Why do atheists become Christians? Usually the answer is something as prosaic as fear or as human as loneliness. On occasion though, the boundary between a life of reasoned disbelief and one of earnest worship is elusive, and the shift happens over time in several complex, psychologically fraught stages. By peering into the layering of such moments, we can learn much about the mentality of nonbelief and how better to weather our own storms and temptations.
C. S. Lewis was for the first thirty-one years of his life a determined atheist in the best Victorian tradition. But he lurched ultimately into the arms of Christianity and became its most earnest defender. To understand how that happened, we have to first realize that the age of Victoria was also very much the age of atheism. The arrival of German biblical criticism in the mid-nineteenth century released a torrent of fervent unbelief across the British Isles that rose to an irresistible pitch with the coming of Charles Darwin. It was the time not only of George Eliot and John Stuart Mill, of Richard Congreve and Harriet Martineau, but of the droves of followers who inundated them all with letters asking for advice about how to live in a world without God.
The amazing thing was that, unlike the twentieth century—which mourned its loss of faith in volume upon volume of overwrought idealization—the nineteenth was much more in tune with our own current sense of excitement over the possibilities of a world freed from myth. This was the intellectual climate into which C. S. Lewis was born in 1898. His father was religious, but his teachers and confidants had read enough of their Feuerbach and sampled sufficiently from the new field of comparative religion to take it as a given that Christianity was one voice among many, or as Lewis himself put it, “The impression that I got was that religion in general, though utterly false, was a natural growth, a kind of endemic nonsense into which humanity tended to blunder. In the midst of a thousand religions, stood our own, the thousand and first, labelled True. But on what grounds could I believe this exception?”
In spite of spending three decades in the attempt, he would never adequately answer this question of his youth. (This is one of the most difficult things to understand when reading the memoirs of former atheists—how they are able to continue in their belief in spite of failing so markedly in confronting the most basic questions from their period of skepticism.)
The answer is, of course, that it’s not about the arguments. It’s about the willingness of an individual to accept the idea that what he or she wants to be true is true. That willingness is directly proportional to the strength of one’s desires as against the force of one’s intellectual commitment. For Lewis, desire was, from an early age, his guiding light.
At the age of eight, his mother died. His father, crushed by the loss, sent Lewis and his brother to boarding school, leaving them to deal with their grief amongst strangers as best they could. It was a devastating decision, and it sent Lewis on a lifelong quest for a replacement mother figure. He eventually found her in his teen years in the form of a woman two decades his senior who would be both lover and mother to him.
Lewis’s desire for motherly attention overrode all other considerations and kept him firmly in an atheism of convenience, at first. That same mother-yearning would, in the long term, have its part in pushing him into Christianity, the merely earthly Mrs. Moore never quite measuring up to the ideal of motherhood he had built up in a decade of youthful loneliness.
The loss of his mother in itself, however, would not have been enough to push him to belief. No, it was a desire based in the strongest of human chemicals—guilt—that performed that office. While Lewis was off at college, his father fell deeper and deeper into alcoholism and could not be stirred to leave his home even to see Lewis off to war in 1917. The bitterness over his father’s continued emotional neglect—expressed in scathing letters to his brother Warren—was made doubly keen when paired with fiscal resentment. The fact that his father’s financial support was the only thing that allowed him to lead his ideal scholarly life with his lover/mother stand-in became a defining dynamic of his life, and it blew up in his face in 1929 when his father suddenly died.
Lewis attempted to downplay that moment in his memoirs, likewise his attachment to Janie Moore. As Lewis scholar A. N. Wilson charitably notes, “by the time he came to write Surprised by Joy, his way of looking at himself had become so idiosyncratic that he was not able to see the significance of these two relationships in his religious, as well as his whole emotional, development.” But the feelings of guilt were profound, and the desire for a return to an idealized childhood was irresistible. When it came time to sell their father’s house, Lewis and his brother could not bear the idea of their childhood toys going into a strange child’s hands, so they took the psychologically illuminating step of burying them in the backyard of their father’s home. For the rest of his life, Lewis would be obsessed with children’s literature and indeed anything that evoked the possibility of return to a romanticized past.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that shortly after his father’s death (the same year, 1929, according to Wilson, or 1930, according to McGrath), Lewis also declared himself at last a believer in God. He was supported in his developing Christianity by J. R. R. Tolkien, who shared Lewis’s fascination with myth and his gut feeling that those myths contained the real truth of the world. Tolkien and other Oxford acquaintances worked on Lewis over the next two years, feeding him their own over-eloquent but under-rigorous thoughts on why, after all, it was intellectually all right to admit the truth first of myth, and then, that wall broken down, of Christian mythology.
Lewis, stuck in a relationship that never quite filled the gaps of his childhood loss, racked with guilt about his relationship with his departed father, and hungering for the ideal of a lost age, was easy prey at that point. His intellect was powerful, but his desires were several orders of magnitude more so, and it was only a matter of time before the former gave way. From there, the causal chains were forged. What he wanted to be true became what he felt to be true—which became, through the neat mechanism of myth veneration, what was true.
