Thursday, October 25, 2018

Giving the outsider test a failing mark

It's been many years since I commented on John Loftus's outsider test of faith. His position went through various permutations. The book is supposed to be the definitive version, so I was reading his book recently. A few observations:

This chapter supports my first contention–that people who are located in distinct geographical areas around the globe overwhelmingly adopt and justify a wide diversity of mutually exclusive religious faiths due to their particular upbringing and shared heritage. This is the Religious Diversity Thesis…Not only is there religious diversity, it's also clear that religions are situated around the globe in mostly distinct geographical locations. John Loftus, The Outsider Test of Faith: How to Know Which Religion is True (Prometheus Books 2013), 33,36.

i) Needless to say, that phenomenon is entirely consistent with the truth of Christianity. Both Judaism and Christianity were revealed in pagan cultures with preexisting religions. 

ii) Perhaps even more to the point, Scripture takes for granted that when sinners are left to their own devices, they will be conformed to their heathen culture. It takes God's grace to break through the social conditioning. Absent divine intervention, the phenomenon Loftus cites is exactly what the Bible predicts will be the case. 

As children we were all raised as believers. Whatever our parents told us we believed. If they said Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny existed, then we believed what they said until we were told otherwise…We don't know not to believe what our parents tell us. Ibid. 13. 

i) Really? From what I've read, kids typically figure out on their own that Santa can't exist. They puzzle over the logistical demands of the Santa mythos. They come to realize that it's a practical impossibility. But apparently Loftus needed an adult to dispel his belief in Santa. 

ii) As a young boy I once asked my mother where God came from. She said God made himself. That didn't make any sense to me. How could something that doesn't exist make itself? It has to exist in the first place to do anything.

I questioned her about that explanation years later and she admitted that she tried to give me an explanation a child's mind could grasp. Didn't work! 

As a young boy I once sat in my grandmother's kitchen. She made tea for us. She said God was everywhere. I asked her if God was in the teapot. She said yes! I didn't believe that. It made no sense to me.

My father was a teacher. Among other things, he taught classical mythology. I read the books at home. As a young boy I asked him about the relationship between God and Zeus. He offered a syncretistic explanation like Milton's Paradise Lost. I sensed that he didn't really believe that explanation. 

iii) Most religions (e.g. Hinduism, Buddhism, rabbinic Judaism) are more concerned with orthopraxy than orthodoxy. Not what you believe but what you do. 

Informed skepticism is an attitude expressed as follows: (1) it assumes one's own religious faith has the burden of proof; 

i) Both insiders and outsiders have a burden of proof.

ii) It depends on your starting-point. You should only treat all religions equally if all religions are in the same epistemic situation. But what if some religious claimants are conspicuously lacking in evidence to back up their claims-or there's damning evidence to the contrary?

iii) Should the religionist approach his religion as a blank slate? That's too abstract. Suppose one religionist has a supernatural experience while a coreligionist does not. In that event they can't approach the question with the same detachment because they don't find themselves in the same epistemic situation. They have different starting-points because their experience or lack thereof locates the starting gate at different points along the track. So you can't treat the question in a vacuum if your experience puts you in medias res. 

(2) it adopts the methodological-naturalist viewpoint by which one assumes there is a natural explanation for the origins of a given religion, its holy books, and its extraordinary claims of miracles; 

i) Loftus has his thumb on the scales. But we should only adopt methodological naturalism if metaphysical naturalism is true. Otherwise, methodological naturalism is prejudicial. Naturalism has its own burden of proof. 

ii) Moreover, it isn't possible in principle to establish religious claims even if religious claims are true by using methodological naturalism since that methodology automatically screens out supernatural explanations. So the procedure is circular. According to methodological naturalism, nothing can ever count as evidence for the supernatural. It preemptively discounts that explanation regardless of the evidence. 

iii) Some religions do have a natural explanation. However, it's not as if a Christian apologist thinks Christianity has a monopoly on supernatural origins, while all other religions must have natural origins. A Christian apologist makes allowance for the possibility that a false religion has supernatural elements. A Christian apologist doesn't suspend supernatural explanations when examining Christianity or its rivals. So there's no double standard. For instance, some people who practice witchcraft may exhibit genuine occult powers. 

(3) it demands sufficient evidence before concluding a religion is true; and most importantly, 

If a religion is true, it should be possible to provide sufficient evidence for its claims. That doesn't mean every adherent must be competent to marshal the evidence. 

(4), it disallows any faith in the religion under investigation, since the informed skeptic cannot leap over the lack of evidence by punting to faith. Ibid. 23. 

Depends on how you construe the role of faith. Much of what we believe is based on sampling reality. Samples constitute evidence that something exists or happens. 

But samples are partial, so the question is how representative the samples are. Samples form the basis of extrapolations and generalizations. Sample are direct evidence for what they sample, and that may provide prima facie justification for believing that phenomena of the same kind follow the same pattern. That's where "faith" takes over. If we have some direct evidence, that gives us reason to trust what we can't directly verify on the provisional assumption that the pattern holds for the same kind of phenomena. 

Based on many instances where air travel is safe, we conclude that it's probably safe to board our plane, although we don't know in advance if our particular flight will crash. The past track record gives us faith in the future. We have no direct evidence for the future since direct evidence for an event is retrospective. We only know for sure that it will happen after the fact. Sample instances function as a makeweight. So there's a mean between blind faith and direct evidence. And that is faith–based on evidential examples. 

1 comment:

  1. The question we need to ask is how many times the outsider test for faith has to be taken. Loftus seems to think that it needs to be retaken endlessly. But that is obviously impractical. Once a religion becomes established it is impossible for every generation of believers to approach it as if it had just arisen.

    The best way to apply the test is by looking at the origin of the religion. In theory, you could say that every successful religion passed the OTF when it began, but not every religion passed the test in the same way. We know a lot about the challenges that Christianity faced in the beginning. Larry Hurtado's book, Destroyer of the Gods, is particularly enlightening on the subject. It seems that Christianity had a very steep hill to climb in order to succeed.

    We also know that Christianity began with a remarkably bold claim. The early Christians claimed not only that Jesus had risen from the dead, but also that he had been seen by many witnesses. That sort of claim is much less likely to fool outsiders than the claim that one individual received a personal revelation from God.