outsider test

The “Outsider Test for Faith”

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.

outsider test, atheist

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.

outsider test

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.

weed, outsider test

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.

outsider test, veil of ignorance

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.

doubt, outsider test

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.


outsider test, vaccine

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.

  1. Loftus, J. W. (2010). The Christian delusion: Why faith fails.
  2. Ibid, pp.81-82.
  3. Gadsden, C. T., (2014). Epistemic duties and blameworthiness for belief. (Unpublished dissertation). University of Missouri.
  4. Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Revised edition, 1999. 
  5. Gadsden (2014), p. 57.

8 thoughts on “The “Outsider Test for Faith”

  1. You certainly have my sympathies for being the only non-atheist in the room! As a closeted atheist who continued to go to church for quite a few years, it feels really uncomfortable for me to be in a church, since I feel like I’m being dishonest by my very presence. I feel like honesty requires me to wear a T-Shirt that says something to the effect of “By the way, I’m not a Christian,” but my basic politeness tells me that would be a needlessly confrontational thing to do. I recently went to a Pride event held by a friend of mine, and as a cis-het type person, I strongly felt the same dynamic. In my (limited) experience, being a minority in the room might be difficult (and, yes, that is a rare experience for me), but it’s more manageable (at least in my particular case) if the minority status is acknowledged (in a way that doesn’t result in stereotype threat, I suppose) and the room is “neutral ground.”

    Your use of Rawls made me think of that theory of faith I’m still working on, and the contrast between what might be called objective vs. subjective doxastic duties. If we accept knowledge as the only norm of belief, then all of our doxastic duties are objective. If somebody looks at the same body of evidence as you, but draws a different conclusion, then obviously, at least one of you is wrong. That means that any defense of your own belief requires attacking the other guy’s belief. In order to show that you are following your doxastic duties, you are required to show that the other guy isn’t following his. (Possibly in a non-blameworthy way, granted, but still in the wrong.) I think that follows, at any rate.

    By contrast, that theory of faith I’m working on attempts to provide a subjective norm of belief. According to my theory, whether or not a subject should take a belief on faith is determined by certain psychological facts, and not by the available evidence. So it would be permissible for one subject to take p on faith, and another to reject p, despite both subjects having the same evidence.

    If a subjective norm of belief could be established, it might take a lot of the heat out of religious discussions. You would still need to come up with a way to convince the other guy, if you want to convert people. But you would no longer need to show that the other guy is wrong in order to defend your own beliefs.

    I would note that it would be difficult to show that a subject is permitted to take a vaccine-related belief on faith, given my theory. Difficult, but not impossible, I suppose.

    Hmm. I would agree that not following your doxastic duties is not logically connected to the probability of your beliefs being true. But Occam’s Razor could still apply… Without any evidence of stairs existing, then it would be possible for the total number of stairs in the universe to be zero or infinite. I’m not sure how to evaluate the evenness or oddness of those numbers. And if you had no evidence of rain existing… Hmm. In order to evaluate probabilities, you’d need to solve the generality problem. On the whole, you’re right, I think.

    I am a bit worried by the “religious dependence thesis” myself, in the sense I agree with it, but I’m not sure what to do with it. It does imply that the vast majority of people are not performing epistemic due diligence in arriving at their religious beliefs. (Including, sadly, converts, given how the conversion process is usually social rather than evidence-based.) But it is not enough to demonstrate that any single person you are talking to hasn’t done epistemic due diligence.

    1. Eddie, that was one thought? Wow. You raise interesting points. I’ll just make one comment. I’m skeptical that any two agents can possess exactly the same evidence. Maybe in really simple, trivial cases. But for bigger things, like religious claims, I doubt it. This accounts more for the disagreement. But I also think non-cognitive factors also mess up the cognitive process, producing different outcomes.

      1. Multiple thoughts. Or at least multiple hot takes.

        Eh, the “same” evidence is a loose term. For that matter, so is ‘evidence.’ I reject evidentialism, since they play funny games with that term. (For them, ‘evidence’ isn’t the bootprint on the ground, but your phenomenological experience of that bootprint.) Barring things like direct revelation, I’m willing to accept that humans in general have the “same” evidence for the existence of God, etc., for reasonably loose interpretations of “same.” If nit-picking matters, I’m willing to nit-pick, though.

