This. Therefore, Jesus. (An examination of Mere Christianity)

Posted: November 20, 2012 by Scott K. in All The Things
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Two nights ago, I began reading the thing that – if a thing was going to do the thing I’m about to mention – would make me turn my life over to Christ.  The thing in question, or book, for those who might be more learned(that’s pronounced learn-ed for those of you who aren’t), is Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  Lewis was a brilliant writer, so it’s hardly surprising that it’s such a brilliant piece.  While I am forced to wonder if he would think the same way if the scientific breakthroughs of today were available to him, I am nonetheless enthralled by the philosophical masterpiece that is his version of Christianity.  I have in my time heard some of his arguments gracelessly recycled from people who would try to turn me, but I’m shocked that I have only ever heard the writing itself mentioned by two people in my life.  One mention came from Christopher Hitchens in his compelling book: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (I greatly admire Hitchens and I’m extremely proud to have found ways to argue against a few of the things mentioned in his book).  The other came from my uncle who, when his faith was in its infancy, read Mere Christianity and brought it up – at times as a conversational non-sequitur – regularly in what seemed an exercise in affirming, or for looking for an argument against – to either strengthen or provide a convenient way out of his new found religion.  I’m convinced of the former but would feel I was neglecting my duty not to mention the latter.

The book begins with C.S. Lewis making his case for the existence of a God before going on to explain why Christianity is the way to Him.  The idea that since we know something of morality, that in fact we strive to, but can never seem to achieve that thing we call “good” is the main argument for God.  We, according to Lewis, are born with an innate sense of a Moral Law and that sense is from God’s own influence.  As we were made by Him, those laws are built in, however, since we are separate and imperfect, we can never seem to reach His moral ideal.  We are therefore unworthy of Him.  Again, I have heard these arguments poorly regurgitated and I wish more would read the source material.  This position is often clumsily presented as something like, “How do you know rape and murder are wrong if you don’t believe in God?”  The obvious reply is, “So you’re saying if it wasn’t for God, you would rape and murder people?”  The point though, is that we all know rape and murder are wrong because God put the idea there in the first place, and that believers and doubters both benefit from that inherent knowledge.

The problem with using Moral Law as evidence for God comes into play when you consider that all universal laws are vital to human survival since we’re a social species, and can therefore be explained through evolution.  We need no supernatural cause for knowing that it’s wrong to steal from your neighbor’s ass or bare false witness to his ox.  Perhaps the evolutionary explanation doesn’t elate like divine inspiration does, but it works.  Studies have been done to show that babies might be born with an innate sense of right and wrong.  But before anyone can chime in with a “therefore, God” claim, it’s important to note that those same studies reveal that babies have a bias against things that are different from them.  The seeds of both good and evil can be seen early on.  Then again, there’s another study that shows just the opposite.  And that the “blank slate” idea might very well be closer to the truth.  Blank slate or innate morality, neither has any need for a God hypothesis.  The approach taken in Mere Christianity essentially states that we don’t stab each other for the fun of it; therefore, God.  But for a moment, let us take the position that Lewis’ idea holds water and move onto why the Christian paradigm proves to be the correct one.

Lewis mistakes his pleasant idea of salvation through Christ as further proof for God.  Since we’re lowly sinners incapable of being good – goodness based on the invented moral principles of bronze age nomads – and the Bible offers salvation from our wickedness, there must be something to it.  Our inability to change ourselves can be altered, but only through Christ, and only completely takes hold after death.  Incidentally, it’s also impossible to kiss a mirror without kissing yourself on the mouth, but if some ancient text offered me the ability to kiss anything in a mirror after death, I certainly wouldn’t claim the text must be true.  Anyway, due to our laughable unworthiness in the eyes of God, we are given the Son, God as Man in the form of Jesus Christ.  In one thorough stroke, Lewis invalidates the fence-sitters’ compromise that Jesus was somehow a great moral teacher without the need to accept His divinity, divinity being a stretch for many of us who don’t believe in the supernatural.  On this Lewis states:

 A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he’s a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.

