Friday, December 5, 2008

Richard Dawkins on the Trilemma

From p. 92 of The God Delusion "There are still some people who are persuaded by scriptural evidence to believe in God. A common argument, attributed among others to C.S. Lewis ... states that, since Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he must have been either right or else insane of a liar: 'Mad, Bad or God'. Or, with artless alliteration, "Lunatic, Liar or Lord'.

Wrong already. Lewis doesn't use the argument as a theistic argument. It's an argument for Christ's divinity, or perhaps even less than that, an argument against a certain misunderstandings of who Jesus was.

The historical evidence that Jesus claimed any sort of divine status is minimal.

Supporting argument for this claim please?

But even if that evidence were good, the trilemma on offer would be ludicrously inadequate. A fourth possibility, almost too obvious to need mentioning, is that Jesus was honestly mistaken. Plenty of people are. In any case, as I said, there is no good historical evidence that he ever thought he was divine.

OK, so now we get the head-slap argument. There's a third option, he was sincerely mistaken! I never thought of that, therefore I disappear in a puff of logic! Let's see, if I were to tell my intoductory philosophy class that I was God almighty, they wouldn't call the men in the white coats to come and take me away. They'd just figure I was sincerely mistaken.

The fact that something is written down is persuasive to people not used to asking questions like" 'Who wrote it, and when?' 'How did they know what to write?' 'Did they, in their time, really mean what we, in our time, understand them to be saying?' 'Were they unbiased observers, or did they have an agenda that coloured their writing?' Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus' life. All were then copied and recopied, through many scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas."

This is how we settle the question of the reliability of the New Testament? An effective refutation of everyone from C. S. Lewis to William Lane Craig to Stephen Davis to N. T. Wright and Joachim Jeremias?? Many theologians and biblical scholars have studied the evidence and the arguments and concluded that the Scriptures are largely reliable.

Dawkins makes it sound like there is some kind of a consensus here. There is a consensus amongst those with Humean presuppositions. Big deal. Lewis himself was one of the leading literary critics of his time. He offered reasons, based on his reading of a lot of ancient literature, that the NT was, as ancient documents go, a reliable document. He could be very wrong, but he can't be refuted by the kind of hand-waving two-paragraph argument Dawkins offers.

Read the two Stephen Davis articles on the trilemma, and even the Howard-Snyder essay that is critical of Davis, and contrast it with this two-paragraph demolition by Dawkins, and ask yourself which of these two men has done his homework. It may be that although Lewis's argument was rhetorically stronger using this multiple choice format, I prefer changing to to a fill in the blank. Given what the Scriptures say that Jesus said an implied about himself, what could he have been if he wasn't God. It's one thing to mention a possibility, it's another to show that, on close examination, that alternative is plausible.

Ken Samples offers sevem alternatives: Man, Myth, Madman, Menace, Mystic, Martian or the Messiah. But hey, there could be still more. Bring them on! Fill in the blank.But then show me that, on close analysis the alternative is plausible, that it makes sense of the facts. The argument may be a bad one. But it can't be refuted on the cheap, without doing your homework.


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Anonymous said...

I mention another alternative to these in C. S. LEWIS AND PHILOSOPHY AS A WAY OF LIFE.

Anonymous said...

You said: "Many theologians and biblical scholars have studied the evidence and the arguments and concluded that the Scriptures are largely reliable.
Try reading Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus. I leave it to you to compare the qualifications of a "graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Professor Ehrman received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude" to a "leading literary critic" who's read "a lot of ancient literature". Regardless, "largely reliable" is not "100% reliable" which still supports Dawkin's point.

For me, Lewis' argument is not so much flawed, but disingenuous. He sets up a strawman argument with the only alternative to the unlikely BAD or MAD choices being LORD. The alternative that he leaves out is that the 2000+ year old book – one made up of stories written by human hands, whose composition was decided by humans, copied by humans, translated by humans, etc, etc – is wrong. (The same question of veracity could be made against ANY historical document.)

For me, what makes Lewis' promotion of this trilemma so damning is that it reeks of the same sanctimonious sermonizing that I see in [Dawkins, Limbaugh, Moore, etc]. His use of this pseudo-logic makes him wholly unreadable to me.

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