XFiles Weekend: Big divisions

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 6, “The Rival Conceptions of God”)

Did you ever notice how some people can take a perfectly innocent and neutral fact, and make it sound incriminating, just by how they phrase it? For example, here’s C. S. Lewis observing that, when we consider all religions throughout history, both Christians and atheists can find things they think are right and things they think are wrong:

If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.

Clever, isn’t it? Notice how you can reverse the nouns and say pretty much the same thing: atheists don’t have to believe that all religions are wrong all through, and Christians do think that the main point in all other religions is simply one huge mistake (with the possible exception of Judaism, but that’s Christianity’s ancestor, so naturally they can’t call that wrong).

Here’s another way of looking at it. He could have looked at Greek mythology and Norse mythology and all the many, many gods of the past, and said, “Of all the people who have ever agreed with me about gods existing, at least the vast majority have been wrong about their gods, whereas of all the times atheists have said that someone’s god was a myth, they’ve been right the vast majority of the time. In fact, by Christian standards, there’s only one case where there’s even a possibility that the atheists might have been wrong. So from a historical perspective, theism has been wrong most of the time, and atheism has been right most of the time.”

Of course, that would also be a biased discussion of the facts. Put this version next to Lewis’ version, though, and I think you get a fair and balanced view: you get to see how liberal Christians become when they believe in gods, and you get to see the true value of being liberal minded about gods in a world where such beliefs have historically been found to be wrong at least most of the time.

Having bragged about how open-minded Christians are, Lewis is immediately struck by a sudden twinge of monotheism.

But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong.

In other words, Christians also believe that “most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most.” The difference is that when atheists believe this, that’s a bad thing, but when Christians hold the same view, it’s a good thing. He then tries to soften the obvious hypocrisy of his argument by comparing religion to math: there’s only one right answer, but some wrong answers are nearer to being right than others. Which is true, but is hardly a uniquely Christian perspective: the only difference in the atheist position is which right answers you’re comparing the wrong answers to.

That’s just the warm-up though. The main point of this chapter is to divide humanity into two groups, or more specifically, to divide mankind in some way that makes Christianity look superior to all other alternatives.

The first big division of humanity is into the majority, who believe in some kind of God or gods, and the minority who do not. On this point, Christianity lines up with the majority…

…who, even by Christian standards, have been wrong in at least most of the cases where gods have been proposed. He doesn’t point out that particular “qualification” of course, but he does seem to feel like it’s not really a strong enough recommendation for Christianity, so he builds on it.

Now I go on to the next big division. People who all believe in God can be divided according to the sort of God they believe in. There are two very different ideas on this subject. One of them is the idea that He is beyond good and evil… The other and opposite idea is that God is quite definitely ‘good’ or ‘righteous’, a God who takes sides, who loves love and hates hatred, who wants us to behave in one way and not in another. The first of these views—the one that thinks God beyond good and evil—is called Pantheism. It was held by the great Prussian philosopher Hegel and, as far as I can understand them, by the Hindus. The other view is held by Jews, Mohammedans and Christians.

Isn’t it fascinating how all the polytheists, all the bulk of the majority Lewis used in his first division, have suddenly ceased to exist, and indeed seem to have never existed at all? By the second division, all theists are monotheists, either pantheistic monotheists, or Judeo-Christian(-Muslim) monotheists. Even the Hindus have somehow lost Vishnu and Krisha and all the rest, and become believers in a solitary, pantheistic He Who Is Beyond Good and Evil.

I find it fascinating that Lewis would choose this particular distinction to make when there are so many others he could have made. He wrote this during WWII; is he motivated, perhaps, by anti-Nazi sentiments, seeking to blame the war on pantheistic Prussian philosophers? Or is he, perhaps, worried that, by engaging polytheism, he might dilute the case for theism, and might raise issues that would make Trinitarianism a doubtful proposition?

Regardless, this is the division Lewis chooses to make, and it, too, is fascinating, because once again he has painted himself into a corner: God cannot be the Creator of moral standards like Good and Evil unless He Himself is indeed above and beyond such standards. With a bit of thought, Lewis ought to have been able to see that the pantheistic position is not only superior, but inevitable. Any tyrant can declare himself “good” on the grounds that, being tyrant, he can define “good” however he likes. That doesn’t make him “good good,” it just means he’s praising himself. If God is that kind of “good” tyrant, then there’s no real merit in His “goodness,” because He’s just stacking the deck to His own arbitrary advantage.

