Monthly Archives: January 2015

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; God Wants Me To Forgive Them?!?

I’ll admit, I’m having a little bit of trouble figuring out what to do with forgiveness, now that I’m an atheist. I don’t mean that I’ve suddenly taken to holding permanent grudges. People who apologize to me still get to hear a some variation on “I accept your apology.” My crisis is more metaphysical. I was raised to think of forgiveness in a very Christian context. Sins were stains on our soul, but forgiveness washed them away, and just as God washed our sins away, we are required to follow his example and forgive others. Now that I’m an atheist, forgiving still feels like a generally good thing to do, but why? What am I really doing when I forgive? Now that I don’t believe in a God demanding that I forgive everyone, is it ever acceptable to choose to not forgive? Is that ever a good decision?

The second Veggie Tales episode is one of the many Christian stories that helped form my understanding of forgiveness, prior to atheism. It opens with a letter from a kid who is frustrated by this whole, “God says forgive everyone, seriously, you do not have a choice in this,” issue. Larry leads us straight into the first story; The Grapes of Wrath.

"Once upon a time, there were some very cranky grapes."
“Once upon a time, there were some very cranky grapes.”

This one is actually a bit bland and preachy, as Veggie Tales goes. It was only the second episode, and I think they were still finding their voice. It opens with a family of grapes driving around, being petty and mean for no reason, until they encounter Jr. Asparagus. They bully Jr. until he starts crying and Jr’s Dad comes out to see what’s going on. He then puts on his best patient grown-up lecture voice, and explains to them that the thing about being mean is that being mean is mean and you should probably not do it. This is apparently a novel concept to them. They apologize, with a promise to not do it again, and Jr. forgives them.

The grapes keep their promise for all of five seconds. Jr’s Dad comes out and reminds them of that whole “don’t be assholes” thing, and they apologize again, and then Jr. is told to forgive them again.

Might I refresh your memory as to how well that worked last time?
Might I refresh your memory as to how well that worked last time?

Jr. isn’t a fan of this, but all it takes to get him to accept the apology for a second time is the reminder that Jesus once told his disciples that they should forgive people “not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” (Matthew 18:22) This was apparently a complex metaphor for “you never stop forgiving.”

This is one of those places where Christian teachings did not set me up well for the future. The trouble with repeatedly forgiving somebody is that sometimes the fact that they keep having to apologize means that, A. they don’t have any actual intention to improve their behavior, but are merely apologizing as a learned behavior to avoid consequences and therefore B. they are not actually good people to be around. The trouble with sticking around people after they’ve hurt you again and again is that often you end up getting hurt really badly.

That said, I do actually think it is important for kids to learn to forgive repeatedly. The fact is that humans, despite the best of intentions, often screw up a few more times before they actually change for the better. In little kids, this tendency is a wee bit exaggerated. In the short term, they have very little self-control, but they are also in the middle of forming their personalities, their identities and their whole style of interacting with people. They will make mistakes and need to be forgiven again and again and again. However, the lesson of giving second chances, once learned, sometimes does have to be unlearned. Adults, have more self-control in the short term, but are less malleable in the long run. A mistake an adult makes a second time is more likely to be a mistake they make a third time, a third mistake more likely to be repeated a fourth one, and so on. Sometimes, you really are better off not forgiving them, and erecting some barriers instead.

Which brings me to the second story of the episode. Bob and Larry tell a story about when they were younger and worked taking people on luxury boat tours. There is apparently a Gilligan’s Island parody in here as well, but I’ve never seen the original show so I’m not qualified to dissect it. Wacky hijinks lead Larry to crash the boat and strand them all on a deserted but very photogenic island, and they all yell at them.

He was temporarily under the belief that he was a Russian captain rescuing stranded whales. Coulda happened to anybody.
He was temporarily under the belief that he was a Russian captain rescuing stranded whales. Coulda happened to anybody.

He apologizes, and they don’t forgive him. He apologizes again, and they still don’t forgive him. They erect bamboo huts, and when he bunks down with Bob for the night he tries apologizing again, but Bob just tells him, “sorry isn’t good enough.” Larry lies there thinking about this, and decides that “sorry isn’t good enough,” really means “you’re not good enough.” He decides this means that everyone would be happier if he wasn’t around anymore, so he runs off into the jungle.

