Monthly Archives: December 2014

Happy New Year’s Eve

This is the last day of 2014, and I’ll miss it. It was a really great year for me, and furthermore broke a streak of really awful years that started back around puberty. I’ll remember it well.

I’m planning on making some changes for the blog this year. My New Year’s resolution is to get it better organized (I’ve decided the secret to successful New Year’s resolutions is to make them a self-contained task that can be completed in the post New Year’s burst of energy, not something along the lines of “instantly become a better person forever”). I want to update the about page, index my Screwtape Letters reviews and get my tags and categories more streamlined.

Speaking of Screwtape, I’m only two posts away from the end of that series. I’ve enjoyed doing them, and they’ve easily been my most popular posts. My childhood was a cornucopia of Christian books and movies, so I’ve decided to continue reviewing religious themed media from an atheist’s perspective. I’ll be starting with Veggie Tales and Adventures in Odyssey, and probably get to the Chronicles of Narnia and Lewis’ Space Trilogy. Reader suggestions are welcome.

I’ve also been thinking that this blog would benefit from having a more narrow focus, so  from now on I’m going to be using this exclusively for reviews, with an emphasis on reviewing religious materials. For those of you interested in my writings on gender, writing and other ideas, my sister and I will be resurrecting an old sibling blog, The Brunette’s Blog. It’s primarily run by her but I’ll be posting regularly as well.

Thanks to everyone who has been reading, and I hope 2015 is as wonderful for you as 2014 was for me.

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Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Twenty-One

This chapter, Chapter Twenty-Nine, is all about courage. The Patient is making preparations for the bombings that are likely to come soon. Screwtape is worried for the Patient’s soul; it is far too moral and Christianly for him to die right now. Wormwood has no idea how to use the situation to his advantage. It’s a dark time for our… heroes?

Screwtape observes that the fear the Patient is experiencing can work to their advantage in one of two ways. First, the Patient can be made to act cowardly. Fear alone is not cowardice, of course. It is only when fear leads a person to act foolishly, dangerously or selfishly that the fear itself is to any advantage of the demons. Unfortunately the Patient is in a very bad state of mind to be lead that way. He is too focused on bettering himself. The only method Screwtape thinks would stand a chance is to make the Patient obsess over ways to protect himself from the worst happening. Screwtape advises making the Patient devise plans A, B, and C, which of course will only make him wonder what he will do if C fails. The longer he is kept in a state of obsessing over the danger, the more vulnerable he will be to fear.

The second method is to make the Patient feel hate. This will be difficult with the Patient at this time as well, because he is keenly aware that Christians are called to forgive their enemies. Screwtape’s best solution for a remedy is this; “If conscience resists, muddle him. Let him say that he feels hatred not on his own behalf but on that of the women and children, and that a Christian is told to forgive his own, not other people’s enemies. In other words let him consider himself sufficiently identified with the women and children to feel hatred on their behalf, but not sufficiently identified to regard their enemies as his own and therefore proper objects of forgiveness.”

I’m actually not sure what I think about that. Now, in this specific example, any hatred the Patient feels towards the bombers will likely be at least somewhat based on his own fear for his own well being, so telling himself, “I’m only hating them for other people’s sake” is obviously an excuse. That said, is it actually true that “I feel hurt and anger and hatred on someone else’s behalf” means “I have the right to forgive them in my own heart, regardless of whether or not the somebody else has”? I don’t know. Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts on this.

He goes on to describe the advantages of hatred over cowardice.

“Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful – horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember; Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear. The more he fears, the more he will hate. And Hatred is a great anodyne for shame.”

