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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!


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.

Happy New Year’s Eve

This is the last day of 2014, and I’ll miss it. It was a really great year for me, and furthermore broke a streak of really awful years that started back around puberty. I’ll remember it well.

I’m planning on making some changes for the blog this year. My New Year’s resolution is to get it better organized (I’ve decided the secret to successful New Year’s resolutions is to make them a self-contained task that can be completed in the post New Year’s burst of energy, not something along the lines of “instantly become a better person forever”). I want to update the about page, index my Screwtape Letters reviews and get my tags and categories more streamlined.

Speaking of Screwtape, I’m only two posts away from the end of that series. I’ve enjoyed doing them, and they’ve easily been my most popular posts. My childhood was a cornucopia of Christian books and movies, so I’ve decided to continue reviewing religious themed media from an atheist’s perspective. I’ll be starting with Veggie Tales and Adventures in Odyssey, and probably get to the Chronicles of Narnia and Lewis’ Space Trilogy. Reader suggestions are welcome.

I’ve also been thinking that this blog would benefit from having a more narrow focus, so  from now on I’m going to be using this exclusively for reviews, with an emphasis on reviewing religious materials. For those of you interested in my writings on gender, writing and other ideas, my sister and I will be resurrecting an old sibling blog, The Brunette’s Blog. It’s primarily run by her but I’ll be posting regularly as well.

Thanks to everyone who has been reading, and I hope 2015 is as wonderful for you as 2014 was for me.

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

This chapter, Chapter Twenty-Nine, is all about courage. The Patient is making preparations for the bombings that are likely to come soon. Screwtape is worried for the Patient’s soul; it is far too moral and Christianly for him to die right now. Wormwood has no idea how to use the situation to his advantage. It’s a dark time for our… heroes?

Screwtape observes that the fear the Patient is experiencing can work to their advantage in one of two ways. First, the Patient can be made to act cowardly. Fear alone is not cowardice, of course. It is only when fear leads a person to act foolishly, dangerously or selfishly that the fear itself is to any advantage of the demons. Unfortunately the Patient is in a very bad state of mind to be lead that way. He is too focused on bettering himself. The only method Screwtape thinks would stand a chance is to make the Patient obsess over ways to protect himself from the worst happening. Screwtape advises making the Patient devise plans A, B, and C, which of course will only make him wonder what he will do if C fails. The longer he is kept in a state of obsessing over the danger, the more vulnerable he will be to fear.

The second method is to make the Patient feel hate. This will be difficult with the Patient at this time as well, because he is keenly aware that Christians are called to forgive their enemies. Screwtape’s best solution for a remedy is this; “If conscience resists, muddle him. Let him say that he feels hatred not on his own behalf but on that of the women and children, and that a Christian is told to forgive his own, not other people’s enemies. In other words let him consider himself sufficiently identified with the women and children to feel hatred on their behalf, but not sufficiently identified to regard their enemies as his own and therefore proper objects of forgiveness.”

I’m actually not sure what I think about that. Now, in this specific example, any hatred the Patient feels towards the bombers will likely be at least somewhat based on his own fear for his own well being, so telling himself, “I’m only hating them for other people’s sake” is obviously an excuse. That said, is it actually true that “I feel hurt and anger and hatred on someone else’s behalf” means “I have the right to forgive them in my own heart, regardless of whether or not the somebody else has”? I don’t know. Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts on this.

He goes on to describe the advantages of hatred over cowardice.

“Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful – horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember; Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear. The more he fears, the more he will hate. And Hatred is a great anodyne for shame.”

Screwtape also suggests that the Patient’s bravery could be turned to pride, but he gives no advice on how to pull this off. Instead, he spends a good deal of this chapter whining, which is actually fairly amusing to read. Times of danger are apparently of great advantage to God, because while demons can make people enjoy and even take pride in many vices, cowardice is completely unpleasant to experience and impossible to boast of. Because of this, times of danger make people assess their courage, and while love might be the greatest virtue, courage is the one demons fear most. It’s meaningless to say you have principles when you don’t have the courage to hold to them when they cost you something. As Screwtape so succinctly puts it, “Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”

He even suspects that God allows a dangerous world precisely because it allows virtues to be put to the test of courage. Screwtape also seems to think that even cowardice, when it is displayed, is somewhat disadvantageous to demons, because it can lead to redeption. “We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, the Enemy permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame. The danger of inducing cowardice in our patients, therefore, is lest we produce real self-knowledge and self-loathing with consequent repentance and humility. And in fact, in the last war, thousands of humans, by discovering their own cowardice, discovered a whole moral world for the first time.”

