I recently finished listening to Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis — a book that’s considered one of the best and most accessible Christian apologetics. Robert Price once said on his podcast that he has an inexplicable admiration for Lewis, that even though Price agrees with nothing Lewis says he still somehow appreciates him.
I agree somewhat with Price. I have a love-hate relationship with the more intellectual religious apologists. On the one hand, I appreciate their level of discourse being higher than most religion-talk. On the other, I find arguments for religion even more ludicrous if they’re being made by someone intelligent. Sometimes Lewis made me cringe even more than Ray Comfort. Comfort’s bad arguments can be explained by ignorance, but someone like Lewis is actively misusing intellectual enterprise.
Although Lewis sounds like a very reasonable chap, he uses a particularly dubious trick when giving advice on leading a Christian life. He likes to say that a certain part of Christianity (eg. a theological concept) is to be considered a useful tool for those who are ready to understand it and no more. For instance: “This idea has helped me a good deal. If it does not help you, leave it alone.” To a Christian listener, it sounds like he’s being quite progressively non-dogmatic. To me as the outsider, it simply looks like a trick to stop a believer from questioning an aspect of Christianity that doesn’t make sense today.
Lewis on Sexuality
I’ll leave his argument for Christianity from morality for an upcoming post. Today I’d like to disect his stance on sexuality. Lewis says that the teachings of Christianity on sex are “so contrary to our instincts, that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong” [Source]. It’s not hard to fathom what his conclusions as a Christian are. However, rather than dismiss it as sex-negative dogma, it is interesting to see the next paragraphs:
But I have other reasons for thinking so. The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological purpose of eating is to repair the body. Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined and just as much as we want, it is quite true that most of us will eat too much: but not terrifically too much. One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten. The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously. But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function.
Or take it another way. You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act-that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?
Fisking Lewis’s Secular Arguments
- Even assuming all he says is true, it’s still a very blatant naturalistic fallacy. Even if nature “intended” something and our appetites are way above this “intent”, so what? Eating an ice-cream is over-indulging your taste buds beyond their “purposes” (they have evolved to find even a small piece of sweet fruit a treat). Without assuming Christianity, this can’t be declared as “wrong”.
- Even from a biological perspective, as per a previous post, sex is not [just] for children. It’s more like reproduction being “for” children whilst the sexual desire is in a roundabout way for reproduction AND pair bonding, pleasure, social cohesion, stress relief etc etc.
- As a counterargument, one man may eat enough for two but nature made it IMPOSSIBLE to eat for 10. This is not the case for sex. Therefore, if we were to reverse Lewis’s naturalistic fallacy, we might say that “overdoing” sex isn’t harmful since there is no mechanism to prevent it. This argument is just as silly as Lewis’s but has a very similar format.
- As for Lewis’s bacon strip show analogy, this is exactly what all our cooking shows, cookbooks, celebrity chefs, restaurants, restaurant reviewers, social food movements, meals as excuses for social gatherings, meals as social occasions, comfort food, eating to relieve stress and depression and farmers’ markets do. In fact it’s the perfect example for a natural instinct that is complex — and which goes on to acquire secondary purposes! In fact the recent term “food porn” suggests a stunning similarity between this and sex. But why would enjoying the secondary effects of something mean your appetite is broken?
- Finally, it would be very strange for an instinct to be broken in humans but the identical instinct not to be broken in non-human animals. Or would Lewis say that the sexual instincts of bonobos (who are avid bisexual orgygoers) is broken? What of other animals? No, Lewis needs Christianity for his argument because it is only then that he can say that humans have a special purpose Handed From Above in the exact same situation where animals don’t.
- Of course this isn’t saying that a natural instinct is good, or that our sexual instincts can’t be overindulged to the point where they’re harmful, etc. But the instinct itself can’t be broken. Also, there’s no moral relation between the quantity of a behaviour as it has originally evolved and the quantity we engage in to fulfill secondary purposes.
The title of Lewis’s book comes from him wanting to defend “mere Christianity”, as opposed to a particular Christian theology. From his use of the biology of sex, we can see though that he is largely informed by his Christian beliefs. His secular arguments are a result of [inadvertent?] distortions as he aims to make reality fit his Christianity. Not that we don’t all do it. But the point is that on closer inspection, even a seemingly sophisticated argument like Lewis’s is just another sex-negative rant. But when we point out the flaws in religious sex-arguments, we are at least helping defend “mere sexuality”.