Not So Different, part 1

This post is the first part of a draft of a chapter for my upcoming book. It’s the big post I promised yesterday–except that I realized anything this long should be broken up into multiple posts. Enjoy.

This is the chapter where I explain what’s wrong with maybe 90%, if not more, of the defenses of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam that had ever been made. 90% of all the particular religions. Defenses of God or religion in general, I’ll only be hitting a good chunk of those, but if I’m lucky you’ll be an atheist by the time you’re done reading this chapter. Even if you don’t take that step, you should at least finish this chapter a little bit more understanding of how many atheists see your religion.

Stephen F. Roberts said, “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” This is why I can ask  believers, even if they hold on to  their religious beliefs, to be more understanding of atheists. Because we’re really not so different.

It’s common to hear religious believers say stuff like, “I don’t have anything against atheists. So why can’t we all just get along? What I don’t like is those nasty atheists who feel the need to ridicule religion. They should be more respectful.” If you’ve ever said something like that, all I ask for is some sympathy. Even if you don’t agree that your religious beliefs are ridiculous, you almost certainly know what it’s like to find someone else’s religious beliefs ridiculous.

If you’re liberal-minded  person, you might insist that you respect everyone’s religious beliefs. There’s a chance that’s true, but I doubt it. The truth is that most people only respect the religions they’ve been familiar with for a long, long time. For many people in the United States, that means only Christianity and Judaism. For other people, it means a short list of religions that were covered in their world religions class when they were in school: typically Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Other religions, they don’t respect, if they even think of them as religions.

I’ve seen people try to speak respectfully about Scientology, but they’re in the extreme minority. For most people, if they know anything about Scientology teachings (like the Xenu myth, Google it), Scientology is just too weird. And if they know a bit more about L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology, it’s obvious that Hubbard was a fraud and/or insane, and that the Church is a nasty, exploitative organization. The nicest thing you can say about individual Scientologists is that they’re mostly innocent victims of fraud, and most of them may not even know about Scientology’s crazier teachings, because the Church keeps them secret from new members.

Even with religions they’re kind of familiar with, many people will rethink the sanity of a religion once they bump into the parts they’re not so familiar with. Many people seem to be okay with Hinduism as long as they think of it as yoga and reincarnation and Eastern wisdom, but are likely to be weirded out by chants of “Hare Krishna,” funny-looking gods, and people getting “purified” in the Ganges (a river that’s actually horribly polluted).

Of course, at this point, many people will be thinking, “but my religion’s different!” This brings me to the related idea to the Stephen F. Roberts quote, an idea articulated by former fundamentalist preacher John W. Loftus, who called it the Outsider Test for Faith: “Test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to the faith you are evaluating.” You could actually give similar advice for things other than religion—Bertrand Russell once said something like that for politics—but of course here I’ll focus on religion.

To really apply the Outsider Test, you need to apply it to any arguments you’re tempted to use in defense of your own religion. You need to ask yourself, “if I heard a member of another religion making an analogous argument in defense of that religion, what would I think?”

One very frustrating way I see this coming up again and again is in the issue of miracles. If a religious believer heard once that someone reported seeing a miracle which seemed to validate their religion, that’s all the evidence they need, and in fact it proves the atheists of the irrational ones! Never mind that if such “evidence” presented in favor of a miracle of some other religion, they’d be more likely to laugh at the gullibility of whoever was telling the story than to convert.

In fact, though this may seem counter-intuitive, this problem leads me to have more respect for the most seemingly gullible religious believers. I’m talking about the believers who seem ready to believe the craziest stories on the faintest evidence, no matter what the story is. They’re at least being consistent, rather than taking for granted the truth of their own religion’s crazy stories while dismissing everyone else’s crazy stories.

Even with those people, though, many of them still will think the miracles that fit with their religion are the work of God, and everything else is the work of demons. But how do they know it’s not the other way around? In spite of that, the super-gullible people are still an example of how belief in the supernatural isn’t purely a matter of inconsistent standards of evidence. And to look ahead a bit to a future chapter, some people also just been lied to about the “evidence” supposedly supporting their religion.

Because of the super-gullible people, and the people who’ve been lied to, this chapter will not absolutely take out all defenses of religion or belief in the supernatural. Still, I think that if you consistently tried to look at your religion from an outside perspective, you’ll be able to see why at least 90% of the defenses of your particular religion are bunk. You’ll also see what’s wrong with awful lot of defenses of belief in God, because many of those defenses of belief in God would be obviously be silly for Zeus or Thor.

