The Outsider Test and The Great Diversion

The outsider test is a rather popular argument in skeptical circles, but is it any different than the test their opponents use? In this article, we’ll see if this test is a sound rebuttal or a hypocritical ploy.

Although it is hardly a new idea, “The Outsider” test first received its official name in the intellectually lazy work Why I Became an Atheist by philosopher John Loftus (we say lazy as the book barely touches and ignores up to date scholarship on the issues it addresses). The outsider test is a simple method that tests the validity of a truth claim by stepping into the shoes of someone who hasn’t heard the claim. Loftus puts it this way (66-7),

“The outsider test is simply a challenge to test one’s own religious faith with the presumption of skepticism, as an outsider. Test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to your faith. An outsider would begin her journey as a disinterested investigator who didn’t think the religious faith in question is true since there are so many different religious faiths in the world.”

In essence, it’s a repackaging of another popular argument. A conversation executing the argument would go like this,

“You’re only a Muslim because you were born Saudi Arabia,” or “You’re only a Christian because you were raised as one.”

This argument is far from conclusive, however. Where we were born and how were we raised may affect what information we receive, but it doesn’t have a word to say regarding the objective truth of such claims (And even the argument itself displays occasional ignorance as argued in the link below). In regards to the outsider test, the atheist often applies various qualifiers to the seeker in order for the test to be valid, including no stakes or consequences for the investigator, a “disinterested investigator” we may say. Furthermore, what do we do if someone outside accepts a belief’s claims as true? Has the outsider test failed? Many skeptics will likely say that he hasn’t done it right or that he still holds some form of bias. I’ve seen these responses firsthand.

The outsider test, then, comes down to nothing more than a personal witness. Apologist J.P. Holding noted how similar this test is to the Mormon “internal witness test.” Holding compares two discussions involving this test to see how similar they follow each other’s methods,

  1. If you ask for it, God will give you confirmation that the Book of Mormon is true.
  2. But what if I ask God and He doesn’t answer or says they are NOT true?
  3. You either didn’t ask sincerely or are being misguided. Try again.
  4. I am sincere/I did ask again. The same thing happens.
  5. Then….?

Compare this now to a dialogue involving the outsider test,

  1. If you evaluate your religion as an outsider, you will arrive at a conclusion concerning whether it is true.
  2. But what if I do that, and still conclude it is true?
  3. You either didn’t test sincerely or are being misguided. Try again.
  4. I am sincere/I did the test again. The same thing happens.
  5. Then….?

The outsider test is no more effective than the Mormon “internal witness test.” In a surprising exposure of hypocrisy, the atheist is following the same path the religious is when he says to simply seek god and listen to his voice in order to confirm its truth. Both aren’t approaching or evaluating the evidence, they’re relying on nothing more than an internal witness. Tell any skeptic that you’ve done the outsider test and have maintained your faith and they’ll reply in a fashion similar to the one above. What happens then? We may go to discussing actual arguments and looking at the evidence. The outsider test is nothing but a diversion from the question of objective truth.

In order to avoid misunderstanding my point, I must note that I am not saying you shouldn’t test your beliefs. Beliefs should be tested and they should be challenged. In this respect, we can find some use for the outsider test. If a claim survives scrutiny there’s a very good chance it’s true. But what we mustn’t do is use the test as an argument in itself that a truth claim is false, and that’s what we find so many skeptics doing.

People like J.P. Holding, Lee Strobel, and myself have rigorously tested our faith. We have read the best works of our opponents. We have examined the evidence thoroughly and have come to a conclusion. But for skeptics relying on the outsider test, how do they have any more validity for their rejection than the Mormon does for his claim that the Book of Mormon is true? They don’t. For them, the outsider test must result in deconversion or you didn’t do it right. How can they answer people like us? They must either accuse us of lying, shrug off everything as bias, or else engage in actual arguments, which makes the outsider test nothing but a diversion to avoid the latter.

I’ve wasted hours upon hours debating these guys. Next time you get into a debate, see if the challenger is carrying this presupposition. It might be a good idea to drop out.

Link: Does culture determine belief?