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by Mriana
Rated: 13+ · Thesis · Research · #1276888
A research paper on Lewis's philosophical views.
C. S. Lewis: Never an Atheist; Only Went Full Circle with His Belief in God

C. S. Lewis spent part of his life denying God's existence and claiming he was an atheist. However, he was not a true atheist and actually went full circle in his beliefs as he searched for truth and meaning in his life. While many Christians will probably scream, "Don't talk damned nonsense" as Lewis said in Mere Christianity, he was not really a poster person for conversion as many Christians like to believe he was, for there were remnants of belief in God even when he professed to being an atheist.1 Although he experienced a variety of philosophies in his life, he never once gave up his view of a deity in his life, but rather went on a soul-searching journey that ultimately brought him back to where he started.

In order to see Lewis's personal god we first need to define the concept of a deity. To comprehend this we must strip away our own ideas of God, look at the history of religion, and man's view of god over the centuries. Then we can move on to look at Lewis's view of God, which is difficult for many to see, except in the philosophies he followed as one scrutinizes them closely.

Someone could perceive a rejection of theism as an affirmation of godlessness, but is this really atheism or is it something else other than theism?2 One person’s point of view of god could be another’s concept of godlessness, for as Spong stated, "God is a human concept. Theism and God are not the same. Theism is but one definition of God.3 Therefore, in this view we can look at other ways of viewing god because we are not just looking at God through a single lens, but rather multiple lenses. Once a person understands, the concept of another person's view of God does not necessarily mean the person is an atheist, except in the eyes of another. Even Lewis said he approached God, or rather his idea of God, without love, without awe, or even fear.4 He was not without a picture in his own mind as to what God was to him, which, like every other human being, was nothing more than his human construct of God.

According to Karen Armstrong, atheism had always been a rejection of a current conception of the divine and at one time, because Jews and Christians denied pagan notions of divinity, people called them "atheists", even though they had faith in a god. She then moves on to discuss the nineteenth century atheists who "were inveighing against a particular conception of God".5 Our comprehension of language with its vagueness and ambiguity offers little for a broad scope of personal views people have of God when theism suggests if one is not a theist then they are an atheist.6 People seem to forget the wide spectrum of labels in between theist and atheist that would fit the variety of views of God more appropriately than one or the other. Thus, in the words of the well-known theologian, Bishop John Shelby Spong, also known as Jack by his friends:

This God is rather beyond every concept, beyond theism, beyond supernaturalism, beyond the God of the Church and the gods of men and women. I experience this God, I do not explain this God.7

In that line of thought, we can examine this Absolute in Lewis's life, his history with the Divine, and the philosophies he ascribed to as an adult to show that he still had a belief in God even after denying Him. He grew up in a Christian family, but when he was fourteen, he lost his mother to cancer. Everything people told him about God and how to relate to God failed him. An overwhelming feeling that there was no Divine Justice prevailed within him, so he became angry with God and turned his back on his concept of God. Yet he kept some remnant of this transcendent Absolute throughout all his life and even though his perception of God was shattered, Lewis never really had a "Great Divorce" from the One who incensed him so much early in life. He left Christianity in favour of other philosophies, but he did not give up a belief in God.

If one is angry with God, they cannot truly have a disbelief in God, as Lewis would want people to believe, or rather himself that is. Lewis said he maintained that God did not exist, was very angry with God for not existing and equally angry with Him for creating a world.8 This is not true atheism and even Patrick Inniss stated, "Any atheist will tell you that she or he could more easily become angry at Bugs Bunny than at God.9 If God does not exist, then how can one be angry with Him? That is akin to an adult being angry with the Easter Bunny for not bringing him or her any candy, which is silly for every adult knows that the Easter Bunny does not exist so there is no way one can have anger with a non-existent creature. It is just not possible and very illogical. Even Inniss said Lewis defies logic by making such a ludicrous statement and, of course, logic is what atheism is all about.10 Not to mention "The Fool" also doubted that Lewis ever was a convinced and dedicated agnostic or atheist. He insisted that the tone of Lewis's objection to religions hardly seemed like someone who had considered either of the two positions extensively and sympathetically and who accepted the inevitability of one or the other of both positions.11

