The Cure for Religious Diversity

I’ll admit that I was surprised to see John Loftus’ new book The Outsider Test of Faith. On one hand, the OTF has been Loftus’ signature argument for six or seven years now. On the other hand, it’s fundamentally a simple argument.

The OTF, boiled down, states that you should evaluate your faith from the outside. As Loftus puts it, “The only way to rationally test one’s culturally adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider, a nonbeliever, with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject.”

So, in short, the OTF is nothing more than the golden rule: You should treat your own religion exactly as you treat other religions, and evaluate your beliefs using the same criteria that you use to evaluate others’ beliefs. It’s a sound and powerful argument. Granted, stepping outside oneself and one’s own upbringing is one of the most difficult things to do. Still, do we really need an entire book to explain it?

Answer: no, but we do need an entire book to defend it. Loftus’ first couple of chapters describe the OTF and the thought process behind it. His last two chapters work through the OTF and explain some of the implications. But half of the book is Loftus responding to critics.

Loftus is a magnet for apologists, so he’s got quite a rogues gallery of people to work through. He does a good job of condensing arguments that likely took up long comment threads on one blog or another, but there’s still a lot of ground to cover.

All this does leave me with a problem. The natural audience for this book are people like myself who are stuck in to the world of apologetics and counter-apologetics. This new work gives us a nice handbook where all the likely moves of the debate are spelled out. People who avoid these debates – known in the trade as sane people – might be better off sticking with Loftus’ shorter description of the OTF in the collection The End of Christianity.

  • evodevo

    Yes. It would be a handy handbook for debating the intelligent, possibly “spiritually searching” individual, but I doubt my fundie co-workers would be reading such a book and rationally debating leaving the faith! Reason has flown out most of their windows a looong time ago. Religion, like political ideology, has an emotional element that is almost impossible to discard for most people.

    • Peter Smith

      As someone coming out of seventh day Adventism (very fundie), I’d suggest trying this. Tough questions often get answered by the absurd “God works in mysterious ways” attribute their own “religious experiences” to Allah (or a sillier deity like Hera). Any protest can be answered with “s/he works in mysterious ways” you’ve introduced the outsider test without pointing out that people can have relationships with imaginary creatures. This won’t lead to an overnight conversion, but might get them thinking and lead to more open dialogue. The key is to accept as much as you can stomach, you can win even if you accept that the world is six thousand years old, which I know you don’t want to.

  • Teilhard

    I agree with this post. I admire and agree with John Loftus’ Outsider Test of Faith, it is a one-page proposition, not a book. This reflects the tendency of Mr. Loftus to be verbose in his writings and his narrow view of Christianity (likely the product of his fundamentalist background). Interestingly, after spending 15 years as an agnostic and reading writings of Mr. Loftus, I “reconverted” to Christianity.

    W. Ockham

    • The Other Weirdo

      What is a wide view of Christianity?

      • Teilhard

        @ The Other Weirdo:

        First, don’t start with any so-called Christian group that asks you to turn your brain off or believes that the Bible is a scientific or historical document; basically the strawman that Loftus or the “New Atheists” rail against.

        Second, look at institutions that have created, incorporated or adopted the best thoughts of the last 2,000 years in science, education, art and music.

        Third, look for organizations that have a strong track record in building strong educational institutions or charitable organizations such as hospitals or relief efforts to those in need.

        Fourth, look for a belief system that treats each human being as unique and loved, rather than a source of input in a materialistic economic system.

        For specific information, you can start here:

        If you want to move on to deeper levels, you can get these books:

        W. Ockham

        • Nox

          That’s actually a very specific (one might say narrow) definition.

          Is it not a much wider trend with a much longer history that christian churches (such as the jesuit’s mother church) say the bible is a historical document?

          • Teilhard

            @ Nox. I’m not clear on your question. The Bible is a historical document in the sense that it is the inspired word of God that was written down by real people at real times and replaces. These eternal truths speak to ontological and spiritual truths but are not science books. For example, the Genesis creation-flood story is designed to be a contrast to the Babylonian myths of multiple gods and dark forces to show the truths that God created the universe, the universe and all of creation is good.

            The sources cited above are from the Roman Catholic tradition and are good starting points for someone taking Loftus’ challenge of a de novo outsiders look at faith because the Ignatian tradition has a history of using language and concepts to speak to non-believers. Other great sources that are good introductions for Loftus’ test include:

            Pope Benedict: Introduction to Christianity (linked above)
            C.S. Lewis: Mere Christianity
            N.T. Wright: Simply Christian

            W. Ockham

            • Michael

              What is the “ontological” or “spiritual” truth of commandments to stone people to death? Or to slaughter whole cities? What is the wisdom in Jesus’s exhortation to “take no thought for the morrow”? And how do you interpret Ecclesiastes’ claim that “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost”?

              Any attempt to view the Bible as a singular inspired work is doomed from the start.

            • Michael

              I don’t recall Jesus being in the Old Testament. Yet he was an eschatological prophet, instructing his “flock” to give up all their worldly possessions, leave their families, and follow him. He told them that nothing in this world mattered; that even slave should be content with their stock and await the coming of the lord.

              We see that this was interpreted quite literally during Jesus’ live and shortly after his death. In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead by God for only giving some of the proceeds from selling their property to the church, rather than all of it. It is like an extreme version of what we see today when gullible people follow Harold Camping types and lose everything in the vain hope of salvation. Is this the wisdom you are speaking of?

              The situation is even worse when you consider the teachings of Paul. He stated that many sins were so bad they tainted innocent people around them, and that you should not even dine with the family of a sexual deviant. He said that all sex was sinful, the physical act of lust, and that marriage should only be tolerated because it was preferable to fornication.

              I also have to ask why the OT exists at all if it is to be entirely disregarded. Were those books not inspired by God? Do they not describe God as jealous, wrathful, deceitful, and vindictive? And what is the purpose of putting immoral tragedies beside decent moral precepts like (three or four of) the ten commandments? Why sandwich two books of divine praise (Psalms and Proverbs) between two books of failed theodicy (Job and Ecclesiastes)? Why mislead the chosen people for centuries with bad examples before redeeming them with human sacrifice?

              These are not trivial questions. The Bible does not hold up against even the briefest unbiased scrutiny. Taken at face value, it is patently absurd and amoral, but even (perhaps especially) after intense study, nobody can agree on any deeper meaning, if there is one to be found at all. You seem to think you know the truth behind the mystery of the Bible, but many before you have thought the same, and none can agree or demonstrate the truth. If all you have is your own preferences and speculation, then it is not the Bible which informs your understanding of the world, but your understanding of the world which informs your interpretation of the Bible.

            • Michael

              You answered literally none of my questions. Clearly you are here to proselytize, not to debate.

              I can’t argue with someone who isn’t open to reason.