Friday, May 26, 2006

Lewis on Atheism: A Reply to Austin Cline and John Beversluis: Does Lewis Ridicule Atheists?

VR: In another of Austin Cline's hostile posts on C. S. Lewis, he addresses Lewis's attitude toward atheism. He maintains that Lewis has an arrogant and hostile attitude toward atheists. Once again he appeals to John Beversluis's book to support his claims.

JB: “In Mere Christianity, for example, we learn that atheists are like ostriches: they keep their heads in the sand in order to avoid facing facts that damage their position. ...It is noteworthy that in Mere Christianity there is not one word about the “mixed” quality of the evidence for theism. Instead, those who have doubts about Christianity are ridiculed as pitifully unstable creatures who “dither to and fro” and whose beliefs are dependent “on the weather and the state of [their] digestion” (MC, 124). We are told that atheism is “too simple,” that like materialism it is “a boys’ philosophy,” “a philosophy of the nursery” (R, 55). What is the implication of this if not that atheism and materialism are childish errors that are easy to refute and unworthy of the rational man?”

“...Turning to Surprised by Joy, we find that a young atheist "cannot guard his faith too carefully," that danger "lies in wait" on every side, and that a successful adherence to atheism depends on being very selective in one's reading (SbJ, 226, 191). We are again assured that atheism is a form of wish-fulfillment and informed that in its "modern" forms it has "come down in the world" and now "dabbles in dirt" (SbJ, 226, 139). Finally, we discover that atheists are not committed inquirers, that they merely "play at" religion, and that their minds reel "in a whirl of contradictions" (SbJ, 115).”

VR: There are certainly passages in Lewis that would suggest a very harsh view of atheism; I personally cringe somewhat when I Lewis talks about atheism as a "boy's philosophy." However, when you look at Lewis's fiction, you find characters like Trumpkin the dwarf in Narnia and MacPhee in That Hideous Strength, as well as the one scientist Hingest, who refuses to cooperate with the NICE and is murdered, who are virtuous nonbelievers, and indeed even intellectully virtuous nonbelievers.

Lewis's views on atheism was very complex. On the one had atheism was certainly a view that he had come to believe to be false, and that he believed it to be false for what seemed to him to be good reasons. On the other hand, he did retain cordial relations with atheists like Arthur Clarke. He sometimes makes comments in his apologetics with respect to atheism which sound very triumphalistic, and others that do not seem nearly so triumphalistic.

Beversluis, I am afraid, very often leaves a lot to be desired in his interpretations of Lewis's writings. Consider his statement that atheism is a form of wish-fulfilment. What does Lewis actually say? He does say that he had a deep desire not to be interfered with and that the God of Christianity put at the center the transcendental Interferer. But does this mean that his atheism was just wish-fulfilment?

CSL: In this respect, and this only at first, I may have been guilty of wishful thinking. Almost certainly i was. the materilaist conception would not have seemed so immensely probable to me if it had not favored at least one of my wishes. But the difficulty of explaining even a boy's thought entirely in terms of his wishes is that on such arge questions as these he always has wishes on both sides. any conception of reality which a sane mind can admit must favor some of his wishes and frustrate others. The materialistic universe had one great, negative, attraction to offer me. It had no other. And this had to be accpeted; one had to look out on a meaningles dance of atoms (remeber, I was reading Lucretius) to realize that all the apparent beauty was a subjective phosphorescence, and to relegated everything one valued to the world of mirage. That price I tried loyally to pay. For I had learned something from Kirk about the honor of the intellect and the shame of voluntary inconsistency. And, of course, I exultled with youthful and vulgar pride in what I thought was my enlightenment. In argument with Arthur I was very swashbuckler. Most of it, as I now see, was incredibly crude and silly. I was in that state of mind in which a boy thinks it extremely telling to call God Jahveh and Jesus Yeshua.

Surprised by Joy (HBJ, pp. 172-173).

VR: And what about the charge that atheism in its modern forms dabbles in dirt. This is the full passage where that phrase emerges. Lewis is speaking about his atheist teacher, Kirkpatrick, whom he called The Great Knock.

CSL: Having said that he was a Atheist, I hasten to add that he was a "Rationalist" of the old, high and dry nineteenth-century type. For Atheism has come down in since those days, and mixed itself with politics and learned to dabble in dirt. The anonymous donor who now sends me anti-God magazines hopes, no doubt, to hurt the Christian in me; he realy hurts the ex-Atheist. I am ashamed that my old mates and (which matters much more) Kirk's old mates would have sunk to what they are now. It was differrent then; even McCabe wrote like a man. At the time when I know him, the fuel of Kirk's atheism was chiefly of the anthropological and pessimistic kind. He was great on The Golden Bough and Schopenhauer.

VR: This is a far more complex response to atheism than what Beversluis and Cline are trying to portray, to say the least.

1 comment:

Victor Reppert said...

I have opened the comments line on this entry and also put some indexing in so that we can see who said what. It was, I think, confusing otherwise.