Screwtape also suggests that the Patient’s bravery could be turned to pride, but he gives no advice on how to pull this off. Instead, he spends a good deal of this chapter whining, which is actually fairly amusing to read. Times of danger are apparently of great advantage to God, because while demons can make people enjoy and even take pride in many vices, cowardice is completely unpleasant to experience and impossible to boast of. Because of this, times of danger make people assess their courage, and while love might be the greatest virtue, courage is the one demons fear most. It’s meaningless to say you have principles when you don’t have the courage to hold to them when they cost you something. As Screwtape so succinctly puts it, “Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”

He even suspects that God allows a dangerous world precisely because it allows virtues to be put to the test of courage. Screwtape also seems to think that even cowardice, when it is displayed, is somewhat disadvantageous to demons, because it can lead to redeption. “We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, the Enemy permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame. The danger of inducing cowardice in our patients, therefore, is lest we produce real self-knowledge and self-loathing with consequent repentance and humility. And in fact, in the last war, thousands of humans, by discovering their own cowardice, discovered a whole moral world for the first time.”

I do like the idea of cowardice as a means of redemption, but I am also bothered by this justification for a deadly world, particularly in light of the rest of the universe that has been described throughout the book. Now, if it was just an image of God using suffering as a means of making us into something better than we would be in a perfectly comfortable world, before going on to the next, happier life, I think there’s actually something quite nice about it. Not nice enough to make me believe it, but I could move it into the category of things I don’t personally believe in but do think they are sort of cool as concepts, like reincarnation. But when you combine it with the fact that everyone gets one chance before they are condemned to either eternal bliss or eternal agony, it becomes much uglier.

Consider, for example, child soldiers and the Hitler youth. Consider sociopaths, who are born with neurological defects that make it very difficult for them to ever develop a moral sense (not necessarily impossible, but it seems that those who don’t grow into full sociopaths had extraordinarily good environmental circumstances; people who were very loving and patient. In other words, not because they had free will and could just choose to not be sociopaths, but because somebody else was willing to take the work to teach them how to empathize). Do those people deserve to go to hell, if they were in circumstances that pressured them so heavily into doing wrong? Do they deserve heaven? I don’t know, but I’m not okay with some God deciding it was all right to make a dangerous world, and then condemning those who were bad because of the danger to an eternity in hell. I think saying he makes it dangerous so those who are good despite the danger can go to heaven is deliberately ignoring half the picture.

Growing up, I was often told that God never tests us beyond what we can handle. In other words, if you grew up in a concentration camp, because Kim Jong-il decided it was a good idea to imprison not only your father for sedition but also any children he had and any children his children will have, and you were beaten every day and barely fed, because that’s what the soldiers guarding you were commanded to do and if they disobey they’ll just be condemning their children to the same fate, you don’t get any slack for being a bit messed up by that environment. You can still go to hell for stealing and lying and betraying others to survive, nevermind that your world is so awful your capacity to empathize is shutting down from early childhood as an act of psychological self-defense. God is just testing you, and for some reason he is testing you with hell on earth while he tested me with a moderately crappy childhood, in a privileged suburban kind of way. If you failed his test, that counts against you just as much as it would against me. Nevermind that your test was obviously a thousand times harder and you were taking it from infancy. He wouldn’t test you beyond what you could handle, right?

Sorry, got a bit ranty there. Suffice to say I don’t find this justification very plausible anymore. Apart from my issues with that one point I actually liked the rest of the chapter quite a lot. I think he’s right about the importance of courage. I think he’s right about the mechanics of hatred and cowardice, and I like the idea of cowardice leading to honest self-evaluation and real character growth.

Only two more posts to go before the end of the book!

