The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True

The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True

by John W. Loftus

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Fostering mutual understanding by viewing religion from an outsider perspective

Depending on how one defines religion, there are at least thousands of religions in the world. Given such religious diversity, how can any one religion claim to know the truth? Nothing proposed so far has helped us settle which of these religions, if any, are true--until now.

Author John W. Loftus, a former minister turned atheist, argues we would all be better off if we viewed any religion--including our own--from the informed skepticism of an outsider, a nonbeliever. For this reason he has devised "the outsider test for faith." He describes it as a variation on the Golden Rule: "Do unto your own faith what you do to other faiths." Essentially, this means applying the same skepticism to our own beliefs as we do to the beliefs of other faiths. Loftus notes that research from psychology, anthropology, sociology, and neuroscience goes a long way toward explaining why the human race has produced so many belief systems, why religion is culturally dependent, and how religion evolved in the first place. It's important that people understand these findings to escape the dangerous delusion that any one religion represents the only truth.

At a time when the vast diversity of human belief systems is accessible to all, the outsider test for faith offers a rational means for fostering mutual understanding.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

"Loftus makes a convincing case that believers who are willing to honestly apply the outsider test cannot but fail to see the irrationality of their faith."
-Victor Stenger, author of God and the Atom

"When an evangelical minister can ask tough questions about religion and leave the faith, then so can you. John Loftus is the religious believer's genuine friend, respecting your intelligence enough to show you how religions really work. His new book questions every religion with the same challenge: what reasons could it really have for claiming to possess the unique truth? When the façades of familiarity and unquestionability are ripped away, exposing faith's weaknesses to both insiders and outsiders, can any religion pass this test?"
-Dr. John Shook, Center for Inquiry and American Humanist Association

"This is the greatest book Loftus has ever produced. It's without question a must-read for any believer and any atheist who wants to debate them. Superbly argued, air tight, and endlessly useful, this should be everyone's first stop in the god debate. Loftus meets every objection and proves that the Outsider Test for Faith is the core of every case against religious belief and the one argument you can't honestly get around. It takes religion on at its most basic presuppositions, forcing the believer into a dilemma from which there is no escape: either abandon your faith or admit you don't believe in being logically consistent. After reading it and sincerely applying its principles, anyone who really wants to be rational will be on the road to atheism in no time."
-Dr. Richard Carrier, author of Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

"Perhaps the most intractable argument against Loftus's outsider test for faith is some version of 'I can't do it. I can't get far enough outside of my emotions and beliefs to examine my own religion like I would any other.' As a psychologist I find that credible. We all have a very imperfect and fragmentary ability to see ourselves as others see us. But this in no way undermines Loftus's foundational argument that the outsider test should be the gold standard."
-Dr. Valerie Tarico, psychologist and author of Trusting Doubt

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616147389
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 03/19/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 300
File size: 1 MB

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Read an Excerpt

The Outsider Test for FAITH

How to Know Which Religion Is True

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2013 John W. Loftus
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-737-2

Chapter One


On February 11, 2006, I first proposed the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) in response to an argument by Christian apologists. I think this is instructive. There is nothing quite like discussing and debating the issues that divide us. We learn from doing so. Most of the time it helps me understand how to make a better case against Christianity, as it did on that day. Although I am a former Christian, I was repeatedly told I couldn't understand the Christian faith because I was not a believer, not an insider. The Christian apologists cited the apostle Paul, who insisted the "wisdom of the world" is foolishness to God to such a degree that nonbelievers "cannot understand" the things of God because his wisdom is "discerned only through the Spirit" (1 Cor. 1:17–25, 3:18–20). Paul claimed that nonbelievers had become "vain in their reasonings" and that, by "professing themselves to be wise, they became fools" (Rom. 1:21–22).

