The Screwtape Letters

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Themes and Colors
Proving Christianity True by Exploring Evil Theme Icon
Religion and Reason Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
Freedom, Will, and Sin Theme Icon
Fashion, Progress, and Change Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Screwtape Letters, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Religion and Reason Theme Icon

In Screwtape’s first letter to Wormwood, he tells Wormwood that the goal of a devil should be to prevent a human being from thinking. Through this advice from one devil to another, C.S. Lewis makes the argument that if a person thinks critically and analytically about Christianity and religion in general, then that person will come to understand it and embrace it. While this idea may sound simplistic, it’s by no means the common view of Christianity. In fact, as Lewis readily acknowledges, many Christian authorities throughout history have actually repressed critical thinking about religion. In contrast to many Christians before him, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis wants to use reason and logic—rather than just blind faith—to support Christian teachings.

In the novel, there are countless examples of Lewis’s belief that Christianity is fundamentally rational. In a sense, every letter Screwtape sends Wormwood is an attempt, at least on Lewis’s part, to use logic to prove one part of Christianity. One clear example of this principle is Letter XXI, in which Screwtape shows that the patient is foolish to think that his free time belongs to him. The patient does not “own” time any more than he owns the moon. The belief in ownership, Screwtape concludes, is a silly human superstition—indeed, if humans were to stop and think logically about the concept of ownership for even a fraction of a second, they would realize how irrational it is. Screwtape’s reasoning points readers in the direction of a key Christian idea: the notion that humans are not truly in control of their own lives at all. This is an idea that’s arguably best exemplified at the end of the Biblical Book of Job, in which God scolds the titular human character for falsely thinking that he “owns” his own health, success, life, or happiness.

Lewis uses The Screwtape Letters to prove that Christianity is a rational system of beliefs, but he also admits that reason by itself isn’t enough to convert anyone to Christianity. This becomes obvious when one compares Lewis with Screwtape, his literary creation. They’re both perfectly rational beings, and both have little patience for humans’ foolishness and shortsightedness. And yet Lewis is a Christian and a lover of God, while Screwtape despises God and Christianity. Whatever the difference between Lewis and Screwtape might be, it has nothing to do with logic.

Ultimately, Lewis suggests that reason is an extremely powerful weapon for the Christian, but it’s not the only weapon—in other words, reason is “necessary but insufficient” for a belief in Christian teaching. If one pairs rationality with a sincere love for God, then Christian teachings follow logically from one another. Without love, Lewis suggests, the rational thinker is no better off than Screwtape.

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Religion and Reason Quotes in The Screwtape Letters

Below you will find the important quotes in The Screwtape Letters related to the theme of Religion and Reason.
Preface Quotes

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.

Related Characters: C.S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: IX
Explanation and Analysis:

In the preface to his book, C.S. Lewis makes an interesting point about devils, and about evil in general. Lewis argues that humans make a mistake when they deny the existence of devils (and evil more broadly)--it's easier for devils to manipulate human beings when human beings don't know what's manipulating them. But on the other hands, it's almost as bad when humans are too interested in devils. Their interest suggests a general attraction to evil, and this attraction itself is, of course, evil.

Lewis's observations are interesting because they establish a reason for the format of his book. Lewis wants to write about devils, but he doesn't want to convey too much shock or awe in association with them. In other words, Lewis writes about devils in a light, comic tone, portraying his characters as petty, obnoxious, and frequently clumsy. In such a way, Lewis avoids falling into the trap he details in the quotation—nobody could read Screwtape and walk away feeling an "excessive and healthy interest" in evil—Lewis shows evil to be second-rate in every way.


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Letter I Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , The patient
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

Screwtape argues that it's now common for "intelligent" people to speak about philosophy in terms of fashion and history, not truth and falsehood. Thus, in studying religions and philosophies, people like the patient are encouraged to learn ideas are in vogue or are controversial, rather than which ideas are actually true. Furthermore, some doctrines (like the ideas of philosophers such as Hegel and Nietzsche) relativize the concepts of truth and falsehood altogether, arguing that a statement isn't necessarily true or false—instead, it might be true at one time and false at another, or somewhat true and false simultaneously.

In all, the passage argues that Christianity is the ultimate rational doctrine—the doctrine that maintains that ideas are either true or false, and nothing else. The passage is important, then, because it sets up the project of Lewis's entire book: to use logic, reason, and careful thought to "prove" that Christianity is correct, and all so-called "intellectual" doctrines are nonsensical.

