On The Fundamental Objection to the OTF

[Republished post from 3/03/ 2012]
In a very well-written comment EricRC, a Ph.D. student in philosophy with promise, sums up what he calls the fundamental objection to the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF). Before sharing and then critiquing what he wrote let me refresh my readers on what it is:
(1) Rational people in distinct geographical locations around the globe overwhelmingly adopt and defend a wide diversity of religious faiths due to their upbringing and shared cultural heritage. This is the religious diversity thesis (RDVT).

From this sociological/demographic fact it follows that:

(2) It is highly likely that adopting one’s religious faith is not merely a matter of independent rational judgment. Rather, to an overwhelming degree, one’s religious faith is causally dependent on cultural conditions. This is the religious dependency thesis (RDPT).

From (1) and (2) it follows that:

(3) It is highly likely that any given adopted religious faith is false.

Given these odds we need a test, or an objective standard, to help us determine if our inherited religious faith is true, so I propose that:

4) The best and probably the only way to test one’s adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of skepticism one uses to evaluate other religious faiths. This expresses the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF).
Now, EricRC wrote:
John, it seems to me that the fundamental objection to the OTF is as follows: 

We have to distinguish what's essential to the OTF from what's accidental.

What's essential, as far as I can tell, is the notion that similar truth claims should be held to similar epistemic standards when we reason about them, for if you're using different epistemic standards for different truth claims that are in the same category, then you're acting in a way that's minimally epistemically suspect, and most likely epistemically illegitimate. So, when you look at the epistemic standards you hold a claim C to, they should be in accord with the epistemic standards you hold to claim C' if C' is in the same category of claims (however we establish the boundaries) as C.

I take it that this is uncontroversial, right? After all, this is precisely what you and the DC defenders of the OTF say all the time: C (Christianity is true) and C1, C2, C3...Cn (Islam, Hinduism, Scientology, etc. is true) are claims that are subsets of F (faith) claims; so, if you are persuaded that C is true on rational grounds, and that, say, C1, C2 and C3 are false on rational grounds, then, if we examine the grounds that are applied across C, C1, C2 and C3, we should find that they are consistent.

However, we all know that when human beings reason, they often apply different standards to truth claims they accept from those they reject. So, one way to think about applying the same standards would be to suggest that someone who accepts C on rational grounds to consider C from the perspective of someone who rejects C on rational grounds. That is, if you take C to be true on rational grounds, and you want to see if you’re applying the epistemic standards that led you to the truth of C consistently, then you should, as far as this test goes, adopt an outsider perspective with respect to C and evaluate the rational grounds for it from there. Further, you should examine the grounds on which you reject C1 etc. to see if you’re acting consistently. When faith claims are at issue, we call this sort of test the OTF.

Note, the OTF just is a particular way of going about asking whether you’re applying the same epistemic standards to truth claims in similar categories (let‘s call this principle N). That is, what’s essential to the OTF is just this notion, viz. the same standards should be applied to the same sorts of claims. What’s particular is that it’s about faith claims. But again, note that N *is not* faith specific. That is, there’s nothing that precludes the application of N to other categories. Hence, *if* there is a legitimate OTF, then there are, ineluctably, outsider tests for other claims in the same category, e.g. moral claims or political claims. Therefore, everything that you claim follows from the application of N to F by way of assuming the position of an outsider-- that is, from the OTF -- follows for claims in these other categories as well.

Again, this is, as far as I can see, inescapable (given current formulations of the OTF). But then this gives us an outsider test for the outsider test, as it were: If we apply N to other categories of claims by adopting the position of an outsider to those claims, do your skeptical conclusions vis-à-vis the OTF follow?

