Atheists literally surrounded me. On a cool evening in October, during the 2016 “SASHACON” (an atheist conference where I was doing a debate), speakers and participants enjoyed dinner together on the roof of the Heidelberg restaurant, a favorite student haunt here in Columbia. I sat right in the middle of the group, and had a great time. Several new friendships were launched, including one with Anthony Magnabosco, from whom I continue to learn. I also met the infamous John Loftus. John, with his Indiana Jones hat, struck me as quite friendly and would later give me two of his books.
Among other things, John is known for his website, Debunking Christianity, and something called the “Outsider Test for Faith.” Lots of internet atheists promote the “outsider test” (OTF) as a potent weapon against Christians. But how potent is it? Let’s have a look.
What Is the OTF?
Here is the OTF in John’s own words (from his book, The Christian Delusion1):
“With the OTF I’ll argue that we should adopt a skeptical predisposition as best as possible prior to examining the evidence, if we adopt any predisposition at all. My argument is as follows:
1) 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. This is the religious diversity thesis.
2) Consequently, it seems very likely that adopting one’s religious faith is not merely a matter of independent rational judgment but is causally dependent on cultural conditions to an overwhelming degree. This is the religious dependency thesis.
3) Hence the odds are highly likely that any given adopted religious faith is false.
4) So the best way to test one’s adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of skepticism used to evaluate other religious faiths. This expresses the OTF.
The OTF is primarily a test to examine religious faiths […] The OTF is no different than the prince in the Cinderella story who must question forty- five thousand people to see which girl lost the glass slipper at the ball the previous night. They all claim to have done so. Therefore, skepticism is definitely warranted.”2
Evaluation of the OTF
Rather than launch into a pedantic critique of Loftus’ argument, I’d rather try to tease out several interesting points he makes. For one, he’s pointing out that many people’s religious beliefs are epistemically unjustified. I think he may be right about this. ‘Epistemically unjustified’ just means that the believer lacks whatever reasons or support are required to make their belief rational in the right way. But that isn’t really surprising, since that is true for many of the beliefs people hold. I’m sure it’s true for some of my beliefs. This is not the best contribution of the Outsider Test, since it just means that believers need to do a better job in their thinking.
Another interesting claim he makes is that “the odds are highly likely that any given adopted religious faith is false.” He suggests that this somehow follows from combining the “religious diversity thesis” and the “religious dependency thesis.” But this is an error. The fact that one’s belief is likely unjustified or irrational in no way implies that it is “highly likely” to be false.
Here’s an easy counterexample to Loftus’ claim: I believe that the number of stars in the universe is even, and this belief is based on no good reasons. However, it seems the likelihood of it’s being true is .5. (I’m open to someone giving empirical or mathematical reasons against this.) Here’s another: I believe it is now raining in Madrid. I have no reason to believe this whatsoever. But my lack of epistemic justification has no logical connection at all to the likelihood of rain in Spain. Maybe I’m misunderstanding Loftus, but that seems like a bad inference.
The Heart of the Matter
I think the real contribution of the Outsider Test lies in pointing out a kind of hypocrisy among religious believers (shocker). So in addition to moral and spiritual hypocrisy, we also commit epistemic hypocrisy! Here’s what I mean. If Johnny smokes weed, but then criticizes Timmy for smoking weed, Johnny (all other things being equal) is a moral hypocrite. Johnny applies a standard to Timmy that he is unwilling to apply to himself. Thus, he sees his own actions as OK and sees Timmy’s as bad. Crazy.
Now imagine Johnny believes in Christianity “by faith,” but then criticizes Timmy for believing in Islam “by faith.” He thinks Timmy is deluded or somehow deficient in his belief. Johnny applies a standard to Timmy that he is unwilling to apply to himself. Thus, he sees his own belief as OK and sees Timmy’s belief as bad. Crazy, right?
The Outsider Test’s Rawlsian Solution
So, to purge ourselves of this hypocrisy, or inconsistency, we need to (try to) take a different stance toward our worldview. What does that stance look like? In my Epistemic Duties and Blameworthiness for Belief,3 I suggested that one way to simulate impartial rationality is to use a Rawlsian thought experiment–the veil of ignorance.
Philosopher John Rawls argues that the only way to fairly choose the principles of justice that will govern a society is for the choosers to be behind a “veil of ignorance.” 4 That is, they don’t know anything about themselves or how the principles might affect them. They don’t know if they are black or white, rich or poor, healthy or ill, male or female.
The Epistemic Veil
So imagine an epistemic veil of ignorance, behind which a person examines a (religious) claim, not knowing whether the truth or falsity of the claim would benefit them in any way. They don’t know whether they are a Muslim, a Buddhist, etc.. “In such a case, a totally impartial agent who is presented with a defeater for his belief that p would have some doubt about p, assuming that he doesn’t have overwhelming evidence in favor of p.” 5. In other words, if you examine a belief from an “outsider” perspective, you would be more likely to weigh the evidence and counter-evidence (defeaters) fairly and accurately. This is especially hard to do from an “insider” perspective on religion because it is (generally) in your self-interest that your current beliefs are true.
