Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Did C. S. Lewis take the Outsider Test?

A redated post.

"You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England." – Surprised by Joy

I don't know about you, but I'd say he passed with flying colors.


Anonymous said...

"I don't know about you, but I'd say he passed with flying colors."

I agree, but I wonder if this means that any convinced atheist (as Lewis was) who becomes a Christian (or Muslim, etc.) has taken and passed the Outsider Test. It seems to me as if they have. But then, another question is, are they obligated to take it *again* once they are Christians, Muslims etc.?

Victor Reppert said...

Heck if I know. I am not the supreme Papal authority on who has, or has not, taken the Outsider Test.

Anonymous said...

"I am not the supreme Papal authority on who has, or has not, taken the Outsider Test."

Vic, it seems to me that just as George Will once said, in response to someone who was explaining what Will believed, "Now wait a minute, I'm the world's foremost authority on what I believe, not you," each one of us must be the supreme authority concerning whether we've taken the test. I don't see how one person can say to another who claims to have undertaken the OTF that he's wrong.

Anonymous said...

I should've said, I don't see how one person can *justifiably* say to another who claims to have undertaken the OTF that he's wrong.

Bilbo said...

Somebody please remind me what the Outsider Test is.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Bilbo: Loftus describes it here. Basically, he says we should skeptically examine our religious beliefs to see if they are rational. We should subject them to the same kind of scrutiny you would if hearing about Greek Mythology or Muslim or whatever religious views. It's supposed to be a sort of acid to dissolve away unjustified beliefs.

Loftus formalizes things here. Sort of.

In the comments, Loftus gives the following simple summation: "[W]hat's wrong with skepticism? What's wrong with demanding evidence? You do that with the religious faiths you reject. If you don't do this same thing with your own culturally adopted faith then why do you operate with a double standard? That's not being intellectually honest. How can you possibly justify this double standard?"

Blue Devil Knight said...

LOL one problem with the 'Outsider Test' is that it isn't really a test. Where's the test, John? How can I sign up to take it?

I think one recommendation he might give is to read these ten skeptical books, and see how your faith holds up. He recommends ten books here at the 'Take the Debunking Christianity Challenge' site.

Blue Devil Knight said...

It would be interesting to see a 'Take the Supporting Christianity Challenge' and see a consensus list of ten books that Christian scholars think make the best case for Christianity. That would be the outsider test for atheists, after all. I'm an atheist, so reading those ten books from Loftus would be taking the insider test, an exercise in confirmation bias. :)

Ultimately that's what it's all about: going after our confirmation bias and trying to find those ideas and evidence most damning to our adopted worldview.

(OTOH, just to be honest I actually was a Christian by upbringing, and went the other way, so it isn't clear if I have passed the test or not, as the whole point is to shine a skeptical light on the beliefs installed in childhood when we all believed stupid things).

Blue Devil Knight said...

I have to admit the following got me laughing:
"If atheism is a religion then not collecting stamps is a hobby."

It's from Loftus' quote of Elles' book discussed here.

Word verification word is "jeces" if that isn't a slap in the face of Christianity I don't know what is! :)

Blue Devil Knight said...

OK last post before I leave: Loftus discusses whether atheists should take the outsider test here.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I just lied. IT bugs me that Loftus says on the book notes on the back "I have the equivalent of a PhD degree in the Philosophy of Religion, having earned three master's degrees."

No, just say you have three master's degrees. There's a big difference.

Walter said...

"Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality...

I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn't wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine." -Bertrand Russell

Chuck said...

Where in the quote is any assessment of faith? It is a rhetorical summary of Lewis' emotional fragility.

The OTF is a methodology, not an event. I think Christians don't get that since becoming a Christian is predicated on a life-changing event towards absolute truth rather than practiced skepticism and the application of provisional truth.

Your Lewis quote and assertion makes me think you don't understand the OTF as a methodology (not an event).

Anonymous said...

Did C.S. Lewis ever take seriously Islam, Orthodox Judaism, Wicca, Scientology, Hinduism, Jainism, or the many other culturally situated religions?

