I hate this argument.
It's the "Liar, Loony, or Lord" argument for why Jesus Christ must, in fact, be the divine son of God. It's been cited by many Christian apologeticists (apologists?), most famously C.S. Lewis. It's worded somewhat differently by different people, but it goes more or less like this:
Jesus Christ claimed to be the divine son of God, who everyone has to believe in if they expect to be saved. Anyone who would make that claim would have to be either crazy, a liar, or actually be God. But Jesus can't have been crazy or a liar. Because...
...and right around here is where the argument starts to break down. But it usually goes something like this: Because he was so cool. Because he said so many wise things. Because many people who saw him at the time believed he was God. (I've actually seen it argued that Jesus had to have been God, because his Apostles wouldn't have sacrificed their lives for him otherwise... as if nobody ever sacrificed their lives for liars or whackos.) Because he inspired so many people. Because he founded a major world religion. Because he just couldn't have been.
That's the "Liar, Loony, or Lord" argument.
It's that it's such an emotionally manipulative argument. It's an argument meant to make people who argue with you feel like mean, bad people if they keep arguing. It's an argument designed to prevent further argument.
But let's talk about the logical holes first.
First: There are, in fact, plenty of options for Jesus other than "Liar, Loony or Lord." He could have been misquoted. He could have been mistranslated. He could have not existed at all; he could have been a composite messiah, patched together from several different messianic figures (messianic figures being thick on the ground in that time and place), and from the wishful thinking of thousands of people who were eager, to say the least, to believe in a Messiah.
And as Richard Dawkins and others have pointed out, he could simply have been mistaken. (Although... well, more on that in a moment.)
Plus, of course, the "Liar, Loony, or Lord" argument could be applied to any founder of any religion who made claims of divinity. What about Buddha -- liar, loony, or lord? And what about prophets like Muhammad or Zoroaster or the Old Testament prophets? They didn't say they were God, but they said they talked to God, and you could make the "liar, loony, or true prophet who actually talks to God" argument just as easily as the "liar, loony, or lord" argument.
Now, if the "L, L, or L" argument were true, it would be impossible for a loony or a liar to found any major religion.
But then were all the major religions founded by actual Gods, or by people who actually talked to God?
Even the ones that completely contradict each other?
So those are some of the biggest logical holes in the "Liar, Loony, or Lord" argument. But again, my most serious problem with the argument isn't logical.
It's emotional. Psychological. Rhetorical, if you prefer.
It's that "Liar, Loony, or Lord" is such an unbelievably emotionally manipulative argument.
The essence of the argument is this: If you say my religion isn't true, you're insulting me. You're calling the founder of my religion a loony or a liar. He's the inspiration for my life, the foundation of my moral code, the core of my life's meaning. Are you calling him a loony? Are you calling him a liar? So are you calling me crazy or deluded for following him? And what about all the other millions of people who believe that Jesus is lord -- are you saying they're all crazy or deluded? What a terrible thing to say! How can you say that?
The heart of the argument isn't its logic. The heart of the argument is that it makes people feel bad about wanting to argue at all. The heart of the argument is that it forces your opponent to be inflammatory, even if they're trying to be respectful and fair. The heart of the argument is that it turns your opponent into a cruel, insulting, blasphemous outsider, even before the argument begins. The heart of the argument is that it deflects argument before it can even begin.
Which brings me to my final logical objection to the "Liar, Loony, or Lord" argument:
Why, exactly, are "liar" and "loony" off the table?
It is simply, flat-out, not the case that a crazy person or a fraud could not start a religion. They've done so. Sizable, powerful ones.
For a "crazy person" counter-example, I give you Jim Jones, founder of the People's Temple. A very crazy person indeed -- who had tens of thousands of followers, many high-level political connections, and quite a bit of cultural and political clout, before the big Kool-Aid meltdown.
And for a "fraud" counter-example, I give you L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. Who actually said, in words, that he'd like to start a religion because that's where the money is -- before he started his religion. (And if you think his religion isn't big, I suggest you spend a little time in Los Angeles.)
There's a mistaken assumption that being crazy makes you completely dysfunctional. That being crazy means raving and screaming and foaming at the mouth; that crazy people think they're Napoleon and have to live in padded cells. It's just not true. As anyone who works with mentally ill people will tell you, crazy people can appear very rational and sane for long stretches. In some cases, they're generally functional and together in most areas of their life, and simply have one very crazy region of their mental landscape (what's called a "single fixed delusion"). And depending on the mental illness, they can be unusually charming and charismatic.
There's no reason a crazy person couldn't start a religion. In fact, they might be an excellent candidate for it. They can, again, be unusually charming and charismatic, and their craziness could easily make them seem divinely inspired. (That would have been especially true in Jesus's time, before mental illness was understood.)
And to assume that a liar couldn't possibly inspire people, speak wisdom, and gather followers is just goofy. A cursory study of political history should convince you otherwise. Look at, oh, say, Bill Clinton.
A good liar is an excellent candidate for founding a religion. Good liars know how to fill people's expectations; how to allay suspicion and deflect criticism back onto their critics; how far they can stretch the truth. And above all else, they know what people want to hear... and how to tell it to them in a way that they'll believe.
So I don't think it's unreasonable to hypothesize that Jesus was crazy.
And I don't think it's unreasonable to hypothesize that Jesus was a liar.
But again, liar and loony aren't off the table because they're logically impossible. Liar and loony are off the table because they're seen as insulting. It's the "Saying my religion is false hurts my feelings, therefore my religion is true" argument.
(This is, in fact, my problem with Dawkins's "he could have been mistaken" argument. I'm not sure that thinking you're God could be classified as just a mistake. It's not like mistakenly thinking your keys are in your pocket, or mistakenly thinking the Cubs will win the World Series. I'm not sure you can mistakenly think you're God without being at least a little crazy. In fact, I think most mental health professionals would consider "thinking you're God" to be actually diagnostic of mental illness. I think the "he could simply have been mistaken" argument is one of those rare occasions when Dawkins was trying too hard to be nice and diplomatic. It actually points up the emotionally manipulative power of "Liar, Loony, or Lord" -- even the hardest-core confrontational atheists find it hard to say, "Okay, I'm going with loony.")
And in many periods of history, and in many places even today, "liar" and "loony" have been off the table because they're actually dangerous things to say. They're things that could get you fired, get you ostracized, get you imprisoned, get you killed. Which makes "Liar, Loony, or Lord" even more fucked-up rhetorically. Putting your opponent in the position of either agreeing with you or making themselves an outcast -- not so nice.
But in a weird way, I think the rhetorical weakness of the "Liar, Loony or Lord" argument is also its unintended strength. Because for all its logical shoddiness and cheap emotional manipulation, it forces non-believers to piss or get off the pot. It forces people who were waffling to be outspoken. It forces people who were being vague to be clear.
It forces us to say, "Yes, I think your God was not God. And if your God thought he was God, then he was wrong. He was crazy, or he was a liar, or he was misquoted and never actually said that he was God, or he never really existed. You want me to say that -- fine. I'll say it."
And I think that's a lot of what's happening in the current atheist movement. For years, we've been in the position where we've either had to shut up and go along with the religion stuff, or speak up about it and be considered assholes. And we've finally had enough. We are finally willing to say, "I didn't want to be an asshole about this, but if you're going to put me in the position where I have to be either a coward or an asshole, then I'm going to be an asshole."
I'm pretty sure that's not what C.S. Lewis intended.
But that's what he got.