A Refutation of David Marshall's Book Rebuttal of My OTF, Part 2

I've decided to write more than just one post about Dr. David Marshall's “rebuttal” to my book The Outsider Test for Faith (OTF). I will attempt to show why Marshall's book, How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story,is really bad. In fact, it's so bad I'm using the word "refutation" for what I'm doing here. I hardly ever use that word because refutations are usually unachievable in these kinds of debates. So let's continue, shall we?

Having taken a few unsuccessful and superficial pot shots at my level of understanding regarding the problem to be solved, which is widespread worldwide religious diversity down through the centuries as well as in different cultures today, Marshall turns to the question of religious dependency. I argued that the best explanation for this religious diversity is that adopting and justifying one’s religious faith is not a matter of independent rational judgment. Rather, to an overwhelming degree, one’s religious faith is causally dependent on brain processes, cultural conditions, and irrational thinking patterns.

Marshall takes issue with me by saying, "cultural dependency in our 'Christian' culture may be real, but is by no stretch of the imagination 'overwhelming.'" (p. 23)

Now I wasn't just talking about Christian cultures, but cultures in general, and it is as demonstrable of a fact as one can get that one's religion is dependent to an overwhelming degree on one's culture. That is, was, and will always be the main point. Nothing Marshall said can dispute that fact. It is overwhelming that children of Muslim sects in Muslim countries will adopt the religion of their parents. Overwhelming. That is the most extreme example of course, but it sets the rule for other cultures as well. Even without the demand that apostates be killed inside Muslim theocracies, in non-Muslim countries Islam is still growing very fast without force. As another example show me children raised in a snake handler's family which is cut off from the outside world and they'll also overwhelmingly adopt the religion of their parents, if they survive the snake bites. ;-) That too sets the rule. Now it might be true that American, Canadian and certainly European nations are not as Christianized as they were a few decades or more ago. To the degree they are still Christianized then people will adopt the Christianity they were exposed to within them. There should be nothing controversial about any of this, not even from Marshall, I would think.

What Marshall really seems to be objecting to is that while we're living in largely Christian cultures we're not living in overwhelmingly Christian cultures. More importantly I suppose, he's objecting that cultures in the western world are not overwhelmingly evangelical Christian ones. But this objection of his is irrelevant to my main point, and therefore does nothing at all to undercut it. Marshall ends up denying the overwhelming influence of any culture on the religion adopted within that culture based solely on his claim that a particular culture in the western world does not provide an overwhelming influence to adopt evangelical Christianity. So what if it doesn't? That still doesn't undercut the rule, even if so. It just means religious cultural dependency may be headed in another direction after 1500 hundred years of Christianity or more. Evangelical Christianity is an American phenomenon starting in the 19th century anyway, and has no history to it before then.

In any case, I do think many western societies still provide overwhelming cultural support for Christianity in general. Stretching back for centuries and into the present, Christianity still shows up in our language, critical life events, everyday habits, bodily habits, institutions, and even understandings of time and space, as David Eller writes in the first chapter of my book "The Christian Delusion." Let's just take our language as one example. See if this still doesn't have an impact on us for adopting a particular sect of Christianity:

A society’s language is the first but hardly the only place to look for the subtle power of religion. Even atheists talk the language of religion, which in American society means “speaking Christian.” Every religion not only infiltrates the local language but is a language in its own right, with its own vocabulary that has no meaning outside of that religion. For example, Christianity is rich with terminology that often has no correlate in other religions, such as “god,” “heaven,” “hell,” “sin,” “angel,” “devil,” “bless,” “soul,” “saint,” “pray,” “sacred,” “divine,” “baptism,” “purgatory,” “gospel,” and so on. These are not neutral, universal notions but are specific to this one religion. A religion like Hinduism has its own unique lexicon, with dharma and karma and samsara and moksha and yuga and so on. Christians cannot “say” these things, since they do not occur in Christianity, and Hindus cannot say “Christian things” since those things do not occur in Hinduism.

But there is much more to a religion than its vocabulary; religions, like other areas of culture, include specific things to say. Some of these conventional things to say are propositional, that is, truth claims like “God exists” or “Jesus was the son of God.” Many are not propositional, however. They may be utterances of power, meant to have an effect on the world, from “God bless America” to Navajo prayers for health to phrases like “abracadabra.” Much of religious talk is consists of scripts, routines that people perform just as surely as saying “Hello, how are you?” or “Have a nice day”; at the extreme, these scripts become liturgies, like a Catholic mass or a wedding ceremony.

