Sunday, December 2, 2012

Why you should be reading John W. Loftus

The world is getting an increasing number of very good books that examine the cases for and against religious faith, primarily the Christian, Islamic, and Judaic faiths. There are several from increasingly famous authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late (and great) Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Ayaan Hirsi Ali,  Victor Stenger, and Dan Barker, to name just some of the very big names. There are smaller names as well, of course, a list I've hoped to add myself too with my publication of God Doesn't; We Do. There is, however, an often-overlooked (from what I've read, heard, and seen) author in this genre that absolutely should not be overlooked by anyone serious about examining the problem. His name is John W. Loftus, and he is a former evangelical apologist turned atheist, and he even studied under the infamous (from our side of the fence) William Lane Craig.

John Loftus blogs for Debunking Christianity, one of the biggest blogs dedicated to the task of examining faith versus relinquishing it, and his posts are nearly always deep, insightful, and well worth reading. This blog, however, is a far cry from why I think John Loftus is perhaps the most underrated author in this entire field. In my opinion, Loftus holds the honor of having come up with the most sterling silver bullet in the discussion since David Hume, surpassing, if I might suggest it, even greats of the early twentieth century like Bertrand Russell and and those of the late nineteenth like Robert Ingersoll. To explain why, allow me some space to talk about one, soon to be two, of Loftus's books.

I came to know John Loftus's mind through his extremely clear and effective writing in Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (original, which I have, or get the revised edition here). I literally cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone that is interested in the discussion about faith and whether or not it should be left behind, particularly the Christian faith. The book is a true resource, spanning hundreds of densely packed, well-researched pages that truly demonstrate that Loftus is intimately familiar with the foundations of the Christian religion, its scripture, its philosophical defense, what it means to be a serious Christian, and why there is no reason whatsoever to accept or believe the Christian (or any) religion. It is truly incredible, and as I mention in Chapter 6 in God Doesn't; We Do regarding him: 
Originally, when I had outlined this section, I had intended to indicate many of John Loftus's arguments against theism from Why I Became an Atheist, but I realized that to say what I would really want to say, I would essentially have to quote the majority of Chapters 6 through 13 (along with the much of the rest of the book!), particularly a powerful few pages near the end of Chapter 8 in which he discusses literally scores of simple and obvious ways that God could reveal Himself to us in unambiguous ways, absolutely none of which is silly or asking very much.
Near the beginning of the book, which Loftus presents in distinct parts, he outlines his frame of reference, what he refers to as the basis for his control beliefs, and there, in that part, lies a hidden gem. Chapter four contains the silver bullet: John Loftus's "outsider's test of faith." Such a gem it is that his publisher, Prometheus Books, is publishing a full book-length (which may be quite long and thorough, given Loftus's knowledge base and skill) treatment of the test. The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True (pre-order here), is due for publication mid-March 2013 and promises to be a major hammer-blow to the case for theism and one of the most worthwhile purchases of the year.

To summarize this test briefly, at least as it appears in Why I Became an Atheist, Loftus invites readers to investigate their religious beliefs as if coming to them for the first time as an outsider. This overwhelmingly simple construction is one that many very accomplished anti-theist authors, activists, and laypeople have struck upon, and it is the core of the oft-repeated (and oft-modified, creatively and humorously) phrase "I don't believe in God for the same reasons I don't believe in fairies." Loftus's genius, though, is to carefully invite the reader, ostensibly folks who believe in some religion or compassionate nonbelievers who wish to help guide people out of theistic belief, to examine the claims from the outside, which he then neatly and succinctly elaborates on how to do. He is absolutely correct in his claim that, if the test is done honestly, there is no faith that can survive it.

For this concept alone--even without the compelling personal story he tells in Why I Became an Atheist, any of the immense trove of knowledge on the scriptures and philosophical constructions underlying the defenses of Christianity (and, importantly, where they err), or most of all his immense patience and passion (see the blog, seriously) to have dedicated so much of his life to this very uphill struggle--for the outsider's test of faith alone we should all have Loftus's books on our shelves, arguments in our minds, and appreciation in our hearts (and emails!). He is under-read and under-appreciated in this community, and his contributions are heavier than many, many others.

A full list of his books (to my knowledge) is available on Amazon.com. Here is a link to a search for his name.

John, if you read this, you have my appreciation, and my shelves will hold your books for as long as that is possible. I couldn't have written my own and wouldn't be where I am now without you and your efforts.

