XFiles Weekend: When God fails

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

Last week, Prof. Lewis was informing us that 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.

Isn’t that just like Christianity? God screws up, and it’s up to Man to fix things. God’s the one in charge, the sovereign almighty ruler, under whose infinitely wise and powerful leadership the world goes to Hell in an almost literal fashion, and yet somehow it’s our job to straighten things out again. Because God is making such a fuss about it. In my book, that’s not a fighting religion, that’s a perverse religion.

And, of course, that raises a very big question. If a good God made the world why has it gone wrong?

A very good question indeed, which is probably why Lewis spends the rest of Chapter 6 completely and utterly failing to address it.

In fairness to Prof. Lewis, it makes good sense to avoid this question, because there is no good answer. The Bible tells us that God started with a Creation that was already perfect and led it down a path that ended up with the entire cosmos in bondage to sin and suffering, and most of His beloved children eternally damned. And this is the guy we’re supposed to look to for hope that everything will turn out all right? If He couldn’t keep the place nice when there was no mess, how’s He going to manage now that things are crap? It’s just not a discussion that’s going to edify the faithful.

Instead, what Lewis gives us is a personal anecdote. Immediately after asking, “why has it gone wrong?” above, he writes:

And for a good many years I simply refused to listen to the Christian answers to this question, because I kept on feeling ‘whatever you say, and however clever your arguments are, isn’t it much simpler and easier to say that the world was not made by any intelligent power? Aren’t all your arguments simply a complicated attempt to avoid the obvious?’

Two more very good questions, albeit rhetorical ones. And two more questions that, once again, Lewis dodges. Instead he tries throwing out a red herring to see if he can distract us from the good questions by asking a rather silly one.

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?

He goes on and belabors this point for a while, trying to make it sound like a terribly vexing conundrum, so that he can whip out his superstitious answer, and claim that our idea of justice must come from some kind of supernatural, divine concept-of-justice Inventor. But it’s really a very trivial question: concepts like justice arise spontaneously out of human experiences and interactions, just like morality, fads, and market prices do. As he did with the idea of Moral Law in Book I, Lewis ignores the simple and obvious natural explanation in favor of the biased and superstitious answer.

Oh, he tries to make it sound like there are real problems with the idea that justice is a social convention. But, once again, his argument requires us to look at the situation through a peculiarly twisted and arbitrary bias, in order to create the illusion of a problem.

Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense.

Wow, so few words and yet so much fail. He starts with a false dichotomy: either “justice” exists as a divinely appointed standard, or else it is just a private idea of my own. Next, he puts the burden of proof on the skeptic, assuming “God exists” as the default position and then demanding that the skeptic prove His non-existence. If the atheist’s argument collapses, then God must exist, right? And thus by setting up a strawman argument for the alleged atheist, we “prove” God by showing our contrived argument is bad.

But did his argument really collapse? Careful: by the time we get to the punch line, we find that, surprise! Lewis has substituted a completely different question, i.e. whether the world makes sense.

Let’s just pause for a minute and trace our steps. Prof. Lewis is quite an intelligent man, as is shown by the excellent questions he raises (and by his position at Oxford). Yet under the influence of his Christian faith, he responds to the question, “Why did God’s Creation go wrong?” by saying, “When I was an atheist, I thought God was unjust, but He can’t be, because I found at least one concept that makes sense.”

Wait, what the hell??

It sounds like Lewis has gone ’round the bend, that he’s lost his marbles, that he’s <insert your favorite “crazy” euphemism here>. And yet, he’s sane enough to dress himself and go out in public and hold down a prestigious teaching position at a major university. What gives?

What’s happening is that Lewis’ view of reality is seriously distorted by a whole framework of biased assumptions known as “the Christian worldview.” In Lewis’ worldview, atheists all believe that life has no meaning and that there is no morality and justice. It doesn’t matter that this is untrue in the real world. Lewis only sees what his worldview allows him to see, and in his worldview, morality and justice and meaning all fall under the same heading, “Things Atheists Reject.” If he happens to use these things interchangeably, it’s because in his worldview, that’s what they are.