So if I’m understanding Loftus and the Outsider Test correctly, and this is the sort of thing Loftus suggests, then I’m inclined to agree–on certain conditions. On my view of epistemic responsibility, you only have a (prima facie) duty to investigate (do the OTF) when:
- You have significant doubt about whether your current doxastic attitude toward p (belief, disbelief, or withholding) is correct. (Where p is some claim about religion.)
- You don’t have significant doubt, but you should. That is, an impartial agent (“behind the veil,” so to speak) who had the same total evidence as you regarding p would have significant doubt.
Let me make a few important clarifications. The Outsider Test applies to one claim at a time. You cannot actually perform the Outsider Test on “Christianity.” Also, ‘Significant doubt’ is hard to define, but it isn’t simply being less than 100% certain. I believe in only one thing with 100% certainty, and that’s my own existence. Surely I don’t need to be investigating every one of my beliefs! Let’s say that significant doubt is the kind that lingers in your mind, keeps you awake at night, or causes distress. I think it’s possible that the earth won’t exist tomorrow, but I don’t worry about it–thus I don’t have significant doubt about the earth’s continuity.
Individuals who have thoroughly and impartially (as best they can) examined a particular religious belief can rest easy. They have fulfilled their epistemic duty and may be considered responsible, rational believers. And since the duty is only prima facie, we understand that many people simply don’t have the time to investigate. They may be caring for a sick loved one, working 12 hour shifts, or simply incapacitated. They get a pass.
What About Skeptics and Atheists?
One consequence of all this is that the OTF, or perhaps the “Outsider Test for Attitudes,” applies to everyone. Doxastic attitudes are positions we take regarding some claim. For the claim R, “all ravens are black,” I can take three attitudes toward it: believe, disbelieve, or withhold. Since R is false, I disbelieve it. If my daughter Julia believed R, I would show her a picture of an albino raven, and she would then (hopefully) realize that her doxastic attitude is incorrect, and adjust to disbelief.
So, for any doxastic attitude I have toward some claim, I can perform the Outsider Test for Attitudes on it. And if I have significant doubt about some attitude, maybe brought on by some new evidence, I should investigate via something like the OTA. Or perhaps I have no doubt, but this is only because I am unaware of strong biases that favor my view. Everyone has a worldview, or a set of views about reality. And many of these beliefs may need examination.
I know that Loftus has pushed back against the suggestion that an atheist can take the OTF. This is because he thinks it crazy to suggest that an atheist hypothetically adopt the perspective of a religious believer. But no such adoption is necessary. All he needs to do is to use the Rawlsian method I’ve suggested. He also says that atheists can’t take the Outsider Test because they have no beliefs about gods (which I dispute). But there are plenty of other dearly held beliefs that can be tested–simply use the more universal Outsider Test for Attitudes instead.
So here are some examples of doxastic attitudes that could be good candidates for the Outsider Test:
- Yvonne believes that vaccines are dangerous, but her friend, who is an experienced and trusted doctor, sends her an article about the safety of vaccines.
- Hank is undecided on whether Area 51 contains alien artifacts. Hiss sister, who works for military intelligence and has visited Area 51, shows him photos of all the alien corpses and technology housed there.
- Amy thinks that the stories about the Pony Express are only fictional legends, like Pecos Bill and Buzz Aldrin. Then she visits a Pony Express museum and reads dozens of historical accounts, given by trustworthy people, about the riders and their feats.
- Professor Zlatan disbelieves all claims about gods. A faculty friend loans him several scholarly texts on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus which walk through the most standard objections and offer plausible responses to each.
- Jenny believes that Jesus is her Savior. She finds all other religions, as well as atheism, repulsive and frightening. Moreover, everyone in her community believes in Jesus and she would be ostracized if she ever doubted or asked questions about other religions.
In each case, the person ought to take the time to reflect on their beliefs from a new perspective. Perhaps trying to set aside emotion and bias, and examining the evidence available to them. They may move to a new doxastic attitude, or they may stay the same. The important part of the Outsider Test is not so much what you believe, but how you’ve gone about believing it.
I think the Outsider Test (especially the OTA version), is good advice for everyone. So, as long as atheists like John Loftus and others are willing to apply this logic to their own worldview, I don’t mind them encouraging religious believer to do the same.
- Loftus, J. W. (2010). The Christian delusion: Why faith fails.
- Ibid, pp.81-82.
- Gadsden, C. T., (2014). Epistemic duties and blameworthiness for belief. (Unpublished dissertation). University of Missouri.
- Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Revised edition, 1999.
- Gadsden (2014), p. 57.