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September 13, 2012

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The Loser Letters: impish wit and a satirical dissection of atheism

by Mark Meynell
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Mary Eberstadt has a wonderful turn of phrase and an impish wit, which are used to devastating effect in her 2010 book The Loser Letters. She boldly takes on the mantle of C S Lewis’ Screwtape, but instead of infiltrating the murky world of Wormwood’s diabolical apprenticeship, she joins the New Atheists in their quest to crush theism. So she writes 10 open letters, in the persona of A.F.Christian (i.e. ‘a former Christian’), to some of the leading lights of the movement like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. With great relish she writes to advise ‘The Brights’ (atheists) on how better to defeat ‘The Dulls’ (Christians), and above all to undermine belief in ‘The Loser’ (God). At times, the result is laugh-out-loud funny.

Brightening the Brights

In each letter she attempts to sharpen them up, to expose the flaws and contradictions in their most common arguments. The book’s conceit of course is that the more she goes on, the more the doubts about her new-found atheism grow. By the end, she has come back to faith. So this book is clearly not a finely-tuned, objective philosophical argument – it is a narrative, albeit in epistolary form. More than that, it is satire, which is at times biting. Here are one or two little tastes (although it’s inevitably hard to get the feel of the satire without it’s whole, accumulative effect – and note, these are not quoted because they’re the strongest arguments – they merely give a feel):

Because there’s one thing that’s still missing from Atheism’s final victory, and it’s something that just can’t be sugarcoated. Ahem: apart from me, where is the testimony of anyone Your writings have actually convinced? (p10)

And I know that it wouldn’t be the first time that Atheism fell short on the convert count. ‘It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly)’ as our most illustrious Forebear Charles Darwin once put it, ‘that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public.’ And He should certainly know! (p11)

Then in discussion of the common atheist argument that belief in a god is mere wish-fulfilment:

As that professor Alister McGrath – a former one of us who has gone totally over to the other side – has pointed out, the trouble with wish fulfilment is that it raises the question of what Atheists wish for too. In other words, do we Brights want to abolish Loser for reasons of our own – because that lets us off the hook to do whatever we please in the world? (p35)

Then I love the thought of C S Lewis as the “old Loserphile”:

C S Lewis, for one, pulls the rug out from under us like this: ‘if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out out have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?’ I can’t pretend to statistical certainty here, and I hate to say the old Loserphile got anything right. But I’d have to say that based on what I’ve seen of most Brights I’ve known, he nailed that case shut. (p121)

Satirising the Hollowness

What is interesting though, for those like myself not so familiar with a Roman Catholic approach to apologetics, she focuses on a number of prevailing ethical and political issues: the big ones being the effects of the sexual revolution, and the hot potato of abortion. It is a fascinating tack to take – and this is what gives these letters their narrative dynamic – because as they continue, we discover more about A.F.Christian’s personal experience. At times this is agonising and heart-breaking. And above all, she articulates brilliantly the pain of coming to terms with suffering in a godless, closed universe.

You see, if everything You guys and the rest of the Brights said is true; if we Humans really are just some tiny animate fungus on a somewhat larger rock of some kind, however statistically improbable, just orbiting one of those billions and billions of stars that Forebear Carl Sagan liked to talk about; if there really is nothing behind us and nothing ahead, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all; if You guys and the other Atheists are right, and all Loser’s poets, builders, painters, prophets, believers and apologists stretching back over three millennia are wrong; if no one else really is watching us, or caring about any of us at all; well then, in this whole random cosmic rave of matter and antimatter, space and time, that just dwarfs every last thing any one of us will ever be or thin or do – if that’s really what we’re talking about here, then one little elective medical procedure, one teeny-tiny exercise of a woman’s right to choose by one very significant human female like A.F. Christian, shouldn’t matter much to anyone, anywhere, ever at all. (p122)

And yet of course it does matter – one of those cruel silences in the whole abortion debates relates to the acute pastoral damage the ‘procedure’ can do to those who have it done. As she goes on:

The problem for Atheism that my story illustrates ridiculously well goes like this: Why did I feel the way I felt in Portland about letting down Mom before she died? Why did I feel so totally hideous about what I did to H.D. (hypothetical daughter)? What’s the meaning – or even just any plausible Natural purpose – of the human enigma called personal guilt?

… I mean to say, by the time I went to Planned Parenthood that day, I was as empty of religious superstitions of any former believer can be. So why, again, did I feel as ripped up about what happened as I did? I mean, shouldn’t Nature have designed me to be happy about getting rid of something that was going to interrupt my life? (p132)

A refreshing apologetic

I think the great value of this book lies not in the fact that it will prove the decisive blow to atheism (for it is hardly likely to do that), but that it is provocative and counter-cultural. It offers a gentle retort to the aggressive atheistic satire from the likes of Ricky Gervais or Eddie Izzard, with a little mickey-take at atheism’s sacred cows. Eberstadt is not rude or offensive. She merely gives as good as it gets.

And that is itself very refreshing!

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