An Atheist Reads Mere Christianity
Book Two: What Christians Believe
Before I begin looking at Book Two, let me go back briefly to something I covered in the previous video. I argued that, for me, it doesn’t make sense to believe in morality as something that exists independently from humanity, since so far as we know humanity is the only example of a moral being. Several of you commented to remind me that there is very interesting evidence to suggest that other animals, most notably great apes, chimpanzees, have some rudimentary concept of morality, as well. I agree with you, and in fact that actually strengthens my objection to Lewis’s assertion that outside observers couldn’t discover human morality merely by watching human behavior, because it dictates what we ought to do, not what we do. But of course, to a large degree it does dictate — or at least strongly affect — what we do, which is how we’ve been able to discern what we think might be moral behavior in other animals. I didn’t mention it last week because the verdict isn’t in yet, and because I’ve most often seen this sort of behavior in chimps and other apes described as premoral, which tells me we don’t think these other animals have attained the same moral awareness, or the same level of moral complexity, as we have. But nevertheless, when I said that human behavior is the only thing we know of to which morality can be applied, I was wrong. I need to amend that: the behavior of moral animals, including humans and quite possibly chimpanzees and other great apes, is the only thing to which morality can be applied.
Also, I said in the previous video that in order for math to exist, you need people to do math. Someone left a comment that it’s better to say that the language of math wouldn’t exist without people doing math, but the mathematical concepts would still be real, whether there were brains capable of perceiving and understanding them or not. And I agree with that, too. So I stand corrected.
Chapter 1: The Rival Conceptions of God
- Lewis begins by asserting that a Christian need not believe that other religions have got it entirely wrong, merely that when Christianity and another religion differ, Christianity is right and that other faith is wrong. Lewis also refers to his own atheism: “When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian, I was able to take a more liberal view.” (C.S. Lewis, MERE CHRISTIANITY, p. 35)
- Lewis demonstrates how Christianity and other religions agree by reducing from humanity in general to Christians in particular through a series of divisions. The first division is those who believe in a god or gods (Christians, Jews, Muslims, ancient Greeks and Romans, Hindus, etc.) from atheists. The next division Lewis makes is between Pantheism and the moral God of Christians, Jews and Muslims. Next, but related: those who believe God created the universe, from those who believe God is the universe in some way. In believing that God made the universe, but is not himself contained in every piece of it, Christians are able to explain the condition of the universe as an essentially good world that has gone wrong, which God is now insisting that we put right again.
- As to the question of why this world made by a good God has gone wrong, Lewis says, “And for many years I simply refused to listen to the Christian answers to this question, because I kept on feeling ‘whatever you say, and however clever your arguments are, isn’t it much simpler and easier to say that the world was not made by any intelligent power? Aren’t all your arguments simply a complicated attempt to avoid the obvious?’ . . .
“. . . My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?” (p. 38)
- Let me just start there at the end, since it ties in with the beginning very nicely. We can see why Lewis spent the first section of Mere Christianity presenting his protracted version of the moral argument. It’s obviously very important to him — in fact, at this point it seems like it was the very thing that turned him into a Christian from an atheist. So let’s start with that quote I just read and then go back and discuss Lewis’s atheism.
- Lewis says he used to feel that Christians were just straining to avoid the obvious, because it’s just easier to argue that the world wasn’t made by an intelligent power. While I think that is certainly true, that’s not a very good reason to be an atheist. An atheist who says he doesn’t believe in gods because it’s just easier that way deserves no more respect than a Christian who says he believes in the resurrection of Jesus because he wants to see his dead wife again someday. Both are basing their beliefs about reality on what is preferable to them, not on what they have reason to believe is true. And that’s the key — you must have a reason, a real, compelling reason to believe that something is true. Without at least one such reason — many such reasons would be preferable — I submit not merely that you shouldn’t believe a given claim, but that you won’t believe it. Belief isn’t nearly as voluntary as we make it sound. Most of what we believe, we don’t believe out of choice, but because we’ve been convinced. We believe it because we honestly think that it’s true. I don’t believe the Earth goes around the Sun because I think it’s a nice story, or because it’s easier to believe that than the geocentric model. I believe it because I have good reasons to think that it’s true. So, whether and atheist finds belief in no gods to be easier or not should be irrelevant to his holding of that belief. I’m an atheist — and most atheists I know are atheists — because it is the most sensible position given what we know about the universe. Not because it’s less complicated, not because it’s less philosophically messy — because we think it’s true. Period. How we feel about it, the advantages or disadvantages we find along with it are all separate issues.
