[Co-blogger Einar] The Screwtape Letters, or, The Art of Seemingly-Plausible arguement

I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian (I got better). For those fundamentalists who don’t think the Bible is the only book you ever need, C. S. Lewis is perhaps the most popular apologist. Having particularly heard The Screwtape Letters constantly praised all my youth, when I saw it in a charity shop,  I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.

The Screwtape Letters are a series of letters from the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood (a diabolical version of a guardian angel) about the man that Wormwood has been assigned to lure to the clutches of Hell. Screwtape’s letters – we never see Wormwood’s responses – lecture the young demon on ways to corrupt the man.

A disaster happens early on: The man becomes a Christian, and the two demons must race against time to lure their victim back into the fold. It’s actually rather a lot like this Chick tract but better written – though, of course, that’s not saying much: researchers have discovered that, in comparison to Chick, it only takes the output of one monkey typing on a typewriter to at least seem like the works of Shakespeare. This has proven a problem with experiments in infinite monkeys, where the poor metaphysical researchers trumpet their monkey’s reconstruction of The Tragedy of Ejsbwv, Ffhvs of HSafas, only to discover that that is not, in fact, by Shakespeare.

Well, let’s look at the actual book.

It’s done as a series of 31 letters. The first sets out the theme of what is to come: Thanks to the work of demons influencing the culture:

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t wate time making him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous – that t is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the enemy’s own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries the inferior of Our Father Below. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?

Evidently, in C.S. Lewis’s world, materialism – read atheism – is illogical, and only seems rational if you are being actively tricked by demons. However, the Bible, with its virgin births, miracles, self-contradictions, emphasis on faith, not proof – and all the rest, is perfectly logical, and awaking someone’s reason is a sure way to send someone to Christianity and Heaven.

However, Lewis is in control of reality for the purposes of this book: In the next paragraph he details how an atheist was nearly saved from Hell when rational thoughts began to arise in his mind, but luckily, the demon was ale to get him to put off thinking about it until after lunch.

How did the demon then save him from being saved?

Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paoer, and a No. 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 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. He knew he’d had a narrow escape and in later years was fond of talking about “that inarticulate sense of actuality which is our ultimate safeguard against the aberrations of mere logic…

That’s right. Newspaper sellers and buses: A surefire way to prevent someone from using logic. Lewis appears to be arguing that even the slightest connection with reality leads to the abandonment of all logic – and that logic inevitably leads to Christianity. Lewis himself, of course, is completely out of touch with reality, and so is an excellent Christian apologist.

But this isn’t the stupidest argument to be found in this book. Oh, goodness me, no! He argues that:

* People should marry people they aren’t in love with, simply to avoid having sex outside of marriage.
* If you think you don’t need to kneel when you pray, you are being tricked by demons: The position of the body is crucial to getting the soul ready for communion with God.
* God allows millions of infants to die in childbirth in order to protect them from the temptations of the world, and snap them up to heaven, safe from demons.
* Evolution is evil, because it looks to the future, which is unlike God’s eternity, being unproven and uncertain. Don’t look at me to explain that one:. It’s part of a Fauxlosophic narration about how the present and eternity is where mankind’s attention should be, only looking to the future enough to prepare for it today what is needed for later. Because the future is uncertain, but eternity is.
* Historians, English departments and the historical method were created by demons in order to prevent people reading ancient texts uncritically, which might let them find the ancient wisdom that would point them towards God. Instead, people are encouraged to look at the sources, the reasons for the text being written, and the author’s reasons for writing it, which protect them from any truths contained in the manuscript.

In short, propped up in Lewis’ dry writing, we have the most patent of patent nonsense disguised as an academic discussion. Lewis’ writing style does a decent job of concealing how stupid many of his arguments are: For instance, rhetorical tricks used in cold reading such as making a lot of either-or statements that seem very specific, but actually cover most of the spectrum of possibility. If the reader identifies with one of the possibilities, Lewis’ descriptions of human nature seems a lot more accurate, and since they don’t know any of the materialists or atheists Lewis bashes constantly, they’re more likely to accept Lewis’ views of them as true.

