Friday, June 14, 2013

Book Review: John Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith

I've mentioned before that more people should be reading John Loftus's writing (link to his blog). His Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity, which he calls his "magnum opus," tops my short list of must-read books for anyone that wants to understand why belief in the Christian religions rests upon poor (read: absolutely no) foundations historically, ethically, and philosophically. It is truly a powerhouse.

If nothing else, Why I Became an Atheist is an indispensable desk reference for atheists to have on hand to investigate various Christian claims coming from a person who thoroughly understands them and yet rejected them--after working hard to be able to accept them and to lead others to accept them as well. Christians absolutely owe it to themselves to challenge their beliefs with Loftus's arguments, and so responsible Christians should all get it and engage it. The book is very long--500 dense pages--and written at the college level, but this review is not about Why I Became an Atheist.

In Why I Became an Atheist, Loftus has a short chapter near the beginning where he outlines what he calls the "Outsider Test for Faith," which is a topic I've written about several times in the past, adding some mathematical backing via Bayesian-style arguments that illustrate how it operates. Analyzing the Outsider Test was what first led me to conclude that faith itself should be classified as a cognitive bias that distorts the role of evidence in certain ways, a fact I'm very glad to see made it into Loftus's newer title.

I have called this Outsider Test argument a "silver bullet," and I still believe it is. It is the argument that fully exposes the double standard that religious believers hold with regard to bolstering their own faiths while dismissing others. As Loftus notes repeatedly, the Outsider Test is the tool by which we can solve the problem of religious diversity--why are there so many religions?--and religious dependency--why do the religions appear to be distributed profoundly geographically as if they are cultural artifacts instead of valid truth claims about the world? He correctly notes that whatever arguments for their faiths that various religious apologists might offer, none provides a coherent explanation for these problems. (Calvinism side-steps it by making God into a monster.)

Evidently, the apologetics world that Loftus left behind, especially evangelical apologists at whom most of his efforts are aimed, did not receive the OTF well, launching long strings of arguments back and forth with him essentially arguing either why the test is invalid, why they shouldn't have to take it, or how they've taken it with their faith uniquely passing the test. Prompted by this discussion (which I'm overwhelmingly tempted to describe as a shitstorm), John Loftus wrote a book-length treatment of the OTF: The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True. This book is one I feel most people should get. I want to argue that point for two audiences: believers and atheists.

For believers in any faith tradition:

Reading The Outsider Test for Faith is something you owe yourself, your faith, your religious community, your wider community, and your God. Though your religion may ask you for blind, unexamined belief, your world is increasingly secular, and your faith should inform you that your God intended you to be rational. If sectarian faith is to survive in a secular, multicultural world, it has to be informed, and it has to be challenged. As a believer, it is your responsibility to elevate your faith to modern standards, and the Outsider Test presented in this book is the best, most fair tool for doing so that has so far been presented.

The Outsider Test for Faith was written, as noted above, by taking an idea that appeared in another work the Christians among you need to examine and then having it challenged by leaders in the Christian world. In other words, Loftus took the time and effort to spell out clearly real-world rebuttals to his original argument and respond to them. As an atheist reading this book, I actually feel like it takes away from the thrust of the argument somewhat, and yet I understand that he needed to do it for you, religious believers! Atheists already see your faith from the outside, and so our perspective makes the test "blindingly obvious" (as one reviewer called it).

Loftus handles these objections so that you will not make the mistake of underestimating this test or its importance. The subtitle tells it all: How to Know Which Religion is True. In this secularizing, multiculatural world, it is critical for believers to try their faiths on such a test honestly and fairly--not just for the good of the secular communities faiths live within now but also for the good of the faiths themselves. False faiths do not possess what it takes to survive secular examination, so you need to be sure that your faith is true. The Outsider Test provides a tool to allow you to test yours, and The Outsider Test for Faith is well-written, clear, and concise for helping you understand what the test is, how to take it, why it's important, how it meets its goals, and why its criticisms so far are all severely lacking.

At the very least, believers, the first chapter of The Outsider Test for Faith is written in a way to engage you. It is written specifically to be used as a pick-up chapter for use in discussion groups, either in college-level classes in Bible colleges or in your Bible study groups inside or outside of your churches (assuming Christianity here, although it applies to other faiths, details modified as necessary). Religious believers should be engaging at least the first chapter of The Outsider Test for Faith wherever they meet to discuss the role of faith in their lives and in the broader context of the community. The rest of the book fleshes out that first chapter, bolstering it, justifying it, and refuting common objections to it.

