Monthly Archives: March 2014

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Five and a Half

As I said in the last post, Chapter Seven is mostly good with one very annoying section, which is the following; “We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalize and mythologize their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us, (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. The ‘Life Force,’ the worship of sex and some aspects of Psychoanalysis, may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work-the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits’ – then the end of our war will be in sight.”

Now, I can’t speak as to how literally Lewis meant this to be taken, though I do know of radical conservatives from my past who took as practically gospel; Satan’s plan divinely revealed to Lewis. For those who do take it literally, I can’t argue against the idea that there are demons out there and that atheists exist because of their handiwork, because the kinds of people who believe that aren’t liable to be persuaded out of it by any kind of argument. Atheists, and believers who believe in good atheists, don’t really need to hear an argument against the existence of demonic puppet masters either. I don’t want to say only things that will be heard by people who already agree with me; I want to say things that will be interesting to people from a variety of perspectives. Still, I want to say something in response to this.

I think, in the end, I want to do a Skeptical Atheism 101, in my own words, from my own perspective. That might be informative even to people who do believe in literal demons and angels fighting wars over our souls.

I’ll start with a description of a religious mindset. The essence of religion is faith. A person’s religion is not based on evidence, but on a deep emotional conviction that their beliefs are correct. Evidence may be collected to support that faith, but the conviction itself is not dependent on evidence. In my experience, religious people confronted with evidence that contradicts their faith will do one of two things. Either they will find a way to adjust the details of their beliefs to accept the new evidence while maintaining the core of their faith, or they will deny the evidence. Evolution is a perfect example of this. Many Christians decide part or all of the creation story is poetic, or that Biblical infallibility is not absolute and there are human errors in the transcription of divine revelation. They even adapt evolution into their understanding of God, seeing it as a kind of cosmic artistic palette for him. Those who can’t take that approach subscribe to some variant of young Earth creationism.

In the skeptical mentality, there is no faith based conviction. That is not to say that they cannot have beliefs, but the beliefs of a skeptic are not held as sacred. The skeptic lets go of the need for certainty, and adopts an attitude of constantly being willing to adjust one’s understanding of the facts, based on what is supported by the evidence. The best available evidence wins, and when the evidence is inconclusive or shaky, the skeptic admits as much. In light of inconclusive evidence, a skeptic might express a preference over one theory or another, but there is always a willingness to abandon that theory if it is eventually disproved.

I should also add that I do not believe that every skeptic is, at all times, an ideal skeptic. That would be like saying that every religious person is perfectly faithful at all times. The difference is that the skeptic strives to be skeptical, while the religious person strives to be faithful.

Now for the question of worship.

As a Christian, it was hard for me to imagine a life without belief, and what I felt to be the ultimate expression of belief; worship. Worship, for me, was being in the state of absolute awe and adoration. It included a very transcendent focus that was almost drug-like. Like many Christians, I thought life without worship must be dull and miserable, so it was easy for me to read this and imagine that atheists did have some kind of belief, and corresponding worship, whether it was worship of the self or of demons or of science or some aspect of the material world. It was easy to imagine that atheists had some kind of hole, hungering for something to give their allegiance to, and that demons could manipulate that hole, focusing it onto themselves. It was one reason the idea of losing my faith terrified me.

Now, I don’t feel a hole like that. If anything, I feel more filled and satisfied than I ever was as a believer, because the questions I’ve always had no longer need to be suppressed. I still experience times of transcendent awe, when I think about how amazing this universe is. With science and questioning, we have uncovered answers of astounding beauty. We know we are connected to every known form of life, from chimpanzees to butterflies to ferns to redwoods to water bears. We know the constellations are made of spheres of fire, bigger and farther away than I can conceive with even the crudest metaphor, and yet bright enough that I can still see them. I am made of dust from long-dead stars like these. Even more everyday facts can produce joy in me. For example; elephants exist. They move with a grace that mocks their bulk, they have trunks as dextrous as a knitter’s fingers, and they are both intelligent and sensitive. Their teeth contain literal jewels. They belong in a fairy tale, but they exist on my planet. If appreciation of these things is somehow evil, I question your concept of good.

