Unbelief by default and selective credulity

godsRecently, Victor Reppert claimed that, “as the OTF [Outsider Test for Faith] is typically presented, it attempts to give a kind of special default status to the denial of religion, and in doing so it starts to engage in anti-religious special pleading.”

This sounds like a fair criticism… but it misses the point that unbelief by default is already the attitude many Christians have to most religions.

To be more specific: many Christians, when they hear non-Christian supernatural claims–or even Christian supernatural claims made outside the Christian canon–are skeptical by default. Some even say so explicitly.

For example: one of my cousins, an Evangelical Christian, once told me that “As a Christian, I believe God sometimes communicates with people and miracles can happen, but if someone claims to be talking to God, they had better perform miracles in front of me, and I had better be able to make sure they aren’t tricking me.”

That attitude doesn’t seem obviously problematic. In fact, it seems obviously right. What’s problematic is that these same Christians are selectively credulous with respect to the supernatural claims of the Bible–more credulous than they ever are with respect to any other supernatural claims.

The Outside Test for Faith, I take it, is just a catchy reminder to check that you’re not doing that. But here’s a funny thing is: some critics have claimed that the Outsider Test, in its most basic form, is so obviously right as to be uninteresting. I doubt, however, that those same people would say it’s an obvious and uninteresting fact that what my cousin’s approach to believing supernatural claims is wrong.

I want to emphasize that I don’t think all Christians are vulnerable to this criticism. Some Christians are uniformly credulous with respect to every tale of the supernatural that comes their way, and just figure the stories that don’t fit with Christian theology must be the work of demons.

There are relatively intelligent Christians who seem to fall into this second category. I think Greg Boyd is an example. This may sound like a criticism of Boyd, but his position is arguably more credible than that of people who engage in special pleading on behalf of Christian claims.

This doesn’t mean that Boyd et al. are off the hook as far as the Outsider Test goes, though. People who take the “demons did it” approach are vulnerable to the question, “why do you believe the claims of Christianity about God, heaven, and hell when you’re so ready to assume the forces behind these other supernatural reports are deceptive?”

Vic has claimed that the Outsider Test for Faith is really the Insider Test for Infidels. To borrow a line from Richard Dawkins, let’s remember that we’re all infidels with respect to most of the gods humanity has ever believed in.

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  1. Neither the atheist nor Christian needs to refute every religion they have ever encountered. Everyone is selectively incredulous as a pragmatic necessity. If something sounds extraordinarily silly, based on everything else they know, they won’t even bother investigating it. This is orthogonal to supernatural/natural claims. It’s how people work, and is perfectly reasonable in practice.

    In general, a skeptical attitude is intellectual common sense, what every undergrad freshman learns. The outsider “test” is warmed-over epistemic common sense applied to religious beliefs in particular. That’s fine, but it isn’t a test, new, counterintuitive, or surprising (and its outcome is unclear). If it was presented in a more intellectually self-aware and compelling manner by Loftus, people wouldn’t be dismissing it so easily. It’s a useful and ancient heuristic, repackaged, but with an unclear outcome.

    I treat selective credulity toward the outsider heuristic as an intellectual filter that allows through the dilettanti. Most of the interblog skeptics have blithely passed through the filter.

    My hunch is that some might be preening or especially credulous with Loftus because they want to be, or already are, in one of his edited books, and because he has a blog with high readership. This could explain some of the ironic lack of skepticism toward what he says.

  2. BDK,

    First, in response to your ad hominem: I’ve been blogging longer than Loftus. I remember when he first started submitting to the Carnival of the Godless. And I’ve been impressed by his work since before I had any idea how big of a deal his blog would be, or that he would edit any anthologies.

    If you don’t believe me, my Amazon review of his book is dated October 2006, less than a year after his blog started up.

    Richard Carrier has given similar praise to the Outsider Test, did so long before he was in any of Loftus’ anthologies. Carrier, obviously, has never needed any of Loftus’ help attracting an audience.

    I’m amazed that any atheist who’s spent a significant amount of time discussing religion with theists online would fail to see the value of the Outsider Test. If you’re trying to explain to someone what’s wrong with their arguments, which is better advice:

    “Use common sense before you make an argument.”


    “Before you make an argument, ask yourself if you’d find an analogous argument for another religion convincing.”

    I very rarely heard anyone give the anything like the second piece of advice explicitly, pre-Loftus. Russell once made a similar point, though about national loyalties, not religion.

    (Telling people to try to understand how silly their beliefs sound from an outsider’s perspective is also good advice, but advice which I suspect most people are less likely to follow.)

    Alternatively: maybe think if believers consistently asked themselves those questions, it would have no effect?

    I won’t return your favor of psychoanalysis, but you might want to ask yourself why you’re so passionately anti-Loftus.

  3. OK, I was probably wrong in my specific psychoanalysis. Maybe you can help me understand why seemingly smart people get so gung-ho (as in the completely over-the-top last statements in your review).

    People have been pointing out the culturally-historically-geographically conditioned nature of religious belief for a very long time. It is quite explicit in Descartes, for instance, but can be found in the skeptical tradition of Hume, the Stoics, Pyrrhonians, Sextus Empiricus, etc..

