An Atheist Reads Mere Christianity
Book Three: Christian Behavior (Ch. 1-6)
Chapter 1: The Three Parts of Morality
- Lewis begins by saying that even though morals can sometimes seem to stop us from having a good time, in reality they are the rules for running the human machine properly. He then draws a distinction between the concept of moral laws and moral ideals, saying that while moral perfection is an ideal in the sense that it can never be attained, it should not be confused with other things called ideals which are merely objects of fancy. To call a man of upright morals “a man of ideals” is dangerous, Lewis says, because it suggests that the ideal of moral perfection is a matter of personal taste. This, Lewis says, would be a disastrous mistake.
- Lewis also cautions against thinking of yourself as someone special for striving to come closer to the moral ideal than others. It is no better to expect congratulations for good morality, Lewis argues, than for getting a sum correct in a math calculation. “It would be idiotic not to try” to do it right all the time, he says. For this reason, he finds “rules” and “obedience” to be better words to use when talking of morality than “ideals” and “idealism.”
- Lewis describes two general ways humans go wrong, morally: in their interactions with each other, and in their own minds as the various parts of themselves interact with each other. “. . . think of humanity as a band playing a tune. . . . Each player’s individual instrument must be in tune and also each must come in at the right moment so as to combine with all the others.” (C.S. Lewis, MERE CHRISTIANITY, p. 71)
- But what kind of music is the band trying to play? To answer this, Lewis proposes a third function of morality. Besides being a guide for harmony among individuals in a society, and within individuals themselves, it also shows us what life as a whole is all about, directing the tune we play, as it were.
- Lewis says modern society usually only pays much attention to the first function, and ignores the other two. “What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them?” (p. 73)
- Lewis stresses that improving society is very important, but ultimately futile if the character of the individuals making up that society is not also improved. “You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society. That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual.” (p. 73)
- The third function is also important, Lewis adds, because what one believes about religion — whether or not one believes in immortality, for instance — will affect the tune one plays. Christianity asserts that people live forever, which means, says Lewis, that individuals are ultimately more important than states or civilizations, since these institutions do not live forever. Lewis connects this with the difference between totalitarianism and democracy.
- Lewis says it is the third function that brings out the most obvious differences between Christianity and other systems of morality, and that for the rest of the book he will be assuming the Christian point of view, and looking at the world as if Christianity were true.
- Yet more of the moral argument. I feel like I’ve been immersed — or perhaps submerged — in the moral argument since I started reading this book, because so far it really is all Lewis has talked about. I find it interesting that Lewis prefers to think of morality in terms of obedience and rules, since as a few of you may have seen, I just posted a new video about the moral argument — I posted it the day before I posted this one, actually. And the main point of that video is that thinking of morality in terms of obedience and rules renders it meaningless. I think we need reasons why we see given things as right or wrong. So I prefer to think of morality in terms of questions and answers.
- As for the three functions of morality: I’ll buy that. My quarrel with Lewis here is that he thinks morality is dictated from on-high, which means that God is trying to conduct the tune we play, to borrow Lewis’s metaphor, whereas I think we generate our own morality — as individuals and collectively — and in that way we’re able to play our own tune. And I think if we recognized and accepted what morality really is and where it comes from, it would be easier for us to play a tune that more people would enjoy — does that make any sense, or have I fucked that metaphor to death?
Chapter 2: The ‘Cardinal Virtues’
- Lewis offers another way of dividing up morality. Rather than the three functions discussed in Chapter 1, morality can be thought of as consisting of seven virtues — four cardinal virtues, which Lewis says all civilized people accept, and three theological virtues, which only Christians care about. For this chapter, Lewis will handle only the four cardinal virtues, which are: prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude.
- Prudence, Lewis says, means “taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it.” Lewis mentions Christ’s teaching that only those who are like children will enter the kingdom of Heaven. But this only means that God wants us to have a child’s heart, Lewis says. We must still have a grown-up’s head. God loves people without much common sense all the same, but he wants every bit of intelligence and sense we have. “Anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence being sharpened: one of the reasons it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself.” (p. 78) (Maybe that’s how he knows all of these things he’s telling us about God — magic Christian education.)
