An Atheist Reads Mere Christianity
Book Three: Christian Behavior (Ch. 7-12)
Chapter 7: Forgiveness
- Lewis revises his previous statement that chastity was the most unpopular of the Christian virtues — forgiveness, he says, might be even more unpopular. This is because, though many talk about it as a good thing, they find it difficult and sometimes even offensive when the time comes to practice it. Lewis admits that the prospect of forgiving your enemies — he cites a hypothetical Jewish or Polish person being expected to forgive the Nazis their crimes — but Lewis says that regardless of whether we like it or not, or whether we think we can do it or not (and he wonders if he is capable of it himself), Christianity demands it of us. We must forgive, including our enemies.
- Lewis suggests starting small, not with the Nazis but with your own family and neighbors. Try to love your neighbor as yourself, and try to understand what it truly means to love yourself.
- Loving yourself doesn’t mean being fond of yourself, Lewis reckons, since he is not overly fond of himself. In fact, he says, there are times when he finds himself hateful. “So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do.” (C.S. Lewis, MERE CHRISTIANITY, p. 117)
- Loving yourself, then, means not loving everything you do, but in being sorry when you do those hateful sorts of things and wishing yourself to be better. Similarly, loving your enemies means hating the evil things they do, but nevertheless wishing that they might do better.
- Nor does loving your enemies mean not punishing them for their wrongdoings. “If you have committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged.” (p. 118) Therefore, it is also right for a Christian judge to sentence a murderer to death, or for a Christian soldier to kill an enemy during a war. “Thou shalt not kill” is more properly translated as “thou shalt not murder.”
- Lewis says he respects, though disagrees with, an “honest pacifist,” but not “semi-pacifism,” which is his name for the quality of being willing to fight, but being ashamed of killing even in a righteous cause. “It is that feeling that robs lots of magnificent young Christians in the Services of something they have a right to, something which is the natural accompaniment of courage — a kind of gaiety and wholeheartedness.” (p. 119)
- Lewis again asserts that the major difference between Christian morality and non-Christian morality is the belief in the afterlife. Christians believe that life lasts forever, and that necessary killing is permissible. What is not permissible is hatred, or relishing in delivering a punishment. When these sorts of feelings rise up within us, we must vigilantly beat them down. We must feel about our enemies as we feel about ourselves, Lewis says, even while we are killing and punishing them.
- We must love ourselves and each other simply because we are ourselves, not for anything good or attractive about us. This, Lewis says, is the same reason God has for loving us. “For really there is nothing else in us to love: creatures who actually find hatred such a pleasure that to give it up is like giving up beer or tobacco . . .” (p. 120)
- Consider what Lewis says here alongside his views on morality expressed in the chapters covered in the previous video, and I think you’ll see something kind of odd. We should think of morality as rules and guidelines, says Lewis, but we should also see that these rules have a higher purpose than simple obedience, that following the rules of morality should have the ultimate result of making us the kind of people God wants us to be. You heard me say last time that I believe being a moral person consists mostly of being a person who strives to commit moral actions and refrain from committing immoral actions. But isn’t it much more moral, doesn’t it speak much better for our moral character, if we are committing these moral actions because we truly believe in their moral value, and not simply because we’re acting under orders? It seems like Lewis is sort of getting at that, but then he drops this chapter about forgiveness on me.
- We should forgive, Lewis says, because Christianity demands it of us. And he hits this point rather hard — we may not like for forgive, we may find the notion of forgiving our enemies offensive, but the boss says we have to do it, so we’d had better do it. Now, I believe forgiveness is, in many cases, if not most cases, a very moral thing. But I find nothing moral about the way Lewis describes it. First, he assumes that everyone hates to forgive, especially those who have wronged them, and if God hadn’t commanded us to do it, nobody ever would. And I just think that’s wrong. I don’t believe in God, I am under no divine directive, and I don’t hate forgiveness. I think it has great value. I think, generally speaking, it’s a virtue. I may be reluctant to do it sometimes, I may think there are a few situations where it isn’t warranted, but that doesn’t mean I find it as offensive as Lewis seems to believe everyone does.
- Forgiveness allows the forgiver to drop emotional baggage. It allows the forgiven to get out from under the thing they are being forgiven for. It acknowledges that we all have value, and that our value is not determined solely, or even predominantly, by the worst things we have done or the lowest aspects of our character. It goes hand in hand with other qualities we value, like mercy and tolerance and compassion and empathy. There are so many reasons to think of forgiveness as a good practice that it’s a little stunning to read Lewis on the one hand telling us that it’s vital that we forgive, and on the other telling us that the only really compelling reason to do it is because God commands us.
