A Quick Review of The Outsider Test for Faith by John Loftus

A couple of weeks ago I received an unsolicited review copy from Prometheus Press of the most recent book from blogger John Loftus, The Outside Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion is True. I’ve reviewed a few other books of which Loftus is the author or editor and while I (obviously) disagree with him when it comes atheism, I will readily admit that I have found his books to be more interesting and useful than some of the more popular ones (e.g. God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens). He at least seems well-versed in evangelicalism (which shows through in the people he interacts with in this book e.g. Alvin Plantinga, Thomas Talbott, William Lane Craig, David Marshall, and Norman Geisler), though doesn’t seem as well acquainted with the broader Christian tradition (e.g. his discussion on universalism in pp. 48-49 leaves something to be desired).

The book begins with a brief introduction in which he states that he believes “skepticism offers the only way for believers to rationally test their faith”, and that the focus in this book is on “Christianity, especially evangelicalism, best represented by the Evangelical Theological Society and the Evangelical Philosophical Society” (pg. 7). Following this are ten chapters which I shall provide this very brief overview. The first chapter presents the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF). The OTF is comprised of a four point argument and the next few chapters delve into each of those four parts, explaining each point in more depth and interacting with what critics have said. The next few chapters deal with specific arguments against the OTF. The final two chapters put Christianity to the test and argue against faith in general. And this is followed by a concluding chapter.

As I mentioned before, the first chapter provides an explanation as to what exactly is the ‘Outsider Test for Faith’. The author begins by noting that “as children we were all raised as believers” and that “whatever our parents told us we believed” (13). This is true to such an extent that one can “even locate specific geographical boundary lines between different religious faiths around the globe” (13). He also notes that despite this fact “the strange thing is that even as adults we do not usually question our religious faiths” (14), thus “we need some sort of objective, unbiased, non-double-standard type of test in order to investigate what we were taught to believe” (15).

The OTF can be broken down into a four part argument which I shall summarize as follows: (1) there is lots of religious diversity in the world; (2) because of this religious diversity one can surmise that “one’s religious faith is causally dependent on brain processes, cultural conditions, and irrational thinking patterns” (15-16). These two points lead to (3) “at best there can be only one religious faith that is true. At worse, they could all be false” (16). Thus, the author proposes (4) “The only way to rationally test one’s culturally adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outside, a nonbeliever, with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject” (16-17).

I do not understand logic of these four steps. While I agree that the religious faith of some people is causally dependent upon their cultural upbringing, considering that fact that many people change their religious faith as they get older, this leaves a segment of society where (2) does not necessarily follow from (1), at least not when it comes to the issue of why one has chosen a specific religion. The second chapter discusses the fact of religious diversity in more detail. In it the author says:

Many evangelicals are exclusivist to a large degree. But this view simply cannot be maintained in the light of the amount of religious diversity in the world along with the subsequent rational disagreement about religious faiths among peers. If there is a God who wants us to believe in him, there would not be so much religious diversity around the globe. The probability that the Christian God exists is inversely proportional to the amount of religious diversity that exists (that is, the more religious diversity there is, the less probable it is that he exists), and there is way too much religious diversity to suppose that he does. (45)

“If there is a God who wants us to believe in him, there would not be so much religious diversity around the globe”. This is representative of some of the logic in this book. If God exists, then X must be true (why? because I say so). X is not true, therefore God does not exist.

Another curiosity of the premises behind the author’s OTF is that I can’t see where the heck (3) is coming from. Considering that religious faiths are not comprised of a solitary belief, but are instead comprised of numerous propositions (many of them being shared across religious faiths), then the force of (3) is undercut. But this is actually kind of irrelevant because the author presents no compelling case as to why (3) logically follows the premises of (1) and (2). Sure there is lots of religious diversity in the world and many people inherit their religious beliefs (and never change them). But the author’s proclamation that all religions are likely to be false does not logically follow from these facts. The author’s solution to the so-called ‘problem’ of religious diversity isn’t even a solution. Also, in (4) the author says that someone should approach their own religion with the “same level of reasonable skepticism” used when “examining the other religious faiths they reject”. Not everyone possesses a flippantly dismissive stance towards other religious faiths. I am as skeptical of my own religious tradition just as much as I am of others, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t choose one over another (and no, one doesn’t need empirical evidence in support of a religion in order to choose that one). Additionally, I don’t even agree that one needs to be an ‘outsider’ to be able to effectively critique a religion.

Further along in the first chapter, the author says that “the OTF grants that a religious faith can be reasonable” (17-18). Yet he also says:

I argue that religious faiths do not pass the OTF. I argue that by its very nature faith cannot pass the OTF because faith is always unreasonable. I argue that the problem is faith itself. With faith as a foundation, anything can be believed, so informed people should reject faith altogether. … Again, it is possible that there could be a religion that passes the test… But I argue… that because of the nature of faith, no faith passes the outside test. Sufficient evidence just doesn’t exist for any faith. (19)

And then towards the end of the book he says this: “I argue that any believer who claims to have successfully taken and passed the OTF has not done so properly” (172). He also says that this is not due to “any pretheoretic commitment” on his part, but rather comes as “[his own] result of applying the OTF” (172). What can one do but LOL at such a statement?! He is effectively saying, “Look! I took my religion through the OTF and it failed, therefore everyone else will arrive at the same result”. Tight logic there, sir.

