Sorry, C.S. Lewis

Hello, readers! I have one blog post yet to write about my holiday in Spain, but inertia has kicked in so pardon the brief interruption for a little bit of an opinion column.

C.S. Lewis has joined Twitter from the dead, thanks to a devoted admirer, and is posting a daily thought copied from one of his books or other writings. He can be found here. Today, I happened to see his “tweet for the day,” which is as follows:

Christianity if false is of no importance & if true is of infinite importance but it can’t be moderately important-CSLewis

This is a classic example of a Lewisism, because Lewis’ trademark rhetorical device is the false dilemma. His writings are littered with false dilemmas in which the reader is asked to choose between the “Christian answer” to something, and a totally absurd alternative.

That’s what we have here. If Christianity is true, it is of “infinite importance,” which is a pretty obvious consequence. But if Christianity is “false,” then it “is of no importance.”

Lewis had good reason for thinking this was a deep thought, and no doubt so do his many followers; for what it is standing in for, what it is pretending to be, is this: “Christianity, if false, should be rejected; if true, it should be followed.” That’s so obvious it’s dumb; by changing “should be rejected” to “is of no importance,” he makes the insight obvious but clever-sounding.

It’s also totally wrong. In fact, it sounds like a joke. Christianity, if false, still dominated western society for millennia, had an incalculable impact on European, African, and American art, culture, and politics, informed the mindsets of thousands of historical figures and hundreds of important philosophers, was responsible for many innovations, inspirations, and acts of great moral courage, and was equally responsible for the deaths of millions of people. Christianity, if false, arguably changed history more than any other religious movement despite that falsehood.

Obviously Lewis has done something typically Lewisian: committed a logical fallacy. This can be plainly seen by working backwards: (1) The King James Bible is of literary importance; (2) The King James Bible is a product of Christianity; (3) “Christianity if false is of no importance & if true is of infinite importance”; (4) since the King James Bible is not of no importance, as a product of Christianity it must be of infinite importance; (5) therefore, Christianity is true.

Voila! I have just proved Jesus was God by noticing that Barack Obama quotes the Bible. The proper response to C.S. Lewis’ assertion is probably: “What? That’s just silly.”

Unfortunately, “that’s just silly” also characterizes my responses to many of the C.S. Lewis quotes on this Twitter account:

We’re half-hearted creatures fooling with drink & sex & ambition when infinite joy is offered us. We’re too easily pleased. This generalization says more about Lewis’ youth than it does about the state of humanity as a whole. For example, I drink little, sex less, and am going into academia, but do everything I do with a fully-devoted heart.
Every uncorrected error & unrepented sin is, in its own right, a fountain of fresh error & fresh sin flowing on to the end of time. This is the kind of crushing, demoralizing thing which makes people collapse in self-doubt. It’s okay to make mistakes. How the hell else do you plan on being alive? Don’t make the same mistake more than twice, though. You should feel remorse when you have wronged people, and you should try to right your mistakes, but if you feel that each misstep you make will be “flowing on to the end of time,” you’ll make Woody Allen look like a Hallmark card.
Friendship is unnecessary, it has no survival value; but it’s one of those things that gives value to survival. Of course friendship is necessary! But Lewis is using this “aphorism” to argue against evolutionary theories that “survival value” is our primary motivator. To which I would kindly point out that you are much more likely to survive if you have friends than if you have enemies!
And all that is just from the last week. C.S. Lewis was an immensely talented writer with a gift for putting things clearly. That’s sad, because it means that he’s hugely popular. The trouble is, see, that nearly every time he wanted to say something clearly, he reduced it to a simplistic thought that is patently wrong. This is as true of his full-length books as of his tweets, for in the books he tries to summarize his argument in tweet-length snippets as a rhetorical device. This is a mistake, for the simpler Lewis puts an idea, the easier it is to see why his idea is wrong.
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12 Comments

