"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Are There No True Christians?

Edit: Join the Reddit discussion here!


Christian apologist Ray Comfort often claims that there are no true atheists. He seems to claim this simply because, as he would state it, no one could ever know for sure that there is no God. Therefore, he insists that all people who self identify as atheists are actually agnostics. And, further, that agnostics are "ignoramuses" who wish to avoid personal responsibility for their sins (from here):
The professing atheist is what is commonly known as an 'agnostic' - one who claims he 'doesn't know' if God exists. It is interesting to note that the Latin equivalent for the Greek word is 'ignoramus.' The Bible tells us that this ignorance is 'willful' (Psalm 10:4). It's not that a person can't find God, but that he won't. It has been rightly said that the 'atheist' can't find God for the same reason a thief can't find a policeman. He knows that if he admits that there is a God, he is admitting that he is ultimately responsible to Him. This is not a pleasant thought for some.
I'll leave it to others to discuss why Comfort is, at the very least, deeply question begging. However, I have recently worked out an argument for the proposition that there are no true Christians. I don't know if this argument really works, but I think it does raise a number of interesting questions.

Given how convenient and biased Comfort's position in the preceding appears to be, I want to note up front that the position I am presenting here may be seen as similarly too convenient. I would also like to state -- and will be explaining this again after I present my argument -- that none of what I will state disproves the claims of Christianity. Nor does this argument prove that there is no god or gods.

Having conceded these possibilities up front, let us continue on to consider what I think to be a persuasive argument that no one actually believes the central doctrines of Christianity.

Consider the proposition:

p: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

p is Noam Chomsky's famous example of a sentence which is grammatically correct but totally devoid of semantic content. p cannot be parsed; it simply doesn't mean anything at all. In fact, p was purposely constructed in order to mean nothing at all. We can generate many other examples of statements, or groups of statements, which are equally devoid of semantic content. Lewis Carrol's poem Jabberwocky is another familiar example of a collection of statements that were produced simply for the sake of producing non-sense.

Now let's ask another question -- can a person believe that p?

In order to try to answer that question, try to imagine what it would mean to believe that p. Can you think of any possible defences, even bad ones, for believing that colorless green ideas sleep furiously? Can you think of any possible defences, even bad ones, for believing that colorless green ideas don't sleep furiously? Can you explain to someone what this sentence means or what implications it may or may not have? Can you take it apart and identify for me what the objects in question are (for example, what in the world is a colorless green idea?)

Of course, the intuition being built here is that p cannot be believed. If we don't know what p even means, we cannot state whether or not we believe p. But that's the point of p obviously lacking semantic content; p could not be thought to be either true or false because no one knows what they would be affirming or disaffirming.

Now let's consider another set of statements from Baptist minister John Piper:

T: "(1) The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct Persons, (2) each Person is fully God, (3) there is only one God."

T is a description of the doctrine of the Trinity, a core doctrine of nearly every branch of Christianity. Most Christians would go so far as to claim that to deny T is to deny any form of Christianity whatsoever. For our purposes, I will be assuming that this is true. In passing, I will note briefly that many Unitarians deny T but still describe themselves as Christians. Similarly, many early forms of Christianity would have denied T as well. But all mainstream Christian sects claim to affirm T and most consider T to be what distinguishes Christianity from other religions.

Now, we can ask a similar question: Can someone actually believe T?

The first thing to notice is that T directly involves a kind of logical contradiction. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all claimed to be "fully God". In fact, the Athanasian Creed would state that this as a matter of logical identity (source):
...the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not Three Gods, but One God.
Certainly, if we were to parse T into First Order Logic, we'd find that T is necessarily false. But maybe that's naive; perhaps we should not expect to be able to translate core Christian doctrines into any particular kind of formal system. Or maybe Christianity requires paraconsistent logic. Very well.

We can still ask if anyone really believes that T.

What on Earth could it possibly mean to believe that T? Christian theology turns out not to be any kind of help at all on resolving this issue. There have been a tremendous number of different interpretations or explanations of the triune doctrine over the course of Christian history, but essentially all of these interpretations or explanations have been declared as "heresies".

One could believe, for example, that God is composed of three parts and that those three parts are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But that's a long rejected heretical doctrine known as Modalism or Sabellianism (or possibly Partialism.) Maybe you think that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct beings who share the same substance (whatever that might mean); but this is the Tritheist heresy. Or maybe you think this issue can simply be solved by an analogy -- that water can be either liquid, solid, or vapor; but it's not clear how this analogy avoids any of the heretical "missteps" or, if it does, what explanatory power it actually has.

