The Outsider Test of Faith

John Loftus, one of the bloggers I started following in recent months is thinking about quitting or semi-quitting, handing the Debunking Christianity blog over to other writers, maybe dropping in for the occasional post. I’m familiar with this sort of “skeptical burnout,” so I understand the frustration. Writing as a skeptic is often a thankless job, and when we do end up having a result, it’s probably more often in the form of planting the seed of doubt, rather than an abrupt deconversion. I hope to keep fighting the good intellectual fight, but there’s nothing wrong with a skeptic who wants to move on with his life.

I can especially understand John Loftus wanting to move on from his criticism of Christianity. He was once educated to be an apologist before becoming an atheist, which means he wasted a lot of his life on Christianity on one level, and emotionally speaking, it can feel like dwelling on the past. On another level, it does help him to quickly and more thoroughly refute the apologia he once used and educate new skeptics about lesser known arguments. Whatever he decides to do with his life, I wish him luck.

In the mean time, I’m going to pay a little tribute to one of his favorite topics, the Outsider Test of Faith.

If you’re not familiar with it, you’ll probably want to read the above link, but the short version is that it asks a believer to put himself into the shoes of an outsider to his faith. What evidence would be convincing to someone outside your faith?

Part of the rationale behind asking the question is that the observation that most believers have a popular religion of their region. For example, American children generally end up as Christians because they are raised by Christian parents in a largely Christian community. It seems obvious and intuitive, but it has an implication many seem to miss: That the religion passes on to future generations because the culture supports it, not because the objective evidence does.

Science, as it’s really practiced, contrasts with religion. A scientist who wishes to publish his experimental or observational results has to put a lot of effort into preempting or later refuting criticism from those who don’t subscribe to his hypotheses. In that sense, peer review acts as science’s outsider test, and it is not for the faint of heart. It’s only the ideas that continue to survive under intense scrutiny from all sides that become the consensus.

Religions, on the other hand, tend to discourage critical questioning or entertaining alternatives by declaring it blasphemous. At best, it’s seen as inherently impolite, and at worst, heretics are executed or said to be tortured forever in the next life. Faith despite the evidence is often promoted as a virtue. Religious leaders are seen as authorities, and children tend to trust authority figures. Religions also appeal heavily to wishful thinking, which is why most are heavily focused on the afterlife and giving the appearance that someone or something is in control of the uncertain world we live in. These are very effective means of exploiting the cognitive failings of our brains, so it’s no surprise to a skeptic like me that false beliefs can be made popular and survive despite their falsity. These are “metamemes,” ideas about ideas, that can be attached to nearly any kind of belief to get past barriers to belief in someone who hasn’t learned to think critically. People of one religion are often able to see it with regard to other religions. That’s where the OTF comes in.

The OTF is meant as a challenge for a believer to look at their own religion the same way they look at other religions. If you only believe because of your trust in authority figures, fear of punishment for doubting, or because the faith says the universe is the way you want it to be, you should be worried if you’re believing for the right reasons. Even if you think you have good evidence, you should probably go back over it or hear an outsider’s interpretation of that evidence if you’re having difficulty thinking about it differently.

As a skeptic and a scientifically minded person, I recognize that I could be wrong about anything I believe, which is why I welcome contrary arguments. I may have a sharp tongue at times, but I do try to move the argument to find where the disagreement is occurring. I don’t simply want to know what my epistemic adversaries believe, but why they believe it, and whether or not they’re consistent about it.

Sometimes, people try to turn the OTF against itself or onto atheism or science. As I mentioned above, science already applies its equivalent to the OTF in continuous peer review and ongoing experimentation. When new, good evidence comes in, the consensus changes to conform with it. Atheism is a bit different: Atheism is a lack of belief in gods, not a belief in itself. We’re already outsiders to all god beliefs. How would you test a lack of reason to believe, short of providing objective scientific evidence in favor of a belief? A similar question for applying the OTF on itself: How would such a test be done?

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