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C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion

C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion by John Beversluis

John Loftus heartily agrees with a debunking of C.S. Lewis.

C.S. Lewis has had an enormous impact on the evangelical mind. His books still top the charts in Christian bookstores. But what about the substance of his arguments? Philosopher Dr John Beversluis wrote the first full-length critical study of C.S. Lewis’ apologetics in 1985, titled C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion. For twenty-two years it was the only full-length critical study of C.S. Lewis’ arguments. Beversluis took as his point of departure Lewis’ challenge, “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it” (Mere Christianity p.123). Beversluis thoroughly examined the evidence Lewis presented and found that it should not lead people to accept Christianity.

Beversluis is a former Christian who studied at Calvin College under Harry Jellema, who tutored Christian thinkers such as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstoff. Later Beversluis was a student at Indiana University with my former professor James D. Strauss. He became a professor at Butler University.

According to Beversluis, his first version “elicited a mixed response – indeed, a response of extremes. Some thought I had largely succeeded. I was complimented for writing a ‘landmark’ book that ‘takes up Lewis’ challenge to present the evidence for Christianity and… operates with full rigor’.” (Revised Version pp.9-10) But the critics were ‘ferocious’. He said, “I had expected criticism. What I had not expected was the kind of criticism… I was christened the ‘bad boy’ of Lewis studies and labeled the ‘consummate Lewis basher’.” (p.10)

This Revised and Updated edition, published by Prometheus Books in 2008, was prompted by Keith Parsons and Charles Echelbarger. In the Introduction Beversluis claims “this is… a very different book that supercedes the first edition on every point.” (p.11) According to him, “Part of my purpose in this book to show, by means of example after example, the extent to which the apparent cogency of [Lewis’] arguments depends on his rhetoric rather than on his logic… Once his arguments are stripped of their powerful rhetorical content, their apparent cogency largely vanishes and their apparent persuasiveness largely evaporates. The reason is clear: it is not the logic, but the rhetoric that is doing most of the work. We will have occasion to see this again and again. In short, my purpose in this book is not just to show that Lewis’ arguments are flawed. I also want to account for their apparent plausibility and explain why they have managed to convince so many readers.” (pp.20, 22) Additionally, Beversluis tells us, “I will reply to my critics and examine their attempts to reformulate and defend his arguments, thereby responding not only to Lewis but to the whole Lewis movement – that cadre of expositors, popular apologists and philosophers who continue to be inspired by him and his books. I will argue that their objections can be met and that even when Lewis’ arguments are formulated more rigorously than he formulated them, they still fail.” (p.11)

C.S. Lewis’ writings contain three major arguments for God’s existence: the ‘Argument from Desire’, the ‘Moral Argument’, and the ‘Argument From Reason’. Lewis furthermore argued that the ‘Liar, Lunatic, Lord Trilemma’ shows that Jesus is God. He also deals with the major skeptical objection known as the Problem of Evil. Beversluis examines these arguments and finds them all defective; some are even fundamentally flawed. Finally Beversluis examines Lewis’ crisis of faith when he lost his wife, the love of his life.

I can only briefly articulate what Beversluis says about these arguments. ‘The Argument From Desire’ echoes Augustine’s sentiment in his Confessions when addressing God that “You have made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.” Lewis develops this into an argument for God’s existence which can be formulated in several ways; but the bottom line is that since humans have an innate desire for joy beyond the natural world (which is what he means by ‘joy’), there must be an object to satisfy that desire, therefore God.

Beversluis subjects this argument to criticism on several fronts. How universal is the desire for this ‘joy’? Is Lewis’ description of ‘joy’ a natural desire at all, since such desires are biological and instinctive? Must our desires have possible fulfillment? What about people who have been satisfied by things other than God – with their careers, spouses and children? In what I consider the most devastating question, he asks if there is any propositional content to Lewis’ argument. Surely if there is an object corresponding to the desire for ‘joy’, then someone who finds this object should be able to describe it from her desire. Beversluis argues she cannot do this, and since that’s the case, how can she know there’s an object which corresponds to the desire for ‘joy’?