I do like the idea of cowardice as a means of redemption, but I am also bothered by this justification for a deadly world, particularly in light of the rest of the universe that has been described throughout the book. Now, if it was just an image of God using suffering as a means of making us into something better than we would be in a perfectly comfortable world, before going on to the next, happier life, I think there’s actually something quite nice about it. Not nice enough to make me believe it, but I could move it into the category of things I don’t personally believe in but do think they are sort of cool as concepts, like reincarnation. But when you combine it with the fact that everyone gets one chance before they are condemned to either eternal bliss or eternal agony, it becomes much uglier.

Consider, for example, child soldiers and the Hitler youth. Consider sociopaths, who are born with neurological defects that make it very difficult for them to ever develop a moral sense (not necessarily impossible, but it seems that those who don’t grow into full sociopaths had extraordinarily good environmental circumstances; people who were very loving and patient. In other words, not because they had free will and could just choose to not be sociopaths, but because somebody else was willing to take the work to teach them how to empathize). Do those people deserve to go to hell, if they were in circumstances that pressured them so heavily into doing wrong? Do they deserve heaven? I don’t know, but I’m not okay with some God deciding it was all right to make a dangerous world, and then condemning those who were bad because of the danger to an eternity in hell. I think saying he makes it dangerous so those who are good despite the danger can go to heaven is deliberately ignoring half the picture.

Growing up, I was often told that God never tests us beyond what we can handle. In other words, if you grew up in a concentration camp, because Kim Jong-il decided it was a good idea to imprison not only your father for sedition but also any children he had and any children his children will have, and you were beaten every day and barely fed, because that’s what the soldiers guarding you were commanded to do and if they disobey they’ll just be condemning their children to the same fate, you don’t get any slack for being a bit messed up by that environment. You can still go to hell for stealing and lying and betraying others to survive, nevermind that your world is so awful your capacity to empathize is shutting down from early childhood as an act of psychological self-defense. God is just testing you, and for some reason he is testing you with hell on earth while he tested me with a moderately crappy childhood, in a privileged suburban kind of way. If you failed his test, that counts against you just as much as it would against me. Nevermind that your test was obviously a thousand times harder and you were taking it from infancy. He wouldn’t test you beyond what you could handle, right?

Sorry, got a bit ranty there. Suffice to say I don’t find this justification very plausible anymore. Apart from my issues with that one point I actually liked the rest of the chapter quite a lot. I think he’s right about the importance of courage. I think he’s right about the mechanics of hatred and cowardice, and I like the idea of cowardice leading to honest self-evaluation and real character growth.

Only two more posts to go before the end of the book!

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 Eighteen

In this chapter, Screwtape encourages Wormwood to plan ahead. He thinks Wormwood should assume the Patient and his girlfriend are going to marry, and begin to sow the seeds of marital discontent now. Currently, he says, they are in the state of love that resembles an enchantment, where everything feels bubbly and perfect. According to Screwtape, many broken relationships actually get their start here, where demons encourage bad behaviors that the couple fails to deal with, because the NRE makes everything easily forgivable. They think they’ve solved problems with the power of their love, when really they’ve only thrown a pretty doily over them.

The trick Screwtape recommends most heavily is the promotion of “Unselfishness.” He distinguishes between unselfishness and actual kindness. Kind acts are things that you do in order to make someone else’s lives better. Unselfishness, according to Screwtape, is a character trait you can earn XP in, and when you get enough points you get to level up and become a level 10 Awesome Human Being, or so demons like to encourage humans to think. This simple substition allows demons to encourage humans to become blind to the real consequences of their behavior, and focus instead on how to best achieve moral superiority. In the case of the Patient and his girlfriend, he wants Wormwood to encourage them to replace the inclination for charity that their NRE has produced with a tendency to do what they don’t want to do so that they can experience subsequent feelings of victorious superiority, tinged with a little resentment. This is bad enough on the small scale, and if nurtured can lead toward real dysfunction in the long run.

Screwtape offers an example of how unselfishness can look when it has been nurtured in a group of people for a long time.

“Something quite trivial, like having tea in the garden, is proposed. One member takes care to make it quite clear (though not in so many words) that he would rather not but is, of course, prepared to do so out of ‘Unselfishness.’ The others withdraw their proposal, ostensibly through their ‘Unselfishness,’ but really because they don’t want to be used as a sort of lay figure on which the first speaker practices petty altruisms. But he is not going to be done out of his debauch of Unselfishness either. He insists on doing ‘what the others want.’ They insist on doing what he wants. Passions are roused. Soon someone is saying, ‘very well then, I won’t have any tea at all!’ and a real quarrel ensues with bitter resentment on both sides.”