Ferris Bueller and the Nature of Goodness

*spoilers abound throughout*

During a recent bout of sickness, my boyfriend and I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, because it is a wonderful, happy movie that makes life seem less awful even when you have to periodically pause it to rush to the bathroom. While I was watching it, two things struck me. First, it is a wonderful happy movie that makes life seem less awful even when, well, I guess I covered that already. Second, Ferris Bueller does almost nothing I approve of, and yet I can’t help liking him and rooting for him. He rejects education for entirely juvenile reasons. He lies to every authority figure, bullies his best friend into going out, takes another person’s car out for a joyride and cons his way into taking someone else’s dinner reservation (both of which are on the borderline of stealing), all without showing a hint of guilt. Now, there are many stories out there with an amoral, rule-breaking protagonist, but often I root for these protagonists while cringing. I don’t want them to be doing what they are doing, but I still care about them and hope that somehow things work out for them. They are often tragic protagonists who are punished in the end for their wrongdoing, and though I didn’t want to see them suffer I also wouldn’t have been satisfied by any other ending. Ferris, however, is someone who I root for unreservedly, and when, at the end, everything works out for him, I am completely satisfied. It is the one movie that can make me forget all my normal values while I watch it.

Or is it?

The antiheroic characters I described above earn my sympathy through two methods. First, they tend to be charming, cool and often funny, so they are likable. Second, they tend to oppose characters who are unlikable, sometimes even characters who are more morally corrupt than they are. Both of those do apply to Ferris (he is funny and charming, and his main antagonist, Principal Rooney, is so rude and unapologetically overbearing, it’s impossible to root for him) but there is another layer to Ferris’ success as a character. While in an academic sense everything he does is wrong, while you are watching him do things the way he does, it’s hard to disapprove of them.

For one thing, his misbehaving is incredibly harmless. He never seeks to do harm, only to enjoy himself. I’m trying to think of bad things that could have happened offscreen as a result of his actions, and I can only think of one; the maitre d’ who was duped into giving Ferris someone else’s reservation probably got chewed out by his manager. That’s all, and odds are if he’s a decent maitre d’ who doesn’t normally make this kind of mistake, and if the manager is willing to listen to the full explanation, it’s doubtful he suffered any long term consequences. Ferris never steals from somebody who isn’t capable of easily replacing what was taken, he never lies with the intent to cause somebody else physical or emotional pain, and in general he never shows ill will towards anybody, even Mr. Rooney.

In fact, the humiliations Mr. Rooney experiences are entirely unrelated to anything Ferris does. In another movie a Ferris-like scalawag might set sadistic traps for him, but that’s not Ferris’ way. Ferris is content to get out of school, and leave Mr. Rooney in peace. It is Mr. Rooney’s own actions that hurt and humiliate him. He is rude to a lesbian who he mistakes for Ferris, and gets soda spat in his face. He trespasses on the Bueller’s property, and their dog chases him down. He trespasses again, frightens Ferris’ sister and gets the police called on him. I’ve heard some people argue that Mr. Rooney is actually just doing his job, and we just root against him because he is unsympathetic, I think that is a hard position to support. While it is true that Mr. Rooney has a responsibility to maintain his school’s attendance rate, do you think any court or review board would say that responsibility justified abandoning his school for an entire day to chase down a single absent student? Or intruding on someone else’s property? Dropping a flowerpot on their dog? Even though his anger at Ferris is somewhat reasonable, his actions are not.

So there is one reason why Ferris is easy to identify with. He never harms anyone directly, nor does he intend to hurt anyone. That doesn’t necessarily make him a good person. If he cares only about his own pleasure, without any intent to hurt others, that makes him an amorally blithe spirit. To really be considered a good person, he has to care about others in addition to caring about himself. Does he meet this criteria?

I think he does. He brings two people along with him on his day off; his best friend Cameron, and his girlfriend Sloane. At first, when Cameron is sick in bed and conflicted about going, this seems selfish. Ferris claims that Cameron’s illness is all in his head, that he is chronically depressed and anxious and what he really needs is to get out of his head and have some fun. For many characters, this would be just another sort of manipulation, or justifications made for the speaker’s  own convenience, but this movie backs this up. Once Cameron gets out of his house, he really does stop showing any signs of sickness. His facial expressions and mannerisms are very consistent with being anxious, and his parents are described as being both strict and neglectful (speaking as someone who was in the same position for a while, I related to Cameron quite a lot). After Ferris has gotten Cameron out of the house, he continues to have asides to the camera about Cameron’s mental state. Ferris only drops his carefree attitude when he talks about Cameron, because he is genuinely afraid that Cameron will never loosen up and find his confidence. At one point Sloane suggests that Ferris planned this whole trip for Cameron’s benefit, and we aren’t given any reason to think she’s wrong.

