Analyzing The Outsider Test For Faith (Part 2)

The Outsider Test For Faith is an objection to Christian belief that says (a) a stance of skepticism toward any particular religion is the only warranted position unless (b) the belief in question passes “intellectual muster.” Atheist freethinker John Loftus provides six considerations that, in his mind, warrant a position of skepticism toward any religion, including Christianity.

For review, here is what he says:

The amount of skepticism warranted depends on [1] the number of rational people who disagree, [2] whether the people who disagree are separated into distinct geographical locations, [3] the nature of those beliefs, [4] how they originated, [5] how they were personally adopted in the first place, and [6] the kinds of evidence that can possibly be used to decide between them. My claim is that when it comes to religious beliefs a high degree of skepticism is warranted because of these factors.

In Part 1, we saw that his first skeptical consideration relies on Equal Weight Theory. I argued that Equal Weight Theory is ultimately self-defeating — if it’s true, it’s false. In Part 2, I’ll be discussing his second consideration, that disagreement is usually separated by geographical location (Americans typically believe Christianity, Saudi’s typically believe Islam, etc.). I will argue that this consideration doesn’t lead to skepticism, and if it does, it works much better against Naturalism than Christianity. In Part 3 I’ll show how his remaining considerations assume that Reformed Epistemology is false.

Christianity is Weird

It’s worth pointing out that the geographical distribution of Christianity throughout the world is pretty weird. It isn’t confined to one centralized location as one finds in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Christianity is literally all over the map. It started in Jerusalem, soon the center became Antioch, then it spread to former Constantinople, then Rome, then Europe, then America, and now it’s exploding in places like South America, Africa, and China.

For anyone interested, I found this cool video that visualizes the spread of Christianity over the centuries. Anyways, the point is that the geographical distribution of Christianity is not centralized anywhere. This casts doubt on what can be inferred from said distribution.

That aside, let’s get clearer on how Loftus’ second consideration in his Outsider Test For Faith is supposed to work.

Cultural Contingency

It’s true that anyone born in America will probably end up a Christian. According to Wikipedia, 75% of polled Americans identified themselves as Christian in 2015. Likewise, anyone born in Saudi Arabia is likely to embrace Islam (it’s actually against the law to convert to another religion). Loftus seems to think that we can draw skeptical conclusions from these facts. But how does that work?

Here’s what I think the argument from cultural contingency looks like:

(1) John was born in America and believes that Christianity is true.
(2) If John were born in Saudi Arabia, he would probably believe that Christianity is false.
(3) Therefore, John is not justified in believing that Christianity is true.

Now, it should be obvious that (3) doesn’t follow logically from the previous two steps. Both (1) and (2) could be true, and (3) false. We need at least two additional premises:

(4) If (1) and (2) are true, then it’s simply a matter of luck that John believes that Christianity is true.
(5) If it’s a matter of luck that John believes that Christianity is true, then John is not justified in believing that Christianity is true.

The good news is that we now we have a valid argument. (3) follows logically from (1), (2), (4), and (5). The question we now want to ask is: What reason is there to think that (4) or (5) is true? It seems to me that both are false. To help us think through this, consider (6):

(6) If John were born in 2,000 BCE, he would probably believe the Earth is flat.

Does it follow from (6) that John’s belief in a round Earth (assuming he’s not an NBA player) is a matter of luck? It’s relatively easy to think up scenarios where we would probably believe different things if placed in a different time period or geographical location. If I were born a first century Jew, for instance, I probably wouldn’t value the testimony of women. Do these counterfactual statements reveal that what I currently believe is a matter of luck?

Loftus’ Luck

Suppose for a moment that Loftus’ Luck precludes knowledge. If I am lucky in this way, then I don’t know that the Earth is round, I don’t know that the testimony of women is valuable, and so on. Consider what this looks like from the viewpoint of Christianity and Naturalism.

If Christianity is true, then the reason I wasn’t born in another time or place with a different set of beliefs is because that isn’t the world God chose to create; I was born in 1987 because he chose to create this world. It’s not happenstance that I wasn’t born a first century Jew, rather it’s the result of God’s initial creative act [1]. No luck involved [2].