Everyone leaves able to feel like they’ve won the war of moral superiority, able to see the selfishness inherent in everyone else’s unselfishness, but fails to see it in themselves.

This whole chapter I liked quite a bit. There was one aside where he explained said that women demonstrate unselfishness by “taking trouble for others,” inconveniencing themselves for someone else’s sake or actively giving to someone, while men demonstrate unselfishness by not giving trouble to others. This is a bit gender essentialist of him, but not entirely wrong. If you change it from an absolute statement to “men tend to be taught that being considerate of others means this and women tend to be raised with different expectations,” I think it’s an accurate observation. I also think that both approaches to kindness can be right in different situations, and the trick is to learn how to do both, not just the one you were raised to think about. The problem lies in doing one in a situation where the other is called for, and patting yourself on the back for being “unselfish” because you fulfilled your own definition of good behavior, rather than think about what the other person really needed. That, I think, was the reason Lewis brought up the distinction in the first place.

Apart from that nitpick, I don’t have much to add to it except “yup, uh-huh, that’s so true,” which made it very enjoyable for me to read but a little more difficult to write about. I think his analysis was not only good but also comprehensive, which leaves me with little to say except, “well said, Mr. Lewis.”

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Seventeen

In this chapter, Screwtape describes to Wormwood a trick he calls the Same Old Thing. Humans naturally exist in a state of intermingled change and stability, and that is natural. We exist in a rhythm of the familiar and the novel, and because that is part of life, “the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since he does  not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence.”

The demonic practice, therefore, is to take the love of change and turn it into a horror of anything that is too familiar, a constant demand for things to be altered and updated. When I read that as a kid, I thought it was a very profound point that Lewis was making. Now, I don’t exactly disagree that too much focus on change can be unhealthy, but I also notice a strange omission. Screwtape says that humans are made to love both change and permanence, and it has been established that demons can twist all sorts of natural pleasures into an excessive obsession, so why isn’t he also instructing Wormwood on the use of the the Comfortable Old Thing? Why isn’t he talking about people who don’t want to challenge themselves, or mature, or let go of old prejudices and increase the level of equality in the world, because that would mean change and change is scary? You only have to look around to see that this is also a common flaw of human nature, but Screwtape never brings it up.

This omission becomes even stranger as he describes the social ills that the fear of the Same Old Thing brings on.

“We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere ‘understanding.’ Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.”

I think all of that is valid criticism. Often the vice that is most feared is the one that is least present. The family that fears seeming dysfunctional becomes full of Stepford Smilers. The person who fears seeming controlling is the passive doormat. The culture that despises sissies teaches a repressed, stifling machismo. But once again, I think it’s foolish to put all the blame for that on those who are forward thinking and fashion obsessed. Sometimes the attitude at fault is the one that says “this is the way things have always been, and it’s the way things should be,” ignoring the fact that they are lashing out against constructive or even benign changes, simply because they are different.

Screwtape’s final application of the Same Old Thing is to make sure people, when considering their choices, think not about whether a particular course of action is good or sensible, but whether it is in line with progress and the future.

“Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ then they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are of course, unanswerable, for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make… We have trained them to think of the Future as a promised land which favoured heroes attain-not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.”

Again, it’s not a bad point, so far as it goes. I tend to be someone who thinks a good deal about the future, and I hang out a lot with people who are preoccupied with making the future more fair, more egalitarian, more liberal. And even while I support these values, I’ve sometimes had conversations where I slap my head, usually because I am talking to someone who has gotten so wrapped up with whether or not a particular idea is in line with forward-thinking philosophy than whether it’s actually good. I am thinking of someone who once chewed me out for referring to someone, approvingly, as “self-disciplined.” He thought I shouldn’t use that word because it was a conservative value, nevermind that it’s still often an objectively good thing to be. But if I may make the same point for a third time, this flaw cuts both ways. Obsessively consulting the past is reasoning as flawed as constantly forecasting the future. There is a reason things have changed over time. Sometimes the past was bad, and we changed because we figured out a way to make it better.

Back when I was reviewing Chapter Nineteen, I talked about how Screwtape objectifies women, when that doesn’t actually fit his motivations and psychology. He wants to use everyone’s basic humanity against them, yes, but he’s aware of everyone as a person with desires and the capacity to take action. The whole point of his role as a tempter is to be aware of everyone’s needs and fears and desires, so he can make use of them, and so it would be actively detrimental for him to ignore the role women have as agents, in the use and misuse of their own sexuality. The way he talked made it clear that Lewis was speaking through him. This is another chapter where he comes across as a puppet, rather than a character. I can see Lewis moving Screwtape’s mouth, bobbing his head, and making Screwtape decry the flaws of liberal, forward thinking groups Lewis dislikes while completely ignoring more conservative groups that Lewis supports. This doesn’t invalidate his points, but it does weaken his message.

