Book Review: Richard Dawkins, C.S. Lewis and the Meaning of Life

You will, I hope, have read in my last book review how much of a challenge I found Miracles by C.S. Lewis.

I don’t want to shy away from this challenge, rather I want to begin to push further into it and really allow myself to begin to explore the various elements it will raise as I go.

I read a biography on C.S. Lewis a decade or so ago by Alister McGrath and found it really interesting. You can find it here. I will no doubt pick it up again soon and spend some time working through it along with other works by Mr Lewis. Alistair McGrath is an English Theologian based at Oxford University. He has a very clear and accessible writing style and a really good demeanour when debating or talking. A good example of this is the following video (sorry about the resolution):

Anyway, I picked up this short book (it took me two hours to read) straight after reading Miracles. The world view that Richard Dawkins talks about is one that I have held to very tightly in recent months. How can we explain anything without evolution? It gives us everything, our morals, our reason, our purpose, our stories. As mentioned in the last book review C.S. Lewis stole away this narrative and left a hope on the air that I did not expect to be able to smell in this place of disbelief.

Richard Dawkins holds to a ‘Universal Darwinism’ or ‘scientism’ (not to be mistaken for Scientology). There is no divinity, no substrate other than that which is natural and tangible. We are here by chance, not by the order of a divine being and if there was a divine being it would be hopeless to work out who He was or what He wanted when you simply look at the vast array of religious beliefs in the world throughout history.

C.S. Lewis also believes in evolution, along with the value of science. But, and this is a crucial difference, for C.S. Lewis science tells you what something is made of, not what something is. Alister McGrath expresses this beautifully in this book when he writes… ‘Yet they are fundamentally different. Lewis highlights this point in his Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace Scrubb proudly shows off his scientific knowledge of astronomy to Ramandu, an old man who lives on an island at the eastern edge of the world of Narnia. ‘In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’ The old man was not impressed: ‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.’ McGrath, Alister. Richard Dawkins, C.S. Lewis and the Meaning of Life. SPCK. Kindle Edition (all quotes in quote marks taken from this book).

What Mr McGarth expresses here, for me, sums up the message Mr Lewis tries to explain in so much of his work. We are far more than the segments that make us up. There is also the beautiful ability of Mr Lewis (which Alister McGrath reflects on within this book) to break through the narratives we tell ourselves via imagery and story. Something that J.R.R. Tolkien helped Lewis to explore and utilise. The story that grabs you by the heart does so not just because it is a good story, but because within it there are elements that are real, and this sets the wind into our sails. It’s an interesting idea, maybe one people refuse to sit with and think for a while all the same.

Another very interesting element to this book is how Mr McGrath explores the things we take on faith within both the atheist framework and the Christian. ‘You can prove shallow truths such as 2 + 2 = 4. But our really deep and significant beliefs lie beyond proof, and we have to learn to live with this. It is interesting to note how often Dawkins’s New Atheist colleague Christopher Hitchens makes criticisms of theism that often rest on unproved moral values, which he appears to assume will be shared by his readers and seen as self-evidently correct. Yet these values, like theism itself, turn out to be unproved and unprovable.’ I would usually argue here that my values arise in me from my altruism, which in turn is within me and attuned due to evolution, at its base. But this is just an assumption. My values could have arisen due to this, but could they actually be here due to another cause completely?

Carrying on the faith motif, Alister McGrath goes on to say, ‘We need to sound a note of caution here. Religion is often framed solely in terms of beliefs about God, overlooking its equally significant beliefs about the dignity and destiny of human beings. Faith is not simply a set of doctrines about the transcendent but a set of commitments about how we understand and respond to our fellow human beings.’ Faith enables action. We all do this, we believe that A is better than B, so we pick A. We all ground our actions within our world, but the place we think they are grounded upon is irrelevant. We might be completely wrong about why we think A is better than B, but A is still better than B. Is this chance? I don’t think so. I think it all comes down to what we allow to be the cause of A being better than B if indeed it is.

There is a minimum that Dawkins and Lewis adhere to, though both are placed within very different worldviews. I know the Dawkins minimum well, I have said them in emails, podcasts, conversations and online forums. I have seen them stated as fact, which helped to re-affirm my own desires. For right and wrong to be concepts we create to set a course for life.

