Some Little Contradictions and How They Grew


Mary Eberstadt

Editor’s note: Christianity has been taking a beating for years now, with one tony atheist tome after another rolling off the presses – and still no end in sight.

And so far – with the exception of a Michael Novak here and a Dinesh D’Souza there – believers have largely turned the other cheek.

Now, finally, comes more payback – with THE LOSER LETTERS, a Screwtape for our screwed-up time.

In the latest round over God, Mary Eberstadt has A. F. Christian going to the mattresses on National Review Online . . .

Dear Atheist Sirs again,

I hope that by now You’ve all gotten my first Letter and that Everybody’s had a chance to read it and think over my points and suggestions. It was about sex (!), so I figured You’d all get to it. I know from Your books how interested atheists are in that subject! And no worries: You’ll definitely be hearing more about you-know-what from me in the future, especially once we get to my own personal atheist conversion story.

For now, though, this second Letter is about something else I think we really need to talk about if we Brights are ever going to get serious about pulling other people besides me away from the Loser. One other big problem facing us is this: atheists everywhere, not just You all but going way back into the very beginning of Our evolutionary leap into godlessness, keep talking about how Reason and Logic are totally in Our corner. And for reasons explained below, I think this kind of talk runs the risk of being very off-putting to certain other members of the Species — especially those who for whatever random reason have been exposed even a little to Reason and Logic themselves.

I know; I was one.

It didn’t start out that way. Like so many other Americans, I was what you might call a cradle Dull — a regular and unthinking believing churchgoer for as long as I lived in my parents’ home. There I endured the prayers and rituals and kitschy teachings that all seemed Natural and interesting enough at the time (though thanks to the way You Guys have explained it, I’m now horrified by such ritual child abuse!). I sang in choirs; read the Bible and other religious mumbo-jumbo on my own; attended one or another of Nietzsche’s tombs on Sundays together with biologically related members of my Species. During those years, I must stress again, I was not embarrassed or ashamed of any of this (most cradle Dulls are not), still less understanding of the damage it was doing.

Then came the first, if temporary, break with all that: I went off to an American university for four years (!). There I luxuriated for the first time in the fierce light of Bright ideas, and knew briefly that happy atheist disregard for a great many things that bothered me both before and since.

So far, so American-believer typical. But here’s where my story starts to get twisted. In my second year I was assigned by sheerest Chance to an academic advisor who started me astray. An “agnostic” rather than an “atheist” — a distinction I now know to be a warning bell, though I didn’t then! — this retrograde professor saw to it that I took something that in retrospect appears to be a real potential hassle for Our side: i.e. a class in formal, symbolic logic. Some of You know might know what I mean here: the system made up of “A” and “not-A” and soundness and validity and proofs and all the rest of that superstitious stuff started by Aristotle and buffed up by the medievals.

And this introduction to logic, I have no doubt in retrospect, was the beginning of my years of sliding away from the ideas of the Brights and back into the religious wilderness. The funny thing is, I wasn’t much interested in religion one way or another during those years. It’s just that some contrarian little reflex, apparently kick-started by that introduction to logic, kept twitching inside here and there whenever the subject of god vs. godlessness came up — and time and again it seemed to say that atheism wasn’t answering some pretty big questions.

Like, one contradiction that waved its hand whenever I thought about atheism starts what looks like a simple question: Where was all this God-believing business coming from in the first place? Why was it that — with the exceptions of a few Greeks, Spinoza, and a scattering of other atheist bravehearts whom one could easily name — practically all of human history has been inseparable from belief in some deity?

Now, this question of why human beings have been like this — always leaning toward gods, or “theotropic” as some of You like to say (I love Your big words!) — is trickier than it looks for Us. In fact it’s trickier I think than any of You Guys really understand, which is why it worries me so. For either one produces a satisfying reason for why, say, 99.99999999 percent of humanity has been wrong on that big issue while You have been right; or, failing that, one simply comes right out and says that the entire rest of the Species up to Oneself was stupid as a bag of rocks till the day before yesterday — a stance which does run the risk, or so I used to think, of looking just a teensy bit arrogant.