As I reflected on this I asked myself a few questions. How do reasonable people first become believers, or insiders, if from the outside they can't understand Christianity? Anselm, a twelfth-century Christian philosopher and theologian, argued that "faith seeks understanding." So which comes first, faith or understanding? If, as a nonbelieving outsider, I cannot understand the Christian faith, then how does God expect me to reasonably come to faith in the first place? What is faith? How do we reasonably get it unless understanding precedes faith? Christians will reply that faith is a gift, but why is that gift mostly given to people who are raised in Christian households in Christianized cultures? Does God dole out his gift of saving faith differently to individuals on different sides of geographical or national boundaries? Why is it that other religious faiths are given "by other gods" to people separated into geographically distinct parts of the planet? Have the gods agreed where on earth they should each reign over the lives of human beings? Since there are many religious faiths, how does anyone rationally choose to be on the inside of any of them if from the outside they don't have any plausibility? Why do believers all seem to judge outsiders as ignorant, unenlightened, misguided, deceived, and lacking in understanding? Why is it that different believers within their culturally inherited religions cannot settle their own differences?

I also thought about my experience as a Christian believer. I was raised a Catholic in my younger years. My religious ancestry stretches back through my father to my great-great-grandfather, who, as a Catholic, probably immigrated to America during the Irish Potato Famine that lasted from about 1845 to 1852. During the famine approximately one million Irish people died and a million more immigrated to America, causing the population of Ireland to fall by between 20 and 25 percent. My mother, however, was raised a Presbyterian. When my parents got married the Catholic Church required that couples raise their children as Catholics, so my mother acquiesced to my father's inherited faith. This is how I came to be raised as a Catholic, just like my father, his father, his father, and his father before him.

There was a certain amount of religious conflict between my maternal and fraternal grandparents, since staunch Catholics and Presbyterians disagreed about which Christian sect was true. This religious conflict has a long history that has been largely forgotten by Christians today. But a lot of blood was spilt between these two Christianities in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and animosity between them lasted for centuries afterward. My grandparents on my mother's side outlived my grandparents on my father's side, so after my father's parents had both died (his mother in 1971), it gave my mother the freedom to explore her Protestant faith again, and she did. I was seventeen at the time. And guess what? Even though I was raised a Catholic, I ended up accepting the faith of the evangelical church she attended.

I inherited my religious faith, first from my father and then later from my mother. This is not surprising in the least. It's what we would expect. Richard E. Petty and John T. Cacioppo are experts on persuasive psychology who have documented this phenomenon: "Since most of the information that children have about the world comes directly from their parents, it is not surprising that children's beliefs, and thus their attitudes, are initially very similar to their parents." They claim that "social psychologists have well documented that children tend to share their parents' racial prejudices, religious preferences, and political party affiliations."

As children we were all raised as believers. Whatever our parents told us we believed. If they said Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny existed, then we believed what they said until we were told otherwise. If they had told us Allah or Zeus or Baal or Poseidon or Thor or Odin existed, we would have believed them. We learn our religion on our Mamas' knees, so to speak, usually surrounded by a culture of people who believe in the same religious tradition. So Catholics will raise Catholics. Evangelicals will raise evangelicals. Pentecostals will raise Pentecostals. Orthodox Jews will raise Orthodox Jews. Mormons will raise Mormons. Militant Muslims will raise militant Muslims. Pantheists will raise pantheists. Polytheists will raise polytheists. Scientologists will raise Scientologists. Polygamists will raise polygamists. Snake handlers will raise snake handlers. As children, we cannot believe differently. We don't know not to believe what our parents tell us. The problem is that, since our parents were never told by their parents that their inherited faith was false, they passed it down to us. And, if we continue to believe, we will in turn pass it down to our children. We can even locate specific geographical boundary lines between different religious faiths around the globe.

At some point along the line, as we become adults, we need to critically examine what we were taught to believe as children. That's why doubt is the adult attitude and skepticism is a learned virtue. We must learn to question. As we do, we eventually become thinking adults. But the strange thing is that even as adults we do not usually question our religious faiths. They just seem too obvious to us. They have become too ingrained within us. They are usually part of the culture we live in. We see no need to question them. They are such a part of who we are that, for many of us, like me, it takes a personal crisis to do what we should have been doing all along, critically examining the religion that was handed down to us.

