Tag Archives: deconversion

Watching Dogma When I Doubted

When I first watched this movie, I was a bit disappointed. On each subsequent viewing, however, I’ve enjoyed it more, and now its one of my favorite comedies.

At the time, I was right at that in between space, between belief and disbelief. I had grown up with a religion full of answers. This is why bad things happen. This is how forgiveness works. This is how we know God is real. I had been assured so many times that if my faith was tested, it would always be found true, and so I had plunged into testing it, researching and arguing with unbelievers in hopes that I could save their souls. Instead, I found that the simple, tidy answers I had been given were not so satisfying. They held up well to the straw men portrayed in my childhood literature, but real humans had more complex, thought out ideas, more probing questions. I didn’t know what to believe.

So when I watched this movie, I hoped I would find those answers. Instead, I found something better. I found permission to not have answers.

I’m not going to try to recreate the experience of this movie, because I think jokes are extremely vulnerable to spoilers. I’d hate to ruin the humor for someone who hasn’t seen it, so I’ll just briefly summarize the plot. A pair of fallen angels find a way back to heaven, but unfortunately a side effect of their plan is obliteration of all existence. God is mysteriously MIA, so Metatron (the angelic voice of God) resorts to the oldest, most reliable plan in the book; assemble a ragtag team of unlikely misfits. The protagonist is Bethany, a Catholic who still goes to church, but has essentially lost her faith. She is helped by Jay and Silent Bob, a muse named Serendipity, and Rufus, the previously unknown black apostle.

Metatron is Alan Rickman, which in and of itself is reason enough to watch this film.

When I most recently rewatched it, I expected to be frustrated by the fact that it teases you with doubt and complexity but ultimately concludes that God is still the bestest ever, but I actually don’t think it’s that simple. God does cause suffering, or at least allows it to happen, and nobody says you have to worship her. Her characterization allowed for a number of interpretations, and I decided mine was that she is a being of power who sustains the rest of the world by her infallible assertion that it exists, but she herself is a flawed and evolving person, just like the rest of us.

Oh yeah, and God is played by Alanis Morissette

I said its one of my favorite comedies, but it would be more accurate to say its one of my favorite films that happens to be in the comedy genre. I think some of the jokes are great and others just aren’t my preferred style of comedy. What I appreciate most about Dogma up is the empathetic attitude towards those in a place of doubt. There isn’t really a genre of atheist movies out there, so when you see discussions of religion onscreen they are invariably from a religious perspective. This means that those who doubt, or who have been wounded by their religion, are typically treated very callously. They are given pat answers and regarded as imbeciles for not having thought of them before. The opposite happens in Dogma. Bethany talks about her struggles, and people listen sympathetically. Metatron not only doesn’t have answers for her, but feels bad that he doesn’t. Rufus and Serendipity, who both have actually met Jesus and God respectively, claim that the former was black and the latter is a woman. But they also accept that nobody gets everything right, and argue that trying to understand everything is pointless. Ultimately, Bethany’s character arc isn’t meant to restore her faith. The closest the film comes to a “state the theme” moment is the following exchange about Jesus.

Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.

Bethany: Having beliefs isn’t good?

Rufus: I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier…

This line about ideas came back to my mind, over and over, as I struggled with my faith, and it was a source of comfort greater than any aphorism or Bible verse I had heard. It ultimately lead me to skepticism and atheism, but I’ve found that even there it can be complicated advice to truly follow.

But that’s another topic, for an upcoming review where I watch this movie with a nun. Stay tuned, let me know your thoughts and, as always, thanks for reading.


Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Dave and The Giant Pickle

I’m skipping ahead a couple episodes. I will go back and review the ones I missed, but for reasons of a complicated nature I had several Veggie Tales reviews pre-written just in case I needed a pre-written blog post sometime in the future. It’s been kind of a crazy month, yet I am bound and determined to not be one of those bloggers who says, “it’s been kind of a crazy month” and then you don’t hear from them for a year.

