One of the great intellectuals in the last century was philosopher G.K. Chesterton. C.S. Lewis says that Chesterton’s book, The Everlasting Man, played a significant role in leading him to a belief in the Christian faith. The reason Chesterton’s words resonated with skeptics like Lewis is because he too was once an atheist.
Chesterton said that he had a dark and pessimistic view of life. This is very natural when you have a godless worldview that contends life is pointless. Yet one day he was stopped in his tracks when he encountered a beautiful dandelion. He saw beauty in the darkness. This singular event lead him to become a seeker of spiritual truth. Over time he recognized that Christianity did full justice to what was beautiful and literally wonderful in life, but it also explained the brokenness of a sinful world. Os Guiness said this of Chesterton; “The large-scale picture of the Christian worldview answered his questions and fit perfectly with all that he knew life and the universe to be.”
It is amazing how the beauty of a simple dandelion opened the eyes of this brilliant man. It strikes me that beauty is quickly realized by the one who beholds it. We know there is something special about it because it moves us. It stirs us. We experience it deep from within.
C.S. Lewis would tell you it is a clue to the meaning of the universe. He would tell you that beauty in this world is a sign that points you to something significant. The human quest for true beauty is the central theme of his wonderful short work The Weight of Glory. Lewis was convinced that we all possess an instinct for transcendence that is stimulated by beauty.
What do we make of beauty if there is no God, and we are nothing but chemicals and molecules? Richard Dawkins, in his best-selling book The God Delusion, is quite blunt about it: “Beauty is just a chemical reaction.”
Before becoming a Christian, C.S. Lewis agreed with Dawkins. He believed that all reality was “a meaningless dance of atoms and that any suggestion of beauty within nature was simply a subjective phosphorescence.” At this particular stage he believed his atheistic worldview was true, though he conceded that it offered a “grim and meaningless” view of life.
Later in his life as a Christian, he looked back on his former worldview and said this:
“You can’t get much pleasure from beautiful music if you believe its beauty is ‘pure illusion’ and that the only reason you find it appealing is ‘because your nervous system is irrationally conditioned to like it.’ He said you may enjoy the music but ‘you will be forced to feel the hopeless disharmony between your own emotions and the universe in which you [think you] really live.’”
So, we must consider this question: If there is no God, how do we account for all the joy and beauty we experience in this life? Have you ever been moved by a star-lit sky, the beauty of the ocean, or some other body of water? Then you have the view from the top of a mountain, along with a gorgeous sunset.
Atheism does not appear to have a plausible explanation for the human appreciation for beauty, and therefore concludes that it is an illusion. However, it is difficult to accept this conclusion when we continually encounter beauty that moves us in such a powerful way.