This book really is a disappointment. I used to enjoy Lewis’ Narnia books. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is actually a rather nice modern-day Odyssey, and you no more need to believe Christianity to enjoy it than you need to believe the Greek myths to appreciate the Odyssey. Of course, any discussion of Narnia needs to mention The Last Battle – which noone likes: Sure, the ending’s pretty well-written, but it appears that Lewis spent all his time writing a good description of Heaven, and so was unable to fill the rest of the book with anything more than bashing evolution, atheism, rationalism, and Muslims, while derailing the character arcs of all the characters from the previous books and making everyone idiots, so that they’ll submit to slavery and persecution simply because they’re told God says so.

…Of course, given Bush’s regime and the last few years in America, maybe that last isn’t so far off. Pity Lewis evidently thinks that’s the correct reaction to being told God says so.

9 replies on “[Co-blogger Einar] The Screwtape Letters, or, The Art of Seemingly-Plausible arguement”

  1. I had an interesting conversation with my friend Orange Pop today about this Waffle entry. She did not realize that “Einar” was another person, and she says to me: “Did Rein go on a bender?”

    After explaining it to her, we then chatted some about CS Lewis.

    I’ve never read the Screwtape Letters, though I have heard of them. As I recall, Lewis was an apologetic and not a Fundamentalist. Fundies assume it’s true because God Says So. Apologetics at least try come up with some sort of plausible idea.

    You write: “Evidently, in C.S. Lewis’s world, materialism is illogical, and only seems rational if you are being actively tricked by demons. However, the Bible, with its virgin births, miracles, self-contradictions, emphasis on faith, not proof – and all the rest, is perfectly logical, and awaking someone’s reason is a sure way to send someone to Heaven.”

    Um… when is materialism logical? Regardless of religious or non-religious codes of conduct, materialism- converting currency into countless tangible goods that are simple collected, displayed, thrown away and recollected is not the highest human ideal. If you believe it is, then you must live a horribly shallow life. Could it be that Lewis is criticizing the Protestant Work Ethic that states that human value and prosperity comes only to those who are pure and hardworking? i.e. White people are the chosen of God, therefore they are the most blessed. Re-read the quoted text: “don’t waste time making him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous – that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.” This smacks of the Protestant Work Ethic which values “blessings” over charity towards the poor. It’s about greed.

    Your second quote is kinda hard to follow as it’s a single paragraph out of the book and I can’t quite tell the context. I’m assuming here that Lewis was talking about how man can be reading and be quite inspired, but when he steps foot out into the “real world” again, he loses the thoughts that had just been given to him. I am reminded of a Greek who believed that the “real” world was material and fleeting, but that the soul because it was eternal was the true reality. Humans should not breed because it traps a soul into an earthly body, forcing it into Earth, which was the true hell. Therefore, sex was sinful because it caused souls to be trapped in hell.

    The spirit of the paragraph is what matters, and you have no grasp of it– because quite frankly, you are an atheist. You have no concept, belief or trust in an afterlife, a before life, or a parallel existence, so it means nothing to you and all you can do is criticize it. It *is* logical to someone who believes in an existence outside of this earthly realm. Getting caught up in the every day monotony, the drudgery of survival is a sure fire way to get distracted from one’s personal truth.

    As for the rest of the statements concerning Lewis– I may just have to read the book now just to research them. Your statements come off as angry, someone who would rather attack than pick it apart with some emotional detachment and common courtesy. Try a counter argument devoid of venom.

    As for the America comment… If you really want to discuss problems with America, then you need to be looking to the Second Great Awakening, Southern Reconstruction and Expansionism, rural poverty and post Industrial era social constructs. I suspect you know little of American history, nor have you ever even visited the United States. I find it insulting how you lump all Americans into the “dumb and submissive” box with your blanket statements and I hope next time you decide to rant on religion and America, you research it a little better. CS Lewis for example, is from Ireland. He’s not even one of our nutjobs. He’s one of yours.