On the surface this makes sense but it makes too many assumptions.  First, it assumes that Jesus was a historical figure, which hasn’t been established as a certainty, though it is very likely that he existed in some sense or other.  There was, at that time, certainly no shortage of messiahs making outrageous claims.  In fact, that hasn’t changed.  Look at Joseph Smith, or the countless cults popping up throughout history.  There is a fine line between a cult and a religion.  In the latter, the prophet is dead.  But I digress.  All accounts of Jesus’ life were put down at least 70 years after his death.  So any historical record of His life is tentative at best.

Next, Lewis assumes that a man can’t be a great moral teacher and a lunatic at the same time.  If you want an example of a moral exemplar who was also a madman, look no further than Nikola Telsa, inventor of alternating current.  Tesla was working on building a tower that would provide free wireless electricity for New York before the contractor ceased construction.  There’s no money in providing free power.  In Tesla, we see a brilliant mind who, dedicated himself to improving life for all mankind.  He was also severely terrified of germs and wouldn’t touch anything round.  Sure, the death ray he was working on for the military might be less than Christlike, but it certainly would have looked cool.

Mere Christianity is the product of several centuries of combined philosophies with the slowly evolving Christian theology to create an almost Utopian version.  Lewis imagines the most perfect scenario and to his credit, concentrates more on the everlasting reward than the normal Evangelical stance that focuses entirely on the punishment.  Many Christians seem to revel with fetishistic delight in the concept of eternal hell fire.  This level of sadism is hardly becoming to anyone who basks in the light of a loving God.  Lewis avoids this nonsense but still falls short of producing a credible reason to believe any of it.

Despite the original broadcasts upon which the book was based airing 60 years ago, C.S. Lewis presents a very modern version of the religion compared with the science-denying breed of too many American Christians.  However, while accepting evolution presents a more reasonable stance, it still creates a whole new series of issues for credibility.  The fatuous young Earth model of creationism is so absurd that anyone who believes it can never be taken seriously(this brings to mind certain embarrassing members of the U.S. government).  Accepting the old Earth model along with evolution, on the other hand, is a step in the right direction, but makes religion even more incredible.  I’ll defer to Christopher Hitchens for the explanation:

“But here is something that is impossible for anyone to believe. The human species has been in existence as Homo sapiens for (let us not quarrel about the exact total) at least one hundred and fifty thousand years. An instant in evolutionary time, this is nonetheless a vast history when contemplated by primates with brains and imaginations of the dimensions that we can boast. In order to subscribe to monotheistic religion, one must believe that humans were born, struggled, and expired during this time, often dying in childbirth or for want of elementary nurture, and with a life-expectancy of perhaps three decades at most. Add to these factors the turf wars between discrepant groups and tribes, alarming outbreaks of disease, which had no germ theory to explain let alone palliate them, and associated natural disasters and human tragedies. And yet, for all these millennia, heaven watched with indifference and then — and only in the last six thousand years at the very least — decided that it was time to intervene as well as redeem. And heaven would only intervene and redeem in remote areas of the Middle East, thus ensuring that many more generations would expire before the news could begin to spread! Let me send a voice to Sinai and cement a pact with just one tribe of dogged and greedy yokels. Let me lend a son to be torn to pieces because he is misunderstood. Let me tell the angel Gabriel to prompt an illiterate and uncultured merchant into rhetorical flights. At last the darkness that I have imposed will lift! The willingness even to entertain such elaborately mad ideas involves much more than the suspension of disbelief, or the dumb credulity that greets magic tricks.”

To add to the appallingly goofy idea that God waited 150 thousand years to intervene, we need also consider the idea of a supreme creator wanting us all to be saved but stacking the deck against us.  If God created the world and us, then he made the rules.  But the rules are set in opposition to our instincts.  Yet the fact is that our primate brains and baser instincts are really only overridden by centuries of ethical and technological advances.

It has been pointed out to me that the Hitchens argument might not stand up because as a being that exists outside of time, such things wouldn’t matter to God.  Unfortunately they matter to us because we do live in time.  The first intelligent postulation I came up with against an omnipotent and omniscient deity was about negating free will.  I later discovered that this was an old idea, but I’m still proud that I thought of it before I read about it.  The concept goes like this:  God knows everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen.  Therefore, there is a vicious cruelty in creating a person knowing full well he will never find Christ, and ultimately end up in hell.  It’s like conceiving a baby knowing full well you intend to burn it alive after it’s born.  Lewis counters this by saying that God does not exist in our timeline.  Lewis states: “If you picture time as a straight line on which we all have to travel, then God is the page on which that line is drawn.”  It seems a lame excuse because we are still bound by this four dimensional existence, and are subject to its rules.  If He is capable of intervening in this, He is unfathomably sadistic.  At this point, we could get into Epicurus’ logic on the Problem of Evil.  But I’ll let you do you own reading on that.

