Analyzing The Outsider Test For Faith (Part 1)

The Outsider Test For Faith is an objection to Christian belief originating with former-pastor-turned-freethinker John Loftus. Roughly, this objection says that (a) a stance of skepticism toward any particular religion is the only warranted position unless (b) the belief in question passes “intellectual muster.”

Part 1 of this series lays out the Outsider Test For Faith and analyzes the argument from epistemic disagreement. Part 2 interacts with the cultural contingency argument, the idea that, since beliefs are connected to geographical location, skepticism toward any particular religion is warranted. Part 3 discusses the remaining skeptical considerations and shows how the Outsider Test For Faith assumes that Reformed Epistemology is false.

The Outsider Test For Faith

Here is how Loftus articulates his Outsider Test (source):

The outsider test is simply a challenge to test one’s own religious faith with the presumption of skepticism, as an outsider. It calls upon believers to “Test or examine your religious beliefs as if you were outsiders with the same presumption of skepticism you use to test or examine other religious beliefs.” Its presumption is that when examining any set of religious beliefs skepticism is warranted, since the odds are good that the particular set of religious beliefs you have adopted is wrong.

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.

According to Loftus, there are at least six considerations that together warrant a position of skepticism. Now, he’s not saying that only a position of skepticism is warranted. Rather he’s saying that each religious person must subject their religious beliefs to the crucible of reason. In defense of (b), he says, “if after having investigated your religious faith with the presumption of skepticism it passes intellectual muster, then you can have your religious faith. It’s that simple. If not, [you must] abandon it like I did.”

Notice what he’s saying. Loftus is saying that religious belief must pass all seven of his considerations, otherwise it ought to be abandoned.

What can we make of this argument?

The Genetic Fallacy

As I mention in my post on wish-fulfillment, in our reasoning we must always be careful to avoid the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is committed when a conclusion is rejected because of how a person came to believe it. For example, consider the following claim:

Lisa was brainwashed as a child into thinking that people are generally good. Therefore, people are not generally good.

The fact that Lisa was brainwashed as a child says nothing about whether people are generally good. Likewise, the fact that religious beliefs are usually tied to specific geographical locations says nothing about whether Christianity (or any other religion) is true or false.

Now, some Christians think it’s enough to say “Genetic Fallacy” as if they’ve dealt soundly with any objection having to do with belief origins. This is a big mistake. Beliefs that have questionable origins can still pose a threat to a subject’s having warrant. Gettier argued over 50 years ago that beliefs arising as a matter of luck do not constitute knowledge. So if it’s mere happenstance that you were born in America and it’s pure luck that you are a Christian, then you technically wouldn’t know that Christianity is true (for the record, there’s no reason to think the antecedent of this conditional is true).

The Outsider Test For Faith invites deeper exploration.

Equal Weight Theory

The first of Loftus’ seven considerations is related to the problem of religious diversity (see this post). There are so many religious claims and beliefs available, he says, that belief in any one of them ought to be met with skepticism.

This argument uses what philosopher Joseph Kim calls Equal Weight Theory. This theory says that one should give equal weight to an epistemic peer’s belief or opinion in the case of disagreement (two people are epistemic peers when they have roughly the same intelligence, access to the same evidence, and so on). Here’s what the argument looks like in syllogism form:

(1) It is unreasonable to hold to one’s views in the face of disagreement since one would need positive reason to privilege one’s views over one’s opponent.

(2) No such reason is available since the disagreeing parties are epistemic peers and have access to the same evidence.

(3) Therefore, one should give equal weight to the opinion of an epistemic peer and to one’s own opinion in the case of epistemic disagreement.

In his work, Kim gives three objections to this argument. I’ll briefly summarize them. First, it’s not clear that (2) is true. There’s no reason to assume that, for instance, any given Christian and any given Muslim have access to the same evidence (e.g.: perhaps the Holy Spirit has successfully repaired the Christian’s cognitive faculties while the Muslim’s are still broken due to sin).

Secondly, if equal weight theory is true, then it would cause us to give up all sorts of common sense beliefs. Take the belief that other minds exist. It may surprise you to learn that some people deny this. But then if Equal Weight Theory is true, their epistemic peers (you and me) are required to take a stance of agnosticism toward this belief. We could no longer rationally believe that our parents, our friends, or our families have minds. But surely that is absurd.

Third, and this objection seals the deal, not everyone agrees that Equal Weight Theory is true. For instance, I don’t agree that it is. But given Equal Weight Theory, any of my epistemic peers that accept it are now obliged to reject it (Kim argues the same argument works at the academic level). Equal Weight Theory is therefore self-defeating.

Closing Thoughts

Given that Equal Weight Theory is ultimately self-defeating, I can only conclude that Loftus’ first consideration doesn’t actually warrant skepticism. In Part 2 we’ll discuss the objection from cultural contingency, the idea that because beliefs are tied to geographical location, skepticism is warranted. I will argue that, far from being an argument against Christian belief, it works better as an argument against Naturalism.

About the Featured Image

This image features the Dome of the Rock. It was taken, you guessed it, atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. I figured it was appropriate to feature an Islamic structure (religious diversity FTW!). Not much else to say here other than it was a bit surreal to visit.

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