Tuesday, May 30, 2006

More Lewis and Atheism

BDK: The comments link on your "Lewis is a jerk" post is busted.

Calling atheism a "boy's philosophy" is, on the face of it, is a hurtful discussion-stopper, something I can imagine a stupid parent telling their intelligent inquisitive child.

I'll be honest with you. I wish he hadn't said it. Though he did make this statement after having offered arguments against atheism. It's in Mere Christianity. What he actually meant by it, I think, is that atheism is an adolescent philosophy, carry with it the kinds of compensations that go along with adolescent rebellion (the joy of getting it "right" when most of popular culture gets it wrong; the sense that one is tough enough to face the "truth" when everyone else is hugging illusions, etc.

BDK: On the other hand, perhaps it was a case of turnabout as fair play. I know a lot of atheists loudly claim that theists simply haven't matured past a childish world of make-believe (we constantly make allusions to Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, etc). This must be a tiresome claim to confront, and is as insulting as calling them a little child.

Yes, these arguments are tiresome and silly.

BDK: Also, it may be important to remember that he speaks of himself when he pokes fun at atheists, so perhaps he has some license to poke fun at his previous self. For him, atheism was a previous point in his intellectual development, a less matured point, so his psychological claim makes some sense.

The central point of the previous point was that although Lewis does make certain harsh claims about atheism, he also shows profound and perfectly sincere respect for his former teacher Kirkpatrick, and he has certain things he expect of the atheist; he respects atheism that is "high and dry" implying that more recently, atheism has in many cases become low and wet. The overall attitude of Lewis toward atheism is not worse, and considerably better overall, than most people's attitudes toward positions they spend their lives attacking.

BDK: At any rate, his quips make nice bumper stickers, and qua bumperstickers they are ad hominems, not really deserving serious consideration. Appealing only to children, really. :)

My central point is that these quips don't represent Lewis's overall position adequately, which is rather complex. It's important to get beyond the soundbites.


Blue Devil Knight said...

I agree with your points, but was trying to add that Lewis should be given some leeway to trash-talk back to the atheists. I can imagine some of the Oxbridge philosophers made some unpleasant comments to him, under their breath, after his conversion. If he got under Russell's skin, for instance, good for him!

Jason Pratt said...

While I largely agree with what Victor and BDK both have said regarding Lewis calling atheism a "boy's philosophy" in MC (and I thank BDK for his clear and obvious charity toward Lewis in this regard--I also recall Lewis mentioning this attitude as being a temptation of his toward his opponents, btw, which attitude he was absolutely obligated to resist), I think more can be said regarding how Lewis uses the claim.

Here is a survey of the places Lewis mentions atheism (per se, including references to materialism) in MC.

Note: this survey and analysis runs over 12K; and although I will be concluding that his intention in MC is ultimately based on Lewis having the highest respect for atheists as persons and even as atheists, my discussion will by necessity be touching on the central reason why Lewis returned progressively to Christianity from atheism. Put shortly, Lewis (grudgingly) returned to Christianity precisely because he insisted on having a high regard for atheists--especially, and not least, for himself as an atheist. (So if anyone is feeling wary for either the length or the topic, now you can skip the rest of the comment, since I've told ahead of time how it's going to go. {s!})


Near the beginning of Book 1 Chp 4 ("What Lies Behind The Law"), Lewis is distinguishing the "materialist" view from the "religious" view, as rough approximations (which I would recognize as the distinction between believing that reality at bottom is only reactive vs. being active). He introduces this by saying, "Ever since men were able to think, they have been wondering what this universe really is and how it came to be there. And, very roughly, two views have been held." After roughly sketching in the distinctions between the two views, he continues, "Please do not think that one of these views was held a long time ago and that the other has gradually taken its place. Wherever there have been thinking men both views turn up." (My bolded emphases.)

This is his first overt mention of it in MC; and it's hardly unflattering. It is also his only overt mention of it, that I can find, in Book 1.

Bk2, Chp1 ("The Rival Conceptions of God") Most of this short chapter has to do with a difference between theisms; but atheism is mentioned at the beginning and the end.

"If you are a Christian," Lewis writes in his second sentence of this chapter (and book), "you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth [i.e., "in their main point"]. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myslf that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view."

Here there are echoes of the Chestertonian irony of "liberal" "freethinkers" being actually more constrained and less liberal than the narrow dogmatists. But strictly speaking Lewis isn't putting this position up for mockery. In practice, Lewis shows elsewhere he is quite willing to accept positions frequently advanced by sceptics as being an integral part of their scepticism; but there is little evidence that he finds even high-and-dry sceptics willing to accept positions frequently advanced by believers as being an integral part of their belief. (I find much the same in practice myself, though I think this situation has improved somewhat since Lewis' day; which I think is quite a good thing, at least in potential.)