- Temperance means not teetotalism, but taking the proper measure and no more of all pleasures. Temperance also does not mean expecting all others to give up the things you have given up: “An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons — marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema, but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.” (pp. 78-79) Lewis dislikes the modern practice of using temperance to refer only to drink, since it allows people to forget that it is possible to be intemperate about lots of other things.
- Justice means fairness, honesty and truthfulness, not merely legal justice. And fortitude means two kinds of courage: that which faces danger, and that which guts it out despite pain. Fortitude is necessary, Lewis says, for practicing the other virtues.
- Lewis draws a distinction between doing a virtuous action and being a virtuous person. The latter is most important, and consists of not just doing the right things, but doing them for the right reasons. “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.” (p. 80)
- Not much to say about this chapter. I agree that doing virtuous actions is different from being a virtuous person. But what Lewis doesn’t say is that being a virtuous person consists, perhaps not entirely but at least primarily, of being a person who does virtuous actions. If you don’t drink or smoke or do drugs or fuck to excess, then whatever is going on in your head, whatever your reasons, to me you are a temperate person. If you treat people fairly, if you stand up for yourself, then you are a person of justice and fortitude. A person who regularly does virtuous actions and tries to avoid doing wicked actions is a virtuous person.
- One more quote from Lewis here, which I can’t resist sharing because it jumped right out at me. Right before the quote I read a minute ago about how Christianity is an education that sharpens your intelligence, is this: “If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.” (p. 78)
Chapter 3: Social Morality
- Lewis admits that Christ did not come to bring a new morality of how people relate to one another. The Golden Rule was known to be right by most people long before the days of the New Testament.
- Lewis also stresses that Christianity does not have any particular political strategy for seeing the Golden Rule implemented in the world. Rather, it is meant for all people, at all times, and therefore such a specific program would not be practical. Lewis believes the church should take a leading role, but by “church” he means not an institution, but the whole of the Christian people.
- “And when they say that the Church should give us a lead, they ought to mean that some Christians — those who happen to have the right talents — should be economists and statesmen, and that all economists and statesmen should be Christians, and that their whole efforts in politics and economics should be directed to putting ‘Do as you would be done by’ into action.” (p. 83)
- That being said, Lewis says the New Testament does provide a picture of what a fully Christian society would be like. This picture includes principles such as: if a man does not work, he ought not to eat; everyone is to work, and his work is to produce something good; no “silly luxuries” or “sillier advertisements” for those luxuries. In other words, Lewis says, it would be a Leftist society. It would also be a society that insisted on obedience — from children to parents, from wives to husbands (which Lewis admits will be very unpopular). And finally, it would be a cheerful society, with lots of singing and rejoicing and no worry or anxiety.
- Lewis doubts many people would like this fully Christian society if they encountered it, though they might be drawn to certain aspects of it. This is because we have all departed from the plan for a truly Christian society.
- Lewis takes a paragraph to point out that the ancient Greeks, the ancient Jews, and the Christians of the Middle Ages all agreed that lending money at interest should be forbidden. Lewis notes that this practice, which we call investment, is the basis for our modern economic system, and says that he is not willing to declare whether this is wrong or not. For this we need the Christian economist.
- Lewis stresses the importance of Charity — everyone must work, he says, so that everyone will have something to give to those in need. “If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small.” (p. 86)
- Lewis acknowledges that some readers may have been troubled by his statement that a Christian society would be Leftist — some because he didn’t go far enough, some because they felt he had gone much too far. Lewis cautions those readers to leave aside their desire to find vindication for their own views and instead focus on discovering what Christianity really is. “I may repeat ‘Do as you would be done by’ till I am black in the face, but I cannot really carry it out till I love my neighbor as myself: and I cannot learn to love my neighbor as myself till I learn to love God: and I cannot learn to love God except by learning to obey Him.” (p. 87)
- Now I have a few things to really sink my teeth into. Lewis describes this fully Christian society, then admits that not everyone’s going to like it. And he explains not everyone liking it by blaming our rebellion, our selfishness, our living apart from God’s plan. But that’s horseshit — the reason this fully Christian society described by Lewis doesn’t sound very nice is because it’s totalitarian. It’s interesting that in Chapter 1 of Book Three Lewis mentions the difference between totalitarianism and democracy. What is he describing here when he talks about this fully Christian society? “no passengers or parasites,” “if man does not work, he ought not to eat,” no “silly luxuries,” no putting on airs, obedience (and, Lewis says, “outward marks of respect”) to “properly appointed magistrates” compelled from everyone, in addition to obedience to parents and husbands. And not only obedience, but good cheer will be compulsory, too! There will be singing and rejoicing, and there will be no worry or anxiety! Is this society to be led by Christ or by Anthony Fremont from The Twilight Zone?
