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C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) sentimental values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process.

The Abolition of Man

Debunking values in general is a dangerous game, and it is one that most philosophers and educators undertake without giving proper thought to the possible outcomes.  They always seem to presume that when they are done there will some solid moral ground on which they will be left standing.  Unfortunately, as Lewis notes here, they always seem to cut their own feet from under them, and society as a whole is left to clean up the mess.

This is evident in the continuing spread of Lewis’s old enemy, naturalism, throughout western culture.  The idea that there are no moral absolutes but those which nature can provide has spread like an intellectual oil spill.  At first the idea was billed (and often still is) as freedom from the outdated mores of a dying religion that held back human development.  Over time, though, it became clear that what its adherents really meant was that we should believe in “only the morals we agree are pretty good.”  It hasn’t taken long for people to ask the next logical question, “Why stop there?”

Some fell into the belief that nature itself authors our moral code by imposing its own absolutes through evolution.  The highest and most important of these absolutes is often the struggle for improvement through natural selection.  As they began to re-evaluate human activity based on these standards, they took steps to act on their beliefs, leading to the eugenics movements of the first half of the twentieth century, and culminating with Adolf Hitler’s attempt to purge entire “unfit” races from the human gene pool.  Others, while not so drastic, still took the logical step of treating humans like the animals they believe we are.

A later group fell into what eventually became post modern relativism–the idea that since there is no truth imposed upon us, we define right and wrong entirely on our own.  That sounds attractive, until someone defines it as “moral” to lie to you, cheat you, steal from you, hurt you, murder you, etc.

In most cases, the moral debunkers do a far more effective job tearing down than they do building up.    Humans dethrone God and religion in morality, and they place themselves in the empty seat.  In the former example above, humanity takes control of its own evolution in the pursuit of natural moral law.  In the latter, they literally become god-like themselves; they are the final arbiters of their own reality.  In either case, can anyone give one convincing reason we should not commit any “crime” we like, as long as we can get away with it?  Their replacement morality cannot seem to survive even the most basic scrutiny, but they never seem to figure it out until after the fact.

It is therefore usually only a matter of time before someone calls the debunker’s moral bluff.  Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine High murderers, exhibited traits of both of the above approaches.  Both specifically called themselves gods in their private journals.  Harris even wore a shirt that read “NATURAL SELECTION” on the day of the massacre, and saw himself acting on behalf of evolution.  Defenders of the above positions often try to hide behind the pair’s obvious madness, but that falls far short of providing a full explanation of how and why it happened.

The possibilities are terrifying, but these are completely “reasonable” conclusions to reach when we begin an assault on traditional values assuming that we will stop somewhere “moral” by default, as Lewis noted.  In the end, if a moral system has no sufficient answer to two little words (“Why not?”) then perhaps we would all be better off if it kept its debunking ways to itself.

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Interested in more about writing and reading from a Christian perspective?  Check out While We’re Paused–the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.

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And so, little by little, with fluctations which I cannot now trace, I became an apostate, dropping my faith with no sense of loss but with the greatest relief.

–C. S. Lewis Surprised By Joy

Lewis, as a former atheist himself, understood something about that particular belief system* that many life-long Christians completely fail to grasp:  for many people, atheism feels good.  Converting provides instant and complete relief from the massive weight of what it means to be a believer, not only in Christianity but in any of the major world religions.  All of them make claims on your life.  All of them require that you conform yourself, your beliefs, and your actions to a set of standards that you have no control over.  Atheism instantly releases you from all those obligations and, in fact, does so much more: It makes you the sovereign of your own little universe.  That can potentially provide an unparalleled sense of temporary security.  After all, who better to trust with your future than yourself?

This also helps explain why many atheists are so loudly sure of themselves to the point of epistemological absurdity–emotion often sits at the center of their position while their reason provides cover.  Lewis was one of these types.  He came to hate the forced prayers and unjustified legalism of what he had been taught about the Christian faith, and so when atheism presented itself, his emotions led him to grasp at it in intellectual desperation.

