The Raving Theist

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Expect the Unexpected

June 2, 2006 | 28 Comments

One problem skeptics have with Christianity is the mechanics of the salvation scheme: why would an infinitely intelligent being decide that the only way to redeem mankind was to have a son by a virgin, sacrifice him, and bring him back to life? The plan might be efficient by Rube Goldberg standards, but most of us could think of quicker and surer ways to go about it. Like erasing our sins by snapping His fingers. Or making us good in the first place. But in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis argues that the improbability of the scenario establishes its truth:

Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect. For instance, when you have grasped that the earth and the other planets all go round the sun, you would naturally expect that all the planets were made to match-all at equal distances from each other, say, or distances that regularly increased, or all the same size, or else getting bigger or smaller as you go farther from the sun. In fact, you find no rhyme or reason (that we can see) about either the sizes or the distances; and some of them have one moon, one has four, one has two, some have none, and one has a ring.

Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. So let us leave behind all these boys’ philosophies-these over-simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simpler either.

The argument is akin to the notion that God’s “hiddenness” proves his existence, that only a perfect being could conceal himself so perfectly. In fact, it goes somewhat further, asserting that the less likely the theory might seem to you, the more likely it is to be true. This type of reasoning is not entirely unprecedented. Prosecutors frequently argue that inconsistencies between the testimony of various police officers enhances their overall credibility — after all, if everything they said matched up perfectly, you’d know that they conspired to make the whole thing up.

However, one problem with Lewis’ claim might be that the resurrection story isn’t improbable enough. It may be ridiculous, but it’s not perfectly ridiculous. Quite a few people believe it, have “guessed” it, something you wouldn’t expect if there was a god who was truly trying to make it so queer as to defy expectations. Anyone of us could have thought of a way to made the story just a little less sensible, for example, having a two-headed Jesus drinking a Starbucks decaf latte on the cross. Certainly God could have added an infinite number of even more unpersuasive details to make it all absurd beyond belief.

So as it stands, I am completely, totally, and absolutely unconvinced that a God had anything to do with it. Or, as Lewis would put it, it’s just gotta be true.


28 Responses to “Expect the Unexpected”

  1. a different tim
    June 2nd, 2006 @ 4:54 pm

    By Lewis’s standard Christianity is false. Anyone with a passing interest in the mythology of the near east, and especially “dying god” religions, could have “guessed” Christianity (or something similar) would exist.

    Just saying.

  2. Erik
    June 2nd, 2006 @ 5:40 pm

    The more I read of and about CS Lewis, the more he appears to be a very poor thinker. What possibly justifies the notion of reality being “odd”? Odd as compared to what? Why would we “expect” to find all the planets being the same size, or equidistant from each other or from the sun, or having any particular number of moons? Lewis is just giving up on epistemology, as if it were too difficult or something. All he has done here is confirm that human brains, and probably most brains, have survived by recognizing and distinguishing between patterns. That tells us more about us than about external reality. It’s nice poetry, but bad science.

  3. June
    June 2nd, 2006 @ 5:57 pm

    If Jesus came to redeem humanity by his sacrifice, one wonders why — at least in the Catholic version of Christianity — his heroic act is always portrayed as bad bad humans being terribly cruel to a good good man. The crucifix, with its half naked figure of a gaunt, bloodied man suffering on the cross, is ubiquitous in churches, on rosaries, over every bed in every house that is Catholic in the old countries of Europe. Litanies, prayers, the Stations of the Cross, all dwell on the beatings, the cruelty, the injustice, the pain.

    What would have happened to humanity if JC’s friends had closed ranks around him, hidden him, whisked him away to Greece or India? One can just see Jesus on some fishing boat, struggling to free himself from under a tarp or a pile of nets, complaining loudly: “No, no — don’t rescue me. Where is Judas? That SOB was supposed to give me away. Peter, what are you doing? You were supposed to deny me, you dumbass!. Now you guys ruined everything, and dad is going to be pissed. It’s gonna take him another 5,000 years to come up with a new secret plan.”