If Lewis was an atheist, he was a weak atheist, but one should not end up fooled by this label, because there are two forms of Atheism: strong and weak. The two are subsets of atheism pertaining to a person's mental attitude. Strong atheism, also called positive atheism, is the proposition that we should not suspend judgments about the non-existence of God or gods and weak atheism, also called agnostic atheism, is the lack of belief in gods without judgement of their non-existence.12 The concept of a deity is meaningless to a true atheist, because one there is no god at present, two there were and are no gods, and three there cannot be any gods, according to Francois Tremblay.13 The atheists do not need to persuade themselves of anything with this stance concerning deities anymore than Christians need to convince themselves that there is a god. Excluded from the term atheism is the belief in a "transcendent Absolute", found in Idealism, and thus this would make Lewis a non-theist instead, but not an atheist.14

Therefore, Lewis was fighting with himself concerning God, or rather his idea of God, if he had to persuade himself there was no god or of anything else for that matter.15 In this respect, his view of atheism is too simple, but for a true atheist, including Secular Humanists, it is not at all simple and the whole universe has great meaning.16 Humanists, in general, have hardly "hoodwink half the world" for they show there is an alternative for those who do not believe in any supernatural deity or value religion.17 Even Richard Dawkins said, in The God Delusion, that Lewis should have known better, because he allowed Christians to persuade him, but in this case, he perpetuated a stereotype that was not true and showed how naive he was about atheism.18 Given that his mentor and long time friend of his family, W. T. Kirkpatrick, was a Humanist and an atheist, Lewis should have known that many Secular Humanists follow a whole set of ethical and moral values every day that are hardly simple.

Old Knock, as Lewis called Kirkpatrick, was a rationalist and Humanist, who he supposedly admired greatly, yet he criticized 'Knock's' lifestance in Surprised By Joy, even though the result of his relationship with Knock caused Lewis to think deeper and search for truth, but he took a different path than his mentor did.19 This is not to say that Lewis did not learn anything from 'Old Knock' though, but if the man had read that statement, he probably felt his protégée had learned nothing from him, not even to think for himself concerning other philosophies.

Humanism, regardless if one is Secular, Religious, or Spiritual, believes in reason and compassion. It is also a progressive philosophy of life, without supernaturalism, which affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfilment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.20 Add to all that, Humanism is a vision of the dignity of the human being and the acceptance of the capabilities of the human being for rational reflection and choice.21 It also encourages free inquiry and is a very optimistic lifestance.

Obviously, Lewis owed a lot to Kirkpatrick in his journey for truth, because as Bishop Spong once said, "Humanism is not anti-Christian or anti-God. It is through the human that we experience the Holy the Other. The Divine is the Ultimate depth of the human."22 While not all Humanists entirely eschew all notions of God and may retain a concept of a non-theistic god, Secular Humanists, like 'Old Knock', do reject all notions of a deity.23 If Lewis learned nothing about atheism or Humanism from Kirkpatrick, he learned to inquire into other philosophies, question ideas, and the capabilities of humans to better themselves, even though the two probably would not agree on each other’s chosen lifestance. Yet it is sad that Lewis criticized a philosophy that encouraged him to continue on the road he was following.

Nevertheless, this began Lewis's journey into his search for the Absolute, which we find in Idealism, Hegel and Berkeley's ideas, one of the philosophies and two of the men Lewis once ascribed to when he called himself an atheist and an Idealist. Corliss Lamont stated that the nineteenth-century philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel named his God the Absolute.24 Hegel referred to the Absolute as the one unconditional entity, thus the word entity would more than likely refer to a deity in this context. The British Idealism movement of the nineteenth and twentieth-century noticed this idea and called this ultimate reality non-physical and mental or spiritual. Considered a quasi-Hegelian absolute idealism, it showed a human conception of God and one Lewis apparently accepted along his journey. Space and time logically depend on the presence of God, so physical objects and events logically depend on the presence of God.25 Old Hegelians also emphasized the Christian elements of Hegel's writings.

Corliss Lamont profoundly stated one of the most showing signs of Lewis’s view of God from this philosophy:

On the ethical side, the worst feature of Hegel's Idealism is that since the entire universe, including all human life and activity, emanates from God's own omni-creative consciousness, evil becomes unreal. For if every act is the expression of the Absolute Mind, the Universal Goodness, then everything that exists and everything people do must be good; the excruciating physical pain and the most devastating mental anguish become negligible throbbings within the Divine Experience.26

Looking at Lamont's statement about Hegelian thought closely and applying it to Lewis's life, one could easily see remnants of his experience as a child watching his mother die of cancer with the comment of "the excruciating physical pain and the most devastating mental anguish". If one were to push them back onto a deity and then turn his back on that deity, emotional pain and bad memories could become negligible within the Divine Experience, even if it was no fault of that god. One could even note that if Lewis followed any of the Old Hegelian schools of thought then he would more than likely attribute the pain and suffering he saw in his life to God, which only served to feed his anger. Perceived evil would certainly become unreal in such a line of thought and then he would not have to deal with the emotional trauma of loss, which his father never addressed with him and his brother.