His correlation between “sorry isn’t good enough,” and “you’re not good enough” sounds like an overreaction at first, but I think there’s actually something to it. Sometimes it means, “you need to do something to make up for this,” but in this case there is nothing that Larry can do. It could also mean that Larry needs to rebuild trust, but that could have been communicated more clearly. “I still care about you, but if we ever get off this island I will need to see you work on your attentional issues before I can trust you to steer a boat again,” would have been more honest, kinder, and much more constructive. In this case, “sorry isn’t good enough,” is just a way to shut Larry out, which is making Larry feel like he’s not loved enough to be forgiven.

The next morning, Bob wakes up to find Larry missing, and goes looking for him. Meanwhile, Dad Asparagus, who is a scientist in this story, is experimenting with inventions to get them all back on shore. The catapult he’s trying to demonstrate misfires and knocks Bob into the other two passengers, but when Dad Asparagus apologizes everyone forgives him. They start talking about how good it feels to forgive and be forgiven, and suddenly realize why Larry ran off. They find him, forgive him, and then a successful invention of Dad Asparagus’ gets them all home safe.

There are two types of forgiveness demonstrated in the episode, as well as two justifications for forgiving people. The two types of forgiveness are forgiveness of someone who has done something maliciously, and forgiveness of someone who has done something unintentionally. In the second story, Larry isn’t a bad person. He didn’t want to do harm, and not forgiving him just feels cruel. In the former, there is some question of whether or not the grapes really deserve to be forgiven. Both stories, however, leave out a crucial part of the narrative. Do the offending people recognize what they did wrong, and attempt to fix it? Forgiveness is an act of trust. It says, “I will let go of this experience, and I trust you to keep it from happening again.” Sometimes that trust will have to be offered more than once, but at a certain point the repeated mistakes becomes a dangerous pattern. But how do you know when you’ve reached that point? Is there a middle ground, a type of forgiveness where you keep holding onto the relationship, but become more wary in the future? Also, is it really forgiveness if you just realized the whole thing was an accident or a misunderstanding? In that case, there isn’t really any blame, so how can there be forgiveness? It seems like there can only be forgiveness where there is real blame, which brings me back to the question of whether it is really wise to forgive fully and unconditionally every time? I still don’t have answers to those questions, and possibly there aren’t any.

The two justifications given are “because God tells you to,” and “because not being forgiven hurts.” The first one, of course, has no relevance to my life anymore. The second one does. I like people. There are people who I care about in my life. All of them have hurt me, at some point in my life. I have hurt every one of them, at some point. I have forgiven and been forgiven because that’s what you need to do in order to keep on having relationships with flawed yet wonderful people, and the thing about flawed yet wonderful people is, number one, they usually do work on doing better right away, and number two, they are the only kind of wonderful people out there.

I know I wrecked our boat, but I'm still the awesomest character on the show.
I know I wrecked our boat, but I’m still the awesomest character on the show.

This issue of forgiveness cuts to the heart of something I have been struggling with, and still don’t have a good answer for. How do you strike a balance between letting people into your life, and protecting your own heart? There are people out there who should not be trusted with anyone’s heart, and still more who might be all right with some people but can have toxic dynamics with others. How do you know when someone has crossed that line? Is it possible to tell who will cross that line before they actually do? When is forgiveness noble, and when is it only foolish? I don’t know, but one of the things I like about atheism is that it lets me say, “I don’t know,” instead of serving me the answer on a platter of “because God said so.”

Up next; Veggie Tales talks about loving people who are different from you.


Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Where’s God When I’m S-s-scared?

