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!

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