Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Fifteen

I think the biggest weakness of Lewis’ logical arguments is how often he misunderstands, oversimplifies or outright ignores the counterarguments that real people who disagree with him would make. This chapter, for example, has him arguing that everything we are, all the time we have and everything we own does not really belong to us, but ultimately to God. He states that there is no counterargument.

“The assumption which you want him to go on making is so absurd that, if once it is questioned, even we cannot find a shred of argument in its defence. The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels. He is also, in theory, committed to a total service of the Enemy; and if the Enemy appeared to him in bodily form and demanded that total service for even one day, he would not refuse. He would be greatly relieved if that one day involved nothing harder than listening to the conversation of a foolish woman; and he would be relieved almost to the pitch of disappointment if for one half-hour in that day the Enemy said ‘now you may go and amuse yourself.’ Now if he thinks about his assumption for a moment, even he is bound to realise that he is actually in this situation every day. When I speak of preserving this assumption in his mind, therefore, the last thing I mean you to do is to furnish him with arguments in its defence. There aren’t any.”

Everything comes from God, therefore everything really is God’s, and God may come in and make demands on whatever we have regardless of what it means to us. He goes on to say that the false sense of ownership is something encouraged by demons and of great use to them.

Well, there are counterarguments to that. One is simply to disagree with his assertion that there is a God to have everything, but I think even before you get that far there are some flaws in his reasoning. I almost hesitate to make the arguments, because I think he applies his conclusion in some good ways. “We produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion. We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun-the finely graded differences that run from ‘my boots’ through ‘my dog,’ ‘my servant,’ ‘my wife,’ ‘my father,’ ‘my master,’ and ‘my country,’ to ‘my God.’ They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of ‘my boots,’ the ‘my’ of ownership. Even in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by ‘my Teddy-bear’ not the old imagined recipient of affection to whom it stands in a special relation… but ‘the bear I can pull to pieces if I like.'” He’s arguing against the concept of ownership because that leads us to use our time, selves, relationships and things in ways that are contrary to how they should be used. His ultimate conclusion is one that I agree with, but his penultimate one is not.

If he had not completely dismissed everyone who might agree with him, this might be another chapter I skip on the grounds that he is speaking too much about religion to religious people. However, his complete dismissal of counterarguments makes me feel the need to make them, just because I’m ticked off at his continued habit of ignoring people who disagree with him. Furthermore, as I think of it, I realize that a lot of the judgmental attitude I encountered, in the Christian world, towards atheists and the secular world in general, is based on this idea that thinking you have a right to your own life is inherently selfish and absurd. Thinking that you can have a real claim on your life, your body and your time is not an inevitably bad belief. The mere idea that you have rights is predicated on the assumption that you own, at the very least, your own self. Why fight for human rights if you deny that anyone can possess anything?

Lewis justifies moral behavior, particularly generous and giving behavior, with the assumption that as we do not own anything, we must give back to God whatever he demands in whatever way he demands it. I frequently agree with him about what moral behavior looks like, but my explanation for why it is necessary is different. While some things are ours, like our individual lives, most things are ultimately shared. Everything that makes life possible is shared; the sun, the air, the water we drink and the soil that grows our food. Most things that we produce are the result of shared social effort. We could not own them if other humans had put in effort to either directly make them or indirectly make them possible. Shared social effort is possible only when people treat each other well, which is why humans with a moral sense are a successful form of life. When we act in a way that is conscious of the network we interact within, and that is to the best interest of as many people as possible within it, we call that morality, and the result of it is a world I am happier to live in.

My idea that I own some small things, like my own person and identity and time, does not contradict this moral sense that affirms generosity and kindness. From one point of view it seems to, but from another it affirms it. For example, when I spend some of my own time making somebody feel better, I am participating in a community of nice people who try to make each other feel better. Someday I might need somebody to give some of their time to me. I might not get that time as a direct result of having given someone else my time when part of me didn’t want to, but I have earned my right to hang out with the kind of people who are willing to give their time to others who need it.

So that is why I disagree with his insistence that his perspective is the only way you can look at this issue. I also see a flaw in his reasoning, as he states it. He calls everything from God a “gift.” Well, as I understand it, the entire point of a gift is that once it is given, the recipient owns it. The giver has relinquished all claim on how it must be used. If I give someone a book, I cannot later demand that they trash it in protest of the statements the author made on gay rights, or say they cannot re-gift it to someone else who they think would enjoy the book more. It is now their book.