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13 comments:

  1. It's interesting you regard such a test as a silver bullet since that's exactly what I've been doing and I've come to believe that virtually all religions are largely getting at the same thing. Thus asking which is true is a bit like asking whether English or Japanese is the one true language. I've also come to see religions more as ways of life than beliefs, and so again, the idea of a test of truth seems ill conceived. I'm reminded of Wittgenstein's comment about mormons, in which he says, not in a negative way, that one must be obtuse to understand, something he likened to needing big shoes to cross a bridge with cracks in it.

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    1. That's curious that you're transitioning to seeing religions more as ways of life than as beliefs. Living in the Southeastern United States, I see things exactly the opposite, so perhaps things are better in that regard on your side of the pond? What I see here are people going about otherwise very secular lives that embrace the fruits of modernity and show absolutely no signs of deep or meaningful religiosity except incessantly, and I mean literally nearly incessantly, babbling one thing or another about God and all He "does" for us--well, that and judging the living hell out of people. In that sense, I think it comes down nearly all to beliefs, except in the ultra-devout (and usually then only in the more orthodox branches--American Protestantism, or as I usually call it, "Spirituality Lite," is a sight to behold). In short, I think their religion acts so much less as a way of life than as a belief structure around which they can replace good sense and better education--indeed, the sentence that spurred me to write my own book, which is a very common sentiment here, is "thank God I don't have to be educated because I'm a Christian."

      Now, I've got two short points to make about what I've started there. First, on judging: I'm as for judgment as the next person because judgment is the manner by which we determine what is and isn't fit for ourselves, even if that processes is heavily biased and flawed at times. Particularly, judging someone for superficial externalities (e.g. racism or sexism) is abundantly inappropriate. More particularly, judging someone based upon prescriptions written by very racist and sexist people in the Bronze Age, people who thought demons lived in rocks, is also abundantly inappropriate.

      Second, I'm of mind to agree with Bertrand Russell here, and that's what makes John Loftus's outsider's test such a silver bullet argument. Russell said, "There can be no practical purpose for believing what isn't true. If it is true, then you should believe it. If it isn't true, then you shouldn't. And if you cannot find out whether it is true or whether it isn't, you should suspend judgment." Loftus's outsider's test reveals with high fidelity (which can be greatly strengthened by appropriately applying Bayes's theorem) that there are no good reasons to regard any of the religions as true. Applying Russell here, we end up with "there are no good reasons for believing (the tenets) of any of the religions." (Qed, we might say.)

      Your comparison to "the one true language" would be more apt, I should tell you, if "no language at all" was a viable means of communication in the same way that "no religious beliefs at all" is (and it is) a viable means of approaching the world, even if it takes work and exposes you to the sharper edges of having a consciousness in an indifferent universe. Of course, if you redefine "religion" to mean "way of life," then you can cheat and claim that "no religion" is a religion, but can you not see that it is cheating? The word "religion" has a definition, you know, which is the mutually agreed upon meaning intended to be conveyed by that word. Sure, meanings are fluid, in a sense, but that doesn't justify simply changing the meanings to fit your particular connotation or purpose. Even post-modernism gets a bit of a headache watching certain abuses of words.

      Thanks very much for your comment and the extra challenge to my thinking.

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    2. There are many points I could make, but I'll only make a few: Russell's claim that "There can be no practical purpose for believing what isn't true". This: a) is demonstrable false; and b) commits exactly the error of making everything out to be a truth claim about already existing facts. And this, I think , is why the test is not so much a silver bullet as silver plated bullshit.

      I never said anything other than religions were religions. Thus all your claims about redefining the word and cheating, are complaints about something that was never said.

      And finally, the idea that, from your perspective, the universe is indifferent is wrongheaded. It isn't. "Indifference" is an attitude we ascribe to people - and from your perspective, the universe isn't a person, so indifference doesn't apply. But, since you feel indifference does apply you are, in that respect, anthropomorphizing the universe. That's one of the things that, had I wished to make the point that modern atheism is a religion, I would have pointed to.

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    3. Perhaps you're trying to waste my time? (Please don't waste my time by attempting to turn this back on me--you came to me, and I've refrained from going to you and commenting on some of your writing, which I have no interest in doing.)

