On Outsiders and Atheism: a reply to Loftus

January 10, 2011 § 3 Comments

A while ago, I wrote a post claiming that Loftus’s brain child, the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF), was unconvincing. A little bit after that, after I started commenting more regularly on his blog, Loftus responded.

Often online discussions devolve into endless block-quotes incomprehensible to anyone but the two discussants. Therefore, I’ll instead take the opportunity to summarize the lines of argument in ascending order of importance. Many of these criticisms parallel those made by others, and I fear I may well have failed to acknowledge all of them. My apologies in advance.

To remind ourselves, the most modern incarnation of the OTF is this:

  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.
  1. Ground clearing
  2. Making OTF1-3 valid
  3. Objections
    3.1. Reductio and Atheist special pleading
    3.2. Good arguments and rude dialectics
    3.3. Epistemic privilege and the insider test for infidels
  4. Conclusion


Ground clearing

As it stands the OTF seems to be trying to do too much, and in a garbled way. A lot of the talk about ‘taking the OTF’, the OTF versus the argument for the OTF and so on is hard to decipher, and criticisms, counter-criticisms and defences are often lost in a haze of not-quite-precise-enough philosophical verbiage. Some distinctions might be needed to clarify exactly what is being argued over.

The first three statements appear to be offering an argument about an epistemic pathology endemic to religious belief, and the fourth to give a cure. These can (and should) be separated for clarity – the fourth statement may still be a good epistemic norm even the foregoing argument doesn’t work, and vice-versa. Let us therefore distinguish between OTF1-3, the argument for epistemic pathology in religious belief, and OTF4, the proposed cure. We will focus on OTF1-3.1

Making OTF1-3 valid

A close reading of [1] suggests that [2] might be no better than a restatement. For [1] says

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. [Emphasis added]

This extra rider seems awfully like stating a dependency thesis. Which is what Loftus claims [2] is:

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.

So this all seems a bit garbled. But perhaps we can see what Loftus is trying to get at, regardless of infelicities in expression: that religious beliefs show this socio-cultural patterning suggests they are often driven by cultural inertia, and not some careful reasoning untrammelled by one’s socio-cultural milieu. So let’s give a new argument that does just that.

5) The demographics of religious belief are much better explained by a cultural inertia model (that is, where people’s beliefs are driven by their socio-cultural milieu) than any other.

6) The majority hold religious beliefs due to cultural inertia.

This makes the sort of move Loftus surely has in mind: inferring from the demographics of belief to the likely mechanism of belief formation. The move from [5] to [6] isn’t formally valid either. However, it is clear on what move is being made. Further, it should also be clear that this argument can be made by adding further premises, none of which would be remotely controversial. If that’s good enough for such august philosophers like Peter van Inwagen, it’s good enough for our purposes here.

A bigger problem is the move from [2] to [3]. For on it’s face it seems a straightforward use of the genetic fallacy: to conclude from the (epistemically disreputable) mechanisms that cause people to believe p something about p’s truth.

Loftus doesn’t think this is a big deal, and refers to Parsons. Yet Parsons cautious support of genetic-fallacy-esque arguments aren’t of the sort Loftus uses in OTF1-3. The key passage is here:

Theists counter that such an argument, if taken as supporting atheism, commits the “genetic fallacy.” You commit the genetic fallacy when you conflate two questions that should be distinguished: (a) What causal processes account for the psychological origins of a belief? (b) What rational grounds are there for thinking the belief true? Just because you can explain why somebody holds a certain belief (he learned it from his mother, say) doesn’t mean that the belief has no objective truth or validity. I might be “hardwired” to think that God exists, but, nevertheless, he might really exist, as arguments and evidence might show. As the saying goes, just because you are paranoid does not mean the people are not out to get you; likewise, just because you are wired to believe in God does not mean that God does not exist (Maybe, in fact, it was God who wired you to believe in him!).

However, the charge that atheists commit the genetic fallacy is both wrongheaded and disingenuous. Sometimes, indeed, the causal history of a belief has no bearing on its credibility: I may have originally accepted the Pythagorean Theorem because my high school geometry teacher pounded it into my reluctant head, but if I can now prove it, the history of how I acquired my beliefs about the Pythagorean Theorem is irrelevant to my current judgment about its soundness. On the other hand, there are times when the causal history of a belief is highly relevant to its epistemic merits… [Emphasis added]

In other words, the ‘genetics’ of a given belief is entirely relevant to the question as to whether so-and-so is justified in believing it. But it has no bearing at all whether that belief is, in fact, true.2 Thus the move from [2] to [3] – from “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” to “the odds are highly likely that any given adopted religious faith is false”  is surely a genetic fallacy.

