• True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism: A Refutation, Part 5

    Chapter 6: John Loftus and the “Outsider-Insider Test for Faith,” by David Marshall

    In this chapter David Marshall tries his hand at debunking John Loftus’ Outsider Test for Faith (OTF). By doing so, however, he appears to contradict himself. On the one hand he argues that the OTF contains many “flaws.” On the other hand, Marshall later argues that Christianity has passed this same ‘flawed’ test (thus seemingly implying that Christianity is true). (56, 69-70) Setting this tremendous logical blunder aside, let’s continue to analyze his argument.

    First, let’s take a look at the OTF as laid out by John Loftus in The Christian Delusion.

    1) Rational people in distinct geographical locations around the globe overwhelmingly adopt and defend a wide diversity of religious faiths due to their upbringing and cultural heritage. This is the religious diversity thesis.

    2) Consequently, it seems very likely that adopting one’s religious faith is not merely a matter of independent rational judgment but is casually dependent on cultural conditions to an overwhelming degree. This is the religious dependency thesis.

    3) Hence the odds are highly likely that any given adopted religious faith is false.

    4) So the best way to test one’s adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of skepticism used to evaluate other religious faiths. This expresses the OTF. [1]

    Marshall attempts to argue against the first premise of the OTF by arguing that from his many years studying world religions a vast majority of religions include four beliefs: “In God, the gods, philosophy, and demons. […] Peel away labels, and many beliefs seem to be universal or at least very widespread.” (57)

    Despite his pronouncements, religious belief around the world and across time varies greatly. Marshall’s view (as quoted by G.K. Chesterton) that most people hold beliefs about “God, the gods, philosophy, and demons” is extremely vague. What does this mean? That all people have the same beliefs? This is absolutely absurd on its face. Could it mean that most people in most cultures tend to believe in some form of supernaturalism and religion? I’d agree, but Chesterton, and by extension Marshall, are ignoring the content of these beliefs. The fact is, despite a widespread belief in some form of religion or supernaturalism, the content of these beliefs vary greatly. The anthropologist David Eller writes,

    As we look around the world of gods, we find just as much diversity and just as little continuity as in all other religious domains. Some religions that refer to or focus on gods believe them to be all-powerful, but others do not. Some consider them to be moral agents, and some do not; more than a few gods are downright immoral. Some think they are remote, while others think they are close (or both simultaneously). Some believe that the gods are immortal and eternal, but others include stories of gods dying and being born.

    To begin, not all gods are creators, nor is creation a central feature or concern of all religions. The Kaguru of East Africa spoke of a god named Mulungu who was a universe creator, but the people did not know the story of this creation nor care very much about it (Beidelman 1971). The islanders of Ulithi in Micronesia made claims about several gods, none of whom were creators, and their religion contains no creation story at all (Lessa 1966).

    Further, not all gods are moral agents or guarantors of human morality. The Konyak Nagas believed in a sky god called Gawang or Zangbau who is a highly personal being and is invoked in daily life and the main social occasions in culture; he is the protector of morality and punishes wrongdoing. On the other hand, the Azande of Africa had a god named Mbori or Mboli, who Evans-Pritchard (1962) tells us is morally neutral and not really interested in human affairs. The ancient Greek gods are renowned for their questionable ethics, involving themselves in seduction, rape, deception, and many other immoral actions. [2]

    It certainly appears that Marshall’s initial counter to Loftus’ first premise is contradicted by the facts. Let’s see how Marshall seeks to respond to Loftus’ second premise.

    He argues that “[i]n most of the world, serious Christian faith is not the default position; even most American Christians go to secular schools, listen to secular music, watch secular movies, and (in extreme cases) read the blogs of John Loftus or PZ Myers. […] None of us is purely an insider to ‘Christian culture.’ Also, atheist worldviews seem as ‘culturally dependent’ as any other.” (57)

    I would agree that many Christians involve themselves in a number of secular activities, however, it must be remembered that movies and other activities are only one aspect of one’s culture. There are, in fact, pervasive (predominately Christian) religious undertones to nearly all activities. Governments write “In God We Trust” on our currency, gender roles are often influenced by religion, laws are often influenced by religion, many sporting events will hold brief moments of prayer, religion is often a major theme in “secular” entertainment, and even life and death are literally ruled by religion. Most babies are circumcised by religious authorities for explicitly religious reasons and funeral ceremonies are very often lead by religious authorities, with religious overtones. These are just a few of the ways in which Christianity is infused throughout American culture, even large parts of “secular” culture. [3]

    To quote John Loftus,

    What Marshall is getting at is that here are small minorities of people who choose to be Christian theists despite having been born and raised in countries dominated by Islam or other religions, which demonstrates that people can escape their culturally adopted faith. But these are the exceptions. Christian theists respond by asking me to explain the exceptions. I am asking them to explain the rule. Why do religious beliefs dominate in specific geographical areas? Why is that? [4]

    w001All one has to do is take a look at this map to the left depicting the geographical layout of various religious denominations to see this fact (hat tip to John Loftus). If Marshall’s argument were true, wouldn’t we see a much more diffuse pattern? Clearly, there are large swaths of color, representing a major religious tradition. Unbroken shades of color nearly dominate the map, with a minority of religious diversity in a number of areas. This map confirms Loftus’ argument that a large majority of people will adopt the predominate religion of their culture.

    The final argument proposed against the OTF is an accusation that it commits the genetic fallacy (which is a form of fallacious argumentation “where a conclusion is suggested based solely on something or someone’s origin rather than its current meaning or context.”). (58)

    First of all, Loftus argues that a religion is “highly likely” to be false given it’s cultural prominence in a society. He is not arguing it is false. Second, this proposal is not given in order to disprove a religion (thus taking away the fallacy). Its only purpose is to place oneself outside the influence of one’s culture as best as one can to allow one to become as objective as possible when evaluating the truth or falsity of a religion. How could you possibly do this if you do not take this first step and assume that what you have been taught about the predominate religion in your culture is false? This is the whole purpose of the test.

