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.


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