Religion also provides stories (which are usually intended to apply to and organize our own lives in some way) and metaphors for thinking about the world and our behavior in it. And we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that religious language can also keep secrets, obfuscate the truth, manipulate hearers, and sometimes tell out-and-out lies. A religion like Christianity also supplies images, stories, and metaphors that pervade the culture’s speech and thought. Even a short list of such ideas and illustrations highlights how Christian-soaked our speech-community is: Mark of Cain, Garden of Eden, David versus Goliath, Jacob’s ladder, patience of Job, “my cross to bear,” “spare the rod and spoil the child,” “beat swords into plowshares,” “voice crying in the wilderness,” “Can the leopard change his spots?,” “hide your light under a bushel,” “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” “wars and rumors of wars,” “Physician heal thyself,” “lost sheep,” “grapes of wrath,” “cast the first stone,” “through a glass darkly,” and many, many more. Most atheists use most of these phrases without any thought for their source—and how the use serves the source.
The rule that people within a given culture will overwhelmingly adopt the religion of their culture depends on the degree they are immersed in that culture. Christian theists respond by asking me to explain the exceptions. I am asking them to explain the rule.

But with a sleight of hand that Houdini would be proud of David Marshall says, "by all means, let's explain the rule before the exceptions! Are boys and girls raised by snake-handlers and bigots in white sheets the exception even in American society, or the rule?" The rule, he says, is that "snake-handling KKK home-schooled kids are rare as falling stars." (p. 23). He completely missed the point. The rule, once again, is that people adopt the religion of their cultures. While snake handlers and the KKK are weird counter-cultural groups within our larger culture as a whole, the children in those families, if kept away from the larger culture, will indeed adopt their parent's beliefs. This represents the rule. No exception here.

The fact is that most all of our beliefs are culturally dependent as any others. We're all raised as believers. Whatever our parents taught us we believed. We didn't know not to do so. This is my point. It's not something Marshall can tell me about with regard to atheism, or secular humanism either, since I know this much better than he could ever admit. He cannot remind me of this. I already knew it. Our brains fool us. Our brains are belief engines. Our thinking is irrational much of the time. We prefer to believe that which we prefer to believe, and to defend that which we were raised to believe. I know this all too well. It's the reason I proposed the OTF in the first place. We need an objective standard, a non-double standard based on scientific objective evidence and reasoning about the evidence, for determining which religion is true, if there is one. Since we are all in the same drifting rudderless epistemological boat, as I said, we need a test that allows for all options to be on the table, including the non-religious option in which all faiths fail the test.

Marshall asks if his belief "that the earth circles the sun is 'culturally dependent.'" (p. 26) Of course not. Not in today's world of modern science with space explorations and moon landings. Who would even ask such a question? Is he really serious? He says other such things that are quite embarrassing of his understanding of science here. He cannot tell the difference between objective science and cultural opinions? He doesn't want to be able to do so either, so he can go on defending the indefensible. Here's a hint, Marshall, you can do the experiments yourself, and barring doing them, you can learn to appreciate how the scientific method works and listen to the overwhelming consensus of scientists who all agree. If you refuse to do this you are a science denier. That's what it takes for you to believe, in my opinion. You must deny science in at least a few areas to believe. I can even agree with you when you say believing the earth circles the sun is culturally dependent, if that's what it takes to convince someone like you, to be on the same page if you will. It's true that not all cultures have accepted the heliocentric view of the solar system, and there might be a small scientifically illiterate culture on our planet right now that doesn't accept it. However, it is a fact that the earth circles the sun. A fact! So some cultures have got it right, and the reason we've gotten it right is because of science.

Lastly Marshall accuses me of committing the genetic fallacy (p. 26). Since Marshall says nothing at all that is relevant to what I already wrote in response to this objection, all I have to do at this point is quote myself:

The genetic fallacy is committed whenever it’s argued that an idea is false because of its origination or source rather than based on its merits. Even unreliable sources can produce ideas that are true. So just showing that an idea originates from an unreliable source does not necessarily make the idea false. David Marshall argues that I commit this fallacy: “If we adopt certain beliefs because we have been taught them, does that really mean they are probably false? Obviously not. The general form of Loftus’ argument is: 1) Ideas about X vary among cultures; 2) The beliefs one adopts about X originate in one’s culture, and in that sense depend on it; 3) Therefore one’s beliefs are probably wrong. This seems to commit the genetic fallacy.”

