Chrissy's Reviews > The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
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Aug 05, 2010

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Read from June 16 to 29, 2013

Reading this book as a sceptic, humanist, and atheist was an interesting experience. It is a veiled series of sermons, reshaped as instructive letters from a senior to a junior devil on how a good tempter should prevent Christians from living their lives according to 'true' doctrines of faith and good, pushing them instead toward the pale (and sinful) facsimiles to which most humans subscribe.

Where the book criticized quietly shameful facets of modern Christianity, evoking caricatures we've all encountered in real life-- the snobbish cliques of fierce denominational division, the man who behaves charitably only to brag about it-- it is brilliant. CS Lewis was a terribly sharp man, and his capacity to call out societal foolishness and intellectually seek the heart of his belief system should be admirable to even non-believers.

Where the book strikes instead at the more general nature of humanity, from the attitude that we harbour vices and flaws which devils seek to draw out, it is unfortunately more hit-and-miss. His views on sexuality, for instance, are dreadfully naive and plainly endemic to an era in which shame and guilt were commonplace accompaniments to sex without marriage, fetish, lust, and so on. I like to imagine we now live in a world where judgments on these counts are considered quaint, and that, given the option of a socially-pressured guilt or a peaceful acceptance of universal natural urges, the enlightened among our own contemporaries would have no trouble seeing the latter as more conducive to societal happiness. On the other hand, in talking about the folly of young lovers believing that love is all a long-term commitment needs to sustain itself, for example, he again hits the nail on the head.

Yet other parts of the book lay out plainly some of the more horrifying assumptions required of a belief in a benevolent god. Young death, the senior devil for instance suggests, is the Christian god's way of protecting his favourite animals from decades of pressure under devils and temptation. Disasters and war are his way of uniting survivors in charity. Acts of benevolence, all. These arguments are some of the more repugnant elements of Christianity, and it was distasteful to read about them and imagine a young child being given this book (from a popular children's fantasy writer!) and drinking every word as non-fiction.

In one of the more interesting parts of the book, Lewis co-opts logic and rationality as routes not to scepticism or unbelief, but to a deeper acceptance of the Christian god. It's fascinating insofar as this clearly intelligent man was able to convince himself that rational thought about the nature of mankind, followed through to its conclusions, could only deepen one's (irrational) faith. The two were not inconsistent to his worldview, or at least it seemed they weren't until at a later point the topic of science was broached-- at which point the senior devil's joy in promoting science and psychology as tools to push souls off-course underscored the caveat in Lewis's view: rationality leads to faith when applied introspectively, sinful skepticism when applied observationally.
The lesson taken from this helped me to better appreciate the root of very intelligent walking contradictions, and intensified my recently growing resolve that debating over skepticism and religion (in the vein of Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, or Grayling) is destined to be fruitless so long as internal and external consistency can be confused-- in short, always. My own time is better spent promoting the external consistency of observation and scientific method, than in appealing to the internally consistent rationality of irrational people.
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