    For instance, from the Stanford entry on ancient skepticism, we have:
    “Xenophanes famously insists that all conceptions of the gods are anthropomorphic and culturally contingent (DK 21B14, B15). The Ethiopians pray to gods who look like Ethiopians, the Thracians to gods who look like Thracians (B16). If horses and cows had hands, the horses would draw pictures of gods that look like horses, and the cows would draw gods as cows (B15). Xenophanes puts forward a number of theological theses of his own. But he says that no man will know the clear truth about such matters. He makes a point that has lasting relevance in discussions of skepticism: even if someone succeeded in saying something that actually is the case, he himself would not know this.”

    Xenophanes died in 475 BC.

    If you express the OTF as ‘be as critical toward religion X as you are toward your own’ that isn’t the most general or useful formulation. Most people are not very critical of other religions, their own religion, or any religion. Because of that, the “test” reduces to the injunction to invoke skepticism more generically toward what you learned at momma’s knee. Which is as old as philosophy itself.
    Anyone that has been around the block a bit, taken a freshman philosophy course, would be like “Yeah. And?”

    So, what exactly do you think is new in the OTF that will place Loftus a “permenant place in the history of critiques of religion”?

    That said, I actually think there is something good there from a rhetorical perspective (not a philosophical perspective). Loftus has been in the trenches, somehow made it into late adulthood still believing in the crazy fundamentalism he attacks, was a preacher. He is able to express things in a way that will resonate with current nutball American uneducated and uncritical Christians. And he does this decently enough in his books. This is great, a preacher for atheism, carrying his message in a digestible format to the nutty Americans.

    But then on public forums like Victor’s blog, he comes off as the opposite of a able-minded critical thinker, running roughshod over arguments, calling people names, and basically saying he doesn’t care about arguments but persuasion. Yet at the same time plumping up the OTF as a new devastating objection to religious thought. That’s what I meant when I talked about being more intellectually self-aware and compelling. It comes off as pushy and sophomoric.

    It does bug me to see a public face of atheism consistently take the low road and harm the intellectual credibility of atheism generally. The OTF, if it is really a groundbreaking new direction in critiques of religion, should be able to stand up to serious inspection.

    But I admit my last paragraph was probably off the mark. I was assuming people weren’t simply ignorant of the history of skepticism, but maybe I was wrong.

  4. >Most people are not very critical of other religions, their own religion, or any religion.

    That may be right, and was really the point of the OP here. The outsider test isn’t especially effective against people who are willing to believe every supernatural tale that comes their way.

    I think it’s pretty clear, though, that some people are selectively critical of other religions, and it makes perfect sense to try to get them to apply that same attitude to their own religion.

    >Anyone that has been around the block a bit, taken a freshman philosophy course, would be like “Yeah. And?”

    Maybe the problem here is that you took an exceptionally good freshmen philosophy course?

    That, or you’ve had so little contact with philosophy professors that you tend towards an idealized version of them.

    In my philosophy 101 course, we mostly just got a bunch of the standard “problems of philosophy” (God, skepticism, mind/body problem, free will, utilitarianism vs. deontology, etc.) thrown at us, without much attempt made to teach general critical thinking skills.

    Based on textbooks, syllabuses, and stories from friends who’ve TA’d for intro classes, this approach seems pretty common. And I’ve also heard a few horror stories about really terrible freshman philosophy classes.

    You may be right that John has made an ass of himself in the comments at Vic’s blog. I try not to waste too much time on blog comment threads, so I don’t really know.

    But that’s more of a case of “don’t get too worked up about the wrong things, be selective in what you reply to” than a flaw with the Outsider Test.

  5. My undergrad had a heavy dose of history of the skeptics, so perhaps that is unusual, and helps explain why I am not impressed with OTF. But I still am surprised that others are, who should know better.

  6. I think you’re confusing a number of issues:

    (1) Whether the idea of the Outsider Test is new to many people.

    (2) Whether the idea of the Outsider Test is new to, say, me or Richard Carrier.

    (3) Whether the Outsider Test manages to state an old idea more clearly than it’s been stated before.

    It’s possible to be familiar with the idea behind Outsider Test and think that even many people who’ve studied philosophy won’t be familiar with it. And it’s possible to intuitively “get” an idea but never have seen anyone state it so clearly before.

    It’s also possible to intuitively “get” an idea but not apply it very consistently, because no one’s ever suggested to you that you try to consciously apply it.

  7. Incidentally, I tried to access your site from CompUSA when looking at new netbooks, and they had it blocked because of “sex” content. For the life of me I can’t find any sex content on your site, except the word “sex” which is simply not very exciting, sorry.

    On to content….

    I’m not confusing those things: my claim is that the outsider “test” isn’t expressing anything new (it’s an ancient argument in the history of skepticism), many people don’t realize this, and therefore they overstate its uniqueness and importance.

    As I said, I do realize and appreciate that it may be repackaging an ancient skeptical idea, found even in Xenophanes, in a way that stupid American fundamentalists might better digest. I am not in that category of people, and I never have been, and I haven’t done any polls of such people, so I’ll leave that as a sociological conjecture.

    This is fine, and if this is how it was promoted, then I’d have no problem. But when I see folks acting as if it is a significant new contribution to the history of religious philosophy, I am flabbergasted. Slightly tweaking the presentation of the “test” would work wonders for the effectiveness of the argument and its advocates. A little study of the history of skepticism wouldn’t hurt either.