The first chapter then takes a look at some precursors to the OTF, naturally showing that the author is simply following in the footsteps of Socrates, Descartes, Hume, and even Thomas Jefferson! Towards the end of the chapter the author describes how the OTF relates to those pesky liberal people of faith:

The more conservative, exclusivist, and pseudoscientific the religious faith is, the more helpful the OTF will be. The more liberal, inclusivist, and accepting of scientifically based reasoning the religious faith is, the less important the OTF will be. But it is important for all types of religious faiths, to various degrees. (30)

Being the quasi-universalist that I am, I naturally fall under the second umbrella in the author’s bifurcation of believers into ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ groups. However, as the author says, because liberals still accept faith-based reasoning they “are not off the book” (30). And as one finds in chapter 10, the author has a little bit of disdain towards faith-based reasoning.

On at least a few occasions throughout the book, the author states that one’s religious beliefs should be based on “sufficient evidence”. In the third chapter he discusses how one’s religious beliefs are “not a matter of independent rational judgment” (53) but rather, “to an overwhelming degree, one’s religious faith is causally dependent on brain processes, cultural conditions, and irrational thinking patterns” (53). I agree that, for many people, their religious faith is causally dependent upon their upbringing. Yet, of course, many people change as their religious faith as they get older and think for themselves. Of course, the author will say that such cases are still the result of irrational judgments and that we should require “sufficient evidence based on scientific reasoning before coming to any firm conclusions about religion” (72). But the author fails to convince me of this.

Why should I believe a foundationalist and empiricist/verificationist outlook? Is this the only way to acquire true knowledge? [note: By “foundationalist” I mean the idea that knowledge resembles a progression where you commence with some basic or intuitive ideas (e.g. the Cogito Ergo Sum of Descartes), with more complex ones being added onto that foundation. By “empiricist/verificationist” I mean the idea that knowledge is only legitimate to the extent that it has been proven or verified].

This is what I see when I’m reading Loftus in The Outsider Test for Faith: “Christianity (and every other religion) is false as there is no legit evidence or verifiable data to back up its extraordinary claims and I only believe what I can see. I only believe in science because empiricism and inductive logic can withstand all challenges.” Now, before I am castigated for being an anti-empiricist or some such thing, I should mention that I do not have anything against an empiricist viewpoint. I do not, however, accept that the author’s empiricism is the only way to obtain true knowledge, nor do I accept naturalism [by “naturalism” I do not mean methodological naturalism (i.e. science) but rather ontological naturalism, that is, the philosophical position that everything that exists is composed of the natural material elements and thus is susceptible to scientific explanation through methodological naturalism].

Also, this raises the question as to what exactly constitutes “sufficient evidence”. If a person was asked why they believe in God and/or why they are a Christian and their response is: “An angel visited me one evening and told me that Jesus Christ is Lord”. Would that person be right in saying that this is sufficient evidence for their Christian faith? I know that this hypothetical person would have a hard time convincing other people to believe in the Christian God simply due to their own personal experience, but the important thing is that it would be sufficient enough for their own Christian faith. Can personal ‘revelations’ or experiences play any legitimizing role in one’s own personal faith? Considering I do not hold to naturalism and that I have experienced some weird shit to which I have not found an adequate natural explanation, I would answer yes.

If one has gone through experiences that one is sure are not susceptible to an ordinary naturalistic explanation, is that sound enough reasoning for them to believe in a supernatural explanation? For someone who holds to naturalism, then the answer is no. But considering that the author’s philosophically devoid arguments did not convince me to embrace his empiricist and naturalist viewpoint, I would have to disagree and say yes. I support the evidential value of one’s own experiences. I know that many people will reject the evidential value of ‘supernatural’ phenomena and will say it is insufficient to warrant the remarkable claims people say it led them to (i.e. belief in gods, afterlife, etc). That is all well and good. I would not expect other people’s personal experiences to change a skeptic’s opinion. But if one experiences something to which they find naturalistic explanations inadequate, and said person is not a fundamentalist dogmatist who must simply reject a supernatural explanation just because it is a ‘supernatural’ one, then such experiences are good enough reason for themselves to believe in the existence of the supernatural and so forth.

Anywho, I was planning on writing more on this review but its late and I need to get some shut-eye. In a nutshell, this book argues that people should approach their own religious faith with the same level of skepticism that they approach other religious faiths. Amazing that an entire book could be written on this! Unfortunately, the book lacks any philosophical depth (but makes up for it in non sequiturs), is poorly argued, and is primarily aimed towards the exclusivist and conservative faiths (esp. evangelicalism). So it isn’t really useful except for maybe someone who has never given critical thought to their religious beliefs before.

Oh yea, one more thing. The blurbs to this book are atrocious. Here is but one example: “A must-read for believers and any atheists who want to debate them. Superbly argued, air­tight, and endlessly useful, this should be everyone’s first stop in the god debate.” –Richard Carrier. I know blurbs are usually ridiculous but Merciful Mother in heaven, did he even read the book?!

One response

  1. First, you might want to put this on your list of book reviews. Next, I wonder if you would be at all interested in writing a longer response to what you see as the best arguments against skepticism of Loftus’ type. I appreciated your review of Reason for God—I find extremely few Christians who actually know what the good arguments are and are willing to take them seriously. I wouldn’t mind conspiring on such an endeavor. I don’t see any email address, so here’s this comment and I can be reached at labreuer@gmail.com . 🙂

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