Monthly Archives: January 2014

Rereading The Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Three

One of my favorite things about C. S. Lewis is how pragmatic his ethics tend to be, in that his advice on being better person is less likely to be “dedicate an additional hour to daily prayer and meditation” than “make it a habit to hold the door for the person behind you, even if you’re in a hurry.” This chapter is all about that. Or rather, it’s all about the inverse of that.

Chapter three is about The Patient and his mother. Unlike the first two, there are no heaven or hell consequences at stake. The demons just want to make a poor relationship worse, because in their world bad relationships are good (I should mention that unreliable narrator plays heavily here, and there’s no way to know how bad the dynamic really is). Screwtape has four strategies, although he cheats a bit in that division, as the first is more a general principle which is applicable to the remaining three. That principle is to keep The Patient absorbed in meta-thought, thinking thoughts that feel holy and then thinking about how holy those thoughts were, measuring his own improvement by how improved his thoughts seem to be, while ignoring whether or not his behavior has changed. He should be kept ignorant of the flaws that are obvious to everyone else, while congratulating himself on superior self-knowledge, which, Screwtape says, is much easier than it sounds.

His second strategy, after the general principle, is to make The Patient pray for his mother’s soul, as much as possible, and not for her health or well-being or any of her actual needs. This way, his prayers become just another gripe session, masked in spiritual language. Screwtape states that by dwelling on her worst traits, or the traits he perceives as her worst, his image of her will become distorted until “he will, in some degree, be praying for an imaginary person…  I have had patients of my own so well in hand that they could be turned at a moment’s notice from impassioned prayer for a wife or son’s ‘soul’ to beating or insulting the real wife or son without a qualm.”

His third strategy is to make The Patient keenly aware of all her habits that irritate him, and assume she knows about every one and does them on purpose. He should be kept from suspecting he might have habits that are equally annoying to her. Along similar lines, the fourth strategy is to encourage him to read subtexts into her tone of voice and take offense at them, while keeping him from suspecting that she might do the same thing with him. Everybody does this. Everybody sees other people do it, everybody knows what’s going on, and yet, in the moment, we all finds ourselves assuming that the way somebody else raised their voice might as well have been an observation that our momma beeps when she backs up, while our own facial musculature can’t possibly have replied anything about their mothers, planets and relative gravity fluctuations. The worldview of the vast majority of humans paints a picture of a sea of drama, agenda and innuendo, where they stand alone on a rock of clear communication and innocent intention.

The tricky thing about reading the Screwtape Letters is that Lewis never offers solutions or alternative behaviors. He just points out bad habits everyone has, and leaves it up to us to decide what to do about them. He always said that the book was incomplete, and that there should be a corresponding book showing the shoulder angel’s side of the story, but that he did not think he was up to writing that one. Now that he’s laid out how easily we sabotage our own relationships, how do we avoid doing that? Do we presume good intention at all times? That’s absurd, because good intention is not always there.

Good behavior, I think, is a fluid thing, always changing to fit the circumstance. Goodness comes from living in the moment and trying to do the best thing possible for that moment. Sometimes that’s using your words to talk to someone who might not have realized they were bothering you, sometimes that’s teaching yourself to ignore it, and sometimes that’s mending bridges by doing something nice for someone you dislike. Don’t look for your best self inside your own head; your biases will get in the way. Look for chances to be your best self, and take them.


Rereading The Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Two

Chapter two! I’ve read a bit further than I’ve posted, because this chapter gave me a fair bit of difficulty. My last post got an unexpected amount of attention, which I appreciate, and which also made me nervous because it seems most of it was from Christians. I take that as a good thing, because my hope was that I could approach this in a way that was honest, but not alienating to believers, and it seems I’m succeeding, but it’s an intimidating sort of good. Now that I’ve hit the mark, I have no excuse for not continuing to hit it.

In the second chapter, The Patient becomes a Christian, Screwtape wants to exploit the difference between the reality of churches and his preconception of Christianity, which is “full of togas and sandals and armour and bare legs and the mere fact that the other people in church wear modern clothes is a real – though of course an unconscious – difficulty to him.”  He compares it to the difference between reading the Odyssey as a child and then learning Greek in school, and between a love affair and a couple starting the real work of living together.