In fact, I have seen it claimed that, "Augustine once quipped that to not think about the Trinity is to risk heresy, but to think about the Trinity is to risk lunacy" (from here -- I was unfortunately unable to track down the original source for this claim.)

Theologians are only even more intimately aware of this issue. It is their profession, after all, to make sense of Christian doctrines and to explicate them in terms of technical verbiage. However, instead of even attempting to explain what T actually means, most theologians have simply chosen to declare it to be beyond the understanding of human beings. The Trinity is often called the "Central Mystery of the Christian Faith". The Catholic Catechism describes the situation thusly:
The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the 'hierarchy of the truths of faith'.
This is a vital point and is explained in the Catholic Encyclopedia:
The Vatican Council has explained the meaning to be attributed to the term mystery in theology. It lays down that a mystery is a truth which we are not merely incapable of discovering apart from Divine Revelation, but which, even when revealed, remains 'hidden by the veil of faith and enveloped, so to speak, by a kind of darkness' (Constitution, 'De fide. cath.', iv). In other words, our understanding of it remains only partial, even after we have accepted it as part of the Divine message. Through analogies and types we can form a representative concept expressive of what is revealed, but we cannot attain that fuller knowledge which supposes that the various elements of the concept are clearly grasped and their reciprocal compatibility manifest. As regards the vindication of a mystery, the office of the natural reason is solely to show that it contains no intrinsic impossibility, that any objection urged against it on Reason. 'Expressions such as these are undoubtedly the score that it violates the laws of thought is invalid. More than this it cannot do.

The Vatican Council further defined that the Christian Faith contains mysteries strictly so called (can. 4). All theologians admit that the doctrine of the Trinity is of the number of these. Indeed, of all revealed truths this is the most impenetrable to reason. Hence, to declare this to be no mystery would be a virtual denial of the canon in question. Moreover, our Lord's words, Matthew 11:27, 'No one knoweth the Son, but the Father,' seem to declare expressly that the plurality of Persons in the Godhead is a truth entirely beyond the scope of any created intellect. The Fathers supply many passages in which the incomprehensibility of the Divine Nature is affirmed. St. Jerome says, in a well-known phrase: 'The true profession of the mystery of the Trinity is to own that we do not comprehend it' (De mysterio Trinitatus recta confessio est ignoratio scientiae — 'Proem ad 1. xviii in Isai.'). The controversy with the Eunomians, who declared that the Divine Essence was fully expressed in the absolutely simple notion of 'the Innascible' (agennetos), and that this was fully comprehensible by the human mind, led many of the Greek Fathers to insist on the incomprehensibility of the Divine Nature, more especially in regard to the internal processions. St. Basil, Against Eunomius I.14; St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures VI; St. John Damascene, Of the Orthodox Faith I.2, etc.).
Notice that by the lights of their own ontology, human beings, as "created beings", cannot comprehend the meaning of T. And, thus, even assuming that Christianity is true in some well defined way, T cannot be understood, let alone believed. The status of T should really be the same as the status of p; as far as we can tell, T is indistinguishable from non-sense. It is, therefore, neither true nor false. It's utterance is indistinct from ever so much noise.

There is an excellent objection that should be considered. One of the points which Quine argued persuasively in his Two Doctrines of Empiricism was that, given a sufficiently complex web of beliefs, one could believe both x and not-x at the same time. Moreover, if we should be realists about our best scientific theories, then, minimally, we should provisionally believe both quantum mechanics and general relativity in spite of the fact that these are mutually inconsistent.

One might be persuaded on this basis to think that one could believe a logical contradiction.

More explicitly, it seems reasonable to think something like the following about an individual (call him/her "Sam"):

1. Sam believes x.
2. Sam believes y.
3. If (1) & (2) then Sam believes "x and y".
4. Therefore, Sam believes "x and y".

Replacing y with not-x in the former tells us that Sam believes "x and not-x". Given our example of General Relativity and quantum mechanics, it seems like there are a whole host of provisionally believed logical contradictions any scientific realist would be forced to believe (since both GR and QM have implications that contradict each other.)