If not, then why was it that he only considered non-evangelical protestant Christianity as the alternative to his atheism?

Just curious.

Victor Reppert said...

He did give a number of other religions consideration. He's known, for example for giving some air time to Dualism, and he actually went through a pantheist period, diring his Idealist phase.

Anonymous said...

"Did C.S. Lewis ever take seriously Islam, Orthodox Judaism, Wicca, Scientology, Hinduism, Jainism, or the many other culturally situated religions?"

John, he did. After he decided that his atheism was untenable, he considered Hinduism as a live option for a time, until he understood where Christ fit into the Christian view.

Walter said...

So basically, a British guy was brought up Christian, turned atheist for awhile, considered a few different religions, then decided that the Church of England represented Truth.

Not trying to commit the genetic fallacy here, but it makes you wonder.

Chuck said...

And if Lewis continued to apply the OTF based on what biblical criticism, brain science and genomics have discovered about the veracity of the bible and the human condition then would he still be a Christian?

The OTF is not an event.

Victor Reppert said...

I don't think Lewis would have drawn the same conclusions concerning these enterprises. Lewis in particular thought that naturalistic biases affected much of biblical criticism, and he thought he had arguments to show that such biases were unjustified. He also drew on his background as a literary scholar to find grounds for criticizing the sort of Bultmannianism which was popular in his time.

I was making the rather pedestrian point that some people come to believe in Christianity who are outsiders. They don't have to think themselves outside of Christianity, the ARE outsiders who then become believers.

We can always complain about someone's thought processes, that the didn't consider this piece of evidence or that, and so that is why they didn't get the truth like I did.

Anonymous said...

"I was making the rather pedestrian point that some people come to believe in Christianity who are outsiders. They don't have to think themselves outside of Christianity, the ARE outsiders who then become believers."

Yes, exactly. And presumably it's better (given the standards of the OTF) to be an outsider in fact than it is to attempt to adopt the position of an outsider (since it's dubious anyone coming 'from the inside' ever achieves that outsider perspective as fully as an actual outsider, however good his intentions may be).

Chuck said...


Please address my contention that the OTF is NOT an event but a methodology.

I never argued that Lewis did not get the truth as I did but that as an outsider in his time did not take into consideration all the information we have at our disposal today.

Additionally, what in your quote indicates the type of skeptical examination the OTF demands. There is nothing there but rhetoric and, in my reading of Lewis thin argument to buoy his personal emotional need. He did not provide a thorough test but responded in a time of grief to a control belief that would help him grieve. I see nothing in the context of his conversion that would approximate the conditions predicated by Loftus' in his OTF.

Again, the OTF is a methodology, not an event.

Chuck said...


Lewis was not an "Outsider". He was raised in the Church of Ireland and admits in semi-autobiographical fashion in the "Great Divorce" that the Christian writing of George MacDonald informed his personal philosophy.

Your use of Lewis as illustration to pure atheism does not account for the syncretism that informed his literary scholarship.

It also fails to consider the emotional sway his friendship and collegiality to Tolkien had on his faith commitment. If anything, his Orthodox Anglican belief WOULD be an OTF to Tolkien's Catholicism and render that Christianity defeated.

One might say Lewis did take an OTF and rejected both your Catholicism and Vic's Evangelism.

But of course I don't believe that he was ever an outsider nor did he take an OTF.

Additionally if you both understood the OTF as methodological then you wouldn't be asserting christian victory to outsider skepticism.

Victor Reppert said...

So, of course, you could argue that Lewis passed the outsider test at his conversion but not later, and contrary evidence would have undermined his faith had he done so.

Lewis's essay "On Obstinacy of Belief" suggests that a continued "outsider test" mentality might be an unfair expectation on believers.

I am a firm believer in a "due diligence" in scrutinizing one's own beliefs and considering evidence against them. As I have said already, I've been doing that since 1972. I am skeptical about our ability to jump completely outside our own skins and achieve as sort of objectivity or neutrality that seems to lurk behind things like the OTF. It reminds me, to use a Neurathian metaphor, like taking all the planks of your boat apart in the middle of the ocean, which will put you at the bottom of same before you have time to build a better boat.

