An Atheist Reads Mere Christianity
Book One: Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe
Chapter 1: The Law of Human Nature
- Lewis establishes the existence and use of moral standards by referring to the way people talk when they are arguing. They don’t merely complain that a person’s behavior is offensive to them personally; they appeal to a standard of behavior. Taking something that belongs to someone else without permission is not merely inconvenient for the person who has been stolen from — it is wrong.
- Humans, unlike animals, quarrel. And to quarrel is to attempt to show the other person that they are wrong and you are right, which means that there must be a mutually agreed-upon definition of what “right” and “wrong” mean.
- Unlike physical or chemical laws, Lewis says, humans are free to choose whether or not they wish to obey the law of human nature that tells us what right and wrong are.
- Aside from the odd individual here and there who lacks a sense of right and wrong, or whose definitions vary drastically from the consensus, humanity as a whole seems to agree on what constitutes decent behavior, and what is unacceptable. Lewis cites the Nazis as an example, asking how we could condemn and oppose them if there was not a standard of Right of which everyone could agree they had fallen short.
- Lewis also points out that these standards have been shared by societies all over the world and throughout history. There have been cultural differences, to be sure, but nothing like what Lewis describes as “a total difference.”
- Even those who say they don’t believe in a real Right and Wrong demonstrate that they do actually believe in such things — a promise-breaker will still complain if a promise made to him is broken, for instance. How can one complain about lack of fairness if there is no mutually agreed upon standard of fairness?
- So we all seem to believe in a real Right and a real Wrong. But, according to Lewis, none of us are really living up to those standards. We all often fail to behave as we expect others to behave, and when we realize this about ourselves we immediately begin to make excuses for ourselves, which Lewis takes as yet another confirmation that these standards of Right and Wrong are real, since we are anxious to rationalize our failure to behave decently.
- Lewis’s point: we all know the Law of Nature, which tells us what is right and wrong, and we all break it.
- There isn’t much so far to disagree with here. Lewis is obviously laying the foundation for a Christian argument here, but at this point there’s nothing he has said that an atheist couldn’t agree with — in fact, there’s precious little he’s said so far that I disagree with, really.
- Lewis does speak about Right and Wrong as though they are these pre-existing entities, so I disagree with him there. But I don’t think it’s an irreconcilable disagreement. Check this out: “Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are[.]” (C.S. Lewis, MERE CHRISTIANITY, p. 4) So all we need to have a concept of right and wrong to which we are subject is an agreement about what is right, and what is wrong. Lewis and I agree on that. The only major difference between us at this point is that Lewis thinks these standards we’re agreeing on come from somewhere else, and I think they come from ourselves. Moving on:
Chapter 2: Some Objections
- Lewis attempts to address the problems that many people have with accepting or understanding his definition of the Law of Human Nature, which determines Right and Wrong.
- Lewis argues that our moral sense is separate from our natural instincts, since it is what arbitrates between conflicting instincts and tells us not what we want to do, but what we ought to do.
- The Moral Law, as Lewis now begins to call it, is what tells us which of our instincts — for instance, sexual impulse, fighting instinct, mother love, patriotism — we ought to follow at a given time. Therefore the Moral Law cannot be an instinct in and of itself, but rather that which directs us in how we follow those instincts, which are not themselves either good or bad.
- Lewis then defends his concept of the Moral Law against the claim that it is the result of education. Lewis argues that decent behavior and standards of morality are learned from parents, but that this does not mean those standards are a human invention. Lewis says the Moral Law should be considered in the same category as mathematics. Morality, like math, is mostly the same no matter where you go, unlike truly social conventions like fashion or traffic laws. Lewis also argues that moral progress is only possible because there is such a thing as Right and Wrong, which determines when the moral standards of one society are better than those of another. To say that one set of morals is better than another, you must measure them both by a standard. This, Lewis says, is Real Morality, the Moral Law.
- Again, we more or less agree here. I would say our moral sense, as individuals, as a society, and as a species, is distinct from our instincts. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a natural part of us, or that it must be eternal, or that it must originate from outside our species.
