When I first read John Loftus’ book, Why I Rejected Christianity (Now Why I Became an Atheist), one of the things that stuck out was the Outsider Test for Faith: “Test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to the faith you are evaluating.”
This isn’t a new idea, but I thought John ha done something valuable by stating it succinctly, stressing it, and giving it a memorable name. Recently, though, I wonder if it might not have been more effective if he had called it the Outsider Test for Arguments.
My reason for thinking this is a discussion thread at Victor Reppert’s Blog on the Outsider Test where Joshua Blanchard asked John to “provide a single example of an apologist adopting a double standard or assuming the Bible.” I chimed in suggesting Josh McDowell on the resurrection as an example, and then added another comment explaining why the arguments of William Lane Craig as well as Vic on the resurrection are often little better than McDowell’s.
Then someone replied, “but in those cases, Craig and McDowell aren’t saying it’s a matter of faith.” This misses the point. The point is that the things they claim as “proof” of the resurrection obviously aren’t, and they would realize this if they looked at it from an outsider’s perspective. Similarly, fans of McDowell and Craig wouldn’t be so impressed by their work if they just asked themselves “what would I think of analogous arguments presented in favor of another religion?”
I should say, too, that while I give McDowell and Craig as particularly clear cases, they’re far from being the only ones. I’m amazed by how often I find that a religious argument can be done away with simply by asking these kinds of questions.
That suggests that many people would benefit more by principle worded like this: “When you think of an argument to defend your religious beliefs, ask yourself ‘what would I think of an analogous argument, presented on behalf of a different religion?’”
For example, if you think your holy book is proof that the founder of your religion worked miracles, ask yourself “what would I think if a member of another religion tried to get me to convert, saying her religion’s holy book was proof that the founder of that religion worked miracles?” Or, if you think your religious beliefs couldn’t be irrational because everyone has to have faith in something, ask yourself “can faith prevent any belief from being irrational? If not, what makes ‘faith’ a better defense of my religion, than it would be for obviously irrational beliefs?”
In spite of the advantages of this principle, John’s original principle has the advantage that it targets what people believe, whereas someone following my proposed principle might give up many arguments without ever rethinking the main questions. I can think of a few ways to solve this, but the best way may just be to combine them:
Test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to the faith you are evaluating. Part of what this means is that whenever you’re inclined to give an argument to defend your religious beliefs, ask yourself “what would I think of an analogous argument, presented on behalf of a different religion?”