Tuesday, 8 May 2012

C.S.Lewis Dispenses With Faith

Here is C.S.Lewis on 'Faith', again from his 1952 book "Mere Christianity". It illustrates well the conceited vacuosity of his religious views and how his frankly annoying patronising style almost seems designed to gloss over it and to rely on the deferential social mores of his target audience. It oozes with 'niceness' and smugly reassuring self-satisfaction but actually says very little other than "believe what I say". I'm sorry it's so long but he probably had space to fill.
I must talk in this chapter about what the Christians call Faith. Roughly speaking, the word Faith seems to be used by Christians in two senses or on two levels, and I will take them in turn. In the first sense it means simply Belief-accepting or regarding as true the doctrines of Christianity. That is fairly simple. But what does puzzle people-at least it used to puzzle me-is the fact that Christians regard faith in this sense as a virtue, I used to ask how on earth it can be a virtue-what is there moral or immoral about believing or not believing a set of statements? Obviously, I used to say, a sane man accepts or rejects any statement, not because he wants or does not want to, but because the evidence seems to him good or bad. If he were mistaken about the goodness or badness of the evidence that would not mean he was a bad man, but only that he was not very clever. And if he thought the evidence bad but tried to force himself to believe in spite of it, that would be merely stupid.

Well, I think I still take that view. But what I did not see then- and a good many people do not see still-was this. I was assuming that if the human mind once accepts a thing as true it will automatically go on regarding it as true, until some real reason for reconsidering it turns up. In fact, I was assuming that the human mind is completely ruled by reason. But that is not so. For example, my reason is perfectly convinced by good evidence that anaesthetics do not smother me and that properly trained surgeons do not start operating until I am unconscious. But that does not alter the fact that when they have me down on the table and clap their horrible mask over my face, a mere childish panic begins inside me. I start thinking I am going to choke, and I am afraid they will start cutting me up before I am properly under. In other words, I lose my faith in anaesthetics. It is not reason that is taking away my faith: on the contrary, my faith is based on reason. It is my imagination and emotions. The battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other.

When you think of it you will see lots of instances of this. A man knows, on perfectly good evidence, that a pretty girl of his acquaintance is a liar and cannot keep a secret and ought not to be trusted; but when he finds himself with her his mind loses its faith in that bit of knowledge and he starts thinking, "Perhaps she'll be different this time," and once more makes a fool of himself and tells her something he ought not to have told her. His senses and emotions have destroyed his faith in what he really knows to be true. Or take a boy learning to swim. His reason knows perfectly well that an unsupported human body will not necessarily sink in water: he has seen dozens of people float and swim. But the whole question is whether he will be able to go on believing this when the instructor takes away his hand and leaves him unsupported in the water-or whether he will suddenly cease to believe it and get in a fright and go down.

Now just the same thing happens about Christianity. I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it. That is not the point at which Faith comes in. But supposing a man's reason once decides that the weight of the evidence is for it. I can tell that man what is going to happen to him in the next few weeks. There will come a moment when there is bad news, or he is in trouble, or is living among a lot of other people who do not believe it, and all at once his emotions will rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief. Or else there will come a moment when he wants a woman, or wants to tell a lie, or feels very pleased with himself, or sees a chance of making a little money in some way that is not perfectly fair: some moment, in fact, at which it would be very convenient if Christianity were not true. And once again his wishes and desires will carry out a blitz. I am not talking of moments at which any real new reasons against Christianity turn up. Those have to be faced and that is a different matter. I am talking about moments where a mere mood rises up against it.

Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods "where they get off," you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.

Probably the key phrase in all this is, "But supposing a man's reason once decides that the weight of the evidence is for it".

Nowhere in this book does he say what evidence convinced him. All his reasons for being a Christian are based on negatives and absent evidence; because he can't explain something using his rather tenuous grasp of science, or doesn't understand something, he declares it inexplicable, fills the gap with a god and deems it to be the god his parents told him about. To Lewis, it seems 'unknown' and 'unknowable' are synonyms. And of course this god is to be worshipped according the the rites and rituals of the church his was baptised into as an infant. Never a shred of definitive evidence is ever offered for this god nor any explanation of why, if he has to invoke a god, it follows that it must be the god of the Christian Bible.

How could the English have possibly got the wrong god? The idea is not even worth considering.

Nope. There must be a god and it must be Lewis' god because there are things Lewis can't understand, and it is virtuous to just have faith in that conclusion. And faith means never having to change your mind even when the evidence changes or you realise the 'evidence' wasn't what you thought it was.

