In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson writes,
I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth by the time I could understand the fundamentals of Darwinian theory. After that, I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking.
In a recent podcast, he expresses a similar worry, “there seems to be something too convenient about C.S. Lewis, his insistence that [the perfection of Christ] also had to manifest itself concretely in reality at one point in history.”
Is Christian belief a case of wishful thinking? Is it too good to be true, a convenient creed that should be rejected because it is too convenient?
C.S. Lewis provides some insights relevant for these questions, “I didn’t go to religion to make me ‘happy.’ I always knew a bottle of Port could do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Despite its convenience, Lewis rejected a watered down Christianity, “the view which simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right—leaving out all the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil, and the redemption.”
Lewis accepted these inconvenient teachings because Jesus taught them (Mt 25, Mk 9:43, Lk 16, Jn 5:29). If Lewis sought a merely consoling creed, it would have been like H. Richard Niebuhr’s account of watered-down Christianity: “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
Peterson is certainly right that Christianity is in some respects comforting and convenient. For example, how consoling it is to believe that God’s mercy is greater than any human sin. Yet this, in itself, does not show that Christianity is wishful thinking. As Lewis points out,
Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is ‘wishful thinking’. You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant—but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought.
Human thinkers give rise to systems of thought, and wishful thinkers are found on all sides of religious questions. For example, the atheist Thomas Nagel wrote, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
We cannot validly reason from Nagel’s atheistic wish to a conclusion that therefore God must exist. So too, we cannot reason from the fact that the Christian wishes that God raised Jesus from the dead to the conclusion that therefore the Resurrection didn’t happen.
Wishful thinking may also be found in considerations of what God is like. Lewis wrote, “The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?” By contrast, in some rooms, “the temperature drops as soon as you mention a God who has purposes and performs particular actions, who does one thing and not another, a concrete, choosing, commanding, prohibiting God with a determinate character.”
As Lewis put it in his book Miracles, “An ‘impersonal God’-well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads–better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap–best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband-that is quite another matter.”
But Lewis would be the first to point out that we cannot logically conclude from the wishes of people for a tame Life-Force God that these wishes (somehow) show that the personal, law giving God of the Bible exists.
The genetic fallacy is the attempt to evaluate the truth a belief on the basis of the origin of the belief. Regardless of the wishes of the atheist, or the theist, or the agnostic, in fact the God of the Bible either really does exist or the God of the Bible does not exist.
Lewis offers considerations relevant for all who share Peterson’s concerns about Christianity being too good to be true, “If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be: if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all.”
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