        1. It’s relatively non-controversial that knowledge is the norm of assertion and action. From that, it follows that asserting the contents of a justified but false belief violates that norm. If the reason why your belief is false yet justified is because you lacked certain evidence, then it follows that your assertion-act was wrong, but not blameworthy. Analogous to backing your car over the neighbor’s cat because you didn’t see her in your rear-view mirror.

          If you assert p, and somebody else asserts not p, then at least one of you is asserting wrongly. Hopefully, that wrongness isn’t blameworthy. But still, if your conversational partner is in the right, that entails you being in the wrong.

          Knowledge is an objective norm of assertion and action. But if there is a non-knowledge norm of belief, that same norm could be subjective rather than objective. In which case, one person believing p and another believing not p would not necessarily mean that either person is doing anything wrong, even out of blameless ignorance. Both beliefs would not only be blameless, but permissible.

          1. “But my argument above does suggest a certain degree of delicacy should be used when critiquing the ‘religious’ beliefs of others.”

            Heh, probably not all *that* much delicacy, mind you. Bucket of Truth levels of evidence are difficult to achieve. And as Horatio Hornblower put it, “He who is convinced against his will, remains of his own opinion still.”

  2. Went to work, got back from work, have had time to reflect. After taking a closer look at John Loftus’s argument, I think he might have actually committed a Reverse Moorean Shift: I think his conclusion is actually *more* plausible for independent reasons than the conjunction of the premises he’s using to support it. I *think* I can give an independent argument for his conclusion that might be more plausible.

    It is possible that I interpret his conclusion differently than he does. Particularly, one crucial component of my argument is my working definition of religion, which could vary drastically from Loftus’s. My working definition of religion is that a religion is a human-created social institution that requires publicly endorsing certain beliefs as a condition of membership.

    I will grant that this definition is not perfect. For one thing, it could falsely identify political parties as religions, depending on how you interpret their platforms. I think I can wiggle out of that objection, but, even if so, there’s probably more objections where that one came from.

    I think Chris anticipates where I’m going with this: “Jenny believes that Jesus is her Savior. […] Moreover, everyone in her community believes in Jesus and she would be ostracized if she ever doubted or asked questions about other religions.”

    If a member of a religion (as I have defined it) comes to doubt – or ‘worse,’ reject – one of the creeds of their religion (that is, one of those beliefs whose endorsement is a condition of membership in that religion) then they will become a heretic and/or an apostate. That means that they will either be ostracized from their religion, or they will continue to ‘dishonestly’ participate in their religion. (Which is not exactly fun, let me tell you.) Either way, they’d be “breaking faith” with their religion.

    Now *if* such a person were sincerely willing to abandon their religion if they were no longer able to believe in its creeds, and they were willing to believe whatever their reason requires them to believe, then it *might* be possible for them to objectively consider the evidence for those creeds. But if such a person would not be willing to “break faith” with their religion if that’s what their epistemic duty required, then I would think that would amount to a paradigm example of motivated reasoning. In fact, I think even being willing to “break faith” with their religion if their reason demanded it would *itself* amount to a breech of faith, even if they continued to believe in the creeds. (At least in the eyes of the kinds of people who think publicly endorsing a proposition is a reasonable condition for membership in a social institution.)

    From this, it follows that belonging in “good faith” to a religion in a sufficient condition for motivated reasoning in cases where the creeds of that religion are being called into question. This is not a *necessary* condition for engaging in motivated reasoning, but I have argued that it is a sufficient condition.

    Loftus’s conclusion states: “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.”

    I would point out that “best” is a rather ambiguous term. *If* a subject *has* accepted that they should believe what reason requires them to believe, then, yes, that subject, pragmatically speaking, should only accept the creeds of one’s religion if the available evidence warrants that. But if the subject is not willing to “break faith” with their religion if reason demands it, then that calls that term, ‘best,’ into question. That question cannot be settled by epistemology (since our subject is rejecting knowledge in favor of allegiance), and needs to be settled by moral philosophy instead.

    Loftus and Chris are correct that an “Outsider Test for Faith” is an excellent way to judge how good your evidence for your belief is. The best kind of evidence would not only convince a skeptic who is not part of your religion; it would convince even a member of a religion whose creed rejects the proposition that evidence supports.