      Russell's claim, though it could be argued that believing in something we believe to be likely to be true is useful, is not incorrect for that reason. He states that there is no practical purpose in believing something that is not true. That means that the assumption underlying his statement is that the thing being believed is not true. More importantly, it does not commit the error of making everything out to be a truth claim about already existing facts. It simply states that one should not believe things that are not true and should not leap to conclusions of belief about things that are outside of the ability to determine their truth. Still, this line of commentary does absolutely nothing to diminish the value or use of Loftus's "silver bullet" outsider's test of faith.

      Let me get this straight, though, since you've called the OToF "silver-plated bullshit." Are you essentially attempting to claim that taking a look at religious beliefs without the question-begging assumption that they are true, a priori, is ultimately a bullshit activity? If so, then you're defending question-begging, a known fallacy. If not, then you're being exceptionally, perhaps intentionally, obtuse in your presentation.

      Perhaps I misread you when you wrote, above, that "I've also come to see religions more as ways of life than beliefs." Does that mean something other than what it says? Or am I to take it to mean that the way you "see" religions has no bearing and little relation the definition of the word, now that you're backpedalling on that? If so, why did you bother saying it? I'm not interested in games where rhetorical points are won, and then when they're called for what they are, the points are attempted to be kept while the position is shifted out from under them.

      This final point you're making is tripe, if we can even call it a point. To say that I'm anthropomorphizing the universe by using the term "indifference" to mean that the universe, generally, gives no intentional care to us is yet another linguistic game of no worth. Demonstrate that the universe cares for us, outside of the fact that humans and some other living things on earth are part of the universe and do care--a clear diversion from the general point and cheap game to play if you play it--does anything for us in an active, intentional sense or revert to the null position that it does not (for which "indifference" is an apt metaphor if not the best word to use).

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  2. OK, I won't waste your time, or mine, so I'll be brief. Russell:

    A: The placebo effect.

    Me 1 Russell 0.

    B: Take a plank, one foot wide, and put it a thousand feet up spanning some great abyss and I couldn't walk across it for love nor money. But if I was to believe (falsely) that the plank was only a foot above the ground, I should be able to dance across it with ease.

    Me 2 Russell 0.

    Need I go on?

    The only question being, how come all you keen eyed critical thinkers didn't spot this obvious flaw in Russell's argument before I had to tell you about it.

    As for the rest of your post, if I could only be bothered...

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    1. Color me impressed. You actually made me think about this one for a couple of minutes.

      The placebo effect: It is noted that the placebo effect can be usefully applied, so perhaps if we take Russell at his absolute literal word, we can give this some space. There's a problem here, though, and a significant one, though subtle. The placebo effect operates almost entirely on subjective outcomes and essentially none at all on objective outcomes. So in some sense, there is the practical value in getting people to experience their symptoms less severely, but this is highly tempered by the fact that the placebo effect has no significant impact on objective measures--and could be misleading the person into believing they are receiving more effective treatment than they are (Cf. homeopathy), which can have severe consequences.

      Now it gets more serious than that also, so far as your example goes. The placebo effect seems to operate on the belief that they are receiving treatment, which is not false at all--even the presence of a physician is evidence that some sort of expert evaluation is underway. In fact, studies have shown that people being told they are receiving a placebo benefit from the placebo effect. If we view the placebo effect as an efficacious method of treating some subjective outcomes, then the doctor *is* providing treatment, which is the operative and meaningful belief, which is not holding a belief in something that is indeed false.

      Your example about the plank spanning an abyss is a bit silly, isn't it? Essentially you're saying that there is practical purpose in being deceived here in that it can help you overcome some of your emotional (primarily fear) responses. I will concede, though, that this may represent a "practical purpose" until I think on it a bit more. I have the distinct feeling that something is very wrong with this construction, but I haven't worked out yet what it is.

      If you want to split hairs, we could say that Russell's universal quantifier here is a little strong, "there can be no practical purpose...," but that the general sentiment is extremely sound and that belief in false things will fail to produce optimal results.

      Now, the meat: this is a diversion. You came here explaining that my thoughts on Loftus's work are essentially misguided, calling his OTF "silver-plated bullshit." You've dodged answering my challenges to that point by diverting on a tangent about Bertrand Russell.

      That this is tangential is particularly poignant in terms of your board-across-a-chasm example. If we were to take that point as meaningful, that the only decent examples of "practical uses for believing something that is not true" are to override the fear mechanism and thus enable certain behaviors that would be inhibited by them, you have made absolutely no argument for why anyone should believe any claim on point--the veracity of religious claims--that cannot be demonstrated to be true.