Even if you refuse to ultimately judge your religion by the same standard you use to judge other religions, I think there’s something you have to admit, if you’re honest with yourself. It’s that those “nasty” atheists who you’re so uncomfortable with are perfectly reasonable to see your religion the way they do. After all, all they’re doing is viewing your religion the way you view other people’s religion.

Part 2
Part 3

From the archives: Gary Gutting on Mackie, Plantinga, and the problem of evil
Notes on Robert Fogel’s Without Consent or Contract
Harry Potter and the problem with genre deconstructions
How selfish are voters?
  • deanbuchanan

    I don’t quite understand this sentence…

    You need to ask yourself, “if I heard a member of another religion making an analogous argument in defense of that religion, but what I think?”

    Should it end with ‘what do I think?’


    • pyrobryan


      …, what would I think?

      I also noticed a couple of other small errors. I just assume the post wasn’t proofed/edited yet.

      • Chris Hallquist

        It was proofed, sort of. Except I’m a terrible proof reader. I can read something three times and not notice a glaring error. I ended up hiring a professional proofreader for my first book, and plan to do so again with the next one before I publish it.

  • piero

    One of the problems I see with the ousider test, at least as applied to Christianity, is that the concept of God has gradually become unassailable. Thor, Odin, Poseidon and Quetzalcoatl are easily dismissed as myths. Not so with an apophatic God, a la Karen Armstrong or even Plantinga. They never give a testable definition of God, and are hence impervious to rational argument.

    None of these “advanced theologians” will actually refer to the Bible and its compendium of human cruelty and barbarism. They’ll pretend it’s just a book written by primitive people. But then they’ll admit to their belief in salvation through Jesus Christ, and will even provide childish arguments to “prove” that Yahweh is the true God, whereas Allah is just a made-up deity.

    As a pragmatic positivist, I believe the only way forward is to find a mechanism that will increase the general education level of the population and, if possible, their IQ, both being variables strongly correlated with atheism.

    I live in rather grotty area of my town, and most people here belong to some sort of evangelical denomination. I cannot argue with them: they are absolutely incapable of rational thought. They wouldn’t even understand what the outsider test meant. To them. religion is a crutch; I cannot blame them, because they live wretched lives, and their only hope is to have another go after they are dead. But that also makes them impermeable to reason.

    I guess most religious people in the world have IQs below 90. What can we do against that? It would be like trying to teach differential equations to a shrimp.

    • Kevin

      Regarding the Greek myths, all you have to do is pretend that they made up an ad hoc rationalization of why they weren’t living on Mt. Olympus and that the mountain was simply a metaphor for being able to see all around. Sure, some Greeks may have believed that was the physical location of the deities, but they weren’t sophisticated believers. Notice how this sounds similar to what some theists say in defense of Christianity? This can be done for every objection against the Greek gods. Now that this claim is similar to the Christian deity, would they now hold it high regards? No, I didn’t think so. So, yes, if they treated their God in the same way as gods in other belief structures, they would become atheists.

  • Sastra

    I like the Outsider Test, but it’s hard to use in areas or among people who really, really place “faith beliefs” in a privileged, special category of identity commitments. The only religions they sneer at are the “mean” ones that sneer at other religions — and only the actual people in the religions who do that are held at fault. Apparently, it’s okay to think Buddhists or Muslims or Catholics or Wiccans are damned to Hell if you also give them smiles, nods, and cheerful credit for being people of “faith.”

    Perhaps the Outsider Test seems particularly risky to me because my own default version of “religion” I tend to revert to when evaluating the ideas surrounding the concept generally looks pretty New Age-y. Neopagan. Spiritual But Not Religious. Transcendentalist. Liberal-squishy-feelgood-it’s-all-about-compassion-and-tolerance-God-is-a-field-of-Consciousness-energy-love.

    This is often the ‘sophisticated’ group who think atheists just don’t get what religion is.

    You will notice that the paranormalist woo-woos seldom seem to criticize each other. The astrologers usually don’t think the people channeling ghosts are silly, or vice versa. And at an alternative medicine fair, you won’t see one booth dissing the remedy at another booth, no matter how diametrically opposed the remedy is to whatever crap they happen to be selling. It’s all good — like art or food. Find what you like. Different tastes are neither right or wrong. Take what you need and leave the rest. Accept what you can and accept that others are following their own path.

