Tag Archives: skepticism

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic; A Matter of Obedience


This episode centers around Tom Reilly, a longtime friend of Whit’s. Tom is every old timey stereotype in the book; the positive ones, that is. From the perspective of the Adventures in Odyssey team, old fashioned and traditional is automatically better. For example, the Bible School class Tom has been ask to substitute teach, though inherently Biblical and therefore wonderful, has been tainted by the teacher’s newfangled ways. As Reynold the teacher’s pet explains;

“We learned that the word obedience as it appears in the New Testament is translated from the Greek word hupakoe, meaning to give fulfillment of God’s claims and commands, and hupatage, which means to bring under subjection.”

“Anything else?”

“It took us the whole class to learn about hupakoe, Mr. Reilly.”

How? You defined both words in one sentence.

I’ve been in plenty of Sunday School classes (and regular classes) where the teachers touched on the Greek, Hebrew and Latin root words. It never took up a whole class, in fact never more than a minute. If it did, it was because the root words were genuinely interesting and enlightening.

I also find this an ironic criticism. This series never stops praising the Bible, and emphasizing the importance of studying it, but God forbid you learn the copy in your own home is just a translation. God forbid you learn anything about the original language, and the subtleties that may have been lost. Tom rants for a while about this Bible School where they don’t read the Bible, never mind that, in a sense, that’s exactly what they were doing. He realizes that the duty of truly teaching them about obedience has fallen to him, and decides to tell them a story.

Not a story from the Bible, mind you. Just something that happened to him as a kid. You know, REAL Bible study stuff.

Tom’s father was a country doctor during the Great Depression. One day he asked Tom and his sister Becky to deliver some medicine, while he went to see another patient. Before he left, he gave Tom a list of instructions.

  1. Take the Single Path through the Gloomy Woods. It’s long and windy, but it’s a direct route, so they won’t get lost.
  2. Take a knapsack of food, because the trip will take most of the day and they will be hungry.
  3. Don’t play around. This means you, Tom. You can’t afford to waste time goofing off.
  4. Don’t talk to strangers on the way.
  5. Knock on the house with the blue door, and tell the man there who you are. Don’t knock on any other doors, because the people in that area don’t trust strangers.

He also advises his son to take a pocketknife, on the general principle that every story needs a Chekhov’s Gun. Becky also brings a book, because this good old-fashioned story wouldn’t be complete without Tom making fun of people who read for fun she doesn’t want to get bored.

Naturally, Tom goofs off on a bridge over a stream and promptly loses the knapsack, and they spend the bulk of the trip suffering hunger pangs. He nearly breaks rules four and one, when a stranger approaches and offers to show them a shortcut and food, but Becky talks him out of it. When they finally emerge, Tom is so desperate for this whole ordeal to be over, he runs up to the first house he sees and knocks on a red door.

Becky points out how red is an extremely un-blue color, but Tom brushes her off on account of… reasons?

Of course the woman who opens the door assumes they are evil pranksters who must be locked up in her basement while she goes for help. Naturally.

Luckily, she leaves the key in the door. Tom joyfully announces that Becky’s book will finally be useful for something. He tears out a page, pushes it under the door, knocks the key out with the pocketknife, pulls it under the door and unlocks it from the other side.

They finally follow their father’s directions to the letter, complete their mission and get some food. And if the story had stopped there, I honestly would have thought it was fine. A bit obvious and trope heavy, yes. But overall, a standard children’s morality tale. Unfortunately, this being Adventures in Odyssey, we can’t just stop there. We have to have the moral explained to death, to make absolutely sure we don’t engage in any independent thought.

As Tom says to his class;

“That little adventure taught me how important it is to obey. Even when it’s not convenient or when I don’t understand why I’m being told to do something, and even when I don’t want to. I tried to make excuses and argue, and I was wrong, and suffered because of it.”

As Tom talks, he puts the emphasis on “why,” even though that does not apply to the story. Each rule came with a clear explanation from his father, and he disobeyed it anyway. He goes on like this for a while, to make it clear that obeying is always, always good and disobeying is always, always bad. If we learned “obey people who give directions that make sense and are for the good of everyone involved,” we learned the wrong lesson. We should have learned unquestioning obedience.

