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as that provokes wonder and curiosity, and instead become entrenched in a general notion that religion is silly and outdated.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.