If I were writing a blurb for a Christian-college cover jacket for The Outsider Test for Faith, I would write:
Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith presents itself as a test for determining which religion is true. Specifically, it sets out to engage readers on the question of the distribution of world faiths, asking them to look at their faith as would an outsider. This removes the double standard and allows believers their one shot at strengthening their faith-based claims in an increasingly secular world. Every believer today owes it to himself or herself, as well as to his or her faith community, to engage Loftus's arguments openly and honestly. It is a total game-changer.

For atheists

I know. We already know the punchline. "Which religion is true?" None! We don't need this book to convince us of that. We don't need this book to convince us to take the OTF itself either--we've already done it. We need to read this book to strengthen our abilities to apply this silver-bullet argument, to understand its importance and value, and to wake ourselves up to the state of argumentation provided against it by modern apologists. We tend to dismiss apologists, but it is critical to realize that they are still influential members of our communities (particularly in North America, which is astoundingly religious). Their arguments are dangerous poison, though, and Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith exposes that based upon the Christian reaction to its real-world deployment a few years ago inside Why I Became an Atheist.

Particularly, the degree to which these apologists engage in science denial is alarming, and it's hardly limited to them. If we've engaged with believers, particularly evangelicals, we know that science denialism is becoming a primary theme for them again. We also see it in politics, and this relationship is a reciprocating feedback loop that literally could have incredibly terrible consequences. Apologists most of us have never heard of may be the ones crafting these arguments, but pastors across the world are reading them and disseminating them to their flocks. This is a big problem, and I think it's underrated. The middle portion of Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith makes abundantly clear how incredible the lengths are that apologists are going to defend faith, attempting to undermine trust in science at its foundations, and believers nationwide are taking up the charge to our peril!

I won't lie. I think that the middle portion of this book where Loftus handles the apologists, is the least interesting part of it. I felt like it drags a bit through sloppy mud; I felt disappointed in it at times because I wanted him to simply dismiss them; but he's right not to. Engaging these denialist arguments here is important because of the virality of their ideas among the desperately faithful. My mom used to say that stubborn people will "cut off their nose to spite their face," and Loftus makes it clear that real apologists out there, mainstream ones, will cut off their heads to protect their beliefs.

Of course, there's a constant fear that taking on apologists, particularly science denialists or creationists (not Loftus's focus here, particularly), elevates their views and gives them false legitimacy. I think of it in this case more as putting them out in the sun, hoping that the light of day will sterilize them before they have too much of a chance to do damage. Loftus does a great job with it here. We can ignore margins. We cannot ignore growing infestations of bad ideas likely to have horrendous consequences. Science denialism today is one such set of ideas, and we have a responsibility to see how it is being argued and how to argue against it. Because the Outsider Test advocates informed skepticism, it brought the crazy straight out of the woodwork. Loftus provides good, direct responses.

The rest of the book is nice for us to read as well. The Outsider Test is a silver-bullet argument, like I said, but silver bullets only kill werewolves that they hit, and so the more people carrying them, the better our chances will be. For that reason, I would urge atheists to get this book, read the arguments (especially at the beginning and end of the book), and be able to argue for the Outsider Test as the necessary tool to examine one's faith in the light of the geographical distribution of faiths and preponderance of family and cultural transmission of them. The Outsider Test is a powerful tool for helping "werewolves" out of their "lycanthropy," that is helping lead believers to better ways of living without their religious faiths.

The book is very well written, and Loftus's passion and frustration are both evident. This is what a skilled writer with strong credentials that engages evangelical apologists feels, and he conveys it very well. We owe it to ourselves and our communities to make ourselves aware of this struggle--evangelicals do represent somewhere between 20-40% of Americans, after all, depending upon the definition. They are not a marginal fringe, and they are highly motivated to spread their ideas by any means possible. They are experts at preying upon emotional needs and experiences and willing to undercut anything--even secularism and science--to spread their beliefs. John Loftus knows this, feels it, expresses the sense of it clearly, and yet offers a powerful tool for engaging it in this book.

The atheist jacket blurb would go:
John Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith is well-written; it is passionate; it is important; it is engaging; and it is surprising. It's well worth the relatively short read and a lot of consideration. It's a silver-bullet argument on its central theme: which religion is true? None of them! Get it; read it; and press the OTF out into the world where it can do some good. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in discussions about religious faith.
For what it's worth, as a little personal note, I want to point out also that this book contains my current favorite sentence on p. 219: "Faith is a parasite on the mysterious." What a beautiful way to put it! Thank you, John!

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