This episode marks the first appearance of Larry-Boy, an alter ego of Larry’s, who would go on to star in two other episodes, which scared the crap out of child me. Seriously, I once had a full-on meltdown over the fact that everybody but me wanted to watch Larry-Boy and the Fib From Outer Space, which basically meant I could either join them and feel like I was being slowly melted into the floor while somebody poked me with needles all over, or I could skip the evening’s movie. From a kid’s perspective, the two were pretty much equally bad.

In the opening, Larry is dressed up in yellow and purple spandex, with suction cup ears. That’s Larry-Boy’s superpower, by the way. While all the other veggies have to cope with their armlessness by magically making things float in front of them, he has suction cups, so he can awkwardly contort himself into sort of haplessly holding onto them-ish. Truly, a fearsome nemesis for evil-doers everywhere. Anyway, Larry dramatically narrates himself into getting stuck to a wall, when Bob comes in to ask him what he’s doing. Larry explains that he wanted to pretend to be a superhero because he feels like his ordinary self isn’t cool enough. Bob doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with Larry playing pretend, but he’s worried about underlying self-esteem issues. Coincidentally, their letter of the week is also from someone who has a lot of self-esteem issues. Bob decides to remedy both with the uplifting tale of David and Goliath Dave and The Giant Pickle.

The plot is a very direct interpretation of the Biblical story; the biggest change is the running gag of David’s sheep falling over. This is one of those stories that you are probably at least a little familiar with, even if you weren’t raised as a hardcore Christian. The Israelites are at war with the Philistines, and they agree to settle the whole thing with a duel between their champion. The Philistines’ champion turns out to be a giant named Goliath, and none of the Israelites are willing to fight him until a young shepherd boy named David volunteers and promptly defeats him with a slingshot. Most people also probably know that David grows up to be the second and most famous king of Israel, and also an ancestor of Jesus. Or maybe you didn’t know that last part. I dunno, I lose track of what normal people do and don’t know about Scripture.

Anyway, this story is popular outside of religious circles, because everybody loves a good underdog story, and because you can play the moral of this one in a lot of directions. “Don’t let fear of a large obstacle terrorize you into doing nothing.” “Don’t judge people by their appearances.” “While sheer might is impressive, if it is not accompanied by speed and agility you might find yourself defeated by a small, fragile foe  armed with projectile weapons.” “God can use little people to do big things.”

Unsurprisingly, the narration and framing devices lean this version heavily on the latter, meaning it falls into the crack of themes that I can neither agree with nor pick a bone with. I don’t think God exists, so clearly I don’t think he’s using little people to do big things, but I’m also all for boosting the self-esteem of young people and I’m not going to rag on them merely for boosting their self-esteem on a Christian pretense. The message simply bears no meaning for me anymore.

I did get another thought while I watched it; one completely unintended by the writers. There’s a moment when Dave starts singing his theme song, King Saul (Archibald Asparagus) says “Couldn’t you just play your harp and I’ll throw things at you?” I laughed, because I got the joke. See, in the Bible, David becomes King Saul’s personal harpist. As Saul learns about David’s popularity with the people and the prophecies that he will be the next king, the relationship sours even though David insists he is loyal to Saul. Eventually Saul just starts having random fits of temper where he throws things at David. You know, to let off steam over the whole “you’re going to get my job one day” thing. As I made the connection and laughed, I suddenly remembered that as a little six year old, I still got the joke. But here’s the weird thing; I got the joke as a little kid, too. Every morning, my Mom read Bible stories to me, and the Bible stories that some people have never heard of are as engrained in my mind as Pat-a-Cake.

This is one of the strange things about being me; not that I was once radically Christian, but that I went from being a true believer on one end of the spectrum to far, far on the other. Most people are raised in one environment, and stay more or less within that environment for their whole life. Of those I know who have gone from one extreme to the other, mostly they never felt at home in one. My boyfriend is agnostic and was raised Catholic, but he always had uncomfortable questions in Sunday school. Everybody evolves as they grow, but most people don’t go through a radical shift in their whole cultural identity.

