Thursday, May 21, 2009

Passing the Outsider Test

Atheist and skeptic John W. Loftus spends much of his time "debunking" Christianity. As I've stated elsewhere, I think it's important to grapple with the claims of atheism. Intellectual honesty demands it.

One of the tactics Loftus uses most often is exhorting Christians to take the Outsider Test for Faith. While not a particularly new argument, it is rarely given the kind of primacy Loftus not unjustly gives it. A summation of this argument can be found on the Internet Infidels:

... I propose "the outsider test for faith": Test your religious beliefs as if you were an outsider, subjecting them to the same sort of skeptical evaluation that you would give to the beliefs of the followers of other religions. If you don't approach your own religious beliefs with the same dose of skepticism that you apply to others' religious beliefs, then you are using a double standard. The outsider test is no different than the strategy of the prince from the Cinderella story, who might question 45,000 girls, all of whom claim to be the girl who lost the glass slipper at the ball last night, to determine which one (if any) of them really is that girl.
As he unpacks the argument, it becomes clear that his goal is twofold. First, it is to convince Christians that they ought to be substantially more self-critical about how they examine religious truth claims. In this sense, it is less an argument and more of an and second, to defuse arguments like those of Alvin Plantinga, who state that one can be justified in believing in Christianity even without evidence. On Loftus' analysis, the a priori assumption of the truth of Christianity's claims is a kind of special pleading.

So what does this have to do with Paganism? If my previous analysis is correct, not much. If the question has to do with truth claims, then Paganism--at least in general--is exempt, as it is not a matter of truth claims, but of approaching the Numinous or the Divine.

But nonetheless, Pagans and polytheists themselves (myself included) often do make truth claims about the gods, though Paganism does not demand this, most common among them that they are immaterial or supernatural beings of immense power and beneficence, and they can be known (in some sense) by humans.

While I think that Loftus is quite right in claiming that Christianity tends to fail the Outsider Test, I also think that Paganism, in its many forms, tends to pass it on both counts.

There is certainly a dearth of critical thinking in the Pagan community. When one reads the writings of many Pagan authors, one often cannot help but get the impression that the author perhaps has not thought things through very carefully. But this is not an irreversible problem. Real critical thinking is emerging even now, as Pagans and polytheists begin to tackle real problems in ethics and theology.

The second fork of the Outsider Test is the one with real teeth. Do Pagans, polytheists, reconstructionists, etc., commit special pleading? While I'm sure that many do, I can't think that it's a problem as systematically endemic as it is in the dogmatic monotheisms.

And I do think it's a problem for monotheists. The bloviations of so-called "evidentialist" apologists aside, the evidence for the truth of Christianity is no greater or less than that for the truth of Islam or Judaism. And these options are mutually exclusive. If the New Testament instructs correctly, then Mohammad was at best deluded, and Moses' understanding was incomplete. While one might prefer one of these three for philosophical, aesthetic, moral, or experiential reasons, historical evidence cannot decide between them. But the claim that, because one felt inspired and uplifted at a Christian religious service, Muslims run the risk of damnation, is I think indefensible. Muslims, too, feel uplifted at their religious rites and gatherings. Likewise, philosophical defenses of any particular religion are, by their very nature, complex and controversial things, and in general come to conclusions that can be reasonably disputed.

But I don't think it's a problem for Pagans in general. I, for one, have no problem with the idea that religious revelation is temporally and culturally bound--packaged and understood in terms understandable and relevant to its recipients. I have no problem believing that revelation is constant and ongoing. I have no problem believing in Amaterasu or Vishnu--though I may suspect that followers of Shinto and Hinduism are wrong about some things. But then, I suspect that I'll have to make some corrections in the future myself.

Does Paganism pass the outsider test? As I understand it, it does. And my own approach certainly does.


  1. Are there any pagan analytic philosophers?

    Also, who do you think are the most-respected pagan scholars (meaning, scholars who ARE pagans)?

  2. Dr. Brendan Myers, the author of the above-linked book on ethics, is a trained philosopher at least influenced by analytic philosophy, though I'm not sure I'd refer to him as an analytic philosopher. He is a Druid.

    Aside from Dr. Myers, the best-respected (or at least best known among lay pagans) academics are probably Chas Clifton, editor of the Pomegranate journal in Pagan studies, and political scientist Dr. Gus diZerega. Both are Wiccan.

    There are a number of others as well.