DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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More Anti-Lewisite
by J. B. S. Haldane
From Everything Has a History (1951), pp. 259
267 

Lewisite is a poisonous liquid with a poisonous vapour, called after an American chemist, Lewis. British Anti-Lewisite, or B.A.L. is a compound invented by Professor Peters of Oxford, which neutralizes its poisonous effects on men and animals, and would have been used had the Germans used Lewisite against us. Fortunately, it can also be used against arsenic compounds other than Lewisite, including the familiar poison, arsenious oxide, generally though incorrectly called arsenic.

Mr. C. S. Lewis is a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, which has become one of our principal defenders of Christianity. His arguments seem to me to include many which definitely muddy the stream of human thought. If I can precipitate some of them, I shall help to clear this stream, thus performing in the mental sphere a task similar to that of Peters in the chemical sphere. I shall deal particularly with Mr. Lewis� Broadcast Talks.

The first part of these talks is devoted to proofs of the existence of God. It is rather interesting to list some of the arguments which Mr. Lewis did not use. First comes the ontological argument used by St. Anselm and others, and revived by Descartes, which is roughly as follows. We can conceive of a most perfect being. But existence is a kind of perfection. Therefore the most perfect being must have existence. Mr. Lewis allows this argument to fall by its own weight, perhaps because it might be used in an inverted form to prove the non-existence of the least perfect being, namely the Devil, in whom he believes passionately.

Nor does he set much store by any of St. Thomas Aquinas� five arguments, particularly those which depend on the alleged impossibility of an infinite series of causes, or of movers. The plain fact is that St. Thomas had not the intellectual equipment to deal with infinite series, and we have this equipment to-day. They turn out to be much simpler than finite ones. Thus, if we consider the series 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16 and so on, no one can tell me the sum of its first million terms, for the good reason that its numerator and denominator each consist of 301,031 figures. But if we revise our definition of sum to cover the sum of an infinite class, we can say that the sum of all its terms is exactly unity. Mr. Lewis makes very little use of the argument from design, which, as I have pointed out, leads, if logically pursued, to the conclusion that even the animals and plants of our own planet suggest the existence of a million or more mutually hostile designers. 

His main argument is from the fact that almost all human beings recognize the existence of moral obligation. At an early stage (p. 11) he deals with the argument that different societies have, or have had, different moralities. He states that they have had �only slightly different moralities� (his italics). Perhaps Mr. Lewis would be only slightly uncomfortable in a society where cannibalism was the rule, or one in which a murderer was not punished, but was compelled to adopt the children of his victim. The plain fact is that different cultures have or have had almost every morality which is compatible with the existence of society even in its crudest form. If he points out that no society has existed in which it was thought praiseworthy to murder one�s parents before they reached old age, my answer is that I don�t believe in miracles, and the existence of such a society would be a miracle. Societies have certainly existed in which the killing of babies and of old people were regarded as praiseworthy acts. However, let us suppose for the moment that Mr. Lewis is right, and that moral codes show a greater agreement than is necessitated by the bare existence of society, let us see how his argument continues. 

He is impressed by the fact that people are aware of the existence of moral obligations, but yet do not conform to these obligations, and that people regard one moral code as better than another. �the moment�, he writes on p. 17, �you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are in fact measuring both by a standard, saying that one conforms to that standard better than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either.� Before we follow Mr. Lewis� next step, let us examine this argument. If it is formally correct, it will still be true if we alter the terms in it. Thus, if �Socrates is a man; all men are mortal; so Socrates is mortal� is a valid argument, we can substitute �Nelly� for �Socrates�, �cat� for �man� and �clawed� for �mortal�, and see that it still works. Let us apply this experimental method to Mr. Lewis� argument. Now, �tall� is a simpler idea than �good�. We do not for example ask �tall for what?� as we ask �good for what?� and it is easier to determine whether one man is taller than another than whether he is better. Here is Mr. Lewis� argument subjected to this simple transformation. �The moment you say that one man can be taller than another, you are in fact measuring both by a standard, saying that one conforms to that standard better than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either.� 