Well, it seems to me that they do. We’ve been through this all before: equally intelligent and equally well informed people disagree about all sorts moral and political claims, moral and political positions are heavily correlated with the time and place in which one is born and raised, and so on. Further, when we adopt moral and political positions, we affect thousands if not millions of people in a variety of ways -- some of them coercive. Hence, we have good reasons to question whether N obtains as people go about reaching their moral and political conclusions, and we have good reasons for desiring N to obtain. So, we have as good a set of reasons, both epistemic and practical, for formulating an outsider test for M (morality) and P (politics) as we do for F (faith).

But, as you know, very few moral and political claims could pass the OTM and the OTP. Hence, given the current formulation of the OTF, and given what you claim follows from it -- viz. the imperative of skepticism -- it follows that moral and political skepticism follow from the OTP and the OTM. But that strikes us as absurd. Indeed, you’ve tried (unsuccessfully, in my judgment) to avoid this implication of the OTF on numerous occasions. However, as the argument sketched above concludes, these implications are unavoidable -- again, given the OTF in its current form. But then the OTF fails its own outsider test.

As I see it, issues of this sort (along with issues of vagueness) are what predominate concerns with the OTF. You may disagree, but I don’t think you can say that the grounds I’ve provided above are irrational or poorly thought out. They are, I think, serious objections, and they’re motivated not by a desire to avoid the OTF, but by a desire to understand it by taking it seriously enough to think it through.

I do appreciate EricRC for taking the time to think through the OTF and treat it seriously. It affords me another chance to to respond to this type of criticism, even though I have responded to it several times before. Let me do so again.

First) Are there relevant similarities between religious faiths and moral political views? There are some similarities to be sure, since people also disagree with each other on moral and political issues. But there are three significant differences, the demographics, the extraordinary nature of religious claims, and that moral/political views are forced upon us whereas religious faiths are not.

a) The demographics. Look at a map of world religions found here:

World Religions Map

Here's the key enlarged a bit since it’s too small in the picture:

Map Key

Now let’s say we created a world map of moral and political views based on the demographics. Would such a map show the same type of geographical distribution as we see about religious faiths? The answer is both yes and no. Yes there would be similarities, but no, the similarities would not overall be relevant ones. In some cases specific moral duties and political views are necessitated by a particular culturally dominant religion (such as wanting a theocracy, wearing burkas, male chauvinism, contra-homosexuality, and so forth). So the similarities are not relevant ones because religious diversity produces moral and political diversity. Religious diversity stands in the way of a achieving a moral and political global consensus. Eliminating religion would therefore go a long way toward achieving a moral/political consensus if it’s possible to do so.

If trends tell us anything, when people revolt they want more democracy, and when they vote with their feet they come to countries with democracies. It would seem as if democracies are the wave of the future. When it comes to morality, overwhelming numbers of people hold to basic ethics (as opposed to dilemma ethics), expressed even by C.S. Lewis in his book, The Abolition of Man (even though I disagree with his conclusions). So in the end, the demographics are not similar in the same relevant sense between religious faiths and moral/political views.

b) The extraordinary nature of religious claims. Belief in supernatural forces (or beings) and their workings in the world through answered prayers and miracles (like divinely inspired texts, virgin births, resurrections and flying through the sky) are in a different category of beliefs than moral/political views. There is therefore a significant difference between the nature of religion and moral/political views. Moral and political views can and do have empirical evidence for them. [More on this later]

c) Moral/political views are forced upon us whereas religious faiths are not. Contrary to William James’s claim that religion is a forced option, the reality is that moral/political views are forced upon us. To be in a society demands that we have rules for living. We have no choice if we want to live in a society, any society. We must have them. In some ways it’s better to have bad rules than none at all. So long as most people agree or so long as these rules are forced upon us by a dictator, we will have them. We’ll have them whether we like them or not, whether they can be justified or not, and whether we agree with them or not. By contrast when it comes to religious faiths we do not need them. We can have morality and a good government without religion, as Phil Zuckerman has shown us, and as even most Christian philosophers admit. They argue rather that morality and a good government are based on God, not that we need to believe in God for us to act morally or have a good government.

