Mere Assertions By Dan Barker (August 1985)

Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher To Atheist – Chapter 35

By Dan Barker

A criticism of Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

About six months after my deconversion I had lunch with Hal Spencer, president of Manna Music. His company is a leading publisher of Christian music. In light of my deconversion to atheism I wanted to buy back the copyrights to my musicals which they continue to promote. “No way,” he said. “Your musicals are very strong items in our catalog, among the few things that keep us in business.” Talk about mixed feelings! I used to be excited to hear those glowing reports. Not any more.
Our conversation eventually drifted into one of those endless and usually fruitless discussions of design, first cause, morality, miracles, science, faith, and atheism. As we were paying the bill Hal turned to me with a grin and said, “I suppose this means you won’t be writing us any more musicals?”

I laughed and said, “Sure I will! But I doubt you would publish anything I would want to say now.”

Christian publishing is a huge industry. Have you ever been in a Christian bookstore? (They are sometimes euphemistically known as “Family Bookstores.” I am tempted to go in and ask if they have any readings for atheistic families.) You should visit one sometime, just to see what we freethinkers are up against. You will see thousands of books by hundreds of presses, a plethora of albums by dozens of record companies, racks of bibles in every size, color, and version. You can read about child raising, gardening, abortion, psychology, worship, history, politics, romance, computers, humanism, and the women’s movement–all from a Christian perspective. And science fiction, of course. You may also spot some of my material; but forgive me, for I knew not what I was doing.

On Christmas Eve I wandered into the Upland Christian Light Bookstore, for no particular reason, and was promptly accosted by a local minister who had heard that I had turned heretic and who thought I needed to learn a few things about the creation/evolution debate. (I do. So does he.) After our “friendly” chat, I took a nostalgic stroll down the hallowed aisles of religious reading. I was particularly interested in finding books that I had at one time considered to be great, books that I would like to reread in a new light. So I picked up C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.

C.S. Lewis is a very popular Christian writer. He was a professor at Oxford who claims to have converted from atheism to Christianity. Many people have been influenced by his work. He is known for his Narnia series for children, and for many books that popularize theology including Screwtape Letters (along the line of Twain’s Letters from the Earth), The Great Divorce (a hell-to-heaven bus ride explaining that people are in hell because they choose to stay there), Miracles, Pilgrim’s Regress, The Problem of Pain, and a science fiction trilogy. He writes in a convincing, readable style, is often humorous and usually thoughtful.
Mere Christianity, Lewis’s most popular book, is really three books in one: 1. “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe,” 2. “What Christians Believe,” and 3. “Christian Behavior,” all adapted from a series of radio lectures. The book’s title comes from Lewis’s attempt to strip Christianity of all that is nonessential, getting down to the “mere” basics of what it means to be a Christian. As a believer, I remember being impressed with the first book since it gives what many consider to be a compelling argument for the existence of a deity. I have an uncle who says that Mere Christianity was a major factor in his “conversion” to deeper commitment. So when I reread the book, I was anxious to reexamine its arguments.

Lewis goes to great anecdotal length to argue for the existence of a “Natural Law” of morality within each human. Unlike the law of gravity, though, this moral law can be disobeyed.

“This law was called the Law of Nature,” he writes, “because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it. They did not mean, of course, that you might not find an odd individual here and there who did not know it, just as you find a few people who are colourblind or have no ear for a tune. But taking the race as a whole, they thought that the human idea of decent behaviour was obvious to every one. And I believe they were right.”

As an example, Lewis points to the opposition to the Nazis: “What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced? If they had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the colour of their hair.”

Lewis does not believe that differing civilizations have had differing moralities: ” . . . these have never amounted to anything like a total difference.” (Oh? What about culturally sanctioned polygamy, infanticide, cannibalism, wife beating, self mutilation, castration, incest and war?) He dismisses the critics who claim that morality is a result of the species’ survival instinct by noting that we are free to obey or disobey this “instinct” and make our decision by a higher standard of Right and Wrong. “You might as well say the sheet music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one of the notes on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.”

You can see that Lewis is fond of arguing by analogy. (His whole Narnia series is one huge metaphor.) This can sometimes be an effective way of communicating with uncritical readers; but it can be deviously misleading if used in place of disciplined reasoning. Mere assertions (a better title for his book) can be used in place of carefully defended statements, and can be made to “stick” in the mind with an analogy which, though perhaps apt, nevertheless skirts the question of the truthfulness of the basic idea.

