Late last week, the New York Times reported on a new academic chair at the University of Miami. The chair will foster “the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics,” and is thought to be the first of its kind in the nation.
According to the Times, the establishment of such a chair reflects the growing number of atheist and non-religious individuals in the United States, and will seek “to make atheism legitimate.”
I was reminded of this story while reading a collection of letters from a famous former atheist known by the name of C.S. Lewis. Although raised in a Christian home, the death of Lewis’ mother and subsequent education made him abandon the faith and embrace atheistic thought as a young student.
In his young 30s, however, Lewis was confronted with a number of ideas which made him abandon atheism for theism and eventually embrace Christianity. Oddly enough, Lewis’s acceptance of Christianity grew out of his reflection on Pagan literature:
“Now what [Hugo] Dyson and [J. R. R.] Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself … I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’.”
“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that wh. God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.”
What do you think of the reasoning which convinced Lewis to abandon his former beliefs and convert to Christianity? Was there a severe error in his thought process, or does he make a convincing case?
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