Lewis described the gradual withdrawal of his mother from their lives into the hands of nurses as their existence changed into something alien and menacing as having both very evil and very good results.27 His relationship with his father never got much better as he shuffled Lewis and his brother from one boarding school to another after his mother's death. He quickly buried himself in reading and studying classics, myths, and Paganism, but he had to deal with a ludicrous burden of false duties in prayer also. Eventually he begun to doubt and question the Christian faith, because he was not finding any of the emotional comfort he so desperately needed at the time.28 This young man managed to separate the bad from the good at an early age, making it easier to push all the disconcerting elements of life onto God, thus Idealism became a perfect way to keep his view of God and shove everything on the Absolute. He could rationalize all the pain away with the idea that everything emanated from God's conscious, in the form of an Absolute Being. All the evil he perceived in is life was now unreal and he could avoid facing it and God.

Therefore, if Lewis were an Idealist and Hegelian, then his belief in the Absolute would dismiss his claim as an atheist entirely, especially if we return to the idea that God is a human concept and true Atheism is a lack of belief in any deity. Even Berkeley, said to be the first idealist, and whom Lewis eventually questioned, stated that God perceives everything and objects were ideas in the mind of God, thus a sound argument for the existence of God.29 Idealism turned things completely upside-down by attributing dialectical movement to conscious mind instead of matter by making contradictions continually work themselves out and merge in a higher stage identified as the synthesis.30

Thus, it was very easy to avoid facing tragedy in one’s life with this philosophy, which is contrary to Kirkpatrick's worldview, in which one faces the problems in life head-on by standing on their own two feet. There is no supernatural deity to dump life's problems on with Humanism, instead humans must face them and deal with the issues themselves. They have the ability to fulfil their own potential by setting goals that will make lives better, striving to realize those goals, and celebrate life. From a Humanist perspective, Lewis missed the boat.

While the thoughts in Idealism are not theism, they do point to a belief in some sort of deity and therefore do not qualify as true atheism either. It is possible that such ideas qualify as a non-theistic belief, which is similar to atheism only because such beliefs are unrelated to the Christian God. The possibility of Idealism as a deistic or pantheistic belief lends some credence because of its idea of a universal self-consciousness as the Absolute, the one unconditional entity, which is a form of monism or belief in one god.31 Non-theism, which includes deism and pantheism, believes in one god or maybe even questions the idea of a god or any god, but does not necessarily rule it out either. If Lewis felt that individuals who could not rise to the notion of the Absolute would come nearer to the truth by belief in "a God" than by disbelief then this begs the question 'what was the Absolute for Lewis in relation to his Idealistic philosophy?'32

Lamont suggested what the idealist does in essence is illegitimately to identify the things that are symbolized with the symbols used; magically to transform objects and events into symbols or ideas, and then the whole universe itself into Idea. This unwarranted metaphysical abstraction the idealist then proceeds to call God or the Absolute.33 This is definitely a non-theistic god that Lamont describes and not some atheistic idea. Deism, often mistaken for atheism, is perfectly compatible with the first stance of an atheist; that there is no god at present.34 However, Deism leaves room for anger with God, unlike atheism, while saying god does not exist [at present], because a belief in a deity still exists. Lamont's thoughts lend credit to the Absolute being a deist god with Berkeley's Idealist concepts given that such a naturalistic belief leads to an absent god.35

Shortly before Lewis said he converted back to Christianity, he questioned Berkeley's ideas and asked, "Didn't Berkley's "God" do all the same work as the Absolute, with the added advantage that we had at least some notion of what we meant by Him?36 Here Lewis made it very clear that he was describing a conception of a god and if he followed these ideas, it was not true atheism, but rather a non-theistic belief system. Even he admitted denial at this point, but he made a step toward Christianity with this move according to Josh McDowell.37

The Absolute could also be a form of pantheism, especially if the whole universe is transform into Idea. This is also a non-theistic belief where everything that exists is god and god is in everything. Hegel believed that god is the universe, which was much like Tillich’s idea of Ground of All Being.38

