The Outsider Test for Faith

John W. Loftus over at Debunking Christianity has been fine-tuning his “Outsider Test for Faith” for a few years now. It’s a fantastic thought experiment which should be taught in Sunday School. His latest variation is copypasta below.

When believers criticize the other faiths they reject, they use reason and science to do so. They assume these other religions have the burden of proof. They assume human not divine authors to their holy book(s). They assume a human not a divine origin to their faiths.

Believers do this when rejecting other faiths. So dispensing all of the red herrings about morality and a non-material universe, The Outsider Test for Faith simply asks believers to do unto their own faith what they do unto other faiths. All it asks of them is to be consistent.

The The Outsider Test for Faith asks why believers operate on a double standard. If that’s how they reject other faiths then they should apply that same standard to their own. Let reason and science rather than faith be their guide. Assume your own faith has the burden of proof. Assume human rather than divine authors to your holy book(s) and see what you get. If there is a divine author behind the texts it should be known even with that initial skeptical assumption.

So The Outsider Test for Faith uses the exact same standard that believers use when rejecting other religions. If there is any inconsistency at all it is not with The Outsider Test for Faith. It is how believers assess truth claims. For it should only take a moment’s thought to realize that if there is a God who wants people born into different religious cultures to believe, who are outsiders, then that religious faith SHOULD pass The Outsider Test for Faith.

If Christians want to reject The Outsider Test for Faith then either they must admit they have a double standard for examining religious faiths, one for their own faith and a different one for others, or their faith was not made to pass The Outsider Test for Faith in the first place. In either case all of their arguments against The Outsider Test for Faith are based on red herrings, special pleading, begging the question, the denigrating science, and an ignorance that I can only attribute to delusional blindness.

Skepticism vs gullibility.

1) We are all raised as believers. As children we believed whatever our parents told us, all of us.

2) We were raised in our respective families and cultures to believe what our parents told us about religion.

3) Psychological studies have shown that people have a very strong tendency to believe what they prefer to believe. Cognitive Bias studies show this.

4) Psychological studies have shown that most of us, most of the time, look for that which confirms what we believe rather than that which disconfirms it, even though the latter is the best way to get at the truth. This is known as Confirmation Bias.

5) Neurological studies have shown that people have a sense of certainty about the beliefs they have that is unrelated to the strength of the actual evidence, as Robert Burton argues in On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not

6) Skepticism is not usually an inherited characteristic. We must acquire the capacity to doubt what we are raised to believe. Skepticism is the adult attitude.

Full stop. There are a lot of books on these subjects. This data is undeniable, noncontroversial and obvious. We must think about the implications of what these undeniable facts tell us about who we are as human beings. If we were raised as Christians then we seek to confirm what we were raised to believe because we prefer that which we were raised to believe. If we were raised as Muslims then we seek to confirm what we were raised to believe because we prefer that which we were raised to believe. If we were raised as Orthodox Jews then we seek to confirm what we were raised to believe because we prefer that which we were raised to believe. If we were raised as Scientologists then we seek to confirm what we were raised to believe because we prefer that which we were raised to believe. If we were raised as Hindu’s then we seek to confirm what we were raised to believe because we prefer that which we were raised to believe.

7) When there are billions of people who are certain of an inherited faith they all learned in the same manner, who live in separate geographical locations around the globe, who all prefer to believe what they were raised to believe, and who all seek to confirm that which they were raised to believe, it should cause them to doubt what they were raised to believe. What is there not to understand about this?

8) It will not do to argue against atheists that this data applies to us too. This is a fallacious argument that cannot be used to sidestep the implications for one’s own inherited religious faith. All believers who are certain of their faith will use this same fallacious argument against atheists. But doing so does nothing to solve the problem of religious diversity, since they still have not come up with a method that can solve their own differences. Atheists are doubters. We are skeptics. Knowing this data causes us to require hard, cold evidence for that which we can accept. We have concluded this requirement is never met by any religious faith.

9) Skepticism is a filter that adults use to help us sift out the wheat of truth from the chaff of falsehood. We cannot doubt that filter! There is no other alternative.

10) The Outsider Test for Faith is the best and only way to get at the truth if you want to know the truth. Examine your own faith with the same level of skepticism you use when examining the other religious faiths you reject. We cannot have a milquetoast test when it comes to the truth. We cannot merely say to people that they should be skeptical without offering a standard of skepticism. Why? Because if we ask believers who are certain of their faith to test it with doubt then to a person they will say they have, and that their faith is sure. But ask them to test their faith with the same level of skepticism they use when examining the other religious faiths they reject and that will get their attention. I have their attention now.

If anyone thinks the Outsider Test for Faith is unfair or faulty in any way then propose a better alternative. What is the alternative? Further reading.

10 Responses

  1. Darren at |

    The logical position for anyone to assume–irrespective of taking this test, or not–should ultimately be agnosticism. Anything either side is self deception.

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  2. JP at |

    The “Outsider Test for faith” is pretty much a specific instance of a more general “outisder-test-for-any-uproven-opinion-I-may-hold-at-this-point-in-time”.

    I think you’ll find that if you try to apply it rigorously to every aspect of your life (not just the religious bits), you’ll soon discover what “analysis paralysis” is. You’ll be unable to entertain, even for a moment, any political, aesthetic or moral opinion or value, unless you can back it up by a complete chain of logical deduction from perfectly flawless axioms. That’s a very tall order, unless you’re an Aristotle ;)

    To make matters worse, if you have more than a passing knowledge of the history of science, you’ll have to apply “the outsider test” to those ideas as well. In fact, it’s possible to be so skeptical that you may doubt the objective existence of the universe, as many philosophers have. Once you get addicted to the “test of skepticism”, *how will you know* where to draw the line and refrain from excessive skepticism?

