Civil Atheism and C.S. Lewis


Some Christians are obnoxious. Well, okay, quite a few Christians are insufferable when they persistently “witness” to those who are deaf to their appeals. But, truth be told, many atheists are becoming increasingly obnoxious in their attitudes towards Christians as well. Let’s consider which group is worse.

First, some definitions. By Christians I don’t mean people who have some vague deistic notion that there is a God, and Jesus is somehow connected to this divinity because he was such a holy prophet.

By Christian I mean someone who has placed their faith and trust in Jesus the Christ, the only begotten Son of God who declared he was the Way, the Truth and the Life… The Logos (Word) through whom the universe was created.

By Atheist, I don’t mean people who do not share that faith, but who consider it an unprovable thesis. Most people with this viewpoint are ambivalent about whether or not others “believe.” The majority of these folks, many of whom do not feel threatened by religious conversations, are better understood as Agnostics.

By Atheist I mean people who are so convinced that Christianity is fallacious that they feel they must do what they can to stamp it out. They are so emotionally engrossed in the matter that they are genuinely unable to recognize that their own belief is based on nothing other than faith itself.

I can respect the fact that Atheists have historically been mistreated by “Christendom.” By my definition, this institutional entity is not synonymous with actual Christianity. In fact, it’s persecuted far more Christians of different denominational allegiances, than it has unbelievers who simply kept their mouths closed. But that’s a subject for another day.

Christians do not hate agnostics, or even atheists. Their motivation for sharing the Gospel inclines them towards the opposite attitude. Certainly they do it in obedience to their Lord’s command. Most possess a genuine concern and compassion for those they consider to be lost and facing eternal separation from God.

On the other hand, an increasing number of Atheists are insultingly dismissive of Christians who they consider—as a group—to be ignorant and prejudiced.

An Atheist columnist acknowledged this fact, and the discomfort it causes him, in a recent essay. David Harsanyi wrote the following in “Political Idols,” an article about a broader subject.

Unlike many of my fellow non-believers, I don’t feel especially enlightened or rational for my apostasy; I feel kind of unlucky, actually.

The typical non-believer sees the strictures of Christianity or Judaism [the faith in which Harsanyi was raised] as a punishment—mythical limitations set to inconvenience him—but I see people who take profound comfort in a beautiful fate that awaits them as long as they treat people as they would want to be treated themselves.

As a man who believes his story ends in a pile of dirt rather than celestial salvation, I have many reasons to be envious.

Yet, for my entire atheistic life, I’ve been nudged to mock the believer. The unifying doctrine of atheism is a reflexive antagonism toward faith and all the ideas it has dragged along with it through the centuries.

If all Atheists recognized this, and all Christians acknowledged that they are no more deserving of God’s mercy than their neighbor, oh what wonderful conversations about matters of eternal significance we could have!

C.S. Lewis’ Comment about an Atheist Writer

In a 1916 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis comments on a book that Greeves had mentioned. He says the particular volume is of little value, without remarking on the author’s work in fiction, for which he as better known.

What is most significant about this particular letter is Lewis’ reference to the writer’s atheism, and the allusion to his own. It must be remembered that Lewis would not experience his conversion to Christianity for another fifteen years!

The book you refer to is ‘How to Form a Literary Taste’ by Arnold Benett: the edition is pretty but the book is not of any value. The very title—as if you set out to ‘learn’ literature the way you learn golf—shews that the author is not a real book-lover but only a priggish hack.

I never read any of his novels & don’t want to. Have you? By the way, he is a rather violent atheist, so I suppose I shall meet him by

‘The fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon,’ as good old Spenser has it.

Before we look at Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), the author Lewis is describing, let us take a moment to consider the literary allusion Lewis includes in this passage.

“The fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon” comes from The Faerie Queene, an epic poem which was the masterpiece of Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). Various editions of the fantasy poem are available.

In Spenser’s poem, the Phlegethon is a river found in Hell. The name itself means “flaming,” and it initially appears in Greek mythology as one of the Underworld’s five rivers. In The Faerie Queene, the terrible place where “the damned ghosts in torments fry.”

While his agnosticism assumes there is no afterlife, he acknowledges he may be wrong. And, if so, it is precisely to this tragic, fiery end that the unbelieving Lewis delivers Bennett . . . and himself.

So, who was Arnold Bennett?

Bennett was a versatile writer, and found success not only as a novelist, but also in theater and journalism. He even served as the Director of Propaganda for France during WWI, even though he was English. (He had resided in France since 1903.)

He was outspoken in his view that religious faith was not for the wise. Ironically, he died of typhoid after ignoring a French waiter’s counsel not to drink the “ordinary [tap] water from a carafe,” which was unsafe.

In 1932, Bennett’s widow began editing and publishing his journals. In a review that year, a literary magazine noted his antagonism towards Christianity.

Through it all one gets the impression of a terribly self-centered personality. Perhaps the artist is necessarily self-centered, though I cannot believe that Shakespeare was.

There have been artists like Dante, like Milton, whom it would be absurd to call selfish in the usual sense of the term because, colossal as their egos were, they yet consecrated themselves and all their pride of art and pride of soul to something for which, in the final analysis, their inmost spirits cared immensely more than they cared for self or for art or for any other thing on the earth below or in the heavens above it. . . .

Probably he was as great an artist as a man can be without religion, and the measure of his greatness is to be found in his straining against the limitations he so needlessly imposed upon himself. . . .