On the other hand, if Naturalism is true–if no God and nothing like God exists–then it’s mere happenstance that I exist here and now instead of in some other time and place. Naturalism entails that we are all lucky in the spaciotemporal sense. But if this is true (and this kind of luck precludes knowledge), then Naturalism precludes knowledge.

It turns out this is a much bigger problem for Naturalism than for Christianity.

Radical Skepticism

It comes as no surprise that most epistemologists do not agree that every kind of luck precludes knowledge. Consider the following scenario: It’s possible that we are all being tricked by an evil demon into thinking we are having perceptual experiences when we really aren’t. In one sense it’s a matter of luck that no such evil demon exists. Does this mean we can’t trust our perceptual experiences? That we can’t know, for instance, that we have hands? Quite obviously not.

Loftus’ Luck leads to the same kind of radical skepticism. It entails–at least on Naturalism–that we can’t know the Earth is round, that the testimony of women is reliable, and so on. The solution is to deny that every kind of luck is incompatible with knowledge (which is something epistemologists already do).

For a further study of the kinds of epistemic luck that are incompatible with knowledge, see this, this, and this.

A New Version

In the original article, Loftus responds to a similar objection by saying this:

This is why I’ve developed the challenge of the outsider test in the first place, to test religious faiths against such luck. If the test between religious faiths is based entirely on luck, then what are the chances, based on luck alone, that the particular sect within Christian theism that one adheres to is correct?

Here he asks what the chances are that the specific religion one adheres to is correct “based on luck alone.” Notice that Loftus’ argument is contingent upon it being the case that a person’s belief is “based entirely on luck.” So if my belief in Christianity is not the result of luck, for example, then it doesn’t follow that what I believe is unlikely. Unfortunately, Loftus hasn’t even attempted to motivate his antecedent (I’ve bolded it above). Thus, this new argument immediately faces an undercutting defeater. But we can take it a step further and provide a rebutting defeater (for an explanation of these types of defeaters, see [3]).

Virtually no one has beliefs that don’t at least seem or appear true. Philosophers refer to this as a kind of non-propositional evidence. Here’s an example. It seems to me that I am typing this blog post on a real computer. This seeming I have provides a kind of non-propositional evidence that my belief is true. It’s not conclusive evidence, but it provides me at least some justification, some reason to think that this computer actually exists [4]. It follows that no matter what one believes–Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Naturalism, etc.–their belief is not “based on luck alone.” It’s at least in part based on non-propositional evidence.

Given these two defeaters, I can’t see any reason to accept Loftus’ argument.

Concluding Thoughts

In summary, I’ve argued that geographical location bears no epistemic implications for religious belief. If we take the argument at face value, it’s a much bigger problem for Naturalism than for Theism. Then we saw that philosophers reject the idea that every kind of luck is incompatible with knowledge; we are otherwise faced with radical skepticism. Lastly we saw that Loftus’ attempted response faces both an undercutting and rebutting defeater.

In Part 3 I will bring it all together and show how the entire project assumes that Reformed Epistemology is false.


[1] It would also be the result of God’s nature. For instance, His being perfectly loving sans creation plays a significant role in what kind of world God chooses to create.

[2] Admittedly, this argument would require a bit more fleshing out. We’d need to defend a theory of God’s omniscience that includes knowledge of free-creature counterfactuals (like Molinism) and defend the idea that divine actions aren’t random. Both can be done but are far beyond the scope of this article. Should be noted, however, that the section on radical skepticism goes through regardless.

[3] John L. Pollock distinguished between two kinds of defeaters of a defeasible inference: rebutting defeaters (which give one a prima facie reason for believing the denial of the original conclusion) and undercutting defeaters (which give one a reason for doubting that the usual relationship between the premises and the conclusion hold in the given case). See here for more.

[4] This follows from a popular epistemic principle called phenomenal conservatism.

About the Featured Image

Another image from Jerusalem. This was taken at the Western Wall. It’s the second-most sacred site in the Jewish religion. “The Western Wall is considered holy due to its connection to the Temple Mount. Because of the Temple Mount entry restrictions, the Wall is the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray, though it is not the holiest site in the Jewish faith, which lies behind it.”



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