My Photo

The Out Campaign

Atheist Blogroll

Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 05/2005

« Humanist Symposium #10 | Main | Solipsism 101, Or, Why "What Is Reality?" Is Not An Argument Against Evolution, Or, Why Scott Adams Is An Idiot »


Mr Dorfl

I have to say I love the argument, because it's so obviously stupid. If anybody would ever say this to me I would just stare at him silently for 30 seconds and then just say "My vote is on Loony". :)


Another amazing post. ^^ I sometimes have trouble articulating just what to say in order to properly break down all those religious arguments, like this one or Pascals Wager, but it's a heck of a lot easier to read it in your plain language. I always avidly await your posts in my reader.


thank you

Louis Doench

Excellent job. I love your final point,"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 think this may be the crux of the entire "New Athiest" phenomenon. And I think most importantly, once it its stated in that fashion, I believe we can turn the emotionally manipulative knife around. You see, most of us are NOT assholes. (Ok Hitchens is an asshole, but I don't think he'll argue much about that). Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Athiest) isn't an Asshole. You're not an Asshole. I'm usually not an Asshole. How dare one try to imply that I'm an Asshole simply because I have a different opinion?

Have I typed Asshole enough?

On a side note, I guess I've been on the mistranslated side of things since I started reading "The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity" By Hyam Maccoby.

Mr Valdemar

Where exactly in the Gospels does Jesus explicitly claim to be the Lord God, anyway? I mean, if it's such a vital point you'd think he would have hammered it home. Just so nobody got the wrong idea...

Jane Know

Great article, as usual.

There is a huge Scientology building-thing in the middle of St. Louis. One time, I was jogging by it, and this man stopped me and asked me to come in. I, being ever curious and open to knowledge of our world's religions, went inside and had a talk with some of the people who ran the church (not sure what they are called).

I knew it was a sham when they told me the only way I could learn more about the religion and its philosophies was to pay such-and-such an amount per month for some videotapes and books.

Mr Dorfl

Mr Valdemar:

A quick google search found these places:
Mark 14:62, John 8:54-58, John 10:25-30
There may be more.


Great post. I love dissecting popular theist arguments. I started bookmarking good posts I find on blogs. I'm bookmarking nearly every post you make.


Minor point: I don't think that Jim Jones ever had "tens of thousands" of followers. Wikipedia, citing an article by John Hall, says that at its highest point, People's Temple membership was about three thousand.

Ah yes, the ol' trilemma -

This is a trap. By accepting the proposal only three possibilities, you pretty much lose the argument, since they will have preprepared arguments for the two options they don't want you to choose.

As you already note, there are gazillions of other possibilities...
- he was mistaken/deceived (he somehow had what he thought was evidence that he WAS God, but it was not actually true)
- he never *actually* existed
- he did exist but his true words are not correctly recorded
... and so on

Personally, my money is on "a little from column A, a little from column B" ...

- I think he did exist, but that we don't actually know what he really said, since the earliest copies of gospels we have are long after the fact, and (as Ehrman points out in his book Misquoting Jesus - ) there are more differences between versions of the bible than words in the bible - so much of what is recorded there cannot be relied on to be accurate.

- That if what is recorded (in most surviving versions) is even vaguely accurate, he was quite plainly a loony. I suspect the non-surviving versions tended to be worse.

- If we can believe the bible, then he did in plain fact lie (of course, the biblical apologists will have excuses for all of them, where they apparently "don't really" mean what they plainly do mean). If he lies about some things, he likely lies about others.

I find that one slightly less confronting than certain other theist ploys, but it's one of many that abuses the politeness of the listener to try to score cheap points.

The correct response is to steal the silverware on the way out the door.

Or, if you inexplicably feel like an argument with someone who is plainly a jerk, answer back with a trilemma of your own. If you don't have a good one to hand, try Epicurus' trilemma for a useful fallback:

"Ah! the trilemma! How quaint! Let me see... While I choose between lunatic and liar, try this one on for size:
- if God is willing but unable to prevent evil, he is weak.
- if God is able but not willing to prevent evil, he is evil.
- if God is willing and able to prevent evil, but chooses not to, then he's a cruel jerk.
So which is it? Weak, Evil or Jerk?"

Then come back with "hmm. I think maybe he was *both* a lunatic and a liar. But I think maybe you have him beat on 'asshole'."


If a little self-promotion is okay... :)

If you want to see an example of someone who is almost certainly nuts, yet still manages to attract a large and devoted following, consider Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda:

He claims, plausibly, that the church he founded has 100,000 followers and 300 congregations. At various times, he's claimed to be Paul, the "Other" who would pave the way for Jesus' second coming, Jesus himself, and lately, the Antichrist. None of his followers seem to be disconcerted by his steadily more bizarre revelations.


