XFiles Weekend: Not with a bang

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 5, “We Have Cause To Be Uneasy”)

At the beginning of Chapter 5, Prof. Lewis started to address those of us who might have “felt a certain annoyance” at his wild leap to the conclusion that there must be some supernatural What or Who behind morality. “You may even have thought that I had played a trick on you—that I had been carefully wrapping up to look like philosophy what turns out to be one more ‘religious jaw’.” In response, he said he had three things to say, the first two of which we’ve already seen.

The third point is, in some ways, a bit surprising. The real surprise, though, is that this third point isn’t just a brief aside on the way to a well-reasoned conclusion. It is the conclusion! He just got done telling us that his argument thus far hasn’t brought us “within a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology,” and yet now, apparently, he’s ready to conclude that the Someone “behind” the so-called Moral Law is the Christian God. And he sees nothing wrong with arriving at that conclusion via sloppy, subjective, and unfinished reasoning! Simply astonishing.

Lewis’ third point is, surprisingly, more or less a confession.

Now my third point. When I chose to get to my real subject in this roundabout way, I was not trying to play any kind of trick on you. I had a different reason. My reason was that Christianity simply does not make sense until you have faced the sort of facts I have been describing.

Except that he explicitly rejected real-world facts as a reliable means of discovering the truth about the origin of moral feelings. He called them mere “external observations,” as contrasted with the “inside information” we have about our feelings because we’re the ones feeling them. Despite his denial of trickery, he admits that his whole argument up to this point is, not an objective inquiry into the facts, but simply an attempt to manufacture a subjective mind-set within which Christianity might make sense.

The way he does that is by taking the standard “religious jaw” of Christian dogma and carefully wrapping it up to look like philosophy. It’s not that he’s providing us with an intellectual framework within which he defines the terms used to describe Christian concepts. He’s not trying to explain Christianity at all, he’s just trying to create a “felt need” for what Christianity is selling. (Rather an interesting use of the phrase “make sense,” in my opinion.)

Christianity tells people to repent and promises them forgiveness. It therefore has nothing (as far as I know) to say to people who do not know that they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness.

In other words, you can’t sell your snake oil to people unless they think they’re sick. Lewis may have paid lip service to at least the vocabulary of rational objectivity, but everything he said, every fact he pointed out, every fact he ignored, every spin he put on his interpretations, was all designed to make us feel like sinners rebelling against God’s will, and in need of a Savior, in the classic Christian tradition.

So in other words, the only way Christianity makes sense, Lewis proposes, is if you first condition your audience to reject scientific facts, to rely on subjective feelings, and to assume that the Gospel is true. Could there be a greater indictment against Christianity than C. S. Lewis’ defense of it?

Let’s do a quick review of some of the ways Lewis’ Moral Law argument falls short.

  1. He fails to consider simpler, natural explanations like empathy, peer pressure, and anticipation of consequences, working together in a larger social context.
  2. He fails to observe that feelings of guilt are unreliable as indicators of actual guilt (just as remorselessness is unreliable as an indicator of innocence).
  3. He fails to identify any particular source for his claim that “philosophers” used to speak of a “Law of (Human) Nature,” nor does he offer any reasons why we ought to accept the ancient philosophers’ conclusions as true.
  4. He acknowledges that different moralities exist, but fails to address the implications this fact has for his “Moral Law” conjecture. Instead, he merely dismisses all such differences by claiming that the moralities are not entirely different, and therefore the differences don’t matter. You know, like the way poisonous mushrooms are not entirely different from edible ones, and therefore the differences don’t matter.
  5. He assumes that when we feel like we “ought” to do something that we’re unwilling or afraid to do, this feeling of “oughtness” is the Moral Law speaking directly to us. Unfortunately, he completely fails to explain how we can all be getting our Moral Law by direct, subjective intuition, and yet not all get the same definitions of right and wrong. Either this intuitive sense of morality is infallible, in which case there should never be any differences in our morality, or it’s unreliable, and we ought not feel guilty about letting our better judgment overrule it now and then.
  6. He fails to explain how the same thing can be both right and wrong at the same time, for different groups of people (e.g. befriending people so that you can betray them to their enemies).
  7. He fails to explain why some choices have no right/good answer (e.g. abortion).
  8. He acknowledges that genuine laws of nature describe patterns that we consistently observe in the real world, and he even acknowledges that his proposed Moral Law does not describe any observable real-world patterns. Instead of acknowledging that his conjecture does not fit the facts, however, he invokes a completely gratuitous supernatural realm, and proposes that the discrepancies are due to this “Law” coming from “outside” the observable universe.
  9. He fails to provide an objective way to determine what right and wrong and good and evil are (other than just taking some guy’s word for it), and yet consistently assumes that his definition of right and wrong is true and correct.
  10. He consistently prefers superstitious attributions over natural/scientific explanations, even when the more mundane explanations are a better fit for the facts.
  11. He bases at least part of his argument on the assumption that matter cannot think, even though the only known instances of thinking occur in biological brains made of matter.
  12. He fails to acknowledge the existence of scientific analysis and the whole gamut of procedures, tests, and methodologies that allow us to look beyond the immediate observations to the underlying causes and forces at play. Worse, Lewis proposes a crippled version of “science,” limited to observations only, and makes that the basis for arguing that we should trust our subjective feelings more than we trust science, as the basis for understanding morality.