  4. "Q" the Enchanter
    June 2nd, 2006 @ 6:06 pm

    “it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up”

    Talk about begging the question. One imagines an apologist for, say, Alice in Wonderland literalism making much the same point. (Much like the White Queen, Christians believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.)

  5. "Q" the Enchanter
    June 2nd, 2006 @ 6:06 pm

    “it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up”

    Talk about begging the question. One imagines an apologist for, say, Alice in Wonderland literalism making much the same point. (Much like the White Queen, Christians believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.)

  6. "Q" the Enchanter
    June 2nd, 2006 @ 6:06 pm

    “it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up”

    Talk about begging the question. One imagines an apologist for, say, Alice in Wonderland literalism making much the same point. (Much like the White Queen, Christians believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.)

  7. Mark Plus
    June 2nd, 2006 @ 6:15 pm

    Of course, Lewis ignores the historical fact that christians invented this rationalization to explain how the Jesus story “saves” people many generations after the time Jesus allegedly lived. Billions of people have spent their whole lives praying to OTJ (other-than-Jesus) deities for millennia both before and after Jesus’ time without noticing anything amiss. Even some early christians only a few generations removed from paganism dumped Jesus in favor of allah when Muslims conquered their parts of the world, again without feeling that they lost something by doing so. If Jesus has all this power, why don’t more people recognize it when they send out their prayers in search of a god?

  8. Lily
    June 2nd, 2006 @ 7:58 pm

    Is there something quality, inherent in atheism, that imparts to all atheists the ability to pass correct judgements on a scholar’s credentials, quality of thought, etc. without ever having read more than two paragraphs from one book out of the dozens of essays, novels, apologetic works, literary criticism, etc. that he wrote over some 30 or more years?

    Just wondering.

  9. Gathercole
    June 2nd, 2006 @ 9:32 pm

    Lily, the argument that RA quoted is not logical. If you think it is, or if you think C.S. Lewis has some other great argument that makes up for this one’s invalidity, tell us what and why. Otherwise you’re just shootin’ the breeze.

  10. Skinnydwarf
    June 2nd, 2006 @ 9:54 pm

    Lily said:

    Is there something quality, inherent in atheism, that imparts to all atheists the ability to pass correct judgements on a scholar’s credentials, quality of thought, etc. without ever having read more than two paragraphs from one book out of the dozens of essays, novels, apologetic works, literary criticism, etc. that he wrote over some 30 or more years?

    Is there more to the above argument? If not, I think RA has a point. To believe something *because* it is unbelievable (which seems to be the thrust of the argument) is just plain stupid. I find it unbelievable that pigs can fly. That does not make it true that pigs fly.

    I can understand where Lewis is coming from. He sees reality as “odd,” not what would be expected, and then he sees Christianity with its stories of virgin births, invisible people, and people rising from he dead as having properties similiar to reality. Lewis sees reality as “odd,” because he didn’t expect it to be the way it is, and he sees Christianity as odd, and he concludes that since they have similiar properties, they must have something in common: ie, they are both true.

    But what about all the other religions that have “odd” stories? What makes Christianity so special, besides it being the dominant religion in the area CS Lewis lived? Why do its weird, unbelievable stories make it true, but the weird, unbelievable stories of Hinduism, Islam, or Judaism do not make them true? Buddhism has simliar weird stories (the hero is born under a special star, for instance), but presumably CS Lewis did not think it was true.

    One big problem with Lewis’ argument is that it depends on a subjective property: oddity. Oddity is in the eye of the beholder- there are plenty of Christians who do not find Christianity odd, plenty of scientists who do not find reality odd. Elegant, beautiful, fascinating, but not odd. Oddity does not seem to be the kind of property connected to reality that can be used to prove the reality of something. It is a subjective idea based on the point of view of humans, not a property of reality.

