I just finished a book by Peter Williams entitled, C. S. Lewis Vs the New Atheists. The book is accessible, well-written, interesting and I enjoyed it very much. Though I recommend it highly, I did have one minor issue with it. It seems to me that Williams fundamentally misunderstood the argument that Sam Harris makes concerning morality. Williams seems to think that what Harris believes could be paraphrased, “Christians are correct that objective moral values exist, but they are wrong about the source of objective moral values. Objective moral values do not come from God, objective moral values derive from the well-being of conscious creatures.” Williams then proceeds to demonstrate that objective moral values cannot be derived in this way.
In truth, however, I believe that this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the Sam Harris argument. I believe that the Harris argument could be paraphrased in the following way. “Objective moral values do not exist, but that does not mean that we, as atheists, are required to be baby-eating nihilists. Science can be used to derive a morality that is based on the well-being of conscious creatures.” For atheists, objective moral values are an epiphenomenon that derives from an evolved mammalian empathy that when it sees suffering says, “I wouldn’t like that pain that that fellow mammal is experiencing. That fellow mammal would not like that pain. No mammal would like that pain. That pain is, therefore, absolutely wrong.” Such atheists believe that our perception that moral values exist is a delusion created by empathy and subjective feelings of dislike for suffering.
What Harris is arguing against, I think, is morality as an argument for Christian belief as opposed to an argument for Christian truth. What is the distinction? Pascal’s Wager is an example of an argument for Christian belief whereas design arguments are an argument for Christian truth. Using moral values as an argument for Christian belief would go something like this, “As a practical matter, it is impossible to live without believing in morality. For this reason, just believe in morality and also believe in Christianity even though it may not be true.” Using objective moral values as an argument for truth goes like this, “Objective moral values can only exist if they are grounded in the perfectly loving nature of God. Objective morals exist, therefore, God exists and has a perfectly loving nature.” The Harris argument is aimed at the first type of Christian argument, not the second. Like a company marketing aspartame to those who wish to taste sugar without the calories, Harris is attempting to provide a substitute morality so people can “come out” as atheists without explicitly embracing the horrors of nihilism.
Despite this minor misunderstanding, C. S. Lewis Vs the New Atheists is a devastating critique of many arguments made by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and I highly recommend it. Williams brings together arguments from C. S. Lewis and a number of other theists to convincingly demonstrate the primary problem with atheism. As I have argued in many of my posts, the primary problem with atheism is that in order to accept that it is true, a person must reject rationality, love, morality and free will as delusions created by evolution. Why is evolution so desperate to trick us into believing in God?
My favourite section of the book was William’s treatment of the Lewis trilemma. He does an excellent job of demonstrating this very powerful argument for the truth of Christianity. This section also contains my favourite passage from the book and I had to end my review with it. Trying to get out of the trilemma in an interview on Canadian television, Richard Dawkins apparently said:
But when you read some of his arguments, they are just pathetic. Things like: Well Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, so either Jesus was mad, or bad, or he really was the Son of God. It did not occur to him that Jesus could simply be mistaken. I mean, what a pathetic argument. (C.S. Lewis vs the New Atheists p. 188)
Williams deals with this assertion by quoting a number of theists, but the response that I thought was laugh out loud funny was that of Nicky Gumbel:
The irony of The God Delusion is that Dawkins . . . says that all Christians are deluded because they believe there is a God, but Jesus was not deluded even though he thought he was God. (C.S. Lewis vs the New Atheists p. 189)