    As soon as you stop being skeptical and decide to actually affirm something (whatever it is), there’ll always be some skepticker-than-thou smart-alec who comes along and goes: “yeah, but that’s just your opinion – have you subjected it to my “outsider test for cherished opinions”?

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  3. JP at |

    Hey, in my post I didn’t make *any* argument whatsoever for the truth of Christianity. What I (tried to) say was that a consistent application of the “outsider test” is not as simple or cut’n’dried as John Loftus makes it out to be.

    What I also did claim is that there is indeed such a thing as excessive skepticism. For example, Bertrand Russell (at one point in his earlier days, at least) refused to affirm that there is such a thing as the universe – he was skeptical of such an unprovable axiom and hence happily believed only in what he called “collections of sense-data” which did not necessarily equate to there actually being a material universe “out there”, so to speak. Now, I’d expect that even many a hard skeptic would find this cup of tea a bit too strong!

    So my question about where to draw the line between healthy and excessive skepticism is a genuine one, not some sort of ploy by the christian-apologist-boogeyman ;) Skepticism is indeed a slippery slope – the question is where do you draw the line?

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  4. Mark R at |

    So we should stop being skeptical of anything and just affirm something – anything will do?
    I stopped being skeptical of the scientific method years ago and choose to affirm that there is NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER that ANY god of any description exists.
    Now, if JP or anyone else in this world can show me EVIDENCE that some god of some (ANY) description exists I will examine the evidence presented, and as a result I may change my affirmation. Until then goodnight and goodbye.

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  5. JP at |

    Hi All.

    Mark R: I think you’re contradicting yourself :) Also, I didn’t say we should “just affirm anything”.

    WILTRF: Roughly speaking, I agree with most of your last post, except for the “my cognitive bias complicates things” bit ;) Again, my original argument didn’t mention Christianity (or even God, actually). Even if Christianity was false and God didn’t exist, Loftus’ test would still be logically inconsistent – *that* is my point. Whether atheists follow Loftus’ advice can be examined by taking any current prominent atheist thinker and testing to see if they are skeptical of their own affirmations. Shall we try to find examples? I’ve got a feeling it’ll be quite easy to find them.

    The other reason why Loftus’ argument isn’t right is that there are many people with good ol’ skeptical minds who started out as atheists or agnostics and very slowly and very rationally came to the conclusion that Christianity is true. (Again, lest you misinterpret me, I’m not suggesting this *proves* Christianity is true, just saying that Loftus’ outsider test *has been applied* and in many cases, lo and behold, the outcome is diamaterically opposed to what he says it must be)

    Kindest regards and shall we subject some atheists to Loftus’ test? It will be fun!!

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  6. Dave at |

    You talk about athiest! But do you understand what that means?
    An Athiest says there is no GOD. But before anyone can say that, we have to know every knowable bit of knowledge in the entire existing universe. If we are trying to prove a universal negative which can not be done as we can only be in one place at one time, we are finite, not infinite.We are finite-present, not Omi-present.The Athiest can’t be an athiest,when confronted with this fact.Because he does not know everything. An agnostic is one who admits there is a God but does not know Him.
    So the Athiedt has to be an agnostic . If you still don’t get my drift then I’ll spell it out for you. But 98% of people understand what I am talking about.


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  7. David at |

    Agnostics don’t “admit there is a God”, they only submit that there is a possibility of one. You are right though that everyone has to be agnostic to some extent. However this agnosticism may be trivial at times.

    For example, the idea of fairies can easily be laughed off as ridiculous, yet we can’t prove that tinkerbell isn’t flying past our window when we’re not watching, so our views must remain at least a little agnostic. 

    As the evidence for fairies roughly correlates with the evidence for god/gods, we should therefore be equally agnostic in regards to both.

    I’m ok with calling myself an atheist because when it comes to god/gods, I only have perhaps .05% uncertainty. There’s about as much possibility that I’m adopted too, or that I was switched at birth, but I’m happy to accept the parents who raised me, as that’s where the evidence lies.

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  8. Kent Gardner at |

    IN 1925 G. K. Chesterton, a Christian apologist, suggested the approach of an outsider’s skepticism to Christianity. In his classic “The Everlasting Man” he contends that the best way for a Christian to appreciate Christ is either to hold fast to faith of his fathers, or to approach Him as we might approach Confucius, entirely from the outside and as strangers. It is only when someone is fully inside, or fully outside, Christianity, that he begins to appreciate it. Those, like Loftus, who have left Christianity without being able to leave it alone, are not dispassionate in the matter. Their skepticism is tinged with bitterness, just as the Christian’s belief is buoyed by positive emotion.

    That being said, there are significant evidential differences between Christianity and all other major religions, and if I am rebutted on this point, and remember this sad little site, I will present them. Until then, I agree with Loftus on the skeptic’s approach, and counsel him to take his own advice to heart. Leave Christianity all the way before you try to attack it. By doing this sincerely and completely, you will find yourself not wanting to attack it anymore, either in the same way that I don’t dedicate my life to attacking Buddhism, or in the same way that I don’t dedicate my life to attacking Christianity.

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