- Lewis also says that he got hung up on the universe being cruel and unjust, and how he was aware of what cruelty and injustice were in the first place. We discussed morality at length in the previous video, so I’ll just add here that an atheistic universe, as I see it, is neither just nor unjust. It simply is. It’s morally neutral. The universe isn’t cruel. I’m not even comfortable calling it indifferent. It’s simply unaware. It’s not that it doesn’t care about us, it’s that it doesn’t even know we’re here. The universe is not a moral being, therefore our concepts of morality, or cruelty and justice, don’t apply at all.
- Now onto Lewis’s atheism. He opens the chapter by saying that an atheist is burdened with having to believe that most of humanity has always been wrong about the existence of gods. Now, as an atheist this is what I believe. But I don’t find it to be a burden at all. In fact, I find it to be a pretty obvious conclusion. My friend Kim has said this to me before, how she finds it difficult to believe that most of humanity has just gotten this so wrong for so long. And other friends of mine who aren’t atheists have said similar things. But why is it so difficult to believe? Humanity, throughout its history, has gotten pretty much everything wrong most of the time. Nothing against humanity — I’m a great fan of our species, actually. It’s just the nature of our existence. We usually get things wrong before we get them right. Before we figured out how the solar system worked, we had that wrong for thousands of years. Before we figured out that our solar system was part of a galaxy, and that our galaxy was only one among billions of others in an unfathomably vast and ancient universe, we had that way wrong, too! Same with the causes of disease, the causes of earthquakes and weather, the nature of light, the way our bodies derive energy from food. And those are things we can see, and study, and gather evidence about, and test and experiment on — is it really that hard to swallow that we’d also be wrong about things for which there is no evidence at all?
- Let’s look at this from another angle. Even if you’re not an atheist, I don’t see why it’s such a big hurdle to believe that most of humanity has gotten it wrong about God. Afterall, Lewis’s attempt at pluralism aside, if you’re a Christian, don’t you believe that your God is the only real God? As Richard Dawkins has said, religious people are atheists for every god except theirs. So you already believe that everyone who ever lived who believed in no god, or in a different god than you do had it wrong. I don’t see why it’s such a stretch for people to accept that atheists say, yes, every single person who ever believed in any god was wrong.
- Lewis says he was an atheist, but hit a wall when he realized that his morals had to come from somewhere. Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ, also claims to be a former atheist. I don’t actually believe Lee Strobel, because he characterizes his atheism in a way that suggests he was never actually an atheist. I don’t believe any of the modern apologists who call themselves former atheists were ever actually atheists — I think they read C.S. Lewis and realized the ability to utter the phrase “When I was an atheist . . .” during sermons was a tool they wanted in their kit. But Lewis isn’t nearly as dishonest or condescending as his modern would-be successors, so fuck it, I’ll take his word for it. He was an atheist, and he was persuaded to become a Christian by the moral argument. It happens.
- One more thing, quickly, about the divisions he performs to separate Christians from atheists and then from other believers: notice how the divisions he chooses to make support his argument. He divides in such a way so as to allow him to frame everything according to the moral argument, ending with separating those who believe in a moral god from those who believe in a god who exists beyond morality. He doesn’t divide deists from theists, or monotheists from polytheists, or anything else. He writes as though this is simply the way these things shake out, but he is very deliberately shaping this presentation to fit his argument.