As a result, many people underestimate the difficulty of making that kind of shift. They speak with casual scorn of things other people do, as if they could just wake up one morning and realize they should have done things your way all along. The thing about not going through that kind of shift is that things you’ve done since you were a child seem so right, any other way of doing them almost feels fictional. You might know, intellectually, that it’s completely arbitrary that these clothes and these foods and these stories are natural to you, but in an experiential sense, those can’t help but feel more right than anything that is different from them.

To me, everything feels a little alien. Things from my present feel new and unfamiliar. Things from my past feel comfortable, but wrong, like T-shirts you are too big to wear anymore. It’s not entirely bad, but often it is difficult, often lonely, and the journey was hard. When I hear  people criticize immigrants for not adapting quickly enough,  or Christians say that if someone goes to hell for not believing in God that’s their fault because they chose to not radically change their belief system, or people from groups I belong to now deride those who aren’t progressive enough in one way or another, I want to smack them all. Whether I think any of those people would be better off changing their way of life in the long run is one thing, but I hate it when people trivialize the experience of drastically changing your life.

Coming up soon; the Veggie Tale that scared the pants off of tiny little me.

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.

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 Seven

In Chapters 8 and 9, Screwtape explains to Wormwood the law of undulation; a fancy way to say humans go through highs and lows. Both times it came up I got excited about it, but he never took it in a direction that interested me. In the previous chapter, Screwtape got wrapped up in the psychology of God. See my earlier post for my thoughts on that. In Chapter 9, he starts with interesting points about pleasure (which I’ll hold for now because I remember that they come up later), but then abandons that point to teach Wormwood how to use The Patient’s period of undulation to convince him his earlier religiosity was merely a phase.

There’s a recurring problem in this book. Lewis talks a lot about bad reasons to be an atheist. He never has Screwtape raise doubts via, say, the problem of evil, even though the Patient seems to be intellectually curious enough to have puzzled over these kinds of thoughts. He only has Screwtape set up strawmen, which he himself knocks down. “Of course there is no conceivable way of getting by reason from the proposition ‘I am losing interest in this’ to the proposition ‘this is false.’ But as I said before, it is jargon, not reason, you must rely on.” Why not reason? It worked for me and my sister and my brother-in-law and Richard Dawkins and any number of other atheists. Of course, Lewis himself was an intelligent man who was a believer, but he must have known many atheists who came to disbelief via reason, so why not take this opportunity to explain why he disagrees with them?

I don’t know the answer, but in Chapter 10, he introduces the first non-believers this book has seen, except for The Patient at the beginning of the book, and their characterization is troubling. They are a married couple, “rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly skeptical about everything in the world. I gather they are even vaguely pacifist, not on moral grounds but from an engrained habit of belittling anything that concerns the great mass of their fellow men and from a dash of purely fashionable and literary communism.” Now, I know a great many skeptical, intellectual people. The vast majority of them are not in the least like the couple he describes. Their convictions come from deep honesty and concern. I will give Lewis this, however; among every group of idealists there’s always that one who is just parroting the ideas that seem to be popular among their friends. What bothers me is not that he has characterized two of his characters this way, but that, as far as I recall, these are the only atheists we will see in the entire book.

Screwtape is gratified by these friends, because of the ways he and Wormwood can use their company to make The Patient into a hypocrite. “There is a subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a mortal can imply that he is of the same party as those to whom he is speaking… He will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent. He will assume, at first only by his manner, but presently by his words, all sorts of cynical and skeptical attitudes which are not really his. But if you play him well, they may become his. All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.” I’ll give this to Lewis; this is one of the many times when his observational skills are eerily accurate. We like to believe our opinions are all born out of rational thought and conscious will, but with frightening accuracy we come to think not what we really think ourselves but what those around us think, or what we think they want us to think.