I’ve heard some people suggest that Ferris is a sociopath, and it’s true that he is manipulative and shows a callous disregard for the rules, but neither of those are the defining traits of sociopathy. What separates sociopaths from non-sociopaths is that sociopaths completely lack empathy. In fact, people who have many traits of sociopathy, but whose sense of empathy is normal, are known for being extreme altruists; the kinds of people who run into burning buildings or dart into traffic to save small children. Ferris is not a sociopath. He does two things a sociopath would never do. First, when Cameron falls into the pool, seemingly catatonic, Ferris dives in to save him. The look on his face when Cameron falls is of shock and terror, and it’s not for the benefit of any audience. Nobody else is there, except Sloane, who is behind him and couldn’t see his face anyway. Second, when Cameron, at the end of the film, destroys his father’s car, Ferris offers to take the blame. He begs for it. He says this is too much heat for Cameron to take. His feelings for Cameron are both selfless and genuine.

One of Ferris’ most morally questionable acts in the beginning of the film is stealing Cameron’s father’s red Ferrari. I say it’s the most morally questionable because, while Ferris doesn’t intend for it to be damaged, it easily could have been, and because, while Cameron’s family is probably financially capable of replacing it, it has strong emotional value to Cameron’s father.  The car is kept shut up in a garage, never driven, never used, just polished and admired and doted on. Many kids would complain jokingly about their parent’s loving some trinket more than them, but when Cameron says his father loves the Ferrari more than his own son, nobody treats it as an exaggeration. It is this transgression of Ferris’ that worries Cameron the most.

In the end, the car is returned to the garage unharmed, but Ferris’ plan to take off the miles they have driven turns out to be based on a complete lack of understanding of how cars actually work. Cameron goes catatonic for a while, and Ferris’ blithe demeanor is shaken for the first time. He is truly anxious for his friend. Then, Cameron comes out with it, and suddenly trashes his father’s car. He has lived his whole life in terror of his father, and now, facing the imminent threat of his father’s wrath, he decides the fear is not worth it. He wants to face his father, accept whatever consequences there are. This is how you get rid of fear; you stare the thing you fear in the face, and you accept it. From this point on, Cameron does seem more confident. Initially, he was a rule follower, not because he had an internal moral compass telling him to do so, but because he feared authority and devalued himself. Ferris takes him on an adventure to show him that authority is not all powerful, and that Cameron is worthy of the good times that the rules would so often deprive him of, and in the end, this pays off, though not quite the way Ferris had expected.
This movie, while portraying actions that I would never ordinarily condone, does in fact have a moral core that I completely agree with. Ferris breaks the rules because he knows that the rules aren’t always good. In this film, everyone who follows the rules does so for completely the wrong reason. They are either like Mr. Rooney, insisting on the rules because they feel the rules should benefit them personally, or like Cameron, following the rules because they are afraid of the consequences. Their morality does not come from a place of compassion, empathy, or desire to make the world a better place. Instead, it is Ferris’ mischief that actually comes from concern for others, and that makes the lives of those around him better.

Rules don’t exist to make people good. Rules can’t make people good. Rules give us a sense of how the world work, they give us a framework to live in, but it’s up to us to live in that framework in a way that is empathetic and giving. As long as the rules are consistent with that kind of inner goodness, it is good to follow them, but when that’s not always the case. Sometimes the rules are made by people who don’t really have our best interests at heart, like Cameron’s parents, or maybe the rules become just an excuse for people who aren’t acting in a way that’s really good, like Mr. Rooney. For those times, we need characters like Ferris to remind us that sometimes the best thing to do is take a day off.

