In this installment of our never-ending review of John Loftus’ Why I Became an Atheist we’re going to consider chapter three which discusses Loftus’ signature argument, “The Outsider Test for Faith.” The core idea of Loftus’ argument is that given the many different religious belief systems, and given the formidable cultural formation that leads people to adopt one or another religion, it is highly unlikely that any particular one of these religions is going to be true. And so Loftus proposes a test to see if our particular religion is true. According to the “Outsider Test” the religions adherent is to treat his/her religion as an outsider would, viewing it with the same degree of skepticism. One should only continue to accept their religion if it would persuade an outsider. Otherwise it should be abandoned. (65)
Bottled water is unnecessary
Loftus’ efforts to push his outsider test remind me of a bottled water company attempting to sell their “Aquafina” or “Dasani” brand of H2O.
The company wants to sell you basically the same product in a bottle that is already available in a tap. After all, Aquafina and Dasani are bottled from the public water supply. Once people recognize this fact, they can leave the bottled water at the store and bottle their own water straight from the tap.
In a similar manner, Loftus’ test provides nothing that isn’t already publicly available. You don’t need Loftus to be aware that human beings are fallible and prone to error, that our beliefs are informed by culture and context, and that we are often slaves to our own confirmation biases and motivated reasoning. Nor do you need Loftus’ test to help you begin to fight against these epistemic limitations. Cognitive psychologists and epistemologists have already provided a rich set of resources to help us identify and keep our cognitive biases in check and to cultivate epistemic virtues. (Here are some samples: Gregg A. Ten Elshof, I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2009); Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage, 2013); and my own You’re not as Crazy as I Think: Dialogue in a world of loud voices and hardened opinions (Biblica, 2009).)
We don’t need Loftus’ argument. All we need is to check our cognitive biases and cultivate our epistemic virtues.
Vladimir Putin on human rights?
Here’s a predictable rejoinder: I recommended some books as guides for this “publicly available” wisdom. Why not simply add Loftus’ book to the list?
For starters, Loftus himself is an absolutely terrible exemplar since his book is beset by cognitive biases and lack of epistemic virtue as I have demonstrated in parts 1-9 of this review. Loftus’ own biases and lack of epistemic virtue are further illustrated by the fact that he has provided no substantial response to any of my criticisms here or on his own blog. Instead, he has simply printed insults, dismissing my review as a “nitpicky whining misguided and false review” (without providing any documentation for these charges) while insisting that “Rauser doesn’t show a High Schooler awareness of how to properly review a book” and that if I want “a place at the adult table” I need to listen to him.
Apparently the lesson here is that if you have no arguments, you should resort to unsubstantiated charges and demeaning insults.
In sum, for Loftus to attempt to lecture on cognitive bias and epistemic virtue is akin to Vladmir Putin lecturing people on human rights and the freedom of the press.
The advice of an ideologue
It should not surprise us that when an ideologue like Loftus attempts to provide people with instruction on how to overcome their cognitive biases, that advice will come wrapped in his cognitive biases. And that’s precisely what we see here. Note that Loftus’ “outsider test” is directed toward those who have religious beliefs. That immediately inhibits its use as a tool because it focuses on one comparatively narrow set of beliefs, i.e. “religious” ones. But cognitive biases affect all our beliefs as does our failure to achieve epistemic virtue. Loftus himself provides ample evidence of that.
To make matters worse, his test is generally presented as a punctiliar event or delimited process of religious self-examination. This too limits its value, for human beings always need to check our biases and cultivate epistemic virtue. We are forever works in process. You don’t pass a single test and then get confirmed as “clear” (and that includes Tom Cruise). Consequently, Loftus’ so-called outsider test conveys a very misleading impression that one can pass a particular test and then be found rational in perpetuity. That is dangerous self-delusion. And I frequently see the results in the comment section of this very blog when you get ideologues railing against religion who think that because they are “secular” or “atheistic” or self-described “skeptics” that somehow that makes them more reasonable.
For a good illustration of Loftus’ own lack of epistemic virtue, consider the way he deals with criticism against his views from Matt Flannagan and myself. He writes: “Matthew Flannagan and Randal Rauser go so far as to argue that if the OTF is a fair way to examine religious faith then I should be skeptical of the results of empirical science, really!” (76) That’s all he says. And he provides no documentation so that the reader can confirm the accuracy of his claim. Suffice it to say, I have no idea what Loftus is talking about here.
Here the lesson seems to be: distort and caricature your opponents’ objections … and hope nobody asks you for documentation.
These are not good lessons to be teaching. Perhaps Loftus should spend less time focusing on his outsider test for others and start worrying about his own unchecked cognitive biases and epistemic virtue.
For further listening and reading
If you’re interested in hearing Loftus and I discuss his outsider test you can listen to our interview on Justin Brierley, “Unbelievable” from June 2013.
You can also read my critique of Loftus’ test in my book The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails, chapter 12.