Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Seven

In Chapters 8 and 9, Screwtape explains to Wormwood the law of undulation; a fancy way to say humans go through highs and lows. Both times it came up I got excited about it, but he never took it in a direction that interested me. In the previous chapter, Screwtape got wrapped up in the psychology of God. See my earlier post for my thoughts on that. In Chapter 9, he starts with interesting points about pleasure (which I’ll hold for now because I remember that they come up later), but then abandons that point to teach Wormwood how to use The Patient’s period of undulation to convince him his earlier religiosity was merely a phase.

There’s a recurring problem in this book. Lewis talks a lot about bad reasons to be an atheist. He never has Screwtape raise doubts via, say, the problem of evil, even though the Patient seems to be intellectually curious enough to have puzzled over these kinds of thoughts. He only has Screwtape set up strawmen, which he himself knocks down. “Of course there is no conceivable way of getting by reason from the proposition ‘I am losing interest in this’ to the proposition ‘this is false.’ But as I said before, it is jargon, not reason, you must rely on.” Why not reason? It worked for me and my sister and my brother-in-law and Richard Dawkins and any number of other atheists. Of course, Lewis himself was an intelligent man who was a believer, but he must have known many atheists who came to disbelief via reason, so why not take this opportunity to explain why he disagrees with them?

I don’t know the answer, but in Chapter 10, he introduces the first non-believers this book has seen, except for The Patient at the beginning of the book, and their characterization is troubling. They are a married couple, “rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly skeptical about everything in the world. I gather they are even vaguely pacifist, not on moral grounds but from an engrained habit of belittling anything that concerns the great mass of their fellow men and from a dash of purely fashionable and literary communism.” Now, I know a great many skeptical, intellectual people. The vast majority of them are not in the least like the couple he describes. Their convictions come from deep honesty and concern. I will give Lewis this, however; among every group of idealists there’s always that one who is just parroting the ideas that seem to be popular among their friends. What bothers me is not that he has characterized two of his characters this way, but that, as far as I recall, these are the only atheists we will see in the entire book.

Screwtape is gratified by these friends, because of the ways he and Wormwood can use their company to make The Patient into a hypocrite. “There is a subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a mortal can imply that he is of the same party as those to whom he is speaking… He will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent. He will assume, at first only by his manner, but presently by his words, all sorts of cynical and skeptical attitudes which are not really his. But if you play him well, they may become his. All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.” I’ll give this to Lewis; this is one of the many times when his observational skills are eerily accurate. We like to believe our opinions are all born out of rational thought and conscious will, but with frightening accuracy we come to think not what we really think ourselves but what those around us think, or what we think they want us to think.

My first education on this was in the Christian community. I was surrounded by hardcore right-wingers, and although I did not like everything I heard, I mimicked the people around me. As a result, when I swung to the left I became wary of becoming too engrained in ideas I had not personally examined. I will not say I am immune to wanting to agree with my friends to fit in with them, but I am at least aware of it. I don’t pretend this weakness is the domain of the religious or the conservative alone, either. It’s human nature and will appear in all communities.

Lewis has a solution to this infectiousness of opinions. Screwtape rejoices over the reduction, in recent years, of religious leaders preaching the dangers of The World, and the remedy of retreating from it. “In modern Christian writings, though I see much (indeed more than I like) about Mammon, I see few of the old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, and the Value of Time. All that your patient would probably classify as ‘Puritanism’.” Clearly Lewis was living in a very different world from mine. Warnings about The World were abundant. Don’t associate with nonbelievers. Don’t read their books, listen to their music or watch their TV shows. Go to Bible camp and live in houses where every wall has a cross or sampler of Bible verses. Be as out of touch with the outside world as possible; that way you protect your precious beliefs from being challenged, and you will get to go to heaven.

Screwtape describes what will happen if The Patient continues his association with his friends. He will become a split person; acting one way when he is in church and another way when he is with his friends. The hypocrisy will affect the way he thinks and pave the way for future apostasy. He gives Wormwood some strategies for helping The Patient maintain the relationship; the only danger he sees to their cause is The Patient ceasing the acquaintance. The solution Lewis is pushing on the readers is obvious. Don’t associate with liberal nonbelievers. Cloister yourself away to keep your mind free from temptation.

Here’s what that kind of living did for me. It kept me lonely, because every time someone made a dirty joke or talked about a book I wasn’t supposed to read, I felt like I was doing something wrong by being friends with them. The group of friends I felt were approved was small, and the overlap between my interests and theirs even smaller. It shut off my mind from science and philosophy and the richness that real study brings. It made me closeted and dysphoric and miserably depressed. It burdened twelve, fourteen, sixteen year old me with guilt over things like feeling aroused, enjoying the beat of a hip-hop song, or admiring someone’s tattoo. Goodness became wholly divorced from ideas like kindness, patience and generosity, and became a competition of who could live the most alienatingly Christian life.

Nowhere does Screwtape suggest that Wormwood guard against The Patient saving himself from hypocrisy by honestly engaging his new friends in a discussion of their differences. An honest discussion could allow him to maintain his friendship and his faith with none of the hypocrisy that could be so useful to Screwtape. It might even change the minds of his friends, and if not convert them outright, make them more honest in their convictions. This makes it an incredibly dangerous possibility for Screwtape and Wormwood. Surely Screwtape has some advice on how to avoid it, or at least on how to use such conversations, if they come up, to deconvert The Patient. It makes no sense for his character to ignore the possibility that the mounting hypocrisy might cause The Patient to say, “actually, I’m a Christian, and here’s what I think.”

I can, however, think of a reason for Lewis to keep Screwtape mute on this subject. Raising the possibility that these friends might have a healthy friendship with The Patient, particularly one based on mutual understanding and respectful dissent, muddies the moral picture he has painted. The same goes for the possibility of The Patient deconverting based not on moods and trends and fuzzy logic, but honestly, intensively reflective thought and conversation. For this story to work, The Patient and his friends cannot be condemned for thoughtful, rational work. It takes the hidden problem I wrote about last time, and puts it in plain sight for all readers to contemplate.

My best friend is a Christian. They (they use gender neutral pronouns) recently emailed me this article. It came with the comment, “his teachers and friends sound like you, and his brand of Christianity sounds like mine.” I believe the first part was intended as a compliment, as his teachers and friends were people who challenged him, but in ways that made him feel he grew as both a believer and as a person. I certainly take it as one. I, for my part, am glad to no longer be the person who hides in a world where everyone agrees with me. I am happy to be reminded daily that I can be disagreed with by a person who is kind and intelligent and great company. Companionship should not be dependent on consensus. People aren’t meant to be cloistered away where they are never challenged. And it disturbs me that Lewis is so willing to point out the infectiousness of the thoughts of others when it comes to The World, but not when it comes to the community he happens to belong to.

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