The only way God can be truly good is if some higher power, beyond Good and Evil, establishes an objective standard of goodness that God can measure up to. Such a higher power, however, is by definition a God greater than Jehovah, since Jehovah must obey and be judged by this God before He can be found “good.” (I call this God Alethea, but that’s just for our human convenience.) So already Lewis’ argument implies the superiority of the pantheistic God he wants to reject.

Lewis compounds this problem by discussing how a pantheistic God is the universe, and the Christian God is not. The Christian God is the creator of the universe, and exists apart from, and in contrast to, His creation. That means that there is indeed a greater power than Jehovah, because there exists a Reality, containing both Creation and Creator, of which the Creator is only a part. Jehovah, and the things Jehovah can do, are bound by Reality, because Reality (aka Alethea) encompasses all that is real, whether visible or invisible. Thus Jehovah can never be greater than Alethea, because She comprises everything that He can do that is real, and Alethea is always greater than Jehovah, because She comprises everything that’s real about Jehovah plus everything that’s real about Creation.

Lewis tries to paint the pantheist in a bad light (just as he did with atheists at the beginning of the chapter), as though pantheists were apathetic about the difference between Good and Evil. It’s not really fair. True, pantheists do say that good and evil are neutral from God’s point of view, but that’s not the pantheist’s attitude. The pantheist is simply reporting the fact that God does not actively promote Good and suppress Evil in the real world. Even Christians have to acknowledge that God does not intervene to prevent disasters like 9/11 or the Christmas tsunami or ebola or what have you. To say that God is beyond good and evil, and that both are part of the same pantheistic God is simply to say “Evil is real.” But that’s obviously true, so why would anyone be ashamed to say it?

The Christian reply, according to Lewis, is “Don’t talk damned nonsense,” with a footnote explaining that by “damned nonsense” he means nonsense that will literally damn you to Hell.

For Christianity is a fighting religion. It thinks God made the world—that space and time, heat and cold, and all the colours and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables, are things that God ‘made up out of His head’ as a man makes up a story. But it also thinks that a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made, and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again.

Call me biased, but it seems to me that the term “damned nonsense” would be better applied to the idea of fighting for a religion, to the point of twisting the facts and slandering your opponents, when pantheism is a better fit for the facts, and when your own religion is based on blind faith in the words of men. In fact, if you’re looking for nonsense, why not consider the fact that you’re claiming an all-powerful, all-good Creator, and yet admitting that things have “gone wrong” with His creation. Why would such an awesome God become such an epic fail? That’s Lewis’ next topic, but we’ll have to save that for next week. Stay tuned.

 
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Posted in Unapologetics, XFiles. 10 Comments »

10 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: Big divisions”

  1. Abeille Says:

    Hindu’s are monotheistic.
    They believe in monoism — Everyone (Everything) has a spark of God, the God who breathes without breath, in them.
    Krisha, Vishnu, Shiva, and all the rest are all merely incarnations of this One-God.

    Great job on the reviews- Can’t wait for next week!

  2. JohnMWhite Says:

    “But it also thinks that a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made, and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again.”

    God can do his own dirty work!

    Great series, Deacon. It is depressing though to see Lewis fumbling so badly in the dark, never quite sure of the implications of what he is saying and just trying to force the argument to fit the mould of the preconceived conclusion. As such a great wordsmith, he should know better, and I am worried at times that perhaps he does know what he’s doing and does not care, because when it comes to winning people for Jesus, the ends seem to justify the means.

  3. pboyfloyd Says:

    Seems to me that, sure, Lewis is fumbling around, but with a purpose. It’s propaganda by analysis. First discount atheists, then discount pantheists, then appeal to the faithful’s ‘fighting spirit’.

    This puts all opposition in a forced ‘passive mode’ and “God forbid” they come out fighting. Why, God and his little helpers are up for a scrap, and, if you don’t want to fight back, why you’re just going to have to accept that we can (at least try to) force you to be ‘good’.

    His intended audience likely swallow this whole and ask for seconds.

