The Silver Chair

April 17, 2009

Having received the tip from, of all places, Less Wrong, I reread C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair this week. Man, are these Narnia books ever Christian. It’s somewhat distracting. Anyway, here’s a good passsage, which other bloggers have kindly typed out for me:

“One word, Ma’am . . . All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst of things and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. . .Then all I can say is, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just four babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can, even if there isn’t any Narnia. So . . . we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think, but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.” (The Silver Chair, p. 181-182)

Honestly, I still don’t know why smug atheists like Will Wilkinson and even Eliezer Yudkowsky piss me off as much as they do, but chapter 12 of The Silver Chair has the flavor of the response I’m always looking for when I read their stuff. 

Begin flight of fancy:

I think the problem with some people is that they are too skilled at debate and logical reasoning for their own good. Logic is fine for its purposes, but I just don’t think that everything that can be understood or felt is susceptible to logic. In The Silver Chair, because the Narnians are unable to explain the terms sun or lion in a way that makes sense to people who live underground and have never seen a lion, they are persuaded that their belief in the sun or in lions is, literally, nonsense. And this is my vague feeling about religion. Will Wilkinson and Eliezer Yudkowsky want religion to be expressible in terms of pure logic, because they are really good at manipulating logical symbols, and thus they think everything should be expressible in terms of pure logic. So if you can’t argue forcefully for your position, or express it in terms that make logical sense, you must be wrong.

End flight of fancy.

I acknowledge that my argument isn’t very good. For one thing, it could be used to dismiss absolutely any position I disagree with.  Still, I’ve been brewing these ideas about atheism in a rather inchoate form for a long time, so I need to get started at expressing them.


3 Responses to “The Silver Chair”

  1. Rrrobert! Says:

    You’re on the right track. For me one of the defining characteristics of faith is that it’s a matter of faith. I.e., you will never be able to prove anything meaningful about faith in the way atheists want it proved – it is valuable only to the extent that you believe it (or alternatively, act on it) despite your doubts.

    Particularly irritating to me is the logical jump atheists tend to make between “you cannot prove this, nor ask a rational person to take your evidence as proof” to “your belief is irrational,” and often even further, “what you believe must not be true.”

    For me, my personal experience makes a compelling argument for theism. Granted, that experience does not translate. But the fact that my experience is not universal does not mean it is not valid evidence for me. It does not mean that I am irrational for having taken my experience into account. For me.

    Second, lack of evidence doesn’t mean something ain’t true, especially in realms of thought that lack any evidence for any position. Arguments for atheism strike me as depending on exactly the same kind of assumptions that lead to indefensible theologies.

    Third, the final claim, that I not only lack evidence for theism, but that theism is inconsistent with the world as it is, is just silly.

    These last inevitably depend on extremely arrogant assumptions about things that are inherently unknowable – for instance, that the arguer is a good arbiter of justice. As if (a) the arguer had complete information about people, events and consequences (particularly, say, afterlife consequences) and (b) even if he did, he could appropriately judge what everyone deserved. Pfft. Go home, theoretical atheist. Come back when you can appropriately confine your claims to whether there is evidence for theism, and then we can get along.

    P.S. Every Narnia book is so good. And yeah, way Christian, but conveniently also accessing the best elements of Christianity without any of the unseemly bits. So also good for salad-bar theists like myself who go down the dogma line, taking what is convenient and not too difficult.

  2. Dan Says:

    It’s funny, Lewis’s argument or metaphor sounds a lot like the arguments atheists make against religion, that it is a fantasy world people retreat to when they find it too difficult or painful to confront reality. “We don’t care if heaven is real or not, because it sounds nicer.”

    That might be the actual reason some spiritual people believe, but it doesn’t seem like much of a rebuttal to the atheists. Religion goes from being a social touchstone to, at best, a harmless delusion.

    Sure, true believers often are proven right in fairy tales and Disney movies and the Narnia kids turned out to be the rational ones, but that’s because Lewis wrote the book. How do we know which fantastical notions we should believe and respect and which we should dismiss? Do religious people accept anything illogical they happen to hear? Do they think they sky is green if their parents tell them so or they read it in an old book? If not, how do we distinguish? Which do we respect?

    What is special about religion that forces us to suspend the powers of thought we rely on in every other facet of life? Why do we have to argue logically about science or politics or art or music and not about religion? If it’s impossible to express a logical argument for religion, does that mean the atheists are unenlightened, incapable of understanding basic religious tenets like lions or suns? Or does it mean something about religion itself?

    And how do we distinguish between denominations? Are they all equally valid or valuable? How do we tell a cult from a religion? If we can use logic to distinguish denominations, why not to describe religion itself?

    I find anyone who disagrees with me and is smug is annoying, regardless of their ideological affinities. Most atheists don’t want to condemn people for believing in God, but are frustrated that religion has such a vaunted status in society, as opposed to, say, people who believe in UFOs or mermaids. Sure, I can’t prove they don’t exist, but I have no interest in doing that. I would only have a problem if I’m forced to fund mermaid-finding expeditions or live by laws supposedly beamed through space by aliens.

    PS – I agree, the Christian undertones are super distracting when re-reading the series, blunt to the point they detract from the story, which I loved when I first read them. I almost wish I could get a bowdlerized copy from the USSR or something. From now on, let’s all leave the parables to Jesus.

  3. […] 21, 2009 My response to Dan’s comment was too long to itself be a comment, hence open […]

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