• The Outsider Test for Faith and the Veil of Ignorance


    Often while drifting off to sleep, all the thoughts and memories of the day merge into a glorious and giddying mix of driving-reading-singing-thinking-working-talking-walking.  A few weeks ago, while enjoying this stage of the night, two seemingly unrelated ideas came together in my mind.

    The first of the two was John Loftus’ Outsider Test for Faith.  I will definitely say more about the OTF in the future, but it won’t be necessary to explain it fully here.  Suffice it to say, it is essentially an exhortation to examine your own religion according to the same kind of standards you’d apply to other religions, seeing as there is a good chance you chose your current religion for less than purely rational reasons; most people choose the dominant religion in their family and/or geographical region, for example, and you’d presumably think people of false religions believe for less-than-rational reasons.  (The OTF applies equally well to atheism and agnosticism, by the way.)  If your religion stands up to scrutiny, then you can rest even more assured than before that you are on the right path.  If it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, well you wouldn’t want to believe it then, would you?

    The second idea forms part of the theory of Social Contractarionism.  Here the idea is that if one was supposed to come up with fair rules for everyone to obey, they should do so from behind a Veil of Ignorance.  How would you devise the rule book if you knew you would wake up tomorrow as a random person?  You could wake up male or female, black or white, gay or straight, rich or poor, young or old, slave or free.  What rules would you put in place to ensure you would be OK with the outcome, no matter who you were?  Shelly Kagan outlined such a theory in his very interesting debate with William Lane Craig on morality.

    That night, as these two ideas somehow morphed into one, a couple of interesting thought experiments emerged.  Luckily, I still remembered them the next morning, and I’d like to share them in this post.

    First, I should say that, as with just about all thought experiments, these are obviously contrived; nobody is suggesting that these things could ever happen.  But in thinking about what you might do in certain artificial situations, you can often gain some insight into your views about the real world.

    Second, I should say that both thought experiments are aimed at people with strong religious views, whether they be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Mormon, Scientologist, Atheist, Agnostic, Apatheist, or something else.  If you don’t have strong views on religion, these might not be so relevant for you, but you might just fit into that last category, so it could be worthwhile having a go anyway.


    Thought Experiment 1


    The scenario.  You’re told that when you wake up tomorrow, you’ll be randomly changed into a person with a different religious view.

    For example, if you’re currently a Christian, you might wake up as a Muslim, Mormon, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist – anything but a Christian.  Of course you’d be shocked to hear this news.  If you’re currently a strong believer in Islam or Christianity, say, you’ll be devastated to discover that you’ll wake up as a hell-bound heathen.  If you’re currently an atheist, you’ll hate the idea of waking up as a religious devotee.  No matter who you are, you’d do just about anything for a chance to talk to your new self and set yourself straight.

    The good news.  Before you go to bed tonight, you’re allowed to write a letter to your new self.

    Through this letter, you’ll be allowed to give yourself some advice on how to investigate your religious views.  You’ll wake up tomorrow in a new body, maybe in a different part of the world, but definitely in a new religious orientation.  However, you’ll have some mysterious letter to read, written by an anonymous person that seems to care about your take on religion.

    Given this opportunity, what would you write?

    The catch.  You can only offer completely general advice.

    You’re not allowed to say anything that is specifically for or against any religion (or non-religion).  For example, you can’t advise your new self to go to the book store and buy The god delusion, or Ten good reasons to believe in the Book of Mormon.  You can’t recommend checking out the miracle claims of Christianity, or asking some questions at the local mosque or synagogue.  But you can give yourself generic advice, like: read some critiques of your religion; read some apologetic works of as many religions as you can; try and imagine what someone without your beliefs might think; try and think rationally about all the alternatives.

    So how would you advise yourself?  You’ll clearly see it as imperative that you get yourself back to your former religious persuasion.  But what would you suggest?  Have a think for a moment before moving on.


    Thought Experiment 2


    This thought experiment is very similar to the last.  Again, when you wake up, you’ll be randomly transformed into another person.  And again, before this happens, you’ll be allowed to write yourself a letter containing some completely general advice about how to investigate your religious views.  But this time the catch is that you could be turned into absolutely anybody.  You could be turned into somebody of a different religious persuasion, but you could just as well turn into someone with the same beliefs you started with; for all you know, you might even wake up as your current self!  (Wouldn’t that be strange?!)

    So what general advice would you give yourself?

    Clearly, as before, you’d be concerned to make sure you would find your way out of any false religion you might end up in.  But you wouldn’t want to find your way out of your current religion, if that is the one you woke up in.  What kind of general advice could you give yourself to make sure you would reject all religious views but your own?




    As I have already said, both thought experiments are contrived, and purely hypothetical.  However, they do have real applications.  In particular, the first essentially asks the question:

    Is there any general strategy of religious investigation you would recommend to someone of a different religious persuasion?

    The second deals with the question:

    What would happen if someone with your religious views followed such a general strategy?

    But the thought experiments make it all a bit more personal, since it is actually you that you are trying to advise.

    I do have my own thoughts on what I would do in each scenario, but I think I’d prefer to leave it open to others to share their answers or thoughts.  Is anyone game to have a go?

    Category: Outsider Test for FaithReligionThought experiments


    Article by: Reasonably Faithless

    Mathematician and former Christian