  11. Erik
    June 2nd, 2006 @ 10:00 pm

    Is there some quality of Christianity such that its members are able to pass judgment on all other religions in the world and conclude that all non-adherents to Christianity are doomed to eternal punishment, without having cracked open a single one of any other’s religious texts? Oh, that’s right, there is.

  12. Jody Tresidder
    June 2nd, 2006 @ 10:52 pm

    Normally I’m not a huge fan of hanging people by apparently selective quotes: it’s unfair to pick an uncharacteristically lousy bit of prose churned out on a bad day – or mock something simply not intended as representative writing.

    And, yes, as you say, Lewis left us tons of texts. Writer’s block was not a burning problem for him.

    In this case, however, he deserves all the spitballs.

    RA’s extract shows a fully completed thought of amazing vanity and consistent stupidity.

    From the information given at RA’s link, this was composed by Lewis in his mature forties – so more than a decade after his conversion. It was written once as part of a radio address, then tidied up for publication (i.e. not just tossed off). He took particular pains to give the radio address, composed in advance, the “feel” of a conversation – so it’s vaguely kindly-uncle-in-a-cardigan-lightly-sharing- his-wisdom tone is purposefully contrived. And – if you go to the link – you find yards and yards and yards of similar didactic stuff in the same irritating, condescending and pompous vein.

    I am actually quite surprised how awful it is (because I love some of his lit. crit). It’s almost like satire

    I also find it fascinating that the plainer his language gets, the poorer the thoughts revealed (as Erik said at #2)

  13. Lily
    June 3rd, 2006 @ 2:12 am

    You are the only one, so far, that has displayed any acquaintance with Lewis. Yes, the book that this excerpt was taken from was a somewhat revised collection of short radio talks aimed at an uneducated audience. It aimed to be friendly and, above all, intelligible to people of little education. This quote, without context, is not long enough to really get at the heart of the argument he was trying to make.

    I simply cannot agree that “the plainer his language gets, the poorer the thoughts revealed”. That is simply dismissive with no evidence. I will, however, grant you that he is not, in my estimation, much of a philosopher. But he does not need to be. His aim was much humbler– to try and make the case for Christianity as accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

  14. Jody Tresidder
    June 3rd, 2006 @ 6:25 am

    I probably should have made it clearer (and I didn’t only for brevity’s sake) that I substantially agreed with the criticisms levelled at RA’s extract in the previous comments (especially Erik & skinnydawrf).

    Most made the point about Lewis’ paper-thin premise (that oddity is a quality of authenticity in the western religious narrative) – how this is a subjective, and an incomplete observation – even before you get into how and why it applies to other religions (which Lewis ignores) – and how the whole nonsense falls flat on its face if you DO use it comparatively.

    When you write: “His aim was much humbler– to try and make the case for Christianity as accessible to as wide an audience as possible. ” Well, I agree. Obviously we’ve both noticed how simple his language is here – he is trying to get across to Mr and Mrs Uneducated Humble with their cups of tea beside the wireless.

    Unfortunately, his broadcasts are roughly contemporaneous with chaps who also used the medium to convey important messages to the Great Unwashed – chaps like Roosevelt, Murrow and Churchill – without stooping to witless condescenscion. Lewis comes off even more appallingly by comparison. His “de haut en bas” tone is just ghastly.

    Lewis certainly CAN handle complex theory with elegance, grace and clarity (all his “courtly love” writing which helped seal his academic reputation) so it’s not as though he normally starts barking at the moon when the going gets intellectually tough. Quite the reverse: he thrives on the challenge.

    So I don’t “get” the cringe-making vanity on display here. Stripped of the authority of his scholarship, he’s elaborately banal. If I’d have been Mrs Uneducated Humble listening to my wireless, I’d have turned it off after five minutes and gone straight down the pub.