Does it matter? Not too much. We can renovate this bit of the argument by talking about justification or warrant instead of truth. For if indeed religious beliefs are culturally dependant (and granting something fairly uncontroversial about culturally determined belief being usually unwarranted), then it would follow that most religious belief is unwarranted:

6) The majority who hold religious beliefs hold them due to cultural inertia.

7) Beliefs held due to cultural inertia are not warranted

8)The majority who hold religious beliefs are not warranted in holding their religious beliefs

Now we have a renovated version of the Outsider Argument. Call it the ‘Demographic Defeater for Faith’ (DDF).

5) The demographics of religious belief are much better explained by a cultural inertia model (that is, where people’s beliefs are driven by their socio-cultural milieu) than any other.

6) The majority hold religious beliefs through cultural inertia

7) Beliefs held due to cultural inertia are not warranted.

8) The majority who hold religious beliefs are not warranted in holding them

This expresses the sort of moves Loftus wants to make in the first three statements of the OTF, but does so more clearly and more strongly.3 How does this ‘OTF+’ stand up to scrutiny?


Reductio and special pleading for Atheism

Consider these three beliefs:

  1. “All life on this planet is descended from a common ancestor”
  2. “There is no God”
  3. “Skin colour is morally irrelevant”

Demographic defeater type objections could be levied against these. Loftus freely accepts that the OTF1-3 is really a more specific form of an OTB – for beliefs which are highly culturally plastic, one should wonder whether you really are being reasonable in going with the flow of your prevalent cultural milieu.

Surely there are a diversity of beliefs about evolution, Atheism, and racism. And surely these beliefs are culturally plastic. Displace me a hundred years or a thousand miles, and I’d probably believe different things about a-c. A dependency thesis follows soon after: it seems unlikely given this cultural plasticity that these beliefs aren’t formed by cultural inertia. So, more likely than not, these beliefs are unwarranted.

This is bad news. For Loftus and those who agree with him overwhelmingly accept a-c, and further take their acceptance to be reasonable as opposed to cultural brainwashing. Yet if they believe that their acceptance of Evolution, Atheism, racial equality and so on can be held despite that DDF style can be raised against them, then why can’t religious believers shrug off the OTF? In short, what gives this argument selective toxicity towards religious beliefs?

Those who support the OTF1-3 rely on tenuous distinctions to excuse them from the force of the OTF1-3. See Loftus’s explanation of why he doesn’t need to ‘take the OTF’ for Atheism:

When Christians ask if I have taken the outsider test for my own “belief system,” I simply say “yes I have, that’s why I’m a non-believer.”

They’ll ask if I am equally skeptical of my skepticism, or whether I have subjected my non-belief to non-belief, or my disbelief to disbelief. These questions express double negatives. When re-translated they are asking me to abandon skepticism in favor of a gullible faith, for that’s the opposite of skepticism—something no thinker should do. Even if having a gullible faith is desirable, which faith should we be gullible about? And how can we decide between these faiths? The bottom line is that skepticism is a word used to describe doubt or disbelief. It doesn’t by itself represent any ideas we’ve arrived at. It’s merely a filter we use to strain out the bad ones leaving us with the good ones. So we cannot be skeptical of doubt unless we think doubt is inherently wrong, which would leave us with mere belief in belief.

This doesn’t work, and the reason it doesn’t work is it equivocates between scepticism as epistemic caution and scepticism as a label for Atheism/Agnosticism. For “There is no god” is definitely an idea that we arrive at, and not just some passive heuristic for belief formation (and no, not some ‘lack of belief’ either). This game seems a roundabout way of asserting that Atheism is epistemically respectable by equating it with good epistemic method.