If the incoherence of T were claimed merely on the basis of T being logically contradictory, then the preceding objection might be able to save Christianity. But it's worse than that. Christians themselves claim that they do not know what T means. They may believe that they believe that T, but that would be distinct from believing that T. Instead, it would appear that they are merely declaring a statement to be true simply because of the importance that affirmation has in their communities and within the context of their tradition but without actually parsing its content.

In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett theorised about "belief-in-belief"; that people may publicly claim to believe something merely because they think they should (or because of possible social repercussions of they do not.) However, I would go a step further than this in the discussion here. Someone could believe that they believe a proposition without ever believing that proposition; they could suffer under the illusion that they believe the proposition in question when they never really did.

I promised earlier that I would explain why none of this implied the falsehood of Christianity. Let's consider another statement:

B: "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo."

B might not appear to be a statement at all. It's difficult to parse and it consists solely of eight iterations of the word "buffalo". Yet B is the so-called Buffalo Sentence and is perfectly understandable, provided that you put in a little bit of effort into parsing its content. B simply relies on the fact that "buffalo" has sufficiently diverse meanings that it can play several distinct grammatical roles (as both a noun, a verb, and an adjective, for example.)

T might be like this. It could really be the case that T is true. However, notice that B cannot be affirmed or denied until we can parse out its content. Similarly, unless and until we can properly parse T, no one could believe T regardless of effort.

There are similar arguments that one could make about the semantic content of other religious claims. For example, Stephen Law claims in the introductory portion of Believing Bullshit that a non-temporal intelligent agency is as incoherent as a non-spatial mountain (i.e. just as mountains require space to count as mountains, intelligent agents require temporal relations to really count as intelligent agents. If true, the idea of a mind -- like God's -- existing outside of space-time is just non-sense.)

As another example, Princess Elizabeth famously wrote to Descartes that his material dualism (Descartes' explanation of the soul) was basically incoherent and inconsistent with his physics.

I think these semantic worries are serious challenges and that, if they cannot be sufficiently countered, present the same difficulties for the possibility of Christian belief as the argument I presented here. However, belief in T is so central to Christian theology that, if the worries I raise here cannot be resolved, then those who self identify as Christians are suffering from a grave misapprehension about themselves; it would mean there are no true Christians.


  1. Nicely done, Dan & though it mirrors Comfort's argument, yours is intellectually honest & honestly inquisitive.

  2. I have had a discussion about this recently. Most atheists describe themselves as agnostic atheists as they do not know for a fact that god(s) do not exist. Most theists who do not have proof that their god(s) exist could also rightly be called agnostic theists. So a case could be made that every human is an agnostic of some sort. Not a position I agree with, but one that could be argued. So theists take the term agnostic to mean that atheists do not deny the existence of God. By their logic, if one does not deny the existence of God, then one admits it. Therefore, they conclude, atheists do not exist. They confuse (intentionally or otherwise) the two concepts; "I personally do not know if God exists" and "it is not possible for anyone to know if God exists". This is one of the reasons I am so reticent to use the term agnostic atheist.

    I think I would be closer to being a gnostic atheist than an agnostic atheist. I dislike the term agnostic. The definition of agnostic can vary depending on who is using it. Also agnostic is also used by itself instead of as a qualifier for theist or atheist, to describe a level of belief. Language to describe an atheist is imprecise. For example in the OED and atheist is "a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods". So a person who says "I do not believe in god(s)" and "I do not believe that god(s) exist(s)" are described by the same definition. I cannot help but feel that these 2 positions are -not- in fact the same.

    Also the way agnostic is generally used implies something about how the world works. Agnostic is commonly used to describe the idea that god(s) may exist but it is or may be unknowable. I take a contrary position that in the absence of any evidence to the contrary the decision must be made that god(s) do/does not exist.

    The main problem with these descriptions is that language cannot always accurately convey an idea accurately. One can stating ones belief in terms that are correct according to the dictionary and the conventions used by scholars and experts in a subject. However when speaking to people in general, this vocabulary can express another idea to the listener and lead to not communicating the actual belief correctly. This difference between the correct meaning of words and how they are actually used is certainly a large barrier in discussing theism and atheism. It would be necessary to begin every conversation by defining all the terms to be used.

    I have been examining Ignosticism to see if this is a description that more accurately communicates my position. I would probably use the term Ignostic when discussing with other atheists and gnostic atheist when addressing people in general. Not because I have flip-flopping beliefs, but in order to more accurately communicate an idea.