- I also agree with Lewis that morality is like mathematics. In fact, I think that is a great metaphor, though not for the reasons Lewis thinks. Like mathematics, morality provides us with objective standards — or at least, the closest thing to objective standards that we can have — that allow us to make sense of our world. And like mathematics, morality is an abstraction. If we — or some other sentient being — were not here to think about it, it wouldn’t exist. Mathematics is a tool we use to quantify, to explore, to recognize and explain and predict how our universe works — but it’s a tool we invented. In that sense, morality is just the same. For math to exist, you need people to do math. For morality to exist, you need people to define, and ask, and struggle to answer moral questions.
Chapter Three: The Reality of the Law
- Lewis notes that he is not trying to blame people for failing to live up to the standard of morality, only to discover the truth. Since humans are aware of the Moral Law, why do they not follow it?
- Lewis compares the Moral Law to laws of nature like gravitation, and notes that these sorts of laws only really describe what nature does — a rock, for instance, may be the wrong shape for a given purpose, but that does not mean there is anything bad about the rock. An object obeys the law of gravity by falling to the ground because that is what it must do, not because it has been ordered to do so. The Law of Decent Behavior is different in that it doesn’t describe what people do, but what people ought to do. Humans are not like other natural objects in this way, Lewis says.
- Lewis again stresses that wrong or bad behavior is not defined as that which is inconvenient to an individual, since there are innocent behaviors which cause harm and are not called bad, and there are behaviors that do not cause actual harm but are still called bad (for instance, trying to trip someone but failing). Likewise, good behavior is not defined as the behavior that produces a profit for the person performing it.
- Now Lewis turns to address the notion that good behavior is defined not according to what is good for a particular individual, but what is good for the human race as a whole. Lewis claims that this leads to circular reasoning, however: selfishness is bad because it is bad for society, and you should care about what happens to society because it’s bad to be selfish.
- It is preferable to simply stop with “men ought to be unselfish,” rather than to explain “men ought to be unselfish because . . .”
- The Moral Law, Lewis says, is not a fact about human nature, but it is nonetheless a real thing, something not invented by ourselves. It is evidence, he says, of another kind of reality, something above and beyond the facts of human behavior.
- Oh, Jack, I sense us growing apart already . . .
- Previously I said that mathematics and morality are abstractions that cannot exist without people. Not everyone thinks this — it’s a practical way of looking at these concepts that not everyone shares. It’s possible to think of math, and morality, and other abstractions, as real and existent independent from the existence of thinking, rational beings like us. Math was always there, it’s just that we had to reach the point where we could recognize it and understand it and use it. Morals were here before we were, we just had to recognize them.
- Here’s why I disagree with this: Lewis mentions how the laws of physics are really just descriptions of things that happen, and I think he’s right about that. In this sense, we created the laws of physics because we found that we needed them to explain things we saw happening. This is the same way I feel about mathematics — gravity was already there, objects were still subject to it, but before we were here, those laws, those descriptions of the phenomena of the universe, didn’t exist because we hadn’t come along to create them yet. But morality is different. Morality is concerned with the behavior of morally aware beings, and the only beings we know of with a concept of morality are human beings. As Lewis himself points out, morality doesn’t just describe a phenomenon — it allows us, as sentient minds, to make judgments about the rightness or wrongness of that phenomenon — the phenomenon in question being human behavior, which is the only thing we know of that can be subject to morality. Animal behavior isn’t subject to morality, since animals (so far as we know) aren’t capable of perceiving their behavior in moral terms. Nonliving objects aren’t subject to morality, neither are natural phenomenon like weather or seismic activity or the motion of bodies in space, since these are the result of natural laws — they are what they are and they do what they do because, given the nature of the universe, they can be and do nothing else. The only thing subject to morality, at least in our experience, is human behavior. And human behavior did not exist before humans existed. Now if you want to say math existed before we got here, because there were still numbers even if no one was around to count them, that’s fine. If you want to say the laws of physics existed before we got here, because the planets still moved the same way even if no one was around to notice, that’s fine. I think these things are abstractions invented by humans to help describe, understand and make sense of the world — I find value in them because of that, not in spite of that — but if you want to think of them as real independent of us, that’s fine, because at least the things those abstractions are describing were here long before we were. But how can you say that morality is like mathematics or the laws of physics in this way, when the one and only thing that morality is concerned with could not have existed before we did?