Lewis later rejected atheism–though he had to be dragged “kicking and screaming” back into belief.  For Lewis it was simply a issue of truth:  he still believed that there was an external world that he must conform to rather than vice versa.  Through his association with J. R. R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield, he was gradually led to accept proofs that Christianity was true, and therefore he changed his mind a result.

For me, there is another issue that speaks against atheism:  knowledge of myself.  While it sounds like a fine thing to be the sovereign of my own destiny, the more I understand about myself and how little I truly know, the less comfortable I am exercising the kinds of power atheism in theory would grant me over others.  I become even less pleased when I think about others having that kind of absolute authority over myself.  I would think that the Twentieth Century–and the bloodbath than certain atheists like Stalin and Mao made of it–bears out that concern.

That is one reason I am thankful that God created humanity able to both think and to believe.  Properly understood, the strength of each keeps the excess of the other in check.  In Lewis, we see a good example of both.

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*While atheism likes to style itself as a “lack of belief,” it is in fact its own separate religion. Modern atheism puts faith in what Lewis would later call the “Total System,” by which he meant the whole of the natural universe and the measurable phenomena which it produces. Since humanity is the ultimate expression of the intelligent side of the Total System, atheism usually (but not always) begins to treat the human race and its needs with an attitude that borders on mysticism.  This faith is often as blind as it is exclusive, and is also couched in a pseudo religious awe–remember, according to modern atheist thinkers “Forget Jesus.  Stars died so that you might live.”  In that sense, I see no particular difference between the basic fundamentals of atheistic belief and the “religions” they claim to critique.  Of course, this is too big a topic for a footnote!

Interested in more about writing and reading from a Christian perspective?  Check out While We’re Paused–the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.

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The original cover of Spirits in Bondage.

Perhaps, when you are unsure of where to start, the best answer is “somewhere” over “nowhere.”  I hope to pick back up with my previous post stream when I can, but I would rather work on something Lewis related than let the blog languish again.

To that end, I picked up a copy of Spirits in Bondage, which is Lewis’s first attempt at fame.  It is, rather obviously, a book of poetry and Lewis hoped that it would be the vehicle that launched him to lyrical glory and fame.  He had written most of the  poems in his spare time while working with William Kirkpatrick (the “Great Knock”, on whom he later based the character of Professor Kirke) and in the army during World War I.  It was initially published under the pseudonym “Clive Hamilton” by William Heinemann in 1919.   This book differs greatly in tone and style from the later works that we know better.

It is important to remember that it was composed while Lewis was an atheist, and it doesn’t take much to figure out Lewis’s views.  In fact, he doesn’t so much as wear his atheism on his sleeve as pick it up and slaps you in the face with it.  He is fascinated with Milton and the characterization of Satan held therein.  Consider the following verses directed at God from “XII De Profundis”:

Yet I will not bow down to thee not love thee,
For looking in my own heart I can prove thee,
And know this frail, bruised being is above thee.

Our love, our hope, our thirsting for the right,
Our mercy and long seeking of the light,
Shall we change these for they relentless might?

Laugh then and slay.  Shatter all things of worth,
Heap torment still on torment for thy mirth-
Thou art not Lord while there are Men on earth.

I’ll have more to say on these later, but I want to finish the book first.  (So far, I’m about halfway through.)  In general, I am very underwhelmed, which is a strange thing to hear me say about Lewis.  My disinterest isn’t due to his atheism at all as it is his tone and composure.  Frankly, his flailing against God seems hollow–very like the petty tantrum of a spoiled child.  Perhaps others will find him more profound and I am simply a barbarian who cannot appreciate good poetry, but to me he has the same tone as any insecure religious believer who thinks that he or she can me more sure of his or her own faith by shouting at others over theirs.

Historically, the book was not a success and it did not secure Lewis a place as one of England or Ireland’s foremost poets.  I begin to see why….

P.S. Spirits in Bondage is the first of Lewis’s works to enter the public domain.  You can pick it up for free in various places, including the Kindle store.  Here is the link to the book from Project Gutenberg.

