Religious/Moral Pluralism and The Outsider Test

I’ve written about the Dependency Thesis (DT) before, when speaking of The Outsider Test . The DT is well known among ethicists as one of two legs supporting cultural relativism. The DT states “morality is not a matter of independent rational judgment but is causally dependent on cultural conditions.” The DT is actually the second leg supporting cultural relativism. The first leg is known as the Diversity Thesis (DV) that states “moral practices and beliefs do in fact vary from culture to culture and at different times in history.” Once someone acknowledges the first leg (DV), then the second leg (DT) offers a reason for the diversity we find around the globe.


I’m arguing pretty much the same things are true with regard to religious and metaphysical beliefs, primarily because they are related to moral beliefs in at least three ways: 1) Anthropologists have discovered that they both have geographical locations, for the most part. That is, just like you find regions where the overwhelming majority of people are Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian, you will also find people who are chauvinistic, in favor of capital punishment, against polygamy, who disregard human freedom and rights for all, and so forth. Even in a democracy, where people share the same views about freedom and human rights for all, people still have divergent views. But in a democracy we find little cultural pockets of people who do share the same religious and ethical views, like the Jews in Skokie, IL, the Amish in Northeastern Indiana, and so forth. 2) There are no empirical tests to finally decide between moralities, and there are no empirical tests to finally decide between religious viewpoints. Since this is the case, social, political and cultural factors will play a much stronger role in what people believe about such things than anything else. 3) There are people who believe that one’s morality is derived from their religious viewpoint. That is, morality is dependent upon one’s religion. While I don’t think this holds true in most religions, it certainly does hold true in some of them.

Here are some randomly chosen moral and religious beliefs that the odds are very strong we would have adopted them if we were those people: Had we lived in the ancient past in Babylonia, and the Greco-Roman worlds, we would have been very superstitious and polytheistic. In the ancient world we would have sought God’s guidance through divination, and appeased his wrath with barbaric blood sacrifices. Like Plato and throughout the Middle Ages, we would have been opposed to democracy and preferred instead the divine rights of kings. If we were a first century Christian we would believe God sent illnesses and disasters to discipline and punish people for their sins, while for the first 900 years we would have believed in the Ransom theory of atonement. We would see virtually nothing wrong with killing witches, persecuting people of different faiths, torturing heretics, and conquering Jerusalem from the infidels in the Crusades.

Along with Andrew Jackson we would have believed in Manifest Destiny and the land grabbing of westward expansion into Native American territories, because it was our God given mandate. Up until the beginning of the 18th century we would have believed that women were intellectually inferior to men, and consequently, we would not allow them to become educated like men. Like Thomas Jefferson and most Americans we would have thought this about black people as well, that they were intellectually inferior to whites, while if we were born in the South we would have justified slavery from the Bible.

If we were born black in today’s world we would still to this day believe that O.J. Simpson is not guilty. If we were born in modern Palestine we would hate the Jews, and probably want to kill them all. If we were born in France we would have opposed the Iraq war. If we were born into a Democratic family in the 80’s we would hate Bush and have a strong tendency to believe anything negative about him.
Such beliefs based upon cultural conditions can be duplicated into a long lengthy list of moral and religious beliefs we would have had if we were born in a different time and place.

One objection to both the DV and DT theses is that even if moral and religious beliefs were 100% correlated with the “accidents of birth” (when and where we were born), this would not have anything to do with whether a person's particular religious belief is true, therefore making it possible that Christianity is true anyway. To this I answer, yes, this is possible. After all, someone can be right if for no other reason than that she just got lucky. But how do you rationally justify such luck?

I'm sure that the whole reason Christians object to what I'm saying is because they must do so in order to believe their faith is correct. They simply will not acknowledge the implications of what the sum total of geographical, demographical, historical and cultural indications tell us about what we believe based upon the “accidents of history.” With all of this evidence they don't merely want to maintain that their beliefs could be true, despite the “accidents of history," they want to claim that their particular belief is true.

Then those who make this objection will merely challenge me to show why their faith is false, as if to show that they have reasons that transcend the cultural conditions that gave rise to their faith in the first place. Well, I can do this, and I am doing so here, one piece at a time. But I can imagine a Muslim, a Jew, a liberal Catholic or a Hindu issuing that same challenge. Then what?

Some may object that they wouldn’t have adopted certain of these beliefs, like the inferior intellectual nature of women and blacks, and so forth. Really now? That reveals such an arrogant ignorance, and has been dubbed as chronological snobbery, that it’s hard for me to know how to properly respond. The main reason someone might maintain they wouldn’t have been swayed by the false and hurtful cultural ideas of the past is that they want to maintain that what they believe today is not swayed by cultural factors much at all. But what they believe today is equally swayed by cultural factors, such as OJ Simpson’s guilt or innocence based to a great extent on whether or not they are a Black persons in America. It’s pretty obvious that cultural conditions still heavily sway us in what we believe.

Another objection has been stated like this: “Did Loftus' cultural conditions 'determine' his beliefs? If so, he has no reason to think they are true. If not, then he thinks he can transcend culture, but he doesn't think a Christian can transcend culture.”