Chapter 2: The Invasion
- Lewis disparages what he calls “Christianity-and-water,” the belief that embraces the idea of a good God and a Heavenly afterlife, and leaves out sin and hell and the devil. He says that asking for a simple religion is silly, since life itself is complicated, and odd. For one example: “For instance, when you have grasped that the earth and the other planets all go round the sun, you would naturally expect that all the planets were made to match — all at equal distances from each other, say, or distances that regularly increased, or all the same size, or else getting bigger or smaller as you go further from the sun. In fact, you find no rhyme or reason (that we can see) about either the sizes or the distances; and some of them have one moon, one has four, one has two, some have none, and one has a ring.” (p. 41)
- Reality, in other words, is stranger than we expected. Lewis says the same thing about Christianity — in fact, he says it’s one reason why he believes it, because it is a religion no one could have guessed.
- Lewis says only two views can explain the universe as we find it — the Christian view that this is a good world gone wrong, and the Dualist view which holds that two equally powerful forces, one good and one bad, are fighting it out with the universe as their battlefield. Lewis calls Dualism “the manliest and most sensible creed” other than Christianity.
- Lewis then dives back into the moral argument to demonstrate the fallacy of Dualism, since if we believe that one of the gods is truly good, and the other is truly evil, we must therefore be appealing to a standard that is higher than either of them in order to determine which is good and which is bad.
- Then Lewis goes on, at length, to argue that there couldn’t be a truly bad god anyway, since while it is possible to be good just for the sake of being good, it’s not possible to be bad for badness’s sake. People are bad, Lewis argues, due to sadism or because they are chasing some goal. This means, then, that bad is simply good gone wrong. The Christian model, with the devil being a fallen angel, portraying evil as a rebellion against good, makes more sense in light of this, says Lewis.
- Lewis closes the chapter by describing Christianity through a war metaphor: the world is enemy-occupied territory, and going to church is like listening in to the secret radio messages from the good guys, the army of the true king who will someday return to reclaim his land. Lewis then affirms that, yes, he does believe in a literal devil — perhaps not with hoofs and horns, though.
- In this chapter we really get a nice, long look at Lewis’s biases, and how the assumptions he makes based on those biases shape his views and his arguments in favor of those views. For instance, he says that the solar system seems odd because we would naturally expect the sizes or the relative distances of planets to match or to follow some pattern. But this seems like something Lewis himself just made up. There’s no reason we should have expected anything like what Lewis describes. At the risk of citing my own bias, when I was a child first learning about astronomy, I never found it odd that the planets were different sizes, or different distances, or had different numbers of moons, etc. It seems to me like saying that a tree is odd because it has branches of different lengths, or at seemingly random locations moving up its trunk. There’s no reason we would expect it to be any different than it is. And actually, we’ve known for hundreds of years that the sizes and distances and motions of the planets are actually governed by some very specific rules, just not the superficial ones Lewis seems to think we should expect.
- That’s just the warm-up, though. The biggest display of cognitive bias comes in his handling of dualism. First, let me read this quote to you. He says that Dualism requires that we have one god that is truly good, and one god that is truly bad: “But the moment you say that, you are putting into the universe a third thing in addition to the two Powers: some law or standard or rule of good which one of the powers conforms to and the other fails to conform to. But since the two powers are judged by this standard, then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God.” (p. 43) Notice how smoothly he slides from assuming a standard of good, to a being that created that standard, to a God with capitalized pronouns and all? He’s good at this. But he didn’t get it past me.
