A Psychiatrist on C.S. Lewis' Apologetic as an Answer to Why Christianity Flouishes

Hi. I’m new here, but I follow this site and have a few thoughts about this topic that I haven’t seen brought up yet. I am an atheist-leaning agnostic, a former fundamentalist, and a psychiatrist, so I hope I can bring that perspective to this discussion.

What I suggest as part of the reason for the flourishing of Christianity is apologetics – but not the “conscious”, logical sort of apologetics debated on this site, but rather a more “implicit” sort, more emotional and rhetorical (in the sense of classical rhetoric), that otherwise uncritical prospective believers come across.

I recently wrote my deconversion story and, as part of that process, went back and looked at some of the apologetics that I used to find convincing. What an interesting exercise! It is fascinating to re-examine these things, now that I am a much more critical reader, and note the assertions and bad arguments I used to accept.

Most significant for me was CS Lewis (like many people), especially his Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain. Here’s what I noticed:

It is quite noteworthy, I think, that Lewis does not begin with philosophical or evidential arguments about God or the Christian Bible. He instead argues from the basic human experience of guilt. He asks his readers to consider all of the times they have acted, or thought, selfishly, or done something they knew was wrong. This is a master rhetorical move, because it gets his readers into a state of affective arousal (we are social creatures, and all experience guilt), which makes them less critical. And then he pulls a bit of slight-of-hand, which it goes without saying I did not notice at the time.

(a) He defines “sin” extraordinarily broadly, encompassing anytime we have any bit of self interest in our actions (for example, if we take any pleasure in having done something good – i.e., the fact that *I* did something good – rather than pure egoless pleasure in the fact that *good was done*, that’s sin), as well as any “primitive” emotions, such as jealously (which implies selfishness) or irrational anger (“If you are angry with your brother…”). Since human beings cannot control what they feel, then obviously, by this definition, we are all sinners.

(b) He suggests that these experiences of shame and guilt are the truest and most accurate intuitions we have, so we should heed them. They imply what kind of creature we are. There is no irrational or misplaced guilt, for Lewis.

(c) He suggests that this is only the tip of the iceberg, that we are actually much, much worse than we realize. He does not even bother to argue this. He simply states, in Problem of Pain, that once we *feel* how bad we have acted, that something about us is really awful and unforgivable, then we will begin to see how pervasively wicked we really are.

Lewis then makes another Christian assertion, which is common (not unique to Lewis) but is almost never argued: that God cannot tolerate sin. Yet this seems curious and at least would seem to require an argument. Why not? Isn’t he God? Doesn’t he tolerate our “corruption” already, while we are alive? Why does he stop after 80 or so years? Lewis does make a somewhat oblique argument for it, when he suggests that “real” love, such as God has for us, “demands the perfection of the beloved.”

Love that does not wish its object to be perfect is disinterested, and therefore not real love, according to Lewis. Yet this, too, seems curious, and is inconsistent with human relationships: we wish those we care for to be the best they can be, yet accept their foibles nonetheless, indefinitely. We even laugh about them. Its what makes us interesting! But Lewis’ readers are not likely to notice this. Now that they are convinced how utterly corrupt they “really” are, being told they are loved fiercely by God (Lewis has a stirring passage describing this) is likely to engender even more guilt and a sense of undeservedness.

Taken together, if Lewis is effective (and his popularity suggests he is very effective) then it is likely because, it can be argued, he gets his readers into emotional arousal, taps into bad feelings they have about themselves, and then convinces them that they are much worse than they think and God will not tolerate even minor imperfections.

What out does a reader have at this point but accept the cure that Lewis offers?

I think some psychology can shed some light on this process. Most schools of thought within psychology, though they differ on the details, agree that self-esteem is a learned phenomenon. We are not born knowing how to feel okay about ourselves, and feeling that we have worth. But anything that is learned, can be learned well or it can be learned poorly. Self esteem can be spotty, uneven, even in healthy people, and can be lower during times of difficulty in our lives.

Moreover, modern psychology suggests that the emotional life of young children is much different than the emotional life of adults. Consider when you are angry, as an adult, at someone you love. You may be very, very angry, spittin’ angry in fact, but somewhere, deep down, you still know (and could say, if pressed), that this person is still the same person they were, the same person you love, and still has good qualities, despite your being so angry. This sense is what children probably lack. Their emotions have a global, totalizing quality. When they are mad, that anger is, for the moment, all they know and all they have ever known. It colors their whole experiential world.

The reason is that the ability to discriminate emotions from self is also a learned behavior. In older analytic terms, it is an ego function. It takes brain maturation and good parenting to learn that what you feel at the moment is not all of who you are; feelings are part of the self but not identical with it. Thus, the upshot is that, for a young child, there is no or little difference between *feeling bad* and *being bad.*

The point here is that we all carry within us a residual sense of “inner badness” that most of us eventually learn to master, but during periods of stress and emotional upheaval, can be reactivated. Christianity has a keen sense for human frailty, and well-honed methods for rooting out any sense of imperfection we already harbor.

Lewis taps into these feelings. This sense of inner badness and (potentially) low self-esteem is ubiquitous in our development and so Lewis, in activating these feelings, presents what is essentially an emotional argument that serves as both an amplification of bad feelings, low self worth, and a solution to them.

And if we feel overwhelmingly that we are bad, worthless, and unable to help or improve ourselves, well then what option to de have except to accept the “rescue” of a larger-than-life figure such as Jesus?

My proposed solution to this focuses much more on emotional health than on the more cognitive arguments that many atheists gravitate toward. We should be teaching our children – perhaps in schools? – how to deal with their emotions. How do you recognize when you are upset, or hurting? How do you seek support when you need it? How do you ask for and get what you need from others, effectively? How do you make, and keep, friends? How do you make yourself feel good about yourself? What do you do when you get mad, or sad, or lonely, or upset? How do you “regulate” emotions, as psychotherapists say? These are skills that many of us learn, imperfectly, as part of growing up, from watching others and trial-and-error, but they can also be taught explicitly. I think we can make people much more resistant to Christianity or any other form of ideological indoctrination, not only by making them more adept at critical thinking, but more adept at managing their emotional lives. We can impede Christianity by getting people to need it less.

So, my basic idea is this: critical thinking is extremely important. But it goes out the window when emotional needs are not being met. We need to teach people how to take care of themselves emotionally. Psychotherapists know how to do this. I’m not saying everyone needs therapy; these are skills that could be taught in a classroom.

I apologize for the length of this post, but this material is hard to summarize quickly.

I’m interested in hearing others thoughts!

Posted from Richard M

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