Ultimately, Mere Christianity is aimed at Christians.  If more Christians were to adopt the ethics outlined therein, the world would be a much better place.  All the “Christian” concepts of kindness and charity are eloquently outlined by Lewis, but it also serves as a decent challenge to atheists in the same way that The God Delusion or God is Not Great might challenge the faithful.  If you’re like me in that you’re obsessed with religion without wanting to be a part of it; and you really like to argue for no reason than to learn and exchange ideas(and perhaps inflate your own intellectual ego a smidge), it’s a must read.  Still, it requires suspension of incredulity in order to accept it.  Maybe it wouldn’t be the thing to convert me after all.

-Scott

Comments
  1. Jeremy says:

    Well reasoned and eloquently written.

  2. James Duncan says:

    I like cock in my ass.

  3. Unfirth the Unwise says:

    you’re wrong about the existence of god, because YOU are god. it’s time to form a religion and worship you. this book review will be a chapter in the holy writ.

    all kidding aside, i really enjoyed reading your analysis. you pointed out lewis’ logical inconsistencies and fallacies, like the false dichotomy regarding the divinity of jesus. your claims had supporting evidence, from scientific literature. thank you for taking the time of writing your perspective. i gotta thank reddit for finding this for me.

    • I need to thank Reddit for bringing so many people here. I found that /r/atheism is useless for spreading this blog around. /r/trueatheism and /r/christianity on the other hand brought on thoughtful discussion and lots of traffic. Be sure to check out the main blog for more articles and Joe’s Biblical Bad Timing comics. Thank you for reading, I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it.

  4. [...] more excellently worded thoughts on Mr. Lewis’ book, check out my new blogger friend Atheists on Fishing‘s perspective [...]

  5. chrsh10 says:

    If you allow me, I’d like to submit a rebuttal to this article. If you’ll repost my rebuttal as a blog post, I’ll show you exactly where your poor analysis of Lewis and his book resulted in great straw-man bashing. I mean, I wanted to beat the straw men with you, that is how nice they were.. Unfortunately you greatly misrepresented his arguments resulting in a critique unworthy of a blog, much less serious scholarship. You even screwed up your very first point from the argument from morality.

    For what it’s worth, I just finished reading your hero, Hitchens’, book “God is not great”. Looks like we both peaked over the fence.

  6. M says:

    Commenting on Jesus, and the nature of what it means to be a Christian – to believe in God, and his son whom he sent as God-made-man, to be the sacrifice in our place so we would have atonement for our sins and therefore live in eternal bliss with the triune God – an analogy.

    You’re a well-meaning but imperfect kid who’s dad has a history of rage issues, but he’s your dad so you love him and want to make him happy. Mom’s long gone, having burned the roast one too many times, so it’s just you and your numerous siblings. Now you actually have it pretty good, as you at least try to please your father, but some of your siblings have been cast out of the house or even killed in various horrible ways, for not listening to all of dads rules concerning what you can or can’t eat, do, fuck, wear, etc. You, well you try, but you come up short sometimes because, quite frankly, there are a lot of fucking rules, which only seem to apply in certain situations, and definitely don’t apply to dad.

    One day dad says, “Hey, you know your sister Mary? She’s pregnant.”

    Now you figure that she’s going to be in as shit-load of trouble, but dad assures you that it’s his kid, so it’s cool.

    “So you had sex with your daughter?”

    “No, Mary’s still a virgin, but another part of me that you can’t see put a baby in her.”

    “Oh…ok.”

    “That’s not the coolest part though, the coolest part is that this kid is going to make it so that when you die, I won’t have to send you to a place where you will suffer horribly, forever.”

    “You were going to do that?”

    “Well I didn’t want to, I love you..but you are so bad that I’d be forced to do that. You can’t expect to live in my house with that filthy mouth and those impure thoughts.”

    “Sure, I understand.”