He had nothing of the mystic in him. In a moment of illumination he declares that “there is no such thing as ugliness in the world,” but this is as far as he gets. Yet he holds out against Christianity as he holds out against what he thinks of as sentimentalism, and his wife was probably right in her feeling that he might have made a very good Christian if he had only been willing to let himself go.

Civil Atheism

It would be a good thing for us individually and as members of a pluralistic world, to treat one another with civility. As a Christian, I can confess for my brothers and sisters that we do not always do so. Let us strive to do better.

And, as for those who identify themselves as Atheists, perhaps there is some room for improvement in this area as well. If more people resisted atheism’s “reflexive antagonism toward faith,” the world would definitely become a more friendly place.

A final note for those who would read more about Bennett. G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay about morality and punishment, in which he responds to a proposal offered by Bennett that society should not “judge” criminals. You can read “The Mercy of Mr. Arnold Bennett” here.

Since it relates to our discussion here, I must share a portion of Chesterton’s witty introduction to his essay.

Mr. Arnold Bennett recently wrote one of his humorous and humane “causeries” pleading very properly for social imagination and the better understanding of our fellows. He carried it, however, to the point of affirming, as some fatalists do, that we should never judge anybody in the sense of condemning anybody, in connexion with his moral conduct.

Some time ago the same distinguished writer showed that his mercy and magnanimity were indeed on a heroic scale by reviewing a book of mine, and even saying many kind things about it.

But to these he added a doubt about whether true intelligence could be consistent with the acceptance of any dogma. In truth there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it. My only advantage over the gifted novelist lies in my belonging to the former class.

I suspect that his unconsciousness of his dogmas extends to an unconsciousness of what he means by a dogma. If it means merely the popular idea of being dogmatic, it might be suggested that saying that all dogmatism is unintelligent is itself somewhat dogmatic.

And something of what is true of his veto on dogma is also true of his veto on condemnation; which is really a veto on vetoes.

The photograph above is of a statue of Arnold Bennett unveiled this summer in his home town of Stoke-on-Trent.

20 thoughts on “Civil Atheism and C.S. Lewis

  1. I appreciate your observations and notes.
    I certainly see antagonism and often hatred or fear of some sort from the strident Atheists who fit your definition.
    I’ll have to expound later, but a godless viewpoint is one through which the viewer begins to lump all religious-related (in any form) errors when tempted. Mass-bombing: radical worshipper, wife-beating: religion-backed misogyny, etc.
    Like with politics, s/he then says all religion is in error and all is bad.
    I wonder at how many actually fall into calmer camps on both sides, as you’ve pointed out as well. Obviously, we hear the most from those yelling.

    1. Yes, those with the loudest (and most vociferous) voices are the people most commonly heard.

      You’re right about compiling all of the things we don’t like about a broader subject into an amorphous lump that is easy to revile. It’s so healthier to critique specific issues and avoid the caricatures. It’s actually more productive too, in the sense that you might actually persuade of their particular error.

      Thank you for your thoughtful words.

    1. Thank you. Some of us (myself included) need to be reminded to be charitable more frequently than others… but it sadly appears that population is growing.

      We must do what we can to reminds ourselves and others of the fact all people are made in the image of God.

  2. Hi Rob,

    And these are things we can apply now with so many people burned out of the church. We do have to approach those who have been hurt with more wisdom and compassion as believers.

    Thank you,


    1. So true. The last thing hurting people need is to have up heap on the burning coals. (Now, if the Holy Spirit deems that healing and redemption will occur via such means… God is totally free to do so.)

  3. Ah, how I have missed reading your blog!

    “the measure of his greatness is to be found in his straining against the limitations he so needlessly imposed upon himself” Oh the irony. I know from experience, though, how hard it can be to explain to some that atheism is far more restrictive on a person who truly follows it than theism, and especially Christianity. As you point out, though, there are some atheists who understand this, and I have met a couple of those, as well. Good, civil discourse is much easier with the latter, just as it is easier with Christians who are able to understand those who do not adhere to Christian doctrine are not necessarily either wicked or stupid. It’s this that tempts me towards despair as we become more and more polarized and more and more people fall to the desire to over-simplify and demean any who don’t see the world from their perspective.

    And of course I love the Chesterton incisiveness: “In truth there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it.”

    Great essay, as usual!

    1. It’s great to see you back. And I’m glad you weren’t disappointed as you returned.

      Yes, that over-simplification of one’s opponents that you refer to was sometimes illustrated in the past by building a “straw man.” I rarely hear that phrase any longer, but the practice has grown astronomically.

      1. I hear “straw man” mentioned sometimes among writers of fiction, but I don’t hear it as much in other contexts, which is a shame, as you are right. The more straw-man arguments proliferate, the less we seem to acknowledge that as a problem.

  4. Another thought provoking post.
    Hadn’t thought about it, but you are right that many atheist are darn angry that Christians exist and persist. Not able to live and let live at all.
    One thing I wish all could agree on is murder is wrong and should be stopped, and to treat others as you wish to be treated. Those two ideas just common sense for those who just can’t bring themselves to believe. A bit of common ground – a place to start anyway.

    1. Yes, the two principles you cite should be precious to all (excluding sociopaths).

      The natural law written on all human hearts by virtue of the “creation” does incline people towards these values… but human sinfulness and selfishness too frequently corrupt our view of others.

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