Mere Christianity: Just plain awful

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  3. 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.

21 thoughts on “Mere Christianity: Just plain awful

  1. Hello Ian!

    I guess I should start off by stating that I havent read anything on your blog before. I just got into Blogger and your blog was the first one that popped up. I suppose since you had just written and posted it. Having said that, dont be too hard on me.

    I was interested to see that you were looking for a reason to believe yet your read Mere Christianity?!?! Now, C.S. is a great writer(personally), but if one was to look for a reason to believe why not go to the source…The Bible!?!?

    I believe that you are a little mis-guided in your thought of morality too. Again, I just got to see the breif point you made here, but everything we do and have in this world requires a referrence point. Intelligence is based off of God just as C.S. notes darkness is nothing without the knowledge of light. Wether it justifies HIS reason is of no matter either. The point was that he, as many others now, feel that since “Im smart and I dont know and cant imagine anyone being smarter or having more common sense than me there cant be a God.” That is just foolishness. Why would somebody claim to be the smartess and have more common sense than anyoone? There will always be somebody that comes along who is better. Its just a show of a massive ego who wants to draw more attention to themselves.

    As for the three L’s…the argument is the statement he writes. You have to choose. Was Jesus a Liar, Lunatic or Lord. What other choices are there. Its obvious that C.S. chose Lord. What more reason were you expecting?

    I personally dont agree with C.S. on the curing homosexuality. I dont believe that there is a cure since I dont think that it is a disease. I believe that what I think he should have combined was the thought that it is no sex until marriage. Marriage was based from the Bible in Genesis when God found no suitable helper for Adam, thus creating Eve…not Steve. Sorry had to put that in there. When I think back to my childhood and even early teens I didnt have the urge to have sex. I didnt know what it was really. I just knew what I saw on TV and what strange stories I heard from my friends brother and etc. When he notes that this is contrary to our instincts he is stating that this is of our sinful nature from the fall of man. If there was no fall then man and woman would not have sex till joined together. There would be no want to have sex.

    The man as the head of the marriage is, again, based off of the Bible where MAN was created first in the image of God and the WOMAN was created second to be the helper. This by no means should be the end of the dicussion though. In Christianity God comes first and all must do his will, then the MAN who was created to walk with and rejoice in God and then the woman to follow the lead of the man. I guess I should also note that when you think about the term helper it brings to mind(or at least mine) one who is helping a farmer or store manager etc. The farmer or manager makes the decisions and the helper is to follow those decisions. Yes, the helper in these areas is ooften asked what they feel just as marriage, but the final decision is up to the farmer or manager.

    Well, Im sure that you will tear this apart and I am ready for it, but I would just suggest that you continue to search for God and search for him in all honesty, not just wanting to tear apart details that you dont feel are correct. If you do this you will never find what youre looking for.

  2. Thanks for the long detailed comment Rich, and welcome to the Blogosphere!

    First, I’ll say that in this post I wanted to just outline what I found in the book, there were no new arguments to me, so I didn’t provide rebuttals (sloppy I know, but I don’t like writing books when I post).

    I looked to Mere Christianity for a new reason or argument for theism that I haven’t heard before. I was sadly disappointed, and by the end of the Theology chapter I was quite frustrated with the book and probably came off harsher in this post than I likely would have after a couple days, but I wanted to get it done.

    The morality question I’ll deal with using a new analogy I’ve thought up (look for a new post in the next 15-30 minutes).

    The Liar-Lord-Lunatic argument is a false (tri/di)chotomy. Basically, Jesus could have been misquoted, not existed, said some of the things, said all of the things but meant them differently etc. In essence just because it’s written doesn’t make it law (although I guess the Bible is different for you).

    Also, I did get through Genesis-Leviticus and have read parts of the New Testament. Honestly, the Bible’s a really dry slow read. I hopefully will finish it in the future, but for now I’ll go with my sparse knowlegde – and that of my friends who’ve read it multiple times and some of whom are Biblical Scholars.

    Also

    “Im smart and I dont know and cant imagine anyone being smarter or having more common sense than me there cant be a God.” That is just foolishness.

    I agree, it is a foolish argument, which is why I didn’t use it (I think).

    Anyways, take a look through my Top Posts for what I consider the best I’ve written so far, or just search around (if you want). And if you start your own blog let me know and I’ll check it out.

  3. Hi Ion

    I was an atheist for many years, until I EXPERIENCED CHRIST JESUS!

    In my opinion, attempting to convince an atheist of the existence of God and how wonderful He is, is analogist to attempting to convince someone who has never experienced an orgasm, that it really does exist, and how wonderful it is! Although, the orgasm is very temporary, God is forever Wonderful!

    Only the Holy Spirit can draw people to Christ Jesus. Serving God is a privilege, not a right!

    We owe him everything. He owes us nothing!

    I’ll be praying for you.

    Blessings

    Kim

    1. Sorry Ian

      I misspelled your name and also, “analogous.” I had just gotten off a strenuous bike ride, and was cooling down. Weariness makes for mistakes.