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Happy All Hallows’ Eve everyone!  Tonight is a good example of why I set this project up as a public blog:  otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting down to think on a little Lewis at all tonight!  A long day at work and then Trick or Treating with the family means I want to be curled up in bed, but since I haven’t posted since Thursday, I don’t want to let another night slip by.

I’ll try to keep this one short, since I still have more to do this evening.  In Surprised by Joy, right after explaining his attraction to the grand argument from Undesign, Jack notes that there is an obvious contradiction between the “Occultist fancies” he had absorbed from his beloved matron and the high, austere, and tragic atheism he had begun to adopt as a matter of philosophy.  They would seem to be mutually exclusive propositions, of course.  Like many of us, Lewis didn’t take the time to think it all out with perfect clarity and he “swayed” between them based entirely on his mood at a given moment.   The one common point between them was that they both pulled him away from his Christian faith, a bit at a time.  (65-66)

This tendency to ignore, indulge, or even to embrace paradox was a well established human trait long before Carl Barth systematized it into a theology or the postmodernists idolized it with their self-refuting descent into rhetorical nonsense.  I’ve seen it displayed as recently as this afternoon, when I was looking at the news.  In a story about the decision by Shorter University (a Christian school) to have its faculty sign a conduct agreement where they renounced sex outside of marriage and homosexuality, a random student contributed this gem of logic to the discussion:

“Who is one person to judge what somebody else does?” said one student, who spoke anonymously to the station. “It’s none of their business.”

And presumably the student made this statement with a straight face.  He/she is actually handing down a very obvious judgement against someone else (the school), condemning them for possibly judging someone else!  I have trouble understanding how some people’s heads don’t explode from the contradictions they have floating around inside their heads.  Perhaps it’s their abnormally thick skulls keep everything contained.

Of course, the point to observe here is that this is, indeed, entirely human.  Snark aside, I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of just such an intellectual sin far more often that I would like to admit.  To see it in C. S. Lewis, it is a clear and present reminder that, for all his considerable brain and potent imagination, he was as “real” as you or I.

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The final significant point of explanation C. S. Lewis offers in Surprised by Joy concerning his path away from faith and into unbelief is related to the pessimism I discussed in my post on Tuesday.  Jack’s father, Albert, had been in the habit, as perhaps many working men are, of repeatedly lamenting the hardness of the world and the difficulty of making ends meet.  It had reinforced Jack’s own pessimistic outlook and encouraged him to think of life as “an unremitting struggle in which the best I could hope for was to avoid the workhouse by extreme exertion” (64).  Even while at Cherbourg, Jack had already boiled all of life down to unavoidable drudgery.  As he said he described it to a friend, all they had to look forward to was “Term, holidays, term, holidays, till we leave school, and then work, work, work till we all die” (65).

Albert Lewis, Father of C. S. Lewis

Lewis later saw the same strand of laughable unreality in all this that he also saw in his general pessimism.  His father was quite comfortably and securely well off, especially by “our present tax-ridden standards” (64).  Really, he had no more business complaining about the difficulty of the universe than Jack did about the existence of Eton collars.

Of course, it’s easy to lose focus on the objective reality of what’s really going on around us when we’re submerged in the day-to-day grind of even generally enjoyable work.  That is especially true if that work begins to take on unreasonable proportions.  It devours your time, drains you, and leaves you feeling as if you have the weight of a very unfair world on your shoulders, particularly when it may seem that you have no recourse for relief.  I know I catch myself snapping unexpectedly at my family due to the stress I have had to deal with at work over the past year.  Even when I’m not being snippy, I find that I want to talk about the problems I face ad nauseum, because there is something in me that wants everyone to understand my plight and to sympathize.  Of course, I’m not so benighted as to think that there aren’t people out there who have it far worse than I, but it doesn’t always lessen my own particular burden to know that someone else’s is heavier.

We also have a tendency to overstate points to our children–I know I do.  We are so concerned that a stranger might kidnap Little Susie that we instill a pathological fear of all strangers in them when they are young.  (Not that it’s a bad thing…)  I suspect that at least some of Albert’s colorful descriptions of “real” life probably had their origins in a similar, kindly-meant motive.