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Sixteen, with Guest Writer!

All of Wormwoods efforts to make the Patient unchaste fail when he falls in love with the wrong sort of girl; a virginal, raised in the church bastion of holy spirituality. Chapter Thirteen is nothing but Screwtape chewing him out for his failure, while Chapter Fourteen gets into how to redeem the situation. They have failed to get church out of the Patient, so now its time to think of how to corrupt its influence.

Screwtape is a particular fan of using academia and politics to muddy religion. In the first place, he believes that academic study of Jesus can only produce an image that is contrary to the man who is taught in the Bible, and who therefore can only confuse the devotion of the modern Christian. Politics is a more difficult thing, as on the one hand, Christianity affecting politics he thinks is potentially deadly, but on the other hand, when Christianity becomes only an excuse for a particular political stance, the faith itself is diluted to the demons’ advantage. The two combined, the “Christianity and Social Cause” and the “Historical Jesus” phenomenons, can be used to great affect by Wormwood.

Chapter Fourteen is another one that is largely about Christians to Christians, and so I have very little to fairly say about it myself. However, some of his comments made me think my friend Rebecca might have some thoughts from a more liberal Christian perspective. In addition to being a fantastic human being, she is in the process of becoming an Episcopalian nun. She has her own blog about the journey here.

The following has been edited from a Skype conversation we had after I gave her the chapter to read. There was a lot of tidying up to do, as neither of us are exactly experienced interviewers, but we worked together on the result and I think it reflects the clever points we were trying to make at the time quite well.

Lane: What did you think?

Rebecca: I found it really thought provoking. There was some stuff I liked, some I really disagreed with, and a lot that made me think.

Lane: That’s my impression of the Screwtape Letters in a nutshell.

Rebecca: I agree, first of all, that the “border-line between theology and politics” is a very messy place, and definitely a difficult one to traverse, if you’re a person of faith.

Lane: Yeah. I think you have to agree with that one, even if you traverse it on a different trajectory than Lewis does.

Rebecca: Also, I loved this part: “The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin which they already had-and sin, not against some new fancy-dress law produced as a novelty by a “great man,” but against the old platitudinous, universal moral law which they had been taught by their nurses and mothers. The “Gospels” came later and were written not to make Christians but to edify Christians already made.”

We try to learn from the Bible, but it wasn’t really written for that, I don’t think

Lane: Interesting. Can you clarify?

Rebecca: I can try! Easiest bit first: the observation that the Gospels were written to Christians who already believed. They’re… as I see it, not rule books but histories to us today. (And that’s not always a popular view, but it is a very Episcopalian one, i find.) So, we can learn from them in a broad sense, but the point of the Bible isn’t “read this and it’ll convince you”. It’s a record of who we’ve been as a religion.

Lane: Interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Rebecca: Like I said, I don’t think that’s a popular view. But think of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians; They are Paul’s ideas, and I’m sure he prayed about them, but they’re also very specific to his time and place. He personally knew the people he was writing to. I do think his views on gender roles are shitty, especially applied to today. But I also think that he wasn’t writing to us, and if he had been, he might have said some different things, because we’re a different church with different needs and different faults. If we accept that his writing is divinely inspired, well, that’s easily in line with the belief that God meets people where they are. What I am called to is not what you are called to. What the church in Corinth needed to shape up is not what we need to shape up. One of Paul’s letters includes a request for somebody to (and I’m paraphrasing) pop his cloak in the mail. “You know, the red one… that I left last time I visited.” I don’t see people rushing to recover the cloak and send it on. These are very clearly letters to actual people he really knew. They were saved because they’re important church history and some of the stuff he says is good and worth learning from, but they’re also personal letters.

Lane: I didn’t remember that verse. That’s really funny

Rebecca: Shockingly, that doesn’t come up in church. There are some very ordinary parts of the Epistles. [So I agree with] the idea that Paul’s writing is to teach people who are digging in deeper, rather than to be the basic stuff that converts somebody. “Women should be silent in church” is sure as hell not converting anybody I want to share a pew with. But we learn about the old church by studying why Paul said that (that’s another discussion) and about ourselves by deciding how to live out such a thing- from literally to not at all. And Lewis is totally right that in the very earliest days, people were converted on the strength of “There was this dude- Jesus of Nazareth- and you should hear the amazing things he did. Hey- God will take you to heaven. You know that? God actually loves you.” Which, if you find a church that interprets that in a universal, loving way, is a really powerful thing. And also an incredible weapon in many hands.

Lane: Good weapon or bad weapon?

