Screwtape for New Atheists
Catholic writer Mary Eberstadt's new novel, The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism (Ignatius Press), begins by noting the laurels and attention heaped on authors such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. With a couple decades off to forget Soviet Communism's anti-religious oppression, the last few years have been awfully good for unbelief.
Everything is going great for the New Atheists, observes the book's narrator—a witty, sharp-tongued 20-something named A.F. Christian (A Former Christian)—except for one thing: "… where is the testimony of anyone Your writings have actually convinced?"
Riffing on C.S. Lewis's observation that people tend to drift into unbelief rather than convert to it, Christian fancies herself the only actual convert to atheism. She proceeds to offer epistolary advice to the New Atheists on how to improve their message and gain more converts—another obvious Lewis homage.
Each of the book's ten letters approaches a serious issue from a decidedly humorous bent. Christian's first letter takes on sexual mores. After describing the typical U.S. college campus—"as pure as any Atheist's dream, as deity-free as the Bravo channel on Sunday morn (or any other time!)"—she points out that the guilt and consequences attached to promiscuity are still prevalent.
Christian also urges atheists to explain their contradictions; for example, how "99.99999999 percent of humanity" has been wrong about religion except themselves. And she eviscerates some of the logical arguments in favor of abortion, while effectively mocking the media's transparently transgressive lack of respect for human dignity.
Perhaps the book's most important lesson is its much-needed call for an accurate grasp of Western civilization. It's nice to see someone simply point out Christians' good works compared with the dearth of atheists'—and not just in works of charity. Eberstadt devotes a whole chapter to art. After listing great works inspired by religious belief, Christian asks, "… against this Dull artistic excellence, what exactly do we Atheists bring to the table? The Brooklyn Museum of Art? Elton John? Your books? Freak dancing? Rammstein?"
Even a regular critic of atheism can learn from this disarmingly comic tale. Christian's gentle encouragement for the New Atheists to understand why women aren't flocking to their movement indicts atheism as an individualistic wasteland. She suggests that the discrepancy between the sexes might be related to "taking care of smaller and weaker members of the Species." And she notes how many prominent atheists, from Spinoza to Nietzsche and beyond, were either childless or living outside real families.
The book's only downside is its conclusion, which shifts from a discussion of the broadly religious to a somewhat sectarian Catholicism. But that forgivable flaw shouldn't narrow the audience of a book that believers and nonbelievers alike can benefit from.