      Blessings

      Kim

  4. Hi

    I’ve just been reading Mere Christianity and had a Google for a rebuttal of it. I’ve read a few now, and yours is the best I’ve yet come across.

    I’m an agnostic but by no means a Christian-hater. The believers I know are generally nice and friendly people, even if some of them seem to be using their jolliness to suppress some deeper emotion. I was interested to see whether CS Lewis could awaken my curiosity in Christianity.

    I was really suprised by the kind of arguments Lewis uses. He’s arguing by analogy the whole time, and half of the analogies are unconvincing. As you point out, he is fond of the false dichotomy and the book is replete with logical fallacies. I’m surprised that a Professor of English could write such a book; my former English teachers wouldn’t have let me get away with half the arguments Lewis uses.

    If there is anything in the book that suggests to me that there might be a God, it’s this:

    “I want to consider what this tells us about the universe we live in. 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. First, there is what is called the materialist view. People who take that view think that matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why; and that the matter, behaving in certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke, to produce creatures like ourselves who are able to think. By one chance in a thousand something hit our sun and made it produce the planets, and by another tousandth chance the chemicals necessary for life, and the right temperature, occurred on one of these planets, and so some of the matter on this earth came alive; and then, by a very long series of chances, the living creatures developed into things like us’.

    I’d be interested to your views on that.

    1. Thanks for the review Richard. As per the argument you mention, it really assumes a lot of probabilities that seem very arbitrary. For example “By one chance in a thousand… by another thousandth chance…” etc. With the number of galaxies (upwards of 125 billion) and the number of stars per galaxy (around 100 billion) and the potential number of planets per star (so far 333 extrasolar planets have been found, and we just started to look), it seems that it may be reasonable to assume that it not just could of happened by chance, but almost undoubtedly had to.

  5. Hey man, I am new to this and will be brief. One old argument, where does the matter that started the chain of events hundreds of billions of years ago come from? I am a Christian and I truly understand your viewpoint. I simply have to ask what is the origin of it all? Love to hear back.

    1. Hello Ian,

      Please excuse my previous comment, I was just testing to see if i could actually comment on here before I wrote too much.

      I greatly enjoyed your post about Mere Christianity. I will start off by saying I am a Christian and grew up going to church, yet not caring or applying any “Christian Values” to my daily life. Only recently have I actaully known God and seen change in my conduct and beleifs. So it is important you know that right off the bat I am willing to believe rather than disagree with Lewis, though I feel like an open-minded person.

      I read Mere Christianity last year and have leafed through it from time to time ever since. I just came across your post and wanted to throw in my two cents. (if you want it-I’m guessing you do since you have a blog.)

      Regarding your thoughts on the “absurdity” of man being the leader in a marriage: in the Christian faith it is in fact held that the man is the leader and final say in marriage. The part of book 3 in which Lewis addresses this matter is the last chapter. However in the 2nd chapter of this book (‘this book’ being “Christian Behavior”) Lewis writes, “For the rest of this book I am going to assume the Christian point of view, and look at the whole picture as it will be if Christianity is true.”
      You see, Lewis cannot be making an absurd statement if in a Christian marriage the man ruler and he stated that he will be holding the belief that Christianity is true.

      On another topic:
      Please do not sell yourself short on the comment about “chewing gum being as immoral as sex before marriage.” You and I both know that is not the point he was trying to get across and that gum is deffinately an exception and does not fit into the illustration; and so he does not use it. I do think you could make a better point and really have something there though. I’m interested in what you were trying to get across. Because from what I read it seems he does back up his “arguments for why sex outside marriage is so bad and so worrisome.”

      And another thing,
      In a response to someone’s comment you wrote: “The Liar-Lord-Lunatic argument is a false (tri/di)chotomy. Basically, Jesus could have been misquoted, not existed, said some of the things, said all of the things but meant them differently etc. In essence just because it’s written doesn’t make it law (although I guess the Bible is different for you).”

      If you hold this type of logic where you say, “yes there’s that, but what if it actually never happened or none of this is real?” Then any sort of logic, reasonable thinking, mathmatics, events in history, ect. can just be thrown out the window. Honestly if you hold that way of thinking then you might easily be pursuaded that Alexandar the Great never exsited, which would be untrue. do you see my point? I will agree with the misleading and possibily false dichotomy though, that is an interesting point/thought.

      I realize it has been quite a few months since you wrote about your thoughts and feelings concerning Mere Christianity and that your beliefs could have shifted, or you no longer care, but anyway, I would enjoy hearing back from you.

      1. Thanks for the sincere comments Ellen. You’re right, it has been quite a while (over a year) since I read the book. I think the biggest point you hit that I may have missed is that Lewis writes “from a Christian perspective,” so if I reject that perspective from the start, there’s going to be a lot that I disagree with.

        I found the bits about man lording over women as offensive to my sense of justice and equality that grew out of enlightenment thinking and later civil rights (including feminist) movements. The argument is very similar to how slavery was justified in the name of religion or how women are still brutally subjugated under many forms of Islam.

