So, which religion, if any, is ‘true’?

So, which religion, if any, is ‘true’?

JOHN RADFORD, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at East London University, reviews The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion is True by John W Loftus. Prometheus Books, 2013. Available in hard copy and e-book format.


JOHN Loftus was raised as a Roman Catholic, was for 14 years an Evangelical Christian minister of religion, and holds three Master’s degrees in theology / philosophy. He became disenchanted with his faith, abandoned it at the cost of considerable personal turmoil, and has written and spoken widely about his views.

In this book he presents a method he has developed (though not originated, as he states) to establish which of the many available religious faiths, if any, is true.

Both philosophers and religious apologists discuss various senses of “true”. Loftus does not do so, but seems to take it as a simple “correspondence with facts”: Jesus either literally rose from the dead or he did not, and so on. Equally, the Bible has been understood in many different ways, not all of them literal. But Loftus’s argument is directed to this approach.

There are three steps.

First, the Religious Diversity Thesis (RDVT). He shows in considerable detail that the different religions are not randomly distributed around the world, but rather are (on the whole) concentrated in particular areas. From this comes the Religious Dependency Thesis (RDPT), namely that an individual’s religious beliefs derive mainly from his or her upbringing, in a particular culture (a concept that in fact dates back to classical Greece). This is supplemented by evidence that beliefs rest also on various processes common to human brains, and on equally common tendencies to irrational thinking. From these two theses comes the conclusion that a large majority of religious faiths must be false, and possibly all of them. The proposed solution is the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF).

Adherents of a particular faith, if they wish to establish whether or not it is true, must assess it against the same criteria as they use for those in which they do not believe. And these criteria should be the same as for any scientific theory. Non-belief must be the default position for any serious enquiry into religious truth. Loftus is well aware that it is particularly difficult for believers in a particular religion to take this approach to their own faith, but he argues that informed scepticism is the only basis for showing that any faith is true (or not).

The first chapter is a summary of the whole argument, partly in the hope that it might be suitable as a reading for students of appropriate subjects. Loftus is an active blogger, and some of the material in subsequent chapters resembles the sort of ding-dong debate that ensues. Special attention is paid to Christianity, and how it fares when subjected to the OTF – unsurprisingly, it fails; as, indeed, do all others. Overall, I found the book readable and enjoyable, but of course I am pretty much in agreement with the substance. I learned from it, and I found the rather argumentative tone quite entertaining.

But I was left with some queries. It could be argued, for example, that the geographical distribution of faiths is strictly irrelevant to the merits of the OTF, which is designed to decide which (if any) among the multitude of faiths is true, however they arose and however they are distributed. It might also be said that since at least some faiths are mutually incompatible, they cannot all be true, regardless of their origins. God cannot be both three as Christians hold, and unique as Muslims insist, or multiple as in Hinduism and many other religions; at least if the doctrines are held strictly. Another issue is whether believers do generally reject other faiths on grounds of evidence.

Rather, experience suggests that for many it is simply the corollary of their own being true. Others that are not compatible with theirs are automatically false. Many faiths actively discourage or forbid any questioning, sometimes with severe penalties in this world or the next. And numerous individual accounts, as well as this one, of questioning or leaving a religion show how stressful it very often is, even without threatened punishment.

Loftus uses evidence and argument to deal in detail with many objections that have been raised, though to my mind not always comprehensively. One charge repeatedly made is that Loftus himself makes claims that are based on faith and therefore should be subject to the OTF. For example, his “belief” that rape is to be condemned. Loftus’ answer is that his objection to rape passes the test, for four reasons. One, it is harmful to others; two, relatives or others may seek revenge on the rapist; three, there is a social contract to respect other vulnerable people; four, people should not be treated as simply a means to an end, as a rapist does. This all seems to me both disingenuous and inappropriate. Surely the view that rape is wrong is not a truth claim at all, but a value judgement. It cannot be shown to be true or false; though of course I think it can be justified.

Another popular accusation is that Loftus “believes” in science just as religious people believe in their faith, and so he should subject this to the OTF. But as he says, this equates two senses of “believe”. Preference for the methods of science is a justified choice, founded on the overwhelming evidence of the value of the findings it produces. Loftus also continually stresses that the scientific method is based on probabilities, rather than the absolutes of religion. Along the line argued by David Hume, we cannot be absolutely certain that the sun will rise next day. But given recorded history, and the findings of astronomy, it is reasonable to act as though it were certain. In many other cases, it makes sense to work on lower probabilities, for example (not one of Loftus’s) taking care when crossing the road, even if the chance of a vehicle arriving at the wrong moment is small.

It makes no sense at all to ignore the traffic and trust in God to protect us. However, many religiously disposed people might argue that it is inappropriate to take their faith so literally, and they do not do so. Rather, it is a way of making sense of life as a whole and of guidance on how to live. Testing it as though it were a scientific theory is quite inappropriate. I think this raises major further issues, but Loftus does not deal with these.

Loftus finally concludes that ultimately the problem is not particular religious tenets based on faith, but faith itself. Many others, notably Daniel Dennett (whom he does not mention), have said much the same. It is simply not a sound basis for knowledge, being unalterably private, non-replicable and non-testable. This book will add information and arguments for those who already think likewise. It may be accepted that in assessing any set of competing entities, the same methods and criteria must be used for all. And it is fairly easy to show that many assertions in particular religions are highly unlikely to be true, or actually impossible. But how far this will affect those whoare committed to a religion, if indeed they actually read Loftus, is perhaps doubtful.

I am reminded of a conversation with a young believer along much the same lines as Loftus suggests. Finally he said “Everything you say is right, but somehow the conclusion is wrong. I know my faith is true” (or words to that effect). It was clear that the discussion could go no further. Our understanding of the origins of faith and the psychological mechanisms involved has come a long way fairly recently, and is rapidly increasing. What still remains to be fully understood, in my view (and is not touched on here), is why faith itself is so emotionally powerful and so resistant to evidence and reasoning.

It is not necessary to elaborate on the intensity of passion that has so often characterised those who have persecuted, tortured and killed others, or suffered these things themselves, for causes that to “outsiders”, to use Loftus’ word, frequently appear utterly trivial, nonsensical, or imaginary.

“More research is needed” has become a cliché, but it seems appropriate here.

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