- Also, Lewis again mentions that what is moral does not coincide with what is convenient. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean morality must be an independent thing that is real apart from humanity. Human societies throughout history have struggled to find the balance between what was beneficial to individuals, what was beneficial to communities, and what was beneficial to their civilization as a whole. It’s not easy, and different societies have struck different balances, but that balance is the key. No one would want to live in a society that paid no attention to the rights or the needs of the individual, and a society that care only about individuals and nothing for itself as a whole would collapse into chaos.
- The point is this: Lewis says, “This Rule of Right and Wrong, or Law of Human Nature, or whatever you call it, must somehow or other be a real thing — a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves.” (p. 20) But nothing about the way we use morality, or the way morality works, demands that, as I see it. And certainly nothing about it demands that it be the product of something beyond or above our reality.
Chapter 4: What Lies Behind the Law
- Lewis begins discussing what the existence of the Law of Morality implies about the universe. He describes two views about what the universe is and how it came to be that have been held by humans ever since they have been able to think.
- The first is the materialist view: that space and matter just happen to exist, and have always existed, and nobody knows why, and that matter behaving according to natural laws has just happened to result in creatures like us, with our abilities to think and reason.
- The second is the religious view: that the universe, along with us, was created by a conscious, discerning mind.
- Lewis asserts that both views have been held for as long as there have been people around to hold them, and that the correct view cannot be determined through science, since science is concerned with observing and explaining things, not with determining what, if anything, caused things to exist in the first place.
- Lewis describes Man as the one thing in the universe which we know more about than we could learn from external observation, and that is because we don’t merely observe humans — we are humans. If another race were to study humans from the outside, without knowing our languages, they could not discern the Moral Law merely by studying our behavior, since the Moral Law doesn’t determine what we do, but what we ought to do.
- Our knowledge of self, our recognition of the Moral Law, Lewis says, is how we know which of the two views (materialist or religious) are correct. Since we know ourselves to be under moral commands to behave in a certain way, we should conclude that there is a commander.
- Lewis compares this commander to a mailman, delivering envelopes to each house on a street. Because his envelope always contains a letter, Lewis reasons that the envelopes received by others on his street contain letters, also. Not everyone gets the same letter, but Lewis’s letters tell him to obey the laws of his human nature, while stones have to obey the law of gravity.
- Lewis clarifies that he isn’t yet asserting Christian theology, only a Something that guides and directs the universe. Lewis says we must assume this Something is like a mind, because the only thing other than a mind is matter, and you can hardly imagine matter giving instructions.
- In a note at the end of the chapter, Lewis mentions the theory of Life-Force, that human evolution and cultural development was guided not by natural forces or by the mind of a god, but by a blind Life-Force. Lewis dismisses this as a wish to have some of the comfort of belief in a god, but without assuming any of the consequences.
- As I’ve already said, I don’t accept that the Law of Morality exists in the way Lewis does, but let’s grant that premise for a moment. I said after the first chapter that there is nothing in Lewis’s assertion that morality exists independently from moral beings that contradicted an atheist worldview. I went into it at length a few minutes ago why I don’t think this is right, but it is certainly possible to postulate independently existing morality without also postulating the existence of a being that Lewis describes as a Power or a Director behind the universe, which is what we today would probably describe as an Intelligent Designer. Lewis, through his mailman metaphor, tells us that he believes the moral law comes from the same place as the physical laws. If he can do that from the religious side, why can’t someone do it from the materialist side? Maybe these pre-existing moral laws are the result of the natural development of the universe, just as the laws of physics. I don’t think gods are necessary to account for the laws of physics, so why should I assume gods are necessary to account for morality?
- I’ve spoken about this previously, in a video I made about the Moral Argument, but since Lewis brings it up, let me mention it here, too: Lewis says that his Intelligent Designer must be something like a mind, because the only thing we know of other than a mind is matter, and matter cannot give instructions. Unless said matter is organized in the form of a mind, that is. Our minds are amazing, and one of the most amazing things about them is that they are the products of our brains — they are just as material as every other part of us. Our consciousness, our perception, our sense of morality — it’s all rooted in our physiology.
