The Magazine

Modern Screwtape

The Devil is in the details of everyday life.

Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
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The Loser Letters

Modern Screwtape

A Comic Tale of Life, Death and Atheism
by Mary Eberstadt
Ignatius, 150 pp., $13.95

Anger impairs cognitive functioning. Contemporary psychologists may accept that cautionary insight, but it hasn’t filtered into the overheated realm of the New Atheists, prompting even a temporary cessation of hostilities against religious belief, the wellspring of misery since our species ditched their primate cousins. Click onto “The Virus of Faith,” an online video, and listen to Richard Dawkins, the bestselling author of The God Delusion, explain how “irrational faith is feeding murderous intolerance throughout the world.” Critics of the New Atheism assert that its momentary success underscores a larger problem of generally shallow public discourse on matters of belief and unbelief. David Hart recently shrugged off “the latest trend in à la mode godlessness .  .  . as just a form of light entertainment.”

Mary Eberstadt, the engaging author of The Loser Letters, also strives to entertain, as she spotlights the most farcical elements of the movement. The author of Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes, Eberstadt is a sharp-eyed cultural observer. This time, she deftly channels C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters through the voice of a fictional twentysomething survivor of college hookups, detox, and Facebook relationship etiquette. Her darkly comic narrator, A. F. Christian, toys with the New Atheists’ unexamined shibboleths and indirectly scores points for “Loser”—i.e., God. 

A self-identified former “Dull” (theist), A. F. Christian has jumped ship to the “Brights,” Dawkins and company. She keyboards a series of messages to “All You Major-League Atheist Guys” that dispense advice for increasing market share: It’s time to tamp down the paeans to the glories of atheism. After all, its legacy is flimsy on lasting achievements, such as charitable institutions and high culture, while leading enthusiasts—Mao, Stalin, Hitler—have cut a bloody swath through the past century. A more effective communications strategy, A. F. advises, is to ratchet up the offense: continually catalogue theism’s spine-chilling horrors, from the vengeful Yahweh of the Old Testament to the goose-stepping popes who still oppose scientific progress right into the digital age!

Like most of her peers, A. F. reveals an abiding interest in the subject of sex. At one time, she shared the movement’s distaste for theist controls on the species’s perfectly natural appetites. But given the present cultural context, some rebranding is now in order: If the Atheist Guys wish to secure their reputation as practitioners of disinterested reason, they must suspend their rants against the guilt-inducing power of traditional morality. In the West, at least, that bogeyman exited the stage eons ago, and the consequent rise in divorce, abortions, and male irresponsibility has since produced a “backlash out there that none of You seem to know about—one You might call Ozzie and Harriet, come back—all is forgiven!” 

A.F. then refines her point: 

If our Movement is really going to go around arguing that the sooner we get rid of those rules, the happier humanity is going to be, we’re going to get blown away by this kind of counterevidence. It’s enough to make you envy Bertrand Russell and all the atheists who came before us, isn’t it?

For sure, A. F. enjoys keeping her readers off-balance, juxtaposing awkward syntax with flights of transcendence, zany satire with stark elegies. But there’s also a mystery embedded in her pilgrimage to atheism, and that puzzle deepens the reader’s engagement. A. F.’s dysfunctional college years generated a good deal of data about values and practices that foster human happiness. She wonders if the New Atheism’s arguments simply prop up self-justifying moral choices, while traditional religion actually encourages a concern for others—hardly a recipe for delusion. And A. F. can’t help noticing that the Brights, despite their flair for media relations, attract few actual converts. The sticking point is that Atheist Guys don’t really deal with actual relationships, the very stuff that makes life worthwhile. Meanwhile, religion anchors and supports family life, even as the love experienced within the home often plants the seed that grows into a love for God. 

Now, A. F. isn’t suggesting that nonbelievers can’t create happy homes: Her point is that the Brights have ceded the whole realm of family life to the seductive rituals and teachings of the competition. And she doesn’t have a ready explanation for this geeky myopia. But she throws out a few clues. For example, Bishop Fulton Sheen, the popular midcentury television preacher, made this pointed observation about the Brights and their proclivity for anger-driven cognitive impairment: “He who has fallen away from the spiritual order will hate it, because religion is the reminder of his guilt.”

True or false, Mary Eberstadt dares to introduce the notion that if ideas have consequences, the New Atheists have good reason to set aside their moral posturing and rethink their next career move—after they get some couch time for anger management.

Joan Frawley Desmond, who writes on religious and social issues for a variety of publications, lives in Maryland.

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