This is not the only example. See the reply to Reppert. Reppert offers a series of reductios, one of which is our beliefs about rape. Loftus’s response to that charge is this:

So can we apply this same skepticism to moral beliefs? Should I be as skeptical that rape is wrong as I am that rape is morally acceptable? No. Absolutely not. Again, look at the specific criteria I provided. I said:

The amount of skepticism warranted depends on the number of rational people who disagree, whether the people who disagree are separated into distinct geographical locations, the nature of those beliefs, how they originated, how they were personally adopted in the first place, and the kinds of evidence that can possibly be used to decide between them. My claim is that when it comes to religious beliefs a high degree of skepticism is warranted because of these factors.

That’s what I said, and so in this instance as with many other moral beliefs they do not suffer the same consequences from applying the OTF. Beliefs like the acceptability of rape are based on religious beliefs anyway, so they are subject to the outsider test precisely because of the nature and origin of those beliefs, as I said. I know of no non-believer who would ever want to defend the morality of rape, for instance, unlike believers in the past and present who do because of some so-called inspired text. We know rape is wrong, and we also know that this kind of behavior is sanctioned by religious beliefs, as is honor killing. The religious person who thinks rape is morally acceptable should subject that belief to skepticism as an outsider. And when he does this he will begin to doubt his previously held religious/moral beliefs, as I’ve argued. When it comes to Reppert, I think his moral belief that rape is wrong will survive his own skepticism, for there is evidence that as a father of a daughter he would want to help maintain a free society where she can go about her business free from being accosted. If Reppert wants to provide an argument where he can defend the morality of rape I’d like to see this. I would find it very strange if in order to escape the OTF Reppert must defend the morality of rape. That seems too high of a price to pay, but if that’s what he wants to do, then I’m all ears.

Yet, ignoring the large red herring about how religious beliefs apparently shelter rape acceptability, it seems our beliefs about rape tick the boxes of Loftus’s criteria (at least, the ones that distinguish anything) just as well as any religious belief you care to name. For surely beliefs about “when is it acceptable to have sex with a woman without her consent?” has a large number of ‘rational’ people who disagree, who are separated particular geographical and cultural ‘camps’, which were probably picked up from the prevailing cultural mores, and so on. So the argumentative weaponry behind the DDF are just as effective against these sorts of moral beliefs, amongst many others.

Good arguments and rude dialectics

Another approach when faced with a demographic defeater is to simply provide arguments in favour of the proposition in question. One may say we can prove evolution or racial equality and marshal all sorts of evidence in favour of these things. Whereas this isn’t true for something like Christianity.

Yet such a response just begs the question against all those people who want to provide reasons for their religious convictions. The reply usually is that the people offering these arguments are scrabbling around for them after the fact of their religious convictions – they aren’t really using them to guide them to their conclusions, but rather they find take them because they confirm these convictions. Once again, of course, exactly the same reply can be made whenever Atheists offer arguments for Atheism, racial equality, or whatever.

Of course, such an explanation of disagreement is logical rudeness, little different in application to a psychoanalyst whom explains disagreement with his theories as Oedipal conflict, or the Evangelical who locates the origin of disbelief in that disbelievers are blinded by sin per Rom. 1.5 One might find this accusation levelled against the religious implausible, even if it is granted we get nowhere far.

There are two ways of understanding this “you’re just accepting these arguments because they have conclusions you like” response. The first is the reply made is that Christians say are coming up with these arguments expressly to defend their prior commitments, and therefore these arguments are unpersuasive. That is obviously fallacious. The second reading is an epistemic one: that because Christians are coming up with these arguments to defend their prior commitments, they will still accept these commitments whether or not the arguments they have at their disposal were any good. So even if the arguments they have are good arguments, they still aren’t being reasonable because their convictions don’t track the preponderance of the arguments. This sort of reply does work.

Yet, once again, exactly the same move can be deployed against the Atheist trying to argue for Atheism, or anyone arguing for any moral truths ‘taken as read’ in modern liberal society. Even if we do have the right arguments for these things, that is just epistemic luck, in the same way a Christian would be lucky if they stumbled onto cogent arguments for their faith when desperately looking to shore it up. In neither case, it seems, are the actors behaving in epistemically respectable ways, and thus our DDF, even in its most charitable light, doesn’t give the nod to Atheism over Faith.

Epistemic privilege and the insider test for infidels

The only robust way to answer this sort of criticism is to argue for the privileged position of our particular socio-cultural millieu in contrast to others who disagree. That in fact our cultural lens is the best available to bring the issues into proper focus.

