Escape to Narnia: response to The Young Atheist’s Handbook #4 (Chapter 3)

In the several months that have transpired since this blog post was first drafted, the world has changed completely. George Floyd was not the only person to die a terrible death at the hands of American policeman who at best can be described as racist – but it happens that the manner of his death and its capture on video started something that has spread around the world. There were several reasons why I felt unable to continue with this series at that time, and this completed version puts some of the ideas served up by Alom Shaha into a context that could never otherwise have existed (or at least, not without a similar force majeure).

It had originally been my intention to open this post as follows:

For the first time in this blog series, I feel that I have read a chapter and gotten somewhere with the author. I am sympathetic towards a significant part of what he is saying, and his candour in this chapter is much more helpful to his own cause  – and it seems another thing we have in common is that we are both bibliophiles for whom local libraries were as important as football pitches (‘pitch’ might be a little grand given some of the patches of land where me and my guys got stuck into each other with pretty much anything round enough and robust enough to qualify as a match ball; some of my most important childhood football memories took place using a tennis ball…).

 Now, there is a sense in which this is not untrue – but it is also the case that I can no longer write those words without some serious caveats and qualifications. I have undertaken a very significant personal journey over the past several months – to the extent that I am genuinely not the same human being who started drafting this post. The very serious questions about colonialism, imperialism, racism and religion that have now come to the foreground require the best thinking of which we are all capable as individuals. But thinking in some academic sense is not going to be enough to begin the process of building bridges between people in different societies and communities who have become separated for reasons that whole book series are struggling to do justice to, never mind blog posts, and it is quite possible that whatever you believe about the world, the existence of anything within any world and anything to do with the meaning of life, you may not like what follows. If, like me, you are a Christian, but other people do your thinking for you, then this is not going to work. If, however, you are not a Christian and you have made the mistake of thinking that rational thought belongs to non-religious types, then you may be interested to know that more than one non-Christian philosopher firmly believes that Richard Dawkins has offered multiple masterclasses in how to fail undergraduate logic. As you will discover (if you have not already read Shaha’s book), he believes that the Christian writer C.S. Lewis was a racist who would not have valued him as a dark-skinned person seriously. Several white Christians have indeed failed to value ‘people of colour’ in the ways that they should have, but as we will discover, Shaha has failed to do his homework on both what Christian theology actually teaches and what Lewis actually wrote. Given his claims to be an objective person of science who values high quality argumentation, this is now an unambiguous challenge to secular thinkers, even as it affords no respect for Christians who have abdicated rigorous thought under some guise of pseudo-spirituality.

Chapter 3 (‘Escape to Narnia) opens thus:

“I once met a Texan who bragged that he had only ever read one book from cover to cover: the Bible.”

(p. 61)

It is nice to quickly ascertain that when said Texan discovers that Alom Shaha is in fact a science teacher and correctly assumes that he is atheist, the conversation does not end. But Shaha is quite right to be concerned about the fact that this guy’s reading is as limited as it is. That Texan is not alone (as Shaha obviously understands). But there is a problem: Texas is indeed a very religious state (as I know personally having spent time there on more than one occasion). And there is a very wide spectrum of Christian traditions represented, some of which could certainly be accurately described as fundamentalist. In an earlier draft of this post, I wondered whether or not I should raise the possibility that there are some Christians who really aren’t fundamentalist but who are still limited in their reading. After some thought I was forced to conclude that the type of Christian most likely to exhibit point-blank pride about the Bible being the only book that they have read from cover to cover is a fundamentalist. Now, some of those can be very likable people (this does not mean that I agree with them); others rather less so. But it is not just out-and-out fundamentalists who take pride in the limited confines of their own reading; I have certainly experienced negative treatment at the hands of church members who are affronted by the fact that I read material from a perspective that I do not hold. And my life has gotten very difficult when I have had to point out that certain high-profile speakers  – celebrated for their assaults on non-Christian worldviews – have not only failed to do the homework but that their misrepresentations of these positions is the sort of profound ethical failure decried in both testaments – the point being that Alom Shaha will have enjoyed a better relationship with this Texan than could be possible for me. The Texan would almost certainly have struggled to understand why I could not possibly endorse his stance.

As the chapter unfolded I did wonder, however, whether or not Alom Shaha would judge a person who boasted that they had never ever read the Bible in exactly the same way. And the closing sentences of the chapter gave me my answer:

“In fact, I would even suggest that reading the holy books of the world’s major religions is necessary for anyone who wishes to develop an understanding of human culture in general. However, we must resist the inclination to give them a status beyond that which they genuinely deserve. Instead we should embrace the notion, sacrilegious to some, that there is deeper knowledge, deeper wisdom, and more profound truths to be found in other, no less fictional, books.”

