John Loftus, his Outsider Test for something or other, and Skepticism
A year ago I wrote a series of essays criticizing The End of Christianity, a book edited by John W. Loftus. A couple days ago I suggested that he consider responding to the essays I wrote in the series relevant to his work and he obliged mere hours later. (My initial anticipation quickly dissipated when I realized that John probably should have spent a few more hours — or perhaps days — formulating his response before posting. But more on that momentarily.)
I wrote an initial response to John’s long overdue rebuttal here. In it I defended the first two points of my critique from John’s spurious response. John has sworn off commenting on blogs run by Christians so I also engaged with him on his website here. I think the exchange can be summarized by saying that John’s rebuttals were not serious and thus my initial critique is sustained.
But I didn’t quite get through John’s comments in that initial response. So now it is time for the initial response to hand the baton off to the final response. I have devoted this final essay to responding to three points, the first two on John’s beloved Outsider Test and the third on his misbegotten comments on skepticism. So let’s get started.
The Outsider Test of Faith: Bad Argument or Bald Assertion?
Anybody who has even a passing familiarity with the work of John Loftus will know that his big schtick is the so-called ”Outsider Test for Faith”. (Or “Outsider Test of Faith.” I always forget which preposition his brand uses.) Unfortunately it isn’t always clear what this “argument” is supposed to be. (If it is indeed supposed to be an “argument”. As we’ll see, it would appear that it isn’t actually an argument but rather a mere declaration. But more on that in a moment.) So I began by attempting to summarize Loftus’ Outsider Test as follows:
(1) If you are the adherent to a religion you should subject your basic metaphysical commitments to skeptical “outsider” analysis.
(2) If you do (1) you will become an atheist.
(3) Thus the person who does (1) and remains committed to their religion did not really do (1).
(4) Atheists don’t have to subject their metaphysical commitments to skeptical analysis because they already did so and that’s why they’re atheists.
In his long-awaited rebuttal to my critique Loftus takes issue with (1). Thus, he proposes the following rewrite:
(1’) If you are the adherent to a religion you should subject your basic metaphysical commitments to skeptical “outsider” analysis in the same way you do to the metaphysical commitments that you reject (I prefer the phrase “religious faiths” to “metaphysical commitments” but that’s probably just a quibble since I use that phrase myself).
Frankly, John’s addition seems redundant, so long as we understand what “skeptical ‘outsider’ analysis” means. As a result, this doesn’t even amount to a quibble.
More telling are John’s comments on two other propositions in the argument. He writes:
“When it comes to (2) and (3) these things are not actually part of the test itself. They are conclusions I think reasonable people should probably come to though.”
That’s interesting, for that seems to mean that John’s Outsider Test is described fully in (1). And that means that it isn’t an argument at all. Instead, it is simply a bald assertion, one that presumably you either accept or not. This suggests that I was being too generous by attempting to turn a mere bald assertion into an argument that might have some probative force for those who do not yet accept it.
The Outsider Test as Otiose
Next, John takes issue with my claim that Outsider Test would be rendered otiose if we’d all just follow this advice. This is what I suggested as a substitute:
“Everyone should critically introspect their basic worldview commitments with objectivity and care.”
John objects to this modest suggestion. As he says, ”The problem with this “test” of [Randal's] is that it is no test at all.” (Indeed, it isn’t a test. It’s a principle. But let’s leave that aside.) John then explains:
“Just ask any apologist for a different faith or sect within it if they have done so. They have, you see, all of them. But ask them instead to be consistent, by subjecting their own faith to the same level of skepticism they already subject the other faiths they reject, and that will get their attention. It calls for a non-double standard.”
However, John isn’t demonstrating here that the Outsider Test is necessary. Instead, what he’s demonstrating is that the apologists he refers to didn’t actually “critically introspect their basic worldview commitments with objectivity and care” as my principle advised. If they had done so, there simply would be no need for John’s test.
Let me give you an illustration. Let’s say that you buy a new computer. Later you go to another computer store and a salesman tries to sell you a microphone to go with your computer. That is like John attempting to sell his Outsider Test of Faith. And what I’m doing is pointing out that your computer already comes with a better and more versatile microphone than the one the salesman is trying to get you to buy. If people just learned how to use the microphone that’s already installed in the computer they’d never buy the substandard unit the salesman is peddling.
John Loftus on Skepticism
Next in my review I quote John as saying: “Skepticism is an adult attitude for arriving at the truth.” (13) I then commented:
Epistemologically speaking, this is a dimestore comment, the kind that you expect to hear from undergraduates who are taking their first Intro to Philosophy course and have become enamored with Descartes’ “Meditations”. But try that statement out in a graduate seminar in epistemology. To equate the pursuit of truth with skepticism alone is like rowing on only one side of the boat. A grown up approach to the pursuit of truth involves a richly nuanced balancing act between skepticism and belief, doubt and commitment.
John replies like this:
Rauser badly mischaracterizes my point. We were all raised as believers. Whatever our parents told us we believed. We didn’t know not to do so. Children are gullible people. Does the phrase, “It’s like taking candy from a baby” have any meaning at all to it? Sure it does. Skepticism is a learned attitude. That’s the point. It doesn’t come naturally. Adults should have that attitude by critically examining the basis of what they were taught on their mama’s knees about religion. Why? Precisely because all mama’s cannot be correct when they teach their children to believe mutually exclusive religions. Therefore, by virtue of religious diversity alone, skepticism is an adult attitude for arriving at the truth.
Interestingly, John’s commentary makes it clear that I didn’t mischaracterize his point. And the more he talks (or types) the cruder the picture gets. How so? Consider that John characterizes children as “gullible” for trusting credible authorities (and for the average child, their parent is indeed a credible authority as one who once wiped their bum, provides their meals, meets their needs and protects them from harm). But that does not make a child gullible. It is wholly reasonable to assent to the testimony of a credible authority. It only becomes unreasonable when the authority provides some defeater to his/her credibility. This would be the case if the authority (e.g. the parent) acted in a way that clearly discredited his testimony (e.g. acting erratically as a result of mental illness; consistently giving verifiably false testimony, etc.) or if a number of other credible authorities disputed this authority’s credibility (e.g. if all the family members had an intervention at which the child was present, and they provided evidence that the parent was a serial liar).
As I have often said, what John describes here — this fixation on skepticism without any recognition of the importance that credulity (aptitude to believe) plays in the reasonable person — is akin to rowing on only one side of the canoe. If you doubt everything then you’ll certainly end up just going in circles.
But of course John doesn’t want us to be skeptical of everything. His advice, in particular, he’d like us to believe. Too bad his own words discredit his authority.