(book review) "The Christian Delusion" - Ch. 4: The Outsider Test for Faith Revisited

Intro:

This series is an atheist review of an important anti-Christian apologetics book, "The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails" (TCD), that is likely to be popularly discussed across the web. My review focuses explicitly on the weaknesses of the esteemed skeptical anthology and should be seen as supplementing the positive reviews from folks like Ken Pulliam, Jim Walker and the many 5 star reviews on Amazon. With all the hype there needs to be a range of internet contributions and sober assessment. How is the substance of the book framed? Is the polemical strategy a success? Have the most typical Christian objections to certain skeptical themes been addressed or ignored and amplified carelessly? Have well known inflammatory hot spots in the debate been dealt with tactfully? Have common atheist biases and prejudices been checked or are they overwhelming the actual arguments? Have the same standards that apply to Christians equally applied to the authors? Are the arguments in the book persuasive to outsiders or do they merely reinforce atheist group-think? Are weaker arguments distractingly in the mix with stronger arguments? Has an adult conversation been started/continued or have the ugly age old political cycles been perpetuated? Are mainstream Christian readers treated with respect as though they could be smart, informed people who think their worldview stands a chance in the debate? Would I recommend this book to a Christian friend or family member without having to apologize for its contents? Etc. Those are some of the important questions I'll be addressing. I may briefly summarize the strong points of each chapter and add my comments if that helps readers understand whatever issues come up. Occasionally I'll point out things that I just think are interesting in their own right (or things I don't understand and need help with). Also, I'll be reviewing the book in light of just about every other response to TCD on the web (as sort of informal post-market research) and responding to Christian objections I find. I think this will be the best that I personally can contribute to advancing our collective conversation about these important roadblocks to solidarity in our culture.
Chapter 4, "The Outsider Test for Faith Revisited" by John Loftus:

This chapter on the "outsider test for faith" (OTF) is John Loftus' home field, so to speak. He's covered the ground so many times in the past and there isn't a lot to disagree with here. The vast majority of what he says, he has learned to say well. The main idea here is that arguments for a worldview need to be geared towards persuading people who do not already agree with the position, rather than just having inherited a position and then defending it in ways that could defend any arbitrary position. Seems straight forward and common-sensical enough (and I agree with the Christian objections that this isn't really new), but certain issues do come up between atheists and Christians when various elements are over or underplayed. Please see atheist reviewer, Ken Pulliam's coverage of the strengths of the chapter.

Contents of My Review (the "CliffNote" version):

Loftus' Revisit of David Eller's Chapter 1 and Jason Long's Chapter 3: For Better and Worse
Loftus seems to manage to retroactively save Long's chapter, and eventually says all the things Eller should have said in his chapter, but still quotes more Eller uncritically.

I Respond to Christian Reviewer, Looney: Do we have to evaluate all possible worldviews before becoming an a...
The short answer is no. One does not have to evaluate all possible worldviews in order to have a convincing case for a particular worldview.

Loftus Overstates Claim: Are all religions exclusivistic?
Since a great many religions are not mutually exclusive (even in method), Loftus' OTF is left a bit fuzzier than he presents it.

I Respond to Christian Reviewer, Jayman777: What about religious people who convert for thoughtful reasons?
I tediously show how Loftus creates unnecessary problems for himself by lingering on this issue rather than directing readers to an actual intellectual battleground.

Loftus Overstates Claims: Are Christians and atheists too delusional to get it right?
Human psychology seems to be portrayed as completely helpless and it's no surprise that Christians get the idea that they are supposed to "snap out of it" because we hypocritically said so.

Loftus is Too Simplistic:

Are Christians really methodological naturalists when it comes to o...
I imagine most Christian intellectuals who will read this book will likely not be so strictly confined. And even if they are, long standing apologetic alternative supernatural explanations are not hard for them to find.

Random:

Loftus' Scientism Blunder?
Loftus actually advocates "weak scientism" but he is too easily quote-mine-able otherwise.

I Respond to Jayman777: Should moral and political beliefs be based on the scientific method?
The short answer: To an extent, when required.

I Respond to Jayman777: Would atheists doubt evolution if the demographics of science were ...
The short answer: I would hope so.