- Also, what’s with this bullshit criticism of soldiers who are conflicted about killing people? Is it not enough for Lewis that people are willing to kill other people for what they believe to be a righteous cause — they have to love every minute of it, too? They aren’t allowed to have mixed feelings about the taking of a life, however justified they might think it? That’s one of the most callous things I’ve ever read.
- Finally, he closes the chapter with classic Christian self-loathing. We must love ourselves and each other because God loves us, and God loves us . . . well, because he loves us, essentially. He made us, we’re in his image, therefore we should love each other and ourselves. There is no concept of real value, no concept that people have value because they have feelings, because they are conscious and rational and aware, because they have certain rights that ought to be respected, because our natural sense of empathy makes us want to value each other — no, it’s because of God. 100% of our value as people, 100% of what is good and lovable about us, is directly attributable to God. Without God, apart from God, we are worthless. It is the perfection of self-hatred.
Chapter 8: The Great Sin
- Pride is the great sin. Pride, or more specifically the struggle to overcome it and practice humility, is the true center of Christian morality, Lewis says, not sexual morality (as he alluded to earlier). Pride is the essential vice, the absolute worst of all sins, the vice that made the devil, the devil.
- What makes pride so bad? Pride is essentially competitive — it drives people not to be rich, or attractive, but to be richer, to be more attractive than someone else. Because of this, it can never be satisfied. It is worse that sexual lust, since pride makes men pursue women only to prove that they can have them and some other man can’t. It is worse than greed, since pride drives people to accumulate wealth far beyond reason. “What is it that makes a man with £10,000 a year anxious to get £20,000 a year? It is not the greed for more pleasure. £10,000 will give all the luxuries that any man can really enjoy. It is Pride — the wish to be richer than some other rich man.” (p. 123) And more than money, Pride covets power.
- As long as you are proud, you cannot know God, Lewis says, because the proud are always looking down on others, and cannot see what is above them.
- How can a Christian tell if he or she is too proud? “Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good — above all, that we are better than someone else — I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.” (p. 125)
- Lewis takes the last few pages to correct some possible misconceptions. The Pride he is talking about is not the feeling of pleasure from being praised — the sin comes in delighting in yourself, not in the praise. This is why vanity, Lewis reckons, is the most pardonable form of pride, since a vain person seeks praise and validation from others, and therefore cannot be as fully self-centered as a totally proud person.
- He is also not talking about pride in the sense of the admiration a parent might have for a child, or a student for a school, or a soldier for a regiment. One must guard against this admiration turning into a feeling of superiority for being associated with the admired object, but, “To love and admire anything outside yourself is to take one step away from utter spiritual ruin; though we shall not be well so long as we love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.” (p. 127)
- He also does not mean to suggest that God is offended at our pride because it offends his own pride. God wants us to know him, and to give himself to us, and pride is a barrier to that. Truly knowing God makes a person humble, Lewis says, because it allows us to truly let go of ourselves.
- Finally, Lewis asserts that truly humble people do not think about their own humility, because they do not think of themselves at all.
- I think a better title for this book, and for the faith Lewis is describing, would be Abject Christianity. I’m not going to argue that extreme pride isn’t a bad thing. To me, the most boring people in the world are the ones that always have to talk about themselves — not about what they think, not about things that are important to them — but excessive self-analysis and self-reflection that is not only dull to anyone other than them, but paralyzing to conversation. I don’t want you to talk about yourself, and I don’t want to talk about myself — I want us to talk about something. It’s like direct vs. indirect characterization in a film or a book. Good storytellers don’t give us characters that talk about themselves, they give us characters that talk about other stuff, and do other stuff, and through those things we are able to see who they are. If you just tell us, it’s boring.
- The worst people to talk to are the ones that not only drone on and on about themselves, but then try to get me to talk about myself in the same way. Just fucking put me to sleep.
- So I get why pride is bad. Those things I just described, I don’t like them in other people and I like them even less when I detect them in myself. But look at the extreme to which Lewis takes this. It’s not just excessive pride that is bad, it’s not just gross self-involvement — it’s the feeling that you have any worth of your own at all. Look at the contempt in which Lewis holds humanity: in the presence of God you should either “forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object.” He says of God, “He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are.” (p. 128) It’s one thing to prize humility. It’s quite another to assert that the more worthless people consider themselves, the closer they come to God.
