When Christians Play the Part of Skeptics

by Matt DeStefano on June 25, 2011

Over at Debunking Christianity, Loftus (who recently has a new book out, mine is currently en route!) has received tons of flak for his Outsider Test of Faith (OTF). I’ve previously argued that I think it is one of the more convincing arguments against theism, and that it should be adopted by any rational person. However, lately a slew of Christian thinkers and philosophers have taken it to task, and they all seem to play the part of skeptic about the coherency of the OTF. Thomas Talbott originally questioned it by postulating a skepticism of rape ethic, and now Dr. Matthew Flannagan is posturing a similar criticism.

The main point of contention seems to be that this skepticism, if taken seriously, should lead all thinkers to be equally skeptical about the moral and epistemological claims we make as well. Matthew Flannagan wrote an article for Philosophia Christi, reviewing the book that the OTF originally appears in. Here’s Flannagan (emphasis mine):

Given that [2] is inferred from [1], if Loftus’ argument is valid then analogues of [2] must apply to Loftus et al’s own moral, epistemological and scientific beliefs. But then parity of reasoning would entail that their readers should adopt the same skepticism towards science and critical history as they hold towards the myths and superstitions of primitive cultures. Similarly, readers should adopt the same skepticism towards Loftus et al’s beliefs that anti-Semitism, killing heretics, committing genocide and burning witches is wrong as they hold towards the moral beliefs of cultures that practice and endorse these actions.

This conclusion is obviously absurd; but, more importantly, if it were embraced it would undercut the very premises the authors in the book use to argue against Christianity. In numerous places Loftus et al appeal to science, canons, critical history and the immorality of certain actions to critique Christian belief. They do not attempt to justify these beliefs from premises which would be accepted by a skeptical outsider from a radically different culture. But these are the kinds of beliefs which analogues of [1] and [2] apply to, and hence, are the kind of beliefs the OTF says we should be highly skeptical of. If the OTF is correct we should, in fact, treat Carrier and Price’s critical history with the same skepticism we currently treat miracles in Herodotus. We should treat Babinski’s appeal to modern cosmology with the same skepticism we treat ANE cosmological myths. We should treat Avalos’s appeal to the wrongness of slavery with the same skepticism we treat appeals to the permissibility of genocide.

Essentially, Flannagan seems to be arguing that we ought to have the same sort of skepticism towards the very methods of critique as the targets themselves.  Flannagan goes on to argue that Loftus is essentially engaging in special pleading by assuming that our culture “has got it right with regards to science, epistemology and morality.”

Here’s where Flannagan gets it wrong: our modern conceptions of science, epistemology, and morality are being constantly put under the scrutiny that the OTF asks of the religious! Not only is the conclusion not absurd, but it seems patently obvious! The more we peel back the unknown mechanisms of the universe, the further we revise the central concepts in science and epistemology. As an ethical naturalist, the same goes for my own understanding of morality: the more we understand about the way the physical universe works, the better our understanding of human well-being becomes. In my post about Wrongology, I showed that our modern system of gaining knowledge is being constantly revised under conditions of evidence. If this isn’t scrutiny of current scientific and epistemological knowledge, than I’m not sure what could possibly qualify.

We no longer hold that theres is phlogiston, as we’ve seen a pile of evidence to the contrary. We no longer subscribe to the four humors, as we’ve encountered evidence that steers us away from that conclusion to germ theory. The list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, religious knowledge is not open to the same scrutiny, which is the very attitude Loftus is targeting. He’s arguing that these beliefs ought to be on the playing field at the level of the individual. The same skepticism we hold towards science, epistemology, and most notably, other religions, ought to be applied to the culturally ordained religious belief.

If the religious insist on moving the goal posts every time we encounter new information (That pesky evolutionary theory is true? Throw out Adam and Eve. They’re metaphorical!), then the special pleading is not coming from the mouth of the critic, but the one who keeps pushing religion out of the door of critical examination.

  • http://lowerwisdom.com JSA

    Oh, wow, I had no idea you were a fan of OTF!

    I think your response to Flannagan’s “skepticism” is right-on, particularly with respect to the claim that “We should treat Babinski’s appeal to modern cosmology with the same skepticism we treat ANE cosmological myths.”  As you say, that’s the point of science — to provide an objective way of testing such claims that avoids double standards.  I also didn’t quite get Talbott’s reference to rape, but it didn’t seem central to his critique anyway.

    Now, I don’t actually see a problem with this one: “We should treat Avalos’s appeal to the wrongness of slavery with the same skepticism we treat appeals to the permissibility of genocide.”  In his book, “The Rational Optimist”, Matt Ridley talks about how slavery was probably a necessary step in human evolution.  That is, we likely would never have reached the information age without passing through an age of slavery.  I won’t necessarily defend that thesis, but I think people are far to knee-jerk in their discussions of morality.  I would recommend atheists and Christians alike to be skeptical.