The conclusion is obviously untrue. One can tell that one man is taller than another without any reference to a standard of measurement, and doubtless primitive men did so and do so. There are standards of measurement, but there is no absolute standard. If people thought as loosely about length as they do about right and wrong, Britain and France would have waged a series of religious wars between the adherents of the yard and those of the metre. But the transformation shows us something more. Mr. Lewis writes about measuring a set of moral ideas, a notion which I find unduly materialistic. But his notion of a standard is a standard of moral perfection to which nobody conforms all the time. In fact it might be possible to grade different moralities, as one can grade, say, mathematical or musical performances. But one could not do so in terms of moral perfection. One can say that one piece of conduct or one set of moral ideas is better than another. But one cannot say there is a best standard. A simple example will show why this is so. I find a man bleeding by the roadside. I certainly ought to help him in some way. But the help that I can give depends on my knowledge and skill. If I know nothing about first aid I can do a little, if I have taken a fist aid course I can do more, if I am a surgeon a great deal more. I must always do the best I can, and it can be argued that every one has the duty to learn some first aid, so that he can stop a bleeding artery. It can hardly be argued that everyone should learn surgery. The ideal man is doubtless skilled in surgery, psychiatry and other cognate subjects, and if Mr. Lewis is correct, can even pray with enough efficiency to pull off at least an occasional miracle. But he is useless as a standard in this case. The practical standard is not the ideal man but the man who can do a little better than myself, the man who has taken the first aid course which I didn�t take, or memorized the location of the nearest telephone box, which I didn�t. An absolute or ideal standard of conduct is useless. And because it is useless it is immoral, in the sense that it actually leads to a less good life than the practical standard. This is one of the main reasons why, as a matter of hard fact, religion does not produce a higher level of moral conduct in its adherents than does irreligion. It sets standards which are impossible because they are self-contradictory. I cannot learn surgery, Chinese, diving, fire-fighting, infantile hygiene, wrestling, rock-climbing, weight-lifting and all the other accomplishments which might enable me to save a life. In the same way I cannot be a moral paragon in all respects. But I could always, or almost always, have done a little better than I actually did. 

Mr. Lewis finds it unintelligible that we should be dissatisfied with our actual conduct unless an absolute standard of conduct exists. He can understand it if our ancestors fell from such a standard. It seems to me quite equally intelligible if our standard is, on the whole, rising. Once a conscious being can form any idea of the future he will wish it to be in some respects more satisfactory than the present. He will realize that some of the unpleasantness of the present arises from his own past actions, and will wish not to repeat such actions in future. For example, he may wake up with a headache and determine never again to drink so much whisky. This is a very elementary type of moral decision, but it is one. The passage to altruistic conduct is a more complicated matter. But one can regret past behavior and resolve to do better without any altruism, and the possibility of doing so without any supernatural standard is the point at issue. 

Our own moral behavior is complicated by two facts. We have a cerebral structure which sometimes generates emotions more appropriate to a primitive savage than a civilized man. And we live in a society whose customs and laws are at least several generations out-of-date in relation to its productive forces, that is to say, to the jobs on which people are engaged. For both these reasons, we are frequently dissatisfied by our own conduct and that of our neighbours. I can see no reason to postulate either a god or a devil to explain this state of affairs. 

Supposing there were an extra-human, or at least superhuman, standard of morality, a doctrine which I regard for the reasons explained above as dangerous and untrue, Mr. Lewis� next point would certainly not follow. �If you look at the present state of the world�, he writes on page 30, �it�s pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We�re on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.� Some of our religious teachers claim (and in a few cases with justice) not to be reactionaries. Mr. Lewis can make no such claim. Now, supposing I were a performing sea-lion extremely anxious to please my keeper, and aware that I could not yet balance as many balls on my nose as he wished, it would not follow that I had made any one big mistake. Much more probably I should have made a lot of little ones. I am a critic (most people think too violent a critic) of our present social system. But I don�t think it is one big mistake. I don�t think it is a mistake that I should be allowed to own a toothbrush, or even a dwelling house. I think it a mistake that I should be allowed to own ten acres in the City of Westminster, though this was not unreasonable five hundred years ago when this area was open country. I think it a mistake that I should be paid to give lectures to a few students rather than make really good talking films for a larger number, but this method of teaching was quite reasonable even fifty years ago. And so on. 

Supposing that the moral obligations which we recognize are the standard set by a superhuman personal being, it seems just as probable that such a being for some reason prefers us to improve our conduct gradually by learning from our own mistakes, rather than use more drastic methods to make us good. The history of man in the last few thousand years can be regarded as a series of moral challenges to which men have responded by remodeling their conduct. Sometimes this remodeling involved the collapse of a political system, as with the Roman Empire, sometimes only its transformation, as with the decay of feudalism in Britain. Such challenges have been met more or less satisfactorily in the past. They might have been arranged by a superhuman being. However, I think they are mainly the result of changes in productive forces. Thus improvements in transport and food production made it possible for a hundred thousand or more people to live in one city, and this demanded a new code of right and wrong. Further improvements in transport made the city too small a political unit, and so on. We are up against a very severe moral challenge at the present time. If we think it came out of the blue from a supernatural being it seems to me that we are much less likely to meet it effectively than if we think that it came about through changes in industry and transport which have given us on the one hand the possibility of universal plenty in a world community, and on the other hand the atomic bomb and the long-range bomber. If we think our only course is to go back, we shall not meet it at all. 

