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The Atheist That Never Really Was

by Patrick Inniss


You can't delve too deeply into modern Christian apologetics without coming across the name C.S. Lewis. A few years ago, an evangelical Christian friend presented me with one of Lewis's books, remarking in his inscription that Lewis was "himself once an atheist." Tales of atheists who suffer religious conversions are a staple of true believers. I always listen to such reports attentively because they reveal the level of understanding believers have of atheism.

To my disappointment, I discovered that Lewis doesn't really spend much time talking about atheism in this book. Despite his claim to have been one himself, his characterizations of atheism are to true atheism what a Tarzan movie is to Africa. Unfortunately, to millions of Christians who read his works, Lewis's interpretation is the closest they will ever come to a discussion of this topic.

If it is true that Lewis at one time considered himself an atheist, his ignorance of the subject is a glaring indictment of atheism's failure to educate even its own adherents about the true merits of our position. For instance, in Lewis's The Case for Christianity, he makes this ludicrous statement: "When I was an Atheist, I had to persuade myself that the whole human race was pretty good fools until about one hundred years ago." Perhaps C.S. Lewis, the naďve naive but skeptical student, could labor under the fantasy that there had been no unbelievers until the nineteenth century, but how could the mature, academician Lewis, expert on the subject of religious philosophy, fail to recognize the history of non-belief, which probably stretches back as far as religion itself? Whom other than atheists did Lewis suppose his Bible was referring to in Psalms 14:1: "The fool hath said in his heart there is no God?" And did he not consider the possibly chilling effect such pronouncements may have had upon expressions along these lines? Did he not draw any conclusion from the fact that the Christian predilection for murdering anyone critical of their faith waned at about the same time he recognizes the appearance of atheism?

Lewis must have been one really chicken-shit atheist. He certainly didn't bear himself with the confidence I have observed in every atheist I have ever met. In Surprised by Joy (now there's a Christian title for you), Lewis characterizes his and others' atheism as follows: "I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Anti-theists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry at God for not existing. I was equally angry at Him for creating a world." This is kind of like having a dog, but hating it for not barking at prowlers—a dilemma no atheist would recognize. Any atheist will tell you that she or he could more easily become angry at Bugs Bunny than at God. Lewis's description defies logic and, of course, logic is what atheism is all about. It seems that Lewis is trying to describe his struggle with the realization that, on a rational level, there was no way one could accept the existence of God. If you insist on believing in a God despite this, then I certainly can understand your anger at that God for forcing you to intellectually kiss his ass. But that doesn't make you an atheist - not even a chicken-shit one.

The two main arguments Lewis puts forth in support of God's existence are that God is self-evident when one observes "creation" and the existence of what Lewis calls "Moral Law" or the "Law of Human Nature." The former argument has been done to death, so I won't even discuss it here. The second point, however, is one around which there is still some unplowed ground in which the atheist may plant fresh crops of doubt in Christian minds.

The fact that Lewis would identify his God with any sense of morality, particularly Christian morality, exposes his position to potentially withering attack. Lewis argues for the existence of a general sense of right and wrong which transcends nature. One could quickly and easily cite any number of studies of animal behavior suggesting patterns of social interaction which mirror what Lewis terms "moral" behavior. For instance, Lewis claims that a person's act to save his fellow man (no mention is made of dogs - even Lewis isn't that far out) from drowning is an example of "Moral Law." Is he not aware that on the African savanna, a buffalo will come to the aid of a member of the herd that has been attacked by lions? Has God made the buffalo aware of the "Law of Human Nature," too?

In trying to justify Christian beliefs with reason, Lewis rends huge gaps in the fabric of religious "logic," permitting all sorts of queer potential consequences. For example, Lewis defends the morality of witch burners by saying that they merely made a "mistake of fact." In their mistaken belief that these witches were evil incarnate, they were acting quite morally in executing them. I will not dwell on all the faults of that logic, but will mention just one point. If Lewis is willing to accept that witches do not exist, and that, while believing in them, it was right to put them to death, what other "ungodly" transgressions can we forgive as mere "mistakes of fact?"

Let's go back to the beginning: Eve was fooled into thinking that God was putting one over on her before she ate the apple, an obvious "mistake of fact." Christ's alleged crucifiers did not buy his claims to divine connections, certainly a forgivable "mistake of fact." Atheists refuse to see a God where there is no evidence for one, surely the most understandable "mistake of fact" of all if, by some cruel twist of fate, Christians turn out to be right after all.

Lewis haplessly paints himself into a corner on page 32 of The Case for Christianity when he proposes one of many "proofs" for God's existence:

"Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It's like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can't trust my own thinking, of course I can't trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God."

Lewis's premise here - that if minds were not designed by God, they must be unreliable for thinking - is almost laughable in view of the sadly over-abundant evidence that, designed by God or not, brains are obviously unreliable instruments. It is only with the utmost care that humans can hope to arrive at the correct answer to even the most rudimentary problems.

Furthermore, saying that it is necessary to believe in God to have faith in the reliability of thought is hardly a proof for God. It is no more than saying that you must have faith in Intel or Motorola in order to accept the results produced by your computer. Believing in God does nothing to resolve the essential question of the reliability of our perception of reality, which is really the question here. This issue is one of the classic questions of philosophy, to which Lewis's answer might be characterized as "I think, therefore I believe."

I wonder how Lewis would respond if I were to tell him that this premise is correct: since God did not design his mind, it is spewing forth all sorts of nonsense, including his unwarranted belief in a supreme being. Nature has for some reason programmed it that way.

Ultimately, Lewis's appeal to Christians lies in his defense of Christianity through the use of rational arguments. By not appealing to faith or the divine word of the Bible, Lewis strives to put Christianity, and therefore Christians, on the same intellectual levels with science and rationalists. This approach is soothing to believers suffering from feelings of inferiority, who rarely note that Lewis's logic immediately collapses under even the most cursory critique. Consequently, Lewis has become one of the most widely read Christian writers. He attempts to provide reason for faith. But in reality, his reason will be accepted by few if any who do not already possess faith.

 

Editor's note: In July, many Christians observed the 100th anniversary of the birth and the 35th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. The British government issued a stamp in his honor.


Patrick Inniss is a columnist from Seattle, Washington. The following is reprinted from the Spring 1998 issue of The Secular Humanist Press, the newsletter of the Humanists of Washington, with special permission of the author.

 


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