Filed under Ill-Informed Opinion

12 responses to “Sorry, C.S. Lewis

  1. Michelle

    Society is too ADD to absorb more than a one-sentence statement about anything. Just like our food, our wrinkle-free pants, and our pill-based diets, we want things effortless. C.S. Lewis was a master on playing upon that; he picked the right words and threw them into a nice cadence so people could latch onto buzz words and assume the statement was deep because it sounded so nice, all with no thinking required. The problem with effortless things is how ultimately disappointing they are – the food is mediocre, the pants hang funny, the weight lost on the diet doesn’t stay off, and no one digs deep enough to confirm or question someone’s rather empty words. (Oh, add Obama to this list; “Yes, we can” = “Yes, we can compromise on absolutely everything I promised we’d do.”)

    In the 4th season of the West Wing Bartlet is prepping for the presidential debate with Ritchie, and his staff is trying to find 7 word answers to debate questions because that’s been Ritchie’s successful strategy to date. He’d throw out a simplistic answer that the American people could get on board with without having to think. In the end, Bartlet naturally kicks his ass:

    …And now I really need to stop writing this crap and start writing the last two paragraphs of my Rice app essay.

  2. Kevin

    I agree that what you are saying is true–but only if the context in which CS Lewis wrote this signified the definition of “importance” to mean on a macro scale. My understanding of Lewis’s overall philosophy is one more centered on the individual rather than the historical-critical. If that is the case, then Lewis is pointing out to the vast number of lukewarm Christians–and even self-proclaimed lukewarm Christians–that it is logically incoherent to lead such a life. Indeed, this would seem like utter common sense; but then again “common sense is not so common.”

  3. Max from NYC

    In the context of the essay from which the quote is lifted “Christian Apologetics” in the collection entitled God In The Dock, Lewis is speaking within a larger metaphysical/supernatural definition of ‘importance’. That is what Christianity purports to be – a supernatural invasion into the material world. Either this invasion happened or it did not. In this context Lewis has nothing to apologize for. The essay above interprets ‘importance’ from a smaller material ‘socio-historical’ perspective. In that case Christianity has had impact as a byproduct of its larger truth. In some ways its impact supports the larger truth.. But if that is all and if Christianity is found to be false, then its ‘socio-historical’ importance will continue to diminish and eventually pass away..

  4. BP

    Had you read this quote in context with other parts of the book, you would have understood what he meant by it. In context, you would find that this text also includes statements about the teachings of Jesus. Lewis, from what I understand, is actually speaking of non-Christians who often seem to point out how wise Jesus was, or how he was a “great human teacher.” The purpose of this quote is to explain how illogical it is to believe that he was a great human teacher. His point is, if Jesus was telling the truth and is Lord, then he must be worshiped as such (infinite importance). If he lied and deceived billions, then he would be incredibly evil and should rightfully be rejected (no importance). To believe that he was not evil yet not God, is preposterous. To believe this would be to conceive Christianity as “moderately important.” It cannot be.

  5. Sha

    LOL When you were interpreting Lewis’ quite you weren’t thinking big enough.

    “Lewis is speaking within a larger metaphysical/supernatural definition of ‘importance’”, I agree.

    He was referring to eternity and Hell. Hell is forever. Heaven is forever. There’s no other religion that has such a serious consequence of hell. If it is false, it’s of no importance, if it’s true well then its of infinite importance! You might be going to Hell! Or you could receive God’s blessing by grace and go to Heaven to be with the Lord. Ultimately, it’s all up to you to make peace with God. C.S. Lewis was speaking to the individual. Not about society and christianity in general throughout history.
    You can take words and twist them any way you want, but you aren’t interpreting his words correctly.

  6. James

    Sorry Brian, you are doing what virtually all atheists/agnostics do to reject what they dislike. They create Strawmen, logical fallacies, then slay them. Your Strawman is the fundamental false construct, in fact a complete reconstruction, of the meaning of the word Christianity as used by CS Lewis.

    E.g. your “Christianity, if false, still dominated western society for millennia, had an incalculable impact on European, …. despite that falsehood.” is really “… a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,. Signifying nothing.”… Understand?