So much for Mr. Lewis� argument from moral obligation. He has a few others, perhaps rather better. For example, if the universe is not the work of a creative mind he argues that thought is merely a by-product of chemical reactions in the brain. �But if so,� he asks (p. 38) �how can I trust my own thinking to be true? � Unless I believe in God, I can�t believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.� Let us suppose the creator has made intelligent beings on two planets. On one they are endowed with free will, which they use to such effect that most of them, after unhappy lives, go to eternal torment after death. On the other, they behave well and live happily, either ceasing to exist when they die, or going on to eternal bliss. They are all, however, afflicted with a peculiar mental set-up which leads them to believe, when they think of such matters, that there is only a finite number of prime numbers; and a good deal of time is wasted in tabulating them, in the hope of finding the largest one. I think the second world is considerably easier than the first to reconcile with the hypothesis of a benevolent creator. In fact, if we were the work of an almighty hand, and yet with no exceptions (or possibly one exception) our moral conduct is imperfect, is it not at least highly probable that our reasoning powers are equally imperfect? As a matter of fact we know them to be so. For over two thousand years all educated men believed Euclid to have proved several propositions which he did not prove. I don�t �believe in thought� as Mr. Lewis perhaps does, as a process bound to lead to truth. I believe in it as a process which fairly often does so. But if I believed in an almighty creator I should certainly believe that he could make me think anything he wished, and should therefore have no guarantee that my thought processes have any validity. The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may very well wish that the creator had induced Rutherford into logical errors when he started thinking about atomic nuclei. And if the creator exists, it is highly probable that he has deliberately made it impossible for us to think about other things which would be even more dangerous. Thus I should be prepared to reverse Mr. Lewis� statement and say that if I believe in God, I can�t believe in thought. 

Let me be perfectly frank. I can�t give an account of thought which is any better than Mr. Lewis�. But then I know a great deal less about the universe than he thinks he knows. In particular I don�t expect that anyone will be able to give even a moderately satisfactory account until a lot more is known about our brains. I don�t think thought is a mere by-product of physical or chemical processes in these organs. But if Mr. Lewis has ever been anaesthetized, or even drunk, he must admit that, at least in this present wicked world, his capacity for thought depends on the chemical state of his brain. On the other hand the chemical state of his brain does not depend, except to a very slight extent, on what he is thinking. By putting a narcotic in his coffee I could alter this state so that he could no longer think. And I could do this equally well whether he were thinking of the college wine cellar or the attributes of God. For this reason I think our account of thought will have to wait for our account of our brains. I think that when certain work now half finished is published, we shall know a lot more both about cerebral physiology and about how we do at least the classificatory part of thinking. 

I think I have now gone over the main arguments on which Mr. Lewis relies to make listeners share his theories as to the existence and nature of God. I have dealt with them in some detail because he was allowed a great deal of time by the BBC, and those who think otherwise are not allowed time in proportion to their numbers in the population. And, as happened to me in July, 1947, if they want to say anything particularly effective, they are not allowed to do so. But Mr. Lewis needs attacking particularly because of his attempts, which by no means all Christian apologists make, to attack morality in the name of religion. �If the universe is not governed by absolute goodness�, he writes (p. 31) �then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless.� In other words, unless you share a large part of his beliefs, there is no point in trying to be good. It may be that �in the long run� the human race will come to an end without handing on its ethical, intellectual and cultural achievements to any other rational beings. This conclusion was inevitable if Newtonian physics were true. The clock had been wound up by the creator, and was bound to run down. If Newtonian physics are not true, and diverge a great deal from truth when long periods of time are considered, it may not be correct. But even if it is correct, I think that it is possible so to act as to make people (including ourselves) happy. If the universe as a whole is not governed either by good or evil, it is up to us to inject some goodness into it. And this is not a hopeless task. It is a difficult one. And those who say it is hopeless make it more difficult. 

Curiously enough Mr. Lewis is as contemptuous of some of the arguments for theism which others have used, as he is of lay morality. He does not think we can deduce the existence of a creator from the physical universe. �In the same way�, he writes on p. 21 �if there is anything above or behind the observed facts in the case of stones or the weather, we, by studying them from outside, could never hope to discover it.� 

This is rather startling from a religious apologist. Two centuries ago, Addison could say of the heavenly bodies that: 

In reason�s ear they all rejoice
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
The hand that made us is divine.
 

Mr. Lewis� inner ear seems to be as deaf as my own to this song. Kant based his theism both on the starry heavens and the moral law. Mr. Lewis� theology seems to stand on one leg only. And if, as I have tried to show, his arguments from the moral law are illogical, this means that it has not got a leg to stand on. 

In fact in the long run Mr. Lewis may be working for rationalism. I think that his stories which bring in witchcraft, astrology, demoniacal possession and so on, will probably bring it home to a number of people that those who reject these beliefs are a good long way towards rejecting religion altogether. But in the short run Mr. Lewis is a danger to clear thinking, and one must turn aside from more constructive work to show him up. 

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