Chuck said...

I don't disagree with you Vic.

I think your metaphor is apt. You can't make a leap from belief to doubt in one move based on one test it would be a traumatic psychological death.

That is why I say the OTF is not an event. It is methodology. I was a committed believer for quite awhile but when I started investigating my faith claims against new information my experiences provided I have moved from agnosticism to atheism.

Additionally, Lewis' admission that the writings of George Macdonald on his philosophy from the age of 16 on (a year after he says he asserted atheism) makes his "outsider" status dubious.

He seems to have been a cultural christian, integrating certain doctrines to his own idiosyncratic mysticism throughout his life.

He was never really an "outsider".

Anonymous said...

Ahhh yes, the Neurathian metaphor. I distinctly remember telling you I'd respond to that and I distinctly remember partially doing that in my chapter in The Christian Delusion, pp. 101-102.

Maybe it deserves a post on it's own, and maybe I'll find the time soon.

I plan on writing a whole book on the OTF before long and I'll definitely have a section discussing it.


Victor Reppert said...

The quote comes from the end of his investigation on religion, and his conclusion that Christianity is true and he ought to accept it. Lewis wasn't shy about putting his reasons forward for forming that belief. He started out as a materialist, accepted the Argument from Reason as a reason for rejecting that for Idealism, went through Subjective Idealism, Objective Idealism, and pantheism, then finally became a theist (what he records is his theistic conversion, not a Christian conversion, actually), and then finally accepted the claims of Christianity. There is an extensive record of letters covering all of this, and further, Adam Barkman's C. S. Lewis and Philosophy as a Way of Life covers the intellectual steps he took to become a Christian.

Is there really supposed to be no emotional element in belief-formation? Was Lewis a perfect Mr. Spock about all this? No. But he had emotional reasons pulling him both ways, if you read his entire story and not just the line I quoted. Was Loftus? It's easy to find ulterior motives in his story. To use those to refute his arguments would be to argue ad hominem, but to say that Loftus has no emotional reasons for rejecting Christianity would be totally absurd.

You can't spend your life as an intellectual outsider. You literally can't. You have to choose a set of beliefs to act on and live by.

Victor Reppert said...

Look, I don't know your story, Chuck, but it would be very easy for me to come up with reasons to say that Loftus was never a real believer to begin with. In fact, that is precisely what a believer in the Perseverance of the Saints will say (and did say when I brought the topic up a few years ago).

Anonymous said...

C.S. Lewis is an interesting and troubling case, no doubt. But there is no reason anyone should accept his conclusions (or mine) merely because we changed our minds.

The question is whether the OTF is a good standard that minimizes the cultural and emotional factors as best as any person can possibly do, not whether it can do this perfectly.

The debate starts when some religious person maintains his faith by claiming it passes the test. Once he says it does then we have a mutually agreed standard to test whether he is justified in claiming what he does about his faith. And at that point I would argue C.S. Lewis's conversion does not pass that test. He would argue I am wrong and that it does, as do other believers, but at least we now have a standard to argue about.

If someone refuses to take the OTF I merely ask them why they have such a double standard.

Since most Christians inevitably realize very quickly that by taking the test their faith fails they are forced into arguing for one of two things: (a) they do not have a double standard after all, or (b) such a standard is flawed at some important point.

To defend (a) seems incredibly unlikely and implausible, while defending (b) is a clear sign of cognitive dissonance reduction as the defender must kick against the goads of what is a powerful argument.

Look at it this way. A judge must recuse himself from judging a case id there is a known conflict of interest. If he doesn't he would face the BAR associations ethics committee.

I'm claiming that we instinctively know that if there is a conflict of interest we cannot be impartial when deciding between the religious faiths available to us, given as they are in distinct geographical locations and learned in their respective cultures.

So why wouldn't it be wise in the interests of truth to be just as disinterested when examining one's religious faith? Why not?

