How C.S. Lewis lost his faith in Atheism

C.S. Lewis, the 50th anniversary of whose death we mark today, was many things: a literary scholar, an author of children’s fiction, a popular Oxford teacher, a cultural critic, an essayist and an apologist for the Christian faith.

Lewis was also a convert. And converts are intriguing people. At their worst, of course, the convert can become a bore (just think of your last conversation with someone who has recently discovered Paleo dieting or Noam Chomsky), but at their best a convert is, like the Wardrobe to Narnia, a portal to another world: another way of seeing things. Converts hold out the possibility that we may have missed something.

…He came to believe that the pagan myths were not totally false, but pointed in their best moments to the truth of the story of Christ.

Lewis converted to Christianity in his 30s, well into a career as an Oxford Don, and after a good 20 years of self-conscious, thought-through atheism. And it happened in a climate of heightened scepticism.

Since the rise of the new atheism, it is probably true to say that our current apologetic climate has more in common with Lewis’ Oxford of the 1920s and 30s than it does with the postmodern relativism of the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, new atheism’s scientism and positivism has deep intellectual and personal connections with Lewis’ Oxford.

How was it, then, that this bright young Oxford Don lost his faith in atheism and became a Christian?

Background and upbringing 

Clive Staples Lewis, a man once described as the best read man in England, was born in 1898 into a well-to-do and conventionally protestant Northern Irish home.

Little from his childhood seems to have impressed him about Christianity, and he came to consciously abandon it, without trauma or regret. The only thing from childhood that seems to have positively contributed to his latter faith was the experience of ‘Joy’—Lewis’ technical name for an intense experience of desire which would intrigue and puzzle him for many years.

Almost everything else in childhood disposed him against the faith.

Suffering—perhaps the most abiding challenge to Christian faith—was a first hand reality for Lewis. It was experienced from three main sources: death, school and war (in that order).

Lewis’ mother died of abdominal cancer when he was just 10. “With my mother’s death,” wrote Lewis, “all settled happiness, and all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.” (Surprised by Joy, pg 23)

Lewis’ father sent his still grieving son to boarding school in England. He hated it—the bullying, the institutionalised sexual and physical abuse, the homesickness. (Readers of Lewis’ fiction might recall schools are dark places.)

As his most recent biographer Alister McGrath has noted, Lewis’ descriptions of the horrors of school vastly overshadow his experience of the war. Whether this was because of his relatively short army time or for other reasons, there is no doubt Lewis saw real suffering in war. In the trenches of France he witnessed “the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass.” (C. S. Lewis, McGrath, pg 69)

Lewis’ rejection of the Christian God was not, however, simply a visceral response to suffering. On the contrary, Lewis seems to have rejected Christian faith on rational grounds. An omnivorous reader of mythology, Lewis asked why our god should be thought real, when we instantly assume the gods of mythology are not? Why should He alone be given the attribute of actually existing? Was it not more sensible to conclude that “all religions are simply mythologies invented by human beings”? (McGrath, pg 42). Surely, gods are simply products of wish-fulfilment.

When people today become atheists, it is often via the discovery of critical thinking by which they can be liberated from the religious ideas inculcated in childhood. For Lewis, it was the opposite. A rigorous, critical approach to knowledge was a feature of his upbringing and something that came to him through the tutoring of a man called Kirkpatrick (or ‘the Great Knock’), who taught Lewis in the years 1914-17.

To capture the influence of Kirk on Lewis, it is worth recounting their first meeting. Lewis had travelled to Surrey by train, and on meeting Kirk commented innocuously on how the scenery was more ‘wild’ than he had expected.

“Stop!” said Kirk with a suddenness that made me jump. “What do you mean by wildness and what ground had you for not expecting it?” (McGrath, pg 109)

Lewis says that answer after answer he gave was torn to shreds.

“A few passes sufficed to show that I had no clear and distinct idea corresponding to the word ‘wildness’, and that, in so far as I had any idea at all, ‘wildness’ was a singularly inept word. ‘Do you not see,’ concluded the Great Knock, ‘that your remark was meaningless?’”

Lewis’ own account of how God moved in on him is about as far from an experience of wish fulfilment as you could imagine.