- After that, he gets into this business about how badness can’t exist for its own sake, but only relative to goodness. Lewis says you can be good for goodness’s sake, but you can’t be wicked for wickedness’s sake. There’s no reason to make this assumption. The only way you can say this is if you first establish that good is superior to, rather than equal to and opposite of, evil, and if you then establish certain things as good, rather than morally neutral. Here’s a quote from Lewis to illustrate what I mean, where he’s talking about the bad god of Dualism: “To be bad, he must exist and have intelligence and will. But existence, intelligence and will are in themselves good. Therefore he must be getting them from the Good Power: even to be bad he must borrow or steal from his opponent.” (p. 45) See what he does there? He defines existence, intelligence and will as inherently good. Why? Because that way, when the evil god makes use of them — which he can’t help but do — he’s not being purely evil, but rather putting these good traits to an evil purpose, supporting Lewis’s characterization of evil as subordinate and dependent upon good. But who says existence, and intelligence, and will are good? Why can’t they be morally neutral? Doesn’t it make more sense for them to be neither good nor evil? It’s not as if Lewis is uncomfortable with the idea of moral neutrality, since in the previous section we saw him characterizing human instincts as neither good nor bad. If he’s willing to accept that our sexual drives or our feelings of love or patriotism are neither good nor bad, how is it that he assumes that even more basic and universal traits such as existence, intelligence and will are inherently good, rather than morally neutral? If instincts are neither good nor bad, but only when and how we choose to pursue them, how can we not say the same thing about our intelligence or our will? Doesn’t it follow that it’s how we use our intelligence that is good or bad, not our intelligence itself?
Chapter 3: The Shocking Alternative
- Lewis begins by asking whether or not the state of the world as enemy-occupied territory is in accordance with the will of God, and what the answer to this question tells us about God.
- To explain why God allows evil to exist in the world, Lewis makes the free will argument: God created beings with free will, knowing some of them would use their freedom to commit evil, but also knowing that without free will, true love and happiness would be impossible.
- This is also, Lewis supposes, how the devil (or the Dark Power) went wrong. He misused his free will. The sin of Satan, Lewis guesses (for he says no human can give a certain answer), was that he put himself first, he wanted himself to be the center of his life, not God. Worse yet, Satan taught this sin to Adam and Eve (“our remote ancestors”), giving humanity the idea that happiness apart from God was possible, which Lewis calls “hopeless.” And it’s from this hopeless attempt at life apart from God which springs poverty and war and pretty much every other bad thing that has afflicted humanity since anyone can remember.
- God created humans as engines designed to run on himself, Lewis says. The problem has been that humans have tried to run their engines without the right fuel. Hence, every great civilization must inevitably fall.
- And what does God to about this? According to Lewis, he gives us our sense of right and wrong, he plants dreams of gods dying and returning to life in the myths of other religions throughout history (the “true myth” theory), and he selects the Jews as the people to whom he reveals himself and attempts to teach about his nature and his expectations. Then Jesus shows up, claiming to be God, claiming the power to forgive sins, claiming he would return to judge the world one day. Lewis calls these claims by Jesus, when properly understood, “the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.” (More shocking than “And the Oscar goes to: Marisa Tomei”? . . .)
- Lewis then talks about Jesus’s claim to be able to forgive sins. He says if anyone other than God claimed the ability to forgive any and all sins, it would be preposterous. It only makes sense if he is the god who made the rules that were being broken in the first place.
- The chapter closes with the famous Lewis Trilemma: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (p. 52)
- The free will argument, to me, seems like a nice way for Christians to let God off the hook by blaming themselves — which fits, since I’ve found self-loathing to be a very large part of Christianity wherever I’ve encountered it. It’s always God’s grace and God’s love that is saving us, because we don’t deserve it. We’ve broken the rules and God has every right to just cast us into Hell for that, but he wants to save us because he’s just that good. It’s difficult to imagine a more abject and pernicious form of self-hatred. The free will argument also ignores the suffering and destruction caused by natural disasters, although Lewis applies it to explain the fall of Satan as well as the fall of Man, so maybe we’re meant to believe that earthquakes and hurricanes and such are Satan’s fault?
- I made an entire video about the “true myth” theory that Lewis mentions here. All I’ll say about it here is that, again, it increases my respect for Lewis, even though I think the theory itself is horseshit. That’s because, in even taking the time to formulate and make the argument, Lewis is at least acknowledging the fact that the Jesus story is filled with mythic universals, elements that we find in many, many earlier stories which are unanimously considered to be myths by people today. Lewis acknowledges this and attempts to reconcile his Christianity with this fact. That puts him ahead of most other apologists, who mostly just ignore all the similarities between the Jesus story and other myths and hope no one brings it up.
