A book written by C.S. Lewis and published in 1952 that comprises Lewis ideas about a basic Christian philosophy that everyone can agree upon. The ideas for the book came from a series of radio talks he gave during WWII. These talks were subsequently published in books Broadcast Talks (1942), Christian Behavior (1943), Beyond Personality (1944). Mere Christianity compiled those ideas into one book that Lewis edited the content to better reflect his later understanding of Christian doctrine.
Mere Christianity is divided into four book sections and then into chapters. The arguments are broken up into the same structure for easy reference.
Lewis's Motives for Writing the Book
- Lewis wanted to stop divisive discussion about "high Theology or even ecclesiastical history" with non-Christians because "the discussions of those disputed points has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold" (Mere Christianity, Preface viii).
- Lewis made an analogy of equating Christianity to a building: "['Mere' Christianity] is more lake a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. [...] The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms [...] is, I think, preferable" (Preface xv).
- Mere Christianity -- core values and teachings of Christianity that all denominations can agree upon
- Law of (Human) Nature -- "decent behaviour", which people have a freedom to obey or disobey. This law is created by God. (editor's note: Lewis struggles to explain this concept)
Book 1 - Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe
Chapter 1 - The Law of Human Nature
Law of Human Nature encompasses human behavior and moral codes. Lewis identifies that people have free will to obey or disobey this "Law." Also, Lewis identifies a "standard of behavior that everyone expects one another to follow."
Lewis cites the fact that the majority (if not all) societies existing know and follow the Law of Nature, as evidence for the claim that it is universal to mankind. Although, he does not say it yet, it is obvious that he is trying to set-up a platform on which he can build the notion that god is the necessary law-giver of this "Law," and the ultimate cause for its prevalence in human societies. However, Lewis fails to see that he is defeating his own argument before it even begins. If every society that exist today operate on some basic principles of morality (be compassionate, courageous, charitable, etc.; do not murder, steal, rape, etc.), and this is a profound reason as to how a society flourishes and grows, then does it not grant itself to conclude that perhaps it is not a supernatural cause which is to be credited for these moralities. Rather that societies who admire murder and theft, and scoff compassion and charity, naturally fail to organize into productive societies in the first place. And inevitably destroy themselves, or are destroyed by more socially-productive civilizations.
Like every member of the Great Ape family, humans are not solitary animals, and depend on social interactions to increase the quality of their lives and the chance of their survival. Thus, individuals who do not exhibit a moral sense, who murder and steal unscrupulously from others for example, will not be able to join any functioning society, just as any society that fails to function will itself not survive. Lewis makes the mistake, right from the first chapter, of ignoring any plausible naturalistic explanation for human morality, and falsely assumes that one has to grant him his premises of a supernatural cause for his "Law of Nature."
Chapter 2 - Some Objections
Chapter 2 begins with Lewis responding to objections made by some people, who dismiss his Law of Human Nature, aka Moral Law, aka Rule of Decent Behavior, as simply a manifestation of our instincts. Lewis tries to answer this by differentiating between our instinctive want or desire to act a certain way, and the impulse within that tells us that we ought to do the right thing: "Feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not." Yet, Lewis has no basis for this statement, besides his own assertion that it is true. What reason is there to assume that the desire to help has a separate cause than the feeling that one ought to help? Lewis makes an attempt at this objection by explaining how the latter is the thing, "which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away." Our instincts are just the smaller components, directed by the guiding element we call the Moral Law. Once again, Lewis fails to establish his case. Why exactly is it more plausible to assume that all these instinctive impulses telling us to help are the products of an independent Moral Law (independent of our instincts) even if it is not in our personal self-interest? Rather than assuming that it is just our natural instincts, providing us with the desire to help, and responding to a situation as we deduce to be appropriate without a need to appeal to any Moral Law, other than the morals we have constructed for ourselves. Especially since this naturalistic explanation accounts for why throughout history individuals almost always respond to moral dilemmas in accordance with the social mores deemed acceptable by their societies. Lewis himself plainly states that instincts, even those that make us help another, are separate from what he means by Moral Law. His failure to provide sufficient evidence as to why human instincts (which he admits can cause us to act in a certain way) cannot serve as the explanation for the occurrence of human moral decisions, as well as our subsequent rationalization of why we ought to act in a certain way, regardless of personal interest, is the result of Lewis's own unwillingness to see naturalistic alternatives to the concepts he is attempting to construct, which render his "Moral Law" redundant upon scrutiny.