I Respond to Jayman777: Does the Western belief in "external reality" pass the outsider tes...
The short answer: Yes, but not quite Loftus' version of it. See Richard Carrier's response instead.

Loftus gets it wrong: Was the atheist, Carl Sagan, making an extraordinary claim when he ...
The short answer: Yes, he was. Insert agnosticism instead.

Outro: My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Despite this parade of polemical missteps, the vast majority of what Loftus says works just fine.


It was good to see Loftus say something sensible on the very page after Jason Long's overblown chapter (page 81):

Complete neutrality as sort of a blank-slate type of condition, while desirable, is practically impossible...

A statement like that or two right in the middle of Long's chapter would have gone a long way to resolving some of its issues (though I'd prefer if all relevant statements were crafted carefully in light of this). On the other hand, it seems unfortunate that Loftus puts David Eller's issues from chapter one back on the table (page 82-83, quoting Eller from "Atheism Advanced"):

...the diversity of religion forces us to see religion as a culturally relative phenomenon; different groups have different religions that appear adapted to their unique social and even environmental conditions. But if their religion is relative, then why is ours not?" [bold emphasis mine]

I was hoping to forget about chapter 1. Again, it's those intellectual arguments intellectual religious people believe they have. This is nearly a type of denialism on Eller's part (and unfortunately Loftus channels some more of this unnecessary theme later in the chapter). "You don't have arguments, because I disagree with them." "You didn't think things through, because I concluded differently." Etc. And who knows, maybe that will even turn out to be exactly the case. But in the meantime (What are these arguments anyway? We don't even know yet!) do atheists not have arguments because intellectual theists don't agree with those? If Eller had said, "...the diversity of religion strongly suggests we should see religion as a culturally relative phenomenon," and left the door open for debate, I wouldn't still be accusing him and Richard Carrier of assuming their conclusion and insulting every Christian intellectual who will read this book.

Further, if one is not careful (and Loftus overstated his rebuttals horribly in his debate with D'Souza that I went to, for example), Eller's kind of argument ends up looking like this: "Your religion is false because there are other religions." Eller's formulation is basically the worst way to put that kind of argument and it could have easily been dropped in favor of the more sensible things that Loftus says (page 92, 99):

How do you know your religion isn't the false one and theirs the true one? Only by passing the OTF can you know. [...] I allow that a religion could still pass the OTF even despite its unreliable origins [...] At best there can only be one true religion in what we observe to be a sea of hundreds of false ones, which entails a very high rate of error for how believers first adopt a religion. Hence, believers need some further test to be sure their faith is the correct one. [...] I'm not arguing that religious faiths are necessarily false because of how believers originally adopt them. I'm merely arguing that believers should be skeptical of their culturally adopted religious faith because of it.

If atheists don't overstate the point, I think that can easily make a lot of sense to Christians like jayman777:

I don’t have a huge disagreement with Loftus on this point but I think we should be wary of being too skeptical because there are such differences. [...] I agree with Loftus that the OTF does not commit the genetic fallacy for it leaves open the possibility that a religion is true despite its origins.

Another Christian reviewer, Looney, did go a bit overboard:

This OTF, however, would essentially ban all humans from making any decision to either adapt or change religion - Mr. Loftus included! How many Phl.d's would we need to process all the religions along with arguments pro/con? We can't even choose atheism, because there might be a religion out there that passes his test!

Loftus repeatedly states that the default position is agnosticism (pages 88, 98). The advocates and defenders of any single worldview are being asked to properly respect the actual epistemic hurdles they need to clear. If they are using plastic arguments that could work for any worldview, why should that be considered to be sufficiently convincing that your worldview is actually true? It doesn't mean every imaginable worldview needs to be analyzed in order to make a properly convincing case for one we are already aware of. That's where Looney goes wrong. Loftus' formulation of the OTF does suffer slightly from relying on too easy of a gimmick to inspire sufficient critical thinking. It's not like we'd have no reason to question an inherited worldview if in fact it was the only one we'd ever heard of. I'll bet there have been natural skeptics in every obscure cultural nook of human history. But it certainly helps that we are heavily aware of a great deal of "proof of concept" for how to get worldview building drastically wrong, given the "lab experiments" of the many religions that we can see have been generated in many different human cultures.

