Monday, August 30, 2010

Boy's Philosophy According to C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis once called atheism "a boy's philosophy," basically saying that there was nothing to it. He wrote that it [atheism] was too simplistic, and that real world concerns, adult concerns, were complicated and so required complex answers to meet them adequately. In Lewis' mind, the existence of complexity in the universe requires a more complex maker. Where did all this complexity come from?

For Lewis, the only answer he could see was: It came from God. But this shows a weakness in Lewis' reasoning, who was a great reductionist, highly rational, able to break apart an idea into its basic constituents and then analyze them with a fluidity and eloquence most of us lack. But having read more than just Lewis' work, I have come to find that Lewis was sort of a one-trick pony. At least when it came to philosophy. Unlike Jacques, C.S. Lewis felt there was an outside the box--that being God. Lewis liked the tools that deconstructionism provided. It's like chiseling away the excess, or frivolous, elements to an idea or concept to better make sense of the underlying form. It's no wonder that when Lewis looked inside the box labeled 'atheism' he freaked out--for there was nothing in it! Nothing to categorize, analyze, or wrap one's mind around. It was void.

For Lewis, this ultimately reflected a simplicity too void of thought to be taken seriously. Lewis was a thinker--he tackled questions fearlessly--and atheism seemed, well, rather dull. Nothing to critique, so he trivialized it and set it aside.

Although, this clues us in that Lewis started out with a massive misunderstanding of atheism, which is odd since he claims to have once been one. We find that his mistake was to assume atheis is the equivalent of other fully actualized philosophies. Lewis desperately wants something to deconstruct, take apart, and scrutinize--but atheism doesn't give him that. Religion, however, did give him that. Like boys playing with empty boxes, atheism was "a boys philosophy" to him. Fun for the adolescent, but when real world concerns complicated life, he found solace in the complexity of religion.

I call Lewis a one-trick pony because his apologetics and philosophy is only ever an attempt to deconstruct something. Obviously, he applies this method because it is the way his mind best comes to understand the world, and so he excelled at that train of thought, but Lewis makes another grave error by assuming complex problems always need sophisticated answers. This is simply not true.

The universe is vastly complex, but physics ultimately provides simple theories, models, and equations to make an advancing cosmogony practical. Not because we, with our inferior minds, has deconstructed and simplified the universe--but rather, because the universe, for all its grandeur, is only complex enough that we might understand it. Actually, given entropy, the universe is growing more chaotic, more complex. Initially, however, it seems that the universe may have started out quite simply--along with the laws which govern it. From the simplest state possible--to nothing. From belief in God, to atheism. It seems the natural progression of things. But why should Lewis have doubted that?

Because Lewis, although he pretended to be a philosopher unraveling the mysteries of man and God, he simply put the cart before the horse. All of Lewis' work reflects one thing, he wanted to believe in God. Desperately. So deperately, that even when one reads his atheistic letters, one finds that Lewis never truly gave up the notion in the possibility of God--the possibility for something outside the proverbial box. Personally, I find this shows that Lewis was never an authentic non-believer, he was merely what most Christians are as some point or another in their faith--doubtful, yet ever mindful and optimistic of the possibility. Faith usually wins out against evidence, or the lack thereof, because people make the choice to believe before they have thoroughly vetted the question. Lewis, for all his intellect, was no different.

Of course, in the end, Lewis was right--atheism is rather simple. It consists of the rejection of the theistic claim. At most it is the rejection of belief in God. That's all there is to it. But, just to be clear, atheism is not an equivalent belief system rivaling the complexity (or rather convoluted nature) of Christian theology. It was never meant to be.

Something which bothers me is that many Christians buy into C.S. Lewis' description of atheism, because he is their intellectual champion, and tells them he's been there, done that. He's got 'street cred' in other words. But there's nothing to write home about, I'm afraid.

Indeed, this "I once was an atheist" badge is proudly worn by many religious apologists. The Christian apologists Josh McDowel, Lee Strobel, and the Rabbi David Wolpe (among many others) all claim to have been atheists too. But when I listen to them talk about atheism it becomes abundantly clear that they never were truly atheists--like Lewis, at most they can claim is that they had some doubts, once. That's it. They may have been unbelievers for a short time, but their faith was intact, they just ignored it while they were confused by the cognitive cloud of dissonance that lingered over them in their time of reflection. They, I think it's safe to say, were never genuine Nonbelievers, never really atheists.

I provide this critique fully aware of the danger of making the No True Scottsman fallacy, but I think the volume of these men, and especially C.S. Lewis's work, speaks for itself. There was never any time they stopped believing. There was, however, times when they each found reasons for choosing not to.

Suffice to say, they never jumped into the secular waters, they just dipped their little toes in and quickly retracted from a shiver and the terror of the deep. Or in Lewis' case, the fear of empty boxes.

But during their periods of deep doubt, they themselves felt their faith was lost, and so we can't call them believers, or fakers for that matter. So what were they?

Maybe pseudo-atheists, is a better term. Christians who experience a moment of doubt which lingers when their rational minds get the better of them, only to lose out again to the temptation of religious certainty and the promise of ultimate answers could be deemed psuedo-atheists. If Lewis' work depicts anything... it is a man in search for absolute truths, just think of his preoccupation with absolute morality for example, for which he spent the better part of his life searching for in the confines of Christian theology--a rather limited, and smallish, box if ever there was one. But like his many beloved afternoon strolls, Christian theology was where Lewis liked to stretch his intellectual muscles.

Even though I'll never be half the writer he was, I can't help but wonder, what would he have been capable of writing if he, for just one moment, could have climbed out of the confines of his tight theological box and truly embraced skepticism?

Would the great C.S. Lewis still have been called 'the Apostle of the Skeptics' or would he have simply transcended his skepticism and realized... there is no outside of the box? An empty box with nothing in it and nothing outside it--that's the realization Lewis so adamantly despised. Just a box! My God, it's a terrible realization. What does one do with that? Well, Lewis answer was predictable--turn back toward that ever comforting realm of faith--where one has all the answers provided for them. Indeed, his insecurity with deep philosophical problems is why he set philosophy on the shelf and made a career as a Christian apologist. Which, when you think about it, makes his statement that atheism is "a boys philosophy" sort of ironic.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist