Blinded by the Light

I was rather bemused this morning by a quote that one of my Facebook friends posted. This passage was allegedly written by C. S. Lewis, and it seems consonant with what I know of Lewis. He was an ardent apologist for Christianity. When examined closely, his view falls into tatters like wet tissue paper — but let’s let him have his say first, and then examine it:

I have been asked to tell you what Christians believe, and I am going to begin by telling you one thing that Christians do not need to believe. If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through.

If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth.

When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.

But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic—there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.

The first defect in this passage is the implicit notion that Christianity is a single monolithic set of beliefs. It’s implicit in the fact that Lewis is proposing that Christian answers to the important questions of faith are right — not only right, but as objectively, knowably right as sums in arithmetic — and that other answers are wrong. But what are the Christian “answers”?

The Catholics believe you can get into Heaven through good behavior, good works, and confession of sins. The Calvinists believe that the list of those who will get into Heaven is fore-ordained, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The Universalists (at one time an active denomination) held that everybody gets to go to Heaven, because a merciful God would never send anybody to Hell. The Baptists believe that God demands baptism through full-body immersion, while the Catholics think sprinkling a little holy water on the baby’s forehead is all that’s required. Some denominations believe that the Bible is the infallible word of God, but many modern Christian denominations have quietly set that belief off to the side, and no longer give it much credence. Some denominations believe that the right answers are handed down from the Vatican, while others hold that questions of right and wrong can be decided locally through consultation with your own pastor. The Mormons (who are Christian, more or less) believe that the Book of Mormon is an inspired holy text, but everybody else understands that it’s a preposterous fantasy that was peddled to the incurably credulous by a con man.

Christianity itself is, quite obviously, a fearful muddle of conflicting beliefs. And yet Lewis, in whatever work this passage introduces, is proposing to tell us that what Christians believe is as reliable and incontrovertible as a sum in arithmetic. My goodness! Could he be any more arrogant or oblivious?

The deeper problem, however, is this: How are we to determine which of the answers proposed by one religion or another are right, and which answers are wrong? The Christians have holy texts, the Muslims have holy texts, the Hindus have holy texts, as do the Buddhists, the Jews, the Mormons, the Baha’is, and the Swedenborgians. If the pre-Columbian Navajos had had writing, they would have had their own holy texts too.

It’s charming and inevitable, but laughably naive, that Lewis should feel his holy texts are an exalted font of wisdom while the others are faulty. He can produce, however, not a shred of objective evidence to support this notion. A Muslim, a Hindu, or a Mormon would say exactly the same thing about their holy texts, and with as little evidence.

If there were a way to settle the question of which text has got it right, the question could only be addressed by someone who was not an adherent of any of the belief systems. As a professed Christian, Lewis is in much the same position as the king in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In the trial scene, you’ll recall, the king says, “Verdict first! Evidence afterward!” Lewis has already decided, for reasons that are thoroughly tainted by subjectivity, that Christianity is right and the other religions wrong. That being the case, he simply can’t be trusted to tell truth from falsehood.

There are healthy bits in most religions, I’m sure — wise and compassionate ideas. There are also, I would guess, despicable bits in all of them. There are certainly despicable bits in the Christian and Jewish holy books; the others I know far less about, so I won’t judge. But nobody who has already drunk the KoolAid is in a position to tell you which bits are which. Only a secular humanist can be trusted to get it right.

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