Rereading Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Nine

In many of the early chapters, I found advice that, with a little tweaking, I found insightful and still applicable to my life, and that I think would be good advice regardless of anyone’s religious affiliations. As the book progressed, I found it drifting more frequently into either advice that was harder to apply to the life of any non-Christian, and occasionally dipping its toes into the pool of the outright bad advice. Now, in Chapter 14, the book returns to ideas I can get behind with little to no amendment.

In the last several chapters, the Patient nearly fell but instead reaffirmed his faith, and Screwtape is concerned that this reconversion is entirely too humble. It is not focused on any grandiose promises of future perfection, but marked by an attitude of taking each day as they come, and quiet prayers to deal with each day’s temptation as they come, as well as for forgiveness when he inevitably screws up. This is incredibly discouraging to Screwtape.

Humility is a concept that I struggled with a lot as a child. The dangers of pride were often impressed on me, and I very much wanted to be humble. When I was a kid, I thought pride was thinking good things about yourself, and humility, as the opposite of pride, meant thinking bad things about yourself, so as a person who aspired to be good I endeavored to think as many bad things of myself as possible. This is, apparently, all part of Screwtape’s evil plan to corrupt our attempts at humility. “Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a kind of opinion, namely a low opinion, of his own talents and character… By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may be, in some cases, manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible.”

Really, I could almost do this whole entry as quotes. I still don’t think I’ve heard a better description of real humility than the following; “The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents – or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the end, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.”

Self-hatred is not humble. Objectivity is humble. Telling somebody their hair looks nice is humble. Humilities is reminding yourself that life is not a competition and you don’t need other people to suck for you to be awesome. In the secular world, I’ve encountered another version of this idea, though it is very different in packaging. It’s that idea that you are fantastic, and you should ignore those people who act proud and put you down, because what’s really going on is that they are insecure. If they were really secure, they would be able to appreciate you for who you are without trying to elevate themselves above you. People who can act humble are the ones who are confident enough to know how great they are.

I wonder if this approach to humility is more effective in really inspiring humility than warning people of the dangers to their souls if they are prideful. A long time ago my sister showed me this article about prescriptive and descriptive norms. Studies have shown that people respond better to “this is what people do” than to “this is what you should do because otherwise you’re a bad person,” particularly when it’s implied that many people do the wrong thing. Christian morality often comes salted with a good deal of original sin and the idea that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and are in need of his grace. In other words, being prideful and vain and petty and terrible is a normal thing to do, and even if you do your best to be good you don’t get full credit because you’re a human and people suck. The secular message I described above can still end up discouraging good behavior, if it’s phrased as “most people put down other people because they are insecure,” but it’s easily expressed as “the world is full of people who are confident, and because they are confident they will build you up instead of put you down.” That would have the effect of both explaining what the good behavior looks like, and subliminally encouraging them to copy it.

I’m really curious to know whether other people have observed the same distinction. How do people talk about morality in religious vs secular contexts? Which sort of advice is easier to follow?

3 thoughts on “Rereading Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Nine

  1. eaawilson says:

    What an insightful article on wisdom and self-exploration. Ultimately, when we look at the messages we are given from any source, whether religious or secular, we find that the advice is always the same:

    1. Look inside yourself if you’re looking for the truth.
    2. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
    3. Only spread goodness.
    4. You are responsible.

    People listen in different ways. Some people need the wisdom of a god-figure to guide them. Others draw from mentors or books or comedy or music or their own emotions to guide them. Neither are less noble than the other (as long as the “Only spread good” rule isn’t violated, which, frankly, it widely is in both camps…)


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