- What is this fully Christian society imagined by Lewis but totalitarian? It’s the most horrific nightmare of a dictatorship that can be conceived. And I detest the prospect of living in such a society not because I’m a free person who wants to live in a free society, but because I’ve departed from God’s plan. It’s my fault. If only I were sufficiently Christian, I could see how God is really offering us a sweet deal by designing this society of compulsory work, obedience, and love for us all to either live in or reject in favor of Hell. No thank you. Fuck Lewis’s fully Christian society, and fuck anyone, god or otherwise, who expects me to jump at the chance to live in it.
Chapter 4: Morality and Psychoanalysis
- Lewis considers what the Christian idea of a good man is. Before he gets too specific, he turns to the relationship between Christian morality and psychoanalysis. Lewis says that Sigmund Freud should be treated with respect when he is discussing matters in his field, on which he is an expert, although his broader philosophy of the world betrays him as “an amateur” on those matters. Psychoanalysis itself, Lewis says, does not contradict Christianity at all — in fact, it overlaps with Christianity at some points, and Lewis says everyone should know a little something about it.
- Lewis describes what is involved in the making of a moral choice: there is the act of choosing, and there are the feelings and impulses which compete with each other in order to allow the choice to be made. These feelings and impulses, Lewis says, are of two types: normal (or natural), those which are common to all people; and unnatural, which result from things that have gone wrong in a person’s subconscious. Examples of natural impulses, Lewis says, would be fear of something truly dangerous, or a man’s desire for a woman; examples of unnatural impulses would be irrational fear of cats or spiders, or “the perverted desire of a man for a man” (p. 89)
- Psychoanalysis works to remove the unnatural impulses, to provide better material from which choices can be made. Morality is concerned, then, with the choices themselves. Psychoanalysts can rid the mind of “doo-dahs,” as Lewis calls them, but they can’t repair moral failings. Only morality can help us to make the right choice.
- Lewis says that the unnatural impulses are a disease, not a sin, and that God does not judge people for them. Rather, God judges people for moral choices.
- Lewis doesn’t like to view morality as God making a bargain with us, to reward us for following his rules or punish us for breaking his rules. Rather, with each moral choice we transform ourselves bit by bit, moving toward harmony with God, or away from God to what Lewis calls “a state of war and hatred with God.” Looking at morality this way helps to explain how Christians can simultaneously believe that sinful thoughts are as bad as sinful actions, and yet accept that murderers can be saved through repentance. “One man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands, and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at. But the little mark on the soul may be much the same in both.” (p. 93)
- Lewis closes the chapter by asserting that the further we go in the right moral direction, the more we grow in knowledge: “Good people know about good and evil; bad people do not know about either.” (p. 93)
- Remove the reliance on Christianity, the insistence that Christian morality is the true morality, and there’s not much to argue with here, either. I’m fine with psychoanalysis. I think it helps people, I think it can help to overcome irrational fears and destructive impulses, help people to see the world in a more clear-headed way — good on Lewis for arguing in favor of it. Obviously he wasn’t a Scientologist.
- The reference to “the perverted desire of a man for a man” was disappointing, but not atypical for the time in which Lewis was writing, and sadly, not atypical for a Christian of the present time, either.
- Lewis’s bit about how God judges us for the moral choices we make, not for the unnatural impulses we’ve accumulated, sounds much more tolerant and humane than many Christians today sound when they talk about people they don’t like, but as I said in the last video, it’s a case where you have to ask the question, “How do you know?” Lewis is speaking with a great deal of intimate knowledge about the mind and will and expectation of this God of his, and I know not all of this shit is in the Bible. Lewis’s version of God, like the God most Christians believe in, I think, comes just as much from the imagination as from the scripture.