Of course, Lewis fundamentally knew that he had taken a dreadful intellectual shortcut; much of his later writing is wrapped up in the cause of throwing us off the scent. Besides giving glaringly minimal coverage to the death of his father and his decades-long romance, he also is at pains to continually assert how hard acceptance of Christianity is in its first stages, how much it is against what one wants most. In order to obscure the desire-laced origins of his own belief, Lewis protests a bit too much about how anti-desire one’s first steps in Christianity are, how they are about renouncing one’s mere wants in the face of fundamental moral good. That was not the case with Lewis, as he was most likely aware, but the danger to his Christian apologetics was such that he was forced to keep his true origin story concealed.
The lad who read medieval epics and Norse sagas and swooned to their simple codes could not live with the idea that they were all merely stories—there had to be fundamental truth there, and not just human truth but universal and miraculous truth. In explaining his belief in the truth content of miraculous religion to an imagined skeptical reader, Lewis states: “I am going to distinguish between th
e ‘core’ or ‘real meaning’ of [religious] doctrines from that in their expression which I regard as inessential . . . but then, what will drop away from the ‘real meaning’ under my treatment will precisely not be the miraculous. It is the core itself, the core scraped as clean of inessentials as we can scrape it, which remains for me entirely miraculous, supernatural—nay, if you will, ‘primitive’ and even ‘magical.’”
Myth is truth, and magic is real. Christianity is what allowed Lewis to finally believe in this, the greatest yearning of his heart, while also clearing up the whole matter of his lost parents and the associated swirling emotions. There was too much to be gained by letting himself fall into the arms of Christianity and only cold intellectual virtue to be had in resisting.
Of course, he would go on to insist that his decision was actually quite intellectually consistent, and his books are still quoted as the great examples of intellectually consistent Christian thought. He tried, with bluster and bullying eloquence, to pound his ideas into the shape of something mildly rigorous. His attempts, only just adequate at the time, appear irresponsibly clumsy now. The Moral Law argument (we have a sense of right and wrong, and, therefore, God exists) was inadequate enough in 1943, when he made it the centerpiece of Mere Christianity in the face of mounting biological, psychological, and philosophical insight into the sources of man’s morality. Today, it reads as just astoundingly wrong, given everything we have learned since about primatology, neurology, and genetics (though that hasn’t dissuaded modern apologists such as William Lane Craig from reverentially trotting it out in substantially the same form as Lewis debuted it.)
It would have taken a small act of imagination to find alternate explanations for the phenomena Lewis catalogued, but he was at a point—his psychological need for Christianity to be true so overwhelming—that he was unwilling to make any imaginative leaps that he couldn’t easily dismiss. And that is the great irony—the man who entered Christianity in order to bathe once more in what he took to be the wellspring of human imagination and creativity had to cut his own imaginative capacities to tatters to do so.
To join the Christian fold required sacrificing what could be the case for what ought to be the case. And when you trade could for ought, it infects irrevocably the scope of your imaginative process. Go ahead, pull your copy of The Chronicles of Narnia off the shelf now. What you’ll find there is a man of tremendous fancy engaged in the act of bludgeoning it until it fits the mold of “ought.”
It has been fifty years since the death of C. S. Lewis, and in many ways his successor has yet to be found. That mixture of scholarship with élan, whimsical yearning with intellectual inflexibility, is still the wellspring for much popular American theology. His thoughts continue to be treated as the last word when it comes to Christianity being an intellectually defensible position.
But it was not, in spite of all his overbearing posturing to the contrary, an intellect-derived Christianity in the least. It was the long-delayed cry of a small boy who wanted to be safe and secure at last in a better world that surely, surely must exist. In light of that it is, I think, a generally good thing that mainstream atheism, when evaluating the content of religious life, is including considerations of the neuroscience of intellectual addiction along with its traditional tools of philosophical argumentation. When we use all of these approaches to understand extreme cases in which psychological need rushes and overwhelms the ramparts of reason, we clear the way not only for a better understanding of the religious mind but for a better nourishing and support of our own humanist community.
There is no shortage of books about C. S. Lewis out there, but most are written by evangelicals or others of their spiritual ilk attempting to whitewash his psychological quirks to portray a story of true Christian conversion (Devin Brown’s A Life Observed being but the most recent). The source I quoted above, A. N. Wilson’s C. S. Lewis: A Biography (W. W. Norton and Company, 2002), is a psychologically astute work that gives Lewis credit for his intellectual abilities while also recognizing his myriad foibles and so is a great starting point for anybody interested in plumbing the depths of Lewis’s conversion process.
Dale Debakcsy contributes regularly to The Freethinker, The New Humanist, Philosophy Now, and American Atheist magazine. He is also the writer and artist for the weekly atheist web comic The Vocate and is the coauthor, with Geoffrey Schaeffer, of the graphic novel Light Opera and Heavy Consequences and the upcoming A Collective of Unconscionables.