        I’m still not convinced by his sex outside procreation argument. The gum analogy holds as far as I can tell. His argument seems to be that doing something pleasurable that has a biological purpose is only moral if its attempting to fulfil that moral purpose. Sex outside procreation is immoral to Lewis because it doesn’t help reproduction.

        A better example may be sex after menopause or in cases of infertility – is it immoral for the elderly or infertile to have sex because it won’t create babies? You and I will probably agree that it’s moral and fine, but the logic Lewis presents would disagree.

        Rereading it I can see a bit of a cop out if you call sex part of marriage, but in that case there’s no real reason for it to be moral other than “the bible tells me so,” which is highly unsatisfying to me (because the bible also tells me stoning adulterers and slavery are moral, but I choose to do neither).

        Finally, on the 3L argument: Not all history needs to be thrown out if we apply scepticism to claims made about past figures. If we have multiple, independent and collaborating sources that verify a person and their actions (as we have with Alexander the Great), then it’s more likely that they did exist and did do the reported things. If we have just 4 books, written a hundred years after the purported events, based upon hearsay and third-hand accounts, then perhaps you can agree that there’s more reason to be sceptical of the claims being made and the false dichotomy does exist.

        I hope this answers some of your questions about my point of view. Thanks for your openness.

  6. I’ve listened to Mere Christianity several times over the course of a couple of years and every time I do I try to think very critically and find leaps of logic. I think most of the rebuttals I’ve read are quick to make their own leaps instead of taking the long road with Lewis through each step and making a decision before moving to the next.

    A few quick things,

    On man having the casting vote in a partnership of two, I never got the sense he means anything other than being the tie breaker. He talked about fully discussing issues and honestly being open to each other’s views and only if they cannot agree then someone has to be the majority.

    On sex, he was saying that trying to get the pleasure in an isolated fashion is the problem. Christianity tends to be alot more about intent than results. The results are the easy thing, creating the right intent is the hard thing.

    On the veracity of the biblical accounts, I think we can be quick to judge the bible like we would a news article from last week. The standards for ancient documents being regarded as accurate are a very different thing.

    I’ll wait to discuss more until I hear back,

    thanks in advance!

    1. Thanks for your comments, I wrote this a while ago (2.5 years), but it’s still good to get new comments.

      Re: Tie-breaking
      Why not let the woman have the tie break? Or to be fair, alternate or flip a coin. To suggest it should automatically be the man is sexist (even if it was the prevailing attitude of his day).

      Re: Sex
      I still don’t see pleasure in isolation as inherently wrong.

      Re: Veracity
      Not sure what you mean. We know well that the Bible (New Testament) was written from second-hand (or more) accounts at least 30 years after the events were purported to occur. Further, many texts were seemingly arbitrarily left out of the final cut by the early Church; to say nothing of the internal contradictions. The Old Testament’s even less veracious.

  7. Hi Ian,

    I myself have struggled greatly with faith, belief, Christianity, agnosticism and atheism.

    I have tried to devote myself to finding the truth no matter what it turns out to be.

    My best argument for faith is that when I look back on my life and really believed in the Christian God and accepted Jesus death and resurrection and how he saved me were the best times of my life. I lived a very enriched and fulfilled life during those times. I have never been able to stay in that place due to my constant struggles with believing that the Bible is truly the “Word of God” and many of the issues that most non-believers who are knowledgeable of the Christian faith but are not commited to it.

  8. I don’t know if you still monitor this blog, so until I hear from you I’ll wait to finish expressing some of my remaining thoughts.

    Thanks,

    Tim

    1. I read every comment that is posted on my blog, even for old posts. Your arguments are subjective, correlational, and biased. It’s good that life is more enriched and fulfilled for you, but for me (and I do consider myself decently knowledgeable in Christianity and to a lesser extent other major religions) atheism and humanism are far more fulfilling and intellectually honest.

  9. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for your response.

    Do you believe that atheism and a humanistic perspective will ultimately lead the world to a better place? Do you believe that if everyone were to become atheists and humanists that we would live in a world much better than the one we currently have?

    I know that many atrocities have been commited “in the name of god” or for some similiar reason. Do you believe that those type of events would eventually disappear if we all were atheists/humanists?

    Thanks

    Tim

    1. One of the most dangerous things in recent human history has been unquestionable ideologies. This has led to religious extremism, as well as that of the Nazis and Communists. I’m not so naive as to suggest that were religion to disappear tomorrow that all atrocities would cease, people will always find reasons to hate.

      I do believe though that increasing scepticism, critical thinking, and the questioning of authority (whether religious, political, or corporate) could have a profoundly positive effect on the global society. Dogmas must be challenged and people should think critically about what they’re told. As scepticism is a core tenet of humanist philosophy, I do therefore think that a greater acceptance of humanism will improve society.

      I encourage you to read Steve Pinker’s latest book (it’s big) “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” which first documents a continual decline in violence over the entire human history (including through the 20th century) and argues that this latest decline is due to the rise of enlightenment humanism (which is a precursor to modern secular humanism).

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