Do humans hold the keys to the true answers? We seem to push science as the vehicle that allows us to cut this key, but we still require our minimum to provide a basis for our stance. The universe is very complex, as is each and every one of the lives of the readers of this blog. ‘As a younger man, Lewis had been haunted by a deep intuition that his minimalist atheism failed to do justice to the complexities of the universe.’ For me, this makes sense.

Maybe it’s just because I found Miracles to be so enthralling and I will fall away from this in a few more weeks and look back on these words and laugh. There is so much in this world, in my life and the lives of loved ones that seem so very exceptional if there isn’t something deeper at work here.

Sure, I understand this could just be my desire for a hope that is deeper than an atheistic worldview would allow.

‘Although Dawkins and Lewis reach quite different conclusions, their lines of argument are surprisingly similar. Each is asking which way of thinking seems to fit in better with our observations. The question is resonance or consonance between theory and observation, not proof of theory by observation. In the end, these two thinkers reach different judgements about God, yet by similar intellectual trajectories; neither of their positions is proved or provable. Sometimes the best theory is complicated and needs to be judged by its empirical adequacy – in other words, its ability to make sense of what we observe and experience. That’s one of the main reasons why I moved away from atheism to Christianity. It seemed to me that atheism didn’t really help me make sense of the complexities of our world or human experience, whereas Christianity did.’

To close, the ‘battle’ between science and religion (in the case of Christianity) has been one that has been fought for a very long time. I am one of those who doesn’t think there is a battle, much to the shock of many a none believing friend. This is a really interesting 3-episode series from the BBC by Nick Spencer looking at science and religion. It’s well worth a listen, as it asks some very tough questions that bring into doubt a lot of what I hear none believers saying about the place of religion within science.

_End of Blog Blurb_

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. It has taken me a few years to get to a place where I am able to share my loss of faith and to start writing about the journey that I am still on for you all. I hope you find it useful.

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Podcast: If you like what you read then you could always check out the podcast ‘When Belief Dies’, it is available on all major podcasting platforms or you can listen/watch via YouTube. I upload and publish via Anchor FM each Wednesday at 7 am. For early access, support me on Patreon.

Grammar, spelling, capitalisation and punctuation: I am massively dyslexic. It has taken me years to get to the level I am currently at with writing and I have done this mainly through reading. I want to be better and ask you, reader, to please forgive any errors in my writing. I hope you notice improvement upon improvement over the coming years.

Time Frame: This blog is roughly twelve to twenty-four months behind where I currently am in my journey out of religion. It’s important to remember that when reading and commenting.

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I’ll see you back here at the same time next week 🙂

-Sam

When Belief Dies #71 – 'Connection to Nature' with Sam Gandy When Belief Dies

This week Sam is joined by Sam Gandy. The video version of this conversation can be found here on our YouTube channel 12 hours after the audio version goes live. Dr Sam Gandy is a lifelong nature lover and has been fortunate enough to conduct ecological field research in various parts of the world. He is a PhD ecologist, researcher and science writer, and has experience of working within the psychedelic field, as a past scientific assistant to the director of the Beckley Foundation, and currently as a  research assistant with the Synthesis Institute.  He is also a collaborator with the Centre for Psychedelic Research at  Imperial College London, with a research interest in the capacity of psychedelics to influence our connection to nature. In this conversation, we talk about the importance of connecting back to nature, psychedelics, depression, consciousness and end of life care. You can find/follow Sam:   Twitter Sam's Research Gate profile, where his psychedelic publications can be found (all open access and accessible), click here. Sam's nature orientated writing.   Sam's more psychedelic leaning articles. We hope you enjoy our show. When Belief Dies aims to honestly reflect on faith, religion and life. Your support via Patreon enables us to cover the costs of running this show and look to the future to make things even better as we build upon what we already have in the works. Please take a look and consider giving. Alternatively, you can support the show with a one-off gift via PayPal. Use the following link to navigate to the website, to find us on social media and anywhere else we might be present online. #Podcast #Deconstruction #God #Agnostic #Christian #Atheism #Apologetics #Audio #Question #Exvangelical #Deconversion #SecularGrace #Exchristian
  1. When Belief Dies #71 – 'Connection to Nature' with Sam Gandy
  2. Big Update (Welcome Kirsty!)
  3. When Belief Dies #70 – 'So it begins…' with Roger Bretherton
  4. When Belief Dies #69 – 'Through the Looking-Glass' with Bryan Todd
  5. When Belief Dies #68 – 'An exchange of monologues…' with Daniel Kelly

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