John W. Loftus’s THE OUTSIDER TEST FOR FAITH: How to Know Which Religion Is True (2013) is a trade paperback book, one of a number of similar volumes I’ve perused over the past couple years, generally from Prometheus Books or small presses, a couple of them verging on self-published: Adam Lee’s Daylight Atheism (review here), Greta Christina’s Why Are You Atheists So Angry? (review here), and Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists (review here), and a couple titles by Richard Carrier and Armin Navabi whose titles I won’t bother to mention.
These are books of varying quality, all designed to appeal to a small audience, all of them in some sense likely preaching to the atheist choir, but all of them, even the last two, making distinctive points and insights, which is why I keep checking them out. (The best is the one by Adam Lee, though the combined essays on his site are collectively better.) None of them, however, match the erudition or eloquence of the books by the atheist “four horsemen” – Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens, or, especially on grounds of eloquence, the British philosopher A.C. Grayling, whose The God Argument (despite its simplistic title) (review here) is my favorite of all these, because he spends half his time explaining not just why religious faith is discredited and obsolete, but why the alternates of rationality and humanism are so much more preferable.
The next volume at hand is by John W. Loftus, THE OUTSIDER TEST FOR FAITH: How to Know Which Religion Is True (2013). Significantly, Loftus was for some years an evangelical Christian and Christian apologist, before rejecting the faith in the 1990s and writing a book called Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity in 2008.
The present books discusses a very simple idea, a ‘test’ to apply to one’s own religious faith, that Loftus originally proposed some years before writing this book.
Ironically, it’s hard to find in this book a concise description of what his test is, and how an average person should apply it. Part of the reason I suspect is that Loftus has discussed his idea in so many previous venues (including his own blog) that he likely assumes that everyone knows about the test he is talking about – and which he subsequently spends a large portion of the book defending the idea against various criticisms it has attracted over the years.
First he defines two concepts he abbreviates as:
RDVT: the religious diversity thesis, the elementary observation that religious faith varies widely around the world with distinct faiths largely confined to distinct geographical areas. That is, the overwhelming factor of which faith one grows up to believe in is where one was born; most people inherit their religion from their parents, as they do their language, cuisine, and politics. (What Adam Lee calls the Argument from Locality.) Loftus makes the elementary point, illustrated in two maps, that religious beliefs vary around the world, while “beliefs based on logic, reason, and critical thinking” (i.e. science), are uniform across the world. The maps in his book are in shades of gray; Jerry Coyne reproduces them in color here.
RDPT: the religious dependency thesis, the idea that evidence from biology, anthropology, and psychology show that religion is a consequence of human nature as it has evolved over the millennia. As the world grew larger to various tribes and cultures, their local gods grew greater, leading to the ‘evolution’ of monotheistic gods increasingly defined as greater than anyone else’s god. The ideas here are of course familiar from many recent books, including those he cites by Michael Shermer, Dan Ariely, and David Eller (and of which my favorite is Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life from 2011, which Loftus does not mention).
So what is the test exactly? Here it is on pages 16-17: “The only way to rationally test one’s culturally adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider, a nonbeliever, with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject.”
This sounds completely reasonable on its face, though he doesn’t offer many specifics about how one should actually conduct or apply this test. (Again, perhaps he’s done so in previous writings.) On page 80 he mentions that one way would be for believers to read critiques of their own faiths, or of faith in general — (like this book!). He does point out that citations of holy books, anecdotes of conversion stories (he quotes William Lane Craig’s), are insufficient justifications for one’s faith; such rationales can be cited by believers of completely different religions.
This is all very elementary, of course, yet Loftus spends much of the book addressing criticisms he’s received on various grounds: on the validity of his provisional theses; on the validity of science itself; on whether the test presumes something hidden, or could be applied to any cultural beliefs, and so on. A penultimate long chapter discusses Loftus’ own analysis of how Christianity fails the test (as he wrote about more exhaustively in earlier books). A final chapter asks why we should have “faith” in *anything* (even the facts of ordinary daily life), and he says we shouldn’t — we should only accept anything based on relative probabilities derived from experience.
So… my take on the book is that, like other rather crude atheistic critiques of religion, it dwells entirely on the implausibility of religion’s various supernatural claims, and the contradictory situation of adherents of rival beliefs being equally certain of their validity — rather than considering the cultural, social, and psychological reasons for why that situation has endured. It’s my observation and understanding that, for example,
- The fact that believers of other religions exist around the world doesn’t, in fact, bother most people;
- The beliefs and experiences of most people, as they grow up in shared cultural milieu, to some extent *mold* their brains, so they to some extent cannot change their minds, regardless of any evidence or reason
Loftus is not a smooth writer; aside from long-winded repetition throughout the book, he frequently rants, he occasionally sputters. Here’s Loftus reacting to an admittently lame defense from a friend about the friend’s belief in heaven, on the basis of seeing his dad and grandfather in a dream. Loftus:
Wow, isn’t that something? What does it take? I don’t know sometimes. But evidence? Who needs that when you have an experience? …
Ironically, then, when he quotes other writers they are usually more eloquent than he himself. One such writer I was not familiar with is a David Eller, who makes this point similar to mine above:
Christians, like other religionists, are not so much convinced by arguments and proofs as colonized by assumptions and premises. As a form of culture, it seems self-evident to them; they are not so much indoctrinated as enculturated.
Which I now realize Loftus quotes twice! On pages 60, and 147. There’s a longer passage by Eller quoted on pp58-59. Maybe I’ll track down his book.
Loftus not only quotes better writers than he, but mentions what might be better ideas than his own. In a footnote on page 235 he mentions a precursor test by a mathematics professor, John East, which is described here: The Outsider Test for Faith and the Veil of Ignorance. East’s notion is to suppose that a person is told that when they wake up in the morning, they will be randomly changed into a person with a different religious view. But before bed they are allowed to write a letter to themselves, offering general advice on how to investigate religious options, without saying which one they should accept. What should they write?
My own thought as I read this book was that a more straightforward ‘test’ would be the following. Suppose a neutral outsider, say an intelligent Martian, arrives on Earth sincerely curious and completely unbiased, asking representatives of various religious faiths to explain, as persuasively as they can, why their faith is true and the others are not.
Or, if you want a person to sincerely examine their own beliefs, simply ask them to imagine what possible evidence, if any, would convince them that their religious faith was wrong. If they can’t come up with anything (as Ken Ham did not) then they are admitting they have no rational basis for their beliefs, and we may suppose there are not any. (Scientists, on the other hand, almost by definition, always have criteria for disproof in mind.)
So enough about that book.