Objectively, it’s well written, and like most good writing the message can be applied beyond the constraints of the situation he’s writing in. I remember no end of experiences where I joined a new group or hobby or group of friends, and started out assuming that these would finally be the perfect people who I’ve been hoping to fall in with. It took me a few years to figure out that really I should be expecting human beings instead, and I was much better off when I learned how to do that.

Subjectively, Lewis leans heavily on the Christian applications here, and I find I don’t have much to say. I can’t relate anymore, but as he’s not overtly implying something negative about atheism (or any non-Christian religion for that matter) I don’t have any objection either. He’s a Christian author writing a Christian-themed book, and certain chapters will be like this.

Furthermore, I found this chapter a little emotionally troubling. It reminded me of the days I spent surrounded by people who trivialized the reasons atheists had for deconverting. I used to mimic them; “finding Christians annoying” was my favorite assumption to explain another person’s lack of faith. Suggesting that “unconvinced by the evidence” was a real reason for some atheists was practically blasphemy. I currently know many more Christians than atheists, and from the way some of them joke about taking me to church or making me pray, it’s plain that they assume my atheism was shallowly motivated, rather than a long, serious, painful journey of both rational and spiritual searching.

In a way, the closest word for this chapter is triggering, although that’s a terrible abuse of the term. Triggering is meant to be a word for people with serious mental health conditions to describe things that must be avoided, outside of controlled conditions, to protect the progress they’ve made. People have used it to mean, “this takes my mind places I don’t like, so even though I’ll be fine in a minute, I’d rather avoid the experience.” We really need to invent a word for things that are uncomfortable, but not on the same level as triggering. Suggestions for that word are welcome in the comments. I found the next chapter much more relatable, so I should have more to say about the actual book, and I should get it done sooner as well. I apologize for so much personal digression. Until next time!

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part One

Like many Christians, I loved C. S. Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia and the Planets Trilogy were among my favorite series. Mere Christianity was nearly a second Bible to me. Now that I’m an atheist, I’ve been a little afraid to go back to him. On the one hand, I don’t want to threaten my old nostalgia. I hate the idea of reading him and no longer liking him. Worse, he’s the only one of my childhood authors who I imagine actively disliking me now, for what I believe (or more accurately, don’t believe). That thought makes me sad, and I’d like to stay away from it. On the other hand, the idea of never reading any of his books isn’t very happy either.

I recently decided to face my fear and return to an old favorite; The Screwtape Letters. For those who haven’t read it, The Screwtape Letters is a novella from the perspective of Screwtape, a senior demon, who is writing letters to his nephew and protege, Wormwood. I’m going to write up my reactions so that, even if I find the book ruined for me, the experience won’t be wasted.

The first chapter focuses on the idea of arguments. Wormwood has been directing The Patient (Wormwood’s assigned human) towards materialistic philosophy, but Screwtape argues the best way to keep The Patient  away from The Enemy (God) is by keeping his ideas as fuzzy as possible. He believes The Enemy always has the advantage in logical debate, and rather than try to persuade The Patient that materialism is true, he should convince him that it is modern, “strong, or stark, or courageous- that it is the philosophy of the future.” He should stay away from real, serious scientific study, as that provokes wonder and curiosity, and instead become entrenched in a general notion that religion is silly and outdated.

Screwtape describes a specific tactic he used to lead some of his old temptees away from lines of rational curiosity. Instead of engaging in arguments, he would suggest it was time for some lunch. Once his temptee was distracted, he would point out the bus and the newsboy and give him a general sense that this was the “real world,” and that all those stuffy books are just… something. There is no chain of logic there, and that’s the point. The solid world is comforting, ideas that challenge your way of thinking are scary, lets go have a nice cup of tea and forget all about it.