If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don't let him get away from that invaluable "real life". But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is "the results of modem investigation". Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , The patient
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage reinforces the idea that reason and Christianity are friends, not enemies. Lewis, writing from the perspective of a devil, shows that the best way to corrupt a human being is to make him believe in the vague idea of science, not to practice reason itself. The key point here is that real science is dangerous to the devils, because it supports the principles of Christianity (at least according to Lewis)—so the patient must not be allowed to get too close to science.

By implication, the passage suggests that people choose to believe things because they're novel and interesting, not because they're true or false. The patient chooses to identify as a "scientific" kind of person, not because he knows anything about science, but because he wants to seem intelligent and knowledgeable. As Lewis suggests, a devil's best course of action is to keep human beings bouncing from one trendy ideology to another, never actually teaching anyone anything. The only real source of knowledge about the universe, it's further suggested, is Christianity.

Letter VII Quotes

All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , The patient , God
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous passage, Screwtape argues that extremism is always easy to twist into sinfulness (and therefore helpful to the cause of evil)--unless the extremism is a form of devotion to God himself.

There are several senses in which extremism appears to be a danger to the soul. By devoting themselves to an idea or a cause, human beings turn away from God, worshipping a "false idol" instead. No matter what the idol might be—football, Marxism, alcohol, etc.—the implication appears to be that humans are equipped to worship one and only one divine authority. Thus by holding extreme opinions about anything other than God, they're essentially replacing him.

Letter XIV Quotes

Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , The patient
Page Number: 70-71
Explanation and Analysis:

Along with defending Christianity, Lewis also uses The Screwtape Letters to voice many of his opinions about the problems with society and its view of religion. One of these issues is the idea of humility—many people think that being humble means being self-deprecating, even when to do so is untruthful. But as Screwtape explains, God never said he wanted human beings to deny their own talents—and yet it's often assumed that this is precisely what "good Christians" are expected to do. In reality, God tells humans to celebrate themselves, and yet accept that they are not the "owners" of their own talents. Nobody "makes" their own intelligence, strength, or good health—only God can give such gifts to his own creations. As always, Lewis stresses that humility—true humility, not the typical caricature of humility—is the obvious truth: nobody could argue that Albert Einstein was in any way responsible for his own genius, but also no one would argue that Einstein should have pretended he was stupid. Therefore, it's the devils' job to confuse humans, preventing them from seeing the obvious truth.

Letter XV Quotes

Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead. Do not think lust an exception. When the present pleasure arrives, the sin (which alone interests us) is already over. The pleasure is just the part of the process which we regret and would exclude if we could do so without losing the sin; it is the part contributed by the Enemy, and therefore experienced in a Present. The sin, which is our contribution, looked forward.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , God
Page Number: 76-77
Explanation and Analysis:

Through the character of Screwtape, Lewis argues that sin is almost always rooted in thoughts of the future. Humans have a natural instinct to do the right thing—don't hurt other people, don't steal, etc. The only way for humans to justify their sins to themselves is to think ahead to the future. (For example, one could rationalize stealing from a store on the grounds that the "payoff" for the theft outweighs the guilt one feels in the moment.) Evil, then, is both rational and irrational: humans sin because they can convince themselves that somewhere down the line, their evil will be balanced out with good. Yet in sinning, humans are ignoring the most basic and logical thought process imaginable: the notion that one shouldn't do things that make one feel bad.

Letter XVI Quotes

At the other church we have Fr. Spike. The humans are often puzzled to understand the range of his opinions—why he is one day almost a Communist and the next not far from some kind of theocratic Fascism—one day a scholastic, and the next prepared to deny human reason altogether—one day immersed in politics, and, the day after, declaring that all states of us world are equally "under judgment". We, of course, see the connecting link, which is Hatred.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Lewis offers a dark critique of the modern state of the church. Some modern preachers, Lewis suggests, embrace a startling array of doctrines, and use Christianity essentially as a tool to justify them. The preacher Screwtape mentions here, Friar Spike, functions as a caricature of the clergy as a whole: always moving back and forth between new ideas.

That a friar could move between so many new ideas suggests that not even the clergy is immune to the trend of fashion, progress, and change. Priests, no less than other people, will often abandon an idea they sense to be true, simply because they're tired of it. Moreover, Friar Pike's behavior illustrates another important respect in which Christianity can go wrong: Christianity can be used to persecute different kinds of people. Christianity can be twisted to justify anti-Semitism, anti-elitism, anti-imperialism, etc.—but in focusing so exclusively on the hatred of specific groups of people, Screwtape points out, preachers turn away from the most basic tenets of Christianity: that humans should love God.

