THE LOSER LETTERS: A COMIC TALE OF LIFE, DEATH AND ATHEISM
By Mary Eberstadt
Ignatius Press, $13.95
In her latest book “The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death and Atheism,” Hoover Institution fellow Mary Eberstadt satirizes atheism via a series of letters written by a convert to atheism, a young woman who goes by “A.F. (A Former) Christian.” In a one-way correspondence addressed to the “spokesmen of the New Atheism,” A.F. Christian’s letters offer pointed advice intended to help the elite enterprise gain adherents and to describe her own conversion story.
In A.F. Christian’s world, atheists are “Brights,” while God is known as the “Loser” and believers are designated “Dulls.” Capitalization drives home the concepts with which the Brights have replaced the Loser: Nature, Naturally, Science, Human, and Species, among others. A.F. Christian refers to Darwin as “our most illustrious Forebear” and prefaces at least one request with the phrase, “I urge you with all my DNA.” Scientific naturalism and materialism combine with A.F. Christian’s stated desire to live up to the principle that “the highest purpose is to be useful.”
Mrs. Eberstadt critiques the success of a movement that A.F. Christian just barely escapes dubbing “miraculous.” (A recovering Dull, she catches herself and calls it “marvelous” instead.) In her foreword, Mrs. Eberstadt poses the question that A.F. Christian seeks to answer: Given the absence of many testimonies by newly convicted atheists, what are the obstacles facing Dulls who might otherwise join the ranks? From this point, Mrs. Eberstadt offers seven major challenges in as many chapters designed to poke holes in the large, successful enterprise of New Atheism built by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and others.
Sprinkled with abbreviations like “BTW” and references to popular TV shows, the letters’ 21st-century setting is clear from the outset. But even more than the frequent pop-culture references - e.g., “Just think of me as Your own private ‘Project Runway’ or ‘What Not to Wear’ - someone who just wants us Atheists to be all we can be” - the substance of Mrs. Eberstadt’s critique relies on evidence that is presently coming to a head.
Atheists, Mrs. Eberstadt points out disapprovingly (through the words of A.F. Christian, as always) continue to preach free love as if it were still the 1960s. This strategy appeals to some: A.F. Christian was among those attracted to the promise of personal liberty (more properly, license) as a college student and, while deploring the lack of serious converts, she hastens to add, “Of course we score big with the young guys who aren’t responsible for anything and don’t really care about anything besides spending most of their time in the basement playing video games, watching porn, and texting girls unsuccessfully.”
Many Generation X-ers and those younger, however, are disillusioned with the sexual revolution. They have experienced its consequences - divorce, abuse, drugs, abortion, addiction and depression - and sexual liberation does not sing the same siren song it once did to their parents.
When members of the younger generations connect secularism to the heartbreaking consequences of the sexual revolution, as many will, Mrs. Eberstadt warns, they might even be tempted to admit a place for moral rules or a concept of natural law. What is new or revolutionary about promiscuity, contraception or abortion at this point anyway? Mourning the loss of genuine freethinking, A.F. Christian plaintively asks, “[C]an we Brights please get someone out front on the idea that Atheists can be pro-life too? … Just to confuse at least some of the Dulls?”
At the same time, Mrs. Eberstadt’s tale is a defense of Western civilization and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Drawing on a rich intellectual and aesthetic tradition, she emphasizes Christianity’s civilizing effect on pagan societies. Ignorance of the past is a recurring theme. Even trotting out the Inquisition and slurs against Pius XII, A.F. Christian points out, cannot counteract what Michael Novak called “the horrors of the self-declared atheist regimes in modern history: Fascist in Italy, Nazi in Germany, and Communist in the Soviet Union.”
During the first seven letters, questions about A.F. Christian’s life build: What is she doing in the mysterious place she calls rehab? Who is the Director she describes as a creepy midget with the red cape? Why is she being sent German Rosetta Stone cds? What is the past - including frequently mentioned ex-boyfriend Lobo - that has left her firmly convinced that atheism is the solution? A.F. Christian’s story is compelling on a personal, as well as intellectual, level.
“The Loser Letters” draws inevitable comparisons to C.S. Lewis’ classic “The Screwtape Letters,” and rightly so. Author and satirist P.J. O’Rourke wrote, “As a Christian humorist, Mary Eberstadt is the rightful heir and assignee of C.S. Lewis, and her heroine in ‘The Loser Letters’ is the legitimate child (or perhaps grandchild) of ‘the patient’ in ‘The Screwtape Letters.’ ” Mrs. Eberstadt also ends the novel - and begins a new chapter for A.F. Christian - with a clever twist that calls to mind the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s story “Leaf by Niggle.”
In this series of letters (an earlier version of which was published in installments by National Review Online), Mrs. Eberstadt gives something of a crash course in atheism’s major flaws and targets well-known intellectuals like Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer. Her treatment of weighty topics, however, is deft: At 148 pages, the book is an engaging and quick read. Mrs. Eberstadt makes substantive arguments seemingly without effort while capturing the chattery voice of a 20-something.
Citations for the various quotations or a list of books suggested for further reading would be a valuable addition, helping readers access some of the insights that provided inspiration for the book. Of course, readers will be well served by checking out the work of many of the Dulls who figure prominently in the text: John Paul II, Elizabeth Anscombe, C.S. Lewis, George Weigel, Leon Kass, Michael Novak and many others.
In “The Loser Letters,” Mrs. Eberstadt effectively balances substance and humor, making a provocative, compelling case with rare grace and conviction.
Claire Gillen is a summer intern with The Washington Times through the Student Free Press Association.