One of the most helpful techniques for spiritual insight is John Loftus’ “Outsider Test for Faith” explained in his book by that name. Loftus is an ex-pastor who encourages Christians to examine their own faith by the same standards that they would judge other faiths. In other words, evaluate your beliefs as if you were an outsider to your religion.
This is the test in his own words: “The only way to rationally test one’s culturally adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider, a nonbeliever, with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject. This expresses the Outsider Test for Faith.” He describes it as a variation on the Golden Rule: "Do unto your own faith what you would do to other faiths.”
This simple exercise opened my eyes. It was relatively easy for me to do intellectually, but very difficult for me to process emotionally. For much of my Christian ministry I have been a Christian apologist. I have debated Muslims, Buddhists, and Baha’is on live radio. I gave lectures and taught classes examining Mormonism, Transcendental Meditation, Scientology, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I found it easy to identify the inconsistencies and fallacies of these belief systems.
But when it came to my own faith, it was a different matter. Christianity made perfect sense to me. Virgin births, people rising from the dead, axe heads floating, apostles walking on water, the sun standing still, talking animals – they all were completely believable. I was blessed with having the one truth faith!
Then I applied the “outsider test for faith” to my Christianity. I stepped out of my worldview and viewed my own religion from the outside. I mentally put myself in the positon of a non-Christian. I wanted to see what I would think of Christianity if I were not predisposed to accept it as God’s revealed truth.
I looked at Christianity as if I was a Muslim or Jew. I looked at Evangelical Christianity as if I were a Mormon or a Buddhist. I looked at the Bible as if it were no more inspired than any other ancient book. I looked at the New Testament as if I believed the Quran were infallible. I looked at Christian doctrines like the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Second Coming as if I were a Taoist or Humanist.
When I looked at my faith as an outsider, what I saw made me very nervous. I was tempted to shut down the whole thought experiment. When viewed objectively Christianity does not look any more credible than any other religion. In fact when viewed from the outside, all religions look rather silly. I found myself laughing aloud at this new perspective. I suddenly understood why atheists think and speak the way they do.
This doesn’t mean that I no longer hold Christianity to be true. It means that now I realize that I better have very good reasons for believing Christianity is true. I better have more credible reasons for believing that the apostle Paul received the gospel as a revelation directly from the risen Christ (Galatians 1:12) than that Muhammad received the Quran in a cave on Mount Hira, or that Joseph Smith discovered Golden Plates on the Hill Cumorah in upstate New York. Try this test for yourself and see what happens.
(This article is adapted from my new book, “Thank God for Atheists: What Christians Can Learn from the New Atheism” available on Amazon)