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Twenty

Bombs are expected in the Patient’s neighborhood. At the beginning of Chapter Twenty-Eight, Wormwood is delighted at the imminent destruction he will be able to witness, but Screwtape is not so thrilled. He is even a bit anxious. The Patient, he says, if he were to die now, would be dying at the worst time possible.
“He has escaped the worldly friends with whom you tried to entangle him; he has “fallen in love” with a very Christian woman and is temporarily immune from your attacks on his chastity; and the various methods of corrupting his spiritual life which we are trying are so far unsuccessful.”

In short, if the Patient dies right now, he will almost certainly go to Heaven. Screwtape goes on to speculate that Wormwood is excessively absorbing the human point of view. He says that God only allows a few humans, relative to the masses who die young, to live until old age, because he knows that time is on the side of tempters.

“But, if only he can be kept alive, you have time itself for your ally. The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it – all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.”

Perhaps, Screwtape thinks, God wants a few people in heaven who have certain spiritual qualities that can only come from a lifetime of resisting temptations, for he can’t think of another reason for this to happen. Death is entirely an advantage of God’s and it is the demons who hope for long life for their “patients.”

“How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious to him that human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life.”

This is an inversion of how we normally think, but not one that was entirely unfamiliar to me when I first read this book. I’ve heard versions of it in sermons and other religious writings. At my Grandfather’s funeral, I was told that he was dancing with the angels in heaven, and that he would laugh to see us all so sad for him. To a Christian, life is just a brief time when humans are forced to be a little further from God, and, provided they live a good life (and, according to most but not all Christians, attend the right church), death is the time that they get to return to God. Death is not sad for the dying, but only for those who are left behind.

Whether this idea is optimistic or pessimistic, and whether it’s healthy or toxic, really depends on the person holding the belief. For some, it leads to a Puritanical dismissal of earthly pleasure, or worse, an excuse for rejecting human beings. There might be plenty of nice atheists and homosexuals and godless liberals out there, but hanging out with that sort of people might lead you down the wrong path, and isn’t eternal life in heaven worth missing out on being with some nice people who are just going to end up in hell? This is the reason I wasn’t allowed to go over to the house of my next door Chinese neighbors. I might come out Buddhist or something. But for others, the view of death as the part where life really begins doesn’t diminish the importance of the life we have here. This part is important too, even if it’s finite, and the idea that death just brings people back to God is comforting, particularly to those who have lost someone.

Some atheists, I’ve found, are as offended by the idea of death as a good thing as Christians are offended by the atheist belief that death is the tragic, inescapable and irreversible end of consciousness. Atheists find the idea of death as good as unempathetic towards those who have died. Christians think that the atheistic perspective on death is unbearably depressing.

For the Christians out there, I think I’ll take a moment to express my own beliefs about death. Honestly, I hate the idea that death is simply the end, and that nothing happens afterwards. However, I think it is foolish and cowardly to convince myself to not believe something simply because I do not like the implications. I don’t see any good reason to believe in an afterlife. I can do one of two things with that. I can exhaust myself trying to change my beliefs, through some sort of intellectual dishonesty or self-delusion, or I can be honest about what makes sense to me, and find a way to be hopeful anyway.

I find hope in this; I am alive now. I am one of the few privileged people who gets to be alive now, as opposed to all the people who are no longer alive, and all the people who have not yet come to life. As a living person, I have not only the ability, but the responsibility, to live. Life is full of opportunity. There are people to love, books to read, beautiful autumn trees to see, foods to eat, dreams to dreams. I get to philosophize, to write, to find ways to make my mark on the world while I’m here. When I die, the world will, in some small way, not be the same world I was born into, because of my actions, and I get to choose what those actions are. I have very little control over whether the life I live is long or short, but I do get to choose whether, for the time I lived it, it was worth living.

