Saturday, 4 January 2014

More reflections on C S Lewis and the science versus religion paradigm

Christians from nearly all traditions, Catholic to Calvinist, love and quote the prolific writer and apologist C S Lewis. I say ‘nearly’ all traditions, there are a few who damn him for being a smoker, drinker, friend of the ‘papist’ Tolkien and the very unorthodox Charles Williams. Some who cite him approvingly might not if they had read some of the less orthodox views in his letters, for example on purgatory and prayers to saints. I once read an angry Bible Blogger who cursed Lewis for ‘believing in the Tao’. A more depressing misreading of what Lewis actually wrote about the Tao (a term he used in Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man as a metaphor for the essence of the moral imperatives found in most religions) could hardly be imagined.

Much has been written about Lewis, perhaps too much, but as a long term fan I can see why. Today I want to add a little more to earlier reflections about him and science, including evolution. As far as can be ascertained from what he actually wrote, his view was nuanced but far from fully accepting of Darwinism. This reflection is based on the essay ‘Dogma and the Universe’ from 1943 which is in ‘C S Lewis essay collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church' (Harper Collins, 2000)

This essay addresses the position that Christianity is outdated primitive dogma while science is the active pursuit of truth, always finding out new things that Christianity cannot accommodate. Science, in this view, is beating back ‘superstition’ (i.e. religion) which is withering away. This is the ‘science versus religion’ metaphor, so beloved of dogmatic materialists. As Lewis put it in the first paragraph

‘For it seems to him (the outsider) that if our ancestors had known what we know about the universe, Christianity would never have existed at all....’

Certainly the sceptics of Lewis’ time deployed all the tactics and held all the views which our ‘New’ (actually not so new as any reader of Lewis can see) atheists use. Rubbing shoulders with other Oxford academics daily, Lewis was well aware of the assertions of modern science, quoting from Professor Sir Edmund Whittaker’s Riddell lecture ‘The Beginning and End of the World’ (1942) in which he acknowledged that the fundamental assertion of materialism that’...the world has existed from all eternity...’ had recently been withdrawn, making, as Lewis quipped ‘..contemporary science come into line with Christian doctrine’ (i.e. that the world had a beginning. It is worth noting the big bang theory was initially opposed by some atheists on philosophical grounds as it was thought to point to a creator).

Lewis remarked that people sneer at Christianity because the currently known size of the universe was much larger than was thought by our ancestors were in fact ignorant of what our ancestors actually thought. He wrote that this was ‘a simple historical falsehood. Ptolemy (2) knew just as well as Eddington (3) that the earth was infinitesimal in comparison with the whole content of space.'

He went on to write

‘There is no question here of knowledge having grown until the frame of archaic thought is no longer able to contain it. The real question is why the spatial insignificance of the earth, after being known for centuries, should suddenly in the last century become an argument against Christianity.’

Which brings us to the flat earth slander (which Lewis addresses in more detail in his essay ‘’Religion and Science’.

I was taught at school that until modern times everyone thought that the earth was flat, and that this was (A) because the church taught it because it was in the Bible, and (B) that this false belief held back science. In fact none of the above is true. The flat earth slander was invented in the 19th century by the American writer Washington Irvine. It caught on like a house on fire. Even Wikipedia, not known for its sympathies for Biblical Christianity, states

Irving's writings on Columbus are a mixture of history and fiction, a genre now called romantic history/historical fiction. Irving based them on extensive research in the Spanish archives, but also added imaginative elements aimed at sharpening the story. The first of these works is the source of the durable myth that medieval Europeans believed the Earth was flat. (See Myth of the Flat Earth.)’


In his biography of Christopher Columbus, Irving introduced the erroneous idea that Europeans believed the world to be flat prior to the discovery of the New World. Borrowed from Irving, the flat-Earth myth has been taught in schools as fact to many generations of Americans.’