Obedience, I think, is an act of trust. It is only virtuous if we are trusting those who have earned it. Sometimes they earn that by giving us clear reasoning. Other times we choose to trust someone because of their track record. And yes, some people start out in an authority role, like a teacher, parent or boss, and it’s worthwhile to trust that they got that position for good reasons. There’s a difference between that and blindly following someone who gives directions that are damaging and foolish.

I don’t trust leaders who try to argue obedience is something we all automatically owe them. It tells me they know the foundation of their authority is weak.

Final ratings (because I’ve decided that should be a thing)

Best bit: Every named character follows a Tom Sawyer theme. It’s moderately funny when you notice it.

Worst bit: Anti-intellectualism – fun for the whole family!

Story: It’s hardly a masterpiece, but it’s not bad. B –

Moral: Once again, they skirt close to a good message, but explain it to death and add problematic elements in the process. D


Watching Dogma With a Nun

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of the movie Dogma, an old favorite of mine. At the end of it, I promised to write something about my journey figuring out how to follow advice from a certain character; advice to try having ideas, instead of beliefs, because an idea you can always change if you need to. I also hinted that it would have something to do with my experience watching this with my friend RJ, who is in the process of becoming an Episcopalian nun. This post ended up being harder to write than I expected, because the conversation RJ and I had about the movie quickly became very personal.

What RJ and I ended up talking about (other than squeeing over all our favorite bits) was theodicy, and the question of how atheism answers the meaning of life. These, in my opinion, are two of the most difficult questions in all of religion, because they can’t escape being incredibly personal. I can put my meaning of life in the most beautiful prose, and I have, and I can’t make that feel meaningful to someone else. In turn, I can hear explanations for evil that I can intellectually acknowledge are at least internally consistent, but I can’t find any of them satisfying. One of the things I appreciated about the conversation with RJ was how she admitted that she’s still figuring things out, and that the answers she has work for her, but she doesn’t expect them to convince anyone else.

I’ve been involved in a number of discussions about faith, evidence and belief, and it seems the one point that is consistently overlooked, by religious and non-religious people alike, is the influence of community. Not just the influence of community on what we believe, but on what we don’t want to change our minds about. I remember vividly from my Christian days how much that affected me. There was fear of ostracism, but even more than that, there was fear that if I stopped believing, I wouldn’t know who I was anymore. From birth, I had been raised to make religion an integral part of my identity, and how I saw the world. It was difficult to leave religion, even when it completely failed to make sense to me, because it would mean leaving behind my entire sense of what the world was and where I fit into it.

When I ventured out, in search of a new worldview, I found myself both drawn to and afraid of communities that were similarly agreement-centric. I was used to relating to people by believing the same things they did, and defining myself that way as well. At the same time, I was evolving very rapidly, and every time I bonded with someone over shared ideas, I felt like I was glimpsing a future where I was rejected for someday having a new idea. I’ve now started to realize certain things (like people being quick to insult those who disagree with them, or trying to bond with me over ideas instead of actions) as anxiety triggers.

After a few years of drifting through social circles and philosophies, I met RJ. One of the things I noticed early on was that she talked about other people she liked by listing their faults, not as insults, but as endearing quirks. This made me finally relax around someone. Perhaps without realizing it, she was saying, “be different from me, be irritating, show me your worst side, and I’ll still like you.” I try to be open with people as much as possible, but that still comes with a certain degree of anxiety most of the time. RJ is one of the few people who I can be as open as I want to be without any anxiety.

The other reason I had trouble writing this post is that I felt it would in some way become an advice post. I didn’t think I could tell about my journey away from beliefs and towards ideas without giving some pointers to people on that same journey. So here’s the only thing I know; find people who you know will care for you even if you change your mind. It takes a while, but it’s worth it.

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.

Miracle on 34th Street; An Atheist’s Perspective on Santa

Kris and Susan
Best Christmas movie ever. Except The Christmas Carol, but I’ll get to that soon.