    The other problem is the starting point. People spent a lot of time dissecting belief and levels of certainty of belief. What they do not do before hand is define, "What is God"? God is a concept that can mean hundreds of different things. Unless this starting point can be clearly defined, it is of no use to start down the path to describe ones belief or lack thereof regarding this concept.

  3. .Interesting. I think you're (obviously) right to point out that T is contradictory: we need not even put it in formal logic to see that. (I'm surprised that calling the 3 "Persons" is what is endorsed.) That alone suggests that one cannot rationally believe T, and depending on what our conception of society is, T-believers should be excluded from public discourse...at least, this is what someone like Rawls would say.
    But T-defenders seem to embrace openly that their belief breaks rules of rationality and go to the mystery claim. Yet your criticism of this seems a bit unfair: the defenses you give don't suggest that we have NO understanding of T (so not the same as with P), but that our understanding is "partial" and not "clearly grasped". This doesn't suggest an admission of meaninglessness to me. That the concepts are not clearly grasped does not suggest meaninglessness--we have lots of vague, nebulous concepts where our understanding could be described as partial or unclear--but that it is contradictory DOES. What meaning does a contradiction have in any form? "It is raining and not raining"-- I suppose there may be an account of meaning that could say such a contradiction has meaning, but I'm not aware of one. If T-defenders are going to reject logic and standard reason, they need to give a sufficient and alternative theory of meaning to explain their defense, and it would seem they haven't done so. It seems doubtful that they can expect to make room for T and keep everything else (e.g., the account of what it is for something to MEAN something and for us to be able to UNDERSTAND something) the same as "standard" (loosely speaking... I'm getting lazy because I'm writing this on a cell phone...)
    i think what they say is nonsense because they appear to be speaking a different language, and yet they do not make that clear and so they are mashing various concepts together. Perhaps I'm too embedded in analytic philosophy, but I can't separate the theories of meaning with which I'm familiar from the logic T-defenders have openly abandoned. I have two other things but they shall have to wait...

    1. Perhaps the best response for me to give would be to just cite the contradiction. But then I'm worried about something like the following...

      If Sam believes x, then one might think that Sam has committed himself to believing all of the implications of x. So, if a scientific realist provisionally accepts belief in both General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, they should provisionally believe all of the implications of both. But since GR and QM are not compatible with each other, one could end up believing a contradiction (if a contradiction is implied by GR+QM.)

      Or, for example, there is Quine's argument from his 2 Dogmas paper. Given a sufficiently complex web of beliefs, one can sort of accidentally end up believing a contradiction (or, at the very least, believing two propositions which contradict each other.)

      So, it seems that one might be capable of believing contradictions (at least provisionally) and sometimes for good reasons (in particular, the GR+QM case.)

      The only way around this would seem to be to deny that believing x involves *also* believing all of the implications of x. But I'm not sure I'm satisfied with that either...

    2. I don't know enough about GR + QM to really comment on that... but are they necessarily contradictory or is it just that the details of QM have not been thoroughly worked out yet? We've used conflicting theories before without believing contradictions, for pragmatic reasons (I'm thinking of the use of Newton's laws). Because in the case of T, there is no getting around the contradiction... it is necessarily contradictory.

      If you want to maintain the ability to believe a contradiction and be rational, then you have a problem, because unlike what you claim, the T-defenders DON'T say they have absolutely no comprehension of that which they believe: it's not nonsense along the lines of piggly wiggle tiggle. You would have to somehow argue that some contradictions are ok to believe and some are not-- I'm not sure how one would go about doing that.

      One of my other points that I didn't mention last night is that Stephen Law (or you describing Law's position) doesn't give a justification for his posit that intelligent agents must be temporally bound-- why? Sure, he can posit that and say that it's incoherent to say otherwise, but that's not a good argument. I can posit the same thing on the other side, should I want to.

      My 3rd point dissolved, and I actually decided I agreed with you on it. I hope you glean some enjoyment from that!

    3. The conflict between GR+QM is deeply technical, and, as far as I understand it, really involves a conflict between conjunctions of those theories and experimental observations; i.e. GR and QM are independently strongly confirmed in their relevant domains of inquiry, but (at least naive) conjunctions of the two produce results are strongly disconfirmed by empirical observations (many ways of cashing out that conjunction imply the non-existence of time, for example.)