    But is it morally required to have that high of a bar for your own beliefs? Let’s say that you did have Bucket of Truth (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0833213/) level of evidence that would convince even that religious individual whether they wanted to be convinced or not. In such a scenario, *would* you force the religious individual to gaze into The Bucket? I don’t think I would, not unless that individual’s religion was some kind of dangerous cult. And, even then, there would probably be less traumatic methods for getting the individual to abandon their allegiance with the cult.

    And if you are not willing to force that religious individual to gaze into The Bucket, are you morally required to force yourself to gaze into The Bucket? I think the Veil of Ignorance principle Chris has applied suggests ‘no.’

    For the record, “I will break faith with my religion if I stop believing this proposition” is *not* sufficient grounds for taking that proposition on faith, given my theory of faith. But my argument above does suggest a certain degree of delicacy should be used when critiquing the ‘religious’ beliefs of others.

    And I think this raises a question: is it possible to be Christian without being ‘religious,’ given how I have defined ‘religion’?

    (I’m reasonably certain atheism and ‘irreligion’ are compatible, although I believe the New Atheists come depressingly close to making a ‘religion’ out of atheism.)

  3. Thanks for thinking through what I wrote Chris, and for the positive things you say about the OTF. I appreciate that. Unfortunately you have not dealt with my book, where I decisively defend the OTF from all known objections. If you want to deal with my in-depth responses to your criticisms look it up. Until then you’re wrestling with a few strawmen. https://www.amazon.com/Outsider-Test-Faith-Which-Religion/dp/1616147377/ref=as_sl_pc_ss_til?tag=wwwdebunkingc-20&linkCode=w00&linkId=GARG5ONHQ4FNUJ7V&creativeASIN=1616147377

    For instance, you mention the Rawls’ veil of ignorance as if I didn’t. I considered it along with other precursors on pages 24-29 in chapter 1, along with this footnote on page 235:

    19. There are other precursors. One precursor might be akin to the “original position” argued by John Rawls for impartially evaluating fundamental principles of justice, only extended to the investigation of religious faiths. We could imagine ourselves in the “original position” behind a Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance, one where we know some general facts about psychology, economics, biology, and other social and natural sciences, but we don’t know in advance our own personal, social, or historical circumstances in life. Most importantly, we don’t know when in history or where on earth we’ll be born. Then, from behind the veil, tell us how you would objectively test the religious options available. See John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1971). Mathematics professor James East suggested a thought experiment in which we’re told that when we wake up tomorrow, we’ll be randomly changed into a person with a different religious view or even an atheist. But before we go to bed we’re allowed to write a letter to ourselves offering some general advice on how to investigate the religious options without saying anything about which one to accept. He asks, “How would you advise yourself?” See Reasonably Faithless, “The Outsider Test for Faith and the Veil of Ignorance,” Reasonably Faithless, http:// skepticink.com/reasonablyfaithless/2012/11/10/the-outsider-test-for-faith-and-the -veil-of-ignorance/ (accessed November 29, 2012). While I recommend these two ways of looking at the problem of religious diversity, without the non–double standard that the OTF provides, people will more than likely sneak in their own sectarian views as much as they can.

    Stephen Maitzen deserves an honorable mention, since he argued that religious diversity, or the “uneven distribution of theistic belief around the world,” counts against Christians who argue on behalf of divine hiddenness. In arguing for the best explanation of this data, Maitzen claims theistic answers to this problem “are less plausible” than naturalistic ones: “Even judged on their own terms, theistic explanations of the geographic lopsidedness of belief look farfetched compared to naturalistic explanations.” See Stephen Maitzen, “Divine Hiddenness and the Demographics of Theism,” Religious Studies 42 (2006): 177–91, and Stephen Maitzen, “Does Molinism Explain the Demographics of Theism,” Religious Studies 44 (2008): 473–77. While he uses the problem of religious diversity, I’m making a different case with regard to global religious diversity itself. I’m arguing that because of it, believers should approach all religious faiths, including their own, with the nondouble-standard skepticism of an outsider, a nonbeliever.

    I will probably write a response soon.

    1. John — I haven’t read the whole book, and I must say that it is terrific that you have interacted with Rawls! I do think the Rawlsian approach is an improvement on your view. This is no insult to your work. It’s a compliment when philosophers write to improve your argument — they think it a worthy project.

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