- Lewis says it would be preposterous for anyone but God to claim the right to forgive all sins. I say it’s preposterous for God to claim that right, too. Even if I grant the existence of a God who defines our moral laws, and I accept that, say, stealing is a violation of those laws, that still doesn’t give God the right to forgive me of stealing something from someone else, on behalf of the person I’ve stolen from. God can say, “Hey, I know you broke my rule but don’t worry, I forgive you,” but the guy who made up the rule isn’t really the wronged party. Sure, I broke God’s rule, but I didn’t steal from God — I stole from another person. It’s that other person — and only that other person — who can forgive my theft, not God. The fact that God is apparently insisting that he is the wronged party, and not the person who was actually the victim of the crime, makes God seem like kind of a huge dick. Which is perfectly in-character given what we read about him in the Bible.
- Finally, we have the famous Lewis Trilemma. This we can dispose of very easily, in two different ways. First, the issue for Lewis is that we cannot accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but not as God. Easy enough, then: I don’t think Jesus was a great moral teacher at all, so I can stop right here. But let’s assume that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Is it impossible to believe that, and reject his claims to be God? Is it true that he must be either God, or a liar or a lunatic? Obviously, my answer to those questions is no. And getting there is relatively easy: we just have to subject the sayings of Jesus to a critical reading. The only source we have about the life of Jesus is the New Testament, and as I discussed in the series about The Case for Christ, that is not a reliable source for facts about Jesus. We know — even Christians are forced to admit — that the gospels are filled with passages that were added much later by early Christians who wanted to shape the portrayal of Jesus for their own purposes. So if someone — say, Thomas Jefferson — wanted to distill the gospels down to only the things which reasonably could have happened, or which a sane and moral Jesus could have said, that seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It’s also possible to reject Lewis’s trilemma by believing that the Jesus of the gospels is a good moral teacher, but never actually existed — that he was a legend, or so embellished by legend that the man we read about in the New Testament bore little resemblance to the historical man. Lewis rejects atheism for being too simplistic, but as we see, he’s rather fond of reductive, simplistic arguments himself.
Chapter 4: The Perfect Penitent
- Lewis finds it obvious that Jesus was neither a lunatic nor a fiend, therefore he must accept that he was and is God, regardless of how he might feel about that.
- Lewis then cautions us not to confuse theories of how salvation through Christ works with the fact that salvation through Christ has put us right again with God. The thing itself, he says, is more important than what one believes about how it is accomplished.
- He compares explaining Christian salvation to explaining an atom to a scientific layman: you are given a model, which allows you to visualize what is going on, but also cautioned that the model has been simplified for you and does not represent reality entirely accurately. The thing itself, Lewis says, cannot be pictured. “We know that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying he disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed.” (p. 55)
- Lewis describes the crucifixion not so much as Jesus taking our punishment (which he agrees doesn’t make much sense, since if God was willing to forgive us he might as well just have done so), but as Jesus paying our debt. And in accepting Jesus’s payment of our debt, we are, in effect, laying down our arms and leaving the rebellion in order to rejoin God.
- Lewis then describes how difficult it is to willingly and totally submit to God, but how it is possible if God helps us, which he does by putting a little bit of himself into us, like a parent teaching a child to write by allowing the child to follow his hand as he writes, to learn to form the letters.
- God became a man, in the person of Jesus, in order that he could understand parts of human experience that he had no knowledge of — suffering and death — so that now he is able to help us to deal with these things ourselves.
- Lewis dismisses complaints that Jesus could not have actually suffered and died precisely because he was really God the whole time, and God never really suffers or dies. Lewis counters by claiming that the perfect suffering and death needed to reconcile man with God were only possible because Jesus was God. The advantage of being God is the only thing that allows Christianity to exist, and therefore the only thing that allows God to be of any use to us.