Lewis’ ‘Moral Argument’ is basically that all people have a notion of right and wrong, and the only explanation for this sense of morality must come from a Power behind this moral law, known as God. Beversluis claims this argument is based on some questionable assumptions related to Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma, and it also depends on Lewis’ criticisms of ‘ethical subjectivism’, against which theory Lewis only critiques straw man arguments rather than the robust arguments of Hume and Hobbes. If that isn’t enough to diminish Lewis’ case, deductively arguing that there is a Power behind this moral law is said to be committing ‘the fallacy of affirming the consequent’ (p.99). This fallacy is: 1) If there is a Power behind the moral law then it must make itself known within us. 2) We do find this moral law within us; Therefore, there is a Power behind the moral law. Thus the Moral Argument is invalid.

‘The Argument From Reason’ is best seen in Lewis’ book, Miracles. According to Beverluis, it “is the philosophical backbone” on which “his case for miracles depends” (p.145). There Lewis champions the idea that naturalism [the idea that everything can be explained with reference only to the natural world] “impugns the validity of reason and rational inference,” and as such, naturalists contradict themselves if they use reason to argue their case.

If you as a naturalist have ever been troubled by such an argument you need to read Beversluis’ response to it. It’s the largest chapter in the book, and I can’t adequately summarize it in a few short sentences, except to say that Beversluis approvingly quotes Keith Parsons: “surely Lewis cannot mean that if naturalism is true, then there is no such thing as valid reasoning.” (p.174)

Lewis’ ‘Liar, Lunatic, Lord Trilemma’ is one of the most widely used arguments among Christian popular apologists. Lewis said that since Jesus claimed he was God, the only other options to this being true are that he was either a liar or a lunatic, which isn’t reasonable, given Jesus’ moral teaching. Therefore Jesus is God, as he claimed.

Even William Lane Craig defends this argument in his book Reasonable Faith. But it is widely heralded by opponents as Lewis’ weakest argument, and fundamentally flawed as he presented it. Beversluis subjects Lewis’ and his defenders’ defense of it to a barrage of intellectual attacks. There is the problem of knowing for sure what Jesus claimed – which by itself “is sufficient to rebut the Trilemma.” (p.115) Also, it is a false trilemma. Even if Jesus claimed he was God he could simply have been mistaken, and not a liar or lunatic. It’s quite possible for someone to be a good moral teacher and yet be wrong about whether he’s God. Furthermore, the New Testament itself indicates that many people around Jesus, including his own family, did think he was crazy. In the end, Beversluis claims, “we can now dispense of the Lunatic or Fiend Dilemma once and for all… If the dilemma fails, as I have argued, the trilemma goes with it. In the future, let us hear no more about these arguments.” (p.135). I agree.

In the book The Problem of Pain, coming at the heels of WWII, Lewis deals head-on with the Problem of Evil. How Beversluis tackles Lewis’ argument is probably best summed up by Christian philosopher Victor Reppert, who wrote: “If the word ‘good’ must mean approximately the same thing when we apply it to God as what it means when we apply it to human beings, then the fact of suffering provides a clear empirical refutation of the existence of a being who is both omnipotent and perfectly good. If, on the other hand, we are prepared to give up the idea that ‘good’ in reference to God means anything like what it means when we refer to humans as good, then the problem of evil can be sidestepped, but any hope of a rational defense of the Christian God goes by the boards.” (dangerousidea.blogspot.com)

This is must reading if you think C.S. Lewis was a great apologist. Beversluis’ arguments are brilliant, and devastating to the apologetics of Lewis and company.

© John W. Loftus 2009

John Loftus is founder of the blog debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com and author of Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (Prometheus Books, 2008).

C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, Revised and Updated by John Beversluis, Prometheus Books, 2008, 363 pages pb, $21.98, ISBN: 978-1-59102-531-3

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