  • Mattflannagan

    Ok,  take the claim like “its wrong to torture heretics” adopt towards that stance the position the moral skeptic does, the nihilist who argues that all moral beliefs are false or unknowable. 

    Now from this position, one which assumes all moral claims are false, show that the claim is true. Good luck. 

    Similarly, take the claim “science is an accurate way of knowing” now adopt the stance of an epistemological skeptic, someone who thinks we do not know anything or if we do we only know things such as “I exist” or “I have perceptions” now from this perspective show that science is reliable. 

    Good luck. If you can do this you have solved one of the most vexed problems in meta ethics and epistemology, one that people have being trying to do for centuries. I suppose Loftus might be a bright guy, but to suggest that he and the authors in his book can all do this is a tad far fetched. 

    • http://www.soulsprawl.com Matt DeStefano

      Thanks for coming by the blog, Dr. Flannagan. From reading your blog I know you have a lot of work going on, and I always appreciate it when people follow up.

      I don’t think they don’t need to persuade extreme moral nihilists and epistemological skeptics  that they are wrong in order to accomplish what they’re setting out to do. If every time someone wrote an article they needed to convince readers that we weren’t in the Matrix and that torturing babies for sport was wrong… articles would never be written on any other topic.

      I think this is the same issue that was brought up with Dr. Talbott, if you are truly skeptical of moral claims, an external reality, and science then by all means voice those disagreements. But if you are using them as an ad hoc skepticism toward the OTF, then it seems like a meaningless route to take.

      • http://lowerwisdom.com JSA

        I thought the point of those arguments was to show that Loftus’s skepticism is ad hoc. 

        And of course, Feyerabend’s critique of scientific method is a lot more significant than some untestable theory about living in the Matrix.  However, I don’t think this is a good line of argument to take against OTF.  It just plays to the misconception that Christianity and science are opposed, or that Christians want to undermine science.  Feyerabend was an atheist, and Christians ought to be perfectly comfortable saying that the scientific method is trustworthy at providing knowledge.

        In fact, the ancient Jews proposed something very much like the scientific method as a way of objectively evaluating competing faith claims, at least as long ago as 700BC.  When you have competing claims, apply the same standard to all of them equally — and reject any that don’t stand up to empirical observation.  To me, that looks a lot like the outsider test combined with an empirical bias, and it is repeated all throughout the Bible.  So I don’t think it’s fruitful for Christians to argue against the foundations of empiricism.

  • Calindra77

    Sorry where did Dr Flannagan say this?

    It is a bit hard to follow along from home when you don’t link to what you are critiquing.

    (It is also kinda poor blog etiquette)

    • http://www.soulsprawl.com Matt DeStefano

      Thanks for the catch, I put the source in the post. 

  • http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/babinski-bio.html EdwardTBabinski

    Matt, Nice response to MattFlannagan, Sheesh. Flannagan actually wrote, “We should treat Babinski’s appeal to modern cosmology with the same skepticism we treat ANE cosmological myths.” But in what sense did he mean “same” skepticism? Did he mean we should be equally as skeptical of the modern cosmological notion of the earth’s shape and situation in the cosmos as we are of ancient Near Eastern pre-scientific portrayals of the earth’s shape and situation in the cosmos? Based on the best of our current knowledge we no longer presuppose the earth’s shape as flat (nor do we presuppose that the cosmos consists of three relatively flat tiers, heaven, earth, underworld). On the other hand, modern cosmology has also revealled that the earth’s shape does not equal a perfect sphere (it’s not). But to claim that both the ANE view and the modern cosmological view of the cosmos are “equally” wrong is to make an even larger error.. Here’s how Asimov put it in his article, “The Relativity of Wrong”:

    “The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern “knowledge” is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. ‘If I am the wisest man,’ said Socrates, ‘it is because I alone know that I know nothing.’ the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.

    “My answer to him was, ‘John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.’

    “The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are absolute; that everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.

    “However, I don’t think that’s so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so.” [See Asimov's essay here: http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm ]