(p. 82)

Now, I have no problem with the fact that Alom Shaha believes that the Bible is a fictional book. But I am curious to know by what grounds he can defend the claim that other equally fictional books possess more truth. However, this is in the category of issue that I have already raised more than once in the previous posts so I will move on. It seems that another thing that he and I share is a lifelong affection for C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. I was grateful for his discussion as it has enabled me to resituate this bit of literature within the schema of my own mind.

As a young child, I did wonder why Narnia was no longer accessible once one had passed a certain age. It was a very nuanced question, because on one hand I did understand that one does not remain a small child forever – but on the other, it seemed really unfair that older children would not get to experience the magic. Was it really the case that Narnia became less important as one grew up? And yet, these were definitely children’s books. As a pre-adolescent I knew that certain educated adults also read children’s books, so I understood that those adults who disparaged the reading of such literature on the grounds that they were not children anymore were in fact missing a trick! But that did not change the fact that at some point people grow up and some of what had been important as a child would not be important anymore. No-one remembers exactly when they stop playing with toy cars, but at some point you know that Technics Lego is where you belong – and then one day that also goes back into the boxes and never comes out again…

We do grow up. And many people will interpret this fact (as process and reality) differently, not least when it comes to matters of religion. But wait: I’m now in trouble, because not everyone needs to read ‘textbook’ psychology or ‘pop psychology’ to know that some people arguably never grow up. Some people seem to go their whole lives never once taking responsibility for anything that goes wrong. Others spend their whole lives desperately trying to get other people to like them. Others never quite believe that the bad things others say about them are untrue, and as such never become fully-realised selves. And others fail to become fully-realised selves for other reasons. This includes the racism Shaha, myself and many others have endured (not least here in the UK, where in more than one city I have been the target of missiles hurled through the air (one of which, a beer bottle hurled from a moving vehicle, struck my hard saxophone case with such force I can only wonder what it would have done to my body). After two decades of adult life I have concluded that if you have time and space to be racist, you are a person who is so uneasy with who you are inside that you can only feel okay by making yourself more than someone else in your own mind.

C. S. Lewis is an example of someone that, depending on your circumstances and educational background, you are supposed to have heard of, along with Mozart, Shakespeare, Brecht, the Incas, the Himalayas, Charlie Parker and of course, The Simpsons, Descartes and Immanuel Kant. These days, people search for information on YouTube. When Alom Shaha says:

“I love books. They are central to my life. They have shaped me and they have saved me. If loneliness, depression, and fear threatened to overwhelm me, or if I want to escape from the world, where others might turn to drink or drugs, I turn to books. My hunger for them is insatiable.”

(p. 62)

he and I are on the same page. However, our stories are not quite the same. He is making this statement as part of a response to the Texan’s position. The young atheists he is addressing should start to be getting a certain picture as the narrative continues – namely:

  1. Christianity is an example of religion.
  2. Christians don’t read widely and discover the vastness of the world. This may well be why they are Christians.
  3. Religious people are usually proud of their conceptual limitations.
  4. This is obviously not something to be proud of.
  5. If you read widely, it is hard for you to remain religious.
  6. [Given the final sentences of the chapter, quoted above] the holy books of any religion are worth reading for basic edification about human differences but there is more truth in other equally fictitious texts.

One presumes that it is this sort of view of the sacred, the religious and the textual traditions of such that is being celebrated by many of the books distinguished reviewers.

I also love books. They are also central to my life. But there is a sense in which it is not so much the books themselves I love as what I gain from them. But most of my reading is non-fiction. Like many Christians, I have several Bible translations. Unlike a number of conservative Christians, I have rather a lot of philosophy (Continental and analytic) on my shelves and in boxes and crates. I also have rather a lot of theology. I have a lot of books on psychology, psychiatry, and mental health research from a wide range of perspectives. I have books on anthropology, sociology, critical theory, cultural theory and all sorts of interdisciplinary texts. There is also a formidable collection on language, linguistics, language pathology and related cognate subjects. And I do enjoy a bit of outstanding classic literature (Chaucer, Ralph Ellison, Kafka, Eco, Eliot, Austen, Auden, James Baldwin, etc are all on the shelves). And more besides; but if you’re wondering why I’m telling you all of this: were it not for my own book collection, I would almost certainly be six feet under. I have not renounced my faith, but I have renounced the specific religiosity that is my own inheritance. The way that I usually summarise it is like this: I am a Christian because of my parents. I am also a Christian despite my parents.