Rebecca: Bad weapon! “God loves everybody- and you make him sad.” Is basically the most awful thing a church can say and too many of them do.

Lane: Gotcha. So, does that sum up the “ooh, that was a good point” stuff?

Rebecca: Yeah. The whole “Historical Jesus” thing… I had a bunch of thoughts on that.

Lane: That was that part that really made me think, “I should get Rebecca’s perspective.”

Rebecca: Before we start that- I liked that he referred to other great minds as being sent by God to remind people that there’s goodness and light in the world. That’s right in with my own philosophy.

[quote; “For humans must not be allowed to notice that all great moralists are sent by the Enemy not to inform men but to remind them, to restate the primeval moral platitudes against our continual concealment of them. We make the Sophists: He raises up a Socrates to answer them.”]

Anyway, first of all, he says “The documents say what they say and cannot be added to.” I hate that argument. You know what that’s like? It’s like Tumblr, where people just go, “You suck, educate yourself!” Like there’s only ever one way to view each issue and *obviously* if you’re not a *complete moron* you’ll see it “the right way” which is, naturally, their way, and disagreement just means you’re deluded and stupid, because you could never possibly have your own opinion on the exact same facts. So, no, the documents do not “say what they say” that simply.

Lane: I just broke out into a grin, because wouldn’t Lewis be the worst tumblrite ever?

Rebecca: The worst!

Lane: He would be the master of the “wake up sheeple” flame war. That’s a recurring problem I’m having with him. He doesn’t like to consider that people who disagree with him are not necessarily wrong.

Rebecca: So here’s what I think. A few things are very clear- “Jesus is the son of God, sent down here by God, God incarnate.” The resurrection is pretty clear, too. He died, he rose. Some of it is just stated facts, but plenty is not. How you interpret Jesus feeding the 5,000 is entirely up for debate. There is no “lesson” there except that Jesus can do very cool stuff and that he wanted to share dinner. Water into wine- is another one with no great lesson. I mean, he just quick-fermented grape juice for a wedding reception. So, whatever Lewis thinks the Bible “clearly says” about Jesus, he’s wrong. And he lists the “reductionist views” people hold (holy quotation marks, I really hated this part) as though that’s somehow a bad thing. People do understand Jesus differently, and those views are not new! They don’t go in neat cycles. Jesus as a rabbi has always been the view held by some people. Jesus the social-justice activist is another one, and a very prevalent view. So, there’s no putting aside interpretation and getting the “real, correct” Jesus out of that. We all bring our own baggage to the story of Jesus of Nazareth, and that influences how we view him. Heck, look at art- he’s so frequently depicted as a light-haired white dude. I really like the view of him as looking very normally middle-eastern. The idea that Jesus might get stopped by airport security is comforting to me. Jesus himself said, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword”. He wasn’t Buddy Christ- in *my* reading, Jesus asks us to do things that so far humanity has found totally impossible. Loving each other, being forgiving, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor. But lots of people are very comfortable without making any big changes to get those things done.

I don’t get the impression, from Lewis, that he’s comfortable with Jesus being multi-faceted. He thinks that whatever Jesus was (according to Lewis) that Jesus was probably very easy to understand. I don’t think so. I think even as a human, he had some really rough spots. He was God incarnate, but he was human while he was here. He never really caught on in Nazareth, because they’d all known him when he was a kid. He got mad at people who were using the temple to do business. If flipping tables and yelling at people isn’t an extraordinarily awkward scene to imagine, I shudder to think what your social life must be like. We all think, “oh, he was obviously in the right and totally righteous” and we’re not uncomfortable with that story at all. But imagine if you had to watch that go down!

Lane: So, in short, you think Lewis has a very simple idea of who Jesus was, and doesn’t want to consider any other angles. So when people turn to psychology and history and archaeology to try to deepen their understanding, he dismisses them, because he doesn’t want to challenge his own ideas about who Jesus may have been.

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s exactly what I think. I can go on at length about my view of Jesus, but I bet Lewis’s view was super different. And we got those ideas from the exact same book.

Lane Brown: Yeah. If I may jump in for a bit, I was bothered in general by the attitude that in this one area, academia is absolutely forbidden to add its voice. That there’s just this mystical understanding that is complete and if you consider looking anywhere else for improved understanding, that urge is from the devil. Lewis talks a good talk about logic and knowledge and real study, but then when it comes to logic or education that disagrees with him, he will say, “well, obviously this is the bad sort of education that gets in the way of good old fashioned common sense.”

Rebecca: “Good old fashioned” usually is code for “I’m putting my fingers in my ears now.”

Lane: Pretty much.

Rebecca: See also “old-fashioned family values.”

