this criticism of C. S. Lewis by secular humanist Patrick Inniss, first published by the Secular Humanist Press. Boy, does he get a lot wrong:
You can't delve too deeply into modern Christian apologetics without coming across the name C.S. Lewis. A few years ago, an evangelical Christian friend presented me with one of Lewis's books, remarking in his inscription that Lewis was "himself once an atheist." Tales of atheists who suffer religious conversions are a staple of true believers. I always listen to such reports attentively because they reveal the level of understanding believers have of atheism.
So let's begin by poisoning the well in a mild way! Atheists don't convert, they "suffer conversions." (Lewis might have agreed with that.) Christians who tell such stories aren't "believers," but "true believers," a nod to the conceit that Christian faith is irrational.
To my disappointment, I discovered that Lewis doesn't really spend much time talking about atheism in this book.
What book? This article is being published by the Secular Humanist Press. Why would they publish an expose of the greatest Christian writer of modern times, and not name the book that is being exposed? That seems coy.
If the book is Mere Christianity, as appears likely, why should Lewis spend a lot of time talking about atheism there? (Or, really, any of his other books. He talks about his own views as an atheist in Surprised by Joy, and also about the deep respect and affection he had for his tutor, who was an atheist. But I don't think that's the book Inniss is reading.)
Despite his claim to have been one himself, his characterizations of atheism are to true atheism what a Tarzan movie is to Africa. Unfortunately, to millions of Christians who read his works, Lewis's interpretation is the closest they will ever come to a discussion of this topic.
"True Atheism?" As opposed to what, fake atheism? My right ear is still tingling from all the sermons by atheists telling me that atheists are not a church, do not have doctrines, disagree about everything except their rejection of God, and cannot be judged by what some wing-nut calling himself an atheist says or does. Now my left ear has to hear news of a Church of True Atheism, from which C. S. Lewis has, now, apparently been posthumously evicted.
And how does Inniss know readers of Lewis depend entirely on Lewis for their knowledge of atheism? This seems improbable -- Mormons make up a similar percentage of the American population, and most of us have talked to a few Mormons in our lives. And some of the best-selling books of our time are by atheists. Lewis readers are typically pretty intellectual, and are pretty likely to run into atheists. How can one not?
If it is true that Lewis at one time considered himself an atheist, his ignorance of the subject is a glaring indictment of atheism's failure to educate even its own adherents about the true merits of our position. For instance, in Lewis's The Case for Christianity, he makes this ludicrous statement: "When I was an Atheist, I had to persuade myself that the whole human race was pretty good fools until about one hundred years ago." Perhaps C.S. Lewis, the naïve but skeptical student, could labor under the fantasy that there had been no unbelievers until the nineteenth century, but how could the mature, academician Lewis, expert on the subject of religious philosophy, fail to recognize the history of non-belief, which probably stretches back as far as religion itself?
Of course Lewis was aware of ancient atheists: he had been reading them for years, and often refers to them in his writings. (Mentioning Lucretius, for instance, in a letter to his father in 1916, at the age of 18.) In 1944, he writes in another letter, "Atheism is as old as Epicurus."
"The whole human race" here, obviously, means "the vast majority of humanity." That is, to those of us who are not anal, or feel some desperate need to discredit Lewis' testimony.
But why did the Council for Secular Humanism publish an article on C. S. Lewis by a man who has apparently read so little of his work -- or at any rate, certainly does not know what he thinks about the matter at hand?
Whom other than atheists did Lewis suppose his Bible was referring to in Psalms 14:1: "The fool hath said in his heart there is no God?" And did he not consider the possibly chilling effect such pronouncements may have had upon expressions along these lines? Did he not draw any conclusion from the fact that the Christian predilection for murdering anyone critical of their faith waned at about the same time he recognizes the appearance of atheism?
Since Lewis "recognized the appearance of atheism" before Christianity, these are all meaningless questions, as regards Lewis. And again, if Inniss were to bother to get to know the famous writer he is critiquing, he would know that Lewis expresses sorrow over such persecutions, and it is obvious (get to know the man) that that sorrow is sincere.
Meanwhile, there were millions of Christians in communist countries that practiced much harsher persecution of believers than probably ever occurred towards atheists in pre-modern Europe.
And of course, calling someone a "fool" is not the same as telling you to murder that person. If insulting people were tantamount to murder, the prison population would have a much higher percentage of atheists in it that secular humanists claim to be the case at present. (Definition of a "good day" on Pharyngula for a Christian: one only gets called a fool.) Nor has the murder of atheists has been the norm among Christians, anymore than the murder of Christians has been the norm among atheists with power -- though the latter has, I think, been far more common.
Lewis must have been one really chicken-* atheist. He certainly didn't bear himself with the confidence I have observed in every atheist I have ever met.
Confidence? Or unwarranted cockiness?
Inniss has given no warrant whatsoever for his vague slurs, yet. But if "confidence" is now suddenly to be ascribed the status of a paramount virtue, I think Lewis' friends would be a little bemused at this criticism, as well. C. S. Lewis, the most popular lecturer at Oxford University, was hardly a wall flower.
In Surprised by Joy (now there's a Christian title for you), Lewis characterizes his and others' atheism as follows: "I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Anti-theists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry at God for not existing. I was equally angry at Him for creating a world." This is kind of like having a dog, but hating it for not barking at prowlers—a dilemma no atheist would recognize.
