The Outsider Test for Faith And How to Take It

What follows is an excerpt from the draft book chapter I posted yesterday

In chapter 1, I wrote: “If a child, say one who’d just watched Disney’s Hercules, asked me if the Greek gods are real, I’d say ‘no’ rather than hedge my bets by saying I lack a belief in them. And I don’t see any reason to treat other gods any differently.” In this chapter, I’m going to say a lot more about that point.

This is actually one of the main reasons I became an atheist. I realized there was no more reason to believe in the Christian god, or even a deist god, than the gods of ancient Greece, and that was that. I’m tempted to say that I realized that since I thought those gods were pretty unlikely, I should think the Christian god is pretty unlikely, but it was even simpler than that. What really happened is that I realized I couldn’t believe in the Christian god with no more reasons than I had for believing in the Greek gods.

In the next chapter, I’ll give what I think is a powerful argument against one common understanding of God as all-powerful and loving. But my thinking, in general, that there aren’t any gods doesn’t depend on that argument. I don’t think I need specific arguments to think that god-beliefs are unlikely to be true. After all, most people dismiss a god without ever worrying about whether they can given an argument against the existence of that particular god, as long as that god is not their own.

The Outsider Test for Faith

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.” If you’re religious and you want to understand what atheists, at least many atheists, think of your beliefs, and why they think the defenses you give of your beliefs are so silly, think about that quote. Try going through what former fundamentalist minister John W. Loftus called the Outsider Test for Faith: “Test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to the faith you are evaluating” [1].

This isn’t a totally original idea. You occasionally see hints of it in the older critics of religion, from the 17th and 18th centuries. Back then it wasn’t safe to openly criticize the dominant religion of whatever country you lived in, so what some writers did is criticize religion in a way that exempted the local religion, but also made clear to sharper readers that their exempting of the local religion wasn’t sincere.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) was a master of this technique. He lived in Protestant Britain, and in his writings in religion he frequently criticizes pagans, “Mohammedans” (as Muslims were called at the time), and Catholics. If you take what he says at face value he could be mistaken for almost a bigoted Protestant, but if you read closely it’s obvious that he intended his comments to include Protestantism as well. Here’s one great example of this:

Were there a religion (and we may suspect Mahometanism of this inconsistence) which sometimes painted the Deity in the most sublime colours, as the creator of heaven and earth; sometimes degraded him so far to a level with human creatures as to represent him wrestling with a man, walking in the cool of the evening, showing his back parts, and descending from heaven to inform himself of what passes on earth; while at the same time it ascribed to him suitable infirmities, passions, and partialities, of the moral kind: That religion, after it was extinct, would also be cited as an instance of those contradictions, which arise from the gross, vulgar, natural conceptions of mankind, opposed to their continual propensity, towards flattery and exaggeration. Nothing indeed would prove more strongly the divine origin of any religion, than to find (and happily this is the case with Christianity) that it is free from a contradiction, so incident to human nature. (The Natural History of Religion, section VI)

The joke is that what Hume presents as the traits of a hypothetical religion are actually traits of Christianity. The description is made up of biblical allusions: starting with the comment about God wrestling, the first four are Genesis 32:23-30, Genesis 3:8, Exodus 33:23, and Genesis 18:20-21. And the biblical references to God’s anger, jealousy, and so on are too numerous to list. This makes the above quote a sort of 18th century stealth BBQ. What Hume is saying that the Bible’s portrait of God is contradictory and we would have no trouble seeing those contradictions if they existed in any other religion.

How to take the Outsider Test

Even if it isn’t totally original, I like Loftus’ way of putting the Outsider Test because it’s a test that religious believers can apply to their beliefs. (As far as I know, Loftus is the first person to frame it that way, though Bertrand Russell suggested something similar for political beliefs) [a].

At this point, some believers reading this will have already started thinking about the reasons why their religion is better than anybody else’s religion. This is where I think there needs to be a second step to the Outsider Test for Faith, where you also evaluate defenses of your religious beliefs as if you were an outsider.

For example, among evangelicals it’s popular to claim the resurrection of Jesus can be proven with historical evidence. Now, part of the reason some Christians find this compelling is that they don’t know anything about biblical scholarship, and they’ve been misled about biblical scholarship by professional defenders of the faith. That’s something I’ll deal with in a future chapter. But part of the reason some Christians find that compelling is that they never bothered to ask themselves, “would I think this ‘evidence’ was good evidence if it were presented in favor of the truth of some other religion?”

So the way you refute your own religion in three easy steps is this: first, think of your religious beliefs, and think of what you would think of them if you hadn’t been brought up with them. Second, some argument or other about how your religion is special is going to come to mind, and what you do then is ask yourself if you would find a similar argument convincing if it were presented in defense of some other religion. Third, move on to the next argument you think up, and repeat the process, and just keep repeating the process until you run out of arguments.

This may not quite be all you need to do to see why your own religion is false, but I find that nine times out of ten, the arguments religious believers give to defend their religion can be refuted just by pointing out that they wouldn’t find that argument convincing if a member of any other religion gave it.

Also, I can’t force anyone to adopt this perspective of trying to objectively evaluate their own religion. If you look at the Outsider Test for Faith, and think to yourself, “nah, and is going to stick with the religion I’ve got, whether or not I’ve got a good reason for sticking with it,” there isn’t much I can say to you. But I think there’s still one thing I can ask of you: please be understanding of atheists who don’t think very highly of your religion, because all they’re doing is looking at your religion the way you look at everybody else’s religion.

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