Chapter 9: Charity
- Charity is another of the theological virtues (along with Hope and Faith). Charity means more than giving alms, though it does partly mean that. Charity means acting out love for your neighbor, doing your fellow humans a good turn whenever possible. It does not require a feeling of affection toward its object. “Consequently, though Christian charity sounds a very cold thing to people whose heads are full of sentimentality, and though it is quite distinct from affection, yet it leads to affection.” (p. 131)
- This sort of charity sets the Christian apart from the worldly man, since a worldly man is kind to those he likes, while a Christian is kind to everyone and soon finds himself, as a result, liking more and more people.
- In the same way that charity amplifies affection, so does cruelty amplify hatred. Lewis cites the German treatment of the Jews as an example — the more the Germans mistreated them, the more that mistreatment increased their enmity.
- Lewis advises taking action rather than trying to manufacture feelings. If you find yourself commanded as a Christian to love God, and cannot find it within yourself to love God, act as if you did. Do his will, obey his commandments, and “He will give us feelings of love if He pleases.” (p. 132)
- I think Lewis makes some excellent points here up until the end. I agree with him that acting kindly toward people can make you feel more kindly toward them, and acting cruelly toward them can make you feel more cruel. I reject his distinction between Christians and “worldly” people — and I really detest that condescending separation that Christians love to make between them and “the world.” They say things like “You’re thinking like you’re of the world, and you need to start thinking like you’re of God.”
- What I object to in this chapter comes right at the end, when Lewis says that if we don’t love God, we should start acting like we love God and then, if God wants us to have true feelings of love for him, he’ll give them to us. Now, on the one hand, this is a very clever escape by Lewis of one of the most obvious problems with Christianity — the command by God to love him. Lewis knows that you can’t conjure love on command. So he changes the definition of love, he says that Christian love doesn’t mean feeling love toward someone, but acting as though you felt love toward them. And whether God commands us to do it or not, I can think of some compelling reasons why we should practice this sort of love with each other. It doesn’t matter if we feel affection toward the poor and the hungry, we should still see that they are fed. It doesn’t matter if we feel affection toward victims of a natural disaster, we should still want to help them. Treating people with kindness and respect and doing what we can to supply their needs — doing what are commonly called acts of love — is good whether we feel the emotion of love or not.
- But that’s with each other. With God? First of all, what possible act of love could one do to God, who is all-powerful and all-knowing and has no needs which we can supply? Well, Lewis might say, the way we act out our love for God is by acting out our love for each other — fine, but I think people should do that anyway, whether God is there or not. So when I donate to a charity, or help a stranger change a tire, or hold the door for someone, I’m performing a kindness for them, not for God.
- And why should I want to perform an act of love for God, anyway? He’s superior to me in every way, he needs nothing from me, so I can’t show him forgiveness or mercy or empathy like I could show a human who had acted badly. He’s in a position of ultimate strength and ultimate knowledge, and yet look how he behaves, according to the Bible. Look how he treats people. Look at the demands he makes of us, and the punishments he threatens us with if we fail, or flat out refuse, to meet his demands. Even if it were possible to perform an act of love for God, why would I want to? He needs nothing from me, I have no moral obligation to help him because he never needs help! And he acts in a way that is unworthy of love, or admiration, or respect. What reason would I have to act lovingly toward God? And what about God and his reprehensible character could possibly inspire my affection? I could say, “Well, I’ll do what he says because I don’t want to go to Hell,” but that’s an act of desperation and self-preservation, not an act of love. Unless, of course, God decides to give me feelings of love toward him, which apparently he is willing to do, which opens up a whole new can of worms entirely.
Chapter 10: Hope
- Looking forward to the afterlife is what Lewis means by “hope.” But looking forward to the afterlife doesn’t mean we can leave the present world as it is. Our hope for the next world should increase our desire to improve this one.
- But wanting Heaven is difficult, Lewis says, because we have been so trained to value this world. But even the best possible offerings of this world cannot fulfill us like Heaven can, because in this world nothing can ever last.
