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 atheism  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.”

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