Fortunately, near the end of Looney's review, he does happen to notice:

...John is right to say that agnosticism is the most likely conclusion of a robust Skepticism.

However, to return to Loftus' quotes above (from page 99), even there we do find Loftus overstating other things. Not all religions have to be 100% wrong for one to be 100% right. There are many varieties of "natural religion" which allow for the adoption of the epistemological foundation of the religious experiences of other religions. Granted, we can still push Loftus' point into that (since that foundation isn't necessarily a good one), but the picture can be a great deal fuzzier than how Loftus is portraying if we aren't talking about the rigidly exclusive monotheistic religions that have severe penalties built in for any deviation from official creed. Christian apologist, David Marshall sure didn't approve:

John assumes that Christianity is limited to a zero-sum or "exclusivist" view of religions. As an authority on how Christianity relates to other religions, I think this is terribly simplistic.

Liberal Christian reviewer, jayman777, rightly points out:

Even if we assume that most converts to Christianity have not critically examined the religion, that does not entail that no converts critically examined the religion. And let us not forget that there are people who convert to Christianity despite the fact that they know it will lead to persecution or even death. Eventually the atheist must confront the question of how these people, even if they are a minority, became Christians.

The applied definition of "critical examination" is going to differ from person to person (even though that doesn't mean everyone is correct about their definition). For Loftus to be consistent, obviously he's going to conclude, no matter which demographic is thrown at him, that those Christians didn't really pass his OTF. They just thought they did and were mistaken. It's pointless to even ask, and everyone seems to be admitting Loftus' point holds true in general. The ONLY way to actually resolve who is really applying a "critical examination" that in fact passes the OTF is to dive into the actual critical examination. Meanwhile, it is also pointless to linger here, but Loftus keeps taking us back there anyway before we move on to other chapters.

Looney basically agrees with me:

The existence of disputes means nothing. You have to look at the content. [...] Skepticism, however, isn't all there is to Reason. We must also look to the overall consistency of the world view, as it looks at all religions, atheism, God and man.

Looney makes a slew of vague claims in his response to Loftus and asserts many things that don't deal directly with this particular chapter (so I'm going to leave them alone for now). It looks kind of like a brainstorm of what Looney might label "critical examination" in response to the prominent (and unnecessary) accusation of this chapter that Christians just don't do that (in a non-delusional way). So we'll move on.

Christian philosopher, Victor Reppert is supposed to be wrong when he claims (Loftus quotes him on page 102):

If what it is to be skeptical is just to entertain skeptical questions about one's beliefs, to subject them to scrutiny, to take seriously possible evidence against them and to task what reasons can be given for them, then I have been performing the outsider test since 1972.

Nuh uh! Isn't that what I'm supposed to say, John? Unfortunately we are still lingering here. And we have to tell Reppert that all those hours "thinking" about things, really didn't happen. Loftus in his concluding argument of the chapter claims (page 103):

Believers are simply in denial when they claim their religious faith passes the OTF.

Thanks Loftus. We don't need to declare intellectual victory just yet in the book. If one doesn't leave the actual argument part open-ended you're bound to always get follow-up objections like this from jayman777:

It is that, even if the rule is true, the atheist is still left needing to explain how some people convert to Christianity even after critically examining its tenets and in the face of severe social pressure to reject the faith.

And let's not forget Christian reviewer, Edmund Lowrie, on Amazon:

Rationality, of course, often assumes personal definitions so that anyone disagreeing is "irrational". [...] the definition of rationality is agreement with the atheist apologists. People who don't agree are simply irrational. That intellectually arrogant point of view is clearly stated by claiming that "smart people" who defend faith well are simply defending a mistaken belief. The circular reasoning of these atheist evangelists validates their own prior convictions and thus, I would argue, is demonstrates its own form of delusion.

Hence, we will have to keep saying things like: No, we don't really have to explain anything since anyone can point to anyone going anywhere on the belief-scape who is claiming to be a critical person. Obviously many people are quite capable of getting it wrong (and we don't need the psychological studies Loftus throws at Victor Reppert to tell us that).

