Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Outsider Test of Nothing

If you hang around John Loftus's blog long enough you will get his commentators (if not Loftus himself) badgering you about taking his Outsider Test for Faith. You get the feeling that they ascribe to it a nearly magical ability to wrest one away from one's faith. And if you are a believer and you haven't done undergone this mystical self-evaluation--it is because you are afraid.

So I bought the book (kindle edition) and started reading. And I am (thus far) very disappointed.

In chapter 1, Loftus asks a series of rhetorical questions. By not answering the questions, Loftus's tactic is evidently this: the answer he implies merely by asking the question in the manner he does is the obviously correct answer, and there is no conceivable Christian response.

Let me make a preemptive strike regarding Loftus's main, cultural-inheritence argument. He is stating something this simple. Suppose country A is 80% Christian, and country B is 5% Christian. Therefore if you are born in country A you are much more likely to be a Christian. You are a Christian, to first order, because you were born among Christians--so you should test your faith as if you were an outsider.

But what he should actually say is that you are born among self-identifying Christians you are more likely to self-identify as a Christian. This is a very different thing. Everyone would agree, I think, that in the U.S. there has been, historically, enormous peer, familial, and societal pressure to identify as a Christian. Most of the time when I was an atheist if you asked me I would have said I was a Christian. Everyone accepts that some of the Christians in Christianized countries are just cultural Christians. Thus in country A (the U.S.) the number of actual Christians could be much smaller.

Furthermore if we say that conversion (regeneration) precedes faith, then (in country B) there may be more than 5% converted, but they have no context to understand their conversion (hence the need for missionaries) and so, in country B, the number of actual Christians might be higher than the number of claimants. (Another factor might be fear of self-identifying).

The bottom line is that if country A self-identifies as 80% Christian and country B as 5%, there is no way of knowing if the actual conversion rates have anywhere near the same disparity. Maybe they are even  comparable. (I don't think so, but who knoes?)

This is mindful of the mileage attempted to be had from the oft-quoted statistic that only 7% of the members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences believe in God. Well, maybe that’s because they are so smart—but maybe it is because, being so smart, they are extremely self confident. This, along with the fact that they are in a discipline for which there is no stigma associated with atheism, may simply mean they are more honest—who knows, maybe only 7% of the population across the board is Christian!

Or maybe smart people really are less likely to be Christian. Again, who knows? The only thing we know for sure is that really smart scientists are less likely to self-identify as Christians.

So let's look at some of John's questions in chapter 1, giving what I think is his wink-nod implied answer, plus an alternative answer.

Q: Christians [say] that faith is a gift, but why is that gift mostly given to people who are raised in Christian households and Christianized cultures? 

Loftus’s implied answer: because we culturally inherit Christianity, so it is naturally clumpy.

Alternative answer: election is not a cosmic dice-roll in which you would expect to find a uniform frequency of believers. God has a plan for the elect, and part of that includes fellowship, and so it pleases God to place his elect in families and in proximity. God did not roll the dice with Isaac and say: “whew, he’ll be a believer. Lucky for Abraham.” No, God in his sovereignty purposely placed a covenant child in a covenant family. “Clumping” of Christians is not a problem—it is to be expected. Additionally, as pointed out above, there is certainly some and maybe a great deal of over-reporting in Christianized countries. The granularity may not be as coarse as it first appears.

Q: Does God dole out his gift of saving faith differently to individuals on different sides of geographical or national boundaries? 

Loftus’s implied answer: he surely would not, so this is a problem.

Alternative answer: we would expect so; the bible is consistent with the elect being in areas of critical mass from which they can launch their efforts concerning the Great Commission. It pleases God to have believers disciple converts--this is facilitated by a group of believers (a church) sending out a few (the missionaries) to the unreached.

Q: Why is it that other religious faiths are given “by other gods” to people separated into geographically distinct parts of the planet? 

Loftus’s implied answer: that is consistent with all religions being culturally based.

Alternative answer: Again, God has not spread the elect out uniformly, and so areas with few elect and little teaching will naturally adopt false religions until such time that they are evangelized.

Q: Since there are many religious faiths, how does one choose to be on the inside of any of them if from the outside they don’t have any plausibility? 

Loftus’s implied answer: again, you culturally inherit insider status.

Alternative answer: For Christianity you do not choose, you are chosen. This speaks to Luther’s often quote-mined argument about “reason is the devil’s whore.” Luther was not arguing (as so many atheists quote-mine him) against reason per se. He was arguing specifically that reason is useless in terms of coming to faith. One doesn’t uses reason to acquire faith—rather a very unreasonable process occurs: you are knocked off your horse and dragged, by overwhelming force and compulsion, to faith.

Q: Why do believers all seem to judge outsiders as ignorant, unenlightened, misguided, deceived and lacking in understanding? 

Loftus’s implied answer: because believers are the truly ignorant ones, plus the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Alternative answer: this is a strawman or very poorly worded. As it stands it is simply false. We do not judges outsiders as ignorant, unenlightened, misguided, deceived and lacking in understanding. Except for a very narrow, well-defined domain: We do judge outsiders as ignorant, unenlightened, misguided, deceived and lacking in understanding of the things of God.

Q: Why is it that different believers within their culturally inherited religions cannot settle their own differences? 

Loftus’s implied answer: because there is no “true” Christianity therefore you defend what sect you inherited.