I should start by explaining that my parents never let us believe in Santa Claus. They were afraid that when they told us he wasn’t real, it would make us wondering if other mythological-sounding ideas might be questioned, like the entire Christian religion. It was a Nativity-only household. In retrospect, I still experienced the same story as my Santa-believer friends. We were both taught about a man who comes to bring wonderful gifts, but only if you’re very good and believe in him. Disbelief meant you were cynical and coldly logical, incapable of true joy and goodwill toward men. Disbelieving people like that are the whole reason the world sucks. If you don’t believe, it’s your own fault. Jesus/Santa loves you, and the fact that he won’t prove his existence but still will punish you for not living up to his standards in no way contradicts that.

Of course, the difference is that Santa is bringing toys that you want, but can live without, and kids aren’t actually expected to believe in Santa past early childhood. Still, I can’t shake the association. The parallels run too deep, and I have no nostalgia to fall back on. The first (and last) time I watched The Santa Clause with my boyfriend I think I ended up crying.

Gaslighting, non-consensual permanent bodily changes, effective slavery and a family torn asunder. For kids!
Gaslighting, non-consensual permanent bodily changes, effective slavery and a family torn asunder. For kids!

My other issue with Santa Claus movies is that the moral is usually that life is meaningless and depressing if fairy tales aren’t true. Unfortunately, once the credits roll we return to a world where they aren’t. The ultimate message of such stories is that if we aren’t delusional, we are nihilists.

The only Santa movie I can appreciate is The Miracle on 34th Street, because at least that way I can pretend there is no magic and Kris Kringle is just a high-functioning schizophrenic. Wait, wait, bear with me. That’s not as awful as it sounds.

For those who haven’t seen it (and you really should), Miracle on 34th Street is about a kindly old man, an old man, Kris Kringle, is hired as a last minute replacement to be Macy’s Santa Claus. He turns out to believe he really is Santa, Father Christmas, Sinterclaas, Saint Nicholas, the whole mythology wrapped into one person. The movie opens with Kris discovering that the man hired to play Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade is intoxicated. He immediately finds the organizer, Doris Walker, informs her of the problem, and despite his reluctance is talked into being the replacement. In his words, “the children mustn’t be disappointed.” This establishes him as a kindly, responsible person; if you have a soul, he’s nigh impossible to dislike.

When that same organizer offers him a job being a full-time mall Santa, he can’t resist the opportunity to, as he says, combat some of the commercialism that has taken over Christmas. While on his throne, instead of recommending nothing but Macy’s toys, he informs customers of other chains that can provide what they really want. Oh, he’ll shill Macy’s when they’ve really got the product the kids want, but if he knows a better deal can be found somewhere else, nothing can convince him to hide that fact.

His employers are upset by this, for all of about ten seconds. Then they realize the kind of publicity their new Santa is bringing them, and suddenly he’s their most valuable employee. This becomes a problem when Doris discovers Kris’ delusion.

Doris is a very nuanced character. She is a single mother in the 40s who, contrary to what you might expect of that era, is portrayed as both a professional employee and an attentive, caring mother. Her only flaw is that she insists her daughter Susan be raised in an entirely practical way. This means not only no Santa Claus, but no fairy tales, tooth fairies or fantasies of any kind. Doris’ reasons are sympathetic. What happened to Susan’s father is never explained, but it seems he abandoned the family in some traumatic way, and that Doris blames fairy tales for giving her an unrealistic image of the knight in shining armor. She’s trying to protect her daughter from that. Instead of letting us assume that of course Doris is wrong, despite her good intentions, the movie bothers to show us the effects of this on Susan. She’s a very nice, intelligent girl, but her social life is stunted because she doesn’t know how to engage in imaginative play, even at a developmentally appropriate level. This means she’s missing out on creative and social skills that will be important later on in her life.

In addition to changing things at Macy’s Kris has another mission. He wants to teach Doris and Susan to open up. Doris is wounded by her loss of faith in people, and Susan is learning a reflexively cynical attitude from her. The interesting thing is that while he insists he is Santa Claus, he also doesn’t seem to care too much whether or not other people believe him. If other people believe in him, that’s a nice bonus, but its more important that they believe in what he stands for. His interventions with Susan aren’t centered around proving his reality, but on giving her imagination lessons. The scene where he teaches her to pretend to be a monkey is one of the most delightful things I’ve ever seen.

