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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!

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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 Six

I have written a lot about the ideas in this book, but very little about the story itself. That’s because this is an idea-centric book, but there is still a plot, and shame on me for neglecting it. What’s at stake is the soul of the Patient; whether he ends up in heaven or hell. I have been focusing on the ideas about right and wrong behavior, rather than religion, but in some ways that is a skewed analysis of the book, because ultimately Screwtape and Wormwood’s goal is not to make The Patient a bad person, but an unbeliever. In other words, even if The Patient becomes a fairly decent person, if he leaves the church he will presumably still descend to hell, and Screwtape will have won.

This is a story problem for people who think often about the fairness of the whole concept of hell, because it raises the question of whether we should really be rooting for heaven. What kind of loving God is really fine with eternal punishment like that? Ultimately we have to hope The Patient avoids hell, as that is clearly not a pleasant end, but there’s still an open question of whether the God he is worshiping is really worth following. Chapter Eight is where Screwtape attempts to explain something of heaven’s perspective, for Wormwood’s benefit. (Important linguistic question; does this, in fact, make him an angel’s advocate? I think it has to.) While Screwtape is an unreliable narrator, under these circumstances it seems he is motivated to be, at the very least, truthful to his understanding of the topic. His information may be flawed, but he is a high ranking tempter, and therefore something of an expert. Here on Earth, the best debaters make themselves as familiar as possible with the arguments and viewpoints of their opponents, so it’s safe to assume that Screwtape’s information is at least moderately reliable.

So what is the excuse of the God of this book’s universe? Free will, of course. “He really does want to fill the universe with loathsome little replicas of Himself – creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His… You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree he chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of his scheme forbids him to use.” He goes on about this for a while, with very pretty words, but he’s ultimately just repeating the same point again and again; God does not reveal himself in some unambiguous way because apparently, if he did, he would override our free will. It’s an argument I’ve heard before, and it sounds nice and noble. Except for the part where people go to hell for no crime worse than being skeptical of the existence of a being who refuses to produce evidence of his existence. That part is pretty terrible.

Then there’s the question of how proof, or strong evidence, would override free will. I can think of two possible interpretations of what Screwtape is saying. Number one, he’s talking about an intense revelation that would have a Lovecraftian effect on our minds. Our little minds would break, and we would end up speaking devout gibberish in a mental hospital. All right, I’m really okay with that not happening. Doesn’t that still leave the option of leaving behind a lot of indirect evidence to help persuade skeptically minded people like me? It really wouldn’t be as hard as a lot of believers make it out to be. Remember, I was raised Christian, and I was reluctant to let go of my beliefs for most of my life. Losing my faith was downright painful. If the Bible had contained, instead of a highly folkloric tale about seven days of creation, a description of the origins of the universe that would conform with later scientific observations, that would have helped enormously. Fix the science and history in the Bible and throw out the more batshit rules, and I might still be a Christian. So might many atheists in the world of Screwtape Letters. So why let us live in a world where facts about the natural world make unbelief even a plausible viewpoint? Interpretation number two; good, convincing evidence would override free will, because it convinces us instead of giving us a chance to exercise our faith. This makes even less sense, and I include it only because I’ve heard something along those lines argued in real life; i.e. God put fossils in the ground to test our faith. You could as easily argue that the lack of good evidence was overrides free will, because it makes intellectually honest belief impossible for many people. Free will is screwed either way, so you might as well go with the humane version.

So as a reader I’m still left with the question; how is a God who would let the universe operate this way really a better alternative for The Patient than Screwtape? Why should I, the reader, care that The Patient ends up in heaven if it’s run by someone who operates the universe like this?

And that, to me, is the biggest failing of this book. It’s not that it sometimes talks about prayer and church and things I don’t really relate to. That’s not really an objective issue with the book, just an example of how it fails to overlap with my personal current interests. The biggest failing of this book is that it’s based on a particular religious view that raises some troubling questions about the God at the center of it. Screwtape’s line about making “loathsome little replicas” is supposed to be read contrarily. He thinks it’s a disgusting idea, but we are meant to think it sounds admirable and glorious. But if God is someone who would allow the eternal suffering of millions just so the remainder will be transmuted copies of himself, what does that suggest about him? To me, it says he’s a callous narcissist. So are we supposed to turn into callous narcissists ourselves? Or are we supposed to turn into entities much like him, except instead of being narcissistic about ourselves, we are enamored of him to the exact degree that he wants us to be, and callous about the fate of those who have failed his little test?

Screwtape may have a point. Loathsome indeed.