Lane: I suppose it’s not surprising that the sort of Christian who practically venerates him is also the sort with this attitude towards education and learning; good up to a point, that point being where it challenges what we already think.

Rebecca: Yeah- he has good things to say, but I’d venture that he’s very uncomfortable with change and any pushback against authority.

Rebecca: The other thing I think is that different people really do just see different things in the Gospels, and that’s okay. I don’t think that’s inherently wrong. If you’re Christian, there’s a basic expectation that you will believe in Jesus the Son of God, God incarnate, who rose from the dead, but if you need the story of Jesus who fucked shit up when people were being shitheads, that’s a lens that gives you power? I think that’s okay. If you’re me, and you need Jesus who knew what it was like to try really hard and love everybody and hang out with the unpopular kids, that’s okay. If you need Jesus who will be perfect and strong and always there for you, and who always has the exact right answer there in scripture and was never vulnerable even on the cross, that’s okay. I think Jesus can be all these things, and can mean different things to different people, according to what people need. I think Jesus is bigger than the letters Paul wrote, and bigger than Luke’s memory of everything after the fact. He was lots of things while he was alive, and if your reading of Scripture takes you in a different direction from me, maybe that’s because you need a different kind of support or something different to believe in. I think Jesus is big enough to handle all that. We can have these conflicting views and all be Real Christians ™ and all be real followers of Jesus Christ, and all be good people. We don’t have to need the same thing or find the same thing when we go looking. And *that* is my truest objection to Lewis’s idea that Jesus was a static character.

Lane: Where there any other parts that you wanted to respond to? Other thoughts that were provoked?

Rebecca: The question of why to believe, and what’s a valid reason to believe. That actually rang kind of true with me- the question of whether to believe because you believe, or because you can get something out of your belief. I think there’s something wrong with deciding, in an academic way, to practice a religion because it’ll get a result you want. I don’t actually think that constitutes real belief.

Lane: Aka, why I really hate Pascal’s Wager.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m not a big fan, either. It’s a very cold, calculating thing. Not good for religion or for the individual. I mean, I certainly am not going to question the people at church every week. That’s absolutely a matter for your own conscience, why you practice a religion. But I think if you really do believe, there’s just this knowledge in you that what is true is true. Some people take that and bludgeon the people around them with that knowledge they have. Whereas I tend to feel like, “I know this to be true. And I am equally certain that you know it to be false” and then I piss everyone off by not having a problem with that. [A mutual friend] said something once about how, for her, Jesus is the answer to the question she’s asking. But if you’re taking a different metaphorical test, you may get a different answer. And to me, that’s something God understands and He just goes on loving everyone regardless. I also think God touched off the big bang, so I’m not ever going to be fun at fundamentalist parties.

Lane: Well, that depends who you’re asking. To me you’re loads of fun at fundamentalist parties.

Rebecca: Hahaha right up until we both get clocked with Bibles and thrown out

Lane: We will wear our bruises proudly.

Rebecca: Let’s maybe have our own parties.

Lane: Yeah, for me part of the reason I don’t follow a religion is that for me, I was raised in an extremely fundamentalist and frankly ridiculous sort of religion, and when I had faith, that was what I had faith in. When that faith was broken, I looked at other religions, and other types of my own former religion, and on a moral/philosophical level they made various levels of sense to me, but that was not the same as having faith. Then I got into atheism and questioning whether faith was even something I needed to be a good and complete person, and I came to the conclusion that no, I didn’t, and the only thing I could do at that point that had any integrity was cop to being an atheist.

Rebecca: I have a blog post coming about that

Lane: I will so be plugging your blog.

Rebecca: Back on topic, I think that one of the reasons I stayed faithful was that the God who I was brought up to know was gentle and loving, and I went to a church where it was okay to ask questions and bust myths if you found them. And if you were doubting, that was okay. I took it all in and believed it the way kids believe what they’re told, and as I got older I started doing some of my own reading, and thinking, and praying, and basically forming a relationship with God (which feels hokey to say, thanks junior high Revivals!).

Also, I want to make it really clear that when I say that I don’t think you just “decide to believe for Reasons” I’m not denigrating people who are doubting and want to believe and are struggling with that. That’s normal, and acceptable, and I’m in no way looking to run that down. I think that’s different from coming at belief with a thing you want accomplished. “I’ll believe because Jesus was pro-social justice” is very different from somebody who wants to believe because belief makes sense to them in whatever indefinable way belief does.

It’s hard to be in that position of wanting to believe and trying to hear God and connect with God and feel God’s presence and love. Whereas practicing religion with an end goal, without worrying about your relationship with God, does seem problematic.

