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An Atheist's Perspective
Among the many regrets which are piling up in my life, is my limited time to participate in discussions.
At times, I mean to drop by and comment, but even that seems to elude me. But today, I happened to be on the phone with one of the author's Chimham has published and he had a question about a quote in C. S. Lewis' Surprised by Joy. I thought I would share some quotes from it with the BT community, mainly because the idea of reading books which do not agree with one's beliefs is a good thing to do and one with which I agree.
It was here that I first read a volume of Chesterton's essays. I had never heard of him and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me. It might have been expected that my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of all authors. It would almost seem that Providence, or some "second cause" of a very obscure kind, quite over-rules our previous tastes when It decides to bring two minds together. Liking an author may be as involuntary and improbable as falling in love. I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. His humour was of the kind which I like best--not "jokes" imbedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure), a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humour which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the "bloom" on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly. For the critics who think Chesterton frivolous or "paradoxical" I have to work hard to feel even pity; sympathy is out of the question. Moreover, strange as it may seem, I liked him for his goodness. I can attribute this taste to myself freely (even at that age) because it was a liking for goodness which had nothing to do with any attempt to be good myself. I have never felt the dislike of goodness which seems to be quite common in better men than me. "Smug" and "smugness" were terms of disapprobation which had never had a place in my critical vocabulary. I lacked the cynic's nose, the odora canum vis or bloodhound sensitivity for hypocrisy or Pharisaism. It was a matter of taste: I felt the "charm" of goodness as a man feels the charm of a woman he has no intention of marrying. It is, indeed, at that distance that its "charm" is most apparent.
In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere--"Bibles laid open, millions of surprises," as Herbert says, "fine nets and stratagems." God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.
In my own battalion also I was assailed. Here I met one Johnson (on whom be peace) who would have been a lifelong friend if he had not been killed. He was, like me, already a scholar of an Oxford college (Queen's) who hoped to take up his scholarship after the war, but a few years my senior and at that time in command of a company. In him I found dialectical sharpness such as I had hitherto known only in Kirk, but coupled with youth and whim and poetry. He was moving towards Theism and we had endless arguments on that and every other topic whenever we were out of the line. But it was not this that mattered. The important thing was that he was a man of conscience. I had hardly till now encountered principles in anyone so nearly of my own age and my own sort. The alarming thing was that he took them for granted. It crossed my mind for the first time since my apostasy that the severer virtues might have some relevance to one's own life. I say "the severer virtues" because I already had some notion of kindness and faithfulness to friends and generosity about money--as who has not till he meets the temptation which gives all their opposite vices new and more civil names? But it had not seriously occurred to me that people like ourselves, people like Johnson and me who wanted to know whether beauty was objective or how Aeschylus handled the reconciliation of Zeus and Prometheus, should be attempting strict veracity, chastity, or devotion to duty. I had taken it that they were not our subjects. There was no discussion between us on the point and I do not think he ever suspected the truth about me. I was at no pains to display it. If this is hypocrisy, then I must conclude that hypocrisy can do a man good. To be ashamed of what you were about to say, to pretend that something which you had meant seriously was only a joke--this is an ignoble part. But it is better than not to be ashamed at all. And the distinction between pretending you are better than you are and beginning to be better in reality is finer than moral sleuthhounds conceive. I was, in intention, concealing only a part: I accepted his principles at once, made no attempt internally to defend my own "unexamined life". When a boor first enters the society of courteous people what can he do, for a while, except imitate the motions? How can he learn except by imitation?
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Re: An Atheist's Perspective
His humour was of the kind which I like best--not "jokes" imbedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure), a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humour which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather...
That's interesting to read. The way in which Chesterton's humor translated into faulty arguments was what turned me away from Chesterton. Elegant and flowery and fun to read, but go elsewhere if we want the critical truth.
_________________ “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.” - Douglas Adams
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Re: An Atheist's Perspective
Thanks for sharing this piece, Stahrwe. I enjoyed reading it.
Chesterton's a good writer, but neither he or C.S. Lewis have any particular authority on matters of metaphysical belief. Chesterton simply articulates his own beliefs, which happened to resonate with C.S. Lewis. That C.S. Lewis once considered himself an atheist doesn't matter that much in the grand scheme of things either. I would suspect that many people change their core beliefs as they get older.
Chesterton once said : "If there were no God, there would be no Atheists." I would amend this to say "Without belief in God, there would be no atheists. Indeed, atheism is largely a reaction to our culture's uncritical acceptance of a supernatural being.
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