Take the theory of evolution. Affirmation of evolution is patterned, but patterned in a manner suggestive of warrant. It correlates with scientific training, educational level, and things like that. Likewise the beliefs of Doctors regarding disease and the medical laity. That there is disagreement patterned on communities need not mean they are all scrabbling in dark. It may indicate that some, but not all, have privileged access to the truth.

In the case of medics or scientists it is fairly easy to find evidence that they possess epistemic privilege regarding matters of health or the natural world: we can look to their past record of predictive success, how they exhibit particular epistemic virtues in excelsis, and so on. When confronted with the fact that we’d likely have very different attitudes about race if we brought up in 1890s Alabama or 1930s Germany, we should be thankful that we weren’t in these environments, for we think they would have led us away from the truth. Were we faced with a white supremacist or a Nazi, we take ourselves as having a dialectical advantage, that we would be able to provide a case they could not answer – and if they aren’t persuaded, it is simply because their view on these matters is impeded relative to ours. In short, we take our culture’s view on racial equality versus its detractors as privileged, much like the doctors on medicine or the scientists on science. The equality-generating cognitive environment is superior to the racist-generating cultural environment with respect to some set of epistemic norms.6

Yet everyone believes their cognitive environment is superior compared to all those others that lead to people disagreeing with them. Doubtless the racists could come up with a story as to how their environment is superior relative to ours. The only way forward, it seems, to actually argue the point of issue, and see which side’s claims to dialectical superiority survive.

The same applies to belief and its detractors. Believers and Atheists will have their own stories to tell as to who has epistemic privilege. That Atheists assert – by their own lights – the atheist-generating cognitive environments are privileged compared to the believer-generating ones is no more than an insider test for infidels: for an Atheist to say religious ways of knowing are rather delusions and to urge believers to be rational and abandon them is no better than an evangelical talking about reason being a whore to satan and urging so-called ‘rationalists’ to open their hearts to Jesus. They amount to no more than assertions of epistemic ‘other’ness.

Both sides need to swallow their shrill assertions of epistemic privilege and settle down to trying to beat each other by the usual ‘rules of the game’ for debating these matters. For if Atheist has the better of the argument or has ‘facts on their side’, that would suggest she was right all along in asserting that the athiest-generating environment is better than the believing one. Yet doing so obviates the need for the whole DDF rigmarole in the first place: instead of presenting the DDF and demonstrating it is selectively toxic to belief by vindicating atheism’s epistemic privilege by showing it to be more reasonable, one can simply stick to demonstrating that Atheism is more reasonable. In short, this sort of argument has taken us in a long circle back to where we started.7


Loftus’s project to undermine the rationality of religious belief is a failure. We can improve OTF1-3 to provide a better argument in the spirit of what Loftus has in mind, yet even this renovated argument remains unpersuasive. It is unpersuasive simply because demographic worries like the OTF attempts to exploit are endemic to beliefs we hold – were our environments different we would almost certainly believe differently, and many (perhaps most) of our beliefs are due to cultural inertia.

Against this, there is no means to put religious beliefs (over any others) under special scrutiny which isn’t question-begging nor tendentious. If demographic data is ‘good enough’ to undercut the rationality of religious belief, it is ‘good enough’ to undercut the rationality of Atheism, or most of our beliefs about science, or most of our ‘commonsense’ moral beliefs. To avoid accepting this, we say that our environment is privileged – that other cultures who differ with us see through a glass darkly, and were we transposed into this environment the different beliefs we have would be accounted for by some loss of epistemic virtue. Yet, again, these are precisely the moves a religious believe can make to defend their religious community from similar charges, and, again, there is no reason to dismiss one defence out of hand but not the other.

These defences cannot be evaluated without settling the question of whether the beliefs in question are true, or at least reasonable. Yet this is was exactly the subject under discussion. The OTF is a detour that takes us nowhere. Our time and energy is better spent otherwise.

1OTF4 is weak, but not weak in any interesting way. It either amounts to the straightforward: “Don’t be biased in favour of some religious beliefs” (with assertions that the religious believer in question is being biased, which aren’t tenable), or the false “discount testimonial or experiential sources of evidence when forming beliefs”. Besides, once we satisfy ourselves that the OTF1-3 has no chance, even in it’s most charitable light, of suggesting believers have some kind of ‘rationality deficit’, we don’t really need to worry about how good Loftus’s suggestions are for filling it.

