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.
Religion and Reason ThemeTracker
Religion and Reason Quotes in The Screwtape Letters
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.