Yet there are similarities between Hegel's Absolute and Tillich's Ground of All Being. This Divine Spark, in Tillich's view, is in us all. It is in all things living on the planet and "It" is the universe. Note that this deity has no sex, so "It" is neither He nor She, yet the pronoun does not do "It" justice and the human language has no word for this Divine Being. This view of God is the source of all life and much like the wind, or ruach as Spong calls the Ground of All Being. The ruach, or wind of God, was not external, but rather an impersonal life force that was experienced as a "what" not a "who".39 A person cannot see this god. They can only experience "It" through others, animals, or other living things on earth. It emerged from within the world and was understood as its very ground, its life-giving reality. This God was not a being but rather the power that called being forth in all creatures and an internal reality, that when confronted, opened us to the meaning of life itself.40 Yet this god is indescribable in words that make "It" comprehensible to others, thus why Spong said he experienced this god, not explained "It".41

Regardless of whether or not Hegel and Tillich's view of God was the same, Lewis questioned Hegel's thoughts as well and decided that the Absolute "cannot be made clear", which is true given that "It" cannot be described in a manner that another person could truly comprehend unless one experienced God in this form.42 Even, Armstrong mentioned the whole universe represented an Absolute which was the highest form of individuation and which men had called "God" as one view, but that remains unknown to those who have never experienced this form of Being.43 It is truly numinous even to the one who conceives of God in this manner and no words can do "It" justice.

Therefore, Lewis was never without a belief in God regardless if he accepted Berkeley or Hegel's ideas about God. In reality, he turned away from Christianity, which gave him little comfort after his mother's death, and built a wall of anger between his view of god and himself. There never was a point in his life in which he never had a mental conception of God, so therefore he was never an honest atheist.

At one time, there were accusations of Jews, Christians, and Muslims of being atheists, especially when their ideas challenged the popular religious wisdom of their day. Challenge a god concept and people feel their God is being challenged. Thus, according to Spong, that is why no concept of God can ever be more than a limited human construct and personal words about God, reveal not God, but their own yearning.44 C. S. Lewis definitely fit Spong's idea of a believer in exile for he never really gave up his concept of God, just turned his back on Him out of anger. His so-called atheism was not what he had to guard, but rather the wall he put between his own conception of God and himself. The danger he felt was the tumbling down of that wall, because then he could not blame God for the tragedies in his life, but a real atheist cannot be angry at something that does not exist, so for them there is no wall and nothing to guard.45

Lewis was never a true atheist, but rather a non-theist with his belief in the Absolute, which existed to him.46 It was his concept of God and he was arrogant in denying this with his thinking of it being otherwise. When he finally came to terms with this, he started questioning and redefining his human definition of God. Eventually the wall slowly came down with little emotion and he chose to return to the only religion he knew in which to acknowledge his concept of God- Christianity.47 What was once theistic turned into non-theistic and became theistic again.

He learned to think from 'Old Knock', but he did not learn to reason until he realized that he was denying his anger at his original concept of God and possibly life itself. The Dear Old Knock would have told him in reference to his claim to atheism and his ponderings of it, "Do you not see, then, that your remark was meaningless?" In addition, he would possibly ask, "Do you not see, then, that you had no right to have any opinion whatever on the subject?" Eventually, when Lewis's wall began to fall, Old Knock might have stopped him and said, "I hear you" and then, after thinking it through completely, he would have experienced the red beef and strong beer he enjoyed so much instead of anger with life itself.48

Christians may disagree with this idea of reason, but Lewis was not reasoning when he built a wall of anger and then tried hard to convince himself that God did not exist. Denial is not reason, but realization is and this was his step toward admitting that he believed in a deity. The "Checkmate" came when he realized that he still believed in a god and chose to return to Christianity as a means to recognize his concept of God, but sadly, he became arrogant toward Kirkpatrick and his philosophy even though the man taught him many things. To criticize Humanism and atheism as Lewis did after his return to Christianity was a less liberal view of life, even though he insisted that when he became a Christian he was able to take a more liberal view.49 It was as though he "hoodwinked Old Knock" and forgot all the things that Knock taught him after he went back to being a Christian. None of the good things from his old friend mattered anymore when he called atheism a "boy's philosophy", which showed he had no idea what it really is.50 So, in the end, who really had their head in the sand like an ostrich to avoid facing facts that damaged their position?51 The unenlightened Idealist, who played at atheism as he denied he was even a deist or the rational Secular Humanist with no concept of a supernatural deity, who said, "You can have enlightenment for ninepense but you prefer ignorance"?52

The lessons learned and forgotten do not matter though, because Lewis eventually came to terms with his anger towards his concept of God as he went from Christianity to non-theism and back again. Lewis went full circle in his beliefs, but was never really an atheist for there was always that lingering human construct of a deity as adopted by British Idealism and the ideas of Hegel and Berkeley. Once he finally questioned his actual beliefs, he returned to Christianity and theism, abandoning his anger and denial.


