C.S. Lewis on the moral argument against God

June 25, 2014

lewisWhen a Christian apologist says that we “need God” for objective moral values, unbelievers often mishear or misunderstand the statement. They think he’s saying, “We need God in order to be moral people”—at which point, they might, for example, point to Israel’s conquest of Canaan in the Old Testament and say, “I don’t need that God telling me what’s good and bad!” Or they might become indignant, thinking the apologist is saying that unbelievers are incapable of being moral people. I witnessed the late Christopher Hitchens exhibiting this same confusion in both ways in a debate with my Christian ethics professor many years ago.

Needless to say, both these responses miss the point. As David Bentley Hart has written:

We all know that countless persons of no creed whatsoever—atheists, agnostics, the indeterminately “spiritual,” the genially indifferent—are able to behave with exemplary kindness and generosity. Spend some time working with Doctors Without Borders, for instance, and you will meet many physicians who joined the organization out of religious conviction, but also many who did not, and it is impossible to discern any great differences among them as far as compassion or heroism goes.

That said, I have to observe that… I have been led to a few dark and desolate locales, of the sort that never get mentioned in tourist guides, and it is hard not to notice that the nearer one gets to the ground in places where poverty, disease, despair, and terror are simply part of the quotidian fabric of existence, the more the burden of humanitarian aid is shifted onto the shoulders of religious institutions (generally, though not exclusively, Christian). I don’t doubt the good will, decency, or dedication of atheist altruists, or the supererogation of which many of them are individually capable. But I do occasionally entertain doubts that in general, considered purely proportionately, they can rival their believing counterparts for sheer moral stamina.

That is not an accusation, however. The real question of the moral life, at least as far as philosophical “warrant” is at issue, is not whether one personally needs God in order to be good, but whether one needs God in order for the good to be good.

For Hart, it’s “blindingly obvious” that we need God in order for the good to be good. You can read his essay for more on that.

Many atheists, by contrast, convinced already that the good is really good, reject faith in God on that basis. C.S. Lewis, who did the same thing himself early in life, points out the logical problem with doing so in the following paragraph from Mere Christianity:

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? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole 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. 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.[†]

† C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 41.

7 Responses to “C.S. Lewis on the moral argument against God”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Lewis’s argument shows that atheists who want to charge that Christians are “morally wrong” on positions like homosexuality actually have no legs to stand on. However, most said atheists rarely go through the “mental exercise” to assess their own perspective. Precious and few are those who are persuaded of the error of their ways by the entirely eminent reasoning of logicians like Lewis.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree. Is there some kind of persuasive argument that doesn’t require logic? Even if you have a strong intuition, you need logic to back it up, otherwise what is it worth?

  2. Morbert Says:

    I don’t find this argument against God to be particularly convincing. I generally feel theodicy is robust enough to address such objections. However, I feel obliged to make one comment.

    The argument is not “Unjust things happen therefore God does not exist”. It is instead an argument that says “A loving God exists” and “There is constant suffering in the world” are contradictory statements. It does not rely on an an objective measure of just and unjust. It relies on the assumption that a loving God would not permit endless suffering. As such, it is specifically an argument against a loving God. The argument would not work against a cruel or vindictive God.

    • brentwhite Says:

      David Hume had a syllogism along those lines, as I recall. I see what you mean. I probably mistitled the post. I was speaking more to the moral intuition that suffering is wrong.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Morbert, if I understand Lewis, I think his point as to your distinction was, or would be, that we cannot argue that God is “evil” due to suffering existing. In order to say that God is evil, we have to have some self-sustaining “good” to compare the conduct of God against. And what is the source of that “good” standard? We don’t rely on, “That’s just how I feel about it.” We want to say that God is “wrong” in a moral sense–something “higher” than just ourselves. So, if we are looking to the source of “good” as something extant and beyond ourselves, what we find is that it pretty much comes down to what God has said is “good” in the Bible. In other words, we don’t think we should hurt people needlessly. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Thou shalt not kill.” Etc. Therefore, it remains to try to reconcile things like suffering with a God who gives the very standard of “good” that we are relying upon to castigate God for in the first place.

      I can’t do that reconciliation here, and I imagine if you read more of Lewis, you would find some such reconciliation. Briefly, I would say that the presence of suffering is tied, to some extent at least, in the privilege of free choice that God grants to us. It is also tied to natural laws which in themselves are good and necessary, but can sometimes in their operation lead to “natural catastrophes”–God does not “override” the otherwise good and necessary natural laws each time someone might be harmed by their operation. If he did, there would be even more “chaos” than if things unfolded per those laws. (Thus, a rain storm may cause harm to some but be necessary to raising crops that feed many more.) As I say, I can’t run through any full gamut, but hopefully you can see the general thrust of such arguments.

  3. bobbob Says:

    i finally saw the wolpert-craig video. while craig was articulate and respectful, wolpert took the route of the weaker argument that of ridicule and near insult. he tried to be cute and failed. he tried to invoke the thought that ” it is not scientific or against what we know”. do they know everything? he admitted that he doesnt.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Craig’s refusal to be disrespectful speaks volumes about his character. Not to mention it’s a good witness for Christ! I worry that I couldn’t do it. I’d give as good as I got. No one is going to beat me at cynicism or sarcasm!

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