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C.S. Lewis: Atheist, Friend of J.R.R. Tolkien

“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before.” C.S. Lewis

Lewis followed this quote with an assertion that each decision slowly changes your personality and self into a “heavenly creature or a hellish creature.” Essentially, Lewis believed that man is an evolving creature and that each choice he makes contributes in some way to his total being; essentially, you become evil or good slowly, not by making one decision or performing one good (or evil) action.

Lewis himself experienced this transformation through a series of small decisions over the course of his life that eventually caused him to not only convert to Christianity, but become a Christian apologist.

Lewis converted to Christianity on September 22nd, 1931. True to his quote, this conversion didn’t happen immediately; it occurred in a series of small steps that led him from atheism to theism to Christianity.

Although born to a religious family, Lewis became an atheist at 15 after surviving the death of his mother and slow decline of his father. Eventually, he began to see his religious duties as a chore. This conversion, however, was aided by a propensity to read books by atheist authors, particularly De rerum natura by Titus Lucretius Carus. Lewis became more disillusioned with God after witnessing the suffering caused by war after he volunteered for service in WWI.

As a confirmed atheist, Lewis became friends with fellow Oxford professors J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, despite their belief in Christianity. After reading many Christian works by various authors and conversations with Tolkien and Dyson, Lewis became a theist (someone that believes in a God) in 1929.

On September 19th, 1931, Lewis spent much of the night arguing about religion with Tolkien and Dyson. During the course of this conversation, Tolkien argued that some myths originate from God and one can serve God by writing myths. Dyson, on the other hand, argued that Christianity works to put the believer at peace and free him from sin. Dyson also argued that Jesus represented a force for good that helped keep his followers on the path of goodness.

True to form, Lewis did not have a life changing experience that night, but rather spent the next several days in quiet contemplation, slowly turning to Christianity. Eventually, Lewis converted on his brother’s motorcycle on the 22nd. Lewis initially made this sound like an instantaneous conversion: “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did.”

Based on his later statements, including the above quote, eventually Lewis began to see his conversion in the form of small steps “snowballing” on each other to reach an ultimate conclusion.

While some would argue that Lewis’ religious conversions were caused by events such as the death of his mother or friendship with Tolkien, Lewis would argue that his choices are what contributed to his beliefs. During his youth, Lewis chose to read atheist literature and enlist in the Army. These choices would slowly form the opinions that would lead to his atheist conversion.

Lewis’ conversion to Christianity occurred because of similar choices. Lewis chose to befriend Tolkien and Dyson, despite knowing their beliefs. He also chose to debate them on religious matters rather than skirting the issue out of politeness. Similar to his conversion to atheism, Lewis chose to read books by Christian authors.

During the course of their now legendary late night talk, Lewis could have left Tolkien and Dyson at any time, but rather chose to stay, a decision that would likely lead to his ultimate conversion three days later.

When Lewis speaks of choices, he speaks from experience, knowing that each time he chose a conversation or a book, he slowly changed to a Christian, even if he did so unknowingly. While his final conversation with Tolkien and Dyson could be called a turning point, in actuality it was more the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” rather than an instant moment of clarity.

Thus, how C.S. Lewis’s choices eventually changed the central part of him into something significantly different than it was before.

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