As I noted last night, I’m reading C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which, I hope, will be the last theology book I ever read. And I’m doing it not because it has knockdown arguments for God—those don’t exist—but because it’s surely the most popular and influential work of Christian apologetics in the 20th century. I’m 40 pages in, and don’t really want to finish it and then write a full review, as that would be a lot of time spent for no good purpose. But I will comment from time to time.
I can see how this book influenced Francis Collins in his conversion from atheist to evangelical Christian. (The tripartite frozen waterfalls helped, too.) As Wikipedia notes in Collins’s bio:
Collins has described his parents as “only nominally Christian” and by graduate school he considered himself an atheist. However, dealing with dying patients led him to question his religious views, and he investigated various faiths. He familiarized himself with the evidence for and against God in cosmology, and used Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis as a foundation to re-examine his religious view. He eventually came to a conclusion, and became a Christian during a hike on a fall afternoon. [JAC: Frozen waterfall!] He has described himself as a “serious Christian”.
If you’ve read Collin’s account of his religion in The Language of God, or heard his talks on faith, you’ll see that he leans heavily on what he calls “The Moral Law”: the instinctive feeling of right and wrong that, he says, is ingrained in all humans. Collins sees that as a knockdown argument for God, since he can’t envision how such a feeling could be installed in our neurons by natural selection. And if it couldn’t have evolved, well, God did it.
Of course he’s wrong: one can envision how rudiments of morality could have been selected for in our small-group-living ancestors, and we see such rudiments in our primate relatives, where it could have evolved independently. On top of an evolved morality, however, lies a veneer of culturally inculcated morality that might feel inborn but is actually indoctrinated. And that could come from aeons of experience on how to behave so our society functions well (which, after all, gives us personal well being).
It’s clear that Collins gets this argument for God from Lewis, for it’s a major argument in the first part of Mere Christianity. Not only is the Moral Law seen as evidence for God, but, in a masterpiece of sloppy thinking, Lewis argues that it was one of the few ways that God could actually give evidence to humans of His existence (my emphasis):
“The position of the question, then, is like this. We want to know whether the universe simply happens to be what it is for no reason or whether there is a power behind it that makes it what it is. Since that power, if it exists, would be not one of the observed facts [in the Universe] but a reality which makes them, no mere observation of the facts can find it. There is only one case in which we can know whether there is anything more. namely our own case. And in that one case we find there is. Or put the other way round. If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe—no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to around our suspicions? In the only case where you can expect to get an answer, the answer turns out to be Yes; and in the other cases, where you do not get an answer, you see why you do not.” (p. 19)
Here you see two things about Lewis’s book: the extraordinarily clear prose, with no equivocation or evasion, and the easily shredded arguments for God. Lewis’s arguments here are the same as Collins’s: the “Moral Law” we feel inside ourselves must have come from God. And, more than that, Lewis makes a virtue of necessity: the only way God could reveal Himself to us is through our feelings—our realization that some behaviors are “right” and others “wrong. Ergo the dubious “architect” simile, which falls apart with a moment’s thought.
Two obvious problems immediately appear. First, why couldn’t God show himself to us by performing miracles, or by giving us other external signs of His existence? After all, He Who Is Outside the Universe managed not only to produce a virgin birth (something that Lewis accepted), but also a resurrection (ditto). It is as if, to Lewis, God, being “outside the universe”—whatever that means—entails his inability to do anything inside the universe. But of course Lewis doesn’t think that’s the case, although he pretends so here to make his argument. In fact, if God can perform miracles, he could, as the Universe’s architect, rearrange the stars to say “I am that I am” in Hebrew, bring Jesus back to Earth again, or give any number of signs right now that would evince his Being.
Second, both Lewis and his spiritual descendant Collins simply can’t see how morality could have any origin other than God. Why, then, are lifelong nonbelievers imbued with the same feelings of right and wrong? I suppose Lewis would reply that even atheists are creatures of God and have the same Moral Module installed, but he fails to consider alternative secular hypotheses like reason and evolution. Unless I miss my guess, evolution was already widely accepted at Oxford by the 1950s!
Finally, Lewis does finesse the Euthyphro argument: the argument of Plato (sort of) that morality must be antecedent to God because if God commanded us to do bad things, we’d have to do them simply because that’s what God wants. But since we wouldn’t obey those commands (unless you’re William Lane Craig), we must have an idea of right and wrong that doesn’t involve God’s will. One way of getting around that is saying that God is simply good by nature, but that presupposes some standard of goodness that is independent of God, and to which God decided to adhere. His innate goodness, so the rebuttal goes, was manifested in Scripture, from whence we derive our morals. Or, as in Lewis’s case, God actually imbues humans with our notion of good and bad, so that we don’t need scripture to learn how to be good. Both arguments, however, still suffer from the problem that there must be external standards of good to which god adheres.
Enough for now. This book will drive me mad.
For a glimpse of Lewis, here is the only existing recording of Lewis’s BBC broadcasts that he turned into Mere Christianity. I can’t find a recording of his voice anywhere else. Pure “received pronounciation”!
And, courtesy of Pliny the in Between, Meerkat Christianity: