XFiles Weekend: the Good guysNovember 14, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 5, “We Have Cause To Be Uneasy”)
We come now to one of the more interesting things C. S. Lewis has said in the entire book so far. It’s an off-hand remark, a casual comment tossed in as a obvious truism, and one that you’ll hear echoed by an astonishingly large number of ordinary rank-and-file believers. And yet, despite all the people who take it for granted that things must be this way, it’s fairly trivial to show that it’s nonsense. Logically, rationally, it means something that can be called true in only the most trivial and even tautological sense. And yet people take it as one of the most fundamental Absolute Truths a person could base their life on. Why?
This is a very interesting question to me, and I’ve got a few ideas that I think are at least part of the answer. But still something about it mystifies me. I’d be interested to hear other people’s comments on this topic.
As you may recall from last time, Prof. Lewis has “not yet got as far as a personal God—only as far as a power, behind the Moral Law, and more like a mind than it is like anything else. But it may still be very unlike a Person.” Yet despite this, the next part of Lewis’ argument assumes that this “power” is indeed a person, with likes and dislikes, and a very strong preference for “Good.”
[Y]ou know at bottom that unless the power behind the world really and unalterably detests [evil] behaviour, then He cannot be good. On the other hand, we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do. That is the terrible fix we are in.
Not half so terrible as the fix Lewis himself is in, rationally speaking. Not only has he failed to provide any reason why this “power” would be capable or interested in “loving” or “hating” anything, he’s trying to assess the “goodness” of this power by measuring it according its own definitions. It need not have “good” reasons for requiring us to be “good,” nor is it really even meaningful to use the term “good” to describe the fundamental definition of what “good” means. Ask anybody in marketing: arbitrarily designating something as “good” is no guarantee that it really is good!
There is a deeper, more fundamental definition of “good,” by which we instinctively judge whether things like the Moral Law or even God Himself—erm, excuse me I mean “the mysterious power behind the Law”—can rightly be called Good. And, in a bit of poetic justice, Lewis finds that he must rely on this real-world standard of Good and Evil/Right and Wrong, in order to spin his argument to favor Christian doctrine. If this real-world standard exists independently of the Law, however, then Lewis’ whole premise is mistaken and/or misleading, whereas if it does not exist, then he cannot correctly appeal to it here.
That’s pretty much where we left off last week, but now for the interesting bit.
If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless.
This may be the most fascinating statement in the whole book. Notice how Lewis (and millions of other believers) make two assumptions here which they assume to be absolutely and incontrovertibly true:
- The universe is governed by an absolute goodness, and
- This is necessary in order for us to have hope in the long run.
These two assumptions are why it is practically impossible for an atheist to win an argument with a believer over morality. The atheist must be wrong, because the universe must be governed by an “absolute goodness” (i.e. God), because without God, all our efforts are hopeless in the long run. Or in other words, “it must be true because I don’t want it to be false.”
Fascinating, isn’t it? Lewis tosses it off as though it were a common-sense observation, even though it’s fallacious nonsense in all but the most trivial of senses. Yet somehow this “observation” provides a powerful psychological motive that drives the moral reasonings of millions if not billions. What’s behind it? Is it simple denial? Some kind of psychological insulation to shut out the realization that “someday I will not be”?
That’s a big part of it, I think. Logically and rationally, it’s easy for the atheist to highlight just a small portion of the real-world evidence that’s inconsistent with the idea that the universe is governed by an absolute goodness. Trying to show that to a believer, however, is the psychological and emotional equivalent of saying “the universe is out to kill you, and someday it will succeed.” People tune that out, and tune out the atheist along with it. That makes C. S. Lewis’ job a walk in the park.
I think there may be another important dynamic here as well, a more tribal dynamic. Remember, moral laws are primarily social laws. “Good” behaviors and “evil” behaviors are defined relative to how they affect other people. Different groups within society, however, may have different standards of right and wrong. Especially among believers, the defense of Moral Law goes hand in hand with the assumption that our definition of goodness is the definition of goodness. To champion a particular moral code is to assert the supremacy of the cultural group that “owns” that standard. In that light, those who argue for “absolute goodness” as the supreme authority are merely taking the idea of a Christian Nation and applying it to the whole physical universe. “We are the rightful arbiters of morality, because the entire cosmos is subject to a Ruler whose opinions are the same as ours!”
This is a particularly vexing dynamic because it means that if you have a believer wise enough and self-aware enough not to let fear of death cloud their consideration of morality, they will still have a very powerful psychosocial motive for advocating the validity of Moral Law. Defending this kind of moral reasoning means going up in the esteem of your peers. Propagating it means raising the status of your group in society as a whole. Even if it’s a transparent rationalization and hopeless self-contradiction, you can gain politically and socially by selling it to the “unwashed masses,” who are not at all reluctant to swallow it. “We are the Good guys, led by the Hero, and we’re going to win.” Who wouldn’t want to jump on that bandwagon?
What can we, as unbelievers, do to counter this kind of diseased thinking? I’m open for suggestions. One thing I think we can do is to simply raise awareness of the issues. For example, it’s nonsense to claim that “all our efforts are hopeless in the long run” unless the universe is governed by “absolute goodness.” Hope, by its very nature, is an expectation of change for the better. If any state would rightly be called hopeless, it would have to be heaven, or some other variation on eternal bliss, since you could never hope for things to get better there. And that in turn shows us that it’s pointless to hope for things to be better than they can be.
Hope, and meaning, and purpose, and all the things that believers associate with having some kind of eternal objective, are all things that, in fact, lose their significance in the context of eternity. The purpose of eating is to satisfy the need of the moment, not to achieve some eternal satisfaction in which you never hunger. And likewise with other appetites, like the desire for beauty, or mental stimulation, or challenge, or achievement. The true meaning and purpose of things are rooted and nourished in the changeable, imperfect, ephemeral world in which we experience them, not in some eternal and unchanging perfection that’s effectively indistinguishable from death. We have hope, we have purpose, we have meaning, because we live in a world where there is room for improvement, and the possibility of achieving better things by our efforts.
Now, if you say, “But that still leaves us without a reason to hope that we will live forever in ceaseless bliss,” then I will reply that this is true, in the exact same sense that a detox clinic will try to leave a drug addict without a reason to hope he can stay high for the rest of his life. Ok, one difference: drug-induced euphorias do exist in the real world, whereas the evidence for heaven, not so much. But the point is, hope can be a bad thing if your hope is simply a form of denial and rejection of the real world. If you routinely write checks based only on the hope that your account will have enough to cover the draft, you’ll get to know your bank manager—if not your parole officer—on a first name basis. It is far better to embrace reality as it really is, and to find your meaning and purpose and hope in the real-world truth.
And that’s it for now. I don’t feel like it’s quite enough, and I’m sure there’s lots more that could be said (and probably should be). It’s a bit of a tangent from our main topic, though, so I’m going to keep it to just one post. Next week we’ll pick up back in Chapter 5 again.