The Trouble with Good Works


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 hits control-alt-delete on National Review Online . . .

Dear Friends Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Onfray, Stenger & etc. again,

As I explained in my first Letter, I really do believe that one of the most important contributions I can make as a newly converted atheist is to let You know what is and isn’t working for our Side when it comes to winning the so-called hearts and minds of the rest of our Species. In some areas, as I observed about sex (!), it’s definitely better for us Brights just to change the subject and not to compete with the believers at all.

It’s like they keep telling me in here, some things are just bigger than you are, and there’s no point in even trying to pretend you’re in control. The same goes for Us atheists, too! Sometimes, You just have to cut your losses and hit control-alt-delete.

One big case in point is “good works,” or the question of who is more likely to be on good behavior with the lesser members of the Species, Us or the believers. And here, as a matter of general strategy, I cannot stress enough something that some of You are just refusing to get: We Atheists are much better off emphasizing what the other Side has done wrong than anything we Brights have done right.

After all, 2,000 years of Christianity have given us plenty of ammunition to train on our adversaries without Our having to fight loser battles in the field. I mean, appreciate our resources here! Here’s just some of what can throw in the Catholics’ faces alone: any number of popes, a way higher number of bishops, much of the faculty and administration at both Georgetown and Notre Dame, and — thanks to the latest round of priest-boy sex scandals — even whole orders and seminaries (You know the ones I mean) striving day and night to undermine the Church! There are all kinds of corrupt clergy who are doing more to give the Loser a bad name, just by the atrocity of their examples, than anything we atheists could possibly dream up or execute Ourselves. Not to mention all those influential lay websites and public figures who dish out awesome piles of Catholicism Lite. You know — the ones whose Catholicism amounts to cherry-picking what they like about the Loser’s books and leaving out all the parts they don’t! Seriously, how could We possibly confuse matters among the papists any more than they already have themselves?

And if the Catholic Church has been the cake, some of the Protestants have been perfect frosting. Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, John Hagee, Jeremiah Wright — have a little appreciation for how much preachers like these help Us out! Just think how much harder it was for our Side back in the beginning, when their stupid books were fresher in the Dull’s cerebral cortexes and the Christians were actually being all pious and suffering in the Coliseum and planting their butts more firmly on the quote moral high ground! Ditto, how about another little “thank you!” to those renegades like Warren Jeffs, who pop up alongside their 20 wives and 50 kids regular as desert clockwork, leaving us atheists to hoot and holler profitably about our biggest asset, “religious hypocrisy.” Talk about getting manna from Somewhere!

Add to those any number of historical fiascos whether real or exaggerated, and You’ll see that we atheists can undermine lots of believers, simply by emphasizing how badly a few of them have behaved — and again, we don’t need to get too far off the historical reservation to do it.

And if all else fails, just repeat after me like You’re Freddy Mercury or something: Galileo! Galileo! Galileo!

But we Brights don’t need to, and in fact shouldn’t ever, take the unnecessary 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.

But would any of You have listened? Ahem? Unfortunately, just about Nobody has grasped the point.

Here is Mr. Daniel Dennett, for example, waaaaaay out on the very limb I’m warning about: “There is no reason at all why a disbelief in the immateriality or immortality of the soul should make a person less caring, less moral, less committed to the well-being of everybody on Earth than somebody who believes in ‘the spirit’” (italics are His). And Mr. Sam Harris, same: “The fact that faith has motivated many people to do good things does not suggest that faith is itself a necessary (or even a good) motivation for goodness.” Everybody, and not just You guys but others in the history of our Movement, seems to agree about this: the believers must not be allowed to claim that religion at its best makes people behave well — or even better than they would behave without it.