My first education on this was in the Christian community. I was surrounded by hardcore right-wingers, and although I did not like everything I heard, I mimicked the people around me. As a result, when I swung to the left I became wary of becoming too engrained in ideas I had not personally examined. I will not say I am immune to wanting to agree with my friends to fit in with them, but I am at least aware of it. I don’t pretend this weakness is the domain of the religious or the conservative alone, either. It’s human nature and will appear in all communities.

Lewis has a solution to this infectiousness of opinions. Screwtape rejoices over the reduction, in recent years, of religious leaders preaching the dangers of The World, and the remedy of retreating from it. “In modern Christian writings, though I see much (indeed more than I like) about Mammon, I see few of the old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, and the Value of Time. All that your patient would probably classify as ‘Puritanism’.” Clearly Lewis was living in a very different world from mine. Warnings about The World were abundant. Don’t associate with nonbelievers. Don’t read their books, listen to their music or watch their TV shows. Go to Bible camp and live in houses where every wall has a cross or sampler of Bible verses. Be as out of touch with the outside world as possible; that way you protect your precious beliefs from being challenged, and you will get to go to heaven.

Screwtape describes what will happen if The Patient continues his association with his friends. He will become a split person; acting one way when he is in church and another way when he is with his friends. The hypocrisy will affect the way he thinks and pave the way for future apostasy. He gives Wormwood some strategies for helping The Patient maintain the relationship; the only danger he sees to their cause is The Patient ceasing the acquaintance. The solution Lewis is pushing on the readers is obvious. Don’t associate with liberal nonbelievers. Cloister yourself away to keep your mind free from temptation.

Here’s what that kind of living did for me. It kept me lonely, because every time someone made a dirty joke or talked about a book I wasn’t supposed to read, I felt like I was doing something wrong by being friends with them. The group of friends I felt were approved was small, and the overlap between my interests and theirs even smaller. It shut off my mind from science and philosophy and the richness that real study brings. It made me closeted and dysphoric and miserably depressed. It burdened twelve, fourteen, sixteen year old me with guilt over things like feeling aroused, enjoying the beat of a hip-hop song, or admiring someone’s tattoo. Goodness became wholly divorced from ideas like kindness, patience and generosity, and became a competition of who could live the most alienatingly Christian life.

Nowhere does Screwtape suggest that Wormwood guard against The Patient saving himself from hypocrisy by honestly engaging his new friends in a discussion of their differences. An honest discussion could allow him to maintain his friendship and his faith with none of the hypocrisy that could be so useful to Screwtape. It might even change the minds of his friends, and if not convert them outright, make them more honest in their convictions. This makes it an incredibly dangerous possibility for Screwtape and Wormwood. Surely Screwtape has some advice on how to avoid it, or at least on how to use such conversations, if they come up, to deconvert The Patient. It makes no sense for his character to ignore the possibility that the mounting hypocrisy might cause The Patient to say, “actually, I’m a Christian, and here’s what I think.”

I can, however, think of a reason for Lewis to keep Screwtape mute on this subject. Raising the possibility that these friends might have a healthy friendship with The Patient, particularly one based on mutual understanding and respectful dissent, muddies the moral picture he has painted. The same goes for the possibility of The Patient deconverting based not on moods and trends and fuzzy logic, but honestly, intensively reflective thought and conversation. For this story to work, The Patient and his friends cannot be condemned for thoughtful, rational work. It takes the hidden problem I wrote about last time, and puts it in plain sight for all readers to contemplate.

My best friend is a Christian. They (they use gender neutral pronouns) recently emailed me this article. It came with the comment, “his teachers and friends sound like you, and his brand of Christianity sounds like mine.” I believe the first part was intended as a compliment, as his teachers and friends were people who challenged him, but in ways that made him feel he grew as both a believer and as a person. I certainly take it as one. I, for my part, am glad to no longer be the person who hides in a world where everyone agrees with me. I am happy to be reminded daily that I can be disagreed with by a person who is kind and intelligent and great company. Companionship should not be dependent on consensus. People aren’t meant to be cloistered away where they are never challenged. And it disturbs me that Lewis is so willing to point out the infectiousness of the thoughts of others when it comes to The World, but not when it comes to the community he happens to belong to.

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.

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Five and a Half

As I said in the last post, Chapter Seven is mostly good with one very annoying section, which is the following; “We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalize and mythologize their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us, (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. The ‘Life Force,’ the worship of sex and some aspects of Psychoanalysis, may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work-the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits’ – then the end of our war will be in sight.”

Now, I can’t speak as to how literally Lewis meant this to be taken, though I do know of radical conservatives from my past who took as practically gospel; Satan’s plan divinely revealed to Lewis. For those who do take it literally, I can’t argue against the idea that there are demons out there and that atheists exist because of their handiwork, because the kinds of people who believe that aren’t liable to be persuaded out of it by any kind of argument. Atheists, and believers who believe in good atheists, don’t really need to hear an argument against the existence of demonic puppet masters either. I don’t want to say only things that will be heard by people who already agree with me; I want to say things that will be interesting to people from a variety of perspectives. Still, I want to say something in response to this.

I think, in the end, I want to do a Skeptical Atheism 101, in my own words, from my own perspective. That might be informative even to people who do believe in literal demons and angels fighting wars over our souls.

I’ll start with a description of a religious mindset. The essence of religion is faith. A person’s religion is not based on evidence, but on a deep emotional conviction that their beliefs are correct. Evidence may be collected to support that faith, but the conviction itself is not dependent on evidence. In my experience, religious people confronted with evidence that contradicts their faith will do one of two things. Either they will find a way to adjust the details of their beliefs to accept the new evidence while maintaining the core of their faith, or they will deny the evidence. Evolution is a perfect example of this. Many Christians decide part or all of the creation story is poetic, or that Biblical infallibility is not absolute and there are human errors in the transcription of divine revelation. They even adapt evolution into their understanding of God, seeing it as a kind of cosmic artistic palette for him. Those who can’t take that approach subscribe to some variant of young Earth creationism.

In the skeptical mentality, there is no faith based conviction. That is not to say that they cannot have beliefs, but the beliefs of a skeptic are not held as sacred. The skeptic lets go of the need for certainty, and adopts an attitude of constantly being willing to adjust one’s understanding of the facts, based on what is supported by the evidence. The best available evidence wins, and when the evidence is inconclusive or shaky, the skeptic admits as much. In light of inconclusive evidence, a skeptic might express a preference over one theory or another, but there is always a willingness to abandon that theory if it is eventually disproved.

I should also add that I do not believe that every skeptic is, at all times, an ideal skeptic. That would be like saying that every religious person is perfectly faithful at all times. The difference is that the skeptic strives to be skeptical, while the religious person strives to be faithful.

Now for the question of worship.

As a Christian, it was hard for me to imagine a life without belief, and what I felt to be the ultimate expression of belief; worship. Worship, for me, was being in the state of absolute awe and adoration. It included a very transcendent focus that was almost drug-like. Like many Christians, I thought life without worship must be dull and miserable, so it was easy for me to read this and imagine that atheists did have some kind of belief, and corresponding worship, whether it was worship of the self or of demons or of science or some aspect of the material world. It was easy to imagine that atheists had some kind of hole, hungering for something to give their allegiance to, and that demons could manipulate that hole, focusing it onto themselves. It was one reason the idea of losing my faith terrified me.

Now, I don’t feel a hole like that. If anything, I feel more filled and satisfied than I ever was as a believer, because the questions I’ve always had no longer need to be suppressed. I still experience times of transcendent awe, when I think about how amazing this universe is. With science and questioning, we have uncovered answers of astounding beauty. We know we are connected to every known form of life, from chimpanzees to butterflies to ferns to redwoods to water bears. We know the constellations are made of spheres of fire, bigger and farther away than I can conceive with even the crudest metaphor, and yet bright enough that I can still see them. I am made of dust from long-dead stars like these. Even more everyday facts can produce joy in me. For example; elephants exist. They move with a grace that mocks their bulk, they have trunks as dextrous as a knitter’s fingers, and they are both intelligent and sensitive. Their teeth contain literal jewels. They belong in a fairy tale, but they exist on my planet. If appreciation of these things is somehow evil, I question your concept of good.