Now Vic says this is impossible. So what? Let's agree that it is. What better way to approach this standard but the OTF even if enculturated people cannot be like the hypothetical Spock. In fact, it's precisely because we are not Spock-like we should place ourselves as best as possible in the a disinterested neutral posion as we can. And the OTF helps us do this...helps us see this...helps us better evaluate the faith given to us.


Anonymous said...

"Lewis was not an "Outsider". He was raised in the Church of Ireland and admits in semi-autobiographical fashion in the "Great Divorce" that the Christian writing of George MacDonald informed his personal philosophy."

Chuck, you need to read his pre-conversion letters and his poetry. He was very much an outsider, or at least as much as anyone could expect him to be. You seem to be suggesting that only someone who approached religious belief after having come right out of a Skinnerian Box, or someone who in the end comes to believe a religious faith not endemic to his place of origin, could be a 'true' outsider; I see no reason to think either is the case.

Chuck said...

I find it dubious to cite a man living in a country with government-sanctioned religion while admitting a noted Christian writer as an intellectual influence who was raised devout in the Church of Ireland to be have adopted an "outsider" status in accepting his Anglican belief. The most I will concede is that he assumed Anglican doctrine true when applying the OTF on other live Christian options. So there you have it Eric. Another impasse between us.

Now, if you christians claim Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris then I will reconsider the strength of an OTF on atheism. Lewis was never one to reject supernaturalism. He just rebelled against the faith of his fathers. Something many christians seem to do (you are an example are you not?) and then adopt a more palatable form of the same superstition.

Lewis consistent emotional reaction to the question of god indicates

Anonymous said...

"Lewis was never one to reject supernaturalism."

Chuck, have you ever read a thing about Lewis?

From "The Question of God":

"These early experiences with formal religion played no small role **in Lewis's later repudiation of his nominal childhood faith**, his seeing the spiritual worldview as "silly" and his embrace of a *materialistic* alternative."

"Lewis considered that "all religions, that is all mythologies, to give them there proper name, are man's own inventions. Lewis believed the New Testament to be like other pagan myths about a god coming to earth, dying and rising again."

From Lewis: "Superstition of course in every age held the common people, but in every age the educated and thinking ones have stood outside it..."

"As an atheist, Lewis agreed with Freud that the universe is all that exists -- simply an accident that just happened."

"[Lewis's] materialism took definite form soon after he entered his teens."

I have three more Lewis bios I could provide quotes from, all of which agree with what I've just written.

Now Lewis doesn't sound to me like someone who "assumed Anglican doctrine true when applying the OTF on other live Christian options"; he sounds like Richard Dawkins!

Chuck said...

CS Lewis own words from "The Great Divorce" where his fictionalized self meets George MacDonald on the road to heaven, "...I tried, trembling, to tell this man all that his writings had done for me. I tried to tell how a certain frosty afternoon at Leatherhead Station when I had first bought a copy of Phantastes (being then about sixteen years old) had been to me what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the new life. I started to confess how long that Life had delayed in the region of imagination merely: how slowly and reluctantly I had come to admit that his Christendom had more than an accidental connexion with it, how hard I had tried not to see the true name of the quality which first met me in his books is Holiness."

Sounds to me like a man who wrestled with Christianity his whole life and never really abandoned the faith of his child-hood only finally conceding to it later in life.

Anonymous said...

Chuck, read the darn quote again: he said *clearly* that (1) MacDonald's work initially influenced his imaginative enjoyment of a certain kind of fiction, and (2) he didn't make the connection for the longest time between this enjoyment of MacDonald's fiction and MacDonald's Christianity! Yet, you come here and claim that he wrestled with MacDonald's Christian ideas, when it wasn't MacDonald's ideas that initially influenced him (go ahead, read the book Lewis is referring to, "Phantastes" -- you haven't actually read it, have you? -- and tell me where it's obvious Christian themes are), and when he says explicitly that he didn't see any "Christian" ideas for the longest time!