  7. Not really, because you didn’t explain your example or make an argument, you just said that it’s dumb.

  8. Andrew Werling

    I’m with you except that you created the false dichotomy of friends and enemies. What about loners? They survive too! However, thank you for writing this. I have little exposure to Lewis’s writing and always wondered if he was a good philosopher. Apparently not at all!

  9. Steve

    Ok Andrew Werling, so… you admit that you “have little exposure to Lewis’s writing and always wondered if he was a good philosopher”, and then, based apparantly on nothing more than this mere little blog, which is chock FULL of logical inconsistency (I don’t want to sit here on my tablet typing out all the evidence and reasons for my claiming that, but could.. some of the responses here partly bare that out), you come to the conclusion that the answer to your wondering if Lewis is a “good philosopher” is… “Apparently not at all!”??? Come on, man! Read the SOURCE itself, instead!.. use that brain of YOURS, and come to YOUR (actually informed!) conclusion, instead of doing what, sadly, MOST people do in life.. riding the coat-tails (even if false, as is exemplarily the case here) of someone ELSE’S (true or false?.. how do you know??) “conclusion”?? Come on, Andrew! 😉 And I’m NOT “picking on” YOU. I don’t KNOW “you”! You’re probably an awesome guy, with no doubt plenty of family and friends who think so. Same goes for “me”.. wow, there’s a WHOLE LIFE behind these mere typed words. The same is always true when we read people’s words online. I want GOOD for you.. and EVERYone on here.. including mister blogger we are discussing here. So.. know all that.. and consider wheather my advice is worth your own consideration, or the trash can 😀 Either way.. Happy New Year, 2015, to you and all!! =) “Time”… wow, now THERE’S a huge topic to discuss! But I’ll hush for now.. I don’t have.. time 😛 ~Steve

  10. Johan

    “Obviously Lewis has done something typically Lewisian: committed a logical fallacy.”

    Sorry, this is incorrect. The error would nonetheless be completely excusable, were it not for your academic background, and, with all due respect, somewhat smug attitude. My sincere apologies for approaching you in this perhaps acrid manner, being a complete stranger to you.

    If I however may explicate: first of all, you can’t necessarily “work an argument backwards” if it’s correct in the straightforward form. Socrates may be mortal due to the fact that he is a man, yet he’s obviously not a man simply by virtue of his mortality.

    Similarly, in your reconstruction of the argument above, the importance of Christianity cannot in this context be bestowed upon it as a result of the value of a consequent institution (e.g. the KJB), since it’s explicitly stated that in this particular context, the importance of Christianity is a binary attribute derived from its truth, and nothing else.

    That it exists as an institution, has effects and is thereby important in an objective sense whether true or not, is trivial as well as irrelevant to the point being made.

    Secondly, Lewis does not set out to prove the truth of Christianity by argument in the way you’re suggesting. There’s no logical fallacy, as there’s not even a purported argument here. All Lewis states is that Christianity ought to be rejected if it were untrue, since its soteriological value (its importance, in his words) is determined by its truth. This is in all events a possibly valid statement.

    Thereby, your critique based on the fact that (4) does not follow from (1) – (3) since (1) invalidly functions as an affirmation the consqequent fails. As it actually sets out to undermine an argument that never was put forth, it could unfortunately be said that your critique is “not even wrong”.

    Kind regards,

    Laughlyn

  11. Mark

    I think your criticism is unfair. You seem to impose your understanding of “important” on CS Lewis.

    It may be important to you that Christianity had a big influence on history, but that may not be important to him or to most other people as they live their day-to-day lives.

    I think this is what he was talking about. It’s almost as if you’ve purposely misunderstood him, so that you might dismiss him.

  12. I feel like the author makes similar mistakes to what he claims Lewis does. I really thought the example of the King James Bible was poor. Lewis was clearly speaking of the Christian ideal not a specific belief or doctrine.. Which if in fact one does believe it to be true and the God of the bible did in fact create everything we see, it is not necessary to create a “false dichotomy” in order to understand ding and following God is of the “utmost importance”

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