It's so pointless!

But, just to over-correct the record, Richard Carrier responds:

...it's absurd to claim TCD argues "people who don't agree are simply irrational" when Loftus says point blank that religious people are rational, which in fact is exactly why the Outsider Test for Faith is required: perfectly rational people come to mutually contradictory conclusions (the evidence for this is undeniable), therefore perfectly rational people can be wrong, in fact statistically they usually are wrong. Therefore it is not enough to be rational. You have to also be adequately informed. And becoming adequately informed is exactly what taking the Outsider Test for Faith is about, combined with the Golden Rule (p. 85) to treat your faith by the same standards you treat others.

I have to admit, I completely missed it. Loftus does call religious people rational, "point blank" (page 82, thesis 1 of OTF):

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.

It's actually really easy to miss (and I go out of my way to underline those kinds of lingual nuances when I find them) since a strong theme of the rest of the chapter is just how rational religious people apparently aren't. This could easily dovetail in a stupid semantic debate over what we mean by "rational." Does this merely mean the prevalent use of rationality? Or success in achieving correct conclusions? Depending on which definition you may be inclined to use, I don't think we can fully blame Christians for getting the wrong idea here.

And so, I also agree with jayman777 that Loftus was too dismissive on objection 2 (there were 8 objections Loftus covered, btw) (page 90):

When it comes to these converts, however, my opinion is that most of them do not objectively weigh the evidence when making their initial religious commitments.

Loftus goes on to blame the Asian converts for sharing too many superstitious beliefs with the writers of the Bible and for not being introduced by evangelists to skeptical books like TCD (the "other side" of the story). And those aren't bad points to make, but he should also have been granting that perhaps they did convert for the right reasons. What does Loftus lose by accepting the possibility? If one is confident of their atheistic arguments, it really doesn't matter, does it?

And Loftus overstates some claims and muddies the waters further (page 83):

That's why they're called control beliefs. They are like blinders. From the moment they are put on, we pretty much see only what our blinders will let us see.

He did the same in "Why I Became an Atheist" (WIBA). It was annoying there, too. Loftus also says in TCD (page 92):

What we've learned is that we should be skeptical about that which we were led to believe even though we can't actually see anything about our beliefs to be skeptical about.

Huh? That's like the epitome of unhelpful. It reminds me of those annoying parts in movies where someone tells their brainwashed friend, "Snap out of it! Just snap out of it! I love you! Therefore you are cured!"

Loftus quotes atheist, Jason Long (page 102):

Bias is our default setting, and most of the distortions happen below the level of conscious awareness.

Yeah, so I'm not sure how "delusional" Christians are supposed to react to all of this constructively. So it is no surprise when Christian reviewers, like Looney, react this way:

John just spent the last 3 chapters trying to prove that it is absolutely impossible for anyone to be logical regarding religion. So why now does he challenge us to be logical, when he has proven that this is a human impossibility - for both theists and atheists alike?

Is Looney exaggerating even more than Loftus, Long, Eller, and Dan Barker? Sure. But he's been helped along the way by careless skeptical rhetoric that could have been avoided. It should have been obvious Christian readers were going to be in the binds they are in, throw the accusation of bias back in our faces, and it appears that little has been done to defuse that situation ahead of time. I cannot fathom why much more care was not administered here in Part 1 of TCD.

Then there are at least two more places where Loftus is inexcusably simplistic, imo (page 86):

[Christians] adopt a methodological naturalist viewpoint to test these other extraordinary claims and find them wanting.

There are too many Christian apologists out there who do not necessarily exclude the supernatural origins of other religions. For example, Jayman777 says:

Loftus believes Christians are acting correctly when they adopt a methodological naturalist viewpoint to investigate other religions. I disagree with Loftus here if he means that Christians should not be open to the possibility of “non-Christian miracles.” For example, I should not rule out the possibility that Muhammad worked a miracle.

And still others will claim that perhaps demons inspired other religions. This is not a-typical for intellectual Christians and so the accusation of methodological inconsistency is more difficult to establish. Loftus might be able to argue that most don't even think enough about their faith to come up with clever supernatural excuses for other religions, but in all likelihood, they won't be the ones reading this book. And even if they are, they are just as likely to go looking for excuses as not upon impact. It is understandable that not everything can be covered, but again, some things just aren't obscure enough to skip.