What separates that awe from worship, as I understood it as a Christian, is that it is not accompanied by feelings of obligation or allegiance. I may appreciate Richard Dawkins when he speaks of evolution and the wonder of nature, but when he speaks about religion, I generally disagree with him, and I feel no discomfort over that, particularly in comparison to the discomfort I once felt when disagreeing with any religious authority. The same goes for what is said by Christopher Hitchens, Friedrich Nietzsche, PZ Myers, my atheist brother-in-law, Carl Sagan, any textbook I happen to pick up, or anyone else who claims to speak as a scientist, skeptic or atheist. I can subscribe to fringe or mainstream theories, based on what I think makes the most compelling argument, and my standards for a compelling argument don’t have to be the same as any other skeptic.

As a Christian child, I went through a phase of believing that those who followed other religions ascribed to dummy religions, where demons pulled the strings of their gods. I had moments of thinking about the amazing coincidence of my being born into the one true religion, which was followed by the terrifying idea that maybe I wasn’t. Maybe one of those other religions was the right one, and it was my mind that was victim to a demon’s puppet. And then I realized I had to go pray and repent for even thinking this… which meant that if that thought was right, I would never be able to analyze it enough to realize I was being fooled. As I grew up I gave myself license to doubt a bit more, reasoning that a good God would understand, that he would stand up to rational analysis and wouldn’t be bothered by me seeking the truth, which didn’t turn out quite the way I planned.

In any case, that old childhood fear is gone now, because even if, contrary to everything I believe and disbelieve, demons exist and are playing games with my mind, I’m not defenseless. If they desire my worship, presumably it is so I will accept their teachings and commands unquestioningly. Admiration without allegiance, or with allegiance that is dependent on the liege’s orders truly seeming moral and sensible, is no good to a dictator.

In short, I don’t think any demons are trying to make a Materialist Magician out of me, but even if they are, I doubt they will be pleased with the only kind of worship they can find.


Rereading The Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Five

So far, I’ve been fairly complimentary. That’s because, for the most part, this book has been good. At times, it’s been good and also very religious, which is not as much fun for me as it used to be, but I can skim over the religious stuff or mentally replace it with “pursuit of goodness and truth” and still enjoy it. I don’t see much point in picking up a religious book and criticizing it for being religious, just because I’m not religious now.

Chapter Seven gave me writer’s block for a while, because while most of the chapter is excellent, there is also a paragraph that hit my rant button. My first attempts to write about the two sides of the chapter weren’t working, and I had the kind of busy month that gave me less time to figure out what I was doing wrong. I’ve now settled on addressing the problem passage in a postscript, which should go up in a couple days. I’m very sorry for the delay.

Screwtape’s goal in this letter is to advise Wormwood on whether to make the Patient an extreme patriot or extreme pacifist. Either, he says, is potentially desirable, provided the Patient becomes extreme in his views. Ideally the Patient should be herded into a philosophy that runs contrary to his most authentic sentiments. If he has had prior worries about the concept of a just war and a deeply humanitarian aversion to violence, he should be converted, if possible, to patriotism. If he is more ambivalent about war itself, but has a deep personal fear of military service, he should be urged into pacifism. Whichever he ends up as, according to Screwtape, the key issue is that he become as much of an extremist as possible.

“Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.” Lewis is not committing the golden mean fallacy here, or claiming that there is something wrong with fervent activism. Lethargic ignorance and indifference is bad in it’s own way, but it’s important to make sure that, while trying to avoid it, you don’t end up in a state of volatile, embittered separatism.

“Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop within itself a hothouse of mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the ‘Cause’ is its sponsor and is thought to be impersonal.” He does not exclude religious factions from this characterization. Much of the chapter describes how the worst aspects of fanaticism can be used to corrupt religious organizations. The favored technique is to take some material, side issue (his example is pacifism or patriotism), begin by making it a part of their Christianity, and let it gradually creep further and further into their way of life. His hope for the Patient is that the political stance will consume his life, and religion become only a way to justify his politics. I could not read this chapter without thinking of the modern religious right. For a painfully vocal portion of Christians, this principle is not just in play, but recursively nested. Christian is just a justification of conservatism, conservatism is just a justification of “family values,” and family values is just a justification of “objects very strenuously to gays, or any alternative sexuality, no matter how well they feed and clothe and love their children.”