It's not terribly important, but you all might be interested to know that C. S. Lewis didn't invent this argument. I found a version of it in a letter by Charles Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll, to an agnostic (I think) friend. I doubt he invented either, but I haven't run across any earlier versions.

My own response is that even if Jesus believed he was a god (and I rather think he did), this doesn't mean he was crazy. Plenty of otherwise sane people have believed themselves to be gods, even within the Yahwist tradition. (The tendency to throw around accusations of insanity is not, of course, limited to religious believers. I'm increasingly annoyed by other atheists who claim that religious believers are mentally ill, or in Arthur Clarke's word "un-sane." Not because it's mean, but because it's stupid.)

I've never minded being offensive to the sensibilities of religious believers either, because religious believers have always been happy to say offensive things about the leaders, founders, and believers of competing cults. Look at the things Christians have said about Mohammed, for a well-known example. Or at the things liberal Christians say about "Bible-thumpers," or that fundamentalists say about liberals.


To my knowledge, Gautama Buddha never made any claims of divinity. He also said "don't believe what I say just because I say it, but only if your own reason tells you to." Buddhism is mostly non-theistic.

But you only need one counter-example, really...Mohammed does nicely.


Your arguments are very well reasoned. You have a talent for breaking things down to essentials so they may be countered on basic levels. I take heart from reading this blog and the comments.

Mr Dorfl

If we briefly touc not on the trilemma, but on what Jeses probably actually thought, then I'm of the opinion that he never thought or claimed that he was god or the son of God.

Jesus was probably a leader of one jewish sect, and probably was of the opinion that he was the person who really should be the head priest of the temple of jerusalem. This person, btw, would have been anointed. Ie a messiah. That's what it means.

Then comes Paulus, and joins the sect a couple of years after the crucifiction. He starts a fight with the sect leaders, the sect splits, he and Luke and some other goes to Rome, and starts their own religion which says "look, you don't HAVE to follow all those stupid rules, nono, just join us and giveh us teh moneh, and you'll go to heaven. Neat eh?


Some New Testament scholar, I can't remember which one now, once said that before about 150 CE you're dealing with Christian pre-history.

We just don't have much data to work with. The beauty of this is that you can make up just about any scenario for the career and motivations of Jesus and the earliest Christian leaders, and no one can really prove you wrong.

Bill Brent

"There's a mistaken assumption that being crazy makes you completely dysfunctional."

Yep. And this ruins people's lives.



My impression - maybe accurate, maybe not - was that the argument started as a counter to a specific mushy position, that Jesus was "a great man and very wise, but just a man".

As you point out, of course, you could argue that you don't believe the gospels, but I don't see any rational basis for calling him great or wise if you don't acknowledge *some* source of information about him. If he was misquoted, invented, etc., we have no information about whether he was great or wise.

So if you do believe he was great and wise, but just a man, you have to explain why he said the things he did, and that's where you run into the problem.

My impression from Lewis was not one of emotional manipulation, but one of "you can't play it halfway; either reject it entirely, or accept it entirely."

I won't deny that it *is* often used as a form of emotional manipulation today. Heck, it was probably emotionally manipulative in Lewis' day, too... I reckon few people felt comfortable saying "well, okay, I don't accept the gospels as having *any* value!" But I don't think that was Lewis' intent.


Woo, hoo! Another one out of the park! I read the part before the break, and immediately leaped in with "but it could just be some stuff that St. Paul made up, and following generations played broken telephone with." And then I read the rest, and... gee, you're not stupid, either. Thank you for that line; I think it'll be popular. "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."


LongHairedWeirdo, you make some good points. I think you're right: the purpose of the Trilemma is to counter the claim that Jesus was a great, good, wise man. As far as that is concerned, Lewis (or Dodgson and probably others before him) has a case. And I also think you're right: the argument *can* be used for emotional manipulation, but that wasn't Lewis's intent, and now that I think about it, I'm not sure why Greta Christina is so concerned about that possibility.

Suppose I construct a powerful argument against the existence of God, one that many theists find it difficult to answer. I think they'd react much as Greta Christina has: by blaming me for their discomfort. It's even odder that Greta Christina should feel this discomfort, since (as she says) the Trilemma isn't particularly compelling as a logical argument. So what's going on here? Is it possible that she feels a strong wish *not* to see Jesus negatively? I suspect so; I've encountered a lot of atheists who feel that way. I confess, it took me some time to get over that myself, just because in our culture hardly anyone see Jesus as a bad person. It's even harder than being an atheist, and it took me a while to develop the courage to do it.

(I've been trying to find a typescript I wrote about 20 years ago, of a book against Christianity. I spent a chapter on the Trilemma, and I want to see if I wrote in the same high dudgeon I've seen in this case. I don't think so, but so far I can't dig it up.)


I agree with Oolon Colluphid -- the Babel Fish pretty much wraps it up for "God".