In a strange way, that leads me to a conclusion that is not dissimilar from Lewis’s. We both agree that the ultimate good is not a long life, but a worthwhile life. The short life of someone who helped others and enjoyed their time is better than the long life of someone who hurt others and lived in bitterness. The difference is that Lewis thinks that the short life was more worthwhile because it might lead to an infinite amount of time with God in Heaven, and I think the short life was more worthwhile because, to borrow from The Fault in Our Stars, it was the short infinity that person had, and they used it well.

All of which has little to do with the Screwtape Letters itself. I have mixed feelings about this chapter. Some of the thoughts it raised in my mind were interesting, but once again, I am bothered by the cosmology. We have been told that God and the Devil are in combat for this man’s soul, as they are for every soul. This chapter made me think about an aspect of that battle that I had not considered before; God, if we believe he has control over when people die, which the chapter implies he does with the talk of him allowing people to live long or short lives, can pick whether he wins any given soul. We are lead to believe that there are a number of people who went to hell, not because they never believed, but because they believed, and then lived long enough to fall away or reconsider, and happened to die while they were backsliding. In other words, God could have chosen to kill them ten or fifteen years earlier, and guaranteed that they were allowed to go to Heaven. Instead, they were condemned to Hell.

In fact, I myself am an example of this principle, assuming that Lewis’s perspective is right and that I never reconvert. If Lewis is right, I am going to Hell, but God could have guaranteed that I avoid that fate, simply by killing me off as a teenager. It wouldn’t have been bad for me at all. It might have been terrible for some of my friends and family members, but all of them were Christians so they would have all met me again anyway. Instead, he let me live, and I grew apart from him, and so I’m going to live for an eternity apart from him. You know, because of love.

The more I read this book, the less I miss this particular brand of Christianity.

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Nineteen

I’ve skipped previous chapters before, because they were so completely irrelevant to non-Christians that I didn’t have anything to say, positive or negative. I don’t have an issue with Christians being Christians, I have an issue with Christians being oppressive to atheists and other religious groups, so I won’t challenge Lewis when he says “this is a good way to be a Christian,” but I will when he says, “this is why everyone should believe exactly the way I do,” especially when he gets superior about how he has it all figured out, which he often does. For that reason, this post on Chapter Twenty-Seven will be the first time I comment on a chapter Lewis has done about prayer, because it has the first time he has left the “good way to be a Christian” camp for “people who are skeptical of Christianity are just plain wrong” camp.

He does start out in the former camp, on the topic of intercessory prayers, and whether prayer is for big, spiritual issues, or whether God wants you to ask him for help getting a decent grade this semester. Lewis is for simple prayers, in case anyone was curious. Then Lewis has Screwtape start supplying Wormwood with reasons to believe that such prayers are ineffective.

“Don’t forget to use the ‘heads I win, tails you lose,’ argument. If the thing he prays for doesn’t happen, then that is one more proof that petitionary prayers don’t work; if it does happen, he will, of course, be able to see some of the physical causes which led up to it, and ‘therefore it would have happened anyway,’ and thus a granted prayer becomes just as good a proof as a denied one that prayers are ineffective.”

Well, yes. That’s a rational reason to be skeptical of the efficacy of prayer. Lewis Screwtape’s rebuttal is that God is not bounded by time, and so just because prayers start being answered before the prayers start doesn’t really mean anything. Which… okay. I mean, if you’ve already accepted the premise that God exists and that he is unbounded by time, that’s internally consistent, but that is really the best I can say about that line of reasoning; if you already believe it, you probably find it believable. But it’s not really a defense against doubt. Occams’ Razor mutilates it.

But what really bothers  me about this chapter, and the book as a whole, is the flippant attitude he takes against people who he disagrees with. For example, Screwtape explains to Wormwood that hiding this obvious fact about eternity and divinity from the Patient is easy because, in essence, humans are too stupid to properly understand it.

