A Review of Chapter 4 of The Christian Delusion

Chapter 4 of The Christian Delusion is entitled “The Outsider Test for Faith Revisited” and is written by former preacher John W. Loftus.  He believes that we should adopt a skeptical predisposition (if we adopt any predisposition at all) when examining religious faiths.  The argument, the outsider test for faith (OTF), is as follows (p. 82):

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 causally 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.

Loftus believes Christians are acting correctly when they adopt a methodological naturalist viewpoint to investigate other religions.  I disagree with Loftus here if he means that Christians should not be open to the possibility of “non-Christian miracles.”  For example, I should not rule out the possibility that Muhammad worked a miracle.

Loftus has presented the OTF elsewhere and so feels the need to only respond to more recent objections.  The first objection concerns whether Loftus feels lucky to have been born in the modern world.  He admits that he has been lucky in this respect.  But then he makes a blunder by stating that the “only thing we can and should trust is the sciences” (p. 89).  This position, called scientism, is ably refuted by Edward Feser.  Loftus then points out the double standard of Christians who accept the results of science in all cases except for when it conflicts with their faith.

The second objection is that there are many people who come to Christianity as outsiders.  Loftus asserts that most of these people convert to Christianity without critically examining the religion.  He is far too dismissive on this point.  Even if we assume that most converts to Christianity have not critically examined the religion, that does not entail that no converts critically examined the religion.  And let us not forget that there are  people who convert to Christianity despite the fact that they know it will lead to persecution or even death.  Eventually the atheist must confront the question of how these people, even if they are a minority, became Christians.

The third objection is merely a different version of the second objection, so I’ll move on to the fourth objection which states that the mere fact that there is disagreement on an issue does not warrant being skeptical about the beliefs we hold as true.  Loftus responds by saying that skepticism is justified not just because of different beliefs but because these different beliefs depend on geography and culture.  I don’t have a huge disagreement with Loftus on this point but I think we should be wary of being too skeptical because there are such differences.  Am I to believe that the average atheist would become very skeptical of the theory of evolution if it were shown opinions on evolution depended heavily on geography and culture?

The fifth objection asks whether the skeptic can transcend his culture any more than the Christian can.  Loftus admits that it is difficult to transcend your culture but that the skeptic, by being a skeptic, is more likely to be critical of the beliefs he was indoctrinated with than the non-skeptical Christian.  He concludes this section by saying (p. 93-94):

Furthermore, when it comes to the OTF someone cannot say I ought to be just as skeptical of it as I am about the conclusions I arrive at when I apply the test, since I have justified this test independently of my conclusions.  From what I know of the case, the three legs that support the OTF more than justify it.

Though I can’t be sure of it, I get the impression that Loftus is equating skepticism with metaphysical naturalism.  I say that because of his praise for methodological naturalism and his apparent acceptance of scientism.  The OTF may be a good argument even if metaphysical naturalism is false.  The three legs of the OTF may support a form of skepticism but they do not support metaphysical naturalism.  If Loftus subscribes to metaphysical naturalism then the OTF does not give him a reason not to be skeptical about that belief.  UPDATE:  In the comments Loftus says he does not equate skepticism with metaphysical naturalism.

This leads into the sixth objection:  that atheists must be skeptical of their own worldview.  Loftus believes that the skeptic can still know with near certainty that there is a material world and that he can have a reasonable trust in his senses to tell him about that world.  But then he concludes from these facts that “the scientific method is our only sure way for assessing truth claims” (p. 95).  Once again scientism rears its ugly head.  The conclusion does not follow from the two premises.  On p. 97 he contradicts himself by admitting that logical and mathematical truths exist.  Then, on the next page, he says that the OTF requires us to agnostic of about all metaphysical claims.  It is not clear that Loftus realizes that scientism is a metaphysical position.

The seventh objection is to accuse the OTF of committing the genetic fallacy.  I agree with Loftus that the OTF does not commit the genetic fallacy for it leaves open the possibility that a religion is true despite its origins.

Christian philosopher Victor Reppert has offered up a number of objections of his own and is given an entire section of the chapter.  Reppert notes that most Westerners are raised to believe in an external world whereas someone born in India may believe that the external world is just an illusion.  Should we not subject our Western beliefs to the OTF?  Loftus begs the question when he asserts that the existence of the external world is experienced every moment we are alive.  He tries to rely on the consensus of scientists but scientists merely assume the existence of the external word, they do not demonstrate it.  This issue is a philosophical issue and Loftus cannot skirt it with appeals to probability (how could you calculate a probability in this case?).

