In an anything-but-apologetic apologia, Mary Eberstadt challenges the many spokesmen (and they are almost all men) for the New Atheism in her satire, The Loser Letters. Reminiscent of Ted Turner’s infamous comment that Christianity is a religion for losers, the Loser in this book is God.
The intimidatingly intelligent Eberstadt has established herself as an incisive writer who engages explosive and controversial topics. She critiqued the practice of administering strong drugs to schoolchildren in an effort to promote better school performance in Why Ritalin Rules and extended her treatment of the topic in her book, Home Alone America.
She has exposed the effects of the sexual revolution and has chronicled developments from Anglican acceptance of contraception at the Lambeth Conference in 1930 to the denomination’s current warfare over homosexuality. She presents a uniquely perceptive view of pop culture with arresting titles such as Is Food the New Sex? and Eminem Is Right. She makes frequent, and provocative, contributions to the Wall Street Journal, Policy Review, Commentary, and First Things.
The Loser Letters, Eberstadt’s first published work of fiction, draws on a long satirical tradition from Juvenal to The Screwtape Letters. Eberstadt’s protagonist, a young woman named A. F. Christian (as in, “A Former Christian”), details the journey of her enlightened abandonment of her “cradle Dullness” (namely, her Christian faith) and her adaptation to atheism. Christian writes excited, star-struck letters to the self-described so-called “Brights” of the New Atheism, in which she gushes about the Brights’ superiority while candidly evaluating the weaknesses that limit the New Atheism’s ability to win new converts. With this device, Eberstadt delivers a gripping story line with a chilling twist at the end and, in the process, administers a smackdown of the New Atheism.
“It is difficult not to write satire,” Juvenal said in the tumult of ancient Rome. In the cultural tumult of modern America, Eberstadt makes the New Atheism seem easy to mock.
Why does she take on the New Atheists? As Eberstadt said at her book launch, “their movement has repeatedly assailed religious people as self-righteous, ignorant of history, and humorless, all the while remaining self-righteous, ignorant of history, and humorless itself to a quite remarkable degree.” As a result, “this movement aids and abets our cultural dumbing down.” On another level, you might call The Loser Letters a defense of western civilization itself.
A. F. Christian embraced atheism after reading the works of such “Brights” as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Michel Onfray, Victor Stenger, and Peter Singer. Leaving no stone unturned, Christian also cites the influence of Charles Darwin, Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud, and Nietzsche. Speaking in a wickedly irreverent and culturally aware style, Christian initially declares God’s non-existence and gradually develops second thoughts.
“Good writing is good thinking translated into visual form,” as Bernstein said, and “clear thinking is an indispensable prerequisite to clear writing.” True to form, Eberstadt’s clear and effective writing owes its success to the quality of her thinking. Yet, with abundant references to television shows and popular music, as well as Christian’s frequent concession that neither she nor the atheists she addresses are theologians, her approach makes for a light and easy read, presenting lofty topics in a readily accessible manner.
Christian addresses seven flaws in the atheists’ arguments for the non-existence of “that Loser,” the “biggest fraud of all time, cosmic zero, ultimate no-show” — sexual liberty, reason and logic, good works, art, converts to Christianity, the human family, and life issues.
Acknowledging that the current college pep cheer is “Let copulation thrive!,” Eberstadt shows that the atheists’ sexual mores now rule college campuses. Europeans also have abandoned in droves traditional values, resulting in the disappearance of marriage, children, and families. Yet the absence of boundaries has made a lot of people miserable, especially the women, as A. F. Christian compellingly argues, ultimately lamenting, “Ozzie and Harriet, come back — All is forgiven!”
Christian next takes up reason and logic, which the atheists argue are “totally in Our corner.” If atheists claim that most humans have relied on religion out of fear, A. F. Christian asks why the current batch of atheists are so sure that they are exceptionally brave and brilliant when compared to most humans from the dawn of time. They fail to explain why humans would have invented the Christian God who is hard to live with, “not the sort of supernatural easily cuddled up to.” Why wouldn’t Christians invent a deity who turns “bread into i-Pod minis and water into Grey Goose?” The sheer complexity and oddity of Christian theology, as C.S. Lewis noticed, “has just that queer twist about it that real things have.”
Addressing the topic of good works, A. F. Christian encourages the atheists to emphasize what Christians have done wrong rather than anything the atheists have done right. She recognizes that evils committed by Christians are legion and provide plenty of ammunition for atheists to unload on Christians. But although atheists might argue that a “disbelief in the immateriality or immortality of the soul” would not “make a person less caring, less moral, less committed to the well-being of everybody on Earth,” A. F. Christian is quick to point out the evidence to the contrary. American believers are more generous in every sense than the atheists, and Mormons in particular, she observes, would be sure to win a “goody-off contest” with the atheists. Christian contrasts the unbelievable 14,800 number of heat wave excess deaths in France with the overwhelming mobilization of assistance by churches for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Christian also asks how many atheist families have adopted six, eight or ten children, including those with handicaps. She rightly notes that atheists “don’t want the kind of world in which Nature’s rejects, the sick, and the old, and the frail of any sort, flourish anyway.”
Taking up the question of architecture, music, sculpture, painting, literature, philosophy, and the artistic life, Christian next refers to George Weigel’s book, The Cube and the Cathedral, which uses Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (representing religious art) and La Grande Arche de la Defense (representing secular art) to ask, Which culture would better protect human rights and the moral foundations of democracy?
Next, Christian laments the lack of other converts to atheism, and bewails the many converts from atheism to Christianity, including Alister McGrath, Evelyn Waugh, C. S. Lewis, Malcom Muggeridge, Graham Greene, Edith Sitwell, Siegfried Sasoon, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and T. S. Eliot, and A. F.’s favorite convert, G. E. M. Anscombe.
In her next letter, Christian questions whether the New Atheists have any connections with women, children and families. She notes that many atheists have been childless or not in a real family themselves. A. F. Christian argues that “It’s familial love that first gives people the idea of infinite love,” and that “it’s families that make people religious, not vice versa,” a point Eberstadt addressed in another article. The atheists’ ignorance or lack of interest in family life or marriage may also be why atheists do not win more converts. Women across the world are more likely to attend religious services, pray, and teach their children their beliefs. Christian asserts that human families and especially the ties between women and children are the “chief enemies of Atheism”; a problem which the atheists have yet to adequately address.
Christian then explores the life issues, finding that the atheist position on abortion is unanimously in favor of it. Despite a few historical examples of atheists against abortion (including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton), atheists are all for it now. The pro-life movement has a youthful face, and the younger generation recognizes that they are the “first truly disposable one,” which “puts extra pressure on all of today’s kids to find a meaning in life.” People can recognize that practice of abortion on demand leads to suffering, not just of the fetus but of others too. Christian worries that opposition to abortion draws more young people to the Loser’s side and away from atheism.
Ultimately, Eberstadt describes this as a “volume poking some overdue holes in one more tremendously successful celebrity enterprise that’s gotten very big — and very, very full of itself.”
The Loser Letters is a must-read for anyone interested in the current atheism debate, for believing parents, and for readers who enjoy a good black comedy with deep themes. I, for one, cannot wait for the response from the Brights. Bring it on!