- Also: it’s a minor point, but Lewis talks here and elsewhere in this first section about rocks and so forth being subject to the laws of physics, while humans are subject to moral laws. I think it’s worth pointing out that humans are subject to the laws of physics, too. Our morality is not in place of the laws of physics, but in addition to them. We’re subject to gravity just the same as a stone, and we have just as much of a choice about it.
Chapter 5: We Have Cause to Be Uneasy
- Lewis address those who might be annoyed to discover, at this point, that he has been building up to a religious message. He says three things to these people:
- First, Lewis states that, judging by the present state of the world, humanity has been making some big mistakes and that in order to make real progress toward a better world, we must first go backwards and start again in the right direction.
- Second, he says he hasn’t yet gotten to the religious bits. He is still not talking about the God of any specific religion, only the source responsible for the Moral Law. Lewis cites two bits of evidence that we can use to learn about this Someone or Something behind the Moral Law: the universe itself, and the Moral Law. From the first evidence we learn that he was a great artist but also merciless, since the universe is both beautiful and dangerous. From the second bit, we can conclude that he is interested in right conduct, that he values fair play and selflessness and honesty, etc. In other words, God is good — ethically good, Lewis stresses, not good in the sense of being indulgent or sympathetic. Lewis also stresses that his God, at this point, is not personal, merely the force behind the Moral Law.
- In this formulation, Lewis calls God both a great comfort and a great terror, since his standard of goodness gives hope and meaning to existence, yet the fact that we have all fallen short of his standard must mean he detests most of what we do.
- Third, Lewis denies he was trying to play a trick by taking such a roundabout route to start a discussion about God. He says he was only trying to lay the foundation for a discussion about Christianity, since Christianity doesn’t make any sense until you demonstrate to people why they need the repentance and forgiveness it prescribes in the first place. To accept you have broken the law, you must first realize that the law exists. Lewis says that though he finds Christianity to be a great comfort, one cannot find comfort by seeking it; you can find comfort by seeking the truth, but if you seek comfort you will only find wishful thinking.
- Well, on that last point we certainly agree.
- On the two kinds of evidence Lewis puts forward that tell us about the Something that is behind the Moral Law: first, he says the universe itself tells us something about this Intelligent Designer. I disagree — the universe can be explained without the assumption of an intelligent designer. In fact, I think the universe makes much more sense, and is much more compelling and beautiful a place, if we take it as we find it, as the result of natural processes, than it would be if we assumed it to be the work of an intelligent designer. Second, Lewis cites the Moral Law as being able to tell us about the Designer, and we’ve been over what I think of his concept of the Moral Law already — I don’t think it exists, but I also think it’s possible to believe it exists without believing there’s an Intelligent Designer behind it.
- On his second and third points about what he’s doing by approaching the subject indirectly at first: what we’ve seen in this first book of Mere Christianity is essentially a protracted formulation of the moral argument. Absolute moral standards exist, therefore God, or Something, must exist to have created those standards. William Lane Craig and many other contemporary apologists make this exact same argument. You can see how influential this book is — it’s one of the most important texts of modern Christian apologetics. Modern Christians have not only adopted Lewis’s prominent use of the Moral Argument, but also his approach in getting from secularism to Christianity. You start philosophically, building slowly toward first a general sort of deistic creator god, then to a more specific personal god, and finally to the particular god of Christianity. Craig uses this technique when presenting his arguments in debates as well — he saves the explicit Jesus talk, the stuff about the empty tomb, etc., for last. It’s also the same strategy now employed by advocates of teaching creationism in science class. It’s not any particular god they advocate teaching about, they say, just a god that is responsible for everything. Intelligent Design is the gateway drug that leads (they hope) eventually to Christianity. The difference between modern I.D. advocates and C.S. Lewis is that Lewis freely admits that’s what he’s doing, and even explains why.
- I question a lot of Lewis’s facts and reasoning, but I don’t hate this so far. He’s a much better writer than Lee Strobel, which I think probably goes without saying, and a much clearer thinker, if a misguided one. This will be interesting. I hope you stick around for the rest.
Next: Book Two: What Christians Believe