Second, look again at all my Lewis quotes. I'm quoting from Lewis biographies and from Lewis's letters, both of which make it clear he was a materialist who thought religion was ridiculous, while you're (badly mangling) a quote from a fictional character in one of Lewis's stories who merely represents Lewis; he isn't Lewis, you know, by definition -- it's a work of fiction.

Do you honestly think that appealing to what a representational fictional character says in a story written many years after the fact (and which in fact doesn't support your claioms at all, as I have shown) is preferable to an appeal to contemporary letters and the considered conclusions of well researched biographies? Are there any other authors you'd apply this methodology to?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I can't resist -- From "The Most Reluctant Convert":

"Materialism was the philosophy that dominated [Lewis's] boyhood after the two years at Wynyard. Indeed, one of his friends from his prep school days described him as "a riotously amusing atheist." The same friend said he was "staggered" years later when he learned that the C.S. Lewis who wrote 'The Screwtape Letters' was the same foul mouthed Jack Lewis he had known as a teenager."

"[Lewis's] adolescent atheism was further reinforced by his reading in the natural and social sciences. From the former he gained a sense that life on earth is just a random occurrence in a vast, empty universe, that all human history is no more than a teardrop in the vast ocean of eternity. From the latter he concluded that all the world's religions, **including Christianity**, could be best explained not as claims to truth, but as expressions of psychological needs and cultural values."

"From Schopenhauer's books, [Lewis] gained a sense that the universe was a random cosmic event, and that *all religions* were futile attempts by fearful humans to control the great forces of nature before which they felt so powerless. From [Frazier's] 'The Golden Bough...Lewis came to feel that religion was simply an expression of culture, that all peoples had their own myths and legends, just as they had their own customs, **and that no one system of beliefs, such as Christianity, was any more "true" than any other**."

"After dismissing the supernatural 'tomfoolery' which had attached itself to the historical Jesus...[Lewis] said that he doesn't feel the need to believe in a "happy life hereafter," explaining sarcastically, "I'm quite content to live without believing in a bogey who is prepared to torture me forever and ever if I should fail in coming to an almost impossible ideal." He concludes that he finds more comfort in unbelief than in belief..."

"When Lewis first read [MacDonald's 'Phantastes'] in the spring of 1916, he wrote enthusiastically to Greeves that he'd had a "great **literary** experience" that week, and the book became one of his lifelong favorites."

"As Lewis explained it, "Phantastes did *nothing to my intellect nor at that time to my conscience*. Their turn came **far later** and with the help of many other books and men."

It sounds to me as if the young Lewis could've been a guest poster on Debunking Christianity, not some lifelong advocate of supernaturalism who always considered Anglicanism to be true.

Victor Reppert said...

OK Chuck, do you like the Chronicles of Narnia? Suppose you did. Many atheists still like Narnia. They might say they find it emotionally appealing. (Some don't mind you). Now if you were to return to Christianity, someone could point to the fact that you like Narnia as proof that you really were a Christian all along.

These sorts of gerrymandered claims on the atheist side remind me of Christians who say there are *really* no atheists.

Anonymous said...

Victor, excellent example. An even better one might be 'The Lord of the Rings,' especially given Tolkien's claims that (1) he "cut out practically all references to anything like religion, to cults and practices in the imaginary world, for the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism" and (2) "'The Lord of the Rings' is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision."

Edwardtbabinski said...


"I envy you not having to think any more about Christian apologetics. My correspondents force the subject on me again and again. It is very wearing, and not v. good for one's own faith. A Christian doctrine never seems less real to me than when I have just (even if successfully) been defending it. It is particularly tormenting when those who were converted by my books begin to relapse and raise new difficulties."

C. S. Lewis to Mary Van Deusen, June 18, 1956 [1]

For more see:


Lewis was raised in the Christian religion in his early youth, and admits he left it in prep school, but later he became a philosophical idealist and then converted back to the religion of his early youth. In Surprised by Joy he says he converted on a trip to the zoo with his brother who had recently converted.

