Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recommended that a journalist who didn’t believe in the Devil go away and read The Screwtape Letters of CS Lewis. The New Yorker takes a look at why this book holds true for a contemporary reading of human nature and sinfulness:
Somewhat surprisingly, [Screwtape the senior devil] tells his nephew, “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself.” Organized religion is full of misguided liturgies, bad preachers, and off-key singing: the sort of minor but menacing distractions that can slowly undermine the patient’s faith. “Indeed,” Screwtape later says, “the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
Opportunities for sin are what fill a human lifetime. Screwtape tells Wormwood that God “cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice,” and letter by letter he reveals these temptations. “You are much more likely,” he says, “to make your man a sound drunkard by pressing drink on him as an anodyne when he is dull and weary than by encouraging him to use it as a means of merriment among his friends when he is happy.” Alcohol is not the only instrument of vice, and Screwtape insists that the most ordinary of instruments are the best.
The patient’s mother, for instance, is a supreme glutton, but not the excessive kind. She is the sort of person who is always sending plates of food back to the kitchen because they are too large or refusing tea because it is too strong, offending servants and friends alike with her self-concern. As Screwtape observes, “At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance.” So often, sin is accomplished by manipulating the pursuit of virtue. Wormwood is advised, “Catch [the patient] at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble,’ and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear.” With little effort, gluttony can be disguised as temperance and pride can be hidden by humility