What separates that awe from worship, as I understood it as a Christian, is that it is not accompanied by feelings of obligation or allegiance. I may appreciate Richard Dawkins when he speaks of evolution and the wonder of nature, but when he speaks about religion, I generally disagree with him, and I feel no discomfort over that, particularly in comparison to the discomfort I once felt when disagreeing with any religious authority. The same goes for what is said by Christopher Hitchens, Friedrich Nietzsche, PZ Myers, my atheist brother-in-law, Carl Sagan, any textbook I happen to pick up, or anyone else who claims to speak as a scientist, skeptic or atheist. I can subscribe to fringe or mainstream theories, based on what I think makes the most compelling argument, and my standards for a compelling argument don’t have to be the same as any other skeptic.

As a Christian child, I went through a phase of believing that those who followed other religions ascribed to dummy religions, where demons pulled the strings of their gods. I had moments of thinking about the amazing coincidence of my being born into the one true religion, which was followed by the terrifying idea that maybe I wasn’t. Maybe one of those other religions was the right one, and it was my mind that was victim to a demon’s puppet. And then I realized I had to go pray and repent for even thinking this… which meant that if that thought was right, I would never be able to analyze it enough to realize I was being fooled. As I grew up I gave myself license to doubt a bit more, reasoning that a good God would understand, that he would stand up to rational analysis and wouldn’t be bothered by me seeking the truth, which didn’t turn out quite the way I planned.

In any case, that old childhood fear is gone now, because even if, contrary to everything I believe and disbelieve, demons exist and are playing games with my mind, I’m not defenseless. If they desire my worship, presumably it is so I will accept their teachings and commands unquestioningly. Admiration without allegiance, or with allegiance that is dependent on the liege’s orders truly seeming moral and sensible, is no good to a dictator.

In short, I don’t think any demons are trying to make a Materialist Magician out of me, but even if they are, I doubt they will be pleased with the only kind of worship they can find.

Rereading The Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Five

So far, I’ve been fairly complimentary. That’s because, for the most part, this book has been good. At times, it’s been good and also very religious, which is not as much fun for me as it used to be, but I can skim over the religious stuff or mentally replace it with “pursuit of goodness and truth” and still enjoy it. I don’t see much point in picking up a religious book and criticizing it for being religious, just because I’m not religious now.

Chapter Seven gave me writer’s block for a while, because while most of the chapter is excellent, there is also a paragraph that hit my rant button. My first attempts to write about the two sides of the chapter weren’t working, and I had the kind of busy month that gave me less time to figure out what I was doing wrong. I’ve now settled on addressing the problem passage in a postscript, which should go up in a couple days. I’m very sorry for the delay.

Screwtape’s goal in this letter is to advise Wormwood on whether to make the Patient an extreme patriot or extreme pacifist. Either, he says, is potentially desirable, provided the Patient becomes extreme in his views. Ideally the Patient should be herded into a philosophy that runs contrary to his most authentic sentiments. If he has had prior worries about the concept of a just war and a deeply humanitarian aversion to violence, he should be converted, if possible, to patriotism. If he is more ambivalent about war itself, but has a deep personal fear of military service, he should be urged into pacifism. Whichever he ends up as, according to Screwtape, the key issue is that he become as much of an extremist as possible.

“Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.” Lewis is not committing the golden mean fallacy here, or claiming that there is something wrong with fervent activism. Lethargic ignorance and indifference is bad in it’s own way, but it’s important to make sure that, while trying to avoid it, you don’t end up in a state of volatile, embittered separatism.

“Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop within itself a hothouse of mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the ‘Cause’ is its sponsor and is thought to be impersonal.” He does not exclude religious factions from this characterization. Much of the chapter describes how the worst aspects of fanaticism can be used to corrupt religious organizations. The favored technique is to take some material, side issue (his example is pacifism or patriotism), begin by making it a part of their Christianity, and let it gradually creep further and further into their way of life. His hope for the Patient is that the political stance will consume his life, and religion become only a way to justify his politics. I could not read this chapter without thinking of the modern religious right. For a painfully vocal portion of Christians, this principle is not just in play, but recursively nested. Christian is just a justification of conservatism, conservatism is just a justification of “family values,” and family values is just a justification of “objects very strenuously to gays, or any alternative sexuality, no matter how well they feed and clothe and love their children.”

To go further into my own views on the issue; there is nothing inherently wrong with belonging to a fringe group with passionate beliefs. All great social movements started with a weird, passionate bunch of outsiders. The problem is when “I think my group is right and the rest of you are wrong” turns into “I think my group is good and the rest of you are bad.” It’s when you become so engrained with your own people’s way of thinking that you don’t get exposed to what the other side really thinks, and thus have free license to project the worst motivations onto them. It’s when you’ve, consciously or unconsciously, dehumanized those who fall outside your group, and once that happens you can’t help but bully and dismiss them. You become closed off from the very people you should be engaging with.

This chapter resonated with me not only because it reminded me not only of the groups that would try to oppress me, but with the groups I really agree with, but see in them a vicious mentality that I have no desire to be associated with. If anything, the latter bothers me more. I recently had a talk with a gender fluid person who felt alienated by all the trans groups she encountered on Tumblr (yes, she is the pronoun she most often uses, and she doesn’t need to use sie or zie or they to count as gender fluid). She didn’t have to explain what she meant. I’ve seen trans activists who begin name calling the moment someone writes transman and not trans man. I wish I made that up, or that it was even hyperbole, but it’s not. If I was a newbie, and those kinds of groups were the first ones I had come across, I would get discouraged fairly quickly as well, and that breaks my heart. I pointed her towards genderfork.com and wished her the best.

My best friend’s father regularly says things that make me bang my head against the wall; things that betray a total ignorance about disability and sexuality and mental health and virtually any point of view that is not that of a straight white middle class male. And yet, he treats me, a gay trans atheist, more like a member of his family than most of my own family does. He has pulled his car over to go defend a stranger who was being assaulted. He might rant about nanny state programs and welfare and building requirements for things like wheelchair ramps, but he’ll also volunteer at soup kitchens and buy socks for homeless shelters and devote hours to help someone build a wheelchair ramp. Be passionate about disagreeing with him politically, by all means, but never forget that whatever he thinks, he is a human being and his ideas do not define his identity or his actions.

As an atheist, I often get embroiled in arguments over which mentality has caused more destruction and bloodshed; religion or atheism. Religion has the Crusades and the Inquisition, witch hunts and modern terrorism. Atheism gets Pol Pot and the whole of communism, which atheists say doesn’t count because their deaths were in the name of communism, not atheism  per se, which could turn into an interesting discussion of how a particular ideologies interlock and influence each other, but it usually doesn’t. Usually this is where people start arguing about which side to put Hitler on and Godwin’s Law has to be invoked. My answer is that the whole question is a smokescreen. I think it’s not any particular philosophy that leads humankind to do good or evil, but the shifting of focus from real human beings to abstract ideals. When people cease to be people but mere vessels for abstract concepts, when you can paint your enemies as monsters based on nothing more than the fact that you happen to think they are wrong, you create a space where evil can be done. I do think that there is a need to develop ideologies and for people to passionately argue them. There’s a need for awareness and radicalism and people who shake up the status quo. Otherwise we risk being one of those societies that drowns in it’s own failings, too fearful of change to correct our own failings. But that awareness should not eclipse our understanding of people who disagree with us as people. It should not lead us to despise each other, and it should not lead us to think we are on some fundamental level better than those who disagree with us.

Or to close out in the words of Screwtape, “Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours-and the more ‘religious’ (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here.”