A person could still accept what I’m arguing for here and not be a moral or religious relativist. In fact, a person can deny relativism and still claim that she doesn’t know much of anything else is true except that relativism is false. That is, someone could deny relativism and claim this is the only thing she knows to be objectively true. Another person could simply say that religious and moral relativism is false in the end, but she could also believe that to rise above the circumstances of our times is extremely difficult to do, and that only a very few people in every generation have done it. This may actually be the case, if we grant that there is objective truth. But if so, then what becomes of the Christian claim to truth in a world overwhelmingly dominated by religious beliefs, which are almost entirely, but not completely dependent on the “accidents of history”?

Of course, if it is the case that “the accidents of history” completely determines our beliefs in those areas where there is no empirical test to decide between them, then what exactly wrong in admitting this? Let’s say this is the case, i.e., that our moral and religious beliefs are completely determined by when and where we are born, including atheism. What would be the basis of this belief?: “The accidents of history.” If I believed this, then it still doesn’t follow that what I believe is false. I may be lucky and just happened to get it right. If so, I'd be just like the Christian who, if right, is right because of luck. And if it's luck that causes us to get it right, then we both agree that what we believe we do so based upon when and where we're born. But one major difference between us is that I don't believe I'll go to hell if I am unlucky and get it wrong because of when and where I was born.

And let's say that "the accidents of history" made me the atheist that I am today. So what? If true, this does not undercut what I'm saying at all--it supports it in several ways. I'm saying that cultural conditions have an extremely strong influence on us to believe certain moral and religious beliefs that cannot be empirically tested. If I am an atheist because of these cultural conditions, then I'm right that cultural conditions lead us to believe these things after all. And while I might be wrong about what I don't believe, such an admission doesn't undercut the main reason for The Outsider Test in the first place.

The best that could result from this admission is agnosticism. But this doesn’t grant the believer any ground. For to be agnostic about my agnosticism would again be admitting the basis for testing any moral or religious belief system, and that is to be agnostic, or skeptical, all over again, which once again, is what I mean by The Outsider Test, and once again something I'm asking of those who claim to know and to believe certain things that cannot be tested empirically. So you see, I don't object to my own skepticism. I'm willing to be skeptical of my skepticism. But it's sort of redundant, from my perspective, and so it merely reinforces itself. Besides, I would be quite content to be an agnostic; since my atheism isn't something I am that confident about. I'm merely asking, given the proliferation of religions and the fact that these kinds of beliefs are largely, if not totally dependent on the accidents of birth, why Christians aren't willing to test their beliefs with a healthy measure of skepticism?

Try this thought experiment on for size: There is no God, this universe happened by chance, and what we believe about morality and religion is all based upon the “accidents of history.” Let’s assume this is all true, that is, this is what actually happened and correctly describes the state of affairs we live in as social and cultural animals. If this happened as described, then it did, whether we can claim to know this truth outside cultural factors that determine our beliefs or not. But if it did happen, then there is nothing inconsistent with claiming both that what we believe is based entirely upon our individual cultural experiences, and also that this is the actual state of affairs.

As a matter of fact, if our religious beliefs are tied to our cultural upbringings, then what we find around the globe and throughout history is exactly what we should expect to find if this universe happened by chance.

Another objection is that there are exceptions to this belief forming explanation of mine. There are people in every generation who rejected the dominant moral and religious views of their cultures. So I am asked to explain why there are exceptions, if there are any. But Christians are being asked to explain why there is the rule in the first place, that is, why do religious and moral beliefs dominate in specific geographical areas and during specific time periods? Why is that?

Based on these things I'm merely saying we should initially treat all religious and moral beliefs with a healthy measure of skepticism...but wait...skepticism leads to agnosticism and atheism. Isn't that odd? But I have some very good initial reasons to be skeptical, that's all I'm saying.

The bottom line. An atheist denies every god that is denied by any one particular religion, plus that one. It's like an atheist walking into a room filled with hundreds of people arguing and fighting with each other and threatening each other with divine disasters and afterlife punishments and imposing their morality upon societies, if the others don't agree. He listens and watches for a while and then turns and walks away, rejecting them all. After all, they deny each of the other faiths in the room, so he can just deny one more than the rest of them do.

How can the atheist be skeptical of his non-belief? To do that would be to basically choose one of the faiths represented by one of the people in that room. But when he listens to all of the rest of the other people debunking any particular faith he might choose, he just cannot bring himself to believe that faith either, so he remains outside of them all, choosing instead to reject them all rather than to believe in any of them.

But is this circular, that I have merely chosen a different religious faith? Maybe it is in some sense, although about this it would have to be shown, but it definitely is not viciously circular. For I have very good initial grounds for starting out with skepticism in the first place, given the DV and the DT. In the end, atheism is a denial of all religious beliefs, customs, rituals, traditions, claims of miracles, Scriptures, priesthoods, and doctrines.

8 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

I wrote this piece before seeing Paul Manata's rebuttal. You can find it here.

I haven't read it yet, but I will.

Paul Manata said...

you said, "If I believed this, then it still doesn’t follow that what I believe is false. I may be lucky and just happened to get it right."