If you didn’t grow up Christian, odds are you’ve never heard of Veggie Tales. If you did, there’s still a distinct possibility that you haven’t. If you not only grew up Christian, but grew up during the nineties with parents who were wary of turning on the television, for fear  that the rampant secularism would drag you to hell, odds are that not only have you heard of Veggie Tales, but you watched them long past when you should have outgrown them. Like with the Disney animated canon and Winnie-the-Pooh, you pretended to be over them for a millisecond in middle school, and then came to your senses. Your parents watched them with you, not because they had to, but because they were genuinely entertained. You dressed up like them for Halloween the All Saint’s Eve celebration with lots of candy but none of the Satanism that those trick-or-treating kids were unwittingly engaging in. If those of you not immersed in this culture think I’m exaggerating, bear in mind that my older sister’s friends, who were in their mid to late teens, thought someone was the coolest shit ever if they owned this shirt.

Bob the Tomato, one of the protagonists. And we all thought it was the coolest shirt ever.
That would be Bob the Tomato, for the uninitiated.

The power of nostalgia is strong indeed. When I turned the first episode on, I was trying really hard to look out for ideas I could analyze, but honestly most of my brain was just going, “It’s that song! I remember that song! I know all the words still! Squeeee!”

Now, I should note that not everyone who was a fan of this series was a radically conservative Christian. It was just particularly popular among that crowd because, well, it was a huge fish in a dinky-ass pond. Censorship happy Christians tend to find themselves with a small catalog of morality tales available to show their kids, and most of them really suck. Veggie Tales didn’t suck. The stories were actually good and the jokes were actually funny. Ergo, it was huge, so huge that Family Christian Bookstores could have called themselves “Veggie Tales and Also Some Angel Figurines on That Table Over There.”

The show usually starts with Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber introducing the moral, and then the vegetables all enact one or two stories illustrating it. Veggie Tales has a recurring ensemble cast, and it can get a little confusing because those characters can appear in stories playing either themselves, or be themselves playing a character. To make that a little less confusing, they do generally fill the same sorts of roles. Bob the Tomato is the most adult of the recurring characters, and usually plays the role of everyman and/or voice of reason. Larry the Cucumber has a silly and childlike personality, but while he has probably the most versatile repertoire he always retains a bit of goofiness (he also happens to be my favorite). I’ll explain the others as they are introduced. There is also traditionally a Silly Song With Larry, which is exactly what it says on the tin and has no point whatsoever, except to be fantastic.

After the story, Bob and Larry go to Qwerty, the computer, for a Bible verse to cap off the episode. The moral intro – story – Bible verse closing format was pretty standard in the sorts of stories I grew up with, and typically the only part I liked was the story in the middle. The intro and Bible verse was just preachy and annoying, and this is coming from someone who likes moral philosophizing (just wait until I get to Adventures in Odyssey and start ranting about Chris. Grrrrr…. Chris). Veggie Tales, was the exception, because while they used the format they also didn’t take themselves too seriously. There was a running gag that, at the end, whenever Bob announced it was time for the Bible verse, the “What We Have Learned” song would start playing. The song was annoying, but it was as annoying to Bob as it was to all of us and he would fruitlessly try to stop it. Hijinks ensued, and then they got to the verse.

The first episode opens with Bob and Larry standing on the kitchen counter talking about a letter they got from a kid viewer. Even though it’s their first episode and they don’t have any viewers yet. You know, when I was first watching these, I had daydreams of someday writing my own letters and having them inspire an episode, but now I’m suspecting that might not have been how it worked at all. Anyway, the letter writing totally-not-a-show-writer kid has been getting scared, like kids do, and so Bob and Larry introduce a pair of stories teaching the lesson that you shouldn’t be scared because God is looking out for you.

The first story centers around Jr. Asparagus. Jr. Asparagus is the audience surrogate, and his personality is a bit inconsistent. He is alternately naughty and a goody-two shoes, not based on any sort of internal logic but just based on whether the story currently requires him to be one or the other. He’s my least favorite character, which is unfortunate because when Bob and Larry aren’t the protagonists, usually Jr. is. In this story, he watches “Frankencelery” before bed and can’t sleep because he’s seeing monsters in his toy chest and his closet and so on. Then, to prove to him that the world really isn’t full of horrors, two adult strangers suddenly appear in his bedroom.

Yeah, that one came across  a little differently on rewatch.

"Hi, I'm Bob. I'm a tomato, and I'm here to introduce an unintentionally creepy element into the narrative."
“Hi, I’m Bob. I’m a tomato, and I’m here to introduce an unintentionally creepy element into the narrative.”