As a believer, I thought I had rationally investigated my faith, but I did it from the inside, as an insider, with the presumption that my culturally inherited religious faith was true. Eventually, however, even from an insider's perspective I couldn't continue to believe. So for me, like other ex-Christians, Christianity failed the Insider Test for Faith. Now, from the outside, it makes no sense at all. Christians are on the inside. I am now on the outside. Christians see things from the inside. I see things from the outside. From the inside, it seems true. From the outside, it seems, well, bizarre. Only when one is on the inside, as an adherent of a particular religious faith, can one see. But from the outside, the adherents of a different faith seem blind.


There is a great deal of discussion among Christian apologists about background-knowledge factors that play a significant role in assessing the truth of Christianity, given the improbability of miracles like the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus, difficulties in explaining such things as the barbaric nature of Yahweh in the Old Testament, and doctrinal improbabilities regarding the trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, and the goodness of God in the face of massive and ubiquitous human and animal suffering. These background factors help Christian believers answer objections to their faith, since any particular intractable difficulty can be assessed in light of the sum total of what they believe. What they fail to think seriously about is the most important background factor of all for cognitively assessing the truth of their religious faith: one's familial, sociological, and cultural background. Believers also ignore the scientific findings that the human mind is a belief engine and that people are not really rational about religious faith.

When it comes to assessing the truth claims of Christian theism (or religion in general) the biggest question of all is whether we should approach the available evidence through the eyes of faith, as an insider, or with the eyes of skepticism, as an outsider, a nonbeliever. Complete neutrality, as sort of a blank-slate-type condition, while desirable, is practically impossible, since the cultural glasses we use to see the available evidence are often already religious, and they're already there prior to looking at the evidence. So I argue that we need some sort of objective, unbiased, non-double-standard type of test in order to investigate what we were taught to believe.

My argument is as follows:

(1) People who are located in distinct geographical areas around the globe overwhelmingly adopt and justify a wide diversity of religious faiths due to their particular upbringing and shared cultural heritage, and most of these faiths are mutually exclusive. This is the Religious Diversity Thesis (RDVT). The sociological facts are easy to come by. If we were raised in Thailand we would probably be Buddhists. If we were raised in Saudi Arabia we'd probably be Muslims. If we were raised in Mexico we'd probably be Catholics. The main thing religious diversity shows us is that not every religious faith can possibly be true. In fact, given the number of mutually exclusive religious faiths in the world, each of which claims exclusive access to religious truth, it's highly likely, given the odds alone, that the one we inherited in our respective culture is false. This is a problem that believers must take seriously. It cries out for a good explanation.

(2) The best explanation for (1) is that adopting and justifying one's religious faith is not a matter of independent rational judgment. Rather, to an overwhelming degree, one's religious faith is causally dependent on brain processes, cultural conditions, and irrational thinking patterns. This is the Religious Dependency Thesis (RDPT).

From brain biology we know that humans have inherited from our animal ancestors an innate capacity for detecting patterns (like faces) in random data and for seeing personal agency behind random forces in nature. In the animal world, where any hesitation in fleeing from a predator could lead to being eaten alive, these senses of patternicity and agenticity (as they are called) are beneficial for survival. Human beings transformed these survival mechanisms into seeing divine beings active behind the scenes, orchestrating such natural and human-made phenomena as thunderstorms, droughts, victory or defeat in war, births of sons, bumper crops, and so forth. Anthropological data have shown us that we overwhelmingly adopt what our respective cultures teach us and that we are unable to see our own cultural biases because we are completely immersed in our inherited culture. Culture has an overwhelming impact on what we think and believe. From conclusive psychological studies we have learned that people, all of us, have a very strong tendency toward believing what we prefer to believe and toward justifying those beliefs. Once our minds are made up, it is very hard to change them. We will even take lack of evidence as evidence for what we believe. Almost shockingly, these studies have shown us that encountering information that goes against our point of view can actually make us more convinced that we were right to begin with.

