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.

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