2Strictly, these sort of warrant/justification undercutting defeaters would have relevance on testimonial evidence and similar things that rely on someone-or-other being epistemically virtuous. (But note such attempts would only ablate the evidence of the testimony, not serve as evidence against that being testified. That a madman saw Joe near the scene of a crime doesn’t make it less likely he was actually there).

Regardless, this isn’t relevant here – most Theists don’t expect people to take their word for it.

3Given what Loftus has said before, he seems to think this isn’t his argument, but rather a reformulation of an argument by Maitzen. It is not a reformulation of Maitzen’s argument.

Regardless, the objections I raise against the DDF are derived from prior objections made against the OTF1-3 and can be changed to apply to the OTF1-3 with no or merely cosmetic changes.

4This reply also betrays Loftus’s incredulity regarding his own beliefs. It is almost if Loftus regards his own particular mix of convictions as an intellectual tabula rasa, from which any deviation or elaboration can be explained as the malign forces of acculturation at work.

5Somewhat humorously, Loftus also uses rudeness in his defence of the OTF: his common refrain is that people object so strenuously to the OTF because they know their beliefs do not pass it.

6This can become recursive. We need to pick some criteria for epistemic or dialectical normativity for which to weigh up these opposing views. If the racists never sit down to play by some agreed-upon set of rules, then they can’t be beaten. Once again, both sides can claim victory, and that they both can makes both somewhat uncomfortable. Alas we can do no better.

7It is left as homework to see how this – plus similar hints elsewhere – fit in with Plantinga’s work to show that the de jure question of God’s existence can’t be settled before the de facto question.


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§ 3 Responses to On Outsiders and Atheism: a reply to Loftus

  • johnwloftus says:

    I see nothing here I need to respond to. Thanks though for your effort. In my forthcoming work, “The End of Christianity,” I revisit the OTF and will do so in a book on it in the future.

    Here is the non-double-standard I’m arguing for:

    “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.”

    You can insert the word “skeptical” for “outsider” if you wish. And being skeptical means doubting or rejecting anything that the sciences say otherwise.


    • Chris says:

      Science changes it’s mind all the time based on the information it has at any given time so using science as the gold standard of perfection is absurd. Science is obssessed with proving that everything happens independant of religion.

      i hold the same skepticism for science that i do anything else including Atheism. if my view on something doesn’t work using reason and logic then i toss it to the curb.

      I hear Atheists all the time saying “abscence of evidence is evidence of abscence”…..i say no it isn’t:

      the Atom is a building block of the universe and was there since the beginning…..it didn’t just pop out of thin air one day….but there was a time when we didn’t know that it existed….it was there ……..waiting for us to lift off the veil of our own ignorance.

      You can no more prove God doesn’t exist than i can prove he does(i’m a Deist) but here’s the kicker……while one day i may(or not) be able to prove my position you NEVER will.

      Your Anti-Theism requires imho just as much if not more faith as those of us who are Deists/Theists.

  • Graham Veale says:

    John is insincere in his reply. The best way to construe OTF is as an undercutting defeater. John’s proposed defeater now seems to be that “beliefs that we receive from our culture are unreliable.” As science transcends culture, science is the only source of reliable belief.

    Of course, as you say, this would lead to a paralysing scepticism about our moral and political beliefs. It is also hopelessly naive about our cultural attachment to science.

    I’ll return to this thread as soon as I can. We might be able to thrash out a few more objections. I think John needs to specify why my culture is a defeater for my religious belief. It is sheer buffoonery to compare me to a Mormon in Salt Lake City; an animist in Southern Sudan; a priest of Amen-Re in ancient Egypt; and an atheist in North Korea, and then conclude that we are all in the same epistemic situation regarding our religious beliefs. What is it about my culture that prevents me forming rational religious beliefs?

    John also needs to reflect on the concept of an individual’s natural rights. These are a product of Western Culture, and not Scientific investigation. They are not the necessary outcome of mankind’s ethical development. Solid arguments have been presented against natural rights. Their existence is controversial. Does John believe in Natural rights? The OTF would dictate that he should not.

    There is much more to say about John’s attempt to rescue the OTF with scientism. But you have skewered the OTF here. It is sad that John cannot, or will not, recognise the trouble that his argument is in.


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