The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Summary: Lewis’ darts aimed at his fellow Christians strike home, but those aimed at atheists go astray.

C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters concerns the Christian view of demons and the ways in which they affect the lives of human beings. The book takes the form of a series of letters purportedly exchanged between Wormwood, a junior devil, and his uncle Screwtape, on the topic of how Wormwood can cause the human to which he has been assigned, who is referred to only as “the patient”, to commit sins and damn himself. We do not see Wormwood’s letters, but their content can be inferred from Screwtape’s replies. Although the book is written from the demons’ perspective, Lewis naturally uses it to highlight what he sees as important truths of the Christian worldview.

Though the book may be intended allegorically, on the whole it leaves little doubt that Lewis genuinely believed that evil spirits existed and were constantly assaulting human minds. As he writes in the preface: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”

As this is, after all, a Christian book, I trust that readers will not be surprised to learn that in the end the “patient” escapes Wormwood’s clutches by dying and going to Heaven, and Wormwood himself is doomed to the fate that had been set aside for his patient, namely becoming a meal for his “increasingly and ravenously affectionate uncle”, as Screwtape signs his final letter. In any case, the specific life events and circumstances of the patient, as related through the letters, are largely irrelevant. (He is a British man living during World War II, at first a casual and lukewarm churchgoer who becomes involved with a group of evangelical Christians, falls in love with a female member of their congregation, and is ultimately killed during a German bombing raid on his home town.) I will instead concentrate on the more general points Lewis makes, some of which are directed against atheists, others against corruption and follies among his fellow Christians. Although Lewis’ critiques of the excesses of Christianity are well aimed, his lack of understanding of atheism means that the barbs directed at nonbelievers usually fall short.

LETTER I

Screwtape suggests to Wormwood that he must at all costs keep his “patient’s” attention fixed on immediate sensory experience and not on abstract matters of reasoning or philosophy:

Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make 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. The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?

Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology…

I summarized this book by suggesting that Lewis’ arguments aimed at atheism veer astray, and this is an excellent example. In this book and others (such as The Great Divorce), Lewis inveighs against atheists who allegedly are more concerned with whether atheism is a sufficiently “modern” philosophy than whether it is true or false. But what atheists does he have in mind? He never, as far as I know, presents a single example of an actual atheist who actually holds such a view, and prominent atheists of Lewis’ day, such as Bertrand Russell, were outspoken rationalists. I strongly suspect that this view is entirely Lewis’ invention, an insulting caricature designed to make atheism more susceptible to attack.

The implication that any person who reasons too much or too often will convert is likewise an inversion of the truth. In reality, it is atheists who welcome rational argument and challenge, and Christians and other theists who do their utmost to avoid it and shut it out; and it is atheists who promote a view not because it makes us feel good but because it is true, and it is Christians and other theists who often promote the idea that we should believe something is true because the consequences would be terrible if it were not.

As far as science leading to religious belief, the evidence shows that, to the contrary, the majority of distinguished scientists in every “hard” field are atheists. Lewis’ glib assertions fail to agree with the facts.

LETTER VII

Wormwood has asked whether he is to disclose his own existence, and Screwtape answers thusly:

I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so.

I do wonder what Lewis had in mind with this line. The existence of this book, particularly its preface, makes it clear that he really did believe in demons as consciously malignant spiritual entities working to damn humanity. But this line hints that he believes not only that they exist but that they actively revealed themselves in the past. Is this, perhaps, an apologetic for why supernatural events were recorded so frequently in the more credulous past, when we largely lacked the ability to record or verify them, but now seem to be absent? How remarkable it is that demons choose to remain conveniently undetectable just when we invent tape recorders and video cameras!

Lewis’ next barb, aimed at his fellow Christians, however, is on target. Screwtape advises his colleague that the religious impulse can be subverted by directing it into politics:

Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”… Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours — and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here…

It is not difficult to see this very phenomenon now occurring all over the world, but especially in America. In this country, evangelical Christianity has become effectively merged with a certain set of political aims, chiefly involving continual militarism, economic deregulation, and the creation of a paternalistic state that oversees and controls the private lives of its citizens. The overriding goal of the religious right is to break down the separation of church and state and gain secular power, and the desire to evangelize is considered important only insofar as it can bring more votes for this agenda. A person who has converted to Christianity, but does not share the evangelicals’ political beliefs or march in lockstep with their leaders’ pronouncements, is not just regarded as useless but actively demonized as evil, disloyal, opposed to religion, and a traitor to the cause. Though an atheist would explain the motivations driving this behavior in less ethereal terms, it gives me considerable ironic amusement to observe that Lewis regarded such groups as wholly under the control of demons.

