This is a repost of the eighth installment of my extended review of The Christian Delusion (ed. John Loftus) which I published originally in 2010 at “The Christian Post”.
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John Loftus, “The Outsider Test of Faith Revisited,” 81-106.
John Loftus is well known for his “outsider test for faith” which is featured in his book Why I Became an Atheist. It is a challenge to people who hold to religious faith of whatever sort to approach their beliefs with the objective, critical distance of an outsider. Loftus wants believers to take this challenge because he is convinced that if they do they will likely find themselves rejecting whatever faith it is that they hold.
Here is how he lays out the argument in this revised form:
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 cultural heritage. This is the religious diversity thesis.
2. Consequently, it seems very likely that adopting one’s religious faith is not merely a matter of independent rational judgment but is causally dependent on cultural conditions to an overwhelming degree. This is the religious dependency thesis.
3. Hence the odds are highly likely that any given adopted religious faith is false.
4. So 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. (82)
First a good word. I agree that we ought to think about our beliefs from an outsider’s perspective. But as will become clear, I think this applies and has different implications than does Loftus. I think his application of this principle is arbitrary and ultimate self-serving. I also think that the way it is formed it could lead to a pretty sweeping skepticism.
Why OTF goes too far
To start with, I have a bone to pick with premise 2. What makes the level of a religion’s causal dependence on culture “overwhelming”? How would one judge that? This is important because the fact that it’s allegedly overwhelming is necessary for the argument to succeed. So my question: What justifies “is causally dependent on cultural conditions to an overwhelming degree” over-against a much more modest and more plausible “is shaped by cultural conditions”?
Various other things are shaped by our cultural environment. Take vision for example. Here I’ll quote from Lionel Nicholas in his Introduction to Psychology which recounts the findings of an anthropologist named Turnbull:
“Turnbull stated that when he was accompanied by a pygmy guide (who had spent his entire life in the dense jungle … never entering the plains in any manner) onto the open plains, they observed a buffalo (which the pygmy had only ever seen at a maximum distance of 30 meters in the jungle). When the pygmy was shown the buffalo at a distance he asked what kind of insect it was. When told that it was not an insect but rather a buffalo, he stated that it could not be a buffalo as it was too small.”
With that case study in mind (and countless others like it), let’s revisist our theses, now retooled for sense perception:
1. Rational people in distinct geographical locations around the globe overwhelmingly perceive the world in different ways due to their upbringing and cultural heritage. This is the perception diversity thesis.
2. Consequently, it seems very likely that one’s perceptual beliefs are not merely a matter of independent rational judgment but are causally dependent on cultural conditions to an overwhelming degree. This is the perception dependency thesis.
3. Hence the odds are highly likely that any given percept is false.
Is this really a good argument? In other words, do cases like Turnbull’s pygmy (not to mention our own perceptual foibles) force us to conclude that any given percept (e.g. seeing a red apple on the kitchen table or smelling freshly baked cookies) is likely false? Of course not! So why think this would be true in the case of religion? Why does the “overwhelming” suddenly kick in at religion apart from the fact that Loftus wants it to?
(On the other hand, Loftus may be a skeptic about sense perception. I don’t know him that well. But in light of what he says about science, which seems to assume a basic realism about scientific theories, I doubt it.)
Why OTF doesn’t go far enough
I don’t accept the form of the argument provided in OTF, not least for the above reason: it doesn’t justify the link from cultural formation and fallibilism to sweeping skepticism.
But from another perspective, it doesn’t go far enough.
Take two individuals, Esfandyar and Evie. Esfandyar lives in southern Afghanistan. He was raised so that his religion is Islam, his politics are Taliban, and his ethics are that the village elder gets to cast the first stone at any woman found reading a book.
Evie lives in southern California. Her religion is Christianity, her politics are GOP conservative, and her ethics are a sophisticated virtue theory she learned during her schooling at Biola combined with a healthy dose of the 10 commandments and sermon on the mount.
If this outsider test is applicable to Asfandyar and Evie’s faith, why not also apply it to their politics and ethics? Even more importantly, why doesn’t Loftus apply it to his politics and ethics? And why stop there? Let’s extend it to perception as well (not just the pygmy’s but Asfandyar’s, Evie’s, Loftus’s, and yours and mine).
Since science depends on sense perception, we can now replace a realist view of science with a socially constructed, antirealist and culturally relative science.
If we don’t care to slide down that slippery slope, then again what justifies applying the deconstruction absolutely and only to religion?
Why OTF is just self serving
Forget Evie. Let’s talk about Earth. No not the planet earth silly. Rather, the young lady named Earth, so named after her parents, leftover flower children. Her dad, Sunny, teaches philosophy at the community college. Her mum, Moon, raises organic carrots and sells them at the farmer’s market. Both Sunny and Moon come from a long line of secular humanists all the way back to Sunny’s great great great grandfather Robert Ingersoll.
Earth was raised from her mother’s knee to be an atheistic secular humanist, just like her parents. She thinks independently just like her parents taught her. She believes there is no God and morality is a social construction and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Does Earth get exempted from the OTF because she doesn’t attend a church or read a holy book (apart from the writings of Ingersoll of course)? Of course not. She too can be causally determined by her cultural upbringing to believe what she believes. If it applies to Muslims and Christians, it applies to atheists too.
But what about people who changed their views at one time? Well they too changed their views because of certain cultural and circumstantial factors which, had they not occurred, would have meant these people didn’t change their views. So that too is determined by culture.
So I guess we’re all stuck. And we’re all left with a rather bracing and very much expanded form of our second premise:
2. It seems very likely that all of one’s beliefs are not merely a matter of independent rational judgment but are causally dependent on cultural conditions to an overwhelming degree. This is the you don’t know anything so put on your headphones and tune out the world thesis.
Dang, all we wanted to do was kick some religious people around. So how did we end up here?