Mere Christianity

Author Lewis, C.S.
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[This review was originally a blog post, here. Feel free to go thither to comment.]

Over the course of many a fruitless religious debate, one book that my ‘opponents’ have often urged me to read is Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I had never done so, but when I found out that the whole thing was available online (here), I went ahead and read it—in stolen snippets of two days, at that; it’s short and a light read. My very brief conclusion is that C.S. Lewis is an entirely different brand of apologist from the raucous, idiot, Ray Comfort kind to which I have previously been exposed. I get every impression that he was being quite sincere and honest. He may also very well have been intelligent. —I say “may” because this book provides no evidence that he was, but nor do I think that it provides strong evidence that he wasn’t.

That said, in the early chapters of Mere Christianity, comes off as honest, sincere, quite possibly intelligent, and completely unconvincing and to all appearances dead wrong. (This review originally contained a part explaining why I consider it coherent to be intelligent, honest, and completely wrong; that aside grew into this.) So unconvincing and so wrong, in fact, that while I consider it entirely possible that he was intelligent, and while some of his fans may very well be very intelligent (with the same rationale), anyone who was convinced by it must have had their critical thinking faculties shut off for the day. Much as a palæontologist accepts a single fossil or a physicist a single relativistic experiment, you may accept Mere Christianity as fitting into a worldview, but it is no more sufficient to build a complete theory upon. Unlike fossils and physical experiments, however, Mere Christianity attempts logical arguments, and—well, we shall see how it succeeded.

The book is written in a compelling way—easy, conversational language, and a structure where each chapter builds directly and explicitly on the one before it. Thus, he starts off by establishing a universal moral law; shows that the universal law must reflect some underlying reality; shows that this underlying reality must be an Intelligence; shows that it must be an Intelligence rather like the Christian God—and so forth. He is not mealy-mouthed, nor needlessly offensive, nor does he sound insincere. All of this gives me a rather favourable view of him as a person.

As a logician and persuader, however, I can’t give him much respect. My initial reaction to the first few chapters was that, with some minor restructuring, they could easily be retitled according to which logical fallacy he built each chapter’s claim upon. Thus one early chapter took St. Anselm’s failed Ontological Argument and applied it to moral law: We can conceive of a moral law better than our own; therefore there must be a Perfect moral law. (Not true: We might have and fully grasp the ultimate moral law but fail to recognise that it’s perfect.) Another was based on Equivocation (descriptive natural laws with prescriptive moral laws). Another, while not a formal fallacy that I’m aware of, was based on equivocating percepts with objects: That is, he went from All humans feel that there is something rather like X to Therefore, there exists an X with some sort of independent reaction. (Nonsense! If we find that all humans feel X we have indeed discovered a fact, but it’s a fact about human brains, not about the world outside them.) These percepts, once reified, were deified in short order.

Unfortunately, the book went rather downhill from this point. In the early chapters, I can really respect what Lewis was trying to do. Of course, I find that his arguments were not in fact valid, but he clearly believed the premises were true, he obviously believed in his conclusion, and as I have said before and will gladly repeat, it is often very difficult to find flaws in your own inferences when they make a path whereby, as far as you can tell, you get from the right starting point to the right end point. And in these early chapters, I am inclined to agree that if his arguments had been valid and sound, as he believed, then he had some very right and very valuable things to say; and he does lay out his arguments, however flawed, clearly and lucidly.

But this, alas, was not to last. Having once established (in his mind) that there must be a deity that shares some important, basic traits with the god of Judeo-Christian mythology, he went on to implicitly assume a whole slew of Christian dogma, and he did it so suddenly and unselfconsciously that it took me a chapter or two before I went Hang on a minute…! It is as though, once you accept a good, omnipotent creator deity, Moses, the Ten Commandments, Jesus, Judas, and the whole cabaret just followed naturally. This was a huge disappointment—he didn’t even try to show his work in this part of the examination.

The redeeming aspect of this part of the work was that if you once accept his assumptions, a lot of the things he says are very cogent and sensible. But that is not much help if you haven’t accepted those assumptions! He also argues an awful lot by metaphor. This is fine—he manages to explain a number of very weird things in Christian dogma in a way that made a lot of sense to me. So far, so good. However, a critical feature of an explanation by metaphor is that you have to be able to show how it reduces back to the real issue. Again, Lewis doesn’t fail to do this—he never even attempts it. It felt very much as if it never occurred to him that this had to be explained.

And I found this very peculiar, because C.S. Lewis was by all accounts an atheist, and he was brought to believe in all these things. How did this happen? I feel as though he must have had more of a story to tell, because the argument he lays out is completely insufficient to take an intelligent person from atheism to Christianity. Even if his initial arguments had been sound, there just wasn’t a chain of logic available to bring an atheist any further than a sort of nebulous proto-Judeo-Christian monotheism with no specifics of ritual or dogma, let alone such esoteric notions as the Trinity (which, by the way, he explains in lucid, wonderful metaphor that he completely neglects to show to be equivalent to any underlying reality). I supppose Lewis, if he was an atheist before, must not have reached that point by skepticism so much as more specific disappointment with points of dogma.

The part of the entire book that I found the most rewarding to read was, and this might surprise you, the two chapters on Faith. Now, I make it no secret that I regard the concept of faith with derision and contempt—faith, as I generally see it used and defined, refers to belief without evidence, and in some circles (particularly US fundamentalists) even belief in spite of evidence, which is lunacy and the least ethical and virtuous thing you can possibly do without involving others. However, C.S. Lewis defines faith very differently. I can do the concept no better justice than to quote him:

Roughly speaking, the word Faith seems to be used by Christians in two senses or on two levels, and I will take them in turn. In the first sense it means simply Belief—accepting or regarding as true the doctrines of Christianity. That is fairly simple. But what does puzzle people-at least it used to puzzle me—is the fact that Christians regard faith in this sense as a virtue. I used to ask how on earth it can be a virtue—what is there moral or immoral about believing or not believing a set of statements? 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. If he were mistaken about the goodness or badness of the evidence that would not mean he was a bad man, but only that he was not very clever. And if he thought the evidence bad but tried to force himself to believe in spite of it, that would be merely stupid.

Well, I think I still take that view. But what I did not see then—and a good many people do not see still—was this. I was assuming that if the human mind once accepts a thing as true it will automatically go on regarding it as true, until some real reason for reconsidering it turns up. In fact, I was assuming that the human mind is completely ruled by reason. But that is not so. For example, my reason is perfectly convinced by good evidence that anaesthetics do not smother me and that properly trained surgeons do not start operating until I am unconscious. But that does not alter the fact that when they have me down on the table and clap their horrible mask over my face, a mere childish panic begins inside me. I start thinking I am going to choke, and I am afraid they will start cutting me up before I am properly under. In other words, I lose my faith in anaesthetics. It is not reason that is taking away my faith: on the contrary, my faith is based on reason. It is my imagination and emotions. The battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other.

With this second definition of the word faith, it actually makes sense. What this teaches me is that when I next meet someone extolling the virtues of faith, I need to explicitly establish what, precisely, this person means, because he or she may not be referring to it in the sense that I am used to encountering it. If someone believes in the virtues of faith¹, they are beneath being reasoned with. Faith², on the other hand, is in fact a positive thing! I do not need to be persuaded of its virtue; I agree with it! On the other hand, faith² is not a way in which religion can be reached. If somebody tells me that You won’t find God by evidence; you just have to have faith, they are using faith¹ and I will continue to dismiss them. If they take offence at this, I can now not only explain why, but also point out that C.S. Lewis regarded that claim as stupid.