Screwtape fulfills his promise to Wormwood: he will now explain how the “trough periods” of human life—the times when humans are sad, lonely, or otherwise in pain—can be useful for swaying humans away from God and Christianity.
We’ve already heard how periods of misery can bring humanity closer to God. Now it’s time to hear how they can be used to tempt people away from God.
Trough periods encourage humans to embrace sensuality, especially sex. In a trough, a human is more likely to feel lust, since his moral defenses are weaker, and also less likely to feel love. The same is true of alcohol: a human is more likely to become an alcoholic in a period of depression than in a time of happiness.
Lewis’s insights in this section seem fairly accurate, though perhaps he’s ignoring the huge number of alcoholics who develop an addiction when they celebrate, not when they’re unhappy. More generally, though, Lewis predicts the rise of hedonism and sensuality in the post-war period: one thinks of the “Sexual revolution” of the 1960s, often interpreted as a belated reaction to the devastation of World War II.
Screwtape notes that devils have yet to invent a single form of pleasure. Every pleasure humans are capable of experiencing was created by God. Thus, devils sway human beings by encouraging them to enjoy God’s pleasure “at times, or in ways or in degrees” that God discourages.
It’s surprising to hear Screwtape argue that pleasure is strictly heavenly, since we often hear of sinful or forbidden pleasures. Yet this notion is actually a familiar Christian belief, that evil arises not from new forms of pleasure, but from abuses of “good” pleasure.
Another way to sway humans during a trough period is to give the human a false version of Christianity. If a depressed Christian turns to the Bible without the proper guidance, then he is likely to regain some of his happiness, but not all of it. As a result, he will modify his view of Christianity, and conclude that Christianity is good, but only “up to a point.” Moderate Christianity, Screwtape notes, is as useful to the devils as no Christianity at all.
Christianity, it’s suggested, is an “all or nothing” proposition. One can’t embrace this religion half-heartedly, or only conclude that Christianity has “some good points.” Instead, Lewis offers a vigorous defense of Christianity in all its glory: the doctrine of good, evil, heaven, and hell that’s laid out in the Bible.
Another way to sway depressed humans away from God is to make them think that their depressed phase is a mere reaction to the Christianity of their youth. They might well think that their religion was a mere “youthful phase,” and now they have to move past it. Popular modern ideas of progress and development support this mistaken belief, Screwtape observes. The concept of progress encourages people to avoid thinking in terms of what is true and false.
Lewis will return to this problem of believing in “progress” many times, and he’s already mentioned it in previous chapters. The Hegelian notion of history, still widely popular in Europe at the time, implies that a belief can be true at one point and false at another. It would be a mistake, Lewis argues, to believe this of Christianity.