Chapter 5: Sexual Morality
- Lewis turns now to the Christian virtue of chastity, which is distinct from the social standard of modesty or propriety. While rules of propriety can change with the customs of society, the rule of chastity remains the same for all Christians, at all times. A person may cross the bounds of propriety without necessarily being unchaste — they only violate the rule of chastity if they do so in order to “excite lust in themselves or others”.
- Lewis acknowledges that, as standards of propriety relax, younger people see their elders as prudes, and elders see the younger generation as corrupt and improper. Lewis doesn’t think either judgment is fair, and advises: “A real desire to believe all the good you can of others and to make others as comfortable as you can will solve most of the problems.” (p. 95)
- Chastity is the most unpopular of all Christian virtues, Lewis says, because there is no getting around it: “Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.” (p. 95)
- Lewis says that sex, biologically, exists for procreation, and that if every young man had sex whenever he wanted to, and every sex act produced a baby, then overpopulation would soon be a problem. Appetite, Lewis says, is in excess of function, and therefore must be curbed.
- Lewis compares appetite for sex to appetite for food, but claims that the food instinct is not nearly so vulnerable to perversion as the sex instinct. Few people feel compelled to eat things that are not food, but comparatively many feel compelled to engage in “warped” sex behaviors. While Lewis insists that sex and sexual pleasure are not bad in and of themselves, and that Christianity does not hold them to be inherently sinful, he also criticizes what he calls the contemporary propaganda for lust. “Poster after poster, film after film, novel after novel, associate the idea of sexual indulgence with the ideas of health, normality, youth, frankness, and good humour. Now this association is a lie.” (p. 100)
- Lewis argues that to surrender to all our sexual desires whenever we feel them would lead to chaos. There must be a set of principles by which we lead our lives and according to which we conduct ourselves. He admits that Christian principles of chastity are stricter than many others, but also reminds us that Christians get help from God in maintaining their chastity. God may not always provide as much help as we would like, and we will fall short occasionally, but when this happens we must pick ourselves up, ask forgiveness, and try again, and this process itself teaches us dependence on God, which is even more important than chastity or the other virtues.
- Lewis closes by asserting that, despite his devoting a chapter to the subject, sexuality and chastity are not of central importance to Christianity. “If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. . . . This is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.” (pp. 102-103)
- Again, especially as seen in that last quote, I’m impressed by the tolerance and compassion and humanity Lewis demonstrates. I wish some more of that had rubbed off on the modern Christian apologists who lean on him so heavily.
- But, beyond that accepting attitude (or at least, accepting when compared to the attitude of many judgmental American Christians), this chapter is a load of horseshit. Lewis talks about how sexuality and sexual pleasure are not inherently sinful or bad things, which is good, I’m glad he says that, but then he turns right around and attacks every type of sexual behavior that doesn’t fall within his concept of Christian chastity. And when he does that, whether he means to or not, he is making something dirty and bad out of sexuality, because he is ascribing everything outside of his definition of acceptable to our “warped natures.” “Warped” — there’s a nice word to use when describing anyone who has any type of sex with anyone that is not their heterosexual spouse. I don’t say there shouldn’t be standards, or that everything imaginable should be permitted and celebrated — but between Lewis’s Christian chastity and total permission, there’s a lot of space.
Chapter 6: Christian Marriage
- Lewis expresses reluctance to deal with the subject of marriage — first, because Christian marriage doctrines are extremely unpopular, and second because, as of this writing, he has never been married himself. Nevertheless, he finds it impossible to treat Christian morals without including marriage.
- Lewis describes Christ’s idea of marriage: the man and the woman are seen as a single organism (“one flesh”), made to be compatible in every way, not merely sexually. The attempt to isolate sexual union from the rest of marriage through intercourse outside of marriage is, Lewis says, a “monstrosity.” But: “The Christian attitude does not mean that there is anything wrong about sexual pleasure . . . It means that you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself, any more than you ought to try to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again.” (p. 105)
- Marriage ought to be for life, and this is related more closely to the virtue of justice than to chastity, for a marriage is a promise made before God, a promise that reigns in our sexual lust, and a promise that should be kept no matter what. Lewis scoffs at the notion of ending a marriage because the couple has fallen out of love, since this “. . . really leaves no room for marriage as a contract or promise at all.” (p. 107) The promise made when you are in love commits you to remain true to your partner for life, even if you cease to be in love with that partner.