From (1) and (2) it follows that:

(3) It is highly likely that any given religious faith is false and quite possible that they could all be false. At best there can be only one religious faith that is true. At worst, they could all be false. The sociological facts, along with our brain biology, anthropological (or cultural) data, and psychological studies, lead us to this highly likely conclusion.

So I propose that:

(4) 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. This expresses the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF).

The OTF is based on the same kind of data that cultural relativists use when arguing that, because moral practices and beliefs do in fact vary from culture to culture as well as at different times in history, morality is not the result of independent rational judgment but rather is causally dependent on cultural conditions. All we have to do is insert the phrase religious faith in place of the word morality, with one caveat. I'm not arguing that all religious faiths are false because of religious diversity or that they are completely dependent on one's cultural upbringing. I'm merely arguing that believers should be skeptical of their own culturally inherited faith because it is overwhelmingly the case that one's faith is dependent on one's cultural upbringing.

The OTF is a self-diagnostic test to aid honest believers in examining their inherited religious faith. It is for believers who, upon becoming adults, wish to test their inherited faith. Learning a religion upon Mama's knee is an unreliable way to gain the "correct" religious faith, since a wide diversity of religions are taught to children in the same exact way, only one of which, at most, can be true. The odds are that the religious faith you were taught to believe is false, given the number of faiths handed down by parents in separate geographical regions around the globe.

I want people to see the OTF as a solution to the problem of religious diversity, a problem that needs a solution. No other methods have worked before. If people cannot find solutions to problems within a business, they hire solution specialists who offer ways to solve them. Mediators find ways to bring people together by offering ways they can see their differences in a better light. That's what the OTF does. The goal is to offer a fair test to find out which religion is true, if there is one. To be a fair and objective test it must allow that any conclusion could result, and the OTF does just that. The OTF grants that a religious faith can be reasonable and asks believers to test their faith with it, just as it grants that nonbelief can be reasonable and asks nonbelievers to consider the religious options available. It also grants the possibility that one particular religious faith could pass the test, just as it grants the possibility that none of them might pass it. It offers the only objective non–double standard for doing so.

Believers can respond to the OTF in four ways: (1) object to (or mitigate) the facts of the RDVT and the RDPT that form the basis for the test; (2) object to the OTF by arguing that it is faulty or unfair in some relevant manner; (3) along with objections (1) and/or (2), provide a better alternative to reasonably judge between religions; or (4) subject their religion to the test, as it has been described here, in which case it either (a) passes or (b) fails intellectual muster. It's that simple. If, in the end, believers can neither find fault with the OTF nor propose a better alternative, and if they find that no religion can pass the test, then that's not the fault of the test. Rather, the problem is with the religious faith(s) being tested.

One way to look at the OTF is to see it as involving three separate stages. The first stage involves establishing the sociological, biological, cultural, and psychological data that form the basis of the test. The second stage involves demonstrating that the OTF is required by these facts and that it offers the only way for believers to rationally test their faith. The third stage involves believers and nonbelievers using the OTF as a basis for arguments about which religious faith is true, if there is one.

Some believers may largely agree with the basis for the test, the first stage, but disagree with the second stage, the test itself, by finding fault with it and proposing what they consider a better test. But as you would guess, I think both of the first two stages in my whole case are unassailable, based on sound reasoning from the scientific data. Other believers may agree with the first and second stages but go on to argue in the third stage that their particular faith passes the outsider test. At that point believers have agreed to the standard of the test itself, and that's a good thing. For then we have a foundation for all future debates about religion. In the absence of accepting the test, believers and nonbelievers are condemned to talking past one another.


Excerpted from The Outsider Test for FAITH by JOHN W. LOFTUS Copyright © 2013 by John W. Loftus. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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