Mere Christianity: Just plain awfulIan | 17 August, 2008 | 18:57
I have grudgingly finished reading C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity. I say grudgingly because although I went in hoping for strong, articulate reasons to believe theism, and specifically Christianity, at the end I was left with a tired confused man, who writes from a sexist post-war (WWII) viewpoint, rambling about what helps him sleep at night.
The arguments for Christianity break down as follows:
(1) There can be no morals without God.
This is actually his big one. It’s what made him go from “atheism” to Christian apologist. Never mind that it doesn’t take too much reading in moral philosophy before you realize how pathetic of an argument this is, he doesn’t even articulate it well!
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?
He assumes that morality requires a reference point, however if morality is derived from reason it requires no more reference than intelligence does.
Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.
(2) He uses the Jesus had to be “liar, lunatic, or lord” argument.
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse You can shut Him up as a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonesense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
(3) He claims we just happen to be built for spirituality:
God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits are designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.
(4) The “authority” of the bible:
And it seems plain as a matter of history that He taught His follwers that the new life was communicated in this way. In other words, I believe it on His authority.
There may also be other smaller “arguments” for Christianity, but morality was his big one. The funny thing is, even granting that argument, it doesn’t justify choosing Christianity as the big-T True religion, and other than the Liar-Lord-Lunatic argument (which is a false dichotomy), he presents NO arguments for why he believes this rubbish.
However, there are a few passages I agreed with Lewis on:
- While discussing (sexual) propriety or decency he urges elders not to assume the young are corrupt because of their emancipation from old rules, and meanwhile the young should not assume the old are prudish.
- On marriage he suggests a distinction between “Christian Marriage” and (secular) state marriage.
A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans [Muslims] tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of British people are not Christians [in the 40s I think they were] and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distict kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distiction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.
- I also like a bit of his initial discussion on “Faith,” where he talks about faith being what you use to hold onto your reason when emotions run high and you may think irrationally. This “faith” would be like remembering that you won’t drown while learning to swim because your instructor will save you. However, I think his promotion of this use of faith sometimes goes beyond just when you’re being irrational, and sometimes prevents reasonable discourse in your mind (for example if new evidence is presented you should examine in rationally).
There are, however, many things I found not only disagreeable, but downright objectionable.
First, he just short of vilifies homosexuality. Although this was written in the fifties before the “sexual revolution” of the seventies, it still remains a pillar of Christian apologetics and must be answered for.
When a man makes a moral choice two things are involved. One is the act of choosing. The other is the various feelings, impulses and so on which his psychological outfit presents him with, and which are the raw material of his choice. Now this raw material may be of two kinds. Either it may be what we would call normal: it may consist of the sort of feelings that are common to all men. Or else it may consist of quite unnatural feelings due to things that have gone wrong in his subconscious. … The desire of a man for a woman would be of the first kind: the perverted desire of a man for a man would be of the second. [Emphasis added]
The bad psychological material is not a sin but a disease. It does not need to be repented of, but to be cured. And by the way, that is very important. Human beings judge one another by their external actions.
In terms of “curing” homosexuality he was buying a lot into Freudian psychoanalysis (as likely most people of the day were). However, the idea of “curing” homosexuality remains alive today and further discriminates many productive members of modern society.
Second, he launches into the chastity and marriage sections, noting that he is a lifelong bachelor, which limits his ability to comment, however in some places he takes more liberty than he likely has.
the Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’ Now this is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts, that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong. One or the other. Of course, being a Christian, I think it is the instinct which has gone wrong.
The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological purpose of eating is to repair the body. … But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function.
Condoms and other birth control was readily available to men and women by the 1950s. Therefore no man should need to worry about populating villages. I should also note that Lewis often singles out men alone as the ones out with the “dangerous” sexual appetites, although you may grant this to the prevalent biases of the era, they aren’t eradicated today.
I found these two quotes humorously ironic:
Christianity is almost the only one of the religions which thouroughly approves of the body…
Christianity has glorified marriage more than any other religion: and nearly all the greatest love poetry in the world has been produced by Christians. If anyone says that sex, in itself, is bad, Christianity contradicts him at once.
He justifies these by claiming it is merely the “desires” for sex which have become perverted and he blames everything from the media to the culture and even “people out to make a buck.”
He continually uses an analogy between sexual and food appetites.
The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kings of union which were inteded to go along with it and make up the total union. The Christian atitude does not mean that there is anything wrong about sexual pleasure, any more than about the pleasure of eating. It means that you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself, any more than you ought to try to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again.
However, following this logic, chewing gum is as immoral as sex outside of marriage. The fact is he presents no arguments for why sex outside marriage is so bad and so worrisome other than misleading apologetics.
Finally, I’ll finish off with straight quotes from Lewis on why every marriage must have a leader, and why it must be the man. If need be I’ll explain in an entire new post why this is absurd, but I hope you can read for yourself.
(1) The need for some head follows from the idea that marriage is permanent. Of course, as long as the husband and wife are agreed, no question of a head need arise; and we may hope that this will be the normal state of affairs in a Christian marriage. But when there is a real disagreement, what is to happen? Talk it over, of course; but I am assuming they have done that and still failed to reach agreement. What do they do next? They cannot decide by a majority vote, for in a council of two there can be no majority. Surely, only one or the other of two things can happen [false dichotomy alert]: either they must separate and go their own ways or else one or other of them must have a casting vote. If marriage is permanent, one or other party must, in the last resort, have the power of deciding the family policy. You cannot have a permanent association without a constitution. [Marriage isn't the military]
(2) If there must be a head, why the man? Well, firstly is there any very serious wish that it should be the woman? As I have said, I am not married myself, but as far as I can see, even a woman who wants to be the head of her own house does not usually admire the same state of things when she finds it going on next door She is much more likely to say ‘Poor Mr X! Why he allows that appalling woman to boss him about the way she does is more than I can imagine.’ I do not think she is even very flattered if anyone mentions the fact of her own ‘headship’. There must be something unnatural about the rule of wives over husbands, because the wives themselves are half ashamed of it and despise the husbands whom they rule. But there is also another reason; and here I speak quite frankly as a bachelor, because it is a reason you can see from outside even better than from inside.. The relations of the family to the outer world – what might be called its foreign policy – must depend, in the last resort, upon the man, because he always ought to be, and usually is, much more just to the outsiders. A woman is primarily fighting for her own children and husband against the rest of the world. Naturally, almost in a sense, rightly, their claims override, for her, all other claism. She is the special trustee of their interests. The function of the husband is to see that this natural preference of hers is not given its head. He has the last word in order to protect other people from the intense family patriotism of the wife. If anyone doubts this, let me ask a simple question. If your dog has bitten the child next door, or if your child has hurt the dog next door, which would you sooner have to deal with, the master of that house or the mistress? Or if you are a married woman, let me ask you this question. Much as you claim to admire your husband, would you not say that his chief failing is his tendency not to stick up for his rights and yours against the neighbours as vigorously as you would like? A bit of an Appeaser? [emphasis added]
So what is my final review of this book?
If you get a chance to read it, don’t.