Now, he may be using the word “give” in the sense that I use the word “loan.” I can loan something and stipulate that it be given back at a certain date or only used in a certain way. Even there, though, not every demand I can make is fair or legitimate. It is one thing to loan someone a Princess Mononoke DVD and expect that it will be given back by the end of the week. It is less reasonable to demand that they only watch it with subtitles, as whether they watch it that way or not does not affect me or my later use of the DVD. There are demands I could make that make sense and are unobjectionable, and there are demands I could make that are ridiculous, controlling or insensitive to the person I am supposedly doing this for.

There was a time in my life when I felt like nothing was mine. I was extremely depressed, anxious and isolated, and I realized that part of what was going wrong was that I was nearly done with my teens and I had never been a teenager. Everything I read, watched, listened to and wore was being passed through a filter of what was pre-approved by James Dobbs and Focus on the Family and all the other things conservative Christian kids are raised on. I wanted to see what it was like to dye my hair and read Harry Potter. My father was furious. Surprisingly, he did cave on the hair, but there were a lot of other things I wasn’t allowed to wear, and he was absolutely adamant on the books. Even having something like Harry Potter in the house was practically inviting Satan to live in our basement. Books that offered different perspectives on religion were similarly unwanted. I had to hide even fairly respectful and nuanced books like The History of God and God is Not One. His justification for forbidding these things to a kid who was seventeen, eighteen, even twenty years old, was that he owned the house, and so nothing that was in it could be mine. I only had things that he allowed me to have. Even things that I bought with money I earned at my job weren’t mine; he said that if it wasn’t for him buying my food and paying the bills, I wouldn’t have the disposable income to get my own things. This made me feel incredibly trapped; I couldn’t be myself in my home, but I did not have the ability to leave it. When Lewis describes living in a world where everything is God’s and everything must be used in the way that he decrees, that is what I think about.

As I describe it, I think most people can see that this level of control was unreasonable for my father to place on me. I am my own person, and I needed to be allowed to figure out for myself who that was; that is the essence of being a teenager. Now, for argument’s sake, let’s assume there is a God. Let’s further assume that my father is right about what he demands of us, and that by disobeying my father I was also disobeying God. Do the demands and the total lack of self-ownership then become reasonable? I don’t think so. The life I had been commanded to lead had left me depressed and anxious. As a person who prayed daily and tried to follow every commandment to the best of my ability, I cried myself to sleep every night and had bursts of crying every day as well. I was so anxious I could barely answer the phone, and I could not walk to the local coffeeshop alone and have a private drink without having a meltdown. As a person who dyed my hair and read forbidden books, in some strange, inexplicable way I found myself, and I slowly learned how to interact with people and even make friends. I even stopped crying. I was objectively, measurably better off doing things my own way than when I was trying to follow “God’s will.”

So, if God was the one giving me the original commandment to follow the lifestyle of the strict conservative Christian, and he had the right to give me that order to do that because he really owned me, then he was giving me commands to destroy his own property. He was the one interpreting “my” in the same sense of “my teddy which I can pull to pieces if I like.” This has gotten into the territory of the Euthypro dilemma. If God exists, is goodness good because it is what God has decreed is good, or does God decree what is good because it is good. If the latter, I don’t need God’s commands to be good. I need to be good, and whether I’m doing it because God tells me to or not doesn’t matter. But if the answer is the former, I think that just makes goodness arbitrary. Morality becomes simply what the biggest person in the room says it should be. Even if it were proved to me tomorrow that God was real, he was the conservative God of Lewis and my father, and I will be damned if I don’t follow his words to the letter, I would not change any of my choices. I might no longer claim to be an atheist, but I won’t follow the commands of someone who I don’t think is taking good care of me and my loved ones. I refuse to be the teddy bear he gets to tear to bits if he wants.

So this is my response to Lewis. I own myself. I own my time. I own all the things I have personally earned. However, I have a responsibility to take good care of those things, and to use them in ways that better myself and the shared world around me, for the good of everyone. I do not need an almighty God sticking his flag into my person in order to make moral choices about how I make use of what is mine.

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