Monday, May 10, 2010

Outsider Test for Beliefs (OTB)

People adopt different worldviews, primarily due to their upbringing. These worldviews contradict each other, thus they cannot all be true. The best method for testing if one’s worldview is correct is from the perspective of an outsider with a high level of skepticism. This is the Outsider Test for Beliefs (OTB), proposed first time by John W. Loftus in 2006 (see: Loftus, 2008; Loftus, 2010).


You had no control over where you were born or to whom. If you were born in Mexico, you’d likely be a Catholic. If you were born in India, you’d likely be a Hindu. 95% of people born and raised in Thailand are Buddhist. 95% of people born and raised in Saudi Arabia are Muslim (Loftus, 2010). Why is this so?

As children we had little capacity to understand and question claims about the nature of the cosmos. Do you believe in Evolution or Creationism? Heaven or Nirvana? Allah or Vishnu? Are you a Christian, Buddhist or Naturalist? Why, or why not? Whatever you believe, why do you believe it and not something else? Your answer might begin with what you learned as a child on your parent’s knee. We adopt our parent’s worldview almost as certain as we inherit their skin color.

One scientific study found that: 97% of Catholics, Jews, United Church members; 96% of Protestants and Lutherans; 90% of Anglicans; 85% of Mennonites and 78% of fundamentalists had been raised in the religion they identified with; 47% of atheists/agnostics had been raised in secular homes; the rest (53%) were apostates (Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 1997). Thus, there is a strong tendency to adhere to the religion we have been raised into. One study found a correlation of .88 between parents and their children’s choice of worldview (Jennings & Niemi, 1968; In: Hogg & Vaughan, 2005). People do not stray far from what they were raised to believe, but move around among versions of the same general religion, and when they make a more radical change, they rarely do so after conducting a thorough study of the comparative evidence (Loftus, 2010). Thus, we can make a good prediction of which faith a person adheres to if we know the faith of his/her parents.

It’s not natural for parents to constrain themselves; most parents will try to transmit their worldview to their children. Some parents go to extremes to ensure that their children adopt certain views and that these views are so resistant to change as possible (Humphrey, 1998). Indoctrination is to impose a worldview on a child through socialization, without any rational process, where the influence is one-sided and prevents the child from taking an independent position with regard to the views that are tried to be instilled in them (Pedersen, 1976; Tønnessen, 1983). An indoctrinated individual is often dogmatic and will defend their cherished beliefs vigorously (Winn, 2000). They lack self-criticism, and exhibit little flexibility and complexity in their reasoning (Tønnessen, 1983).

Since most parents tell their children to believe whatever they themselves believe, most of us just believe whatever we have been told to believe. Thus, we have not based our views on any rational ground, and therefore we have no reason to be confident about the truthfulness of our beliefs.


Muslims dismiss the distinctive beliefs of Buddhists. Christians dismiss the distinctive beliefs of Confucianism. Jews dismiss the distinctive beliefs of Hindus. Naturalists dismiss the distinctive beliefs of all religions. They cannot all be right because they contradict each other. The only way for believers to know which beliefs are right, is to subject their beliefs to the Outsider Test, and attempt to examine the different worldviews fairly, i.e. with the same level of skepticism. From the inside, our claims seem true, but from the outside, they may just seem bizarre. The power of the Outsider Test is that it shifts our perspective in a way that makes it easier for us to discover poor arguments and bad reasons for our own beliefs.

Skepticism is to question the truthfulness of claims by subjecting them to systematic investigation. Skepticism is the hallmark of an independent thinker. If, after approaching a truth claim with skepticism, it passes the test, then the skeptic has good reasons to accept it.

“The skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches, as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found” – Miguel de Unamuno

The amount of skepticism warranted depends on several factors, amongst them:

(1) The number of rational people who disagree: If two epistemic peers have a genuine disagreement about shared evidence, then it is reasonable to suspend judgment about the issue (Feldman, 2007; In: Loftus, 2010).

(2) The origins of the claims: If a belief is initially adopted through an unreliable factor, then extreme skepticism is warranted. Indoctrination is a non-rational (Winn, 2000). Therefore, simply trusting what you have been taught as a child is unreliable.

(3) The nature of the claims: Some claims will warrant more skepticism than others. If a claim does not fit well with our background knowledge (e.g. “I saw a pink elephant”), then we should be extremely skeptical about it. Extraordinary claims warrant extreme skepticism (Loftus, 2010).

Thus, when it comes to religious faiths, a high degree of skepticism is warranted (Loftus, 2010).

The Outsider Test

The most important question when it comes to asserting the truth claims of beliefs – religious, political, philosophical, and others – is how we should approach the available evidence. How should we test the faith given to us, or any new faith we may be considering? We should adopt a skeptical predisposition prior to examining evidence and arguments.

At the minimum, you should be willing to subject your beliefs to rigorous scrutiny by reading the best critiques of your beliefs. The Outsider Test challenges you to critically examine the social conditions of how you came to adopt your beliefs. You should consider who or what influenced you to believe what you believe, and whether those initial reasons were good or bad. Would you have become a Muslim had your parents been Muslims?

If you refuse to take the Outsider Test, then you must justifying having such a double standard. Why are you more critical to others beliefs than you are to your own? If you think this test is unfair, then you have the burden of proof to show why your approach to the diversity of beliefs is justified. If, after having investigated your own beliefs with the presumption of skepticism, they pass the intellectual test, then you can keep them, and if not, then you should abandon them (Loftus, 2010). If God is all-loving then he will want us to find the truth, and not punish us for testing our beliefs. There is no belief that should be immunized from the Outsider Test.

"Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear" – Thomas Jefferson


Altemeyer, B. & Hunsberger, B. (1997). Amazing Conversions: Why some Turn to Faith, and others Abandon Religion. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Hogg, M. A. & Vaughan, G. M. (2005). Social Psychology (4. edition). England: Pearson Education Limited.

Humphrey, N. F. (1998). What Shall We Tell the Children? Social Research, 65(4); 777-805.

Loftus, J. (2008). Why I Became an Atheist. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Loftus, J. (2010). The Outsider Test for Faith Revisited. In: Loftus, J. (Ed.). The
Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails
. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Pedersen, J. B. (1976). Indoktrinering. Hvad er det for noget? Danmark: Gyldendal.

Tønnessen, F. E. (1983). Verdier og livssyn i skole og barnehage. Oslo: Cappelen.

Winn, D. (2000). The Manipulated Mind: Brainwashing, Conditioning and Indoctrination. Cambridge: Malor Book.

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