  15. saazgiri73
    June 3rd, 2006 @ 6:39 am

    An Atheistic Examination of the Culture of Belief: How Religious Devotion Trivializes American Law and Politics. It is well and good that your blog bears this subtitle. I thought the blog would have some salutary philosophical content but it simply addresses belief and devotion. An epistemological assertion and a volitive assent—sadly, I suppose that in the opinion of the ‘ravers’ philosophy is mingled with religion. I also see that discussions concerning the aphla privative are lacking. Well, I guess I will just move on to a forum that is not infected by invincible ignorance and solipsism.

  16. Lily
    June 3rd, 2006 @ 6:53 am

    I am not in complete disagreement with you. Lewis was a highly educated man and a skilled and imaginative writer. But his attempts to write simply can grate. Even so, generations of Americans and English can tell you how much Lewis meant to them, so somehow he managed to reach them.

    I still maintain that it is wrong to take this little snippet completely out of its context and pass judgement on it. An honest reading of these two paragraphs ought to leave one wondering what went before. There is simply not enough context provided to say anything meaningful about his point.

  17. Erik
    June 3rd, 2006 @ 8:37 am

    I don’t need to “wonder what went before” because I have a copy of “Mere Christianity” here in my shelves. I have read it twice, and each time it has proved to be a chore to make it through. The man’s skill with the English language is beyond dispute; unfortunately, his thinking leaves a lot to be desired. Granted, the book is not intended to be a rigorous defense of belief, but it is just one unsupported statement after another.

    There’s nothing about “Mere Christianity” that particularly renders the snippet chosen by the RA non-contextual. What context is needed to understand that Lewis is discarding views that he believes are overly simplistic? What context is needed to see his logic as flawed?

    Let’s take another example, and perhaps you can tell me what context is needed to explain Lewis’s position. This is from just a few pages before the snippet in question:

    “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.”

    Is there some context needed to explain that Lewis is quite clear in his belief that Christianity is the only fully correct view of the universe?

  18. Lily
    June 3rd, 2006 @ 9:51 am

    Nope. And he is right. What is your problem with that? It is a proposition. Propositions are either true or false. Lewis spent a considerable amount of energy trying to explain why he thinks it is true.

    Of all the things to get your knickers in a twist about, the claim that Chrisitanity is true, seems to me to be low on the list. Why would anyone be a believer, go to Church, go out into the mission field or be a martyr for anything less? I have no interest in Christianity unless it is true. Not kinda, sorta, or 89% But 100% Gospel truth.

    Pardon the pun.

  19. Jody Tresidder
    June 3rd, 2006 @ 10:26 am

    “Lewis spent a considerable amount of energy trying to explain why he thinks it is true.”

    Indeed he did, Lily. Which brings me back to my complaint about his infuriating condescension. He takes an insufferably long time to get to this unrevealing plank of his thesis -“because it’s true!” – wouldn’t you, say?

    He salts his “argument” with cosy asides to the listener/reader about what point we’ve reached in his discussion – variants on a car journey’s “we’re not quite there, yet but if you just hang on…”. The whole thing is pitched as an egghead explaining his faith to the proles. Instead he just states that his belief is true. So they could have shut off the microphone at 0.5 seconds and not much would have been lost. Frankly.

  20. June
    June 3rd, 2006 @ 10:35 am

    Well, I for one have a problem with a religion that is based on admittedly invalid logic and prides itself on making no sense, i.e. being illogical nonsense.

    Based on the number of beliefs that involve some form of blood sacrifice for the good of mankind, it is really not hard to “guess” that our conscious brain tends to invent and then kiss up to a supernatural parent figure for protection and salvation from danger, sickness, pain, hunger, and all the other terrors that reality presents us.

    Jung called this an archetype.

