• The Outsider Test for Faith and the Veil of Ignorance


    Often while drifting off to sleep, all the thoughts and memories of the day merge into a glorious and giddying mix of driving-reading-singing-thinking-working-talking-walking.  A few weeks ago, while enjoying this stage of the night, two seemingly unrelated ideas came together in my mind.

    The first of the two was John Loftus’ Outsider Test for Faith.  I will definitely say more about the OTF in the future, but it won’t be necessary to explain it fully here.  Suffice it to say, it is essentially an exhortation to examine your own religion according to the same kind of standards you’d apply to other religions, seeing as there is a good chance you chose your current religion for less than purely rational reasons; most people choose the dominant religion in their family and/or geographical region, for example, and you’d presumably think people of false religions believe for less-than-rational reasons.  (The OTF applies equally well to atheism and agnosticism, by the way.)  If your religion stands up to scrutiny, then you can rest even more assured than before that you are on the right path.  If it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, well you wouldn’t want to believe it then, would you?

    The second idea forms part of the theory of Social Contractarionism.  Here the idea is that if one was supposed to come up with fair rules for everyone to obey, they should do so from behind a Veil of Ignorance.  How would you devise the rule book if you knew you would wake up tomorrow as a random person?  You could wake up male or female, black or white, gay or straight, rich or poor, young or old, slave or free.  What rules would you put in place to ensure you would be OK with the outcome, no matter who you were?  Shelly Kagan outlined such a theory in his very interesting debate with William Lane Craig on morality.

    That night, as these two ideas somehow morphed into one, a couple of interesting thought experiments emerged.  Luckily, I still remembered them the next morning, and I’d like to share them in this post.

    First, I should say that, as with just about all thought experiments, these are obviously contrived; nobody is suggesting that these things could ever happen.  But in thinking about what you might do in certain artificial situations, you can often gain some insight into your views about the real world.

    Second, I should say that both thought experiments are aimed at people with strong religious views, whether they be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Mormon, Scientologist, Atheist, Agnostic, Apatheist, or something else.  If you don’t have strong views on religion, these might not be so relevant for you, but you might just fit into that last category, so it could be worthwhile having a go anyway.


    Thought Experiment 1


    The scenario.  You’re told that when you wake up tomorrow, you’ll be randomly changed into a person with a different religious view.

    For example, if you’re currently a Christian, you might wake up as a Muslim, Mormon, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist – anything but a Christian.  Of course you’d be shocked to hear this news.  If you’re currently a strong believer in Islam or Christianity, say, you’ll be devastated to discover that you’ll wake up as a hell-bound heathen.  If you’re currently an atheist, you’ll hate the idea of waking up as a religious devotee.  No matter who you are, you’d do just about anything for a chance to talk to your new self and set yourself straight.

    The good news.  Before you go to bed tonight, you’re allowed to write a letter to your new self.

    Through this letter, you’ll be allowed to give yourself some advice on how to investigate your religious views.  You’ll wake up tomorrow in a new body, maybe in a different part of the world, but definitely in a new religious orientation.  However, you’ll have some mysterious letter to read, written by an anonymous person that seems to care about your take on religion.

    Given this opportunity, what would you write?

    The catch.  You can only offer completely general advice.

    You’re not allowed to say anything that is specifically for or against any religion (or non-religion).  For example, you can’t advise your new self to go to the book store and buy The god delusion, or Ten good reasons to believe in the Book of Mormon.  You can’t recommend checking out the miracle claims of Christianity, or asking some questions at the local mosque or synagogue.  But you can give yourself generic advice, like: read some critiques of your religion; read some apologetic works of as many religions as you can; try and imagine what someone without your beliefs might think; try and think rationally about all the alternatives.

    So how would you advise yourself?  You’ll clearly see it as imperative that you get yourself back to your former religious persuasion.  But what would you suggest?  Have a think for a moment before moving on.


    Thought Experiment 2


    This thought experiment is very similar to the last.  Again, when you wake up, you’ll be randomly transformed into another person.  And again, before this happens, you’ll be allowed to write yourself a letter containing some completely general advice about how to investigate your religious views.  But this time the catch is that you could be turned into absolutely anybody.  You could be turned into somebody of a different religious persuasion, but you could just as well turn into someone with the same beliefs you started with; for all you know, you might even wake up as your current self!  (Wouldn’t that be strange?!)

    So what general advice would you give yourself?

    Clearly, as before, you’d be concerned to make sure you would find your way out of any false religion you might end up in.  But you wouldn’t want to find your way out of your current religion, if that is the one you woke up in.  What kind of general advice could you give yourself to make sure you would reject all religious views but your own?




    As I have already said, both thought experiments are contrived, and purely hypothetical.  However, they do have real applications.  In particular, the first essentially asks the question:

    Is there any general strategy of religious investigation you would recommend to someone of a different religious persuasion?

    The second deals with the question:

    What would happen if someone with your religious views followed such a general strategy?

    But the thought experiments make it all a bit more personal, since it is actually you that you are trying to advise.

    I do have my own thoughts on what I would do in each scenario, but I think I’d prefer to leave it open to others to share their answers or thoughts.  Is anyone game to have a go?

    Category: Outsider Test for FaithReligionThought experiments


    Article by: Reasonably Faithless

    Mathematician and former Christian

    One Pingback/Trackback

    • John W. Loftus

      I have used the Veil of Ignorance before in describing the OTF. But I really like these thought experiments!

    • Smilodon’s Retreat

      I like this a lot.