Lewis also admits to having first having had his imagination baptized (as an idealist), and then been heavily influenced by Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, which he continued to suggest to readers as being top notch when it comes to apologetic books, even in his later years. But no biblical scholar except perhaps the most conservative would consider Chesterton's and Lewis's naive acceptance of every word allegedly spoken by Jesus in the Gospels to be the Gospel truth. Neither did Chesterton's arguments represent "top notch" scholarship.

Lewis also admits he was no biblical scholar. Yet devout Christians studying biblical scholarship continue to have their beliefs shaken. Also, scholars with far more biblical knowledge than Lewis have left the fold, including entire conservative Christian institutions of learning which continue to grow more liberal than they were at their founding--which appears to be a universal trend throughout history once a college starts to attract more widely read professors who interact with the entire growing world of biblical scholarship and all of its questions.)

Also see. . .

C. S. Lewis Resources, Pro and Con (compiled by Edward T. Babinski)

Victor Reppert said...

Lewis was certainly no inerrantist, and I think you exaggerate his commitment to the literal text of the Gospels.

Steven Carr said...

So what evidence persuaded Lewis that Judas, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea, Joanna, Salome, Barabbas , Lazarus, Nicodemus, Bartimaeus, Jairus existed, when they first appear in anonymous, unprovenanced works which plagiarise each other and the Old Testament?

These people are just as non-existent as the second gunman who shot JFK....

No evidence will ever be forthcoming for these people.

Nobody saw them. They were made up by the Novelists.

Steven Carr said...

"I'm quite content to live without believing in a bogey who is prepared to torture me forever and ever if I should fail in coming to an almost impossible ideal."

Well, he was young and foolish then, but later came to realise that there was a bogey who was prepared to torture him forever and ever if he should fail in coming to an almost impossible ideal.

So Lewis decided he had better start worshipping this bogey, no matter how dejected and reluctant he was.

Jesse Parrish said...

I see the discussion did not move significantly forward over the course of a year :P

As I mentioned in my posts, I see several plausible ways that a Christian could pass the* OTF `with flying colors' on either interpretation.

*I'm in the habit of saying `the' instead of `a'/`an', which to me is a no-no since `the' OTF is so unclear. I'm happy to treat `the OTF' as any assertion of epistemic privilege, grounded on sociological data of religion, that forces reasonable believers to take skeptical priors. As I've mentioned, I do not think that any such approach can succeed while not similarly jeopardizing secular views. And as I've mentioned, there are more convincing ways to argue about religion.

Papalinton said...

As Walter says:

"So basically, a British guy was brought up Christian, turned atheist for awhile, considered a few different religions, then decided that the Church of England represented Truth.
Not trying to commit the genetic fallacy here, but it makes you wonder."

Ahh! There is nothing like returning to good old home cooking.

Papalinton said...

There are those that claim CS Lewis was the first to propose an OTF, and that according to his assessment his faith passed with flying colours.
It is my contention that Lewis's OTF is a quantum leap away from that proposed by Loftus.
Indeed had Lewis done so, the passing of his faith against his model of OTF says nothing about the validity or verifiability of his faith; rather it speaks volumes about the reliability and applicability of his model, and has been found grievously wanting.

Victor Reppert said...

Jesse, I think there's an important point, and that is, "Who's the outsider?" Now, if we take the word "outsider" as meaning, well, someone who's not in fact committed to any particular revealed religion, then Lewis even when he had knelt and prayed, was an outsider, since he did not accept any special revelation at that time, and did not do so for a couple of years.

However, when Loftus actually describes the so-called "outsider," it is an outsider Loftus has created in his own image. For him to acknowledge that a person's religion has passed the OTF, there has to be evidence that at least ought to persuade someone like himself; someone who accepts a broadly scientistic epistemology, etc. But you can be an outsider without subscribing to Loftus's brand of scientism. So it's not an Outsider Test for Faith, it's the SLTF, the Satisfy Loftus (or Articulett, or Papalinton, etc. etc., etc.) test for faith. But if that's the case, why is faith unreasonable if it can't be proven to the satisfaction of its harshest critics? Why are they in the catbird seat, determining the rationality of all beliefs?

Jesse Parrish said...

I respond at Victor's latest post.