I think Inniss must mean "not" having a dog.
But of course, human beings are complicated creatures. Lewis is simply recognizing that complexity, that what we may deny with one part of our minds, we may recognize with another. St. Paul says the same thing in Romans 1-2. Jay Budziszewski nurses this insight to great psychological effect in his works, beginning with himself, as yes, a former atheist who he now acknowledges was telling himself fibs. If "no" atheist is capable of understanding internal moral conflicts, then so much the worse for atheist psychology.
Though of course Freud was an atheist, and did I believe at least understand this. Or maybe Freud was a fake atheist, too?
Any atheist will tell you that she or he could more easily become angry at Bugs Bunny than at God. Lewis's description defies logic and, of course, logic is what atheism is all about . . .
Lewis taught philosophy at Oxford University, and could run rings around Mr. Inniss when it comes to logic.
But of course, God is not Bugs Bunny, and that is the point. No one claims, as Paul did of God, that "we are without excuse" if we do not believe in lisping rabbits. Lewis was a Christian, and recognized that human beings are in conflict with themselves, including over the source of our being.
As for "logic is what atheism is all about," in years of dialoguing with atheists, I honestly hadn't noticed. If I were to be reductionistic about it, and ignore some welcome exceptions, I might have guessed that anger was what atheism was all about. Or pride. Or perhaps libido.
But actually, what atheism is really all about, is the denial that God exists. Some atheists are logical in their thinking about God, even if mistaken -- trained philosophers tend to be logical even when they are wrong, and lots of philosophers are in fact atheists. But many, in my experience, could hardly reason their way out of a wet paper bag, and his puerile arguments in this article so far suggest that Inniss probably belongs to that category.
In trying to justify Christian beliefs with reason, Lewis rends huge gaps in the fabric of religious "logic," permitting all sorts of queer potential consequences. For example, Lewis defends the morality of witch-burners by saying that they merely made a "mistake of fact." In their mistaken belief that these witches were evil incarnate, they were acting quite morally in executing them. I will not dwell on all the faults of that logic, but will mention just one point. If Lewis is willing to accept that witches do not exist, and that, while believing in them, it was right to put them to death, what other "ungodly" transgressions can we forgive as mere "mistakes of fact? . . . "
Here Inniss is just misrepresenting Lewis, and his criticism is therefore especially tedious. Lewis' point is not that witch-burners were moral. It is that one cannot reasonably cite the fact that we no longer put witches to death, as proof that morality has changed.
But such distinctions are, perhaps, the pedantic ornamentation of logic-chopping philosophers.
Lewis haplessly paints himself into a corner on page 32 of The Case for Christianity when he proposes one of many "proofs" for God's existence:
(Note: this is a section in Mere Christianity, so Inniss is finally telling us what book he's writing about -- sort of!)
"Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It's like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can't trust my own thinking, of course I can't trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God."
Lewis's premise here - that if minds were not designed by God, they must be unreliable for thinking - is almost laughable in view of the sadly over-abundant evidence that, designed by God or not, brains are obviously unreliable instruments. It is only with the utmost care that humans can hope to arrive at the correct answer to even the most rudimentary problems.
Care which Inniss, needless to say, is again not showing to the needed degree.
I have argued against the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, as Alvin Plantinga calls it, so essentially I agree that Lewis is probably mistaken, here. But Inniss' critique is, as one might expect by now, remarkably shallow. He does not notice that he himself is making an argument that begs the question, on Lewis' premises. If Lewis is right, then what Inniss has observed, or deduced from those observations, is also not to be trusted, and his conclusions also unlikely to be true. Simply stating the fact that he has come to them, does nothing by itself to undermine Lewis' argument.
And, of course, this criticism does nothing to support Inniss' claim that Lewis was never a real atheist -- that is, assuming Inniss has a main point, besides, "Christians respect Lewis, so if I disrespect Lewis, that will show the world what a smart man I am and how stupid Christianity is!"
Ultimately, Lewis's appeal to Christians lies in his defense of Christianity through the use of rational arguments. By not appealing to faith or the divine word of the Bible, Lewis strives to put Christianity, and therefore Christians, on the same intellectual levels with science and rationalists.
This is, of course, absurd. C. S. Lewis was a great scholar of European tradition, and knew that Christians invented modern science (largely at his own university). He also knew that Christian philosophers had been reasoning brilliantly (and that faith was almost never construed as blind or divorced from the evidence) for centuries before that. (Again, many of the most brilliant within walking distance of Lewis' quarters at Magdalene College.)
Inniss' patronizing comments are embarrassing. He clearly does not understand the Christian tradition.
This approach is soothing to believers suffering from feelings of inferiority, who rarely note that Lewis's logic immediately collapses under even the most cursory critique. Consequently, Lewis has become one of the most widely read Christian writers. He attempts to provide reason for faith. But in reality, his reason will be accepted by few if any who do not already possess faith.
Again, the purpose of this article appears to be not to demonstrate anything about C. S. Lewis as an atheist, but rather to make Lewis "safe" for atheists. So Inniss makes amateurish faints at philosophy, at history, and now at psychology, hoping his highly rational, critically-thinking skeptic readers will buy the bluff.
And apparently many of them did -- at least, he got this childishly silly article published, somehow. And I found it cited, so many years later.
In reality, many intelligent people have come to faith through reading C. S. Lewis. I also once argued, tongue slightly in cheek, that he played a role in overthrowing communism.