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.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.
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.).
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.