Second) We need to be clear on what the perspective of the outsider is all about. The OTF is the name of an argument. The name I gave to this argument is not the argument itself. The word “outsider” in the argument is an example that illustrates a skeptic, a doubter, a nonbeliever. Such a person is an outsider because he or she is not an insider. An insider is a believer and an outsider is a nonbeliever. The insider believes in a particular religious sect. The outsider does not. The insider has faith. The outsider doubts. The insider makes extraordinary claims. The outsider makes no claims. The insider has a belief in search of data.

So one could just as easily substitute the word “skeptical” and call it the “Skeptical Test for Faith.” For that matter, it could just as well be called the “Scientific Test for Faith” or the “Consistent Test for Faith” or the “Golden Rule Test for Faith” or the “Objective Test for Faith” or the “Burden of Proof Test for Faith” or even simply “A Test for Faith.” That’s what is meant by the word “outsider.” But because of this misunderstanding, Christian defenders have constructed all kinds of wildly improbable outsider-type scenarios.

Almost all of the objections to the OTF are red herrings placed in the road to sidetrack us from getting at the truth. They do not understand the perspective of an outsider, or they grossly misrepresent it in favor of faith. The outsider perspective is not about being anti-scientific, or some Martian, or a sociopath, or a lunatic, or a rapist. Hey, why not be an outsider to love, too, or life, they might add! It is the perspective of science, which is the same standard believers use when rejecting other religions.

Third) What exactly is the skepticism of the outsider? It’s doubt, reasonable doubt. It is the adult attitude, the scientific attitude. What is reasonable doubt? That can be a complicated topic but one thing seems sure, the skepticism demanded by the OTF only needs to be the same level of skepticism believers in one religion have toward other religious faiths than their own. If we grant theirs is a reasonable doubt toward other religions then they should apply that same level of doubt to their own religion. Otherwise they have a double standard.

But I can do better than that even though I don’t need to. The outsider looks at the data to determine the probability of a claim. The insider takes a leap of faith beyond the probabilities. The outsider doesn’t claim more than what the probabilities can show. We should never go beyond what the probabilities show when assessing a truth claim. And the probabilities are set by scientific reasoning, which is reasoning about the evidence. We need sufficient evidence commensurate with a claim for us to accept such a claim. Skeptical thinking is the hallmark of scientific reasoning. Scientists need to be shown the evidence and the evidence should be sufficient. This is most emphatically not a radical type of unjustified skepticism.

With this in mind we should be skeptical about everything, so I welcome this same type of reasonable skepticism about moral and political views. I welcome the day when believers will look at the evidence showing that people are born gay, that there really is global warming, that women are not inferior to men, that we do face an overpopulation crisis, and other such issues. There is evidence that we can grant health care for everyone, that parents do not need to hit or spank their kids to get them to obey, that anti-smoking laws in public places are just, and so forth. And we should look at the evidence when it comes to economics, the value of democracy, and political freedom. Only if we do can we hope to achieve any global consensus.

Fourth) What if skepticism leads us to cultural relativism? So what? Why should this be considered a criticism of the OTF? People who usually criticize cultural relativism do not understand it. Most atheists are cultural relativists because that’s where the evidence leads. If this is a criticism of the OTF then it would be like rejecting arguments against the existence of God because a consequence of doing so means that when we die, we die--that there is no hope for an afterlife. But whether we think the arguments for God's existence succeed is not dependent on the mere hope of an afterlife. If God doesn't exist then bite the bullet. So it goes for cultural relativism. If this is a consequence stemming from applying skepticism across the board to moral and political views, then bite the bullet.

Furthermore, if a consistent application of the OTF into moral and political views leads to cultural relativism then it will have doubly helped us. For if cultural relativism obtains then it takes away the main support Christian theists have for the Moral Argument to God's existence. Without a universal unchanging absolute morality that argument cannot even get off the ground.