  2. Ooh, I have read C.S. Lewis, and his personal history doesnt seem to gel with this critique. At least not from my limited perspective. I was under the impression that the Screw Tape Letters addressed the Subtle Banalities of Evil as it is encased in dogmatism. That this was some dark satire indeed, pitting the existential longing of a spiritual person against the foul superstition that is often politically, promoted as Doctrinal Authority {i.e., legalism}.

    And the whole idea that Americans are Submissive is sort of strange. I have lived in Europe and often suffered terrible criticisms about Americans being beligerent gun owners. How is that submissive? Please make up our minds for us {LOL}.

    America is geographically quite large in comparison to Europe and contains just as much cultural diversity. The Americans you encounter in New Jersey will be quite different from Americans in Texas, or New Mexico, or in Wisconsin, or North Dakota. Its difficult to tar us all with the same brush in reality. We really are that different. In fact its been the extreme Bipartisanship that has caused this country so much trouble in dealing with a presidential administration and a military industrial complex gone mad. No one can agree on how to deal with it, leaving our elections {the most recent being the exception} at the mercy of vocal minorities like the Religious Reich.

    The Inmates have been running the assylum, and it hasnt been due to subserviance, it has been due to terrible infighting.

  3. Two points:

    A. I grew up in America. It’s why I’m so upset about the last eight years.

    B. If anyone wants my copy of the Screwtape letters, just send Reinder your address and I’ll mail it out. Unfortunately, the Screwtape letters really is lengthy, boring dogmatism over and over. It’s very well-written, mind – if you read this wanting to believe, I have no doubt it would seem authoritative and convincing. But he makes some nutty, whackjob claims in the middle of it all, and I’m not even convinced that his writing represents good Christianity: The throw-away argument that death in childhood or infancy is part of God’s love for children, because it takes them to Heaven has refuge in audacity, and is even somewhat plausible, but it’s an argument that depends on values that I cannot accept: That human life is worthless, and only eternity matters. He says that no man really loevs life, and it can take a full 70 years to ever get used to it, and this is part of God’s plan. He claims that emphasis on romantic love is part of a demonic plot to ruin marriage. Old-school conservatism permeates the arguments, and I find it highly offputting. It’s like the scene in the start of The Last Battle, with the atheist evolutionary monkey and the donkey, or the bit where Susan Pevensie is said to have fallen due to finding interest in lipstick and boys, by members her family, who have all just died in a trainwreck, leaving only her behind.

  4. The concept of children dying at an early age I think is a throw back to Catholic doctrine and very likely a criticism of it. When I was a child growing up in Catholic school, the nuns liked to explain to us that babies who had died before the Act of Communion and the Act of Confession (which both happen around age 7) had not yet reached the age of knowing right from wrong, and that God would pretty much give them a blank check into heaven. That sort of doctrine is only necessary when you have these horribly stiff and penalizing codes that state a soul can only go into heaven if they have completed most of the Seven Sacraments.

    Protestants of course have their own wild and varied requirements to get into heaven, such as those of Southern Baptists (once baptized in Christ, always baptized in Christ– who gives a rat’s ass if you commit murder after that. You can simply ask forgiveness and *ding* you can get in).

    As for the romantic love argument, I’m curious to read more about that one. Marriage is one of the Catholic seven Sacraments and romantic love was rarely considered. It was a social and familial contract for survival of bloodlines and assets. We have to remember, only in the last one hundred years have we been able to move away from arranged marriages. Of course, we’ve also moved towards unrealistic expectations of marriage and high divorce rates. By focusing on all that mushy stuff, we’ve forgotten things like mortgage payments and long term goals-duty, honor and commitment. That “love conquers all” saying really is bull. That sweet darling teenage concept of love don’t put food on the table. Maybe.. just maybe… Lewis is right.

    As for America, I am sorely disappointed by the last eight years too… but faith and religion isn’t reason we are a stupid country. We are dumb because dumb masses are easier to control. A culture of anti-intellectualism has taken hold encouraged by politics and media. We can’t fix that with atheism or swapping Christianity with some other religion.