- One can deal with this reality by either blaming the things themselves for not being more durable, blaming the wife for the unsatisfying marriage, or the underwhelming holiday, and constantly trying to find new and better things, or by simply giving up and accepting that the world is as it is, and not expecting too much from it. Or, Lewis says, you can respond in the Christian Way, which teaches that the best explanation for the troubles of this world is that we were, in fact, made for another world. This Earthly life is meant only to make us aware of that next life, therefore we should be grateful for Earthly blessings, but also careful not to mistake them for the real thing.
- “There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.” (p. 137)
- Yes, this world is but a veil of tears to be worn for a time and then stripped away. This universe, in all its mystery and beauty and magnificence and complexity, our own bodies, our incredible brains that give us our ability to reason, our awareness of the world, our very selves — it’s all just the pre-show, and we should appreciate it, sure, but we shouldn’t get too attached to it, because ultimately it’s not what really matters.
- As for that quote I just read about how people who can’t understand grown-up books shouldn’t talk about them: if the Bible wants to be thought of as a grown-up book, then it should treat its audience like grown-ups. Don’t you think? And perhaps apologists should learn to take it a little better when people read the Bible like grown-ups, and hold it to grown-up standards, and show it to be the historical, moral and philosophical farce that it largely is.
- As for hope, where does hope come from without an eternal afterlife? If you believe, as most atheists do, that it’s this world and then oblivion, that there is no eternal part of ourselves, what reason do we have to be hopeful? Well, for one thing, it helps if you stop looking at hope from a purely selfish perspective. Obviously, if all I care about is what happens to me, and I know at some point no matter what I do, I’m going to die and that will be the end of me, then life is hopeless. My ultimate fate is inescapable no matter what I do, so what’s the fucking point? But if you broaden your interests beyond yourself, it becomes fairly easy to find reasons to be hopeful, and things to be hopeful about. What am I hopeful about? I’m hopeful that my wife and I will continue to love each other and be happy. I’m hopeful that the film company I work for will continue to grow and become more successful. I hope that my country, the United States, will continue to evolve toward being a more just and tolerant and prosperous place for more of its citizens. I’m hopeful human achievement will continue to increase. I’m hopeful that we’ll land another human on the Moon, maybe even a human on Mars within my lifetime. I’m hopeful that at some point, before I die, the Baltimore Orioles will win another World Series. I’m hopeful that my friends and family will be able to find happiness and purpose in their lives, and be able to endure the suffering that I’m sure they will encounter. And I’m hopeful that they will be present to help me endure the same things. I accept reality as it is, I accept my life as it is — physical and finite — and because of that acceptance, I don’t feel like I’ve been cheated out of an afterlife, because that eternity was never actually promised to me by anyone who had any right to make such a promise. I don’t base my concept of hope on that expectation, because that expectation isn’t based on anything real. I base my concept of hope on what I have, and it doesn’t make me bitter. It doesn’t make me disillusioned. It allows me to endure the bad, and appreciate the good, and feel very fortunate to have been here, able to think these thoughts and speak these words and live this life, at all.
Chapter 11: Faith
- Lewis address what Christians call Faith, by which he means belief in the doctrines of Christianity. This is only one sense of Faith, however — the second sense will be treated in the next chapter.
- Lewis talks about belief. He says he used to wonder how faith could be a virtue, since surely it cannot be either moral or immoral to accept or reject a given statement. “Obviously, I used to say, a sane man accepts or rejects any statement, not because he wants to or does not want to, but because the evidence seems to him good or bad.” (p. 138)
- But, Lewis argues, this assumes that the human mind is ruled by reason, which it is not. He claims his faith is based on reason, and that faith and reason are opposed by emotion and imagination. Lewis says he is not asking anyone to accept Christianity against reason, if one finds the evidence to be against it. Instead, he wants those who have been convinced by the evidence for it to hold on to that conviction, despite attacks from his emotion or imagination. “I am not talking of moments at which any real new reasons against Christianity turn up. Those have to be faced and that is a different matter. I am talking about moments when a mere mood rises up against it.” (p. 140)
- Faith, in this sense, Lewis says, is holding on to that which your reason has already accepted.
- This is actually the most reasonable definition of Christian faith I’ve ever heard, and naturally, it’s also the sense I’ve heard Christians talking about the least. I’ve never heard of faith being discussed in this way, and I think that’s odd, considering how influential this book is on modern Christianity. Lewis is saying that you should first be persuaded of the truth of Christianity by the evidence, and then rely on faith so that nothing short of better evidence can persuade you to relinquish your belief in that truth. Why is it, then, that most Christian apologists today, including Lee Strobel and William Lane Craig, have it just the other way around, and say that faith must come first, that evidence cannot compel faith, and that when evidence contradicts your faith it should be rejected in favor of your faith? Could it be because the evidence isn’t very good? Could it be because if you don’t start out with faith, then you won’t find the evidence compelling? I think maybe.