As a current atheist, I was amused by how well Screwtapes “temptations” described the tactics I used on myself to keep away from doubts and skepticism. In fact, I wonder if C. S. Lewis nudged me towards atheism, with all his talk of logic and rationality. Skepticism was challenging and scary, because I believed the lines I was walking down seemed to be leading me towards hell. On some days, when I could not take any more doubting, I would go for a walk and look at the trees and remind myself that this was the “real world,” made by God, of course. Within me, I had a duel, between the part of me that wanted to be good and faithful, and the part of me that wanted to question and reason (this does not mean that I think all rational people are atheists, but I’ll get to that in a minute). Squelching my curiosity starved me. C. S. Lewis made me  feel like there was a place for my inner questioner in religion, which may have been part of why he was my favorite.

While I disagree with his implication that Christianity is the realm of rationality and materialism rests on fuzzy logic, I do agree with this part; the “real world” is often shorthand for “my ordinary life where I think I know how everything works,” and it might not have anything to do with reality. The part of you that shies away from worldview shaking questions is not looking out for you. I’m not going to invert what Lewis says, and claim that all roads of inquiry lead to atheism. I know intelligent atheists and intelligent Christians. I also know shallow, ignorant atheists and shallow, ignorant Christians. What I think is that honest inquiry and open minded rationality leads to personal growth, whatever philosophy that leads you to. I think that great cultural shifts are driven by people who are willing to examine themselves and question those around them. I think that if devils exist, they have a good reason to hush up critical thinking, regardless of what philosophy those thoughts are leading to.

Communities and Stories; A Lesson From Being Late to Harry Potter

A confession; Harry Potter is not one of my favorite series of all time.

That is not to say that they are not excellent books. I cried at the deaths of Hedwig, Sirius, Dumbledore, Fred, Lupin and Tonks. I have a Hagrid keychain. It hits the perfect blend of entertaining and intelligent and I would recommend it to anyone without reservation. But when I think of my favorite books, or series, or fictions of any sort, Harry Potter does not come immediately to mind. It trails along at the end, helped along mainly by its street cred with all my favorite nerds. This has no relation to its objective quality.

It’s not my favorite because I read it alone.

My parents were the sorts of Christians usually seen as side characters in sitcoms. It only took one demagogic editorial to convince them their children’s souls depended on Emblem of Secular Culture X being banned. Harry Potter was banned; like Halloween and Pokemon, it might lead to Satan worship. I read the first three books in secret at age 17 while the rest of the family was on a beach trip, and finished the series years later.

When I talk to people who are hardcore Harry Potter fans, they don’t just talk about the excellence of the series. They played the computer and board games, dissected the books on forums, bought the legos, and stood in line together at midnight for the latest copy. It was not just that the books were fun and smart; it was that there was an abundance of people to share the enjoyment and analysis. By contrast, when I finished the series, the last book was already three years old. The mysteries had been solved, the characters and themes analyzed to death, and while the fandom is still around it is no longer active. It has a nostalgic feel to it; people whose geekly lives are now dominated by other obsessions periodically looking back to an old, eternal favorite. Sharing my thoughts with these old fans is always a little bit of a letdown. No matter how clever or insightful my thoughts feel to me, they nod and smile in a way that suggests I have not said anything that was not already said, debated, and possibly put on a T-shirt somewhere. I missed the glory days.

I have not, however, missed out on the experience of shared geekery. I have Supernatural and Doctor Who. I listen to Welcome to Night Vale with two of my best friends. Any book, movie or series that my sister and I find, we will eventually share with each other, and when we do the enjoyment doubles. When I think of my own actual favorite books, mostly they are either books that someone I love introduced me to, or that I introduced to someone I love. That goes all the way back to my earliest favorites; The Chronicles of Narnia, my parents choice of bedtime story, and Calvin and Hobbes, my big brother’s choice when he babysat.

Reading books and watching movies are often treated as solitary pursuits, suited mainly to introverts, in contrast with sports and parties. The bit about being suited to introverts may be true, but solitary? If they are, why are there book clubs? Why is “what do you like to read” such a common first date question? In the days before movies and TV, the typical evening pastime was sitting around the fire while someone read aloud. Even the shyest bookworm is a social animal, and the best compliment that can be paid to a story is, “I want my friends to read this!”