Well, I could go on, but 12’s a nice round number. C. S. Lewis set out to find a plausible, rational, objectively-factual basis upon which to present the skeptic (or at least the believer) with a valid reason to believe in the Christian Gospel. The fact that he made such a bloody hash of it—and became renowned as a defender of the Faith for it—just goes to show how far the Gospel is from having a rational, objective, and factual basis.

And that’s it. Bad as it was, incomplete as it was, this was Lewis’ whole argument for why we ought to think Christianity is really true. The next chapter starts “Book II – What Christians Believe.” We’ve finished the apologetics part, and now it’s on to the unvarnished dogma. That will probably come as a bit of a relief, for Lewis and for us, since he can stop pretending his arguments are rational and objective.

Ever since I was an evangelical Christian, I’ve always thought of Lewis as a champion defender of the Christian faith, and even after I left the faith, I still saw him as a leading Christian apologist. That’s a big part of why I picked Mere Christianity as my next book to work through. But now that I see what his apologetics are like, I can no longer call him an apologist. C. S. Lewis is a good writer (as in “easy to read”), but his true role is as a popularizer of Christian thought. He’s not deep, he’s broad, and that’s what makes him so famous. He tells people what they like to hear, says it smoothly, and doesn’t press any uncomfortable issues.

It’s a bit disappointing, but never fear, we’ll drive on. Next week, we’ll start Book II, What Christians Believe. Given his offhand remarks about how Christianity has nothing to say to anyone unless they’re damned souls in need of salvation, it should be interesting.

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Posted in Atheistic Morality, Unapologetics, XFiles. 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: Not with a bang”

  1. pboyfloyd Says:

    Well, that’s perfect then. Everyone not willing to feel guilty about nothing, take the rest of the book, and your life, off.

  2. Tony Hoffman Says:

    “It’s a bit disappointing, but never fear, we’ll drive on. Next week, we’ll start Book II, What Christians Believe.:

    Oh God, please, no.

    I appreciate your writing (much) more than Lewis’s. You should consider if your time is better spent writing about something more worthy.

    Unless you feel there is a need for a comprehensive takedown of Lewis. And maybe there is; I have to say that I never thought anyone considered him one of the last century’s great minds until I started frequenting apologist blogs. There it is an article of faith, like the 3 (or is it 4?) facts of the Resurrection upon which all historians must agree.

  3. Hunt Says:

    No, I think it’s a good idea to forge onward. Lewis has set the stage, now let’s see how it plays out. It should at least be worth a laugh or two.

  4. Nemo Says:

    You imply that better, more convincing apologetics are possible. I have to say, I’m skeptical of that. Do let us know if you come across any.

  5. Ken Browning Says:

    It’s probably good to have a complete reference set for those transitioning out of Christianity but otherwise I’m with Tony. Walking down memory lane with Lewis has been borrrr-ing. Natural Law is a corpse and apologists should just stop dancing it around their playground.

  6. bbleeker Says:

    What the hell is wrong with me, that I didn’t see at least some of those points myself? It really scared me, and made me wonder what other nonsense I believe in, that I ought to have seen through right away…