Chapter 12: Faith
- Now on to faith in the second sense. This sort of Faith comes into play when a Christian has tried his best to practice Christian virtues, and failed, and despaired of what Lewis describes as his bankruptcy to God — no matter how hard we work, no matter how fervently we worship or diligently we observe his commandments, we will never be able to meet God’s standard.
- Again, Lewis asserts that God cares less about our actions than about our characters. He wants us to be a certain way, and to relate to him in a certain way. Faith in this sense, Lewis says, is the state of giving up any hope of making it on our own efforts and leaving it to God.
- Christ, Lewis says, offers everything for nothing. But trusting in Christ does not mean ceasing to try to be what God wants us to be, since part of trusting in Christ is following his advice for how we ought to behave. It is only faith in Christ that will allow us to continue to strive to make good actions, once we realize that no amount of good committed on our part can put us right with God. It is not right to say that either good works or faith are all that matters, since by Lewis’s reckoning, you cannot have one without the other.
- Lewis says that when God works within us, it is not like two individuals working together. Rather, it is an inexpressible arrangement for which there is no adequate language to describe. Different churches have tried different ways, but none have got it just right. He says that true Christianity is not about morality and duty and rules, but something beyond that, something like goodness but which those who practice do not call “goodness” or anything else. They don’t think of it, they think only of God, the source of it.
- Didn’t I say something in a previous video about “mindless Christian happy talk”? That phrase jumps to mind again when reviewing this chapter.
- Lewis says Christ offers something — indeed, everything — for nothing, but that’s not true. Christians like to say that salvation is a free gift, but it does cost something. I would argue it costs you your reason, but that’s not what I mean — it costs your faith. It costs your belief. You don’t just receive salvation through Christ for nothing — if that’s how it worked, everyone would get it. You receive it for believing in Christ and confessing and affirming that belief.
- But let’s also talk about why Christians believe this salvation is even necessary. And it goes back to this abject quality of Christianity, to this view of humanity as worthless and unworthy and beneficiaries of God’s wonderful grace. As Lewis said, in the Christian model, no amount of good works will ever be enough to cover your debt to God. That’s because God demands perfection. Anything short of perfection is damnable. That’s why the game is unwinnable, and that’s why Christians say you need salvation.
- Remember in the chapter on forgiveness earlier in this video, when I said that forgiveness has value to us because it helps us to realize that we are all worth more than the worst things we have done? That is not God’s attitude. God’s attitude is that we are defined by the worst things we have done. No matter how much good we do, no matter how hard we try to do the right thing, the bad things we do are all that God sees. Next to the bad things we do, the good we do counts for nothing. It’s the sins that keep us separate from God, no matter how hard we try to practice the virtues, no matter how much more good we do compared to the bad. Now, does that sound like a God that values goodness? Sounds like bad is a lot more important to him than good, if he’s willing to throw away a good person who has done a few bad things.
- Here’s how Lewis puts it: “What we should have liked would be for God to count our good points and ignore our bad ones.” (p. 147)
- That would be a more fair system than the one Christianity proposes, I think. But that’s still not it — why is it necessary to ignore the bad points? Count them. But consider them in context. Is a man who devotes most of his spare time to volunteering at a library, or who donates most of his spare income to charities that help the poor, or who leaves a large endowment to provide scholarships in his will a bad person because he was a petty thief when he was younger, or because he fantasized about fucking women other than his wife sometimes — because remember, it’s possible to sin in your head, even if nothing happens out there — really a bad person? Why should our bad deeds define us, even when they are far outnumbered by our good deeds? Why should the bad deeds of an essentially good person render them worthy of not just punishment, but eternal punishment?
- It’s things like these that force me to say that I could never be a Christian, even if I thought the God of the Bible existed. I’d rather go to Hell than jump through the hoops that this unfathomably cruel cocksucker sets out for us. How fortunate we all are that the God of the Bible is as imaginary as every other god. But just in case I’m wrong, and he’s real — fuck him.
Next: Book Four: Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity (Ch. 1-6)