Duncan, did you read her post thoroughly? She said the argument is *intended* (consciously or not) to make the other person uncomfortable. That's why it makes her uncomfortable.

It's on a par with a spouse trying to win all the arguments by saying that "Well, this is how I feel, and so you aren't being considerate of my feelings."

Of course people in our society tend to see Jesus positively. The image of him as a good man is constantly reinforced by society: in church, in depictions of him (on Christmas cards, for instance), and so on. And suggesting that he wasn't is virtually taboo in this country. Under those circumstances it's not surprising. Who in the US, for instance, isn't inclined to see George Washington as a good man, even though he was committed to slavery, and had other faults like the rest of us?


Greta, great article as always. I would have written the money quote differently, myself:

"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 not going to be a coward."

A little more subtle, a little more emphasis on the idea that you're not backing down because you refuse to be intimidated, rather than "well, if I can't be this then I'll be that".


Yes, Leon, I read that. I disagree that the discomfort is anything to get worked up about. As I said, if I constructed a powerful argument against the existence of God, I wouldn't be surprised if it made theists uncomfortable. Confronting positions that oppose our own generally makes people uncomfortable. Which is why so few people do it, whether in religion or any other domain. But attacking someone because their argument makes you uncomfortable is not a rational argument; rather it discredits the attacker.

Yeah, I know why people find it difficult to see Jesus as a negative figure. I just find it interesting that so many atheists, despite their claims to be liberated from religion, still find it difficult to do so. (And I don't exempt myself there -- I just have a head start on the young'ns.)

I give Greta Christina for actually trying to address the Trilemma, and her arguments on that score are pretty sound. But the discomfort is irrelevant.


Fair enough. But still, I think what Greta is upset about isn't that the argument makes people uncomfortable because it shakes up their worldview; it's that it's an unfair argument that dodges the question. Rather than "How could this all come about without a Maker?", it's an "Are you calling my God a liar?" type thing.

Again, it's like the "you're not being sensitive to my feelings" argument, instead of "I wish you didn't go out with your friends all the time" or "I want to buy new furniture because the stuff we have now is all beat up."


Wow, this is such a great post. Well reasoned and well said.

Paul Crowley

Nearly finished reading all of this blog now - fantastic stuff. I hadn't quite spotted what the emotional content of this argument was, I must watch for that in future; frankly, I thought that the only reason people didn't immediately see it for what it was was that they were hypnotized by the alliteration.

ian darling

Lewis,to be fair, makes this point in the context of making clear that Jesus Christ is not simply a Great Moral Teacher- you have to go the full hog. St Paul says that if Christ did not rise from the dead believers in him him are pitifully deluded.CS Lewis was a brilliant literary critic who certainly knew what he was doing and fully aware of how this tactic could disarm opponents.


OK, so a lot of people use this argument in a stupid way. And they are very confused. And they shouldn't do it.

Like Ian Darling, however, I want to point out that the argument was originally intended to counter people saying Jesus was a great guy who just told us all to love one another (as if, having rejected the gospels as a whole, they can know precisely which parts of the gospels to trust).

It's not an argument FOR Christianity, it's an argument against misunderstanding who Jesus thought he was. The person who uses his argument honestly should be perfectly prepared to accept that many people will choose "liar" or "lunatic". That's what this person is asking their audience to do, really - be honest about their beliefs instead of trying to be polite and consider the Christian's feelings.

But of course many Christians pick up this argument and hammer it home in exactly the way you are criticising, and for that I feel sorry.

Cactus Wren

I think that Lewis's formulation, specifically, is largely focused on emotional manipulation: it is based on the equally false dilemma that if every word attributed to Jesus is not to be accepted as True and Right and Good, then every word attributed to Jesus must be rejected as False and Wrong and Evil. Lewis doesn't say merely "a madman" or "a mentally ill person", he says "the man who thinks he is a poached egg". He doesn't say "If Jesus wasn't telling the truth, he was lying"; he says if Jesus wasn't telling the truth, he must have been "the Devil of Hell".

This is poison for the well -- and, I believe, intentional and deliberate poison. There's more to it even than "How can you accuse me of worshiping a liar or a lunatic?" -- I perceive a strong note of "What kind of horrible person are you, to say that 'love thy neighbor' is no more valid than 'I am a poached egg', or that 'Let the one without sin cast the first stone' is a statement from the Devil of Hell?"

The comments to this entry are closed.

Subscribe/ Donate to This Blog!

Books of mine

Greta on SSA Speakers Bureau

  • Greta Christina is on the Speakers Bureau of the Secular Students Alliance. Invite her to speak to your group!

Your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz

Powered by Rollyo

Some Favorite Posts and Conversations: Atheism

Some Favorite Posts and Conversations: Sex

Some Favorite Posts: Art, Politics, Other Stuff