Loftus also very briefly asserts that (page 86):

...nor can [the Christian] trust her own anecdotal religious experiences.

The many religious people who will come to this book based off of their particular religious experiences that haven't been addressed are not going to be persuaded by these 9 words. Valerie Tarico, in her chapter, certainly didn't cover them all (or even claim to cover them all) or provide the appropriate skeptical sensibilities for engaging every oddball claim that couldn't possibly be covered. What is the percentage of the population that will claim to have seen an angel? Or a miracle? What is the percentage that knows someone who claims to have seen a miracle or an angel? Go into a crowded auditorium in a Christian/atheist debate and see how many hands go up when you ask for spooky supernatural stories of the Christian flavor. They don't dismiss them all as casually as Loftus may like to believe and will often respond back with, "Well maybe some of them are fiction, but how can they all be wrong?"

If someone picks up the ball here later in the book, that's great (it's not like it can't be dealt with), but I don't see how a book like this can let that ball drop. Carrier claimed there was "no where to run" and Swedish atheist reviewer, Andrew Creutz, said this:

I am troubled by the fact that there are still people who assume that Christianity says about reality is actually true, despite the evidence that the review only gives a hint about, and The Christian Delusion and other books overflow with, projecting the Christian reality of perception in intellectual sanctions.

Yeah, well there are places to run. Big and well-established places in apologetic thought. And really they aren't even running, since the positions not confronted are rather typical in my estimation. If we don't step up and recognize them, then this embitters and justifies Christians who know better, and confuses and entrenches atheists who haven't been helped to see things fully from the other perspective. Loftus wants to change the religious landscape, but is he doing as much harm as good? Can't be too sure about that. I can appreciate his overall strategy, but what he is really lacking as a propagandist (and I don't mean the term in a negative way) with both of his books is refined polemical discernment. He could save himself a lot of headache, but I don't think he knows how. That's my opinion anyway. I'll get more into that later in another post.

Random:

Loftus claims (page 89):

The only thing we can and should trust is the sciences.

*facepalm* Okay, I have to put pants on in the morning, Loftus, one leg at a time, right? I guess I'd better have google right there with me. But how can I be sure I know how to type? Oh noes! Certainly Christians have noticed:

...[Loftus] makes a blunder by stating that the “only thing we can and should trust is the sciences” (p. 89). This position, called scientism, is ably refuted by Edward Feser.

And jayman777 won't be the only one. I'm well aware Loftus isn't advocating scientism, and Loftus even does some damage control on jayman777's blog post in the comments. However, given typical Christian philosophical presuppositions about atheists, Loftus' scientism-sounding statement is starkly naked and unqualified as is. What about all the Christians out there who aren't going to write blog posts, John? Can you correct all of them? And yet again, we needed to have read WIBA to excuse the content of TCD. So I disagree with jayman777 that this was a philosophical blunder. It was a presentation blunder.

Jayman777 builds off the point:

I am certain [Loftus' moral and political beliefs] are based on more than the scientific method. If this is the case, then it must be possible for religious beliefs to be considered true on grounds other than science. He can’t employ a double standard.

Loftus is saying religious beliefs (like moral or political beliefs) need to be justified sufficiently above and beyond the merits of their competitors. If there are no tools to do this, or if all political, moral, and religious philosophies can make the exact same subjective justifications, then we have no business favoring one over the other. Maybe this requires scientific investigation. And maybe it doesn't. It should be noted that science isn't some separate compartment of reality (any more than philosophy is). There is a relatively smooth continuum of objective thinking from our ordinary modest conclusions to scientific theories (and on to philosophical ideas that pull everything together). If there wasn't we couldn't even do science. There would need to be magical science fairies (made of pure scienteons) to do it for us if we can't even make our way successfully to the lab. Some issues need that level of rigorous investigation and others may not. It just depends on the issue. Admittedly, you probably couldn't tell that from Loftus' chapter.