    It looks to be clear. Each of David Marshall’s arguments against the OTF fail. His next tactic, regardless of how illogical it may be, is to argue that Christianity has passed the OTF “billions of times.” (59) If an argument is by its nature “flawed,” as Marshall contends, how then, can he possibly believe arguing that “billions” allegedly passing this flawed test is proof that Christians have come to their faith in a rational manner? Leaving this blunder aside, let’s now examine this argument in detail.

    He argues Christianity has passed the test for a number of reasons. First, he argues that “Christianity did not succeeded because conversion is easy.” (59) The evidence he cites for this claim is mostly anecdotal, as it has to do with “betraying” one’s “family,” “culture,” and in the case of Saudi Arabia, the threat of imprisonment or death. (60)

    Marshall writes of many other cultures accepting Christianity (61) but, as David Eller shows, they did not convert because they found the arguments for it convincing. No, they converted because Christian missionaries literally “recontextualized” Christianity so as to make it more compatible with the native populations’ culture. The missionaries employed a “multi-pronged campaign against the bases of native life and belief, especially not-specifically religious matters, like gender roles.” Other tactics utilized “ridicule and verbal attacks on traditional beliefs and practices and on native etiquette.” They literally tried to slowly strip away the natives’ cultural beliefs and behaviors and infuse them and eventually supplant them with the missionaries’ own beliefs and social behaviors. [5] They have been doing this for centuries. Even David Marshall’s organization titled Christ the Tao is his own attempt at “recontextualizing” Christianity to make it more palatable for the Chinese who he seeks to convert.

    If one wishes to see how “easy” it is to convert to Christianity I believe all you have to do is read the conversion stories of the several Christians I cited in my review of Chapter 2. There was no thinking, no reasoning, no real pressure. They accepted the beliefs (such as hell and the inerrancy of scripture) without much (if any) thought at all.

    Marshall’s second argument as to why Christianity passes the OTF is that Christianity has spread far and wide across the globe. “A hundred years ago, there were few Christians in sub-Saharan Africa; now there are more than 400 million. A century ago, most Latins belonged to a syncretistic ‘Christo-paganism.’ Today tens of millions of evangelicals live in South America […] In the past twenty years, some 60-90 million Chinese, and tens of millions of Indians, have taken the OTF, found that Christianity passed, and converted.” (62)

    The issue is not how many people convert to a religion, the bigger question is why. Remember, at its core the OTF is about examining a particular religion’s claims from the perspective of an outsider. Loftus writes that the OTF demands that a believer test one’s faith 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.” Loftus further argues that “the fact that a religious faith has succeeded in a society says nothing about whether it has reasonably passed the OTF, otherwise Scientology, Islam, and Mormonism are all passing the test in today’s world.” [6] This is why knowing the reason why someone, or a group of people, converted to a religion should have been Marshall’s main concern, but he does not explain the reasoning behind these “billions” of conversions. According to anthropologists, it’s not because the targeted societies believed they had good reasons. They were literally cajoled or forced into believing by eager missionaries. This has nothing to do with the OTF, let alone passing it. With this argument, it is he who commits the fallacy. In this case, ad populum, the fallacy that “a claim is accepted as being true simply because most people are favorably inclined towards the claim.”

    Marshall continues discussing the early converts to Christianity (69) but he does not explain the reasoning behind these conversions. Did these early converts “check the facts?” Not at all. For example, in the Book of Acts many stories of conversions are told and they all suffer from a lack of evidence or fact-checking of any kind. In each alleged conversion (since the historicity of Acts is in question) a mere speech converts most people. In other cases “a single psychosomatic cure” of a person who was bed-ridden, who could all of a sudden walk (assuming for the sake of argument this event even happened since supernatural events have never been verified), or the quoting of scripture is all that it took to convert thousands, according to the bible. To quote Richard Carrier, “[T]he only sorts of evidence Acts directly mentions as convincing anyone (none of it which we can honestly count as ‘evidence’ that Jesus rose from the grave) are scripture and visions, current miracles, and the exemplary moral life of the Christians themselves […]” [7] Once again, this is hardly an example of taking the OTF and passing it.

    I am pleased to see that thus far, Marshall is the first author to accurately cite his target’s arguments, but his counter-arguments left much to be desired. His examples did not disprove the OTF and as the conversion stories I cited earlier demonstrate, and the anthropological and historical evidence have shown, Christians do not “check the facts” or take the position of an “outsider” when they come to believe Christianity. Quite the opposite. They simply accept what a Christian tells them or what the bible says without any questioning or investigation into the beliefs they’re being sold. Or a native population’s culture is undermined and hijacked by Christian missionaries in order to force their religion on others.

    1. Loftus, John W. The Outsider Test for Faith Revisited. The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, edited by John W. Loftus, Prometheus Press, 2010; 82

    2. Atheism Advanced: Further Thoughts of a Freethinker, by David Eller, American Atheist Press, 2007; 14-15

    3. Eller, David. The Cultures of Christianities. The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, edited by John W. Loftus, Prometheus Press, 2010; 25-46

    4. The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True, by John W. Loftus, Prometheus Books, 2013; 96-97

    5. Eller, David. The Cultures of Christianities. The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, edited by John W. Loftus, Prometheus Press, 2010; 25-46

    6. The Outsider Test for Faith, by John W. Loftus; 77; 84

    7. Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed, by Richard Carrier, Lulu, 2009; 341

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    Article by: Arizona Atheist