Unlike Alom Shaha’s mother, my mother did not teach me that all books are sacred but she did teach me that all Bibles are sacred and that I should not put anything on top of any Bible, or put a Bible on the floor. My father was quite happy to endorse all of this. I have come to realise that a significant part of my mother’s extrinsic religious praxis originates in the specific canon of superstitions within in the hybrid South American culture in which she was born into and shaped through. This stuff is serious. Sociobiology may be a discipline that has come and gone, and social cognition may be something of a niche area within psychology and cognitive science, but there is a lot of work to do in understanding how individual biopsychology functions in response to external processes. Ruth Benedict, an American anthropologist from the last century, entitled her second publication of 1934 Patterns of Culture in which she argued that cultural behaviour corresponds to sets and subsets of structural behaviour that are best characterised as patterns. This is where things get more complicated: we want to think that we exercise individual autonomy in decision-making, but in fact both individual and collective decision-making is ‘patterned’. It is not that we interpret actions through the framework of patterns; the actions themselves are patterned by definition. As I have learned from myself very painfully, rethinking those cultural types and patterns at some point becomes pushing back against some of the deepest and most fundamental instincts that one possesses. To this day, I don’t put anything on Bibles, although I don’t mind Bibles being on the floor in an appropriate context (such as a children’s Bible study group, for example). But there are a number of things which concern my mother by virtue of the fact that they are taken seriously by our Guyanese culture and our Christian sub-culture that I have forcibly rejected. As a result, I have discovered that if you reject how those closest to you think without rejecting them as people, they will in all likelihood not be able to understand this because in their minds, to reject how they think is to reject who they are. And so my book collection is not really a ‘book collection’. It’s not something to boast about. And for the most part, it’s not even something to explain. But in this published material, I have found understanding and enlightenment and comfort that has helped me to continue believing that I am not completely off my rocker and to press on. In reading about and understanding ways of thinking that are completely opposed to my own, I have learned much about others and also about myself. I have discovered that philosophers are much more respectful of religion than a handful of philosophers and scientists would have you think. I have discovered that atheist philosophers are not actually better philosophers than theistic philosophers (at some point I will write a blog post on this). And through books, I have escaped the conceptual ghettoes of family, personal cultural inheritance, wider ethnicity, church (local and global) and even contemporary proto-Anglo-European intellectual imperialism. In the next chapter, entitled ‘Coconut’, we will see that Shaha has some astonishingly bad ideas about race, religion, culture and identity which have now marked him as someone who has NOT escaped the jail cell of neo-colonialism (an extremely serious indictment at this time of writing) – but that analysis is coming. The point is that despite the increased likability of this chapter, it is also a very significant apologetic failure. Like the author, I too have read – and drawn different conclusions.  

Shaha writes:

Thinking about it later, as I continued to read the book on my bus journey home, I realised I was disappointed. I felt deceived by Lewis. And sad, because I knew that Lewis would never have imagined someone like me to be a Narnian. It pains me to say it, even now, but I suspect that he would have been a bit of a racist. Lewis would not have envisioned me fighting alongside Lucy and her siblings as one of Aslan’s army; he’d have seen me as a savage from the land of Calormen, on the side of the horrendous bird-headed Demon-god Tash.

(p. 69)

Shaha  – like Jim Al-Khalili – is a person with an ethnic minority background who has embraced what he takes to be a necessary relationship between science and atheism and as such, plays the ‘Christianity is racist’ card with a certain amount of enthusiasm. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm is not accompanied by competence. I will skip the technical lecture and simply say that it is just as plausible to be an atheist and a racist – and indeed, as Western humanities academia now begins what for many will be an extremely excoriating process of unpicking the many ways in which racism is implicated within Western academia, Alom Shaha’s discussion is specious and unethical in its naïveté. A more judicious person would be careful about admitting to having felt ‘deceived’ by Lewis. What are the conditions that make any judgment of this sort possible – and plausible? How on earth does Shaha ‘know’ for sure that Lewis would never have imagined someone like him to be a Narnian? Is the idea that since (a) Lewis is obviously Christian; (b) the Chronicles of Narnia constitute a Christian allegory (Lewis himself said as much), Lewis must now ipso facto  think less of Shaha because Shaha is not white?! Without any further evidence one would be unable to dismiss the possibility that Lewis was a racist, but that would be nothing to do with the Chronicles of Narnia – or would it?