    But of course if Flannagan wants to jettison over two thousand years of investigation into the shape and structure of the cosmos–from the ancient Greeks to modern cosmology, let alone jettisoning ancient Near Eastern studies and biblical studies that demonstrate what the shape of the earth was assumed to be prior to 600 BCE (flat)–after which some Greeks began to spread the word it was a sphere. The writers of the Hebrew Bible show every sign in every significant place what they thought of the earth’s shape (flat). Even during the intertestamental period, the earth’s flatness continued to be assumed in such popular Palestinian works as the Book of Enoch, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Even first century NT Gospels and other writings right up to the book Revelation, said nothing that didn’t fit the view that they believed the earth was flat. Even Evangelical scholars who are modern day inerrantists no longer place much emphasis on such passages as “circle of the earth,” in Isa. or “He hangs the earth” in Job. I asked two defenders of inerrancy what they thought and neither of them would claim such passages were evidence of the biblical author’s access to special revelation, perhaps because “circle of the earth” was a common phrase among flat earth Mesopotamian cultures, and the verse in Job says nothing about the shape of the earth, nor its movement, nor its movement in relation to the sun, nor does it define what the “nothing” is (an obscure Hebrew word that appears only once in the whole Bible) that the earth is hung upon/over, even implying in nearby verses that it might be Abaddon and/or Sheol, not “outer space.” I make the case in the text and endnotes in “The Cosmology of the Bible,” a chapter in Loftus’ book, The Christian Delusion.

  • http://www.soulsprawl.com Matt DeStefano

    Ed, thanks for the lengthy response! I was quite surprised at the avenue Christian apologists took to criticize the OTF… and that Asimov quote hits the nail on the head. I haven’t yet read your piece in the Christian Delusion, but it sounds intriguing.

    I did, however, recommend your book Leaving the Fold to a brand new atheist a few days ago. Keep up the good work.

  • Pingback: How Warranted is Properly Basic Belief? | Foxhole Atheism

  • Mike

    If I am sufficiently familiar with the OTF, then Matt Flannagan’s critique and follow-up comment are off target. As I understand it, the OTF asks believers within a worldview to examine whether they apply the same rubric to the beliefs they accept as they do to those they reject. If they allow something in on evidence x, but reject something else on comparable evidence y (and x and y really are comparable), then the believer is committed to a double standard.

    This is about internal coherence, so I fail to see how whether you can convince a skeptic about morality that your moral claims are true applies. It would be more like if you rejected that torture was good on the basis that it harms people against their will but then accepted that rape was good and ignored those same grounds for rejection.

  • Mattflannagan

    “Matt, Nice response to
    MattFlannagan, Sheesh. Flannagan actually wrote, “We should treat
    Babinski’s appeal to modern cosmology with the same skepticism we treat ANE
    cosmological myths.” But in what sense did he mean “same”
    skepticism? Did he mean we should be equally as skeptical of the modern
    cosmological notion of the earth’s shape and situation in the cosmos as we are
    of ancient Near Eastern pre-scientific portrayals of the earth’s shape and
    situation in the cosmos? Based on the best of our current knowledge we no
    longer presuppose the earth’s shape as flat (nor do we presuppose that the
    cosmos consists of three relatively flat tiers, heaven, earth, underworld”

    Ed, to understand the phrase
    “same scepticism” one needs only to turn to Loftus argument, which is that

    [1] The religious diversity thesis: that
    people from different cultures adopt different religious beliefs;

     

    [2] The religious dependency thesis: which religion one adopts is
    overwhelmingly dependent on cultural conditions.

     

    Because religious beliefs have these two features, a person
    is rationally required to asses them from the perspective of a sceptical outsider,
    that is someone who does not hold the beliefs are true and also is sceptical of
    them.

    So here is the analogue

    [1] The  epistemological diversity
    thesis: that people from different cultures adopt different understandings
    of  epistemology.

     

    [2] The epistemological dependency thesis: which epistemological stance one
    adopts is overwhelmingly dependent on cultural conditions.

     

    So, by Loftus own argument one should be a sceptical outsider towards
    the kind of scientific epistemogy used in contemporary cosmology.  That is we should adopt the stance of someone
    who does not accept that epistemology and is sceptical that its true.

     

    Now your answer is

     

    “Based on the best of our
    current knowledge we no longer presuppose the earth’s shape as flat (nor do we
    presuppose that the cosmos consists of three relatively flat tiers, heaven,
    earth, underworld”

    This clearly does not
    address the problem, you are appealing to “our current knowledge” whose current
    knowledge, well the knowledge contemporary people like you and I have gained through
    our cultures enterprise scientific research.

    The problem is the OTF
    requires us to be sceptical of facts that “our” culture accepts and other
    cultures reject and it requires us to be sceptical of the epistemological
    methods which our culture uses an other cultures such as ancient mespotamia did
    not use. So none of the information you appeal to is allowed to be appealed to
    under the OTF.

    All your response does is illustrate my point is that when it comes to
    the premises of your own argument, you don’t follow the OTF you suddenly appeal
    to “our” knowledge. Which of course is the knowledge modern scientifically
    educated people have. But, the OTF does not allow us to appeal to information
    which is accepted by one culture and not another, that is the whole point of
    the argument from {1] and [2].

     

    To meet the OTF modern cosmology has to be demonstrated from
    premises which would be accepted by all cultures: so taking only what is
    believed both by ANE people and modern people and appealing only to methods
    both would accept, can you prove modern cosmology. 

Previous post:

Next post: