The One True Faith: Just How Many of Them Can There Be?

If only we had a way to test them all…

In the small, rural mid-western town where I grew up—and long before my arrival—the Christian souls had been sorted into Protestant and Catholic camps; I was in the former. Naturally, this was well after the eras of armed combat, so folks got along quite well despite the religious chasm. There were frictions, of course: Protestant kids were taunted by Catholic kids that they were going to hell: only followers of the Pope had the lock on heaven. But the insults were returned; one Protestant woman, whose nephew had become engaged to a Catholic woman, with wedding to be in her church, refused to attend because she had no intention of “setting foot in that heathen temple.”

If there was anything that both camps shared it was certainty. We knew that we were right, and those on the other side were wrong. And they knew that they were right, and we were wrong. This certainty was guaranteed by faith.

This standoff—these dueling certainties—went on for generations. It never dawned on anyone to ask, “Is there any way to test this?” Nor did it dawn on anyone that what we learned “at our mama’s knees”—as John Loftus has put it—might not be god’s honest truth. Nor were we aware of the role of culture in reinforcing and enforcing religious conformity. We just knew that we were right and they were wrong.

The fact is, of course, that precious little due diligence is done in the religious realm. If you want to buy a car—especially a used car—you do as much fact checking as possible. It’s the same with buying any other big-ticket items, e.g. a house or an insurance policy—or when shopping for a college for your kids. In terms of the investment of time and money, religion is also a big-ticket item.

But in this realm, the emotional investment gets in the way of due diligence. Who, after all, is inclined to question what they learned at mama’s knees? But com’on, we know there can’t be hundreds or thousands of one truth faiths…don’t we? Just a little reflection should show that one’s own religion is highly unlikely to be the one that is right. Hence the question posed above: ““Is there any way to test this?”

We can start by trying to gain a little perspective. It surely is one of the most obvious things on the planet that our religious identities are accidents of birth: to whom we were born and where—as has been pointed out endlessly. There are exceptions, to be sure. Sometimes we hear of adults raised without religion “finding Christ,” but that is hardly a surprise when the marketing of Jesus is a multi-billion dollar business. And the missionaries, foreign and domestic, engaged in this enterprise are—pardon my cynicism—hucksters. They supposedly peddle “the truth”—but they neglect to tell the whole truth; suggesting and encouraging due diligence isn’t part of their agenda at all. John Loftus says it bluntly:

“…new converts in different cultural contexts have no initial way of truly investigating the proffered faith. Which evangelist will objectively tell the ugly side of the Bible and of the church while preaching the good news? None that I know of. Which evangelist will tell a prospect about the innumerable problems Christian scholar must solve? None that I know of.”

Loftus makes this observation in his essay, “The Outsider Test of Faith Revisited,” in the 2010 anthology that he edited, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. The outsider test, in a nutshell:

“…the best way to test one’s adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of skepticism used to evaluate other religious faiths. This expresses the OTF.”

Of course, for this to work, there must be curiosity—and certainties nurtured by faith thwart the spirit of genuine inquiry. A friend who is aware that I am a minister-turned-atheist assured me that he was not an atheist, to which I responded, “Of course you are. You don’t believe in Zeus, Wotan or Poseidon—there are lots of gods you don’t believe in.” And more than one atheist has gone on to issue the challenge: “You tell me why you don’t believe in these gods—well, chances are they’re the same reasons I don’t believe in yours.”

But the problem is precisely this: most folks aren’t curious enough—have not engaged their brains enough—to really say why they don’t believe in Zeus, Wotan or Poseidon. We can go on to ask, bringing the issue a little closer to home, Why haven’t you converted to Mormonism? A lot of people know for sure it’s the one true faith. What’s wrong with it? Most folks wouldn’t have an answer because they haven’t done any due diligence on Mormonism—any more than they’ve done it on their own faith. They “know in their hearts” that their religion is true—and if they do have doubts, there are hundreds of apologists in their camp to come to the rescue.

If we can spark some curiosity—some desire to look under the hood—then we can encourage skepticism. That’s primarily what the OTF is all about.

John Loftus wrote the essay, “The Outsider Test of Faith Revisited” to address some of the criticisms leveled against it, especially by Christians who, in fact, come awfully close to putting it into practice:

“…they use David Hume’s evidentiary standards for examining miraculous claims of the faiths they reject. They also deconstruct these other religious texts by assuming human rather than divine authors. They adopt a methodological naturalist viewpoint to test these other extraordinary claims and find them wanting…I’m arguing Christians should transfer that same skepticism toward Trinitarian, incarnational, resurrection faith and see what they get. I argue they won’t get much.”

The OTF must sting, which explains why apologists bluff and evade to show that it is faulty. In the essay, Loftus highlights the criticisms of philosopher Victor Reppert, who attempts a stunningly inept ploy to divert attention from Christianity. Look at all the other things that would fail the OTF in some contexts, Reppert claims, e.g., that the material world is real, that rape is wrong, that democracy is better than monarchy. Loftus comes back with perfect rebuttals. Reppert’s level of sophistry shouldn’t surprise us—those of us who have read a lot of theology.

Don’t the apologists get tired of defending beliefs derived from ancient superstition? That a god has sent a messiah to save us, whose authenticity is vouchsafed by familiarity with demons (try reading Mark’s gospel without flinching), resurrection, eating flesh and drinking blood (try reading John 6 without flinching); and the grand finale: an expected descent from the skies by this messiah to collect a remnant of believers. The gospels are chock full of such bizarre stuff, and the apostle Paul played his part in championing this catalogue of nonsense.

Again, Loftus:

• With Reppert in mind: “…we will go to some extreme lengths to defend what we were led to believe. But we should only accept what we believe that has been derived from a highly reliable method for grasping the truth...”

• “The rational thing to do is to grow and learn and think and investigate and follow the arguments and evidence wherever they lead. This is what we should do despite wanting to cling to traditionally accepted beliefs that cannot be reasonable justified.”

The satisfying heart of Loftus’ essay is his ten-page analysis of seven objections to the OTF that he has encountered. If you want to hone your skills using this tool, this section is a helpful tutorial. One of my favorites is Number Five; one might wonder, Is there such a thing as too much skepticism? Probably not, when we’re dealing with extraordinary claims.

• “…we should be skeptical to some degree about everything we are taught to accept unless we can confirm it for ourselves.”

• “…religious beliefs warrant the same level of skepticism that other similar beliefs require, like beliefs in the elves of Iceland, the trolls of Norway, and the power of witches in Africa. They must all be subjected to the same levels of skepticism given both the extraordinary nature of these claims and how some of these beliefs were adopted in the first place.”

When we bring the OTF into play, by the way, we’re not just picking on claims about a resurrection or magical thinking about a messiah—or did Jesus really walk on water? These beliefs are embellishments that piety can’t resist (‘resurrection’ should be filed under Halloween, see Matthew 27:52-53).

We want to get at the fundamentals: “God is love” ranks as an extraordinary claim—given the level of calamity and agony in this world, supposedly under his care. Even “God is” must be considered an exceeding unlikely subterfuge—it has no evidentiary basis—for those grasping to understand cosmic and human origins.

It turns out that reality-based thinking, nurtured by skepticism, is one of the hardest things to come by. We need to master the Outsider Test of Faith and pass it on to our pious friends. Hey Christians, Jesus might have been on to something—in terms of risk: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” John Loftus has updated this: Go ahead and get yourself judged—put your faith to the test—and see where that gets you.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.