Mere Christianity – Chapter 1

I’m reading C S Lewis’ Mere Christianity at the moment and found myself ranting (in my head) before I’d even finished the first chapter.  Most distracting, I had to kept shutting me up and going back to read what I’d missed.  With that in mind I’d like to examine the points raised in each chapter to see if there is any merit to what he’s written. Fortunately he writes very well with some excellent examples so there are few distinct points in each chapter to confuse thing.

In chapter one Lewis argues that there are things he calls Laws of Nature that are universal for all people. This is essentially a default moral standard enjoyed by all of humanity that included compunctions against killing, stealing, rape, deceit, etc. He argues that these are not learned traits but inherent in the human condition.

There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Creeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own. Some of the evidence for this I have put together in the appendix of another book called The Abolition of Man; but for our present purpose I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to–whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put Yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.

I disagree. Although he does follow up with some neat examples that I do agree with I think he is too sweeping in his assumptions.

There are many different characteristics that human beings could be said to have. I can indeed think of a country where aggression in war is frowned upon and pacifism is considered a positive trait or even where cowardice is excused. I think that we live in societies where exploiting those weaker than us is permissible and even encouraged. Selfishness and self dependence are certainly considered to be traits of value although we do not think of self promotion in such terms.

Are there really universal human characteristics or is Lewis just making a huge assumption? Even if he’s right what does this prove?


Filed under Atheist, Debate

5 responses to “Mere Christianity – Chapter 1

  1. Our genome is our blueprint, the epigenome(?), everything outside our genome that we interact with, changes that blueprint, to one degree or another.

    I haven’t seen sufficient evidence to convince me that we are created with anything other then the will to survive. That is all a fertilized embryo wants to do.

    The environment we grow in, and our experiences in life, have a significant impact on our beliefs, and how we chose to live.

    In nature vs nurture I’ll guess it’s 50-50.

    I don’t believe that universal human characteristics exist, other then the will to survive.

  2. Hov – any neutral observer should be able to recognise that there are mutations to every ‘standard’. One can always find some exceptions to the ‘general’ Rule or ‘Law’ in Nature. You should not attempt to deny the truth of any Law simply because you can name one (or even more) exceptions. Down here on earth there is no such thing as 100% ‘perfect’ but it is ridiculous to state that there are no natural laws or inherent tendencies that are passed on from generation to generation in a species.

    Ed may have more of a point that it is ‘all’ about survival. That does seem to be a universal feature of life – even though lemmings jump of cliffs, salmon die in the attempt to return to their point of birth to spawn and repeat the species life-cycle, and some female spiders eat their partners after sex.

    I would suggest that the ‘common’ traits that have some universality between historical and geographically isolated societies probably all stem from this inbuilt desire.

    Lewis is quite rightly, in my opinion, pointing out that mankind actually has fundamentaly more reasons to think we are alike than we are different. i think that was the real point he was trying to promote – it ‘proves’ our wars and beliefs that others are too different to us to be allowed the rights to live in the way they choose are false beliefs.

    logically we should recognise that all human beings desire the following:

    the right to life. the right to a place to live in relative safety from others of our own species. the right to food and water sufficient to the first right.

    The right to have children and to sustain a population within the limits of their environment (but not exceeding it).

    the right to ‘own’ a home – either individually or communally.Home being anything from a cave, to a field to an apartment in a block dependent upon what is considered ‘normal’ in a society.

    the right to form friendships and associate with whoever we wish to the limit that it causes no direct damage to others.

    in order to satisfy these basic human ‘rights’ ( desires) it is also necesaary for a logical reasoning being to understand and agree to some fundamental responsibilities also.

    The most basic one being that your ‘rights are not to infringe on the rights of another.

    Of course that is where everything begins to fall apart.

    Mostluy we aere happy with our rights but cheat on our responsibilities… it is the ‘human’ thing to do.

    That is the reason for me to follow a more Godly directive.- even if few others in society will agree or join with me – it is what i personally believe is for the best of all concerned. 🙂


  3. Ed, Richard Dawkins explains this very clearly in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype. It isn’t so much that we have a will to survive but that we have characteristics that promote our survival and reproduction. An embryo has no mind to desire survival, not even an instinct. It is simply following pre-programmed functions. I think that the “Will” is an illusion that we cling to because it is easy to imagine conscious actions in unconscious things.

    Love, that’s the point of exceptions. You find an exception and it disproves the law. If you found a rabbit fossil in the pre-cambrian then evolution would be wrecked. By posing a Law of Nature that includes a universal morality then the exceptions disprove the law. You can’t, for example, state that there is a universal moral prohibition against eating people when there are cannibals. Nor can you claim that selfish behaviour is never applauded when corporations are applauded for selfishly hoarding profits at other people’s expense.

    How many examples that disprove the rule are required before you abandon the rule as unworkable?

    You list a whole series of imagined rights but these are personal desires. History is resplendent with examples where the right to life, the right to reproduce, the right to own anything and the right to society are ignored or blatantly restricted. Women in some countries are unable to own property at all or even allowed to be in the same room as men not belonging to their family. Clearly their “rights” are not recognised with any kind of regularity.

  4. Pingback: Mere Christianity – Chapter 2 – Some objections « The Magnificent Frog

  5. Hov –

    There are at least 27 differing definitions of the 3 letter word ‘Law’ in the English language. I am using the concepts best defined in the following moreso than an inviolable absolute, can-never-be-broken-under-any-circumstances Law – just so’s you know 🙂

    13. a rule or principle of proper conduct sanctioned by conscience, concepts of natural justice, or the will of a deity: a moral law.
    14. a rule or manner of behavior that is instinctive or spontaneous: the law of self-preservation.
    16. a principle based on the predictable consequences of an act, condition, etc.: the law of supply and demand.
    17. a rule, principle, or convention regarded as governing the structure or the relationship of an element in the structure of something, as of a language or work of art: the laws of playwriting; the laws of grammar.

    it appears to me you are mistaking basic human greed and the power of a ruling elite imposes upon the larger populace as ‘evidence’ of human behaviour that ‘breaks’ some kind of universal inviolable moral Law to which every single human must obey or the Law is not valid even if it holds true for the vast majority of free-thinking individuals.

    i was not stating that those rights (desires) were ever actually upheld all that well in any society of human beings – merely that the desires amongst the vast majority of their populations were in common, be they in America, Africa, Asia, Oceania or Europe throughout our long histories.

    i know you believe i have no reason whatsoever to – but i truly feel sorry for you.

    Unless you are simply playing Devil’s Advocate, i should hate to possess such a view of humanity that i am a part of.

    That’s possibly the reason i switched ‘camps’ from Atheist to Believer in my 30’s.
    The grass is so much greener over here 🙂

    Still – as long as it makes you happy(er) that’s all the reason we need, i guess?

    and to answer your question as to how many examples – whenever the individual cases that are PROVEN to actually break the ‘Law’ and not merely represent a poor understanding of the ‘Law’ exceeds 50% of all possible cases 🙂


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