Lewis continues his defense of the Moral Law by appealing to the way people conceive of morality. Our ability to compare different moral standards through time and across cultures is apparently a clear reflection that there exists some sort of greater moral absolute ("Real Morality") we are subconsciously referring towards when we make moral judgments. Otherwise, how could we be able to prefer civilized morality to savage morality, and even advance moral progress in society, if there is no such thing as an objective "Real Morality"? Like many times in the past, and many more times to come, Lewis fails to recognize the full implications of his argument, and how it refutes its own point. If there exists some "Real Morality," as a an absolute antecedent from which all people derive their personal morality, and the source of this "Real Morality" is god (no need to beat around the bush here about where this is heading, Lewis is a Christian apologist after all), then why is there any disparity in the human expression of morality at all? Why does there exist a circumstance in which we can compare Nazi morality to our liberal morality? Lewis's answer would probably fall within the realm of free will (the typical Christian response). All people are aware of the real, higher morality, but choose to ignore it for the sake of self-interest. This is a common cop-out. It ignores the fact that there exist individuals (psychopaths) born without the ability to register empathy, compassion, or any other sense of this "Real Morality" whatsoever. They are not ignoring it, they are simply devoid of this divinely implanted "Real Morality," Lewis expects us to accept as universal. Why are these certain individuals deprived of feeling this moral standard, through no fault of their own? Nothing Lewis writes here addresses this dilemma, nor does it address the issue of why proposing a Moral Law, independent of the person, serves as a better account for moral progress over time, when it is exactly what one would expect if there is no Moral Law; if moral progress is a reflection of trial and error, debate, and critical reasoning, decided on and exercised by the individuals who are to be governed by it.
In Chapter 1, Lewis describes the Law of Human Nature. Sometimes, he refers to it as the Law of Nature, which can make the first chapter confusing. Some people believe Lewis is talking about scientific laws such as Physics and Biology. This chapter is meant to be his rebuttal.
- "I conclude then, that though the differences between people's ideas of Decent Behaviour often make you suspect that there is no real natural Law of Behaviour at all, yet the things we are bound to think about these differences really prove just the opposite. But one word before I end. I have met people who exaggerate the differences, because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, "Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?" But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did-if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did. There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house."
We learn that if we believe something, the Natural Law of Behaviour supports us to take action on those beliefs. If we believe that witches exist, we have a right to give them the death penalty. We don't execute witches, anymore, because we don't believe they exist. By this philosophy, if we believe someone (or some group) was the anti-Christ, we would be justified in giving them the death penalty.
Another example if you think all Muslims are terrorists, you have a right to execute them by this moral philosophy. If you don't think all Muslims are terrorists, you don't have that right.
Witch hunts still happen in modern times in South Africa and India (see Wikipedia article "Witch-hunt"). Lewis's philosophy may justify these actions.
Lewis is advocating Christians to examine history from a perspective that if they believed the enemy is a horrible being, they have a right to put that enemy to death. Also, Lewis is advocating that we do not re-examine history from present moral philosophy.
On this point, Lewis's moral philosophy is flawed.
Chapter 3 - The Reality of the Law
In Chapter 3, Lewis expands on the ideas he started formulating in Chapter 1, namely that the Law of Human Nature (Moral Law) exists, that we all subconsciously follow, and that it is as real as the Law of Gravity.
