XFiles Weekend: “Jesus was an atheist”

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 4, “What Lies Behind the Law”)

Professor C. S. Lewis is a highly intelligent man who started out not believing in God and ended up a believer. His book Mere Christianity would like to lead the rest of us down the same path. So far, though, the road has taken some bizarre twists and turns. He began, in Chapter One, by informing us that there is a Law of Right and Wrong, or a Law of (Human) Nature, which he claimed was a universal and objective law like the laws of Nature. Then he noted that, in fact, this Law of (Human) Nature was really not very much like a scientific law of Nature after all. Yet, rather than admit that his so-called Law was not real, he jumped to the conclusion that there must be more than one reality, in order to provide some way his “Law” could be real in some sense. And in last week’s post, we saw him begin to deny, or at least doubt, the idea that the scientific laws of nature are truly real.

It’s fascinating, in a watching-a-train-wreck sort of way. Step by step, the gifted thinker, writer, and Oxford don is leading himself to turn his back on such truth as can be learned by studying the real world, and to embrace instead a sort of “truth” that springs from superstition, subjectivism, and gullibility. Having borrowed the authority of real laws of nature in order to lend legitimacy to his own fanciful Law, he then turns around and rejects the reality of the laws he started from, and embraces his own creation as the sole Real Law. “I reject your reality, and substitute a Truth of my own invention.” And thus the road to faith is paved.

Lewis continues this myth-building process by presenting us with what he calls two views regarding what the universe is and how it got here.

First, there is what is called the materialist view. People who take that view think that matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why; and that the matter, behaving in certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke, to produce creatures like ourselves who are able to think. By one chance in a thousand something hit our sun and made it produce the planets; and by another thousandth chance the chemicals necessary for life, and the right temperature, occurred on one of these planets, and so some of the matter on this earth came alive; and then, by a very long series of chances, the living creatures developed into things like us.

Note that Lewis is writing this in the 1940’s, roughly a decade before the emergence of the modern creationist movement, which probably explains why he uses relatively small numbers like “thousand” instead of making up a number with so many zeros that we don’t have a name for it. Each generation of denialists needs a bigger number, in order to impress the rubes, but this is a very primitive form of creationism that hasn’t yet learned to manipulate arbitrary statistics effectively.

Like the modern creationists, though, Lewis pushes the mistaken notion that materialists credit random chance with the emergence of life on earth. Granted, it might seem random to a superstitious observer, because a superstitious observer will be seeking some kind of plan and purpose behind the operation of natural forces, while scientific observation finds no such intentional direction in Nature.

The absence of intentional direction, however, does not mean that there is no direction at all. The things that happen in the real world are directed by the natural laws that constrain them. Just as gravity makes falling more likely than flying, other natural laws make some possibilities more likely than others; working in concert, they produce a “directed” property of nature without producing or requiring any “intentional” property. It is precisely because nature is directed, and not merely random, that science is able to study natural phenomena and discover the laws that are directing it. A truly random universe, where things happened only by chance, would be the kind of chaos that would leave science helpless and useless. Fortunately, despite Lewis’ biased and mistaken assessment, the material universe is not that sort of universe at all.

The other view is the religious view. According to it, what is behind the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know. That is to say, it is conscious, and has purposes, and prefers one thing to another. And on this view it made the universe, partly for purposes we do not know, but partly, at any rate, in order to produce creatures like itself—I mean, like itself to the extent of having minds. Please do not think that one of these views was held a long time ago and that the other has gradually taken its place. Wherever there have been thinking men both views turn up.

You have to admire the careful precision with which he makes that last claim. It is indeed true: whenever you find a culture that produces a genuine thinker—a Socrates, for example—you find both a tendency to define “truth” in terms of what can be observed in the real world, and also the “religious” view. Whenever society fails to produce such thinking men, you typically have only the religious view. So it is technically quite true that whenever there have been thinking men, both views turn up.

I don’t want to be too hard on religion, though. What Lewis describes as “the religious view” is actually something a bit more specific than that. The word Lewis ought to have used is animistic. Humans are a social species, with some fairly well-developed social instincts to allow complex social interactions to work. Animism puts those highly-developed social instincts to work as tools for understanding the equally complex interactions between man and nature. Primitive man had no scientific understanding of meteorology, so he understood the weather in terms of the moods of some kind of invisible, magical mind behind the weather, and likewise for diseases, farming, and a gazillion and one other things that people have gods and spirits for.

It’s something that social instincts are surprisingly good at. After all, we learn to read people’s moods by noticing and learning subtle signs in their body language and facial expression; how much harder is it to apply the same technique to subtle signs in the clouds and the direction of the wind? Even if it does not predict the future as reliably as we’d like, at least it supplies a context in which we can relate our observations to something we’re familiar with, and that means a lot to most people.

