Reviewing The Screwtape Letters as a Witch: How Not to Keep Your Human on the Road to Hell

In the first chapter, when the patient is a materialist atheist, Screwtape criticizes the reading materials that Wormwood is using to encourage the patient to keep on being a materialist atheist. The problem with the reading materials is that they are reading material. As in, the patient has to read them. Screwtape is against that sort of thing.

He describes a close call, where a former patient started thinking in some dangerously self-critical and spiritually deep ways, just from spending too much time in the Metropolitan library. Screwtape nipped this in the bud by encouraging the patient to step out for a bit of lunch.

“Once he was on the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 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 his 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.”

Screwtape emphasizes that he didn’t argue with this former patient’s line of thought. He didn’t make the case that buses and newsboys couldn’t coexist with whatever deeper musings the library had sparked. He just got the patient away from a space that was encouraging real thought.

He makes it very explicit that it’s not about keeping the patient on philosophers who are currently arguing for materialist atheism, or anything like that. Reading in general can open a person up to the idea that there is life beyond their limited point of view. It encourages curiosity and investigation, as well as self-criticism and long periods of reflection. The rhythm of argument/counterargument and the belief that reflection is good for you leaves the self open for self-improvement. That’s true whether or not the reading materials themselves argue for or against religion, spirituality and moral development.

And don’t get him started on science. Especially physics, with its subatomic particles and distant quasars? That’s way too concrete a confirmation that the world is far vaster and more beautiful than what is directly perceivable. You might as well put them in a box, write “St. Peter, Pearly Gates, Heaven,” pay for postage and neglect a return address. He doesn’t see soft sciences as quite so harmful, but even there, his recommendation is as tentative as he can make it.

“If he must dabble in sciences, keep him on economics and sociology; don’t let him get away from that invaluable ‘real life.’ But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation.'”

This is a far cry from the pro-censorship rhetoric of many modern Evangelicals. When I first re-read this as an atheist, I thought about all the times that, before my deconversion, I felt myself drifting towards doubts. I’d often deal with this by taking a walk, desperately trying to save my soul by the sheer force of normality. But then I’d go home, and I’d start reading and thinking again, and I’d notice that lots of nice people are in same-sex relationships that seem healthy, and hell doesn’t make sense but evolution kind of does.

So the question is whether that invalidates the entire chapter or not. If you’re focusing on authorial intent at the time this was written, sure. C. S. Lewis was a Christian and generally believed that Christians were saved and non-Christians weren’t. But strict authorial intent isn’t the only way to interpret a piece.

Screwtape was wrong, but he was also, in a deeper sense, completely right. The initial realization that there is more to the world than what we have known up until now? It’s scary. It’s a little bit of a death of the things that were familiar – things like prejudices, simplifications, shallow pleasures, bad habits, toxic friends. Those things can create a framework that gives a sense of stability. When we tear it down, the loss of security is scary. We aren’t sure something real can be built in it’s place.

But each time we go through it, we discover new frameworks. New communities, new sources of joy, new beliefs. Often, over time, we discover that some of these, too, were illusions. That’s all right. The things that were the most true will be the most resilient against further erosion. The things that were false will be most vulnerable to crumbling away. The more you go through this process, the less you fear it. That’s the wonder of education.

I’ve met well-educated and thoughtful people of all faiths, as well as atheists. All of them have gone through some kind of doubting phase. Sometimes that doubt lead to deconversion, and sometimes to a deepening of their original faith. Sometimes they found a new religion, and sometime they just stepped away for long enough to re-evaluate some details. Sometimes they changed multiple times, throughout their lives. Regardless of the difference in destination, the journey of constructive doubt keeps leading people towards personal growth. Childish, simplistic ideas of God are shed. The scope of compassion broadens. The willingness to change for the better increases.

That’s why Screwtape’s attitude towards books is the same as a 50s housewife towards marijuana. Don’t do it; it seems safe, but it’s a gateway drug.

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