For example, is it true that all persons in all cultures share a common knowledge of a Moral Law? Some would disagree. And his analogy about piano music completely misses the possibility of improvisation and composition, making robots of us all. Besides, the sheet music is external to the piano, and it can be replaced with another song if desired. And pianos don’t grow and learn and hurt, like people . . . and so on. Analogies can be helpful to illustrate a point, but propping up a bald assertion with an analogy alone can backfire.

Even if it is true that all cultures share a common morality, why does this prove a supreme intelligence? After all, don’t we humanists sometimes claim that there is a common thread of humanistic values running through history across cultural and religious lines? Lewis’s attempt to leap from the shaky platform of a “Natural Moral Law” into the arms of a loving deity is even less convincing than his basic premise.

First, Lewis gets the idea of a deity from history, noting that there are two major world views: the materialistic and the religious. The materialistic world view asks questions that can only be addressed by science (“What is the structure of life?”); but the religious world view raises issues which assume a higher context (“What is the meaning of life?”). Science observes the material world, but religion sees the mental, nonmaterial. (Where does he put philosophy and psychology?) If there is a God, Lewis argues, then God is much more like mind than anything else, and if this God is to communicate with us it will be more likely that he will do so through our minds, not through the material world. (How does Lewis know any of this?) And this is exactly what this wise deity has done: he has placed within us this “law of morality” which connects us with the higher realm, which can never be verified with mere science.

So, according to Lewis, if you want to find God, look within yourself to discover this urging to morality and realize that you have broken this law, every day. Mere Christianity boils down to the same old sermon: you are a sinner and you know it, don’t you feel bad? Then, when you are properly ashamed you will realize the beauty of the plan of salvation that this deity has revealed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (which Lewis historically takes for granted).

Lewis does not address situational ethics in this book, though it would seem relevant. He assumes, I guess, that we would all agree what would be the “cosmic” right in every instance. In fact, Lewis is confident that his readers will be tacitly convinced of the correctness of this line of thinking. (God exists because we have morals and we wouldn’t have morals if God didn’t exist.) And Lewis can afford to relax, I think, because most of his readers are Christians who buy the book because they are looking for substantiation. They are not skeptical searchers of truth. Any writer can capture a sympathetic audience by capitalizing on those areas that everyone “knows” to be right.

Humanistic morality is a code of ethics based on the value and quality of human life. It is not derived from absolute engravings on a cosmic stone tablet. Morality is relative to human things like happiness, health, peace, beauty, love, joy, and justice. It is the preferring of those actions and ideas which enhance the human condition over those which threaten it. The Nazis, who were mostly Catholics and Lutherans, were wrong not because they broke an absolute law, but because they desecrated human life. Even though humanistic morality does assert some rights and wrongs relative to the human condition, it is flexible and free to improve. For example, on the one hand it is inconceivable that something like genocide would ever be considered moral, and on the other hand that something like genuine politeness could be considered immoral; but there will always be a middle ground between those extremes for things like birth control, divorce, diet, self defense, or patriotism, which will depend on the situation.

Any morality which is based on an unyielding structure above and beyond humanity is dangerous to human beings. History is filled with examples of what religious “morality” has done to worsen our lot. Whole cities can be gleefully exterminated in God’s name. Society’s “witches” can be eliminated. Free thought can be suppressed, squelching any hope for progress. (Why else were the Christian-dominated centuries called the “Dark” Ages?) Under Christian morality, anything goes if it furthers God’s plan. In place of Lewis’s Law of Morality, more enlightened people would champion reason and kindness: principles that are pliable and human, not rigid and cold.

So, now I have to ask myself why I once thought Mere Christianity was so special. Because it told me what I wanted to hear. As a freethinker I am now no longer satisfied with mere assertions, with creative rehashings of myth. Freethought demands evidence in place of analogy, data over dogma.

What do you think? Should I cash the royalty checks I continue to receive from my Christian musicals? Now there’s a moral dilemma with which I struggle all the way to the bank.

© Copyright 1992 by Dan Barker. All Rights Reserved.

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