    “But don’t worry, when your brother grows up he’s going to be a really nice guy, perfect actually, just like me, because, well, he is also me.”

    “So my brother…what’s his name going to be?”

    “Jesus”

    “So Jesus, who is you, was put in Mary’s belly, who is still a virgin by the way, by a different part of you”

    “Yep”

    “Just making sure I follow so far..”

    “…and a whole lot of people, you included if you want to live in this house any longer, will try to be as perfect as he is, but of course will fail miserably. Wait though, here’s the best part, I’m gonna allow him to be tortured and killed, but he’ll come back to life, so that way you can live with me as long as you want…forever actually, but only if you try to be like him.”

    “But I’m not perfect dad”

    “Of course not, you’re not me, but you will be in my eyes if you try to be like your brother.”

    “I love you dad, but I’m not sure I want to live with you forever”

    “Then you can go to hell…hey where are you going now?”

    “Giving Mary a lift to the Planned Parenthood clinic, I liked you better when you were just pissed at me all the time”

    • Josh Curry says:

      “The problem with using Moral Law as evidence for God comes into play when you consider that all universal laws are vital to human survival since we’re a social species, and can therefore be explained through evolution. We need no supernatural cause for knowing that it’s wrong to steal from your neighbor’s ass or bare false witness to his ox. Perhaps the evolutionary explanation doesn’t elate like divine inspiration does, but it works.”

      You fail to mention Lewis’ continuation of that premise, with the “Train-Seat” argument. He considers your opinion in the book, but dismisses it, on the basis that our morality does not necessarily provide the most benefit for the fittest of the species.

      Consider, especially, rape. If you’ll pardon me for going into a dark corner of the moral debate, in evolutionary terms, rape is the natural way to induce pregnancy. The fittest male finds the fittest female and has his way with her. Why do we find this wrong?

      A less Cimmerian argument is laid out in the “Train Seat” argument.

      “Now this is really so peculiar that one is tempted to try to explain it away. For instance, we might try to make out that when you say a man ought not to act as he does, you only mean the same as when you say that a stone is the wrong shape; namely, that what he is doing happens to be inconvenient to you. But that is simply untrue. A man occupying the corner seat in the train because he got there first, and a man who slipped into it while my back was turned and removed my bag, are both equally inconvenient. But I blame the second man and do not blame the first. I am not angry-except perhaps for a moment before I come to my senses-with a man who trips me up by accident; I am angry with a man who tries to trip me up even if he does not succeed. Yet the first has hurt me and the second has not. Sometimes the behaviour which I call bad is not inconvenient to me at all, but the very opposite. In war, each side may find a traitor on the other side very useful. But though they use him and pay him they regard him as human vermin. So you cannot say that what we call decent behaviour in others is simply the behaviour that happens to be useful to us.”

      • M says:

        I think the problem with this particular argument, and a problem that seems to be repeated in Lewis’ apologetics, is that it’s too personalized to his own experience (or at least to ours as Westernized citizens), so is therefore a bit Pollyannaish.

        Take the argument about rape you brought up. I believe, as does most everyone I’ve come across so far in life, that rape is wrong. I say most everyone, because I have come across a few guys along the way who with a few drinks in them (seeing someone drunk, BTW, I personally believe to be a great way to distill someone’s character down to it’s basics) who will openly express how they would love to do certain thing to a girl or woman that would probably be non-consensual to even the most jaded porn star. I have a hard time believing that it’s a higher moral power compelling them not to grab her and do said things, and not the many consequences that would almost surely come in a society where women are given equal rights.

        Now pull them out of our present day society, throw them back a few hundred years ago, and make the woman black. Or put an attractive teen-aged girl under the rule of the Taliban, or some third world war-lord, and measure her chances of getting to adult-hood with her virginity intact. Or for that matter, put her back into the old testament. Some of the most righteous men in the Bible did some pretty fucking horrible shit to their own daughters or wives, by the holy writ’s own admission, but yet it’s stated matter-of-factly, and somehow most of it seems to sidestep God’s wrath. Why send out the angels to be Sodomized when I have a couple of perfectly good virgin daughters?