      As for the rest of my post, if you could only be bothered... then perhaps you'd have a chance of salvaging your argument (though having read some of what you write on your blog, particularly regarding evolution, I'm going with not much of a chance).

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    2. The reason I think it is good to focus on Russell is because it is a very simple point. And yet, even on a point so simple, you can't bring yourself to just admit you are wrong. That is, the placebo effect works - thus people are, in some cases, objectively cured/healed due to the (false) belief that they have been given effective, as opposed to placebo, treatment. And the plank example shows that people can do things due to a false belief that they couldn't do if they knew the truth. Thus it is false to say that "there can be no practical purpose for believing what isn't true". End of story.

      And so, as noted, given your refusal to acknowledge these simple points, what is the point of discussing the far more subtle points that need to be discussed to show why the OTF is misguided.

      Re evolution, everything I say is fairly straightforward. I guess when you desperately want something to be true, it hurts to be told the truth in this way. Maybe you should take an outsider's test for faith.

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    3. And still you persist in dodging dealing with the OTF directly, but you don't miss an opportunity to attempt to insult me while you continue to avoid the central point of the entire thread.

      I was quite plain with my explanation that the placebo effect does not proceed as you claimed it does, and you're welcome to research the matter for yourself. It really wasn't hard. I even admitted that I was quite taken by that example at first.

      Then I went on to point out that your plank example might have some merit, which is a pretty far cry from "refusing to admit when I'm wrong" although I think it is missing something. It is missing, for example, dealing with the context in which Russell was speaking. I even plainly conceded that Russell's universal cannot apply globally.

      Re evolution, everything you say is quite straightforward, I agree. It's also entirely fallacious. Speaking of fallacies here, faith is not what makes me accept evolution, questioning and examining the evidence is. The "outsider's test" is exactly what has led me to accept evolution as the explanation for our observations of biodiversity. Puh-lease.

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    4. I dealt with the OTF directly in my fist post. It treats religious claims far too much as straightforward truth claims. It also assumes that appraising such claims, even as truth claims, is a far simpler matter than it actually is.

      And, name one fallacy in anything I have said about evolution. And real fallacies, not made-up ones.

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  3. Did you say the OTF could be "greatly strengthened by appropriately applying Bayes's theorem"? Cool! You just might be the person to do this. If and when you do, if you do, I'd love to see it.

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    1. Hi John, yes, and it could, though I'm not sure you're reading it the same way I meant it. I don't mean that I can make your argument stronger, in the sense of improving upon it. I mean that for someone that understands Bayes's theorem, they will better understand the full power of the OTF.

      I'm not sure I'm being clear, though, as I'm finding it shockingly hard to get across what I mean now that I'm trying to do it. I'll just tell you what it is that motivates my statement, then, which may do the trick.

      Bayes's theorem is, ultimately, the mathematics that underlies (and, if it needs to be done formally, justifies) all reasoning processes, particularly in the sense that unknowns are to be understood in terms of probabilities. In short, if you're reasoning, you're using the result of Bayes's theorem, even if you don't know it. Thus, you're already applying Bayes without necessarily realizing it.

      The theorem essentially states that the likelihood that a given explanation is correct can be estimated by examining other related probabilities--including the probability that some other explanation is correct instead (which is how it ties so neatly to the OTF). Asking someone to look at their faith as an outsider would is essentially getting them to modify the assumptions that go into their estimates for the inputs of Bayes to a less biased situation.

      Perhaps I'll write a post later today or tomorrow with a more concrete application of this. Please don't be mistaken in thinking that I am saying that I can improve upon the OTF itself, just that by seeing what it is doing to the decision process from a formal perspective, this might make the OTF a more convincing tool.

      As for me doing it, I believe it's likely that Richard Carrier has already covered the essentials in Proving History, though not specifically engineered to this topic. He gave a talk (available on YouTube, 47 minutes long or so) at Skepticon 4 that covers the essentials.

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  4. No, I understood what you were saying James. Given that you know the math I was hoping if you had the time you could apply it specifically to the OTF.

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    1. Okay, good. I didn't want to have you misled. I just ran some rather simple numbers an an example to kind of show what I mean, and I'll try to put it up later tonight or tomorrow as it is rather convincing.

      My general case is that belief essentially causes one to fudge the numbers in favor of your beliefs, and the OTF at the very least levels the playing field, which has a devastating effect on the ability to perpetuate any delusion.

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