  21. Lily
    June 3rd, 2006 @ 11:01 am

    Jody: I don’t think we have any serious disagreement about the tone and the condescension (though inadvertent). Though I love him dearly, it can’t be denied. It is also easy to forget (until you read him on the subject of women) that Lewis was a proper Edwardian gentleman, and, thus a child of his times. As always, I just take the good with thanks and leave the rest.

    June: Christianity is not based on “admittedly invalid logic”. (Who on earth “admitted” this?) Nor does it pride itself on making no sense. (Who is the loon that takes pride in believing something that doesn’t make sense?) Where on earth did you get these ideas?

    Actually, the concept of archetypes is quite valuable. As Lewis himself pointed out, if humanity didn’t have a long history of the meaning and ritual practice of blood sacrifice, then Christianity would really have seemed bizarre and repellent to the Jews and they would have dismissed him as a crank. Only because those ideas are part and parcel of humankind’s thinking, could his message of redemption through blood make sense.

  22. June
    June 3rd, 2006 @ 11:46 am

    Lewis says: “I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed.”

    Lewis is the proponent here and has ample opportunity to chose his words and present his argument for Christianity. It is fair to interpret his solar system analogy as asserting that reality is not what one would “naturally expect”; that he uses “guessed” to mean “not rational” or “not logical” in this context.

    It is Lewis, not I, who says that Christianity has a “queer twist about it” and offers that as his argument. It is Lewis, not I, who is proud of his discovery of a non-simple Argument From Nonsense. It goes along with other nonsense arguments I have read, such as “everything has a cause, hence there must be a first cause”.

  23. Erik
    June 3rd, 2006 @ 12:15 pm

    I never said I cared about whether Lewis claims Christianity is true. I wouldn’t expect a defense of it if he didn’t. The point was that you don’t need context for the explanation of that quote, just like you don’t need any context to discuss the quote chosen by the RA.

  24. bernarda
    June 4th, 2006 @ 4:06 am

    Other improbable religious myths exist. In fact they are all religions you could not have guessed.

    The Top Ten Creation myths.

    June 4th, 2006 @ 6:52 am

    Unlike Erik who managed to read it twice I could only stomach one reading of Mere Christianity.

    One of my favorite passages (and I VERY ROUGHLY parapharase as I don’t have my copy in front of me) pertains to skepticism toward chrisitanity.

    Lewis at one point says that ‘to believe without honest skepticism would be a shaky and unworthy belief’ and flat out says that ‘if things don’t add up in christianity that one certainly should not believe in it’ — and he then proceeds with his apologetics which, for me, involved so much twisted logic and so much bending over backwards that it only (in light of what he states on skepticism) bolstered my inklings (to put it mildly) that christianity doesn’t make much sense.

  26. Jody Tresidder
    June 4th, 2006 @ 12:56 pm

    If Lewis had used any high school variant of Occam’s Razor (i.e. the dafter and more convoluted a theory is, the more unlikely it is to be tenable ), he might have saved himself an awful lot of time trying to “prove” the foundations of his faith in this fashion.

    It’s probably blindingly obvious to Lewis experts that you can draw a direct line between these radio talks and the “Narnia” novels that came along just a few years later. The cloyingly patronising and unpersuasive tone of his arguments for “uneducated” adult listeners pops is recycled as comparatively sophisticated background theology to thrill an audience of children.

  27. Jody Tresidder
    June 4th, 2006 @ 2:39 pm

    Apologies for stray insertion of “pops” in my last sentence. A dumb moment.

  28. oliver
    June 12th, 2006 @ 6:56 pm

    I’ve read Mere Christianity too, and I think RA is qite justified in ridiculing this typical bit of dubious ”logic”.
    However I think this ”Christianity is so odd you couldn’t make it up, therefore it must be true” argument was actually first put forward by one of the early fathers of the church. It might have been St Augustine, but I can’t find any reference to it right now.
    If a lot of people find this view persuasive, perhaps it accounts for the success of things like Scientology as well as more mainstream faiths….

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