LETTER VIII

In discussing the periodic “dry spells” of decreased religious commitment which most believers experience, Screwtape says the following:

You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless.

Who said anything about overriding? Atheists like myself ask only that God, if he exists and desires our belief, make at least the minimum effort to convey that wish to us himself, in some unambiguous manner, and not leave it up to fallible, conflicting, easily mistaken human beings. This would not have to involve some dramatic supernatural event that would awe and terrify people – it could be something as simple as a voice speaking out of the air. An omnipotent being would, by definition, be capable of this, and it would not override any human being’s will.

But even say we accept Lewis’ argument and that God, if he appeared to human beings, would have to do so in a way that overwhelmed their senses. Why would this remove their free will or their ability to obey? Why could a person not know God for who and what he was and still choose to rebel? As Lewis himself writes, the demons seem to be well aware of God’s presence, and are not overwhelmed or forced into obedience by it:

The humans do not start from that direct perception of Him which we, unhappily, cannot avoid. They have never known that ghastly luminosity, that stabbing and searing glare which makes the background of permanent pain to our lives.

And yet this does not seem to have taken away the demons’ ability to do evil. It seems strange to me that Lewis can contradict his own theology so plainly and not notice.

LETTER IX

Although Lewis writes in the preface that one should avoid “excessive and unhealthy” belief in demons, he seems to grant them a remarkable degree of power over the mental lives of human beings:

It all depends on whether your man is of the desponding type who can be tempted to despair, or of the wishful-thinking type who can be assured that all is well. The former type is getting rare among the humans. If your patient should happen to belong to it, everything is easy. You have only got to keep him out of the way of experienced Christians (an easy task now-a-days), to direct his attention to the appropriate passages in scripture, and then to set him to work on the desperate design of recovering his old feelings by sheer will-power, and the game is ours.

So we are to believe that a demon can control a person’s actions, to the extent of directing that person’s attention to specific biblical passages, and can control a person’s thoughts to the extent of setting them on a particular plan of action toward producing feelings of religious exaltation? Just one chapter before, Lewis was talking about how God values human free will so greatly that he does not override it with supernatural manifestations. Why, then, would he permit the demons to do the very same thing and not interfere with their evil actions? In several places elsewhere in this book, Lewis mentions specific occasions on which God prevents the demons from influencing humans in certain ways – but why, if God desires to save souls, would he not simply prevent them from exerting any influence over humans at all?

LETTER XV

In this letter, Screwtape discusses the human perception of time’s passage and how the demons can best use it to their advantage.

In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time — for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays. Hence the encouragement we have given to all those schemes of thought such as Creative Evolution, Scientific Humanism, or Communism, which fix men’s affections on the Future, on the very core of temporality.

…we want a man hag-ridden by the Future — haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth…

Though Lewis does not address this fact, he must have known that secular systems of thought are hardly the only ones that focus people’s attention on the future. The most obvious example was staring him in the face: the apocalyptic belief in Jesus’ second coming and the end of the world, which has wholly captured the attention of Christians for nearly two thousand years now. Every generation of Christian believers has obsessed over what they believed to be the imminent return of Christ and the hell on earth that would soon ensue, and as each of those generations grew old and gray and died away, the next one took up the torch of apocalyptic fervor just as readily. And today, despite Jesus’ promises to return now being two millennia overdue, Rapture fever is stronger than ever, with triumphalist Christian fiction like the Left Behind books burning up the bestseller charts. This remarkable pattern, by Lewis’ logic, would seem to suggest that most of evangelical Christianity is in thrall to unseen demonic spirits.