- There are good reasons for remaining in marriage for life, even if love is no longer there: raising children, protecting the women, and most importantly to Lewis, because the married couple that has ceased to be “in love” has not necessarily ceased to love each other. This quieter kind of love, he says, is more durable and dependable than the more exciting kind, and it is on this love that the marriage should run.
- People get the idea from books that they should expect to remain in love forever, and this just isn’t realistic. “It is simply no good trying to keep any thrill: that is the very worst thing you can do. Let the thrill go — let it die away — go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow — and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time.” (p. 111)
- Despite his feelings, Lewis cautions his fellow Christians from trying to impose their beliefs on others through the law: “A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for everyone. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members.” (p. 112)
- Now onto the notion of Christian wives obeying their husbands, which Lewis says is even more unpopular. The man is said to be the head of the marriage, which raises two questions: why must there be a head at all? And why should the head be the man?
- To the first question, Lewis answers that since marriage is meant to be permanent, there must be a definite head of the relationship in order to decide the family policy in instances of disagreement between husband and wife.
- To the second question, Lewis asks, “Well, firstly, is there any very serious wish that it should be the woman?” (p. 113) and goes on to describe how often a woman will disparage a couple where the wife bosses the man around. From this, Lewis concludes that there is something unnatural about wives ruling over husbands. Secondly, the man ought to be the head because, in dealings with the world beyond the family itself, the man is usually much more just to outsiders than the woman. The woman, Lewis says, is usually fighting for her family against the rest of the world, as the trustee of their interests. It is the man’s job, then, to protect the rest of the world from the zealous “family patriotism” of the wife. To demonstrate this, Lewis asks who you would rather deal with if the dog from next door bit your child — the man of the house, or the lady? “Or, if you are a married woman, let me ask you this question. Much as you admire your husband, would you not say that his chief failing is his tendency not to stick up for his rights and yours against the neighbours as vigorously as you would like? A bit of an Appeaser?” (p. 114)
- Jesus Christ! Generalize much? Also, I found this chapter ever so slightly sexist and misogynistic — don’t know if you noticed that as I summarized or not.
- Regarding the permanence of marriage — shouldn’t the decision about whether or not to continue a marriage be ultimately left up to the two people in it? Is it really the business of the church, or anyone else outside of the couple, and perhaps their children? What business does the church have in encouraging people to remain in unhappy marriages?
- I applaud Lewis’s statement that the church shouldn’t try to impose itself on non-Christians through the law. I’m writing and recording this one day after North Carolina passed an amendment to its state constitution banning anything other than heterosexual marriage from being recognized as a legal union, so I feel the importance and the justice and the fairness of the attitude expressed by Lewis in this chapter very keenly right now. Again, I wish this had rubbed off on the modern Christians who take their cues from Lewis. Maybe they forgot that was in here.
- And yet, as I applaud Lewis for that, I must also absolutely reject this condescending, sexist, and insulting justification for the old “wives, obey your husbands” injunction. I recently attended a Christian wedding, and when the preacher got to the part where he told the husband that he was the spiritual leader of the household and it was his job to take care of his wife, and told the bride that it was her job to cooperate with him and support him, it was all I could do not to get up and walk out. Why this sort of thing is not as offensive to us as racial bigotry or anti-gay bigotry, I have no idea. It’s revolting. It’s incredibly offensive. And then this bullshit justification, that the wives are just so devoted to their children that if the husband doesn’t hold them back, look out, world! Could he be more paternalistic and patronizing?
- What about the radical notion that the husband and wife are equals? And they resolve conflicts by talking to each other like grown-ups? Lewis says of the need for there to be a head in the marriage, “You cannot have a permanent association without a constitution.” (p. 113) And the constitution of a Christian marriage establishes that the husband should always get his way. And to think that this garbage, this bigoted nonsense, came from the pen of an intelligent and rational man. It’s horrendously offensive. The sooner we rid ourselves of attitudes like these, the better off we’ll be.
- Not a very pleasant note to end on . . .
Next time: Book Three: Christian Behavior (Ch. 7-12)