Inevitably, the result is nonsense. The existence of “meaning,” and of “justice” and of God simply aren’t interrelated in the way Lewis needs them to be. You can’t follow the logical connections from one step to the next because those connections don’t exist. Lewis is just juxtaposing ideas whose only relationship is the artificial one imposed by the Christian worldview.

“Meaning” exists because we use words and concepts to refer to things, and because the law of cause and effect implies that we can anticipate the effects by understanding the causes. It doesn’t take a miracle to make the material world a meaningful place! That’s just one of the inherent properties of material reality (meaning comes from materialism, woot!). Note too that this is entirely separate from the question of whether or not justice exists: meaning can exist just fine without justice existing, and likewise justice can exist without individual persons (or Persons) being just.

Thus, the fact that “justice” has “meaning” is completely irrelevant to the question of whether conditions in the cosmos reflect the existence of a just and loving God. If this “difficulty” is the best objection Lewis can muster against the atheist’s argument, then Christianity hasn’t really got a case. (On the other hand, if Lewis did have a better objection, why didn’t he raise that one instead?)

As a Christian, Lewis’ goal was to try and prove that atheism was too simple. Ironically, he ended up demonstrating the validity of Occam’s Razor instead. He was trying to make atheism sound inconsistent, but he ended up exposing the inconsistencies in his own worldview, compounding the original inconsistencies (i.e. perfect Creation gone wrong) that he was trying to explain away.

Truth is always simpler than a lie, because there aren’t any inconsistencies that need explaining. And that’s why the simplicity of atheism wins. Well, rationally speaking, anyway. And that’s what’s so sad. Lewis can think rationally. He is intelligent. He could see the problems in his apologetic, if it were just a matter of intellectual ability. But he’s bound by a worldview that twists his perceptions and won’t permit him to think straight. Whatever good he might have contributed to the world through clear and intelligent reason has been lost, due to his religion. And though him, all the evangelical Christians who have been influenced by his writings, have been bound and blinkered as well.

We may never know what Christianity really costs us (though the anti-marriage amendments on 30 state constitutions give us a hint). But reading Mere Christianity, I get the impression that we may be losing quite a lot.

 
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Posted in Unapologetics, XFiles. 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: When God fails”

  1. Nemo Says:

    I’ve never really understood what’s meant by “meaning” in a phrase like “the meaning of life”. It seems to be synonymous with “purpose”, and I definitely reject the idea that life has a purpose to it. I mean, obviously you can set goals for yourself, etc., but the idea that there’s some cosmic reason that you’re alive in the first place — other than that your parents got it on? It’s silly. And I don’t understand why this idea should be so troubling to people.

  2. Hunt Says:

    I think James Watson is a total tool in so many ways, but I found this account of an interview of him by Richard Dawkins:

    In 1996 Richard Dawkins interviewed Watson in a brief film broadcast on the BBC.
    Watson said: “I don’t think we’re for anything, we’re just products of evolution. You can say ‘Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose’ but I’m anticipating a good lunch.” Later, Dawkins asked if Watson knew many religious scientists: “Virtually none. Occasionally I meet them and I’m a bit embarrassed (laugh) because I can’t believe that anyone accepts truth by revelation.”

    The meaning of life is anticipating a good lunch. Full stop. If that ain’t enough, shoot yourself.

  3. Tony Hoffman Says:

    “It sounds like Lewis has gone ’round the bend, that he’s lost his marbles, that he’s . And yet, he’s sane enough to dress himself and go out in public and hold down a prestigious teaching position at a major university. What gives?”

    A version of this question was asked the other day at Commonsenseatheism (the commenter called it “The Bossmanham dilemma”). The question, and I think it’s a live one, is whether or not the person making a foolish argument is foolish, or the foolishness of the argument makes them think like a fool.

    I go back and forth on that one. I am pretty certain, though, that there are a bunch of theists out there that I want to stay on their side of the fence, because their “thinking” is so manifestly poor that my beliefs would be diminished by their agreeing with me. (I know that’s a form of the genetic fallacy, but it still occurs to me.) From what I’ve read of this and other critiques of Lewis, I’m very happy to leave the man so firmly on the theist side of things.

    You theists want Lewis, Aquinas, and Behe? Okay, we’ll take Russell, and Hume, and Dawkins. That’s not a trade, that’s intellectual robbery.