Anyway, the strangers are Bob and Larry, who have been magically teleported into his room to explain that everything is okay, because God is looking out for us, and also to introduce Jr. to the actor who plays Frankencelery (that should be Frankencelery’s monster, or Adam to his friends, but I didn’t write the script). The actor reassures Jr. that he’s actually quite nice and nobody got hurt for real in the movie, and they all teach him a song to cheer him up next time he gets scared. Afterwards, Jr’s Dad comes in to talk to him about the movie and give the kind of talk responsible parents have with their kids who have just been scared by a monster movie, only to find that the episode has done his parenting for him. This is fairly typical of their relationship.

The second story is Daniel in the Lion’s Den, starring Larry as Daniel. Later Veggie Tales will play around with the Bible stories they tell, but this one tells it straightforwardly. King Darius, played by Archibald Asparagus (the default veggie for snooty, supercilious roles) has a dream that none of his wise men can explain. Daniel shows up and explains it with the help of God, gaining the king’s favor and leaving the wise men wondering why they didn’t just pull something Freudian out of their asses.

These guys are known as the Three Unnamed But Invariably Evil Scallions.
These guys are known as the Three Unnamed But Invariably Evil Scallions.

The wise men then enact Biblical Evil Wise Men Plan A; get the king to declare himself God and promise to punish anyone who worships anyone else, knowing that the Biblical Protagonist will never betray his principles! They have, however, forgotten to read to the part where this always ends in the Biblical Protagonist being punished but miraculously saved, and the king then takes it out on said Biblical Evil Wise Men. So Daniel gets thrown into the lion’s den, but an angel keeps all the actual lions away, so that doesn’t go according to plan at all. All the while it is repeated that Daniel reminded himself not to be afraid because he knew God was with him, thus tying it into the overall theme.

This is a tricky moral for me to talk about because, on the one hand, I don’t agree with it, but on the other hand, I don’t think it’s necessarily harmful, just that it assumes a premise that I currently reject; “God exists.” Now, some atheists do have issues with this kind of thing because Christians are using them to indoctrinate their kids in the idea that God exists before they have a chance to make up their own minds. On the other hand, many Christians would say the same thing about atheists, that they’re indoctrinating their kids with God’s nonexistence and probably dooming them to hell. The reality is that everybody teaches their kids based on what they believe, and probably all of us will end up teaching our kids some things that are not entirely correct. You can’t just take what you believe and say that nobody can teach their own kids anything outside of that, and that cuts both ways. However, I do think it’s unethical to insist on your kids only being exposed to one set of beliefs. People often say, “I don’t want my children to be confused by X,” to which I respond, “why the hell not?” We learn to think by being confused, by encountering contradictions and alternatives and not being sure what the truth is. It’s no different from becoming strong by exercising until we are tired, or growing as people by going through difficult circumstances. And sure, sometimes people look at two ideas and choose the one that isn’t true, but would you really rather they never had the choice?

So what does all that have to do with Veggie Tales? On the one hand, nothing. This show is not itself indoctrination, it’s just showing a Christian point of view. On the other hand, it was often used as indoctrination, in that many parents chose to use it as a way to placate their children’s desire for television while avoiding exposing them to anything that struck them as remotely un-Christian, and the sorts of people who follow that mentality tend to have a very broad definition of un-Christian (in my own family, The Hunchback of Notre Dame counted, because of Esmeralda’s neckline, and also Mulan for… reasons?) But I do think it’s important to make the distinction between what a thing is, and how it can be used. The show could, for the most part, fit just as easily into the home of Christians who saw absolutely nothing wrong with Harry Potter.

Ultimately, I don’t think I’m going to have as many negative comments on this one, because most of these stories are just basic common sense child appropriate morals that happen to have a Bible verse at the end. I promise I’ll still take out my angry atheist hammer if I think it’s warranted, and there are a couple episodes where it will be, but for the most part this show holds up even post-conversion.