To borrow a metaphor from Richard Dawkins, there is not sufficient evidence to have a firm belief either way on the cause of the mass extinction of dinosaurs. There is evidence that it could have been a large meteorite strike. It is plausible that it could have been a virus. It could possibly have been a catastrophic climate change caused by a super volcano. It is sheer arrogance to merely opt for one of those and then proclaim it a virtue to cling to that belief even when the evidence changes. Not only arrogant but vain, something Lewis regards as a sin. It can only come from the belief that one can merely 'know' the truth; that somehow something must be true because one believes it.

Faith, in the absence of definitive evidence, is not a virtue; it is the sin of vain arrogance writ large.

The mere fact that C.S.Lewis has opted to believe in the Christian god is sufficient reason for him to believe in it. None of this nonsensical subservience to reality and dependence on evidence for our hero. He comes from a class which not even the universe would dare to question. Reality is what he says it is and that's an end to the matter. He would not believe it if it were not just so.

And of course any reasonable plebeian hearing truth and wisdom dispensed by a brilliant Oxford don who even writes children's books, should accept it as good enough for him and marvel at the benevolence of such a nice man dispensing his knowledge so nicely, and with such simple words too.

What a wonderful example of a nice Christian.


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10 comments :

  1. "Faith, in the absence of definitive evidence, is not a virtue; it is a sin writ large."

    On the other hand, faith in the presence of definitive evidence is not faith at all.

    "There must be a god and it must be Lewis' god because there are things Lewis can't understand"

    Please explain to me how you reasonably concluded this from the excerpt you include here. As far as I can see, the passage here is offering some thoughts about faith and never set out to prove that there must be a God.

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    1. >On the other hand, faith in the presence of definitive evidence is not faith at all.<

      I noticed you 'forgot' to produce any evidence again...

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  3. I also 'forgot' to order you a pizza. The discussion at this point was not about producing evidence, and what has been said so far does not depend on it.

    Whatever we are talking about, faith in the presence of definitive evidence is not faith at all.

    Equally, I would also suggest that a claim in the absence of definitive evidence (for example, "there definitely is no God") is - to some extent - based on faith.

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  4. Did you read this passage very closely, Rosa? Because I can't find the part where Lewis argues for the existence of any God, not to mention the Christian God. And considering your entire article (apart from the large quote from Lewis) was refuting that argument, isn't that an exercise in futility? Refuting an argument that wasn't made?

    The passage here only explains what role "faith" plays in life itself, not just religion. He shows how faith can be used for Christianity, but also for atheism, and for any belief system (i.e. believing that anaesthetics will work). Faith must be accompanied by reason, he says, for any belief. Otherwise, the belief is "not very clever" or "merely stupid."

    So what was the point this blog entry was supposed to make?

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    1. >Because I can't find the part where Lewis argues for the existence of any God, not to mention the Christian God. <

      You're quite right. Lewis's entire argument was vacuous, as I believe I pointed out.

      Do you wish to deal with the point I made about how Lewis assumed "... any reasonable plebeian hearing truth and wisdom dispensed by a brilliant Oxford don who even writes children's books, should accept it as good enough for him and marvel at the benevolence of such a nice man dispensing his knowledge so nicely, and with such simple words too.", or would you prefer to gloss over that breathtaking arrogance?

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    2. My point was that this is not an argument for a God or for the Christian God. That doesn't make it a vacuous argument. You can't just say it was vacuous because he didn't address what you wanted to write your blog post about.

      You say that this whole passage is saying no more than "believe what I say," but in fact Lewis tells the reader to do the opposite. "I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it." Lewis is saying, if you don't believe that this is true, then for you faith won't be a virtue and this entire passage won't really be of any help to you.

      Let me try to put it into another scenario. You believe that the universe began 14.6 billion years ago, correct? (So do I, by the way.) Or at least somewhere around there. Now, has there ever been a time when you've seen 'evidence' that has caused you to question that, even for a minute? Lewis is saying that faith is sticking to what your reasoning tells you is true (that the universe is 14.6 billion years old). He isn't saying don't examine the new evidence; he is only saying don't let something small and potentially incorrect sway you to drop what you had originally reasoned out for something that you perhaps haven't reasoned out and could be wrong.

