NOTES on C. S. Lewis (1898-1963): On Obstinacy in Belief

In his essay “On Obstinacy in Belief,” C. S. Lewis argues that religious beliefs are not like scientific hypotheses. In particular, he is concerned with the nature of belief in God after that belief has been established and the believer is involved in a personal relationship with God. Lewis believes that the initial decision to believe in God is based on evidence, including the evidence of history, religious experience, and authority. He also believes that one may continue to believe in the goodness of God despite such negative evidence as the existence of evil.

Of course, Lewis believes that the balance of positive and negative evidence supports belief in God. In his essay, he mentions and argues against a number of arguments against belief in God, then states, “I will never believe that an error [the ‘error’ of believing in God] against which so many and various defensive weapons have been necessary was, from the outset, wholly lacking in plausibility. All this ‘post haste and rummage in the land’ obviously implies a respectable enemy.”

Lewis begins his paper by talking about two kinds of belief other people have written about:

1) The scientific attitude toward belief, in which the scientist carefully considers the evidence before him, and

2) The Christian attitude toward belief, in which it is praiseworthy to believe even in the face of negative evidence.

In his essay, Lewis will show that the scientist and the Christian are much closer in their attitudes toward belief than they might at first suppose. Before doing this, though, Lewis attempts to clear up some misunderstandings about belief. He writes, “Scientists are mainly concerned not with believing things but with finding things out. And no one, to the best of my knowledge, uses the word ‘believe’ about things they have found out.” According to Lewis, a scientific hypothesis is not a belief. To find out how a scientist really regards belief, we can’t look at the scientist in his laboratory; instead, Lewis writes, we must look at the scientist during his leisure hours.

In analyzing the verb “believe,” Lewis writes that it expresses two degrees of opinion. Often, it expresses a weak degree of opinion, as in talking about the weather: “I believe it will rain today.” If it doesn’t rain today, I doubt if the person will be much upset (unless the person is a farmer suffering from a drought).

There are two cases in which the degree of opinion of “believe” is strong. One is belief in a person. Someone may tell you that your best friend has just robbed a liquor store. You, based on your opinion of your friend’s character, exclaim, “I don’t believe it!” The other case in which the degree of opinion of “believe” is strong is when a Christian says “I believe God exists” and “I believe God is good.”

In these two cases, Lewis says, “We are speaking of belief and disbelief in the strongest degree but not of knowledge. Belief, in this sense, seems to me to be assent to a proposition which we think so overwhelmingly probable that there is a psychological exclusion of doubt, though not a logical exclusion of doubt.”

Other beliefs besides religious beliefs are this strong. Beliefs about our friends and family are often like this. Consider this case supposed by Lewis: To go back to the scientist, if someone were to suggest that the scientist’s wife were unfaithful, we would consider him a good man if he resisted the suggestion. If, instead, he were to set a series of traps by which to discover whether his wife was faithful or unfaithful, we would consider him blameworthy: He ought to have had more faith in his wife. (This is not to say that all wives — or husbands — are faithful; at some point an accumulation of negative evidence could make it ridiculous to believe in a wife’s — or a husband’s — fidelity.)

Religious beliefs are even stronger than the faith that men ought to have in their wives. As Lewis writes, “I am far from suggesting that the case I have supposed is exactly parallel to the Christian obstinacy. … the Christians seem to praise an adherence to the original belief which holds out against any evidence whatever. I must now try to show why such praise is in fact a logical conclusion from the original belief itself.”

To do so, Lewis writes about a number of situations in which someone is asked to have faith in us; these situations are analogous to the situation of the human being who is asked to believe in God. As Lewis writes, “There are times when we can do all that a fellow creature needs if only he will trust us.” For example:

  • To get a dog’s paw out of a trap, we may have to push the paw further into the trap.
  • To extract a thorn from a child’s finger, we may have to hurt the finger in order to get the finger to stop hurting.
  • To teach a boy to swim or to rescue someone who can’t swim, we have to get them to believe that the water can support the human body.
  • To get a beginning mountain climber safely over a nasty spot, we may have to ask him to climb higher so that we can get him down.

In order for these things to be done, the other person must have faith in us. Such faith may be based only on the way we look or the sound of our voice, but Lewis points out, “No one blames us for demanding such faith. No one blames them for giving it.”

In these analogies, God is like the person helping the dog, child, swimmer, and mountain climber. As Lewis writes, “From this it is a strictly logical conclusion that the behaviour which was appropriate to them will be appropriate to us, only much more so” in the case of believing in God.

Of course, there is some evidence against the propositions “God exists” and “God is good.” The Christian is asked to keep believing despite this evidence. But Lewis writes that two facts make this tolerable:

1) Along with the negative evidence, there is positive evidence.

2) “We think we can see already why, if our original belief is true, such trust beyond the evidence, against much apparent evidence, has to be demanded of us. … We believe that His intention is to create a certain personal relation between Himself and us, a relation that is really sui generis[of its own kind] but analogically describable in terms of filial or erotic love.”

In conclusion, Lewis believes that Christian belief is justifiable. Christian belief uses the “logic of personal relations,” since the Christian has a personal relationship with God. Christian belief does not use “the logic of speculative thought” in which a person tests hypotheses to see if they are true and to arrive finally at knowledge.

Note: The quotations by C. S. Lewis that appear in this essay are from his “On Obstinacy in Belief,” in They Asked for a Paper. 


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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