The Monkey Lesson
The Monkey Lesson

While Kris is trying to spread joy, optimism, childish creativity and the giving spirit, the department store psychologist is trying to get him committed as a lunatic. This movie has a remarkably nuanced approach to psychology. Unlike some movies, where the medical professionals would be creatures of unadulterated evil for daring to convince children that they shouldn’t believe in fantasies past when it’s developmentally appropriate (the nerve of them!), this film has two doctors. One, Dr. Sawyer, has clearly entered the profession because it gives him license to see the worst in everyone, which distracts him from his own small, petty character. A bit of an exaggeration, but we’ve all met people like this.

The other works at the nursing home where Kris lived previously. Dr. Pierce also believes Kris is delusional, but he doesn’t think Kris should be locked up. As he explains, mental illnesses don’t make someone inherently dangerous. Kris is gentle, intelligent, and his whole psychosis is centered around a desire to help people. All he needs is someone to keep an eye on him in case he takes a bad turn, and otherwise he should be treated just like anyone else. This is completely accurate. Mental health is complex, and the real world has many people whose situation is similar to Kris’s. Dr. Pierce’s reaction is not only humanitarian, but practical, especially in a world just prior to the invention of effective antipsychotic medication. An asylum couldn’t do much for him, so why not let him have the best quality of life that he can?

I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a delightfully happy one… and also lacks convincing proof that Kris really is Santa Claus. There’s a minor miracle, but one that has potential mundane explanations. Many of the good characters end up believing in him, but not all, and several seem to be at a point of agnosticism, or tell him they believe he is Santa Claus but seem to mean that metaphorically. The real lesson of the film is in the triumph of optimism and kindness over cynical self-interest, and whether characters end up believing in Santa as fact or as a metaphor for the Christmas spirit is not really important. The standard interpretation, that Kris Kringle was Santa all along, is fine if you prefer that, but it is based more in genre conventions than anything else.

Peace, joy and family for everyone
Peace, joy and family for everyone

So why don’t I find the interpretation that Kris Kringle is mentally ill depressing? Because even if he is, it means he’s a mentally ill person who still leads a fulfilling, happy life surrounded by people who care about him. It means that even in a world without magic, pragmatists and capitalists can see the value of kindness, cynics can rediscover hope, mean spirited trolls can lose and love can win. It means that even without fairy tales being real, imagination and joy can triumph.

Why would anybody want it any other way?

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Rack, Shack and Benny

This episode opens with Larry stumbling around blindly because he’s got an oven mitt on his head. He is doing so because an article in a magazine told him this was the latest fashion. Bob the Tomato is skeptical of the practicality of this. While rebutting Bob’s arguments, Larry trips and falls into the kitchen sink. Bob figures that watching him try to get Larry out for thirty minutes isn’t the best use of our time, so he sends us to watch the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, or as they’re called in this episode, Rack Shack and Benny.

In the Bible, that trio, along with the better known Daniel, are captives of Persian king Nebuchadnezzar. He is trying to raise them as Persian dignitaries, and part of that means giving them non-kosher rich guy Persian food. They choose to eat vegetables instead. The vegan diet does well for them, as they end up healthier than all the other Rich Important People in training, which causes Nebuchadnezzar to promote them to be his most trusted advisers. This goes well until Nebuchadnezzar decides that everybody should start worshiping a big golden statue of him, and those who don’t should be thrown into a fiery furnace. This kind of thing happens a lot in the Old Testament.

In the Veggie Tales episode, Rack, Shack and Benny work in a chocolate bunny factory which routinely violates standard health code regulations and employee benefits, as indicated in the opening song, “Good Morning George.” It’s a fun song, and it also introduces us to Laura Carrot, one of the few female characters who gets her own name. She won’t do much in the episode, in the narrative sense that nothing she does has lasting consequence, but later on she will lead a rescue attempt for Rack, Shack and Benny that will give the world one of the best chase sequences in the history of animation. That is an entirely objective judgment that has nothing whatsoever to do with my personal affection for the Veggie Tales franchise.