      Lewis is not arguing here for the existence of God, nor is he arguing that anyone should believe in a God or his God. Those arguments come later. To address your last quote of yourself, I don't believe Lewis would have ever thought those things. Perhaps in a moment of arrogance (as all men and women have) but I don't think Lewis' life and writings evidenced this in the way that you suggest. Your "evidence" is merely your interpretation of this passage, which I believe is a fallacious interpretation. I can see how you interpret his niceness as smug self-assurance, but that's just not the tone in which I read him. You seem to assume the worst about him, before it would even cross your mind that he might've been a genuinely nice guy.

      Addressing Lewis' reasoning and his not providing it here... If I recall correctly (and I may not, because it's been a long time) I think he gives a pretty good summary of his reasoning in "Surprised By Joy" which is kind of a spiritual auto-biography. But much of his reasoning can be seen in many of his works. "Mere Christianity" for example, "The Problem of Pain" for another. One that I will probably read soon may be of some help: "The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis." I'm sure there would be some letters in there addressing his faith and how he came to it. It might also give you a better idea as to who the man really was.

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    3. My point was that this is not an argument for a God or for the Christian God. <

      In a book entitles 'Mere Christianity'...

      >That doesn't make it a vacuous argument.<

      Yes it does.

      The point of the blog was that no where has Lewis ever presented any evidence for this god other than negatives, in other words, it's nothing more that the God of the Gaps fallacy dressed up to look intellectual. The entire argument is that his inability to explain or understand things means his favourite god must have done it. He doesn't even seem to think it worthwhile explaining why we should agree that the only possible god, even if we fall for the fallacy, is the one his parents labelled him as a believer in.

      Perhaps you would care to address that issue, and maybe Lewis's dishonest use of the false dichotomy fallacy, whereby he presents the issue as either science of the Christian god, then attacks science or the idea of a natural explanation seeming to leave only his god as the alternative. In reality of course, even if you could eliminate all possible natural causes, you would not have established the existence of your preferred god, let alone that it was the cause of anything.

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    4. Part of the problem for that may be the way atheists present the question of whether or not their is a god. I mean, in all of your posts, you've said that the burden of proof is on me, and that if I want to prove God exists, I must eliminate all possible "natural" causes of things. In a way, you're trying to push me to answer the question of whether or not their is a god in "negatives." When you demand to be answered in such a way, I have two options: 1) I can answer you in the way you ask, but then you will only tell me that I'm using negatives, or 2) I can answer you in another way, and you will tell me that I first have to eliminate all possible natural explanations and that just leaves us back at the beginning, doesn't it? Plus, now you're telling me that even if I did answer the question as you asked me to, that it wouldn't prove anything. So then why are you asking me that question?

      Also, you know how they say never judge a book by its cover? I'm pretty sure that can be applied to titles, too. Just because the book is titled "Mere Christianity" doesn't mean that every single passage on every single page is going to be an argument for the Christian God. There's a progression Lewis is working through, like every philosopher, thinker, and scientist. If a scientist wants to prove a hypothesis, or a philosopher a theory, he must first work from previously established principles. Lewis is just refreshing his readers on these principles, and that is what this argument is. He could not just dive right into the argument of whether or not the Christian God was the "right God" or people (some like yourself) would have accused him of skipping over the possibility that was no god at all. He is just trying to address all possible angles. You may disagree with his conclusion, but you can't assume that's he is trying to argue something he really isn't.

      I would hardly call his book's title "proof." Unless you thought I was talking about the book as a whole, which I was not. When I said "this argument" I really meant the argument outlined in this one passage that you excerpted. Overall, yes, the book eventually goes into the Christian faith, but it's a progression like all good theses.

      When you speak of his "false dichotomy" casting science against the Christian God, to which part of the passage are you referring? Can you give me a quote to work with?

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    5. >in all of your posts, you've said that the burden of proof is on me, and that if I want to prove God exists, I must eliminate all possible "natural" causes of things.<

      Indeed. I assume you have been honest with yourself and done that before concluding that only a supernatural explanation would work. I find it hard to understand why you can't explain how you did it.

      > In a way, you're trying to push me to answer the question of whether or not their is a god in "negatives." <

      No. I'm pushing you to explain how you arrived at the conclusion that the only supernatural explanation for whatever your evidence for a god is, is your particular god. I assume this was the next process you went through having eliminated all possible natural causes.

      Why is that causing you so much difficulty?

      After all, this is what science does all the time, though you might like to ponder on why science has never yet got to the point of eliminating all possible natural causes for any phenomenon before finding one which explains it. In other words why has every mystery ever solved by science turned out to have a natural explanation and no god, or even magic, has ever been found to be necessary in that explanation?

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