Alternative answer: I am not sure what Loftus means by “we cannot settle our differences.” I am assuming he is not referring to violent disagreements, Roving gangs of Presbyterian thugs attacking unlucky Methodists is not something we hear a lot about. I am assuming that he means doctrinal differences. I would say it is probably because, for the most part, what we disagree about is not cardinal. I’m a Baptist. I can walk into a Presbyterian (PCA, not USA) church and feel completely at home. I may disagree with what they teach on baptism and covenant theology—but no biggie—we are in absolute agreement on the gospel. The different denominations seems to be more of an issue for unbelievers than for believers. I view them (at the 90%) level as groups of people who have reached different conclusions about a few things for which the scriptures, for whatever reason, are not perfectly clear. Calvinist? Arminian? Who cares? We both agree that you are saved by faith alone in Christ Jesus.

 Enough for know. I'll read more and see if it is worth blogging about.


  1. and so it pleases God to place his elect in families and in proximity

    Without exaggeration, every observation about anything can be
    explained" in this way. This explains the contentless and vacuousness of your "explanation".

    Personally, I think it pleases God to have his followers appear so foolish.

  2. I haven't read any of Loftus' books, but the OTF by other names was around long before Loftus came on the scene, of course. It's a very strong argument, though since it's also fairly simple I wonder how Loftus milks it for a whole book.

    Your answers seem to miss the forest for the trees. The fact that you can provide justifications doesn't say much since the same can be done with regard to other religions. You're still left with the problem of why your justifications should be preferred over others, which is essentially the issue at the heart of the OTF. In other words you've succeeded in moving laterally but you haven't made any progress.

  3. You're still left with the problem of why your justifications should be preferred over others
    D. Kallis,

    My post was, in part, intended to show that "why my justifications should be preferred over others" is irrelevant for those of a Reformed/Calvinistic perspective. It is only relevant for those who claim that a careful examination of the evidence will lead one to Christianity. If, on the other hand, no one seeks god, no not one, unless he is first supernaturally regenerated and receives faith as a gift--well that completely neuters the OTF.

  4. It seems that you could save time by stating upfront, "I'm right, end of discussion." If you're certain that you are right and that there is no evidence or reason for outsiders to accept it, then (to use Tina Fey's phrase) that's a deal-breaker. There's no applicable counter-argument, OTF included, and there's no point in addressing any of them.

    The upshot is that to outsiders you are indistinguishable from the next person who makes similar assertions with regard to another religion, including someone claiming to be a god himself.

    1. Same could be said of you. You could just declare (as Loftus does) that faith is never a gift but always the result of (flawed) reasoning and hence susceptible to the OTF. Game over man.

    2. I didn't declare that. (And even if I did, your response would be the tu quoque fallacy.)

      If someone is certain that he has some supernatural gift -- or even that he is a god -- but offers no reason or evidence to corroborate the claim, I can't assert that he's wrong. He's just indistinguishable from others making claims of a similar nature, and nothing more can be said.

    3. I think David isn't using a tu quoque, but pointing out that every is in the same boat when it comes to their ultimate beliefs, which really stem from metaphysical presuppositions upon which our reason and interpretation of the data is based. Ergo, you would not accept reason and evidence that conflicted with what you view to be a true depiction of reality, including metaphysical reality. So you're essentially saying nothing but that everyone makes truth claims. Yes, they do. And? Your suggesting that everyone making ultimate truth claims that cannot be established upon reason or evidence lessens the likelihood of any one of them being true is nonsense. Hence, David pointed out that the OTF is making the same types of claims. If you think ultimate beliefs are best established by "evidence" and reason, then you are equally spouting nonsense and don't understand how arguments concerning the nature of reality are established.

  5. I didn't declare that. (And even if I did, your response would be the tu quoque fallacy.)

    If someone is certain that he has some supernatural gift -- or even that he is a god -- but offers no reason or evidence to corroborate the claim, I can't assert that he's wrong. He's just indistinguishable from others making claims of a similar nature, and nothing more can be said.

  6. David, have you deleted any responses here?

    1. I did not (I never delete comments not matter how "hard" they are on me) however I think two comments were lost yesterday. One that included a charge of tu quequo against me and also my response to it. I apologize for that but it was not intentional--it was some sort of hiccup.

  7. These arguments of Loftus surely prove too much, no? One could just as well say, "You believe in Newton's three laws of motion, but that is only because you took physics sometime in the past four hundred years, so obviously those supposed laws are just culturally determined." Or, "You believe that democracy is the best system of government, but if you had been born in China, or during the Middle Ages, you would not believe that, so democracy is clearly not the best system in any objective sense." Or, "Democrats and Republicans disagree on issue X (whatever it is), so that proves there is no right answer on issue X."

  8. The difference between cultural self-identification and actual faith is important to understand when engaging in cross-cultural evangelization. I've been in other countries where people have self-identified as Hindu or Muslim, for example, but also say that they now believe Jesus is God and is the only way of salvation. In modern Church lingo, we would call these Hindu-background or Muslim-background believers. Unless you probe into what they think about Jesus and take their self-identification as their belief system, you will waste your breath trying to evangelize someone who is already a believer. Better to encourage them and find ways of praying for them in their struggles as believers.

    Loftus' problem is that this is central to his self-deception. He's blind to these kinds of distinctions because he needs the internal obfuscation in order to sustain his disbelief.