Lewis says nothing in this chapter that he has not said already before, thus all the objections raised above still stand. Why is it more reasonable to think that the source of human morality is independent of the human mind, let alone that it is some sort of transcendent, omnipresent absolute? He claims that the evidence for the Moral Law comes from our ability to know what is right, absent of having any self-serving reason to defend why it might be the case (and adds that this holds true even if we willingly choose to ignore the Moral Law, just us being aware that we are doing wrong validates its existence). Then, he goes on to say that the Law is as real as the laws of gravity. Yet, this poses a dilemma, because when it comes to gravity, its occurrence cannot be rejected. Gravity will pull you down; it makes no difference whether you are aware of its effects, or actively deny its existence, or are aware but willingly choose to ignore what its dictates are (as Lewis claims we can do with the Moral Law), gravity will still pull you down. Lewis's claim that the existence of his Law is on par with gravity, then by all reasonable means we shouldn't be able to ignore Moral dictates (knowingly or otherwise) coming from this absolute law-giver, just as we can't ignore gravity and float up into the sky. However, according to Lewis, the only thing binding us to the Moral Law is that we are aware when we break it, thus his analogy fails entirely to hold any ground upon scrutiny. Lewis's whole motive for making the false Moral Law/Gravity comparison appears to have been more an attempt to promote his Law as equivalent to scientific laws, as a surreptitious way to avoid having to justify empirically why his Moral Law is the only plausible explanation to human moral impulses.
Lewis's main point in this Chapter is that the Moral Law is real, we didn't make it up but we feel it pressing on us. Therefore, it must come from somewhere/something else (spoiler alert: in the next chapters this "something else" will be revealed as the Christian god). Once again, it is important to repeat that Lewis seems to either be unaware or ignoring the fact that there are certain people (psychopaths) who do not feel any sense of this supposedly universal Moral Law. Many people who suffer severe head injuries have also been known to change or lose previously present behavioral developments (including such alterations to such things as empathy and compassion, which Lewis claims is the result of an external Moral Law). So, if the source of this Moral Law is external to our mental processes, why does its manifestation depend on a healthy internal brain? Unless, of course, our behaviors are entirely a manifestation of our material brains, and the chemicals and neurons firing off inside it.
Lewis again tries to subvert objections by stating that any explanation as to why we, or the societies we inhabit, behave morally, will be incoherent without admitting that there must be something beyond ourselves, yet equally real, dictating these moral behaviors. When it comes to why society behaves by the edicts of certain moral codes, the explanation given above under Chapter 1 still stands; societies that organized around ethical values that ensure the overall health and benefit of their inhabitants survive, those that don't die out. This is not the case of simply saying "decent behavior is decent behavior," (as Lewis tries to dismiss it). Decent behavior is decent, because it works, because it provides a structure that allows for the advances of a populace to occur, which is why in history behaviors that were considered decent at one time can eventually become indecent as its continued practice causes instability in the society (i.e. human sacrifices, or even animal sacrifices if they lead to famine). Just as it is also true that certain societies today still hold to practices (i.e. slavery) that many other societies would consider archaic and indecent, simply because there exists no social pressure for them to abandon it. Lewis would probably dismiss this sort of thinking as moral relativism, but in reality saying that there is no basis for an absolute Moral Law, is not the same as saying that there is no such thing as object right and wrong social behaviors. It only demands for humanity to objectively consider, interpret, and judge what sort of social mores are beneficial to society as a whole. This is precisely what we see in the moral progression of human history, where time will either dispense or foster various moral positions through trial and error; supporting that some are objectively better than others in the grand scheme of human social behavior.
Chapter 4 - What Lies Behind the Law
Chapter 5 - We have cause to be Uneasy
Book 2 - What Christians Believe
Chapter 1 - The Rival Conceptions Of God
Chapter 2 - The Invasion
Chapter 3 - The Shocking Alternative
Lewis presents the most famous argument of the book, the Liar, Lunatic or Lord "trilemma" located at the end of the chapter.