“You, being a spirit, will find it difficult to understand how he gets into this confusion. But you must remember that he takes Time for ultimate reality… If you tried to explain to him that men’s prayers today are one of the innumerable coordinates with which the Enemy harmonises the weather of tomorrow, he would reply that then the Enemy always knew men were going to make those prayers and, if so, they did not pray freely but were predestined to do so. And he would add that the weather on a given day can be traced back through its causes to the creation of matter itself – so that the whole thing, both on the human and on the material side, is given ‘from the word go.’ What he ought to say, of course, is obvious to us; that the problem of adapting the particular weather to the particular prayers is merely the appearance, at two modes in his temporal mode of perception, of the total problem of adapting the whole spiritual universe to the whole corporeal universe; that creation in its entirety operates at every point of space and time, or rather that their kind of consciousness forces them to encounter the whole, self-consistent creative act as a series of successive events… the Enemy does not foresee the humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in his unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it.”

Well, that’s a nice pretzel you’ve twisted yourself into, Lewis. And I will give you this; it’s still internally consistent. That’s all I’m giving you. To propose an alternative explanation that doesn’t actually contradict itself is not the same as being right. For example, I could propose that we never landed on the moon, that the whole thing was faked by the US government, and I could construct a web of conspiracy and deception that included both political parties, every reputable astronomer on the planet, the staff at Wikipedia, the staff at Google, and several personal friends and acquaintances, to explain away all the overwhelming evidence in favor of a moon landing, and that conspiracy could be internally consistent. That would not, however, make it plausible, much less true.

Furthermore, though the argument itself is internally consistent, the framing of the argument is inconsistent. It is simultaneously presented as an obvious argument that destroys all doubt, and a line of reasoning so lofty and beyond our mere mortal comprehension that only the most brilliant (such as Lewis himself) can grasp it. At the time I originally read it, as a teenager, I didn’t notice this, but now it smacks of manipulation. He is framing his argument this way so that readers who disagree with him will feel stupid. He talks it up as obvious and simple, and then turns that around into “oh no, I mean it’s obvious and simple to us really intelligent folk, you know, the ones who are able to detach our minds for the mundane human conception of time and really perceive the universe as it is.” If I may use a tired but still appropriate metaphor, he’s telling us we are obviously too impure to see the Emperor’s new clothes.

Meanwhile, he has failed to show any logical problems with the original objection raised. It, too, is internally consistent, and perfectly consistent with the world we live in, as we all experience it. It is the simpler explanation by every metric, and that’s before you look at the fact that actual studies of prayer have consistently failed to reveal any evidence of prayer having effects beyond that of a rather pitiful placebo.

Which brings me to this point. This chapter isn’t really about the efficacy of prayer, or the rationality of prayer, but the consistency of prayer with free will. Prayer is focused on, but in the end what he’s achieved is not a strong argument for prayer, but a reconciliation of prayer with free will within his own constructed metaphysical universe. I’ve noticed that the closer Lewis gets to the end of his book, the more he emphasizes the importance of free will. I’ve also noticed that, the closer he gets to the end of the book, the smaller and smaller the temptations the demons have to make in order to take the Patient off the straight and narrow.

Free will is an important concept to Christians who believe in hell, because otherwise they are left the question of “how do you expect us to believe in a loving diety who arbitrarily condemns the majority of his creation to eternity in hell?” (Note that I resisted the urge to put that in all caps with seventeen exclamation points.) It’s an essential point because it absolves God of blame. It means that it’s not God’s fault we get eaten by demons forever if we doubt him for a few moments before we die, we chose to doubt out of our own free will!

And here is the logical inconsistency, hidden away while the whole issue of prayer gets waved in our faces like a magician’s wand. Lewis keeps claiming that if we are only rational and sensible enough, we all have the capacity to use our free will to make the right choices and freely conform to God. Except, of course, that our human conception of time makes it hard for us to contemplate the nature of prayer and free will without coming up with doubts that are entirely reasonable from our perspective. Oh, and that the natural rhythms of our own life cycles and human bodies make it easy for us to mistake a genuine conversion for a whim or a phase. And that we are sexual beings, but if we fail to walk an incredibly narrow path of sexual purity we have fallen into the path of Satan. Also that we all have professional demons looking over our shoulders supplying us with arguments, and those demons in turn have professional mentors, passing on the wisdom of ages. Or how about all the times in this book where it’s been implied heavily by Screwtape that if Wormwood had only followed his advice properly, the Patient would have missed some crucial turning point and be theirs already?