At the very end of the same chapter, having moved into and through a discussion of the anti-theistic argument from injustice (which Lewis was once a strong proponent of), Lewis gives his first specific denigration of atheism in MC:

"Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist--in other words, that the whole [foundation] of reality was senseless--I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality--namely my idea of justice--was full of sense. Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple." (my emphasis)

His folksy way of putting it notwithstanding, Lewis is actually making an important and sophisticated (though not complex) argument here: in order to argue in favor of atheism (or against not-atheism, to put it another way around), he finds he must necessarily assume something to be true which foundationally fits not-atheism in mutual exclusion to atheism. It's the same move he makes in his Argument from Reason.

It would be like discovering that in order to even attempt to seriously argue that theism is true, I must necessarily presume something to be true which is a characteristic of atheism in mutual exclusion to theism. If I discovered this, I think I could accurately call theism 'too complex' (among other things): it would include a factor which actually has to be denied in order to even try making the claim. (A softer version of this refutal _is_ commonly used by naturalists and atheists, of course: supernature and/or God is a needless addition to what is necessary for understanding reality, thus in effect theism is 'too complex'.) Lewis, having decided (in his experience) the opposite to be true, is making a similarly technical statement (except the other way around): atheism is too simple.

Having written this, ending out Chp 1 of Book 2, Lewis instantly begins Chp 2 ("The Invasion") with an important addendum (one might even call it a caveat):

"Very well then, atheism is too simple. And I will tell you another view that is also too simple. It is the view I call Christianity-and-water... Both these are boys' philosophies."

Why is Chr&water a boys' philosophy? Because it leaves out all the difficult and terrible doctrines. It doesn't contain enough in it.

This is the link to how Lewis is understanding atheism to be a boy's philosophy; and the link to what Victor has reported concerning Lewis' tough-minded admiration for 'high and dry' atheism. Lewis had found that his own attempts at being tough-minded, in atheism--specifically his use of the atheistic argument from injustice--weren't being tough-minded in the ways that counted most to him.

It was, as he himself reports elsewhere, difficult for him to come to grips with the fact (as he found it) that in order to hold to a position he really cared for (e.g. he is a rational man, there is injustice in the world), he would have to affirm a position he was strongly opposed to (theism)--a position he commonly had been opposing by appealing to the things he cared the most for.

And that _is_ a tough choice to make. It would be tempting to take the waffly way out: to denigrate reasoning and ethical sense when these are perceived to lead toward a position one opposes, while still trying to make use of them one's self. (I will add here that this tactic is certainly not restricted to unbelievers! This tactic is one reason I am so opposed to some hardline Calvinist theologians, for instance; though sadly I can find the tactic elsewhere almost as readily...) Lewis represents this temptation in the answers to the riddles after the rescue of the teenaged John by Reason, from imprisonment by Freudian psycho-philosophy, in his allegorical autobiography _The Pilgrim's Regress_: a rescue he at first rejoices in, _until_ it starts to verge toward a belief in the Landlord. Then he panics and refuses to go further with the Lady.

And, even when he relented and accepted theism again, he first strenuously balked at accepting supernaturalism; then strenuously balked at accepting Christianity. In each case, however, the situation was the same: he found there wasn't enough in the simpler positions. (Not meaning 'simpler' in a derrogatory sense, but technically speaking.)

That is where he is coming from (though represented very briefly and partially in MC). And that's why he puts things the way he does.

It is also why he says (a little later in the same chapter, and his other use of the phrase), "So let us leave behind all these boys' philosophies--these over-simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simple either.

"What is the problem?" he asks. It is exactly the same problem he found important as an atheist--and which he (and I and Victor and other Christian apologists, for that matter) still commonly find to be as important to atheists, even specifically _as_ atheists, as it is to us as theists:

"A universe that contains much that is obviously bad and apparently meaningless, but containing creatures like ourselves who know that it is bad and meaningless."

It was precisely to answer this problem that he became an atheist in the first place, leaving his Christianity behind. But it was precisely to answer this problem better, that he (grudgingly) returned first to theism, then to supernaturalistic theism, then to Christianity: despite his feelings of strong antipathy against the religion he once believed had failed (and oppressed) him so thoroughly.