In response to the correction by Loftus, Jayman777 asks Loftus in the comments:

By weak scientism do you mean that you believe science is the best, but not the only, method to acquire knowledge? If so, would you like to clarify the quotes I gave from pages 89 and 95?

Perhaps my answer above clarifies.

Jayman777 incredulously asks:

Am I to believe that the average atheist would become very skeptical of the theory of evolution if it were shown opinions on evolution depended heavily on geography and culture?

One wonders if religion has a 95% consensus on anything. And even if it does in some extremely vague way, it doesn't matter. The extraordinary claims of Big Religion typically are the realm of metaphysics and metaphysics is explicitly not humanity's domain of expertise. Hence a consensus on "what else exists" other than the "created" world is irrelevant. As Loftus says in the comments: "Science transcends geographical borders. Anyone can do the experiments themselves. That’s the difference." Science is about getting things right well within the domain of human expertise. As hard as Eller states his conclusion, it is a much more difficult task to make science look like a subjective artifact of culture and the of excesses of human psychology.

Jayman777 objects:

Reppert notes that most Westerners are raised to believe in an external world whereas someone born in India may believe that the external world is just an illusion. Should we not subject our Western beliefs to the OTF? Loftus begs the question when he asserts that the existence of the external world is experienced every moment we are alive. He tries to rely on the consensus of scientists but scientists merely assume the existence of the external word, they do not demonstrate it. This issue is a philosophical issue and Loftus cannot skirt it with appeals to probability (how could you calculate a probability in this case?).

After Loftus confronts jayman777's review, jayman777 replies:

I am not denying that there is an external, material world. I am saying that your defense for the existence of an external world fails. That we perceive a world in front of us is no surprise to the Indian in Reppert’s example and thus gains your position no advantage in the debate. Unless you can provide a better argument, Reppert has shown that your own beliefs fail to pass the OTB ["outsider test for beliefs"]. If you are going to muster a better argument, I think it will have to be a philosophical argument.

Yup. And this isn't hard to do. I let Loftus' somewhat lame answer slide, but Carrier addresses this more directly in his book, Sense and Goodness without God (page 52):

On the other hand, if the [Cartesian] demon were really this consistent in giving us results, through which we satisfy our every goal and desire, there would hardly be any intelligible difference between what we call “reality” and the world the demon is inventing for us [or in this case an illusionary world]. As noted in II.2.1.2 (“Meaning, Reality, and Illusion”), such a construct would be reality, in every sense of the word we normally use. And since we observe some methods to work better than others, and indeed some work best of all, a Cartesian Demon would have to be arranging it this way, constructing reality for us solely in accord with a fixed plan it has chosen. In that case we have just as much reason to pursue the relevant methods for discovering that plan, and to abandon the bad ones, so we can gain the reward of a successful life experience from this mischievous demon. In other words, there is no reason to trust that any Cartesian Demon theory is true, and even if it is, nothing significant changes for us regarding method.

That passes the Indian OTB since the persistent distinctions in our collective illusion are common ground.

At the tail end of answering objection six, Loftus asks (page 98):

By contrast, what extraordinary claims are atheists making? Is it an extraordinary claim for atheists to say with Carl Sagan that, "the cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be"? It may seem that way to believers, and so this must still be shown to be the best explanation of the available evidence in discussions with them. But it's not an extraordinary claim at all.

Um, yeah it is. How could any human being easily know there isn't something other than this cosmos? The non-extraordinary claim here would be, "I don't know whether there is more than this cosmos or not." Surely claiming knowledge one way or the other is categorically more extraordinary than not. And incidentally it may well be an extraordinary claim to claim that there isn't mor...


Outro:

Most of what Loftus said was spot on, despite the things I've pointed out here. He tread on a lot of difficult ground and managed to make tactful sense through a lot of it. But honestly I would think he'd have this ALL down to a science by now. I could easily have been completely blown away, but wasn't. I give 4 out of 5 stars as a result.

Next up, Ed Babinski's "The Cosmology of the Bible."

Ben

Views: 16

Tags: Carl Sagan, David Eller, Jason Long, John Loftus, Outsider Test for Faith, Richard Carrier, The Christian Delusion, Valerie Tarico

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