LETTER XXIII

Wormwood’s “patient” is drifting dangerously deeper into Christian belief, and Screwtape advises his protege to forsake fleshly temptations and try to corrupt his spirituality. He mentions that the various interpretations of Jesus that exist in society (other than the orthodox one, of course) are devilish inventions:

The advantages of these constructions, which we intend to change every thirty years or so, are manifold. In the first place they all tend to direct men’s devotion to something which does not exist, for each “historical Jesus” is unhistorical. The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new “historical Jesus” therefore has to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another…

Naturally, Lewis takes it for granted that his version of Jesus is the true and proper interpretation and is free from such distortions, as do most Christians. But Screwtape’s schemes could be applied to the orthodox picture equally well. How many Christians today follow Jesus’ very clear advice that being a true Christian means forsaking their family, selling everything they own and giving the proceeds to the poor, taking no thought for the morrow or where they will find food or rest? On the contrary, this bizarre instruction is near-universally suppressed by Christians. On the other hand, Jesus’ teachings about matters like Hell and the apocalypse has been exaggerated wildly out of proportion by many believers, to the point that it forms virtually the whole of their theology. Even within the ranks of faithful, believing Christians, there are numerous hugely divergent interpretations of Jesus’ wishes and desires. Even the Bible itself presents a conflicting picture, with Mark’s gospel depicting Jesus as downright secretive about his divinity, instructing his followers to tell no one of his acts, whereas John’s gospel depicts him as repeatedly announcing his identity loudly and in public.

LETTER XXV

As I wrote earlier, Lewis is at his best in this book when skewering the follies of his own religious tradition, which he has a far clearer perspective on than he does on atheism. This chapter illustrates that point with two highly insightful passages regarding the use of religious beliefs to serve political ends. Here is one:

What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call “Christianity And”. You know — Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring.

A glimpse at the news of the day would confirm that “Christianity And” has become the dominant form of religious belief in the Western world. From opposing stem cell research to promoting coercive prayer and indoctrination in public schools to plastering the Ten Commandments over every government building, it is hard not to get the impression that most conservative Christians view their religious beliefs not as an end in themselves, but as a means to the true end of imposing their political will on others in several highly noticeable and symbolic ways.

But even more astonishing is this passage:

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 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… Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.

I could not resist highlighting that last sentence, which demonstrates a nearly prophetic insight into the political character which has taken Christianity over in the United States today. In recent years, American Christianity has been subsumed into the political aims of an aggressively militant and zealous right-wing faction which, to judge by their actions, believes Jesus supported endless war and militarism, slashing social programs, and cutting taxes on the rich. The leaders of this movement constantly rail against the evils of liberalism and secularism, and support an intrusive, paternalistic state that controls all its citizens’ most private decisions – when they will give birth, who they are permitted to marry, under what circumstances they are allowed to die. Most notably, the Christian right supports an omnipotent, unaccountable executive who operates in total secrecy and without checks and balances of any kind. This support verges on worship in the case of George W. Bush, who claims the power to break any law he pleases if, in his sole judgment, doing so is necessary to protect the country from terrorists. If anyone at all could be described as “hastening to be slaves or tyrants”, it is the followers of this movement. Whatever Lewis’ faults, it stands as a mark in his favor that he recognized, as today’s religious right does not, the dangers of blind submission to authority that comes in a religious guise.

LETTER XXVI

Screwtape’s next letter concerns how to use human beings’ feelings of love for each other to undermine religious belief. There is not much I want to comment on here, but one passage merits a mention:

The enchantment of unsatisfied desire produces results which the humans can be made to mistake for the results of charity. Avail yourself of the ambiguity in the word “Love”: let them think they have solved by Love problems they have in fact only waived or postponed under the influence of the enchantment. While it lasts you have your chance to foment the problems in secret and render them chronic.

Though Lewis did not intend it this way, this sly argument would be a good fit to right-wing Christian notions of sex, marriage and abstinence. By angrily opposing programs that aim to educate people in the use of contraception and other sensible precautions, conservative Christians insist on “abstinence-only” sex ed, which the overwhelming majority of well-designed studies find actually increases teen pregnancy rates, STD rates, and other consequences of irresponsible sexual contact. This is no surprise. When people are treated like adults, they will act like adults; when they are treated like children and subjected to pious, belittling lectures, it is to be expected that few will listen, and then when they do choose to have sex they are ill-equipped to protect themselves. In general, there are many theists who think that “marriage” and “abstinence” are magical catchwords solving all problems, when in reality they merely sweep these problems under the rug and render them far worse than they otherwise would have been.