Lewis expresses interest both here and in another essay 'Religion and Science' in the speed at which this lie spread and became widely accepted. He observed that he found that the opponents of the Gospel would, like a policeman with a suspect he has arrested who will use anything he says against him, use whatever came to hand as a reason for rejecting faith. 'If the universe was teeming with creatures, that reduced the Christian claim that we are somehow unique to absurdity. On the other hand, ‘if the earth is really unique, then that proves that life is only an accidental by-product in the universe, and so again disproves our religion. Really, we are hard to please.’  Lewis was incredibly prescient about the propaganda tactics of today's atheists, but then again perhaps this is because there is nothing new under the sun and he had to endure the same misrepresentations in his day.

Back to the significance of the size of the universe, CSL wrote ‘Men look on the starry heavens with reverence: monkeys do not. The silence of the heavenly spaces terrified Pascal, but it was the greatness of Pascal that enabled them to do so.’ The universe of the Christian is great and sublime (see Psalm 8, Psalm 19 and Job 38-41) and points us to a Great Maker. Dawkins’ jibes about a ‘poky little mediaeval universe’ is typical of this self-besotted little man.

Lewis concludes that Christians have nothing to fear from an increase in scientific knowledge, but ‘It is those systems which place the whole meaning of existence in biological or social evolution on our own planet. It is the creative evolutionist, the Bergsonian (4) or Shavian (5), or the Communist, who should tremble when he looks up at the night sky.' We should not expect to understand all of God’s creative works, from atom to cosmos, we cannot expect all questions to be answered. Revelation from God is not to satisfy our 'liberal curiosity' but ‘appears to me to be purely practical, to be addressed to the Fallen Man, for the relief of his urgent necessities.
In other words, as I believe Galileo may have said, ‘Science is about how the heavens go, the Bible is about how to go to Heaven.’

True religion, Lewis argues, is like mathematics. ‘There is a great difference between counting apples and arriving at the mathematical formulae of modern physics. But the multiplication table is used in both and does not grow out of date.’

He finishes the essay by warning us to flee from the wrath to come. Even the best science cannot help us here, but a false view of science may hinder us if it persuades us that science has ruled out God and a coming Judgment. I continue to argue that while being wrong (either way) about creation need not prevent us being reconciled to God, evolutionism is a potent cause of atheism and so therefore may help to keep some people from a saving knowledge of Christ. ‘No possible complexity which we can give to our picture of the universe can hide us from God.’ Citing Revelation20:11 the great polymath and beloved apologist reminds us that ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ we will each stand alone and naked before God, the righteous judge, to receive ‘bliss or horror’ according to how we lived our lives and what we did with Jesus. This, Lewis asserts in a conclusion reminiscent of the final verses of Ecclesiastes (5), is the real business of our life, not the endless pursuit of knowledge but getting right with the God who is our creator and will be our Judge. Wise man and fool, professor or pinhead, we can any of us do this by the means which God has so graciously made available, His beloved Son Jesus.

I hope to return to C S Lewis on science and evolution later. I repeat that I am not ‘claiming’ him as a young earth creationist, just saying that he is no friend to Darwinism and a vigorous and effective opponent of the sad and harmful ‘science equals materialism’ philosophy. I conclude this reflection by agreeing with my brother and sister Christians who (unlike me) accept Darwinism as good science, that getting right with God through Christ matters more than our view of science and origins. My contention is that accepting molecules to man evolution makes people less likely to feel the need to do so, and I suspect that C S Lewis might be on my side regarding that if he had engaged with the debate as it is today. 

(1) 'The Magician’s Twin: C S Lewis on Science, Scientism and Society' edited by john G West (Discovery Institute Press, 2012) is the best study of Lewis on the 'science versus religion' argument I have seen yet.
(2) Ptolemy lived in Alexandria in the second century AD)
(3) Arthur Eddington died in 1944
(4) Henri Bergson wrote a book ‘Creative Evolution’ which is probably the biggest load of impenetrable ravings and balderdash in my collection of research books. It’s as incoherent and rambling as the similar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘Phenomenon of man’ next to which it sits in my naughty library, but worse written. Incidentally, Teilhard de Chardin (a Jesuit priest and progenitor of theistic evolutionism) was probably involved if not the main perpetrator of the Piltdown Man Fraud, but that is a story for another day...
(5) Shavian-to do with George Bernard Shaw
(6) Ecclesiastes 12:12-13 'And further, my son, be admonished by these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.'


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