    If you want to get specific, then I’d be looking to the Christian Conservative Intelligentsia– the National Policy Council and the Religious Right think tanks. They have the money, political pull and ability to influence legislation in ways the average citizen could not comprehend. Tim La Haye is a monetary powerhouse for example, and the amount of money spent on supporting American interests in Israel is ridiculous. We aren’t dumb because of faith, we are dumb because they are using our faith against us.

  5. I have my own copy, amongst many other books on religion, religious culture, etc.,

    CS was pretty radical in his form of Apologetics. His was almost a Unitarian Universalist approach, which by Catholic Standards and Protestant Standards is pretty out there.

    Wormwood is totally taking advantage of the fact that, Dogmatism can be used to manipulate souls who are afraid to trust their personal faith, over that of the edicts of the church.

  6. Creationism
    When I first heard of creationism, I heard it from a fellow named Kent Hovind on TV. He is a fundamentalist, but he is now debunked and in prison, so I move to the next most well known fundamentalist creationist, Dr; Kurt Wise, whose lectures, and a book I am familiar with.
    Now Kurt Wise is a truly honest creationist because that he is willing to accept creationism even if he found, “all the evidence in the universe was against it”*. Kurt Wise volunteers, even if all the evidence in the universe flatly contradict’s his literalist viw of scripture, and even if he had reached the point of admitting this to himself, he would still take his stand on his view and deny dismiss the evidence. What we have here is fundamentalist creationism’s most highly qualified and most intelligent ‘scientist’ who admits that no evidence, no matter how overwhelming, no matter how all-embracing, no matter how devastatingly convincing, can ever make any difference.”
    This is a scientist?
    As to the content of his Books;
    1. “Ice cannot carry a mile-diameter boulder,” Dr. Wise explained that the boulder’s mass would cause the ice to melt. This is a straw man argument and misdirection. Not only are the large blocks not what is traditionally called glacial material, but Dr. Wise has also made glacial transport of any large rock sound ridiculous, even though it has been clearly observed happening. He denies the ice age.

    2. Dr. Wise does not accept traditional geologists’ time calculations, their interpretation of the deposition of sedimentary strata, or any of their other findings that contradict the Deluge, but because his model leaves South America too far south, he accepts their finding that it moved northward as proof he is right!

    3. The Sahara, however, is entirely “post-Deluge” by his reckoning, and therefore cannot be more than ~4,000 years old, which is indeed close to the age of the current desert. Dr. Wise did not mention that the Sahara is the third desert to occupy the same area, that sedimentary rock underlies the desert and would not have had time to liquefy in his fundamentalist scenario before the loose sand was blown in place, or that fossils of mild-weather plants have been found there—all adding to the age of the location. He also did not mention that some of the older sedimentary rock in the Sahara shows evidence of glaciation; these facts seem to be avoided.

    4. The Pleistocene Ice Age, he discusses as a single Ice Age his model predicted, providing an interesting notion; “Siberia was never covered with ice. Central Canada was never covered with ice. Eastern Canada was, but not central Canada. … You could walk through all of Asia without any ice. You could walk through Alaska, as long as you stayed away from the mountains … down through central Canada … had a beautiful zone where you walked right through the middle of Canada …”* This goes against massive evidence of glaciation. With his degree, he is clearly misleading, dishonest, lying.

    5. Dr. Wise continued by claiming that dinosaur skeletons at Dinosaur National Monument offered proof that the animals were caught up in the Deluge because “many legs and necks were found articulated but separated from bodies, “… like the critters themselves had been ripped to pieces.” Dr. Wise did not mention that paleontologists have known for nearly a century that many of the fossils at this site were deposited in normal flooding, nor did he mention that several nearly complete skeletons each of Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Camarosaurus, and Barosaurus have been found there, all animals with long necks and legs. For the most part, complete skeletons go to museums, and fragmentary remains are left in place at the monument for tourists to see, oh well.