Gregg Easterbrook writes:

Only British readers are likely to be familiar with the Chronicles‘ second tribulation: critics attacking the books’ reputation. The centenary of Lewis’s birth was widely celebrated in England in 1998, but amid the general affection was prominent dissent. The novelist and critic Philip Hensher, a rising figure in the London literary establishment (he’s a Booker Prize judge), censured the Chronicles as “poisonous” and “ghastly, priggish, half-witted” books intended to “corrupt the minds of the young with allegory.” Corruption by allegory? Bailiff, take him away! Never mind that one of Hensher’s own books, Kitchen Venom (1996), all but glorifies pederasty. What Hensher meant by corrupting the young was exposing them to what he derided as “Lewis’s creed of clean-living, muscular Christianity.”

Nice. So in a groundswell of antipathy towards Lewis and his imaginary world, all sorts of people were quite happy to believe the worst. Easterbrook continues:

Hensher’s broadside is part of a fad of anti-Narnia writing in Britain. The offensive has been led by Philip Pullman, whose The Golden Compass (1996), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000)—the His Dark Materials trilogy—are the most important recent works in the English fantasy tradition (The Golden Compass won the Carnegie Medal, Britain’s top award for children’s literature). Pullman has deplored the “misogyny” and the “racism” of the Chronicles, which, he claims, reek of a “sneering attitude to anything remotely progressive in social terms or to people with brown faces.” He has called Lewis a bigot, his devotees “unhinged,” the Chronicles “appalling” and “nauseating drivel”; and he went so far as to complain that Lewis made a technical error in a joke about how centaurs eat breakfast. A technical error about an imaginary creature?

This is important to this blog post because I have been very impressed by Philip Pullman’s work in many respects. He is a superbly gifted storyteller in his own right. But Pullman is even more in-your-face in his atheistic evangelism than Lewis with his Christian evangelism, stating, for example, in one interview to the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘My books are about killing God. So as a black person with the same religious faith identity as Lewis, I am ‘unhinged’ and Narnia is racist.

Okay, so in this regard Pullman is obviously a paragon of virtue – right? Hmm. The Asian-American writer Lo Kwa Mei-en writes:

It has therefore been a major source of conflict to reconcile my love for Lyra Silvertongue’s world with the fact that Lyra’s world is not one in which all people exist as whole people. Two races of people created by Pullman, the Samoyeds and Tartars, are identified by “broad Asiatic faces,” “black eyes,” and the fact that every Samoyed and Tartar has a wolf for a daemon: a direct statement of subhumanity, considering one of the most-beloved aspects of the books is the diversity of daemons attributed to most other characters to signify their individuality. Even worse, the people in Lyra’s world who are described as most likely to have no daemon at all—to have no daemon is to literally have no soul—are either Tartar or African. Because race in His Dark Materials is a matter of not being white, whiteness is not racialized but normalized with character descriptions like “Lyra saw his features: he was not a Samoyed or a Tartar. He could have been a Jordan scholar.”

This whole article is worth reading, and it is difficult to see how the very simplistic notions idealised in print by Alom Shaha hold up in comparison.

As a kid of color, I felt faced with an awful ultimatum: acclimate to the pain of encountering racism in storytelling, or deny my hunger for stories altogether and stop reading. The latter was unthinkable, so I learned to make do with what narratives were available to me, and in doing so learned acceptance of storytellers who did not accept me.

Because he has not accepted Lewis, Shaha has decided that Lewis is a racist. We still don’t know why.

In Narnia, after all, heaven has an open-door policy. In the final book of the Chronicles, Emeth, a noble Calormene, dies trying to save others. Emeth (“Truth” in Hebrew) then finds himself in heaven, being praised by Aslan, and asks why he has been permitted to enter when in life he worshipped in a rival faith. Aslan tells Emeth that the specifics of religion do not matter: virtue is what’s important, and paradise awaits anyone of good will. This seems an up-to-date message—and a reason the Narnia books should stand exactly as they are.

Easterbrook’s piece is a very nuanced discussion in its own right and does not gloss certain challenges of gender and class in the Chronicles of Narnia. But the observation in the quotation just above comes much more easily if one has a genuine understanding of Christian theology. As a child, I understood certain important technical niceties of the Christian faith but not others. As I grew older, I was able to accept that Lewis may have used a word like ‘darkies’ – something that could never have made me comfortable – but even Shaha talks about one white teacher who, apparently in jest, characterised him as ‘Sabu, the elephant boy’ – something that Shaha took as a very unfortunate objectification of his own ethnic identity. That same teacher went on to show Shaha real kindness at a moment when it was most needed and I applaud Shaha for telling this story. I am sure that he and I would agree that there are white people who have somehow managed to only ever say all the right things in public – not least with regards to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) – who actually don’t care about people of colour – not really. And there are others who have gotten a great deal of things wrong but who actually care. It was a huge moment for me to discover – as a theologically-informed adult – that Lewis actually got so much right at the end of the Chronicles, and when one goes back to them having read much more of Lewis’ writing and sharing a deeper, more mature understanding of one’s own Christian faith, one can see that in certain ways Lewis’ genuine Christianity took him right past a number of conceptual rabbit-holes.

