The Skeptic’s Guide to C.S. Lewis“A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “cannot be too careful of his reading.” Authors like G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald dislodged Lewis’s youthful incredulity. Lewis’s advice to the young atheist: be careful what you read. You may end up being consistent enough to be skeptical of your skepticism.
Since I teach a class on Lewis I often get the question, “What Lewis book(s) should I recommend to my atheist friend?”. It’s a really good question, particularly since some Christians have described C.S.L. as making it possible for them to be an intellectually fulfilled believer.
But I always give the caution that some “free-thinkers” are not very free at all. No amount of book recommendations can change someone who really isn’t open-minded. But the good news is that Jesus likened the Spirit to the wind. It blows wherever it pleases. Its work cannot be predicted or controlled. The aim of our prayers should be for the work of the Spirit.
But, humanly speaking, some are so set in their positions that, whether they acknowledge this or even recognize it at all, it is nearly impossible to have a rational conversation with them on these topics. They are usually in the vein of disgruntled or militant atheists, the ones most likely to leave angry messages on blogs and spout anti-religion rhetoric on social media. I’ve found little traction for meaningful conversations about even peripheral issues related to theism with this group.
But there are those who are sincerely seeking Truth who are open to dialogue. You probably won’t find them on a message board, but you might live next to them, meet them in a coffee shop, or even visit with them at your summer family reunion. For this group I would offer some books to consider the Christian view of reality as described by C.S. Lewis.
- Why is C.S. Lewis such a big deal?
For the skeptic wondering why C.S. Lewis is so influential, they could check out some of his more popular books like the Narnia stories. Pick up The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and make it part of your summer reading. See why the well known author, and self-described atheist, Laura Miller, says this is the book that most impacted her childhood which she outlines in her book, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventure in Narnia.
- Was he a credible scholar?
Quick answer: yes. Recently I had a conversation with a friend who is finishing his Ph.D. in Classics at Harvard University and he described C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost as one of the best works of literary criticism he has ever read. For the more literary skeptic some of Lewis’s works like The Oxford History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century or The Allegory of Love might be of interest. For those less interested, rest assured that Lewis had some impressive academic chops and he was (and is) well respected in his field.
- How can an intelligent person find Christianity compelling?
I try to ask this question in reference to atheism. Why would a smart and winsome person find a worldview devoid of God convincing? I try to read a number of books written by skeptics and find this is helpful to keep me from painting them with a broad brush from a million miles away.I would encourage the same thing from an authentic agnostic. What made Christianity so appealing to Lewis?
To answer this you should really start with Lewis’s own description found in his autobiographical work Surprised by Joy. Lewis also penned an allegorical account of his philosophical conversion to Christianity in The Pilgrim’s Regress. Finally, I think Lewis’s talks given during WWII, published years later as Mere Christianity, outline the Christian worldview from Lewis’s point of view.
- How would Lewis respond to the brand of atheism popular today?
That’s an easy one. He did. The brand of atheism popular in our day is not that different from what Lewis encountered. One of my favorite of Lewis’s writings, as it relates to giving a clear defense of the Christian faith, is Miracles. My favorite passage in all of Lewis’s writings is from chapter fourteen, “The Grand Miracle.” I would also add, don’t read too quickly over chapter three, “The Self-Contradiction of the Naturalist.” Though he later changed the title of this chapter, his line of argument is still pervasive today and even led the NYU professor Thomas Nagel, an atheist, to publish a book through Oxford University Press conceding several of its implications.
- I’m not in the mood for debate, what is something from Lewis I can simply read for enjoyment?
I’m not sure I’ve ever been asked that question in that way, but since I’m making the list I suppose I can formulate the questions however I want. Fair enough? Reading for enjoyment and not argumentation? You might consider Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy, The Screwtape Letters, or my favorite, Lewis’s retelling of the Cupid myth in the book Till We Have Faces. You will certainly find Lewis’s Christian worldview in these works, but I think you will enjoy them nonetheless. Millions of other readers certainly have.
The philosopher Blaise Pascal once remarked, “Few men speak humbly of humility, chastely of chastity, skeptically of skepticism.” I hope this short guide to Lewis helps give you a sense for why he is quoted so much by so many. And maybe you will get a glimpse into the reasons why Lewis found in Christianity a view of the world that for him brought everything into focus. Maybe you will understand why Lewis would describe his Christian faith with sentences like this one, “”I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”