C. S. Lewis’s Amoral Atheists


It took me most of a long life to change my mind about whether I was smart; but I’m over it now. What interests me presently is what attributes are different in the extremely smart – and my primary Guinea pig is me, because I understand myself best.

One essential is that I’m completely godless, and have been since I lost my ambivalence about Santa when I was around ten. The merit of both beliefs is about equivalent; but our culture requires heavy penalties only for abandoning the one.

A skeptical child encounters the stiffest imaginable headwinds – so strong as to force all but the most self-reliant to accept that “the faith’s” altogether preposterous tenets are true. Even then, it’s quite a leap, and I just couldn’t do it. Those who can do serious damage to their hope of thinking clearly; and it’s at this point that a lifetime of pretending begins..

Evidently it’s extremely difficult or impossible for most people to buck the herd, because they don’t have the wisdom and self-confidence to ignore the herd’s truth. Given the gift of a logical mind, though, along with the ability to look objectively, I saw quickly that nobody at all in my culture knew what he was talking about. I began to question everything – and never stopped. I eventually discovered that a Voice of Authority always demands external validation.

I suggest that this level of cognition – in which the mists of myth and superstition vanish – is one of the products of evolution at its present most-advanced frontier. (Another is a great diminution of aggressiveness, which implies that boxing and football will wither away.)

The puzzle to me was why I was alone in this non-superstitious alternate world. I know a lot about the solution to that puzzle now, but still pick at it. I try not to argue with theists, though, because it’s like arguing with a child about Santa. One must simply wait for the evolutionary light to dawn in the child’s mind – or not. What I try to do is provide a model of someone who’s outgrown the old ways, and is not a monster, to help neutralize the believers’ surreal paranoid imaginings.

Altruism, the core of our ethics, seems clearly to be a product of our evolving need to cooperate. The mistake we make is to think that our mutual caring resulted from our religion, when it was religion that came late to the party, and grafted itself to our nature. Like Huck Finn, I sussed this out on the road to my own emancipation.

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Another application for Dunning-Kruger: If one’s expertise is not as great as others’ in any domain, the relative novice in that field cannot possibly have any concept of the content of that realm that is inaccessible to him – a real-world version of terra incognita. So when the old dodger C. S. Lewis, or any contemporary version of that smarm, describes an atheist’s thinking, he’s guessing: looking from outside – and below – and trying to imagine what he would himself be like without his superstition. (Sadly, sometimes it’s not pretty!) Ya gotta know the territory.

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About atheists and foxholes: Four times in my life I’ve been completely convinced I was having my last living thought. It’s as though somebody pulls my plug out, and I realize that I’m suddenly losing consciousness. Physicians call it syncope, which means they don’t understand it, but prefer not to say so. (So far, I always wake up in an ambulance and argue with the attendants about letting me go. Never works.) But I’m not delusional about the afterlife, so these inconvenient episodes change me not at all. Should I thank my lucky stars, or what?

Onward and sideways!

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