But Shaha’s conceptual limitations betray much more than he has realised. Easterbrook again:

 “Many older books contain race or gender references discordant to modern ears,” John G. West Jr., a co-editor of The C. S. Lewis Reader’s Encyclopedia, told me recently. “We don’t stop reading Twain or Darwin because they used racial terms no author uses today.”

This is something that Shaha also grants other authors – but somehow, not Lewis. But it doesn’t get better for Pullman. As Isabel Cole notes, in Pullman’s fictional world (of the Dark Materials trilogy):

People of color are often exoticized, and the homogeneity of the main cast juxtaposes disappointingly with its ambitions: we’re meant to believe the fate of not just one but all universes hinges on the choices of some white people from England?

Which brings me to not only the most telling observation this blog post will make about Philip Pullman, but also the unravelling of Shaha’s pretensions to be a critical reader. At the end of the aforementioned interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, we read the following:

Pullman has been compared so many times with Tolkien and Lewis, it galls him. “Despite the armoured bears and the angels, I don’t think I’m writing fantasy,” he says. “I think I’m writing realism. My books are psychologically real. So I would be most flattered if I was compared to George Eliot, Jane Austen or Henry James.” There’s a pause, and the tinkle of a wine glass. “But I don’t expect anybody will.”

As someone familiar with all three of those authors – as well as Tolkien and Lewis – ‘hubris’ maybe one of the kinder words that comes to mind as I appraise Pullman’s aspirations in this regard. Given that Pullman is almost certainly some part of the reason why Shaha has felt so comfortable accepting that Lewis must have been racist, one is now left with no real clue as to how Shaha can still find any genuine escape in Narnia. Would Pullman have offered Shaha a better escape? Does he offer a higher vestige of moral authority, and is this because he is not religious? There is much more to take apart in this chapter, with the level of argumentation that takes us to the point-blank assertion that other fictional works offer more truth – by definition – than any religious works. There is now no time to talk about Linnaeus, or Francis Galton, or John Locke, or Immanuel Kant, or Hubert Parry – but the sense of the functional anthropological inferiority of all Others imbricated into Western culture both before, during and after the Enlightenment means that Shaha appears not to have understood that he has become a stool-pigeon for Establishment atheists who value the optics he supplies without actually caring about ‘Black Lives’ (which, for the purposes of this rhetorical moment, include Shaha’s).

In the academic work I do at present, I am arguing that it has never been more necessary to ask how my black identity impacts my understanding of and relationship to the concept of ‘art’ and whether or not it is possible for this concept to be anything other than imperialist. Shaha offers many examples of literary ‘art’ that he takes to have made a real and tangible difference to his life, even admitting that he did love a character in his favourite novel because it was perfectly possible to do so. Sometimes an author may write something that we like aesthetically, but do not take to be real life. And sometimes depicting an actual understanding of actual reality offers anything but aesthetic pleasure. From this remove it is not possible to say whether or not Shaha or Pullmann possess any familiarity with Hobbes’ distinction between a servant and a slave, but one of the most complicated positions that emerges from that discussion is that one cannot become a slave without one’s own consent – but it is not always a given that one chooses to be a servant. History continues to show us that there are limits to agency (in ways that the ‘Frankfurt school’ were shouting from the rooftops to anyone who would listen) in ways which only the privileged appear to be incapable of understanding. Lewis was an imperfect human being and Narnia is far from being fully representative of every mode of aesthetic perception and understanding that could be found across the planet. But Lewis would have been a complete idiot if he had tried to write anything other than what he knew. However, in telling a story greater than himself, he made room for people who are not like him. And in fairness to Shaha, he would understand this concept. But in accepting some of the most trite and derivative criticisms of the Chronicles of Narnia and celebrating his own ‘escape to Narnia’ and subsequent ‘escape from Narnia’, he has given us a roadmap of how not to think and I am reminded of the description Jesus offered of the Pharisees, Sadducees and other religious scholars: ‘blind guides……’


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