Monday, July 15, 2013

Looking in the Faith Mirror

Book review: The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True. John W. Loftus. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books (2013).

John Loftus is an insightful critic of religion—especially the Christianity he formerly professed as a seminary student and pastor—and an excellent writer of his atheist views. (With his public and private encouragement of my own co-authored work, including a very nice blurb, he has also proven himself a gracious friend as well.) The book I consider John’s masterpiece, Why I Became an Atheist, had a profound impact on me.

I still remember the evening when I almost bought that book; the little black paperback was hastily set aside when a young couple from church and I spotted each other in the checkout line. Then I got a Kindle, which lets you buy evil atheist books with nobody watching but Amazon and perhaps the NSA. You might add God to that list of unwanted observers, at least before you start reading. But then the devastating lucidity of John’s writing and that of other notables like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daneiel Dennett, and Sam Harris clears out what Dennett calls the “pious fog of modest incomprehension” in your brain, reducing your anxiety about some celestial Big Brother frowning over your choice of reading material.1

The fear can run deep, though, if you’ve been indoctrinated into the double standard of accepting with “childlike faith” a bunch of crazy propositions that would never stand up to scrutiny outside a fragile doctrinal bubble, as I was. It is breathtaking but a little unnerving to finally let your mind roam free.

Many people resolutely forbid themselves from ever doing so, heeding warnings like the ones I heard in a recent sermon by an intelligent but pious lay preacher with a notable technical career and numerous patents. The Spirit of God, he said,

keeps us away from the vain philosophies and the rationalizations of the people of this world, of the prince of darkness, by which he attempts to ensnare us. It keeps us away from those former travelers of the Kingdom of God who have fallen from faith and decided that there is a more rational way to attain heaven.2

Even to many followers of this sort of blinkered faith, these words must have a suspicious odor to them. The most important matter of one’s life is—with no justification whatsoever—simply off-limits to “rationalization.” Anything goes: The preachers can make whatever claims they wish.

It’s a point on which the preacher and atheist would seem to agree. In his new book The Outsider Test for Faith, John says that

adopting and justifying one’s religious faith is not a matter of independent rational judgment. Rather, to an overwhelming degree, one’s religious faith is causally dependent on brain processes, cultural conditions, and irrational thinking patterns. [pp. 15-16]

And why is it “that most believers cannot think rationally in assessing their culturally inherited faith” (p. 172)? Not because of some divine protection for the faithful against a spiritual bogeyman like “the prince of darkness,” but our evolutionary origins.

Believers and heathen alike, we are all the genetic legacy of pre-human ancestors who had survival rather than salvation as their primary concern. The resulting “human mind is a belief engine,” whose owners were prone to suspect some unseen agency behind every rustling noise in the brush and “are not really rational about religious faith” (p. 15).

In the animal world, where any hesitation in fleeing from a predator could lead to being eaten alive, these senses … are beneficial for survival. Human beings transformed these survival mechanisms into seeing divine beings active behind the scenes, orchestrating such natural and human-made phenomena as thunderstorms, droughts, victory or defeat in war, births of sons, bumper crops, and so forth. Anthropological data have shown us that we overwhelmingly adopt what our respective cultures teach us and that we are unable to see our own cultural biases because we are completely immersed in our inherited culture. [p. 16]

John extensively but skillfully cites the book of a professor of psychology to remind us how inherently unreasonable we are with these tacked-together, evolved brains of ours. He sums it up with a humbling list of limitations:

We accept that which is familiar. We seek to confirm what we have accepted as true on other grounds. We cling to our treasured truths despite evidence to the contrary. More often than not we fail to consider disconfirming evidence. [p. 65]

Those of us outside the doctrinal bubble, from whose dangerous company the preachers would have the faithful “keep away,” can readily recognize these as tools of the trade in religious fundamentalism.

John Loftus. Photo by Randy Tyson

As I’ve written about in an earlier post, though, even we religious skeptics have our own blind spots in many other aspects of life, which the limitations of our evolved brains keep us from fully recognizing. What John lists are not necessarily deliberate tactics exercised by clerical power brokers, at least not in most cases of my old church. They are, rather, coping strategies for people who will never leave their childhood faith, no matter what, because the “more that a person has commitment to an idea, the more it’s virtually impossible for him or her to take a different path” (p. 66).

At least considering the possibility of taking a different path is what John wants believers to do with his “Outsider Test for Faith” challenge. This book is all about that test, thus adopting that as its title. It’s subtitled How to Know Which Religion is True, to which you might as well add Or None at All, because no religion gets a free pass with the Outsider Test. Not even your religion, the One True Faith that was ingrained into your innocent little mind drawing pictures of Jesus with purple crayons in the earliest grades of Sunday School, whose oversimplified cartoon capsules of doctrines and cherry-picked, familiar Bible passages you now hear repeated in sermon after sermon, week after week.

And that’s the whole point. John challenges believers to look at their own “culturally adopted religious faith” as the rest of us do: “from the perspective of an outsider, a nonbeliever, with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject” (pp. 16-17). He makes a brilliant parallel to Jesus’ own words in The Golden Rule: The Outsider Test “simply asks believers to do unto their own faith what they already do unto other faiths*” (p. 169, emphasis added).

You don’t lie awake nights worrying about the hell to which various branches of Laestadianism, the local Church of Christ, Iglesia ni Cristo, or many other finger-wagging exclusivists are condemning you? You don’t think the Pope is really Christ’s vicar on earth? You aren’t buying the story about Mohammed being God’s prophet, exalted over all other men? Well, then, John Loftus has some words for you: Why the double standard, one for your own religious faith and a different standard for the religious faiths you reject? (p. 169).

There are many other words in this excellent work; John really knows how to turn a phrase. If you haven’t dared expose yourself much of anything other than the copy-and-paste piety of your preachers and church newsletter, start with this book. It will lay the groundwork for all of the examination you do going forward.

If your halo has started to slip a bit and you’ve been doing some of this sort of unauthorized reading, add to it with this book. It’ll remind you not just to accept a raft of new craziness to replace the old. And if you are already hopelessly, irredeemably lost to “the vain philosophies and the rationalizations of the people of this world,” you will probably still enjoy this book. It will remind you why you made a courageous and principled move, and probably paid a very real social cost for doing so.

See the Prometheus website for more information. Get the book from in trade paperback or for the Kindle, or for the Barnes & Noble Nook.


  1. Dennett, Daniel. Breaking the Spell, p. 10. 

  2. The recording previously linked to here, dated May 12, 2013, has been removed from the LLC’s web site along with all the others in the z_Older_Archives directory. For reference: the quoted material began at the 22:52 minute:second mark in the sermon, given by Russell Roiko in Minneapolis.