    6. Dr. Wise also said that dinosaurs lived alongside humans for up to two centuries after the Deluge. In fact, there have never been any human fossils found with any dinosaur fossils or vice versa. One wonders by what standards of evidence he goes by? Dinosaurs and humans lived far apart in time, not together in geography or environment.

    I could show other fallacies, many fallacies, but won’t. Acceptance of his ideas all depends on the ignorance of those who accept fundamentalist creationism.


    Here is what I find fundamentalist, in general state;

    A. “Fairness demands that evolution and creation be given equal time.”

    That’s an erroneous equation. Evolution is a scientific approach; creationism has no scientific grounding (in its research or methodology). Why not Hopi creationism> Why not Hindu Creationism> the list goes on.

    B. “Evolution is only a theory.”

    Duh! A theory is a terrific thing. Those who make this assertion simply do not understand science. A theory is special, because it helps to explain facts. Only theory? Only someone innocent of an understanding of science would assert that.

    C. “Second law of thermodynamics proves evolution wrong.”

    “Scientists, however, do know about the second law. It is an assertion made by fundamentalist based on, and offered as a simplistic cliché,’ as- fundamentalist creationists arguments are. To lift the cliché’ just a little about the fundamentalist ‘understanding’ of it the second law of thermodynamics applies to a ‘closed system,’ that is, to a system that does not gain energy from without or lose energy to the outside.” The second law of thermodynamics prohibits evolution.” I have read this assertion many times. It’s a head scratcher to me. This statement is simply inaccurate–and creationists often make statements that violate the second law.

    “The only truly closed system we know of is the universe as a whole. Within a closed system, there are subsystems that can gain complexity spontaneously, provided there is a greater loss of complexity in another interlocking subsystem. The overall change is then a complexity-loss in line with the dictates of the second law. Evolution can proceed and build up the complex from the simple, thus moving uphill, without violating the second law, as long as another interlocking part of the system the sun, which delivers energy to the earth continuously moves downhill (as it does) at a much faster rate than evolution moves uphill. If the sun were to cease shining, evolution would stop and, indeed, so would life, eventually.”

    The second law of thermodynamics is an insubstantial concept that they clearly know nothing of, as their use of it as a cliché deminenstrates this fact. The fundamentalist fallacy becomes clear when we consider theory of gravitation, in the same simplistic (cliché’) terms the fundamentalist apply to the second law of thermodynamics. “All objects in the earth’s vicinity are attracted to the earth and, therefore, fall to the ground.” Consequently, balloons and airplanes and rockets are clearly impossible. If you don’t accept this, you need not accept the fundamentalist simplistic cliché’ unique appreciation of the second law of thermodynamics.

    D. “Man and dinosaurs coexisted.” This is simply ludicrous, the Stratigraphy and all geologic evidence points this out. Moreover, for this to be true, we would have to trash all the multiple scientific disciplines, such as paleontology, chemistry, and physics.