- Lewis comparing attempts to understand Christian salvation to attempts by scientists to explain atoms to laypersons is really very clever. And his statements that however one understands the how of salvation is less important than the fact of salvation itself — the point isn’t how it works, but that it works — are very ecumenical, and I appreciate that attitude. The problem with all of that, and with everything else he discusses in this chapter — perceiving the crucifixion as the payment of a debt rather than the taking of a punishment, accepting forgiveness and submitting to God with God himself helping us to overcome our selfishness and self-centeredness, how God’s experience as a human allowed him to understand and help us with these things — all of it can be brought crashing to the floor with a single question: how do you know? C.S. Lewis has crafted a really lovely sounding theology here. I would still reject it because, despite how pretty he makes it sound, I find the Christian concept of salvation to be fundamentally immoral — whether we were due a punishment or owed a debt, it was within God’s power to simply forgive us without executing an innocent person in horrific and bloody fashion and then forcing us to choose between affirming that this execution had paid our debt or being tormented forever in Hell. But even if you read Lewis’s explanation of Christian salvation and it sounds good to you, it’s all empty rhetoric if it’s not describing a real thing — and there is not a single reason to believe that it is. Lewis is standing atop the assumption that the New Testament is true and reliable. That’s how he gets the Lord, Lunatic or Liar trilemma, that’s how he gets to “how salvation works isn’t as important as that it works,” that’s how he arrives at every place he goes in this presentation. It all starts with that assumption. And there’s no rational or factual basis for that assumption.
Chapter 5: The Practical Conclusion
- Lewis compares the life Christians believe is coming to them after this one (perfect happiness in Heaven, thanks to the perfect surrender and humiliation of their perfect God) to the next step in our evolution, whatever comes after man: “In Christ a new kind of man appeared: and the new kind of life which began in Him is to be put into us.” (p. 60)
- Lewis describes three things which bring this new Christ-life to us: baptism, belief, and communion. These are not the only things, Lewis says, nor will he say that one is more important than the other two, but all three are present.
- Lewis admits that he cannot see why these three things should lead to this new Christ-life: “We have to take reality as it comes to us: there is no good jabbering about what it ought to be like or what we should have expected it to be like.” (p. 61)
- So he can’t tell us why things are like this. But he can tell us why he believes they are so: he believes it because Jesus tells us it is so. He finds Jesus trustworthy, therefore he trusts Jesus when he says there is new life in him.
- Lewis stresses the importance of trying to emulate Christ, and draws a distinction between Christians and other people trying to be good. Christians, he says, are not good because they wish to please God, or other people; rather, Christians are good because God is making them good through his love for us. When Christians talk about living “in Christ,” they mean that Christ is actually operating through their actions, that all of Christianity is an organ through which Christ acts on the world.
- Lewis closes by stressing that a Christian need not feel bad that this new Christ-life is only open to those who have heard of and accepted Christ. Why? “But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” (p. 64) In the meantime, Christians believe that God has chosen to reveal himself through Christ rather than invading in force, as it were, and revealing himself to everyone at once, because he wants to give people the chance of joining his side freely, before he invades and the ultimate result becomes a foregone conclusion. “Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last for ever. We must take it or leave it.” (p. 65)
- How do you know? How do you know? How do you know?
- Again, I’m impressed with how ecumenical Lewis is, how he takes care not to push any particular brand of Christianity. At the end there he even seems to leave the door open a crack for universalism — maybe God has a plan to reconcile those people who have never heard of Christ, or have been unable to believe in him, with himself. Though maybe not, since he did disparage believing in Heaven without believing in Hell — Christianity-and-water, remember he called it. Also, he does say that salvation is only possible through Christ, which would leave out those of us who have heard of, and rejected Christ. I know who Christians are talking about when they mention Jesus. I just don’t believe he was who they say he was. And more than that, if I did believe he was who they say he was, I still wouldn’t be a Christian. So I’m fucked every which way. Good thing I have no reason to believe any of it. Lewis’s quote from this last chapter seems an appropriate note to close on, though not in the way Lewis would have hoped, I’m sure: “We have to take reality as it comes to us: there is no good jabbering about what it ought to be like or what we should have expected it to be like.” (p. 61)
Next: Chapters 1-6 of Book Three: Christian Behavior