Whatever the case, it is a reminder to me to take more care about what I say in front of children.  From Albert’s perspective, it was probably just a small thing–some complaining about work and a few strong words about the value of work–but it contributed to the complete loss of his son’s faith.  It prepared the ground for Jack’s pessimism, and his pessimism laid him open for what Jack himself calls atheism’s strongest siren song:  The “Argument from Undesign.”  He thought Lucretius put it well.

Nequaquam nobis divinitus esse paratm
Naturam rerum; tanta stat praedita culpa
Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see. (65)

And so, Jack Lewis, feeling that he had never truly met God in all of his forcibly manufactured prayers and certain that no good God could exist in such a universe, melted into a warm, contradictory haze of atheism, “dropping [his] faith with no sense of loss but with the greatest relief” (66).

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The Inklings (the writers group that meets at our house, patterned after the original) are incoming tomorrow night for the sixth annual “Dessert for Dinner” episode.  Presuming I survive the sugar and caffeine fueled antics, I’ll try to blog a little tomorrow too.  After that, I’ll see everyone again on Monday.


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Tonight’s examination of the next factor in C. S. Lewis’ original falling away from the faith will be relatively short, for the simple reason that there really isn’t much to say about it–legitimately, at least.  So, I’ll have to clam up after the explanation part of the discussion.  It has to do with Jack’s pessimistic outlook and how he came about acquiring it.  It is covered on pages 63-64 of Surprised by Joy.

Lewis notes that already at the ripe age of thirteen or fourteen, he had become convinced that the world was predisposed to making things difficult for its inhabitants, and that his pessimism was “much more of intellect than of temper.”  In short, he had difficulty believing that there was any significant power in the universe that wished anyone any good.  He had trouble communicating the idea, as it appeared to him ridiculous as he looked back on it, but at the time it was quite weighty glory.  For all his apologizing, I think his approximation quite good:

Perhaps I had better call it a settled expectation that everything would do what you did not want it to do.  Whatever you wanted to remain straight, would bend; whatever you tried to bend would fly back to the straight; all knots which you wished to be firm would come untied; all knots you wanted to untie would remain firm.

And that line of thinking, of course, would make Christianity seem more absurd by the day.  What hope had a negative universe of producing a positive savior or of sustaining a loving God?

The point of his life that he had reached with the writing of Surprised by Joy had given him some perspective, and there is a notable tone of embarrassment to his explanation.  After all, he is explaining why a boy, well-fed, well-provided for by his father, living at a good school that gave him many advantages, could look around at the universe and complain that it was being “unfair.”  Certainly the Eton collars they all had to wear were something to complain about (he did so, after all, by implication in the opening to The Magician’s Nephew), but there was nothing particularly significant in that.  All Jack could do in Surprised by Joy was apologize and insist that the feelings were, in some manner, very real and very effective in changing his outlook on his faith.

In this section Jack describes two factors that he thinks led him toward such a pessimistic view of life.  First, and perhaps most obviously, there was the loss of his mother at such an early age.  She had loved and provided for him, and her loss shattered his world, removing the supports he had expected to last forever.  Even before than that, though, he references his problems with his thumbs that made him clumsy as both a child and an adult.  It added another layer of difficulty to everything he tried, and, it may be that contributed to an expectation that everything must be out to get him.

All of that, of course, sounds perfectly reasonable.  And there, for now, at least, I think I must leave that point.  The historian in me constrains further wanton speculation for the simple reason that this is an entirely internal matter, entirely inside Jack’s own head.  It isn’t even a larger question of abstract truth–he isn’t arguing that he had proof for his pessimism, only that he felt it.  Therefore, the only evidence we can rely on is Lewis’s own explanations.  Anything more is simply uncalled for.  We should make no claims to know a man better than he knows himself, especially when so much time has passed.

As I progress, I can come back to this as new data becomes available–I can weigh Jack’s own words against one another; I can weigh his words against his actions; I cannot allow myself to weigh Jack against my own biases or against what I would have wanted him to be.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” –Sherlock Holmes, “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

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The next point brought up in Surprised by Joy deals with paganism and myth.  My friend Rachel ironically prefigured this whole question in the post she wrote today for the other blog I contribute to, While We’re Paused.  This issue was the first one that Lewis says gave rise to specific, conscious doubts about his faith:  If all other religions were simply rot, why should he believe Christianity to be any different?