This charge of his is false. I allow that a religion could still pass the OTF even despite its unreliable origins in our respective diverse cultures, so I’m committing no fallacy by arguing correctly that those origins are demonstrably unreliable. At best there can be only one true religion in what we observe to be a sea of hundreds of false ones, which entails a very high rate of error for how believers first adopt a religion. Hence, believers need some further test to be sure their faith is the correct one. That conclusion is not fallacious, nor is the skepticism that it entails. I’m not arguing that religious faiths are necessarily false because of how believers originally adopt them. I’m merely arguing that believers should be skeptical of their culturally adopted religious faith because of it.

Acknowledging these disclaimers of mine, retired Christian professor of philosophy Mark M. Hanna let’s me off the hook on this; otherwise, he says, “the genetic fallacy charge would stick.”14 But he also alleges that my disclaimers contradict other assertions of mine in which I state that no religion can pass the OTF.15 The problem here is that Hanna has failed to distinguish between the three stages of the arguments for the OTF in this book. My disclaimers are real. It’s just that statements in which I argue that no revealed religion can pass the test represent the third stage of argumentation. The third stage, as I said, is where people can use the OTF as a basis for debates about religious faith.

Hanna claims, however, that any conclusions based on the anthropological data argued for by David Eller “fall into the genetic fallacy.” Anthropology is a merely descriptive science, Hanna argues, and so any conclusions based on it “fall outside the scientific parameters of anthropology.”16 Eller knows that anthropology is merely a descriptive science, but there is no reason why he cannot state his conclusions based on all that he knows. He is someone we ought to listen to, since anthropology is his field of expertise. He’s studied world religions, their origins, their pervasiveness, their cultural impact, and their evolution. And he concludes that if there is a correct religion, it looks indistinguishable from how the others originated, took root in a culture, and evolved down the centuries. They all look like human inventions to meet the perceived needs of the people of their times. So he says that at some point along the line “comes the epiphanal moment,” whereby, just “like the anecdote about the religion that believes the world stands on a turtle,” it dawned on him that “Christianity is cultural all the way down.”17 Is this a conclusion derived from deductive logic from certain premises that come from anthropology itself? No. It’s an inductive conclusion from all that he knows. Can we dismiss it then like Hanna does? No. We cannot dismiss it, especially since so many other anthropologists say the same thing. Cultural and religious relativism are widely accepted by anthropologists.

Let me state for the record that I have probably never met anyone who has committed the genetic fallacy. Instead, people use their background knowledge about the general reliability of an idea’s source to determine the likelihood that an idea originating from that source is true. Almost no one says, for instance, that we can never trust a particular tabloid news story because of the tabloid’s past reputation for dishonesty. What people might say instead, or intend to say, is that we probably cannot trust a particular tabloid news story because of the tabloid’s past reputation for dishonesty. People can reasonably judge the odds of an idea being true based on their background knowledge about the general reliability of the source of that idea. If an idea originates from a known unreliable source then it’s entirely reasonable to doubt any idea coming from that same source, even though we have not yet shown that idea to be false in any other way.

Take for example a person who has the paranoid belief that the CIA is spying on him, and let’s say we find that it originated from his taking a hallucinogenic drug like LSD. Since we have linked his belief to a drug that creates many other false beliefs, we have some really good evidence to be skeptical of it, even though we have not actually shown it to be false in any other way. Likewise, when many false beliefs like these are produced at a very high rate by the same source we have a good reason to doubt any beliefs arising out of that same source.

Hanna objects by arguing that the cultural origin of one’s religious faith is irrelevant to whether it is true. But the origination of one’s faith within a particular culture is indeed relevant to the probability that one’s faith is the correct one, for we know that cultures produce a wide diversity of religious faiths. Given that many of them are mutually exclusive, we also know that many of them are false. So we have very good reasons to think that cultures are an unreliable source for producing one true religion, since they have produced so many false ones. I’m arguing that the source of most people’s religious faith is an unreliable one, coming, as it does, from the geographical accidents of birth. Differing cultures produce many different and irreconcilable religious faiths that cannot all be true. Sure, it’s possible there are people born into the correct religion, if we grant there is one. But possibility doesn’t count. Probability is all that matters. (pp. 101-104)
One more part to go. Next time. The kicker. Wait for it!