Reppert and Loftus agree that moral and political beliefs can also be subjected to the OTF.  But Loftus thinks he can verify his moral and political beliefs himself and thus is not reliant on trusting his parents or teachers.  Even if we grant that Loftus’ moral and political beliefs are true, I am certain they are based on more than the scientific method.  If this is the case, then it must be possible for religious beliefs to be considered true on grounds other than science.  He can’t employ a double standard.

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3 Replies to “A Review of Chapter 4 of The Christian Delusion”

  1. I’ve affirmed “weak scientism.” Look it up. This renders your critique concerning mathematical truths useless. Read my book, WIBA.

    You said: “Even if we assume that most converts to Christianity have not critically examined the religion, that does not entail that no converts critically examined the religion.” Even if so it doesn’t matter. That there are exceptions does not disprove the rule.

    You said: “Am I to believe that the average atheist would become very skeptical of the theory of evolution if it were shown opinions on evolution depended heavily on geography and culture?” Yes, if we were to see the same kind of phenomena we see with religion. Science transcends geographical borders. Anyone can do the experiments themselves. That’s the difference.

    You said: “I get the impression that Loftus is equating skepticism with metaphysical naturalism.” Nope, not at all.

    You said: “Loftus begs the question when he asserts that the existence of the external world is experienced every moment we are alive. He tries to rely on the consensus of scientists but scientists merely assume the existence of the external word, they do not demonstrate it. This issue is a philosophical issue and Loftus cannot skirt it with appeals to probability (how could you calculate a probability in this case?).” Listen to the depths that you must go to in order to defend your faith. Are you saying you do not know whether there is a material world, that you cannot calculate the probabilities? No wonder you believe then. No wonder. You cannot see the world in front of you and conclude, “Yes, there is a material world.”

    You said: “Even if we grant that Loftus’ moral and political beliefs are true, I am certain they are based on more than the scientific method. If this is the case, then it must be possible for religious beliefs to be considered true on grounds other than science. He can’t employ a double standard.” Just read Davis Eller’s chapter on morality, okay?

    Cheers, I had nothing to do this morning.

  2. Hello John:

    I’ve affirmed “weak scientism.” Look it up. This renders your critique concerning mathematical truths useless. Read my book, WIBA.

    I don’t have WIBA on hand. By weak scientism do you mean that you believe science is the best, but not the only, method to acquire knowledge? If so, would you like to clarify the quotes I gave from pages 89 and 95?

    That there are exceptions does not disprove the rule.

    My point is not whether the rule is true or false. It is that, even if the rule is true, the atheist is still left needing to explain how some people convert to Christianity even after critically examining its tenets and in the face of severe social pressure to reject the faith.

    Yes, if we were to see the same kind of phenomena we see with religion. Science transcends geographical borders. Anyone can do the experiments themselves. That’s the difference.

    The sentence you quoted was in the context of me being wary of being too skeptical. If an outsider to evolution, say a young earth creationist, will not believe in evolution unless he sees macro-evolution take place before his eyes, he is being too skeptical. It is not difficult to imagine an atheist being too skeptical towards religion. Also, the arguments for and against Christianity can be studied by anyone with access to the arguments.

    Nope, not at all.

    Thanks, I have added an update to the end of that paragraph.

    Listen to the depths that you must go to in order to defend your faith. Are you saying you do not know whether there is a material world, that you cannot calculate the probabilities? No wonder you believe then. No wonder. You cannot see the world in front of you and conclude, “Yes, there is a material world.”

    I am not denying that there is an external, material world. I am saying that your defense for the existence of an external world fails. That we perceive a world in front of us is no surprise to the Indian in Reppert’s example and thus gains your position no advantage in the debate. Unless you can provide a better argument, Reppert has shown that your own beliefs fail to pass the OTB. If you are going to muster a better argument, I think it will have to be a philosophical argument. But then you will have to reject weak scientism and recognize that science (since it assumes an external world exists) rests on, and thus is not superior to, philosophy.

    Regarding probabilities, I am saying that there is no clear basis for coming up with a probability for this issue. I can tell you that flipping a coin will result in it coming up heads 50% of the time because I can experiment and study the coin. Without assuming the existence of an external world, how can you determine the probability that you are seeing reality and not an illusion?

    Just read Davis Eller’s chapter on morality, okay?

    I’ll get there.

    Cheers, I had nothing to do this morning.

    I’m surprised you’re not at church ;)

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