[1]C. S. Lewis, "Mere Christianity," (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 37.

[2] Bishop John Shelby Spong, "A New Christianity for A New World," (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), 24.

[3]Bishop John Shelby Spong, "Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile," (New York: Harper Collins, 1999), 47.

[4]C. S. Lewis, "Surprised By Joy," (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1955), 21.

[5]Karen Armstrong, "A History Of God," (New York: Random House, 1993), 354.

[6]Bishop John Shelby Spong, Forward to "God In Us: A Case For Christian Humanism" by Anthony Freeman, (UK: SCM Press, 1993), ix.

[7]Ibid., xii-xiii.

[8] C. S. Lewis, "Surprised By Joy," 115.

[9]Patrick Inniss, "The Atheist That Never Really Was," Secular Humanism Online Library. http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/aah/inniss_8_2.htm


[11]Gaunilo II, “Mere Christianity, By C.S. Lewis: A Review "In Behalf of the Fool," The Secular Web Library, (1997), http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/gaunilo2/mere.html

[12]Francois Tremblay, "What Is Strong Atheism,"http://www.strongatheism.net/what_is_strong_atheism/


[14]Jeaneane Fowler, "Humanism: Beliefs and Practices," (Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 1999), 67.

[15]C. S. Lewis, "Mere Christianity," 35.

[16]Ibid., 39.

[17]C. S. Lewis, "Surprised By Joy," 145.

[18]Richard Dawkins, "The God Delusion," (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 92.

[19]Duncan Entertainment, "Interview With Douglas Gresham," http://www.duncanentertainment.com/interview_gresham.php

[20]American Humanist Association, "Humanist Manifesto III," http://www.americanhumanist.org/3/HumandItsAspirations.php

[21]Jeaneane Fowler, "Humanism: Beliefs and Practices," 10.

[22]Bishop John Shelby Spong, Letter to Author, October 16, 2006.

[23]Jeaneane Fowler, "Humanism: Beliefs and Practices," 71.

[24]Corliss Lamont, "The Philosophy Of Humanism," (New York: Humanist Press, 1997), 147.

[25]Stephen Priest, "British Idealism," (The Oxford Companion to Philosophy: Oxford Reference Online 20 April 2007), http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t116.e1163

[26]Corliss Lamont, "The Philosophy of Humanism," 149.

[27]C. S. Lewis, "{i]Surprised By Joy[/i}," 19.

[28]Ibid., 62.

[29]"Berkeleian adj.," The Australian Oxford Dictionary, 2nd Ed. Bruce Moore. Oxford University Press, 2004, http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t157.e5339

[30]Corliss Lamont, "The Philosophy of Humanism," 149.

[31]The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, "absolute idealism".

[32]C. S. Lewis, "Surprised By Joy," 215.

[33]Corliss Lamont, "The Philosophy of Humanism," 149.

[34]Francois Tremblay, "What Is Strong Atheism?" Strong Atheism, Strong Atheism Library http://www.strongatheism.net/intro/what_is_strong_atheism/

[35]"Deism" and "Berkeleian," Oxford Online.

[36]C. S. Lewis, "Surprised By Joy," 223.

[37]Josh McDowell, "Skeptics Who Demand a Verdict," Chapter 2: C. S. Lewis, Great Com Resource, http://www.greatcom.org/resources/skeptics_who_demanded_a_verdict/chap02/default...

[38]"Pantheism", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pantheism/

[39]Bishop John Shelby Spong, "Why Christianity Must Change or Die," 60.

[40]Ibid., 64.

[41]Bishop John Shelby Spong, Forward to "God In Us: A Case For Christian Humanism" by Anthony Freeman, xiii.

[42]C. S. Lewis, "Surprised By Joy," 222.

[43]Karen Armstrong, "A History of God," 365.

[44]Bishop John Shelby Spong, "Why Christianity Must Change or Die," 58.

[45]C. S. Lewis, "Surprised By Joy," 226.

[46]C. S. Lewis, "Surprised By Joy," 211.

[47]Ibid., 224.

[48]Ibid., 134-136.

[49]C. S. Lewis, "Mere Christianity," 35.

[50]Ibid., 40.

[51]Cline Austin, About Atheism/Agnosticism, "C. S. Lewis vs. Atheism and Atheists: Why Does Lewis Ridicule Atheism?" http://atheism.about.com/od/cslewisnarnia/a/atheists.htm

[52]C. S. Lewis, "Surprised By Joy," 138.



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