    • DRC

      My message would be the same for both cases:

      Never obtain your understanding of someone’s beliefs from their enemy because it’s human nature to misinform “us”, and misrepresent “them”.

      Actually, this is harder than I thought. If I woke up as a pluralist (or someone with no interest in absolute truth), then I suspect none of my advice would affect their position. Perhaps I would need to include a paragraph about why truth is important.

      I care very much about truth and rationality. Assuming that I have an equal chance of becoming any living person, I’ll probably care much less about those things than I do now. That’s the scariest part for me!

    • The Thinking Atheist podcast intro comes to mind: “Assume nothing. Question everything. Open your eyes. Challenge the opposition. And start thinking.” Some thoughts along these lines would likely be the content of my self-addressed letter. As an atheist, I’m quite happy for the content of my letter to be the same in both instances. I suspect a religious believer might feel slightly more uneasy about that.

    • Thought Experiment: Goal is to find correct religion if there is one.

      Assumptions: 1) Assume there is a God (personally don’t think there is a proof or everyone would be a God follower now). 2) Assume God is omnipotent, omniscient and wants to communicate with us (If God didn’t want to communicate with us what is the point?). 3) Assume all supernatural events in all religious stories are true. (Science doesn’t have the capacity to disprove).

      Conclusions: 1) The religion must survive over time otherwise God doesn’t want to communicate with future humans after religion expires or is no longer practiced. This eliminates a lot of myths, etc.
      2) The religion must have a story that communicates God’s message inside of a supernatural event. Any other message inside of a man-made event is unlikely to be believed to be from God and not man. The message must be so linked to the event that the message can’t be separated without eliminating the supernatural aspects of the event. There are many supernatural events but most of them are fireworks (for no purpose than a display of power.
      3) The supernatural event must be witnessed by more than one person. If the event is only witnessed by one person, then skeptics can rightly claim that it is a made-up event. A offshoot of this conclusion is that the more people that saw the event, the more veracity is assumed from the story.

      When you take these three conclusions, you should be able to narrow down religions to two. This analysis doesn’t prove God (assumed). However, it can point you to the correct religion if there is a God with those characteristics.

      Hope this thought exercise helps.

    • I would probably say something like:

      ‘Start with the Atheists. Listen to what they have to offer. It will involve a fair bit of astronomy, and hopefully some Carl Sagan. There will be time with your children, or other loved ones; some of this may be on a beach, perhaps even at sunset. There will be, above all, autonomy – more or less depending on how wealthy you are – revel in this. ‘Responsibility’ is an option, you can adopt as much or as little of this as you wish, calibrate to your desire.

      Give it time. Revel in your freedom. And if, in this, you find contentment, be at peace: your journey is over.

      If you find you cannot honestly tell yourself that you have found peace, joy, and contentment, see a psychiatrist. Do counselling. Take medication if you have to, consider a change of career. Do whatever you need to do and take however long you need to take to know that your mind and body are sound. If, in this, you find contentment, be at peace: your journey is over.

      If you find that, in spite of all this, you cannot honestly tell yourself that you have found peace, joy, and contentment, then throw your secular autonomy to the wind and hunt God like an eagle on the mountains.* Breathe deep in Buddhist meditation. Throw your hands to the air and dance with the Pentecostals. Study with a Rabbi. Find dark and lonely places and pray raw and searching prayers. Make it up as you go along. Above all, make friends. Forget personalities; take the time to know people at peace. Let them infect you.

      Lose yourself in the chase. Don’t be overly concerned with ‘truth’ – you’ve read your Nietzsche by now, you know that ‘truth’ is mostly a mask – let yourself be led by longing, by passion. You have one life. Why waste it on anything other than your heart’s desire?

    • Pingback: “Is there any general strategy of religious investigation you would recommend to someone of a different religious persuasion?” « The Final Word()

    • Roy

      Great article. My letter would be quite simple:

      Dear the very handsome Roy

      So I hear you’re going to spend the next year or two investigating and choosing a religion (or non-religion). Once you’ve chosen you’re religion be devoted. Learn it intensely.

      As for choosing – follow the evidence. Get as close to the test points of worldviews as you can. Study. Pray. Watch debate.

      Your yester-self

    • Thanks for the interesting thoughts, guys.

      Gerald, I think “Assume there is a God” might void the rules *just slightly* 😉 But I think there are far more outlandish assumptions in your response. No offense, but I think most people would tear that letter up and keep on believing whatever they were believing. How would you feel knowing that you would wake up (say) a Muslim tomorrow with a letter from someone saying things like “Assume all supernatural events in all religious stories are true”?

      BenK, that was quite lovely, though to be fair, I wonder what most of the world would think about “Start with the Atheists” 😉 Your blog looks very interesting – I think I’ll have a look around.

      DRC – I would go for something very like that. I’d try and make a case for the importance of Truth, and also for examining views critically and from as many angles as possible. It’s amazing how many people there are that think truth is not the most impoartant thing.

      Roy – do you think any person with an existing religious belief would be compelled to change their views by your letter? And don’t forget, your current good looks are not guaranteed to be there when you wake up 😉

    • brad lencioni

      A comment from Mr. Loftus himself, Nice! Great blog by the way (I have utilized the “Veil of Ignorance” myself.)

      As for my letter, I think I would just leave my critical thinking textbook. (I too am surprised at the general disregard in the comments for both truth and effective thinking methods in exchange for loyalty to an ideology…)

      • Reasonably Faithless

        Thanks Brad. Nice to have you drop in – I hope you’ll feel free to contribute to anything you feel like. Cheers =]