    And a lot of liberal religions seem to follow the same playbook. The Doctrine of Equivalence (all beliefs are valid) and the Guideline of Harmony (all disagreements come from ego.) There’s a sort of horror expressed when you even bring up the terms “right” and “wrong” or “true” and “false” — as if you were intruding into a victim’s support group or children’s talent show and being all “judgmental.”

    So when you begin your book with the assertion that by the end of the chapter the Person of Faith will — through the thoughtful application of the Outsider’s Test for Religion” — either become an atheist or at the very least be “a little bit more understanding of how many atheists see your religion” I am immediately cynical. In my experience, New Age types don’t look at anything and think “that’s a little bit crazy” until and unless it either trips the meter for clinical insanity or seems rude, like it doesn’t know how to respect people’s heartfelt beliefs.

    Never laugh or sneer. It’s faaaiiiiith. The believing attitude is everything. So they won’t relate to the atheist at all. They won’t “understand” — they will instead think they “understand” what the atheist’s problem is. It’s that atheists haven’t learned not to think other people’s religions seem weird.

    I don’t know if or whether this is a problem for you. I may be out of the mainstream on this, or, perhaps, especially embittered from recently sitting through a showing of Thrive whilst surrounded by the oohs and aahs of adoring fans. JFC.

  • Chris Hallquist

    @Sastra: It’s worth emphasizing that this will be probably (just part of) the fourth chapter of a longer book. By the time I get to this, I’ll actually have addressed a lot of the issues you mention.

    • Sastra

      Ah, ok.

      I’m looking forward to your book. You think clearly and write well. It should be a corker.

      • Chris Hallquist

        Thank you!

  • Chris Hallquist

    Also @Sastra: That may be your experience, and I’m curious to hear more about that, but it hasn’t been mine. My mom is a nice, liberal Christian, but I could tell she thought it was a bit weird when I dated a Wiccan girl in high school. And there’s a reason why religions like Mormonism and Scientology are such irresistable targets for a show like South Park.

    • piero

      Weird? Wiccan girls are the hottest. Did your mother know that?

  • John W. Loftus

    Sounds great Chris.

    I don’t know if you saw this or not, applying the OTF against Mormonism:


  • JD

    Chris, you are one of the actually reasonable atheists, and I enjoy your blog and have your book on UFO’s et al.

    I don’t think we are all that different.

    I just beleive in one more God than you do.

  • JD

    I will say one thing about the Outsider Test, which I have taken and passed with flying colors, is that I find it amusing the way Loftus, at least, applies it.

    To him, someone like myself who has passed the test must not have REALLY passed or REALLY understood it.

    That, of course, reminds me of some who claim that an “ex” Christian must have not REALLY have been a Christian.

    And so forth.

    And, although you and Loftus deny it, the Genetic Fallacy is lurking in the background.

    Carry on, sport!

    • Chris Hallquist

      Tell me when you’ve read part 2 (and part 3, which should get posted tomorrow).

  • Yaron

    This is something that sounded like a very good point from the moment I heard it, and right up until the moment I tried it on a religious person I know.

    The reason most (many?) religious persons (who haven’t already started to doubt) don’t accept any of the other religions is completely and totally different from the reasons I (and many/most atheist) don’t.

    Whether the claims of the other religions make sense or not, can be verified or not, are real or not, are possible or not, and so on and so forth, is completely irrelevant to them.

    The issue is that they already know the truth. They don’t accept all the other religions simply because those other religions aren’t the truth, and so must be false.
    Even if they think/say they “try” to look at their religion as an outsider, their religion has an added benefit of being true, which the other religions don’t, so it’s obvious why it is more convincing than the rest.

    Other religions may make similar claims, but since they’re not true then it doesn’t require any logical thought process to eliminate them, so there isn’t an equivalent logical thought process to apply to their true religion.

    This kind of surprised me on the first conversation, but on further thought it kind of makes sense. And had 100% match for the sample size of religious people I got to try this with until I decided it’s too pointless to try and raise in a discussion.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Yeah. Some religious believers will react this way. Not my experience that all of them do, though.

      • Yaron

        Well, if it sometimes works, that’s good.

        I do assume that most believers who will try to consider their belief and scripture rationally could easily start to notice the problems anyway. I just doubt that this argument will work on most people who didn’t already decide to maybe consider their beliefs rationally, because it requires some agreement in advance that considering scripture rationally has merit.