      However, there are some caveats dealing with the GR+QM case that should be addressed (and that *do* appear to make a difference here.) These are:

      1. GR and QM are both only provisionally accepted. Even scientific realists don't think of them as absolute truth.
      2. One might say that we only accept GR or QM in their relevant domains of inquiry. We don't expect either to work, or to even be true, in other domains. The conflicts between these two theories work in particularly exotic locations that are presumably outside of their proper domains and where we expect to find a new theory (at black holes, for example.) In fact, the conflict is seen as indicative that a new theory is needed.

      Strongly theological claims, like T, are not like (1) and (2). Explicitly, they are believed (by Christians) to be absolute truths and are not provisionally accepted. We can either see the idea of "domain of inquiry" as irrelevant or generalise it to some metaphysical claim (i.e. the domain of inquiry is all of Existence.) Christians do not believe T will eventually be replaced, precisely because T is believed to have been arrived at by divine revelation as opposed to induction.

      So while the scientist can partition off conflicts between our best scientific theories by claiming that these problems will eventually be resolved by some future scientific theory, T-defenders cannot do this.

    4. So, yeah, there are definitely some intriguing issues to be cashed out here concerning when its okay to have contradictions in our beliefs and what role they might play. I should also note, in passing, that some logicians have developed paraconsistent logics, which allow one to express contradictions without being explosive (in the technical sense.) This is basically just a generalisation of the notion of logical consistency, but it's worth mentioning because presumably someone out there has produced semantics for paraconsistent logics. However, I'm not well versed enough in that subject to really know what that would entail.

      As far as Law's argument, he describes this in more detail in "Believing Bullshit". He does actually give justification for the claim that intelligent agents are temporally bound (but you may not find it convincing, which is a different matter.)

      Intelligent agents, as we most commonly understand them, make decisions, have volition and wills, think various thoughts, and do things at particular times. These are all temporal notions and (arguably) are required for our understanding of what it means to be an intelligent agent with a mind (at least one that *does* anything.) In the case of the Christian God, He needs to decide to provide a savior for humanity at a particular time in human development, to flood the Earth after becoming angry about antediluvian peoples, to cast people out of the Garden after they disobey His will, etc. And the Bible is replete with God becoming angry and having other dispositional states that involve responses to human actions at particular times and places.

      Law compares this to mountains, which have particular kinds of spatial relationships implicit in their definition. He does state that we can use the word "mountain" to metaphorically describe some things which lack spatial relations (a mountain of guilt, for example) but then we're not really talking about mountains at all.

      A theist might be able to overcome Law's objection by stating that they're not really talking about an intelligent agent at all. There is actually a school of theology called Apophaticism which could (conceivably) take this avenue. According to Apophaticists, it's idolatrous to ascribe any properties whatsoever to God; cryptically, some have even claimed that conferring existence to God is idolatrous (Denys Turner is an example.) I could very easily see someone in that tradition claiming that God is not an intelligent agent at all.

      Karen Armstrong (who I don't think is an apophaticist) already writes that, "God is not a being at all."

      Daniel Dennett has pointed out that these kinds of cryptic gesticulations are common in sophisticated theology, but one wonders whether or not they are simply wilful obfuscation and obscurantism.

      Regardless of whether some skilled theologian can save theism through some high brow argument, the more relevant point for the discussion here is whether or not lay members of Christian communities believe those kind of sophisticated responses (even if they can't articulate them) or if they have some other picture in their minds.

      Given the high level of education that sophisticated theology requires as well as my anecdotal experience of talking to Christians, I would actually claim that most lay Christians do think of God as an intelligent agent who does act in time. For example, when Pat Robertson claimed on the 700 Club that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for America's abortion policy, this can only be rendered coherent (as far as I can tell) by stating:

      3. human beings have the ability to act of their own volition;
      4. After human beings act (by doing things like making abortion policies), God can (and sometimes does) respond.

      Similar claims could be made about prayer.

    5. Erm, Denys Turner is an example of an apophaticist. I don't know if he would ascribe the "property" of existence to God (provided that existence is a predicate..... Sorry Kant!)

    6. But if we accept dialetheism, the overall argument starts to fall through. Your main points are 1) a reductio of T, and 2) that even T-defenders admit that T is incomprehensible. But if we accept dialetheism, we can't use the method of reductio, so now 1) is out, and as I pointed out before, 2) is out as well.

      One could rejoinder that one still can't believe T, but that would put very strict requirements on belief; essentially you'd have to argue that we can't believe something we don't fully comprehend.

      Unless I missed something.