Jack noted that in all of his classes and studies at Cherbourg, he was being presented with a slew of religious ideas from all sorts of places and times. Virgil was first among these in providing a “mass of religious ideas.”  All of this was presented to him as universal rubbish–all except, conveniently, the particular belief system prevalent in England at the time.  Jack wondered, and rightly so, what made Christianity so different that it shouldn’t be held to be in the same crowd as all the others?  His teachers never gave him any answer to that question.  Indeed, they likely didn’t know themselves.  In Lewis’s words:

No one ever attempted to show in what sense Christianity fulfilled Paganism or Paganism prefigured Christianity.  The accepted position seemed to be that religions were normally a mere farrago of nonsense, though our own, by a happy fortunate exception, was exactly true. […] But on what grounds could I believe this exception? It obviously was in some general sense the same kind of thing as all the rest.  Why was it so differently treated?  Need I, at any rate, continue to treat it differently?  I was very anxious not to. (62-63)

From the perspective of history and philosopy, there are a couple of points that strike me:

First, I’ve noticed, and I teach my classes, that there is always a time lag that is evident between the time a new idea (or ideas) are thought up and the moment when people really, truly begin to believe it and act on it.  Until practice catches up to theory (and indeed for quite a while afterward), people tend to act only on certain parts of an idea, while ignoring others.  Put simply, they take the idea only so far as “makes sense” based on their current ideas and previous sense of morality rather than take it to its logical conclusion.  We often see a few decades pass before people really begin to do what a philosophy demands.  We must allow time for a new generation to be raised up with fewer of the old inhibitions intact.

Naturalism and evolution is a good example.  Darwinism was in existence for decades before anyone actually tried to manage the human herd.  It was a gradual process of younger people continually asking “Why not?” again and again and realizing that, if naturalistic Darwinism was correct, there was no sufficient answer that could be given.  Slowly, that led us first to the eugenics movements and eventually to the Nazi purges.  Each step towards the conclusion would have given pause to the ones that went before–and the ends would seem unconscionable to those at the beginning–but to someone “forward thinking” enough, it just made sense.

I think what we see in Jack’s Cherbourg is a society in the middle of such a transition.  Jack is observing a period of English history were, in fact, many people have ceased to believe in Christianity in any real sense–they just haven’t all realized it yet.  It is left to the younger generation (Jack, in this case) to take the older one at their word and therefore to carry their ideas to their logical conclusion.*

Second, something else that might be coming into play is the tendency for us to teach what we are taught, regardless of whether or not it is consistent with our larger belief system in any meaningful way.  I know I’ve seen multiple professors who I know believe strongly in standards of right and wrong, in the truths of Christianity, stand up in class and teach philosophies that they themselves would not espouse if they really took the time to think about them.  Unfortunately, they’ve compartmentalized their lives to the point that they cannot understand how one part of their life might affect the other.  They teach the history that was taught to them (either by professors in person or in books) without really critiquing it from even their own perspective let alone a consistently Biblical worldview.  Perhaps some of Lewis’s teachers were in similar straights.  Perhaps not.  Without a closer look at them (diaries, lectures, etc.) it remains speculation.

Jack’s situation also demonstrates why my wife and I choose to homeschool our daughter.  Teachers exercise a tremendous amount of influence over children, and when a system clearly inculcates the idea that religion (particularly Christianity) is rot on virtually every level, it is often only by happy accident that someone emerges from it not only with their faith intact, but educated in the process.  It is certainly true that few, if any, come out as educated Christians.  I see no reason why we can’t have both–at least we’ll try.

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*From my own observations, this is an analogous period to American education in the 1970s, 80s, and perhaps a bit of the 90s.  America is always behind the curve when compared to Europe–and in this case it isn’t a bad thing.  I simply wish were weren’t trying so hard to catch up!  I see no reason to rush the handbasket on its way to Hell.

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