The Loser Letters?

After a post-master’s teaching stint which included three years at an all-women’s college in North Carolina, I returned to the classroom as a student for a Th.M. with a thesis on Evangelicals and Muslims, and a Ph.D. dissertation on the “New Atheists.” One of the funnest (er…most fun) books I have read so far for dissertation prep is Mary Eberstadt’s The Loser Letters, which I recently reviewed “In Brief” for Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal. I can’t help but wonder how my former (and future?) students would respond to Eberstadt’s book.

I will not reproduce my Women’s Studies review here, but draw and expand on it. I am particularly interested in what readers and contributors think about the place of satire, humor, and polemics in interreligious dialogue and contexts. When, if ever, are they appropriate or constructive; and alternatively where are they less than helpful?

The Loser Letters (the “Loser,” in this case, ostensibly referring to “God”) is the story of a spunky, semi-feminist young atheist who shares her advice about how to better liberate the religious faithful from the allegedly oppressive strictures of church, temple, mosque, synagogue, and supernatural thinking to join the ranks of the “brights” exemplified by the mostly geriatric white guys among the bestselling authors of the “New Atheism.”

According to Eberstadt’s protagonist,“A.F. Christian” (A Former Christian), chief among the New Atheists’ sins is their “women problem.” Apparently, this gaggle of geezers knoweth no woman, or at the very least, they know very little about women, so A.F. appoints herself their tutor for crossing gender and generational lines. A.F. blends allusions to historic feminists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Margaret Sanger, with pop-culture literary characters like Tom Wolfe’s Charlotte Simmons.

The setting for A.F.’s correspondence is “rehab,” where the plucky e-pistler prods New Atheists to reexamine their tactics and priorities. “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” (13).

No topic is taboo, including “traitors”  to the atheist cause like Elizabeth Anscombe, Francis Collins, and Antony Flew. Scandalous sexuality, Mormons, Muslims, missionaries, the beauty of sacred art and moral philosophy are all fair fodder. In one instance, A.F. concludes her discussion of vocal Princeton atheist Peter Singers’s essay “Heavy Petting” (a notorious article extolling the dubious virtues of bestiality), “At the risk of TMI…I can’t quote anything else…But Red Rover!  Red Rover!  Don’t let Professor [Singer] come over!” (114)

A.F. progresses from addressing her interlocutors, “Dear Sirs” (9) to “Dear Major Atheist Author BFFs” (65) and “Dear Distinguished Atheist Friends (that’s Lieber Herren Doktoren Atheisten Freunde in Deutsch)” (92). She employs the lively if sometimes irritating lilt of the Twitter and texting generation with an astute awareness of literature, history, philosophy, and Rosetta Stone forays into the German language courtesy of A.F.’s mysteriously silent social workers in “rehab.” The following quotations give a further sense of style:

“Everybody on the godless team [the New Atheists] writes about sex and freedom from the religious moral rules as if all the years from 1960 on never even existed. As if the Sexual Revolution hadn’t been staggering along for nearly a half century now! Hello?” (17)

“It seemed to me to give some sort of other explanation for theotropism…other than the ‘I’m a universal genius MUHAHAHAHA and I see things that other mere ordinary mortals don’t’…(just to avoid this problem of being misconstrued as some unbelievable egomaniac head case or something). Not that there’s anything wrong with putting oneself first, as Nature intended us to! But the egomania thing does hurt us in the Dull (read: religious) trenches, especially with the girls; trust me.” (31)

“That different religions exist doesn’t tell you the truth value of any one of them—any more than having twelve answers to a math problem tells You which one is right…or having ten pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes tells You which ones to wear with a cheetah leather skirt…The record doesn’t support Your claim that Nazis and Communists and whatnot were really somehow religious underneath—You know, as if Paula Abdul on American Idol was secretly a fat bald male teetoler whose skin is Naturally almost as tight as Hillary Clinton’s.” (36, 43)

Such over-the-top exuberance will annoy or even deeply offend some readers, even while others will exit, roll, or dance down the aisles. Still other readers may be struck to the heart, for heart is in abundance, particularly in the final chapter. Eberstadt does not poke fun pointlessly. Behind the post-teenage brash bluster are careful consideration of her antagonists’ (in the context below, Christianity’s) appeals:

“Perhaps because I am a female, for example, it wasn’t hard to peer back through time to the hills of Rome and feel creeped out by the thought of the patria potestas law, which granted fathers a right to off any unwanted baby girls.  What kind of gynophobe brutocracy does that, I used to wonder? It seemed obvi to me then, as it does to many Dulls now, that a society in which the weakest were getting hosed so ruthlessly could use a little moral fine-tuning—and that Christianity with all its sins at least had a fork for that kind of thing.” (108-109)

Is Eberstadt essential reading for those who can enjoy her, and also for those who will not enjoy her, but can stomach her religious and political incorrectness? Does the fact that Eberstadt is a devout Catholic, and A.F. partly pokes fun at Catholicism, have implications for intra- and inter-religious discourse?

I’m not sure whether Eberstadt will find favor with (other) religious or atheist reviewers, even though she takes partial inspiration from C.S. Lewis’s satirical The Screwtape Letters.  But to modify humorist P.J. O’Rourke’s blurb on Eberstadt’s back cover, I found A.F.’s voice as the Chronicler of Narnia’s god(less?) daughter fiendishly fresh.

Image, “Little Chibi ‘L'” by Line Berre, from Google Open Source Images

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