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

This is it! The final chapter of The Screwtape Letters, where the Patient dies and Wormwood gets eaten. I can’t recall if I’ve mentioned it before or not (probably not, as it’s actually a fairly minor point in the book) but in this version of hell, instead of being eternally burned by hot coals, or whatever else you imagine hell to be, damned souls simply get pureed and consumed by demons. Any demons who fail to bring human souls back get to be food themselves. They’re not real big on learning from your mistakes in hell.

The majority of this letter is a description of the contrast between Wormwood’s experience of the Patient’s dying, and the Patient’s own experience. What is exhilarating to the Patient is toxic to Wormwood, his metamorphosis is Wormwood’s decline, his homecoming Wormwood’s doom.

“How well I know what happened at the instant when they snatched him from you! There was a sudden clearing of his eyes (was there not?) as he saw you for the first time, and recognised the part you had in him and knew that you had it no longer. Just think (and let it be the beginning of your agony) what he felt at that moment; as if a scab had fallen from an old sore, as if he were emerging from a hideous, shell-like tetter, as if he shuffled off for good and all a defiled, wet, clinging garment.” Screwtape rails against the unfairness of how the Patient is now able to perceive heavenly spirits and God himself, while the demons remain forcibly separated from the rest of the spirit world. “What is blinding, suffocating fire to you, is now cool light to him, is clarity itself, and wears the form of a Man.”

It’s well scripted prose, but on a storytelling level, Lewis’ worldbuilding caves in on itself. Screwtape is describing two perspectives which he cannot possibly have any basis to describe them in the visceral, sensory detail that he does. First is Wormwood’s. If demons who fail to provide human souls are eaten, and Screwtape is an experienced tempter, logically he has never lost a human soul. If he had, he would not be an experienced tempter so much as a well-digested tempter. Then there’s the perspective of the Patient, which is even stranger. It is repeatedly impressed on us that demons cannot witness what the Patient is witnessing without agonizing pain. Could you describe a nuclear blast from the perspective of an alien who thrives in them? Perhaps a lifetime of study has given Screwtape a good basis to imagine these things, but Screwtape doesn’t strike me as being very poetic or imaginative, at least not on the level that this chapter requires. Furthermore, the power of this chapter depends on it being an accurate description of what entering the kingdom of heaven is like, and if that is only unreliable guesswork, that robs it of a lot of it’s power.

My feelings on this chapter mirror my impression of the book as a whole. It is not a terrible book. Lewis’ phrasing is wonderful; light and casual but still educated and witty, full of descriptions and observations that are interesting and delightful. He affirms good things, like logic, courage, patience, humility and everyday kindness. When you don’t examine any of the implications of his statements beyond what he spells out, but when you start analyzing him more critically, you can see the holes; the times when he claims to have proved something that he has not, the places where he turns his opponents into strawmen and the “facts” that don’t hold up under examination.

There was a selection of chapters near the beginning of this book in which Wormwood tries to tempt the Patient away from his new faith by making him befriend atheists. I discussed them all in one passage, and so skipped a point he made about using humor in tempting. The point was that real fun and joy and jokes are either neutral or contrary to the demon’s purpose, with the exception of flippancy. “In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies they have already found a ridiculous side to it…. it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect.”

This is a terrific point, and absolutely true. When you get a lot of people who all disagree with or dislike something, it’s the easiest thing to make them all act dismissively towards it, without ever considering whether that disdain is deserved, much less whether they are critiquing genuinely flawed ideas or being disrespectful towards actual human beings. It displaces philosophical disagreement based on an understanding of the other’s point of view into knee-jerk dislike of the other based simply on their being the other. It turns normally compassionate people into bullies and intellectual analysis into thoughtless mockery.

For example, when Lewis talks about scholars who don’t agree with him on the question of free will, he states that if they had all read Boethius properly they would have it right, but they haven’t because “when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what is said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers… To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge-to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behavior-this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded… great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that ‘history is bunk.'”

The only atheists he bothers to portray in the whole book are “superficially intellectual, and brightly skeptical about everything in the world. I gather they are even vaguely pacifist, not on moral grounds but from an ingrained habit of belittling anything that concerns the great mass of their fellow men and from a dash of purely fashionable and literary communism.” As for how you get people to become atheists, Screwtape states repeatedly that “Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.” Atheists are portrayed as stupid and unthinking, and their morality comes from fashion and pride, not from love or compassion or empathy.