LETTER XXVII

The major topic of this letter is the efficacy of prayer. Screwtape suggests how Wormwood can manipulate his patient

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….

But what about the heads-I-win, tails-you-lose argument employed by Christians? They likewise say that if the thing prayed for does happen, this is another proof that petitionary prayers work, and if it does not happen, it must be because God, in his infinite overriding will, chose not to grant it as a way of teaching the petitioner patience, or humility, or some other virtue, and thus a failed prayer becomes just as good a proof as a successful one that prayers are effective.

How to decide between these conflicting viewpoints? The key point which Lewis overlooks is that it is impossible to judge the efficacy of prayer, or any other method of enacting one’s will, through isolated, anecdotal cases. It is always the case that a usually successful method may fail, or a usually failed method may succeed, due to occasional coincidence, but that is not the point. The issue is whether events that are prayed for occur more often than events that are not prayed for. This is a scientific question that can, under suitably controlled circumstances, be studied. And on this point, the evidence is unequivocal: prayer is ineffective as a means of supernaturally influencing the course of events. Studies of faith healing repeatedly show that prayer does not increase the chance of a desired outcome beyond what we would expect from chance.

Screwtape also tackles the problem of how prayer could really affect anything if God is in control anyway:

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… 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 points 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.

In this paragraph, Lewis takes quite a long time to say very little at all. Under this blizzard of mostly meaningless verbiage, the point seems to be that human prayers are taken into account by God as one of the “innumerable” factors which affect his decisions. But as I have pointed out before, could prayers possibly change God’s mind? Could a human, by asking, ever convince an omniscient being to do something he was not going to do anyway, or convince him not to do something he was going to do? Of course not: an omniscient being would know, without having to bother with the input of prayer, what actions would best achieve his goals and would already have been taking those actions.

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating The Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that 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 he 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, and how often it has been misunderstood… and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question”.

But, again, do Christians not have their own analogue of the Historical Point of View? In the Christian version, whenever a person is presented with any statement by an author ancient or modern, they are far less likely to ask whether it is true than whether the person is a believer or a heretic, whether it accords with what the church teaches, whether it has been condemned as heretical, whether it agrees with the dogmas they already believe.

LETTER XXVIII

The next letter contains a truly incredible admission:

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 that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a “normal life” is the exception. Apparently He wants some — but only a very few — of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years.

Atheists have often made the point that the Christian system of salvation gives people a perverse incentive to die while young. After all, a person who dies before the “age of accountability” is guaranteed an eternity of bliss in Heaven, while a person who lives past that age has a better than even chance of ending up eternally damned (given that the majority of the world’s population is not Christian). As I have seen it put elsewhere, what is the point of life on Earth if all it represents is a chance to throw away salvation? It would be like a college professor who gives an incredibly difficult and complicated final exam, which most of the students who take it fail; but at the same time, this professor gives straight As to students who never even bother to show up in class.

But this is the first time I have ever seen a Christian apologist acknowledge this. And Lewis has it exactly right: if death before the age of accountability means instant no-effort salvation, then the majority of the population of Heaven will be made up of people who died in infancy or very early childhood and never had a life on Earth at all. This is even more true if, as many Christians believe, even a single-celled embryo is a person with a soul. By some estimates, as many as 75% of all conceptions end in spontaneous abortion, usually before the woman ever realizes she is pregnant – a vast number of souls that will get into Heaven for free, while the majority of the unlucky few who happen to survive into adulthood will end up consigned to eternal torment.

The bizarre, ludicrous illogic of this system turns notions of morality on their head. The logical conclusion from these beliefs would be that it is a morally praiseworthy act to kill children, thereby guaranteeing their salvation. The corollary is that life on Earth is a terrible misfortune and something to be avoided at all costs, veering extremely close to the ancient Gnostic belief systems condemned as heresy by the church. Why in the world would God even bother to create the Earth if “human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death”? Why not just create a race of beings that all die in the womb and have their salvation assured? Lewis mentions these glaring facts, but never addresses their implications for Christianity.