So we have free will, given to us by a loving God who just wants us to freely chose him, and this choice is totally free except for all the ways he has primed us to be susceptible to temptation? Plus we are all born with our own personal bad influence, who we can never see or walk away from? How generous and loving of him.

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Eighteen

In this chapter, Screwtape encourages Wormwood to plan ahead. He thinks Wormwood should assume the Patient and his girlfriend are going to marry, and begin to sow the seeds of marital discontent now. Currently, he says, they are in the state of love that resembles an enchantment, where everything feels bubbly and perfect. According to Screwtape, many broken relationships actually get their start here, where demons encourage bad behaviors that the couple fails to deal with, because the NRE makes everything easily forgivable. They think they’ve solved problems with the power of their love, when really they’ve only thrown a pretty doily over them.

The trick Screwtape recommends most heavily is the promotion of “Unselfishness.” He distinguishes between unselfishness and actual kindness. Kind acts are things that you do in order to make someone else’s lives better. Unselfishness, according to Screwtape, is a character trait you can earn XP in, and when you get enough points you get to level up and become a level 10 Awesome Human Being, or so demons like to encourage humans to think. This simple substition allows demons to encourage humans to become blind to the real consequences of their behavior, and focus instead on how to best achieve moral superiority. In the case of the Patient and his girlfriend, he wants Wormwood to encourage them to replace the inclination for charity that their NRE has produced with a tendency to do what they don’t want to do so that they can experience subsequent feelings of victorious superiority, tinged with a little resentment. This is bad enough on the small scale, and if nurtured can lead toward real dysfunction in the long run.

Screwtape offers an example of how unselfishness can look when it has been nurtured in a group of people for a long time.

“Something quite trivial, like having tea in the garden, is proposed. One member takes care to make it quite clear (though not in so many words) that he would rather not but is, of course, prepared to do so out of ‘Unselfishness.’ The others withdraw their proposal, ostensibly through their ‘Unselfishness,’ but really because they don’t want to be used as a sort of lay figure on which the first speaker practices petty altruisms. But he is not going to be done out of his debauch of Unselfishness either. He insists on doing ‘what the others want.’ They insist on doing what he wants. Passions are roused. Soon someone is saying, ‘very well then, I won’t have any tea at all!’ and a real quarrel ensues with bitter resentment on both sides.”

Everyone leaves able to feel like they’ve won the war of moral superiority, able to see the selfishness inherent in everyone else’s unselfishness, but fails to see it in themselves.

This whole chapter I liked quite a bit. There was one aside where he explained said that women demonstrate unselfishness by “taking trouble for others,” inconveniencing themselves for someone else’s sake or actively giving to someone, while men demonstrate unselfishness by not giving trouble to others. This is a bit gender essentialist of him, but not entirely wrong. If you change it from an absolute statement to “men tend to be taught that being considerate of others means this and women tend to be raised with different expectations,” I think it’s an accurate observation. I also think that both approaches to kindness can be right in different situations, and the trick is to learn how to do both, not just the one you were raised to think about. The problem lies in doing one in a situation where the other is called for, and patting yourself on the back for being “unselfish” because you fulfilled your own definition of good behavior, rather than think about what the other person really needed. That, I think, was the reason Lewis brought up the distinction in the first place.

Apart from that nitpick, I don’t have much to add to it except “yup, uh-huh, that’s so true,” which made it very enjoyable for me to read but a little more difficult to write about. I think his analysis was not only good but also comprehensive, which leaves me with little to say except, “well said, Mr. Lewis.”