He is dismissive towards the analysis, values, and reasoning of people who disagree with him, and furthermore he is flippant towards their experiences as well. In the last chapter he argued that demons confuse us by making us think that ugly, doubt-inducing experiences are reflective of reality while happy, spiritual ones aren’t, but back in the first chapter he also dismisses everyday, pleasant experiences. Screwtape tells a story about a former temptee who had spent a bit of time in the library with spiritual books and was starting to wonder if there was something to it all. Screwtape counters by suggesting he go outside for a bit. “I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a N. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone with all those books, a healthy dose of ‘real life’ (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all ‘that sort of thing’ just couldn’t be true.”

When dry dusty books lead to atheism, they’re wrong, but when they lead to Christianity, they’re the moral source of truth and reality. When everyday life leads to atheism, it’s a veil obscuring the deeper, esoteric nature of our world, but when it leads to Christianity, it’s dry intellectualism and excessive spiritualism that really gets in the way of seeing how our ordinary lives are where the battles of heaven and hell are actually played out. Which leads me to a question; if all paths, intellectual and practical, emotional and rational, can lead to heaven or hell, how was the Patient ever supposed to come to the right conclusion? Lewis doesn’t explain how all these contradictions work out and how people are actually supposed to find the truth, if the same paths can lead either way. Instead, he speaks with glowing prose and solid logic when he’s talking about Christianity, and with dismissive mockery when describing atheism, so we are left with the feeling that there’s something logical about one and not the other.

I find it oddly encouraging to see this hypocrisy and blindness on his part. In the circles I was raised in, Lewis was more than just a Christian writer. Some people could quote him more readily than they could quote the Bible. I personally considered him essentially a modern prophet. When I left the church (but before I became an official atheist), there were two figures in my head who disapproved of my departure; God and C. S. Lewis. I’m not sure who I was more ashamed to disappoint. Now, looking back, he is suddenly no more than a person. A good person, in many ways, a good writer, often capable of fantastic insights, but also with blind spots and prejudices and points of view he would rather mock than try to understand.

Coming up soon; Veggie Tales!

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

The Patient has survived the first bombing, in exactly the wrong way, from Screwtape’s perspective.

“I gather, not from your miserably inadequate report but from that of the Infernal Police, that the patient’s behaviour during the first raid has been the worst possible. He has been very frightened and thinks himself a great coward and therefore feels no pride; but he had done everything his duty demanded and perhaps a bit more. Against this disaster all you can produce on the credit side is a burst of ill temper with a dog that tripped him up, some excessive cigarette smoking, and the forgetting of a prayer.”

Amid all the moral perfectionism this book has offered, I do like this. The Patient wasn’t perfect, he even feels bad about how he did, and yet from Screwtape’s perspective he showed exemplary human behavior. Humans can be humans, with errors and emotions, and still be wonderful human beings.

Wormwood offers a rare suggestion of his own, that he use the Patient’s own fatigue against him. Screwtape says that is almost hopeless, under the circumstances. He explains that, while moderate fatigue can make people snappish and irritable, the damage done at that time tends to be limited, and true exhaustion actually makes people more gentle. The trick of making fatigue work for a tempter is to keep on making the human think that there is an end in sight, and convincing them that the end in question is very near. This makes them prone to snap if the end does not come right when it is expected. The danger of true exhaustion is that it makes people stop thinking about the future, and just take each moment as it comes.