To go further into my own views on the issue; there is nothing inherently wrong with belonging to a fringe group with passionate beliefs. All great social movements started with a weird, passionate bunch of outsiders. The problem is when “I think my group is right and the rest of you are wrong” turns into “I think my group is good and the rest of you are bad.” It’s when you become so engrained with your own people’s way of thinking that you don’t get exposed to what the other side really thinks, and thus have free license to project the worst motivations onto them. It’s when you’ve, consciously or unconsciously, dehumanized those who fall outside your group, and once that happens you can’t help but bully and dismiss them. You become closed off from the very people you should be engaging with.

This chapter resonated with me not only because it reminded me not only of the groups that would try to oppress me, but with the groups I really agree with, but see in them a vicious mentality that I have no desire to be associated with. If anything, the latter bothers me more. I recently had a talk with a gender fluid person who felt alienated by all the trans groups she encountered on Tumblr (yes, she is the pronoun she most often uses, and she doesn’t need to use sie or zie or they to count as gender fluid). She didn’t have to explain what she meant. I’ve seen trans activists who begin name calling the moment someone writes transman and not trans man. I wish I made that up, or that it was even hyperbole, but it’s not. If I was a newbie, and those kinds of groups were the first ones I had come across, I would get discouraged fairly quickly as well, and that breaks my heart. I pointed her towards and wished her the best.

My best friend’s father regularly says things that make me bang my head against the wall; things that betray a total ignorance about disability and sexuality and mental health and virtually any point of view that is not that of a straight white middle class male. And yet, he treats me, a gay trans atheist, more like a member of his family than most of my own family does. He has pulled his car over to go defend a stranger who was being assaulted. He might rant about nanny state programs and welfare and building requirements for things like wheelchair ramps, but he’ll also volunteer at soup kitchens and buy socks for homeless shelters and devote hours to help someone build a wheelchair ramp. Be passionate about disagreeing with him politically, by all means, but never forget that whatever he thinks, he is a human being and his ideas do not define his identity or his actions.

As an atheist, I often get embroiled in arguments over which mentality has caused more destruction and bloodshed; religion or atheism. Religion has the Crusades and the Inquisition, witch hunts and modern terrorism. Atheism gets Pol Pot and the whole of communism, which atheists say doesn’t count because their deaths were in the name of communism, not atheismĀ  per se, which could turn into an interesting discussion of how a particular ideologies interlock and influence each other, but it usually doesn’t. Usually this is where people start arguing about which side to put Hitler on and Godwin’s Law has to be invoked. My answer is that the whole question is a smokescreen. I think it’s not any particular philosophy that leads humankind to do good or evil, but the shifting of focus from real human beings to abstract ideals. When people cease to be people but mere vessels for abstract concepts, when you can paint your enemies as monsters based on nothing more than the fact that you happen to think they are wrong, you create a space where evil can be done. I do think that there is a need to develop ideologies and for people to passionately argue them. There’s a need for awareness and radicalism and people who shake up the status quo. Otherwise we risk being one of those societies that drowns in it’s own failings, too fearful of change to correct our own failings. But that awareness should not eclipse our understanding of people who disagree with us as people. It should not lead us to despise each other, and it should not lead us to think we are on some fundamental level better than those who disagree with us.

Or to close out in the words of Screwtape, “Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours-and the more ‘religious’ (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here.”

Rereading The Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Four

In part two I talked about a chapter that was hard for me to say anything about, because it was too religion centric for me to get much out of it, but not anti-atheist enough for me to feel it was fair to criticize it. I solved that problem by going meta; writing about the struggle to react itself, as my reaction to the chapter. I feel I’ve said all I need to see on that topic, and so I will skip the next two chapters, which are along the same lines.

In one of the chapters I skipped, we found out a war broke out in the human world. It’s probably WWII, but that’s not important to the demons. What is important, as far as Screwtape is concerned, is how they can use the war against the Patient. That is the focus of chapter six.