Lane: Yeah, I think I liked that point as well, even without something similar in my life to relate to it. It seems to me, though, that as an atheist, the last thing I should be saying is, “I think you should really believe because you believe, not because you think Jesus has good shit to say and that Christianity furthers your particular crusade,” because I’m not part of that group anymore, so who the hell gave me a vote?

Rebecca: I get one, though, and I think if your cause has nothing to recommend it but “God says!!” and you sticking your tongue out, it’s proably a shitty cause.

Lane: I suppose in a similar way I think you should be an atheist because you really don’t have faith, not because you believe that atheism is the way of the future, for example.

Rebecca: Don’t be atheist to be edgy.

If your cause really is good, people of all faith traditions and no faith tradition at all will see that it’s good, because the world is full of good people who want good things for this place. You won’t have to scare them with hell to get them to do good.

Lane: Or convince them that hell doesn’t exist to get them to do good.

Rebecca: Yup!

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Fifteen

I think the biggest weakness of Lewis’ logical arguments is how often he misunderstands, oversimplifies or outright ignores the counterarguments that real people who disagree with him would make. This chapter, for example, has him arguing that everything we are, all the time we have and everything we own does not really belong to us, but ultimately to God. He states that there is no counterargument.

“The assumption which you want him to go on making is so absurd that, if once it is questioned, even we cannot find a shred of argument in its defence. The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels. He is also, in theory, committed to a total service of the Enemy; and if the Enemy appeared to him in bodily form and demanded that total service for even one day, he would not refuse. He would be greatly relieved if that one day involved nothing harder than listening to the conversation of a foolish woman; and he would be relieved almost to the pitch of disappointment if for one half-hour in that day the Enemy said ‘now you may go and amuse yourself.’ Now if he thinks about his assumption for a moment, even he is bound to realise that he is actually in this situation every day. When I speak of preserving this assumption in his mind, therefore, the last thing I mean you to do is to furnish him with arguments in its defence. There aren’t any.”

Everything comes from God, therefore everything really is God’s, and God may come in and make demands on whatever we have regardless of what it means to us. He goes on to say that the false sense of ownership is something encouraged by demons and of great use to them.

Well, there are counterarguments to that. One is simply to disagree with his assertion that there is a God to have everything, but I think even before you get that far there are some flaws in his reasoning. I almost hesitate to make the arguments, because I think he applies his conclusion in some good ways. “We produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion. We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun-the finely graded differences that run from ‘my boots’ through ‘my dog,’ ‘my servant,’ ‘my wife,’ ‘my father,’ ‘my master,’ and ‘my country,’ to ‘my God.’ They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of ‘my boots,’ the ‘my’ of ownership. Even in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by ‘my Teddy-bear’ not the old imagined recipient of affection to whom it stands in a special relation… but ‘the bear I can pull to pieces if I like.'” He’s arguing against the concept of ownership because that leads us to use our time, selves, relationships and things in ways that are contrary to how they should be used. His ultimate conclusion is one that I agree with, but his penultimate one is not.

If he had not completely dismissed everyone who might agree with him, this might be another chapter I skip on the grounds that he is speaking too much about religion to religious people. However, his complete dismissal of counterarguments makes me feel the need to make them, just because I’m ticked off at his continued habit of ignoring people who disagree with him. Furthermore, as I think of it, I realize that a lot of the judgmental attitude I encountered, in the Christian world, towards atheists and the secular world in general, is based on this idea that thinking you have a right to your own life is inherently selfish and absurd. Thinking that you can have a real claim on your life, your body and your time is not an inevitably bad belief. The mere idea that you have rights is predicated on the assumption that you own, at the very least, your own self. Why fight for human rights if you deny that anyone can possess anything?

Lewis justifies moral behavior, particularly generous and giving behavior, with the assumption that as we do not own anything, we must give back to God whatever he demands in whatever way he demands it. I frequently agree with him about what moral behavior looks like, but my explanation for why it is necessary is different. While some things are ours, like our individual lives, most things are ultimately shared. Everything that makes life possible is shared; the sun, the air, the water we drink and the soil that grows our food. Most things that we produce are the result of shared social effort. We could not own them if other humans had put in effort to either directly make them or indirectly make them possible. Shared social effort is possible only when people treat each other well, which is why humans with a moral sense are a successful form of life. When we act in a way that is conscious of the network we interact within, and that is to the best interest of as many people as possible within it, we call that morality, and the result of it is a world I am happier to live in.

My idea that I own some small things, like my own person and identity and time, does not contradict this moral sense that affirms generosity and kindness. From one point of view it seems to, but from another it affirms it. For example, when I spend some of my own time making somebody feel better, I am participating in a community of nice people who try to make each other feel better. Someday I might need somebody to give some of their time to me. I might not get that time as a direct result of having given someone else my time when part of me didn’t want to, but I have earned my right to hang out with the kind of people who are willing to give their time to others who need it.