        Morality, has been and always will be in my mind, completely subjective to the times and the circumstances under which it is judged. Also, and more importantly, it is completely subjective in the mind of the individual. We do, or do not do anything based on a ridiculously complicated decision tree in our own heads that weighs the myriad risks and rewards of a particular action and creates a decision on how to act based on that. That outcome is based on not only what we believe to be right or wrong, but also how it will be viewed by others. That, and possibly how much booze you’ve consumed that evening.

        The evolutionary explanation is flawed; generally due to the fact the although societal evolution in general moves forward, it is far from a straight line, historically, and never in unity. Any attempt to simplify an explanation of human behavior is inevitably going to be flawed, because human behavior is far from simple. The oddest thing about Lewis’ moral argument is that it comes from a man who fought in the trenches in WWI, one of the most brutal and barbaric wars in modern history, and you would think he saw first hand how absolutely subjective morals can be based on the situation, especially when you think you have divine providence on your side. Although this was during his atheist period, so maybe he wasn’t thinking much about it…wink, wink.

        Merry Christmas to the washed and unwashed alike.

      • Scott K. says:

        I remember that bit and while I was reading it, made a mental note to cite it. But I forgot. M did a fine job of covering that argument.

        Goodness, moral law, is indeed a subjective practice. Historically only applicable within the tribe. You don’t rape women in your tribe, but should you go to war with another tribe, all bets are off. The OT is a perfect example of this. God lays down very clear rules for how to treat other Hebrews, then promptly orders them to lay waste to all other tribes in the Promised Land. It’s only through the world getting smaller that some people decide that those outside the tribe might be worthy of the same decency as within. Perhaps due to people coming to their senses and realizing that murdering each other gets up nowhere.

      • Josh Curry says:

        I think that your point there though is ethno-centric. Of course, now, going to war with a zillion other countries seems base. Back then, however, life was not as comfortable. They were forced to show their teeth in order to keep their tiny little nation alive. They had wealth and women and livestock- other nations wanted all those things. If they had decided to just mosey about peacefully, they would have been slaughtered.

        And honestly, even now, protecting your people is seen as noble. We can debate all day about whether going into the Army is truly a noble profession, but that’s because of who controls the Army these days. Back in the days of World Wars, our soldiers were seen as heroes, and I think rightly so.

        The warriors of Israel were offensive, but I think it was an offensive defense. They had little to work with in comparison to the other nations, and I think their survival was evidence of God’s providence.

  7. Josh Curry says:

    @M
    >Take the argument about rape you brought up. I believe, as does most everyone I’ve come across so far in life, that rape is wrong. I say most everyone, because I have come across a few guys along the way who with a few drinks in them (seeing someone drunk, BTW, I personally believe to be a great way to distill someone’s character down to it’s basics)

    so true

    >who will openly express how they would love to do certain thing to a girl or woman that would probably be non-consensual to even the most jaded porn star.

    I don’t think that the existence of evil people is a threat to my worldview. You said yourself that seeing someone drunk distills his/her character. Seems to me that those are evil people, saying rape is wrong while they’re under society’s duress, and reverting to their true selves once their lips are loosened.

    I have a hard time believing that it’s a higher moral power compelling them not to grab her and do said things, and not the many consequences that would almost surely come in a society where women are given equal rights.

    Again, I don’t think that’s a threat. If you and I can agree that such a thing is evil, we can agree that a person who would do that is evil, and therefore, that person is evil. Chances are that yes, it is society holding him back.

    Furthermore, based on Kohlberg’s “Stages of Moral Development,” I would suggest that such a person is morally immature.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Kohlberg's_stages_of_moral_development

    “Some of the most righteous men in the Bible did some pretty fucking horrible shit to their own daughters or wives, by the holy writ’s own admission, but yet it’s stated matter-of-factly, and somehow most of it seems to sidestep God’s wrath.”

    Can you cite an example of that? I can only recall when Abraham told pharoh that Sarah was not his wife but that was in fact punished. Lightly, but punished.

    Another one people sometimes have problems with is Abraham and his son, the whole sacrifice thing. I think that’s remedied in two ways. One, God didn’t make him follow through with it, and would not. Two, God *actually gave his own Son to be sacrificed*.

    I can’t think of anything else but maybe you can? I’ll be happy to research them and get back to you.

  8. [...] the truth, toys in the attic, or a complete asshole(not his exact words).  As I’ve said before, someone can be bat-shit crazy and a good person. [...]

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