“I am delighted to hear that your patient’s age and profession make it possible, but by no means certain, that he will be called up for military service. We want him to be in the maximum uncertainty, so that his mind will be filled with contradictory pictures of the future, every one of which arouses hope or fear.”

I relate to this chapter so much.

I am anxious. I am tempted to write that I have an anxiety disorder, but I won’t do that for two reasons. The first one is that I don’t have a formal diagnosis, but the second, and more important, one is that sometime around age 20 I turned a corner and it ceased to be something that stopped me from doing things I needed to do. The difference between a psychological disorder and a personal quirk is that one interferes with your daily life and the other is just a part of it. It’s one of my frustrations that people look at descriptions of mental disorders and say, “well I do that, I know lots of people who do that, and I don’t think we’re crazy, so mental disorders are full of crap.” There aren’t tidy boxes, there’s a spectrum of a variety of behaviors and patterns of thinking, and people travel back and forth across it all the time. When I was a teenager, I think it’s fair to say I was firmly on the chronically disordered end of the anxiety spectrum. For years, I physically could not answer the phone. Driving lessons gave me panic attacks. Cute boys were impossible to talk to, but so were cashiers at grocery stores.

“It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practice fortitude and patience to them all in advance.”

The cruel trick of fear is that it is not satisfied with you living through one bad thing once. It thinks you should live through it for as long as possible beforehand, and through everything else that might happen. In real life, one bad thing happening means that, at the very least, some other equally bad thing hasn’t happened. In fear, all the bad things are happening, all together.

“An important spiritual law is here involved. I have explained to you that you can weaken his prayers by diverting his attention from the Enemy Himself to his own states of mind about the Enemy. On the other hand fear becomes easier to master when the patient’s mind is diverted from the thing feared to the fear itself.”


Fear is a thorny little bitch. It turns the skin into a pincushion, folds the mind into a pretzel where all thoughts are just contradictory questions screaming at each other. It works the body into a frenzy that paralyzes. Still, it is easier to deal with those sensations directly than the worries it conjures. Fear is confined to my own body. The worries are an infinite multiverse. That was the secret I needed to learn before I could help myself. No, sadly therapists weren’t a part of that journey.

They could have helped, but luckily I’m a good self-educator. I read a lot about anxiety and tried a lot of tricks before I started finding things that worked. Now, anxiety is something perpetually present in my life, but I understand it. It’s like a game of chess that I’m compelled to play every day. On the one hand, sometimes the program I play against takes a piece, but on the other hand, I am unlimited in my ability to learn from my mistakes, while it has maxed out it’s difficulty rating. In the long run, I usually win.

“One can therefore formulate the general rule; in all activities of mind which favor our cause, encourage the patient to be un-selfconscious and to concentrate on the object, but in all activities favorable to the Enemy bend his mind back on itself.”

One thing I love about this chapter is that, even through the voice of Screwtape, Lewis does not condemn the feeling of fear. It is neither good nor bad, just a normal human reaction that he, in his religious view, labels a cross to bear. It is not even that dwelling on the fear or being controlled by it is a sin. Screwtape never suggests that making the Patient fearful will, in and of itself, corrupt him and make him unfit for heaven. His aim instead is to put the Patient in a “favorable mindset,” which I assume means to muddle his understanding of it so he loses control of how he reacts, and it’s in the reactions that sin lie.

In concluding that, I am relying somewhat on my own experience. I don’t think Lewis was thinking about anxiety disorders when he wrote this, but I thought about how, when I was at my most anxious, I did a terrible job of taking care of myself. I suppose you could regard that as a kind of sin, although this is something I dislike about the religious mindset. I don’t think it’s productive to think of actions as sinful, at least the way I’ve always understood sin. Again, it focuses the attention away from the cause of a wrong action, towards the wrong action itself. It can create feelings of shame that will be reinforced whenever the same emotions lead to the same result. It’s better to understand the initial cause, because that can lead to actual steps towards change. Admit fault, and ask forgiveness, by all means, but also understand that you, like anyone, do things for reasons. Know those reasons, and you can then try, by incremental steps, to change habits, and remake a better version of you.