The key to serenity in danger, despite both fear and fatigue, seems to be an acceptance of the situation. This, I think, was what Screwtape was getting at in the last chapter, when he suggested that, to make the Patient as terrified as possible, he should constantly be kept thinking of what to do if this and that happens, coming up with backup plan after backup plan. Keep him centered on the illusion that he has control, and he will remain terrified. Let him accept his own limitations, and he will find it far easier to be brave. I meant to make a note that I have actually found the strategy of coming up with nesting backup plans is fairly helpful for me, but I hesitated because I also thought he was somewhat right. The truth is that whether or not this strategy backfires depends on how much control you have over the situation. Often there are things I can do to take care of myself, but in the situation will choke from fear. Mentally rehearsing what I will do helps prevent that. I am afraid of talking on the phone; taking a moment to script the conversation, as far as I can, helps me make the call and begin talking. Once the exchange has gotten started, everything gets much easier. On the other hand, one of my fears is that the person I talk to will be sharp, rude or hard to understand. If I remind myself that some people are assholes and so long as I have shown basic courtesy I have no responsibility over that, that helps me handle that source of anxiety, whereas if I tried to pressure myself to come up with a backup plan for every type of asshole out there, I could easily get so worked up I would never make another phone call again. I wish I had learned this much earlier in life.

After this good start, Screwtape goes down a line of reasoning that I don’t appreciate as much.

“There is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is ‘what the world is really like’ and that all his religion has been a fantasy. You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word ‘real.’ They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, ‘all that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building’; here ‘real’ means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say ‘It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like’; here ‘real’ is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness… Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.”

I’ll switch from Watsonian to Doylist analysis here. Lewis looks clever for a moment, as he exposes a flaw in his hypothetical opponent’s reasoning. However, he’s not actually giving a solution to it. Normally, Lewis will twist Screwtape’s letters into knots, in order to put a pro-Christian counterargument into his mouth. This time, he just mocks the contradiction while ignoring a relevant point. Why should the emotional impact of children’s blood splattered on the walls be discounted? For all his talk about reality and logic, he doesn’t give any reason. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “don’t twist your definition of reality in a way that is convenient for atheists; instead, twist it in a way that’s convenient for me!”

I’ve had wonderful, joyful experiences, and I have had experiences that, at one time, I thought were spiritual. I’ve also had negative experiences. During times of pain, I had times when I thought God was giving me comfort, and the comfort was taken away before it had given any relief. There were times I felt what I was sure was a calling, but following it only left me stagnated for years, times when I thought I had received a promise of answered prayer, but the promise was reneged on. For years I told myself that these disappointments only meant that God had something better in store down the line, while I clung to the moments of joy as proof that everything would turn out well. Then I started to notice the double standard. My feelings and subjective experiences were only allowed to count when they supported the belief I was supposed to have. This was an important step in my deconversion, because whenever I had thought of a logical problem with my religion that I couldn’t account for, I would always counter with “maybe my head says this is wrong, but my heart says it’s right.” The truth was, my heart wasn’t saying it was right all the time. It was just that I was only listening to it when what it had to say was convenient.

The reality is that both logically detached reasoning and emotional responses give us information about reality, and it’s on us to patch the two together into our understanding of the world. Some of us will patch them together in different ways, and come to different conclusions, and that’s all right, but it’s not all right to conceive of a reality, and discard valid evidence in order to protect it. Now, all of us do this to some extent. We all are prone to confirmation bias and the like, but it’s one thing to occasionally fall prey to it, and it’s another thing entirely to state that a whole type of human experience (such as the experience of suffering and tragedy) is all right to dismiss, with no justification beyond “it doesn’t fit my idea of reality very well, so I don’t like it.”

I do my best to both feel and contemplate all aspects of my life, joyful and sorrowful and everything in between. I think about how music is vibrations creating patterns in my brain that are perceived as pleasurable, but that doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of it. If anything, it enhances it, because when you really understand the bizarre complexities and mysteries of the brain, that creates its own sense of beauty and wonder. I also think rationally about things that make me upset.  People who get away with rape make me angry and sad, which leads me to wonder about how our justice system is based on the requirement that guilt must be proved, and how to reconcile that with a crime that is so difficult to prove, and so traumatizing to victims, especially when they are disbelieved. And for the record, I don’t have a good answer for that one. My point is that, even when the combination makes me come down in a mess of frustrated “fuck I dunno,” I still keep both sides in mind.

It’s all real; happiness, sadness, beauty, and ugliness. It all needs to be dealt with, even when we can’t all agree on what it all means and what to do about it. Denying any one inconvenient part exists is in no way healthy or rational.