So yes, it’s true that wherever there have been thinking men, a more materialistic view of the universe has turned up alongside the usual animism that arises among the ignorant and superstitious and gullible. (Notice I did not say stupid—animism does sorta kinda work in the absence of anything better. And besides, intelligence isn’t necessarily incompatible with animism, since you can always use your intellect to create sophisticated rationalizations for animistic beliefs.) But where Lewis really goes off the rails is in his next statement:

And note this too. You cannot find out which view is the right one by science in the ordinary sense. Science works by experiments. It watches how things behave. Every scientific statement in the long run, however complicated it looks, really means something like, ‘I pointed the telescope to such and such a part of the sky at 2:20 a.m. on January 15th and saw so-and-so,’ or, ‘I put some of this stuff in a pot and heated it to such-and-such a temperature and it did so-and-so.’ Do not think I am saying anything against science: I am only saying what its job is. And the more scientific a man is, the more (I believe) he would agree with me that this is the job of science—and a very useful and necessary job it is too. But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes—something of a different kind—this is not a scientific question.

It would be hard to over-emphasize how wrong Lewis is in making this claim. In fact, if you wanted to be as wrong about Christianity as Lewis is about science, you would have to say something on the order of “Jesus was an atheist.” That’s how wide of the mark Lewis is with his statements about science.

Science is all about discovering what lies behind the things we observe in the real world. Observations are a part of science, just like being good to your neighbors is part of Christianity. But to claim that the whole necessarily boils down to just this one part is to do violence to what the whole is really all about. The whole point of science, the focus of all its tools and techniques, is the discovery of the truth about why the universe is the way it is and how it got that way, in the same sense that the whole point of Christianity is finding a way to get right with God and obtain salvation.

Could Lewis be unaware of the real focus of science? Could Richard Dawkins be unaware of Christianity’s belief in God? That’s the level of cluelessness we’d be talking about here. It is inconceivable that a middle school student could get a passing grade in middle school science without being at least aware of the fact that science probes for the causes behind the observations. Well, ok, maybe some students might be that dull, but an Oxford don like Professor Lewis?

I think what we’re seeing here is a great mind in denial. Lewis knows better than to deny that science is both willing and able to address exactly the questions he proposes. But he also knows that the scientific answers are not going to tell him what he wants to hear. Thus, he convinces himself that science cannot even ask the questions, leaving him carte blanche to simply ignore those answers when they do turn up. Intellectually, he ought to know better, but his intellect is overruled by his toxic faith, and hence he turns to blind denial instead.

I’ve got more to say on this topic, and Lewis develops it further in the next part of Chapter Four, but we’re out of space for this week, so stay tuned.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (3 votes, average: 4.67 out of 5)
Posted in Unapologetics, XFiles. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: “Jesus was an atheist””

  1. Hunt Says:

    It’s interesting to speculate just how much of modern protestant Christianity is based more on the works of Lewis than actual scripture. You can read these fledgling creationist arguments as just one instance of the start of a movement, or as actual founding documents for the movement. You can see shades of Lewis in almost all present day apologetics, for instance in William Lane Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument, and it’s transcendent, immaterial God-mind that predates our universe. I wonder how much of all of this can be attributed to Lewis, who seems to have taken the Christian myth into overdrive.

  2. mikespeir Says:

    I see there’s only one comment so far, so I think I’d better weigh in if for no other reason than to give you a pat on the back. Part of the problem here, DD, is that you cover the ground so well that there’s not much space left for further comment.

  3. Scotlyn Says:

    Agree with mikespeir – these posts are very good (and its awfully hard waiting a week for the next one).

    But a small point following up on yours about how precise Lewis’s wording can be.

    He says: “You cannot find out which view is the right one by science in the ordinary sense.”

    Does he mean “you cannot find out which view is the correct one”? (ie the one most aligned with reality as discoverable by experimentation). If so, then he is wrong in the way that you say he is. Science is able to discover which view is most closely aligned with the evidence. But is it possible he means “you cannot find out which is the righteous one by science in the ordinary sense.” In which case he is, in a precise and nit-picky way, according to his own convictions, right.

  4. pboyfloyd Says:

    I think that Lewis is coming from the ‘purpose’ point of view. He feels he has a purpose. That purpose is to encourage your feeling of having a purpose. The entire book is glitter; sophisticated, charming glitter.

    We can only imagine the Christian reader skimming through and coming home with the message, “He’s very smart, very well ‘spoken’, and darn it, he agrees with me and he LIKES us!”

  5. mikespeir Says:

    “He’s very smart, very well ‘spoken’, and darn it, he agrees with me and he LIKES us!”

    You hit that nail right on the head. As a Christian I would have fought you over it, but looking back on it, it’s so true. It was of me. So many Christians can defend their beliefs only by appeals to authority: “Why, William Lane Craig says that the historical evidence for the Resurrection is compelling, and he has two PhDs!” So often I’d be too lazy to acquaint myself with the actual arguments either way. Instead, I’d just think of some “real smart” person who agreed with the way I had been taught and that sufficed for an argument.