Letter XVIII Quotes

For humans must not be allowed to notice that all great moralists are sent by the Enemy not to inform men but to remind them, to restate the primeval moral platitudes against our continual concealment of them.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the paradoxes of Lewis's book is that it's designed to communicate some incredibly simply ideas: be kind to other people; don't be bad; love your friends and neighbors, etc. In Lewis's view, humans often forget these basic moral lessons, because the lessons are so simple. Humans feel a natural craving for complex, new ideas (Lewis, a lifelong academic, knows this craving very well). So-called intellectual people dismiss the teachings of the Bible because they consider these teachings simple and old-fashione—thus, it's out with Christianity and in with Marxism, Hegelianism, etc.

Screwtape's argument in the passage also clarifies an important point about Christ and other important moral teachers. The genius of Christ, Screwtape insists, was that he reminded people of what they already knew to be true, not that he offered up any big, complicated theories of right and wrong. It's precisely because humans get bored with moral platitudes that figures like Christ (or, one could argue, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Buddha, etc.) are so important: they cut through man's unhealthy craving for difficulty and complexity and offer up morality in its purest, simplest form.

Letter XXI Quotes

He regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption "My time is my own". Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , The patient
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Screwtape satirizes the notion that humans have a "right" to their own free time. Screwtape knows perfectly well that human beings don't own their own time—instead, God has given them their time on the Earth. But humans falsely believe that time is their "birthright"—and therefore, that anyone or anything that deprives them of their time is an annoyance or an enemy.

The notion that human beings own their own time is so fundamental to human life that few people ever stop to consider how illogical it is. Lewis uses the character of Screwtape to shed light on the fallacies of time, reinforcing the point that Christianity is the only logical doctrine, while all other ideas about the universe are contradictory.

Letter XXIX Quotes

There is here a cruel dilemma before us. If we promoted justice and charity among men, we should be playing directly into the Enemy's hands; but if we guide them to the opposite behaviour, this sooner or later produces (for He permits it to produce) a war or a revolution, and the undisguisable issue of cowardice or courage awakes thousands of men from moral stupor.

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.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , God
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

Through the character of Screwtape, Lewis answers one of the most basic criticisms of Christianity—"If God is perfect, why is the world a dangerous place?" Screwtape begins by giving a reason why it's so difficult for devils to successfully corrupt human beings. On one hand, devils sometimes try to promote chaos and violence among human beings, hoping that an atmosphere of fear and death will promote greater evil. The problem is that in such a time, a larger proportion of humans will demonstrate their bravery and loyalty by recognizing the wicked state of affairs and revolting against it, thereby undermining the original purpose of the devils' plans. No matter what course of action devils take, then, humans will tend to behave morally and go to Heaven.

Screwtape is perceptive enough to realize that God created the world to be a dangerous place precisely so that human beings could prove their loyalty to him. God offers the greatest rewards to the humans who continue to believe in him, in spite of danger—therefore, a flawed, chaotic world is a good one, since it gives humans opportunities to prove their faith.

Letter XXXI Quotes

If only we could find out what He is really up to! Alas, alas, that knowledge, in itself so hateful and mawkish a thing, should yet be necessary for Power! Sometimes I am almost in despair. All that sustains me is the conviction that our Realism, our rejection (in the face of all temptations) of all silly nonsense and claptrap, must win in the end.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , God
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

At various points in the book, Screwtape has shown faint signs of believing in Christianity: for example, he can't reconcile the notion that God loves humanity with the notion that love is loathsome or impossible. Screwtape is a perfectly logical creature, meaning that he should be able to see that Christianity is the only logical doctrine. The reason why Screwtape can never be a Christian, however, is that he's incapable of understanding love. As he sees it, the universe is all about competition: one person's victory is always another person's defeat.

In this quotation, Screwtape seems to long for some understanding of God—suggesting, perhaps, that even Devils aspire to go to Heaven. But of course, Screwtape can never really embrace God, because he clings to his belief that Realism--the belief that the world is a competition, with winners and losers--is the truth.

Interestingly, Lewis never really tries to disprove Screwtape's Realism. One could say that Realism is a premise of Screwtape's argument, used to prove other points, but impossible to prove or disprove in and of itself. By the same token, it's impossible to prove that love exists—and yet if you believe in the premise of love (as almost all human beings do, Lewis hopes), then Christianity follows as the logical next step.