But you guys used the outsider test to determine that Christianity *was false*! So, again, we see your intellectual hypocrisy. If the outsider test has *no bearing* on whether Christianity is true or false, then how can you use it as an argument agianst Christianities truthfulness?

John W. Loftus said...

Paul, approaching the Christian faith with skepticism doesn't initially show it to be false, and may not show it to be false in the end. I'm only making the case that you should approach it with skepticism.

When I approach Christianity with skepticism it shows me that Christianity is false.

It's an argument for approaching religious truth claims with skepticism, and that's all. What it may reveal about any particular faith will be up to the investigation.

But skepticism actually becomes the favored position as a result of the initial presumption, a presumption which is justified by the religious diversity around the globe. To debate this initial presumption you have to debate with the observed religious diversity around the globe and the explanation of this diversity given by the DT.

Zachary Moore said...

Paul-

I see the Outsider Test as an experiment to test the null hypothesis. Every properly-designed experiment has a null hypothesis, and the data gathered are assumed to support it. If the data do not support it, the null hypothesis is rejected. Would you say that scientists are intellectually hypocritical, and presuppose their rejection of the null?

Anonymous said...

John said, "The bottom line. An atheist denies every god that is denied by any one particular religion, plus that one. It's like an atheist walking into a room filled with hundreds of people arguing and fighting with each other and threatening each other with divine disasters and afterlife punishments and imposing their morality upon societies, if the others don't agree. He listens and watches for a while and then turns and walks away, rejecting them all. After all, they deny each of the other faiths in the room, so he can just deny one more than the rest of them do."

Atheists hide behind a technicality that theirs is not a religion. However, by using the words "religion" and "faith" in the same context here, I have to question "Do you have faith that you are correct, or can you actually prove it?" I might add that you don't seem to be walking away either. You argue your beliefs just like the others in the room.

I see Atheism as the most dangerous faith of them all. Even if it is as you suggest,that we would be correct out of luck only, (which I doubt completely)your faith would be the one that fails all.

"But one major difference between us is that I don't believe I'll go to hell if I am unlucky and get it wrong because of when and where I was born."

But you were not born unlucky! I don't know if you are going to hell or not, but if you were born in the USA you were not born unlucky. So you are without excuse. Romans 10:14-18

This also brings another matter to mind. Suppose that your demographics theory is correct. With the use of the internet becoming more and more a world wide tool for information, what would be your prediction for the world in say 20 years in regards to DT and religion? What will be the dominate belief, God or ?????what????

John W. Loftus said...

With the use of the internet becoming more and more a world wide tool for information, what would be your prediction for the world in say 20 years in regards to DT and religion? What will be the dominate belief, God or ?????what????

I'm not into offering these type of predictions. I would suppose things won't change that much in 20 years, even with the internet, but they could.

Alfred Toole, Jr. said...

On OJ, I throw out another possibility on the divide between Blacks and Whites. During the trial, I attended my first year of law school at UVA. While the evidence mounted against OJ, Whites prided themselves on the justice system and how well it worked. Granted some Whites would argue, it isn't a perfect system but it's the best one we got. In contrast, many Blacks viewed the system as flawed and would point to years of injustice. They would cite case after case where the White man found himself acquitted in this well working judicial system. And how Blacks seemed to consistently get the short end of the stick. (When you stop and think about this, do Blacks honestly commit that much more crime than Whites? At my high school where I teach, Blacks make up less of the population but account for most of the discipline referrals and suspensions.) With the OJ trial, Whites finally could see what Blacks having been arguing about ever since they have been in this country. OJ "getting off" burned them like the many times their ancestors have gotten off have burned Black people. What I found funny is that it took one acquital of 1 prominent Black man accused of killing 2 White people to get a number of Whites at my law school to recognize that the system contained flaws. The reason I wrote is that I have found from my Black students that most believe OJ did commit the crime, but take some personal satisfaction in knowing that he beat the white system.
I don't know if we could ever decisely choose one factor for determining why people believe what they believe. Some Blacks and Whites believed OJ guilty from day one, and some Blacks and Whites thought him innocent from day one. For each person, different factors prejudiced their judgment. Some of these factors may be pure reasons for a judgment and others tainted. I find it more dangerous to think that every reason a person chooses something to be tainted, than for one legitimate choice to never be possible at all. Where this touches on your outsider test, some consideration must also be given to the fact that people in predominantly muslim countries become Christians and that some people in predominantly Christian countries become muslims. Some people do choose the right thing for the right reasons, reasons that go beyond luck and are more than just faith. Faith may supersede reason, but a faith that lies outside the realm of reason is unreasonable too. Where the debate should be is here why do people choose a religion outside of their expected geographical heritage and why these choices are made, not on the latter where it appears no choice is made at all.

Alfred Toole, Jr. said...

If you would like to email me, Alfred Toole, Jr., my email is tooletime40@hotmail.com. Although I disagree, with your position, I appreciate the honest thought behind your position. I hope my statements didn't seem condescending or to even make light of what you have written. I respect the fact that you want to pursue the truth but hate the fact that you thought you had to leave Christianity to do so.