Encore #8: Perhaps not the strongest argument ever?

For some reason that now escapes me, I found myself in early 2008 reading An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Michael Murray and Michael Rea (published by CUP in the same wide-ranging series as my Gödel book). I can’t say that I much rated the book. Partly that’s because it seemed to have little to do with the religion of most ordinary church-goers; and partly because many of the arguments seemed dreadful, to use a technical term. I was particular entranced by this one:

Philosophy of Religion 4: Lord, Liar, Lunatic (March 30, 2008)

Pp. 75–80 of the Murray/Rea Introduction contain a rather extraordinary episode which I can’t forbear from commenting on.

They consider the following argument — they call it the “Lord-Liar-Lunatic” argument — for believing the Jesus of Nazereth was divine. Jesus claimed to be divine. The claim is either true or false. If the latter, either Jesus knew it was false, and was a liar. “On the other hand, if he unwittingly falsely claimed to be divine, then he was crazy.” But

the influence of Jesus’s teaching … has been enormous. Literally millions of people have found peace, sanity and virtue in orienting their lives round his teachings. … All of these facts together make it seem very likely that Jesus was neither so wicked and egomaniacal as to try deliberately to deceive others into thinking that he was divine, nor so mentally unbalanced as to be fundamentally confused about his own origin, powers and identity. If Jesus was not a liar or a lunatic … then there is only one alternative left: his claim to divinity was true.

Which really is a quite jaw-droppingly awful argument. Suppose we grant that Jesus claimed himself to be fully divine (I thought that was actually contended by some biblical scholars, but let it pass). And suppose he did so fully sincerely even though he wasn’t divine. Then he was indeed badly deluded. But what on earth is the problem with that? History is full of people suffering from some “crazy” delusions yet functioning very successful in other domains of life.

Murray and Rea assume that you can’t be so badly off beam as to believe yourself divine when you aren’t and still count as fully sane: it isn’t, they argue, the sort of thing you can make a straight mistake about, at least if “divine” is used in the “perfect being” sense. OK: let’s agree with Murray and Rea: if Jesus was not divine, but believed he was, then he was not fully “sane”. But — to repeat — of course delusions of various kinds are entirely compatible with functioning successfully in all sorts of ways: being a great painter or architect, say, or being a great mathematician or chess player, surely. And why not be being an inspirational moral teacher? Bad cognitive mulfunction in one area is compatible with managing spectacularly well in other areas: indeed (who knows?) it could even contribute to the successes.

Imagine a world of many messianic preachers, some indeed deluded as to their own divinity (well, there’s been a fair bit of it around over the centuries — it’s a mental virus that can infect people, it seems). Most preach a variety of messages that fall on stony ground. Some preach messages that “catch on” temporarily, but in a quite horribly destructive way. But  let’s suppose that, picking up on ideas already in the air, one charismatically preaches in a way that strikes a chord with his contemporary listeners; the message is taken up, embroidered, mixed in with other themes his followers, and propagated; and this time, let’s suppose “millions of people [find] peace, sanity and virtue in orienting their lives round [these precipitations of] his teachings”. But the fact that one such preacher happens to initiate a benignly propagating message [if that’s what we think Christianity is — of course, that’s the subject of a different argument!] isn’t any evidence at all that the originator’s pretensions to be divine are any less deluded that those of his less successful colleagues. Given enough different shots at it, and given  our apparent human propensities to be caught up by religious ideas, some deluded preachers were more or less bound to strike lucky.

Murray and Rea write that “the Lord-Liar-Lunatic argument seems to us … to be stronger than some contemporary critics have given it credit for being”. I do find that an astonishing thing to say. The argument is quite transparently hopeless.

And it still strikes me as transparently hopeless despite some of the comments the original posting received!

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