more on your statement: "it might be claimed that as atheists we too are infected with a confirmation bias ...." Then ask, could your above argument be a manifestation of your bias?

Anonymous said...

Hi Randall! Thanks for visiting and for your review of TCD. I'm honored.

I think testimonies in either direction "have only a limited amount of persuasive weight."

So whatever it gets me to argue in this fashion it isn't that much.

Still, let's revise (3) to (3')

(3') Therefore those who have converted from organized religion to atheism have more persuasive weight than those who have converted from atheism to organized religion.

And yes, confirmation bias is a factor with me now too.

I'm not saying there aren't difficult choices for atheists as you indicate. There are. We must compare them all in a statistical analysis if there is any persuasive force to be had in either direction.

In your example this junior atheist faculty member would have hopes of eternal bliss if he switches sides, and so he may not consider the opinions of colleagues to be that significant. And given the fact that he would be known as a hero in Christian circles he could much more easily end up teaching for a Christian college. A Christian professor in a Christian college who becomes an atheist has nothing but the fear of hell to consider if he's wrong, plus the general population's social approbation, and he would be much less likely to get a teaching position at a state run college.

So perhaps to gain this limited persuasive weight you or someone else should argue why there is an existential pain parity between people who switches sides.

RD Rauser said...

Part of the problem is that I don't think we reason the way you suppose. Take Pastor Joe. He chooses to have a steamy affair with his secretary, knowing that it will imperil his marriage, career, and perhaps even his very soul. But though the flames of hell burn bright, the flames of passion burn brighter.

Joe is, to my mind, both immoral and irrational. But then the trivial payoff of the immediate moment is often much more persuasive than the enormous payoff in the long run.

By the same token, I don't think we can say with any conviction that the fear of hell always (or even mostly) is sufficient to overwhelm immediate goods like the approval of peers and career advancement.

Gandolf said...

Randal Rauser said... "Take Pastor Joe. He chooses to have a steamy affair with his secretary, knowing that it will imperil his marriage, career, and perhaps even his very soul. But though the flames of hell burn bright, the flames of passion burn brighter."

So does the sex life in his existing marriage happen to play any part in the outcome of this overall picture, when sexual urges are programmed into us all biologically.Does it depend on whether Pastor Joe is simply a sex addict,pervetedly immoral,or just trying to deal with some natural urges.

If its biological urges thats the overiding force then the "trivial payoff" of the immediate moment is naturally often much more persuasive because Joe has a biological problem that demands some attention.

But just because Joe finds his immediate biological needs overwhelming ,how does this work to remove any conviction of fear of hell.

Joes "mind" might say,oh my giddy aunt, i fear hell and its a matter that deals with my future!.Joes biological "body" says look here sunshine, i deal with nature, and im sorry but just so happens your biological need is actually immediate.

T said...

As a psychologist I get to work a lot with individuals' cognitive biases related to a host of issues. That process has made, to some extent, more aware of my own biases. To say that was are all affected by the phenomenom is an understatement. Our complete construction of reality is all symbolic and for the ultimately purpose of functionality. Wrong beliefs can be functional and are therefore harder to get rid of. One of my dearest and longest friends from childhood is a professor at the religious university where we both graduated from. We often ask very similar questions, but seem to arrive a completely different conclusions when it comes to religion. His faith is important to him and I often suspect that he protects his faith so that it can continue to serve the very useful purpose it serves in his life. I, too, was offered a teaching position (not at our Univerisity, but seminary), but decided not to accept it. I wonder if my own faith wouldn't have been preserved if I would have remained in that setting. Emotionally it was very fulfilling. I had very close relationships in a protected and safe envirnment. However, after leaving the enviornment of daily chapel, wonderful worship, and close friends of similar mindsets and values and moved into the secular world of psychology that "comfortable envirnment" lost its appeal. I learned that I could have a rich and full life with out and that I could have fulfilling and rich relationships in my new world. It took a while, but I think I am more courageous with my beliefs now. I really would like for there to be a God. Even more, I would really like for there to be a heaven (I could do without Hell). But even if there is a God, I can't think of any reasons that are meaningful to me to suppose that there really is a heaven. Well, that's my cognitive bias/predispostion anyway!