Anyway, Mr. Nezzar, a giant pickle, is the stand-in for Nebuchadnezzar. In celebration of the factory’s sale of its two millionth chocolate bunny, he gives everyone an hour to eat as many chocolate bunnies as they want. Everyone chows down, except Rack, played by Jr. Asparagus, convinces Shack and Benny to only eat a few bunnies, because that’s what their mommies would want them to do.

This decision pays off when, at the end of the hour, they are the only workers not doubled over in agony. Mr. Nezzar promptly promotes them to junior executives, which means they have to wear ties. No really, that’s the explanation given in-show as to what their new responsibilities will be. God I love this show.

The other part of their job is standing around while Mr. Nezzar rattles off whatever idea has popped into his head. In this case, he’s decided that, because chocolate bunnies are the best thing ever, he’s going to make a giant bunny statue for all of his employees to sing the Bunny Song to. Oh, here’s the Bunny Song. It’s way better than any of the goody two shoes songs Jr. sings in this episode, which just goes to prove yet again that the devil has all the good music.

Whether this is bad because it endorses an unhealthy diet, is an act of idolatry, or violates employee’s freedom from religious discrimination is unclear. I mean, probably the writer’s weren’t going for the latter, but you never know. In any case, it is Bad, and the protagonists have no intention of singing it. This is unfortunate, because the consequence for not singing is being thrown in the furnace. They have a furnace on site. It’s for defective chocolate bunnies. This is a totally non-wasteful and reasonable thing to have in in your chocolate bunny factory.

Perhaps we should have reported this to OSHA before this point.
Perhaps we should have reported this to OSHA before this point.

Naturally Rack, Shack and Benny refuse to bow and are sentenced to the furnace. Laura Carrot comes along for a rescue that is both awesome and fruitless. They all end up in the furnace, but an angel comes down, just like in the Bible story, and prevents anybody from getting burned up.

This proves that you absolutely should not stand up for what you believe in. You very well might be wrong and trying to incinerate people the divine creator likes.

I mean, the stated theme of the episode is the opposite of that. You should stand up for what you believe in, because Rack, Shack and Benny did that and they got to be part of an awesome miracle. But weren’t Mr. Nezzar’s actions equally informed by his beliefs? He clearly thinks chocolate bunnies are the best thing ever, and that burning up people who don’t agree with his Chocolatebunnitarian beliefs is a reasonable and justified action. The protagonists are challenging him, and he’s standing up for his beliefs, right?

Perhaps I should have considered some alternate points of view.
Perhaps I should have considered some alternate points of view.

All over the world, people are standing up for their beliefs. Richard Dawkins is standing up for his belief that evolution is true and wonderful, and also that religion is toxic. Fundamentalist Muslims are standing up for their beliefs that women should not be educated, while Muslims like Malala Yousafzai are standing up for women’s rights everywhere. In some places, people are standing up for their beliefs by marching under rainbow flags to Lady Gaga; in others, people are standing up by their beliefs by picketing soldier’s funerals because our government isn’t homophobic enough. People who don’t vaccinate their kids are standing up for their belief that vaccines are poison. People who write letters to government officials about displays of the Ten Commandments are standing up for their belief in separation of church and state.

All of our actions are informed by our beliefs, and sometimes those actions take us into direct conflict with those who disagree with our beliefs. Typically, we applaud those who stand up for the beliefs we happen to share, and decry those who stand up for beliefs we happen to reject. This shows that, at our core, when we praise people for standing up for what they believe in, we are actually praising them for standing up for what we believe in. That’s not just tribalism. It also comes from the belief that our beliefs are true. By definition, it’s impossible to believe your beliefs are false. This is why it’s important to consider how we come to our beliefs, what the implications of our beliefs are, and whether we could be wrong.

Since becoming an atheist, I’ve come to see the value of the reverse of this moral. Question your beliefs. Try to falsify your belief, or, if that is impossible, think of something that could falsify what you don’t believe in, and go look for that evidence against. Think about how other people might form their beliefs, and do this with compassion. Try to make room for multiple interpretations in your world, and learn how to cooperate with people who you think are probably wrong about some things. I don’t take this to the radical extreme of refusing to consider anything “true” or “false,” but I do think being willing to let go of my beliefs, in exchange for something that seems more likely to be true, has done me as much good if not more than all the standing up I’ve ever done.

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 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.