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Adventures in Atheism: Reviewing Mary Eberstadt’s “The Loser Letters”

September 20, 2016


C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters is a literary masterpiece that recounts the fictitious correspondence between an upper-level, soul snatching demon, Screwtape, and his apprentice nephew, Wormwood. In the series of letters, Screwtape coaches his amateur underling on the most effective techniques to use in winning over a soul to the clutches of his demon father, Satan. The reader follows as the subject on whom Wormwood is “preying” is constantly bombarded with subsidiary distractions, tempted by indifference, overwhelmed by propagandistic “unanswerables,” and made witness to countless frustrations and annoyances to keep him from exploring at any true depth the questions or curiosities about the existence and nature of God. He is encouraged to remain on the surface—to dismiss all deeper inquiries as being inconsequential to daily reality.

In the pages of this classic, the reader is given insight into the deceptive nature of the devil. Screwtape, in an attempt to mask himself as being non-threatening, suggests that Wormwood convince his patient that he doesn’t exist: “If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.” The devil, this suggests, can be equally as effective in conquering the soul of a human if that person simply sweeps the demon aside as trivial and silly as if he actually grows to believe the demon’s rhetoric and worship his existence. The entire book, then, is built upon this premise—demonstrating the destructive power of our dismissal of and indifference to this dangerous reality. The dialogue reveals the way in which the patient can be slowly and effectively desensitized by the powerful and strategic techniques employed by the demon temptor within the seemingly harmless confines of day-to-day life. Screwtape Letters exposes the devil in all of his ugliness by unmasking his charade. In so doing, Lewis leads the reader away from inadvertent cooperation in this soul-sacrificing game.

Mary Eberstadt’s book, The Loser Letters, performs a similar task by way of an analogous, yet modernized technique. She, through the guise of a former Christian, 20-something girl (A.F. Christian) composing fan e-mails to the talking heads of the new atheism, draws attention the loopholes that need fortification in order for the new atheist movement to gain converts. By means of satire and irony (dripping with “Generation Y” lexicon, references, and allusions), she presents the new atheist platform and underlying misconceptions, and in so doing, she debunks its approach. Her style for doing this follows closely the style of Lewis, offering the inside perspective from the “enemy” camp and making clear the shaky ground on which it stands without the reinforcement of gifted rhetoric and the appeal to popular cultural ethos. She proves that atheism as a movement can be effectively countered with learned theological and philosophical discourse, but fortunately for the “everyman,” this type of knowledge is not necessary. Eberstadt demonstrates how it can be undermined by practical knowledge of history and the human condition and foresight into the immediate future of new atheism’s basic propositions (all of which inherently reflect the Truth).

The Loser Letters shows how the power of the new atheist movement often lies in the power of dismissal and subversion. In referring to God as “Loser,” Christians as “Dulls,” and atheists as “Brights,” A. F. Christian writes, “I’d tell myself that my avoidance of Loser was all about one (high-minded!) thing, when it was really about something else not remotely elevated. You know, like when we Brights say things like, ‘The Thomistic doctrine of transubstantiation of essences is too contra-Newtonian to be countenanced by the twenty-first century,’ – when what we really mean is, “…why should I waste an hour in church when all it’s going to do is remind me of rules I’d just as soon forget?’…That kind of Atheist self-deception thing! Yes, that’s what I learned to do as soon as I didn’t have a family around to remind me of self-sacrifice and birth and death and other things tied up with religion that make no sense when You live by and for Yourself. It was the beginning of my road to You.” The lasting, worthwhile, meaning-infused questions of the Theistic side of the argument, as Eberstadt demonstrates, are effectively dismissed and subverted, and the atheist platform maintains strength through this phenomenon. C.S. Lewis explicitly addressed this same issue when Screwtape advised Wormwood, “Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping [your patient] from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.”

Eberstadt also shows how the accusations of religious hypocrisy, while well-founded and often true, do more to turn individuals away from Christianity than to affirm any particular truth about or advantage of atheism. In fact, A.F. Christian makes the point, “Just think how much harder it was for our side back in the beginning, when the Dulls’ stupid books were fresher in their cerebral cortexes and the Christians were actually being all pious and suffering in the Colosseum and planting themselves more firmly on the ‘moral high ground’!… We Atheists can undermine lots of believers, simply by emphasizing how badly a few of them have behaved… But, we Brights do not need to, and in fact should not ever, take the necessary further step of crediting our own side with good behavior. In fact, if I could have offered our new Movement one single bit of advice on this, it would have been: Don’t even go there.” A.F.Christian goes on to address the legitimate evidence for the beauty and truth of Christianity in an attempt to keep it “under the rug,” calling attention to the topics, “The Trouble with Good Works,” “The Trouble with (Christian) Art,” “Those Obnoxious Christian Convert Traitors and What to Do about Them,” “Query: Do Atheists Know any Women, Children, or Families?” and “The Unbelievably Annoying Problem of Christian Moral High Ground.” Even Eberstadt’s chapter titles are enough to get at the theme of subversion and dismissal and to raise legitimate, common-sensical questions that address the folly of the atheistic understanding of reality. 

Both C.S. Lewis and Mary Eberstadt’s fictional accounts lay bare the techniques of the opposition: distraction, propaganda, subversion and the utter lack of understanding and disdain for humility-infused love. However, it is important to remember that in Lewis’ story, we read the dialogue of the devil, but in Eberstadt’s, we read the thoughts of one of his patients. Lewis’ protagonist is our enemy, but Eberstadt’s protagonist, as she makes clear, is one of us. The new atheist movement, and the new atheists that comprise it, are not the enemy, but rather, they deal in the same propaganda and deceit because they themselves have been deceived. And who fortifies this deceit? Sadly enough, we do. We Christians do. The radical paradox of the human condition expressed by Paul in Romans 7:19-25, “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want…Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord…” details this interior battle and continually compels a choice: to maintain its inherent hope, or to take up the cause of its implied despair. The new atheists have taken the second route and have deluded themselves into denying the anguish that is imminent in their approach. However, our task as Christians is to be witnesses to the first route. The daily re-commitment to the hope given to us by Christ is the only means to give legitimacy to the Christian message and utterly undermine the foundation of new atheism. (The Saints, reflecting the person of Christ, are our prototypes for action and the Achille’s heel of atheistic finger-pointing.) We, with the help of C.S. Lewis and Mary Eberstadt, can effectively unveil the propagandistic attacks and move forward with the charge to answer in selfless, sacrificial, humble love. With the grace of “Loser,” we can say, “Get thee behind us, Screwtape,” and perhaps win a few converts in the process.