LETTER XXIX

The next letter seems to represent an attempt to explain the theological discrepancies raised in the last one, as Lewis has Screwtape discuss how a mortal world of dangers and threats will inevitably produce virtue:

This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world — a world in which moral issues really come to the point. He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.

This is similar to Lewis’ argument in The Problem of Pain, where he writes that suffering is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world”. As such, it suffers from many of the same problems. One of the most important is one that perenially comes up to topple Christian theodicies: if what you say is true, then how do you account for the existence of Heaven? Presumably, there will be no dangers or threats in Paradise. Does this mean that virtue will fade away there as well? Will people become cowardly and lazy because there is no evil to exercise their moral muscles? And whatever answer a Christian proposes to explain this dilemma, why is the same exact answer not applicable to Earth?

LETTER XXX

In the next-to-last letter (and the last that I will comment on), as bombing raids on the patient’s hometown are being stepped up, Screwtape provides some advice on how Wormwood can turn the carnage to his advantage:

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… but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness.

Lewis’ caricatures notwithstanding, there is a perfectly consistent way to make sense of these two sentences. In both cases, what is being said is that the emotions associated with an experience are real, but that those emotions are not necessarily justified by the facts. In the first case, people at a religious revival undoubtedly do experience feelings of ecstasy and rapture. An atheist would be a fool to deny that. What we deny is their interpretation of what produced those feelings. Religious believers attribute those feelings to God’s presence; atheists say they can just as easily be explained by the intensely charged atmosphere produced by peer pressure, strong expectation, and the measures taken by the revival organizers to whip up excitement, without invoking the supernatural.

Similarly, in the case of the high dive, the complacency of the person discussing it on the ground is not supported by the facts of the matter: the peril of such an experience and the reaction it will likely produce. In both cases, the principle at work is that there is an emotional reaction that may not be justified in light of the evidence.

…The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist… 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 know of no atheist who believes that happiness is less real than hurt and suffering, and again, Lewis provides no examples of people who hold such a view. Far too often, he indulges in the habit of attacking conveniently unnamed opponents of Christianity who hold views vulnerable to easy refutation, and the format of this book makes this especially easy, since the demons are more interested in abstract lessons than specific examples. On the contrary, we believe that happiness is just as real a part of existence as sorrow; what we deny is that there is any good reason to believe that either one originates from a supernatural source.

The idea that Christianity is true and all objections and evidence to the contrary are tricks of demons has been one of the most effective memes by which the Christian religion has stifled criticism, even in its own followers’ minds. No matter how superficially convincing it may seem, it warns, all contrary argument is an evil deception that must be rejected out of hand. But, to disarm this way of thinking, one can point out that the “that’s what the demons want you to do” meme can be used against any position with equal ease. In particular, it can be turned back on the believer. If there was such an entity as the Devil, dedicated to the temptation and destruction of humanity, how could he achieve his goal more effectively than by teaching people to believe blindly, to never doubt or question, to decide what is true and what is false before even looking at the facts, and to force these unexamined beliefs on others and cause endless war and strife in the process? What could possibly be a better strategy for the Devil to keep his deluded followers in thrall than to inculcate in them an invincible faith-based certainty that their viewpoint is right and all others are wrong – even to teach them to think that other viewpoints are demonic illusions? How could a believer ever tell whether any or all of their own scriptures and traditions – including the ones that teach them about demons in the first place – were actually inspired by evil spirits?

Turned back on the very belief system that gave birth to it, the devil-phobia meme collapses in a self-referential spiral of contradiction. On the other hand, those who recognize the dangers of blind belief can be confident that, whether devils exist or not, reason is still the best way of learning about the world. If there are demons, that is the best and the only way we can hope to penetrate their deceptions and learn the truth, and if there are not, reason is still the most effective way to learn what is true and how we can control the world to our benefit. In either case, faith has no part to play, and the paranoia that our every thought may have been implanted in our minds by malign spirits dissipates in the recognition that there is no reason to fear what we do not have evidence to believe in.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X