  4. David Evans Says:

    I think what Lewis says here is defensible. Most religions hold that:
    there is a reality other than the natural world
    we can experience that reality in ways not involving our senses
    that reality is in some sense personal
    we live (or can live) after death, and that life is affected by our relationship to the supernatural reality

    Atheists have to believe that the religious are completely wrong to believe any of that. The religious have only to believe that members of other religions are wrong in detail.

  5. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Well, I think it’s a question of emphasis more than anything else. You could choose to emphasize the way Christians and atheists are both in agreement about pagan mythology, and de-emphasize the difference between the supernaturalist and the naturalist. Remember, too, that not all atheists are anti-supernaturalists. You can be an atheist and still believe in an afterlife (e.g. reincarnation), and if you want to emphasize how much atheists have in common with other non-Christians, you could argue just as well that Christians are the odd man out, depending on how you rank the relative importance of the various differences.

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:

    The other thing I’d like to point out (and should probably have put in my post) is that the whole argument is actually irrelevant to the question of who is right. Yes, if you think one answer is correct (e.g. the earth revolves around the sun) then you’re implying that everyone who disagrees with that idea is wrong (geocentrists). But so what? If belief in God is a purely subjective “truth,” then ok, fine, it might be worth noting how many people share that particular subjective belief. But majority opinion won’t bring God into tangible, objective existence if He’s not already there, so counting the number of theists is really rather moot as far as the truth about God is concerned.

  7. pboyfloyd Says:

    Seems to me that Christians in general want to believe that black and white thinking is wrong in others, but perfectly okay in themselves.

    As in, “Atheists can’t be right, ‘cos most people are religious.”, but, “Christians ARE right, ‘cos most religions are wrong.”

    Still, I feel that they had their chance, they did their experiment, stamping out all heretics, non-believers etc., and it didn’t work. Seems they just accomodated evil and made a big business out of the whole thing.

  8. Swimmy Says:

    Deacon: I don’t think the question of majority opinion is entirely irrelevant to the question of who is right. Other people’s beliefs are evidence. For instance, if my girlfriend says, “I saw a green car just go by,” that is evidence that a green car just went by, even if I didn’t see it myself. I could have failed to notice it; why should I think my perception so much superior to hers?

    But beliefs are weak evidence. They are completely superceded by stronger forms of evidence. If the witness to a rape says, “I swear that’s the man I saw,” and the DNA collected does not implicate him in any way, trust the DNA. In light of likely cognitive bias, discard beliefs as evidence like you would an event you witnessed while on a powerful hallucinogenic. Religion is a subject for which cognitive bias is extremely likely to play a part in belief formation, and the only evidence Lewis has presented in his favor is the ridiculous “moral law” argument.

  9. Tacroy Says:

    There are two very different ideas on this subject. One of them is the idea that He is beyond good and evil… The other and opposite idea is that God is quite definitely ‘good’ or ‘righteous’, a God who takes sides, who loves love and hates hatred, who wants us to behave in one way and not in another. The first of these views—the one that thinks God beyond good and evil—is called Pantheism. It was held by the great Prussian philosopher Hegel and, as far as I can understand them, by the Hindus. The other view is held by Jews, Mohammedans and Christians.

    Oh shoot, someone call Karen Armstrong and all those other apophatic Christian theologists and tell them they’re not really Christians!

  10. ssjessiechan Says:

    David Evans noted:
    “Atheists have to believe that the religious are completely wrong to believe any of that. The religious have only to believe that members of other religions are wrong in detail.”

    While it’s a somewhat semantic point, and it’s complicated by folks using their own definitions and titles, I really don’t think that’s true. As the good Deacon pointed out, not all atheists are pure materialists (though I am), but I would also point out that there’s nothing about atheism in its general form that specifically denies the possibility of the existence of any kind of god. It can merely mean you don’t happen to believe in any particular god. Many call that agnosticism (largely, I think, because they don’t want to be called atheists), but it is a form of non-belief… that of merely not believing.

    That would put atheists in the general sense in exactly the same camp as Christians for rejecting the views of others–that is, Christians have some general consensus with some religions, but some reject every single detail and others have a more “well we’re all accessing a universal truth” attitude about them. Some atheists reject every aspect of every religion, but others merely reject specific gods and specific afterlives and leave it at that. That puts us back at Richard Dawkins excellent point that Christians are just atheists about one fewer god than we–and we all quibble about the specifics.