    E. Wholesale Rejection of science. Fundamentalist scrupulously rejects the “evidential” approach in favor of a “presupposition” approach: The Bible is a priori true; evolution is ipso facto false. If you accept the truth of the Bible, as they see it, then evidence is irrelevant, thus science is of no value. “Faith is . . . the evidence of things not seen . . . Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God” (Hebrews 11:1, 3). Others, thinking Christians who incorporate evolution into their worldview are seen as in the process of conciliation with the ‘world,’ meaning the devil. What fundamentalist do is simply disregard what ever “scientists,” secular or otherwise do by discovering or accumulating and interpreting evidence. These scientists are, to the fundamentalist, engaged in a superfluous endeavor that is only detrimental to faith. I see fundamentalism as a prescription for gross ignorance.
    F. The fundamentalist redefine ‘science.’ They dismiss the scientific method- which disqualifies the well established fields of astronomy, archaeology, paleontology, geology, epidemiology, climatology, linguistics, forensics, and a host of other historical sciences, including history itself. In short, they believe that any statement about the past is no better than a guess. They make no allowance for methodological or evidentiary considerations that might render one “guess” better than another. This is ignorance in action. This is the most absurd repackaging of medieval superstition and mythology into the guise of ‘science. Ever.
    G. Gross misrepresentation of science. As said, this wholesale disdain for historical science is matched by their perversion of the scientific method. The creationist mantra is that evolution is “just a theory.” This facetious stance might be of merit if evolution was “just a hypothesis,” but in fact a theory is much stronger than a hypothesis, and requires more in the way of “disproof.” I wonder why fundamentalist do not also protest the theory of gravitation, the germ theory of disease, the heliocentric theory of the solar system and the atomic theory of matter. I have even heard them identify evolution as a religion. Because, to them evolution is non-science, and because a theory is no better than a guess, belief in the theory of evolution must be based on faith. But if evolution is a religion, then so are archaeology, epidemiology, forensics and dentistry!
    Fundamentalists state that we cannot know about the past simply because no one was ever there. One creationist said in a class where science/evolution was discussed, fundamentalist students should wave their Bibles in the air and holler, ‘Were you their” several times. Nothing is more dangerous than ignorance in action. The implication of such gross ignorance being encouraged in schools is frightening.

    I can only try to attempt to acknowledge their line of ‘reasoning.’ Let’s see, wouldn’t we deduce that there cannot be any justification for a murder if nobody was there? As a matter of fact, forensic scientists put into practice the same procedures archaeologists, historians, and paleontologists do. And all other ‘scientists’ who deal with the past.
    My children go to public school and hopefully college where they will never hear a word about fundamentalist creationism simply because it is not science. My religion does not believe in creationism either because creationism is far right-wing dogma, nothing more. Creationism is anti-God because it denies the existence of a complex universe made by God over billions of years. I stand against creationism being taught in the public schools for that reason. I spoke to a few of the science teachers in my children’s public school. They say they would resign if they were required to teach creationism instead of evolution or creationism as a ‘science.’ I would pull my child out of any school that taught creationism. Teach your children the scientific truth about evolution and religious faith will follow as water flows over rocks in a stream. My own argument for God is ontological. True faith is a faith that does not fear science in any form. True faith is a vibrant dynamic. I believe God created the earth, but not in the manner a small idiosyncratic ecclesial group wishes to impose. The mental gymnastics one needs to espouse fundamentalist creationism are in effect denial of reality, not real faith. It exposes these people as not retaining genuine faith, but denial masked as faith.

  7. Um.. dude… what does that have to do with Lewis?

    CS Lewis was born in 1898 in heavily Catholic Ireland. He was an Atheist right up until about age 30 when he joined the Church of England. He became a lay minister and published Screwtape in 1942.

    Of course it’s old fashioned and fru fru– filled with criticism yet support of very stale doctrine. If you can’t understand Catholic doctrine, CofE doctrine, Apologetics and Fundamentalism… just say so. We can spell it out for you. Or even better… go take a trip to Wikipedia.

    The modern Creationism push is from Fundamentalists, Evangelicals and Dominionists– and while it has some bearing on what CS Lewis is saying, I suspect CS Lewis would be horrified at Dominionist and Christian Supremacist theory.


  8. Really, its only in the last 10 years or so, that Catholics and American Prostestants have banded together to fight Abortion Rights and access to Birth Control.

    Otherwise, you can watch televanelists like John Haggee, who openly call the Catholic Church The Whore of Babylon, or read Jack Chick Tracts that basically say the same thing.

    The fabric of American Christian Expressions is complex and full of its own controversies, and conflict over who is authentically a Christian and who is not. It would be good if you informed yourself about these differences so that you can understand the subtleties that manifest in this subject.

    I am sure England has its own version.

    C.S. Lewis might in so me way, have helped shape American Christian Culture, but I guarantee you , that this close friend of J.R. Tolkein also strongly influenced the American NeoPagan Community with the same writings as well.

    But that being said, he was English, and not as Aggie so eloquently points out, a modern, American, Christian Reconstructionist.

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