Lewis expected him to drop it at this point, but he went on:

“On what had I based my expectations about the Flora and Geology of Surrey? Was it maps, or photographs, or books? I could produce none. It had, heaven help me, never occurred to me that what I called ‘my thoughts’ needed to be based on anything. Kirk drew one more conclusion—without the slightest sign of emotion, but equally without the slightest concession to what I thought good manners: ‘Do you not see then, that you had no right to have any opinion whatever on the subject?’”

Of him, Lewis said, “If ever a man came near to being a purely logical entity, that man was Kirk. Born a little later, he would have been a Logical Positivist.” (Surprised by Joy, 110)

Lewis loved it. Through Kirk he was given a powerful way of seeing the world, a frame of mind and approach to thought that Lewis found so deeply satisfying. Kirk did not make him an atheist (he already was); but he gave him a way to be a fulfilled atheist.

By the time Lewis arrived at Oxford, his atheism seemed unshakeable. First hand experience of suffering, an account of religion as wish-fulfilment, and a rigorously logical and evidence-driven approach to knowledge. It all seems so water-tight. What went wrong? How did Lewis lose his faith?

There are several important milestones.

First, as an undergraduate, Lewis abandoned what he came to call “chronological snobbery”: the idea that the latest ideas are the best ideas. Specifically, this meant an increasing suspicion of the logical positivism then fashionable at Oxford.

edited_cs-lewis-cmykSecondly, (and relatedly) he became suspicious of the claim that the universe revealed by the senses was in fact “rock bottom reality.” What, said Lewis, about moral judgements? What about the experience of Joy? Beauty? Transcendence? Lewis has previously rejected all of these as tricks of the mind, but he now began to see them as real, and no less real because they weren’t scientific.

Indeed, strict positivism increasingly appeared to Lewis to be self-defeating. The claim that ‘all true knowledge is falsifiable’ appeared to fail its own test, for by which means could that claim itself be falsified? And on what empirical studies could it possibly be based? For Lewis, positivism was not wrong, but incomplete. Positivism had announced itself as a great and brave “treaty with reality”; but for Lewis it was able to account for far less than it claimed. Lewis was now exploring the possibility that God, and eventually Christianity, could integrate both reason and imagination, both deliberation and desire.

Thirdly, Lewis’ experience as a reader began to eat away at his atheism. “A young man,” he once warned, “who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere.”

Lewis’ epistemic framework created for him a “ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experience as a reader.” (McGrath, 134) He goes on:

“On the one side a many islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism’. Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.” (McGrath, 137) 

This idea of God-via-literature might seem a strange path to us, but Lewis is by no means the only one to have trod it. Several key figures of Lewis’ era, including G.K. Chesterton, Graeme Green, Evelyn Waugh and T.S. Eliot all underwent profound conversions to Christianity through and because of their literary work. (McGrath, 133)

Lewis similarly found something deeply wanting in accounts of human nature and experience that did not include God.

One final stumbling block for Lewis was the problem of the myths. On Saturday 19 September 1931, Lewis talked long into the night with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, whose solution took him through the impasse.

Tolkien shared with Lewis his view that Christ was the true myth. It was a myth in the sense that it was a story that addressed the imagination and helped one make sense of the world, but it was a true myth, grounded in the actual soil and reality of first century Palestine: it was the myth that actually happened.

For Lewis, this meant that he did not have to reject the truth and reality he found in the pagan mythologies. Rather than having to believe Christianity was the improbably true needle in the haystack of religion, he came to believe that the pagan myths were not totally false, but pointed in their best moments to the truth of the story of Christ.

God closes in

For Lewis, the actual experience of conversion was not a sudden affair but more like a drawn out chess game in which God made a series of moves. Any individual move might have seemed escapable, but their accumulative effect rendered him in check-mate.

Lewis’ own account of how God moved in on him is about as far from an experience of wish fulfilment as you could imagine. He wrote:

“Doubtless, by definition, God was Reason itself. But would he also be ‘reasonable’ in that other, more comfortable, sense. Not the slightest assurance on that score was offered me. Total surrender, the absolute leap in the dark, were demanded. The reality with which no treaty can be made was upon me. The demand was not simply ‘All or nothing’…It was simply ‘All.’”

His account of the actual moment of conversion to God is justifiably in the canon of great conversion literature:

“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet…I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed, perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England…”

This was his acceptance of theism: his definite conversion to Christ came a little later, and by the end of 1931, C.S. Lewis was a Christian and went on to become perhaps the 20th century’s greatest apologist.

Rory Shiner is a minister at St Matthew’s, Shenton Park, in WA.