Which in turn is related to the only other place in MC where I can find an overt reference to atheism, offhand. He began his references by acknowledging atheism to be a belief of thinking men in all times; and he ends his references, in MC, with what can only be (to Lewis) a higher compliment:

"It is not reason that is taking away my faith [in examples he has previously given]: on the contrary, my faith is based on reason... The battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other. [...] Now Faith, in the [first] 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 can 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 [even to be a sound atheist] one must train the habit [and virtue!] of Faith." (my emphasis)

I have no problem in the least believing that Lewis was quite aware of the implication of what he was writing here. The implication, is that the sound atheist and the sound Christian are both doing something virtuous, honorable and necessary for mature thinking. Both should be, and are, opposing a mode of merely reactive behavior as the foundation of their thinking.

The irony, which is the central and most crucial thrust of Lewis' apologetic, is that even though both men are acting in a virtuous, honorable fashion, necessary for mature thinking, and even though both men are, in doing so, trying to oppose a mode of behavior which should be rejected--one of these men is nevertheless requiring that all of his own behaviors are ultimately founded (both in historical and continuing immediate cause) in exactly the mode of behavior he is trying to reject, as a mature and virtuous thinker.

Or so Lewis found, as a strident proponent of atheism. Precisely in order to have the highest respect possible for atheists (as persons), or even for atheism (as a belief)--he had to concede not-atheism to be true instead.

Jason Pratt

Blue Devil Knight said...

Interesting analysis, Jason. I am always wary of atheists who became atheists because of the argument from evil (and, generally, considerations of why horrible things happen in this world, such as two-year olds falling out of windows and dying painful deaths). Their atheism is a mere rejection of God, and often not a replacement of the God hypothesis with something better. What these atheists lack is a positive story about the universe, a story that doesn't include the supernatural, but does include all the crazy things we find (mathematics, qualia, ethical quandaries). Developing such a story requires a much greater tap of imagination, an intellectual struggle to imagine how a fully natural world could be populated with such anomalies. (The existence of natural evil, of course, poses such an anomaly for the god hypothesis, as do evolutionary biology and anthropology.)

Hence, I just don't trust the spurned theist turned atheist to stay that way for long. I have found that their worldviews tend to be somewhat embarassingly undeveloped. I could see why someone would say they have a "boy's philosophy."

An interesting different case is the home-grown atheist, who was simply raised without a belief in Gods. They are much like the Christians I know for whom questioning the doctrines of their childhood isn't even considered. Typically they have bills to pay and get along fine in life with the psychological tools offered from their background. While it is insulting to say they have a boy's philosophy, such cases apparently aren't what Lewis had in mind. These people have no pretensions of being philosophers, of struggling with the different answers available to the big questions. They use the answers inherited as youngsters, and I don't begrudge that. I disagree with Socrates about the examined life, because I think it is elitist snobbery. But, then again, I am not a Christian, so I don't think anything of great importance rides on it (ceteris paribus).

Jason Pratt said...

I have tons of respect, including ethical respect, for most anti-theistic arguments from injustice; though not always tons of respect for how it is used. {lopsided g} I have a major heroine and at least one major villain making use of the argument in the series I'm writing. And the heroine dies with that conviction only being stronger. And she's still accepted by God afterward--even though she will not accept Him yet (indeed she stabs Him in the heart at the first opportunity.) But that's okay; He completely understands and accepts her anyway. (This happens way down the line in the series, so I'm not spoiling things too much I think. {s!})

I agree, atheists who become atheists for this reason (which, btw, by Lewis' testimony was not strictly the reason he left Christianity, though it became a key reason why he stayed out so long) don't necessarily have a fully developed positive notion to replace it with. They may only be negative atheists, the key point being to deny claims being positively made elsewhere. Anti-theists, instead of atheists, as it could be put.

Still, I'm also willing to agree that those denials (even if they don't have something coherently positive they're even trying to replace it with) can be fairly sophisticated and mature. Furthermore, I happen to agree (and even agree rather strongly) that the logic is frequently correct (so far as it goes--part of the problem being it doesn't go far enough).

Put another way, I frequently find that they're actually being properly critical of a technical heresy somewhere. They're (rightly!) rejecting the heresy, and seeing nothing better to replace it with (and being continually assured that the heresy is actually orthodoxy), they not unreasonably (and even quite correctly--again, so far as they're going) reject the ostensible orthodoxy, too. And (sometimes even explicitly) do justice to God (or refuse to do injustice to Him) in the process.

Which I think is pretty nifty and admirable. {g}

(Now, being a positive atheist rather than only an anti-theist, is something else again, I agree. But I certainly don't think it's necessarily a worse thing, ethically speaking. It's just different in some significant ways.)