So that is why I disagree with his insistence that his perspective is the only way you can look at this issue. I also see a flaw in his reasoning, as he states it. He calls everything from God a “gift.” Well, as I understand it, the entire point of a gift is that once it is given, the recipient owns it. The giver has relinquished all claim on how it must be used. If I give someone a book, I cannot later demand that they trash it in protest of the statements the author made on gay rights, or say they cannot re-gift it to someone else who they think would enjoy the book more. It is now their book.

Now, he may be using the word “give” in the sense that I use the word “loan.” I can loan something and stipulate that it be given back at a certain date or only used in a certain way. Even there, though, not every demand I can make is fair or legitimate. It is one thing to loan someone a Princess Mononoke DVD and expect that it will be given back by the end of the week. It is less reasonable to demand that they only watch it with subtitles, as whether they watch it that way or not does not affect me or my later use of the DVD. There are demands I could make that make sense and are unobjectionable, and there are demands I could make that are ridiculous, controlling or insensitive to the person I am supposedly doing this for.

There was a time in my life when I felt like nothing was mine. I was extremely depressed, anxious and isolated, and I realized that part of what was going wrong was that I was nearly done with my teens and I had never been a teenager. Everything I read, watched, listened to and wore was being passed through a filter of what was pre-approved by James Dobbs and Focus on the Family and all the other things conservative Christian kids are raised on. I wanted to see what it was like to dye my hair and read Harry Potter. My father was furious. Surprisingly, he did cave on the hair, but there were a lot of other things I wasn’t allowed to wear, and he was absolutely adamant on the books. Even having something like Harry Potter in the house was practically inviting Satan to live in our basement. Books that offered different perspectives on religion were similarly unwanted. I had to hide even fairly respectful and nuanced books like The History of God and God is Not One. His justification for forbidding these things to a kid who was seventeen, eighteen, even twenty years old, was that he owned the house, and so nothing that was in it could be mine. I only had things that he allowed me to have. Even things that I bought with money I earned at my job weren’t mine; he said that if it wasn’t for him buying my food and paying the bills, I wouldn’t have the disposable income to get my own things. This made me feel incredibly trapped; I couldn’t be myself in my home, but I did not have the ability to leave it. When Lewis describes living in a world where everything is God’s and everything must be used in the way that he decrees, that is what I think about.

As I describe it, I think most people can see that this level of control was unreasonable for my father to place on me. I am my own person, and I needed to be allowed to figure out for myself who that was; that is the essence of being a teenager. Now, for argument’s sake, let’s assume there is a God. Let’s further assume that my father is right about what he demands of us, and that by disobeying my father I was also disobeying God. Do the demands and the total lack of self-ownership then become reasonable? I don’t think so. The life I had been commanded to lead had left me depressed and anxious. As a person who prayed daily and tried to follow every commandment to the best of my ability, I cried myself to sleep every night and had bursts of crying every day as well. I was so anxious I could barely answer the phone, and I could not walk to the local coffeeshop alone and have a private drink without having a meltdown. As a person who dyed my hair and read forbidden books, in some strange, inexplicable way I found myself, and I slowly learned how to interact with people and even make friends. I even stopped crying. I was objectively, measurably better off doing things my own way than when I was trying to follow “God’s will.”

So, if God was the one giving me the original commandment to follow the lifestyle of the strict conservative Christian, and he had the right to give me that order to do that because he really owned me, then he was giving me commands to destroy his own property. He was the one interpreting “my” in the same sense of “my teddy which I can pull to pieces if I like.” This has gotten into the territory of the Euthypro dilemma. If God exists, is goodness good because it is what God has decreed is good, or does God decree what is good because it is good. If the latter, I don’t need God’s commands to be good. I need to be good, and whether I’m doing it because God tells me to or not doesn’t matter. But if the answer is the former, I think that just makes goodness arbitrary. Morality becomes simply what the biggest person in the room says it should be. Even if it were proved to me tomorrow that God was real, he was the conservative God of Lewis and my father, and I will be damned if I don’t follow his words to the letter, I would not change any of my choices. I might no longer claim to be an atheist, but I won’t follow the commands of someone who I don’t think is taking good care of me and my loved ones. I refuse to be the teddy bear he gets to tear to bits if he wants.

So this is my response to Lewis. I own myself. I own my time. I own all the things I have personally earned. However, I have a responsibility to take good care of those things, and to use them in ways that better myself and the shared world around me, for the good of everyone. I do not need an almighty God sticking his flag into my person in order to make moral choices about how I make use of what is mine.