Ignerant Phool said...

"Part of the problem is that I don't think we reason the way you suppose. Take Pastor Joe. He chooses to have a steamy affair with his secretary, knowing that it will imperil his marriage, career, and perhaps even his very soul. But though the flames of hell burn bright, the flames of passion burn brighter."

I don't think it's necessarily a case about the way we reason, but how. Or, maybe this wasn't the best analogy to use. In this case, the pastor knows his actions are wrong, he's not questioning the matter. Now, we are comparing Pastor Joe to someone who leaves Christianity not wanting it to be untrue, plus a fear of hell. This is two different reasoning which led to each decision making, and the two doesn't really compare.


GearHedEd said...

Obviously, one of the biggest reasons tha Christian crowd holds up "former atheists" as heroes is because to have changed one's mind in this manner is MUCH harder than to move from belief to unbelief.

So much logic and reason needs to be thrown out...

Mr. Gordon said...

The outsider test is not an antidote for confirmation bias. If it is then why are you so bias. An example your bias is the belief that all Christians are brain washed. Your blog is full of biases like this.

Further more, the last group of people I would read to get an objective view of Christianity are atheist. Atheist are about as objective as creationist are. They have their agendas and part of that agenda is to get rid of Christianity.

Atheists are also like fundamentalist Christians in that they want to convert as many people to their world view as they can. The outsider test is one tool meant to convert people to the atheist way of thinking.

Lastly, some atheist writing is nothing more than propaganda. It is meant to influence the societies veiw towards religion and how people should react to it.


Anonymous said...

Harold, thanks for stopping by. Am I a fundamentalist?

jwhendy said...


Pretty strong statements. I think both sides can learn from one another. Being in the midst of conducting my own OTF, it seemed a logical thing for me to do long before I ever knew of John Loftus and his applied terminology for it.

I was a strong Catholic believer with no doubts on the horizon. One day while installing Linux for my dad on Christmas break I had the inquiry pop into my head about whether any non-gospel writers/historians wrote about Jesus. So I googled it. I was not impressed. It shocked me. How could i have the gospel-picture of Jesus on one hand and contemporaries who were right there in the same locale and time setting barely mention him? 'Preposterous!', I thought.

That made me wonder. I got interested in whether the Bible was valid historically, whether there were inconsistencies, and from there went on to all kinds of other questions: creation, how the fall works in light of evolution, the problem of evil, etc.

Very early on I thought that the best way to test my faith would be to suppose it wasn't necessarily true and to try and prove it to myself.

I have utterly failed to do so.

I was harshly criticized for this by the active Catholic men's group I still attend. I was supposed to 'have faith seeking understanding' and essentially suppose that Christianity was true and then seek to understand why rather than doing what I did.

But why?

I approached this all with more faith in god in my method than is suggested by their method. Why? Because I truly believed that 1) if god is the source of all truth, I would have no choice but to end my search back at him and 2) that he would not be upset with me for seeking the truth. All I wanted was the firmest grasp of the truth that was possible, whether that meant being a Christian or not. I no longer wanted hesitancy when thinking about 'evangelization.' I wanted convincing arguments that allowed me to share my worldview and beliefs with anyone rather than just those who were already believers.

So, Harold, 'Yes', I want to convert others to the truth. Why wouldn't I? Call it propaganda if you'd like, but I believe it's immoral to want anyone to continue believing a falsehood. Why allow someone to believe that bloodletting, horoscopes, a flat earth, young earth creationism, etc. are true when they are demonstrably false? Same with god. If he can't be shown to exist and even more so, very convincing arguments exist which poke holes in the common apologetics supporting Christianity... why continue to believe?

True 'facts' are such that it doesn't matter which side of belief one approaches from; both sides lead to truth.

Why in the world would a god reveal himself in such a way that you only believe... if you believe (sounds circular because it is!)? Why can't I test various theories and find out for myself?

Get two people to disagree about the boiling temperature of water; pop a beaker on a hot plate with a thermometer or thermocouple inside and watch for bubbles. Both will come out 'believers' in the same thing.

Take two people who disagree about religion. They will just argue forever.