Politics & Policy

Some Little Contradictions and How They Grew


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.

Not that that stops some atheists from risking it! Bertrand Russell, for one, argued pretty much just that in his famous essay, “Why I am Not a Christian.” He declared religion to be based “primarily and mainly upon fear….Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.” Many other Brights believe the same, I know, including some of You. “Fear, terror and anguish,” says major French atheist Michel Onfray, are “the devices designed to create divinities.”

It’s not like I’m saying He’s wrong, of course! But once again, if You’ll just let me explain from the point of view of a former Dull, it sounds to other people like what we Brights are really saying is, “If most of humanity has turned to religion out of fearfulness, then I must be an exceptionally brave and brilliant person to reject that way out.” Well, maybe Voltaire and Baron d’Holbach and Bertrand Russell were just such beasts, and maybe some of You are too (especially that Mr. Dawkins — grrrrr!). But speaking as someone who is not, it seemed to me better to give some sort of other explanation for theotropism — I mean, something other than the “I’m a universal genius MUHAHAHAHA and I see things that other mere ordinary mortals don’t” kind of explanation. You know, 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 trenches, especially with girls; trust me.

Anyway, so if that first atheist answer to why religion exists at all doesn’t satisfy, how about the second one that some of You get behind? According to this other explanation, religion is not so much a reaction to bad things as a vain search for good ones — i.e., religion supposedly answers some deep need we have for, say, the God of the Old or New Testament. That’s what big swinging Forebears like Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud would have said — that religious beliefs “are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, most urgent wishes of mankind,” as S.F. once put it. In other words, the Loser is really just Daddy with a bigger wallet and more treats.

Now here’s why I never went along with that other big line of atheist argument, which I tell you as only a former Dull could: because nothing about it rings true. Because that kind of god, i.e. the Judeo-Christian god, is not remotely the kind of deity that I personally would invent to watch over me.

I mean, just think. In Mr. Dawkins’s much-quoted description of the Old Testament God in particular, that particular deity was “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” He’s quite a piece of work! Even when I “believed” in “him,” I’d have grudgingly acknowledged that a list like that has a point.

But don’t You see the problem here? The very character of the Judeo-Christian God that has given You such a romp with the adjectives actually turns out a pretty big problem for the Atheist side. The point Everybody’s missing is that this particular god is hard to live with — so hard that the atheist idea of his having been made up just for the supposed “consolation” of it all is just too LOL. Even at his best, he’s not the sort of supernatural easily cuddled up to. As Graham Greene’s fallen whiskey priest puts it in The Power and the Glory, making the point that even god’s “love” is pretty scary stuff, “It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.” And a Female human like me, too. That’s how I felt even back then, the few times when I bothered to stop and think about it.

So You see, this very scariness of this Judeo-Christian god is seriously bad for Us — or at least bad for the atheist claim that he was invented by people to make them feel better. Because if the human purpose that keeps calling the Loser into existence is some deep search for comfort — if he is just supposed to be some big cosmic Prozac, or a blankie in the sky — I have to tell you this god is seriously not cutting it for me, and not just for me but for a lot of other people as well.

Now on the other hand, a deity who would let me smoke and drink as much as I want, drop five pounds without going a-rex again, string up that bee-ach judge from juvie court (long story), send my boyfriend packing on the grounds that we Humans aren’t “hardwired” to be married for life (so true! But more about that later): now there’s a god this former believer could have gotten her head around! Who turns bread into iPod minis and water into Grey Goose — now we’re getting somewhere! That’s what I’m talkin’ about, if You know what I mean.

But the Loser? That pathetic deity who does nothing but talk about laws, laws, laws, just about every one of which seems aimed at thwarting what I want most at any given moment — that is, when he’s not talking about how I’m supposed to love, love, love…my enemies, of all retarded things? No, that’s not the sort of ultimate “wish-fulfillment” I have in mind at all. I mean, WTF (don’t worry, I won’t spell out the F-word, it’s a condition of my Internet use in here). I hope I’m not getting too personal or giving too much away. But again, I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks the wish-fulfillment theory is a crock because of items like this.

And so is this standard atheist comeback: i.e., that this Judeo-Christian god promises eternity, and that eternity is what the wish-fulfillment is really about; after all, who wouldn’t want to live forever? But the problem here is that the eternity offer, at least the one in Judaism and Christianity, has such crappy strings attached. Who’d want it? Ask Yourself which is more dreamy — a world with no Forever in which you can do whatever you want for as long as you live here; or one with a Forever that you might spend badly if you blow it here? Hmmm, let’s think about that…not; the answer is pretty obvious if what you want most is fun and games in the here and now. You don’t have to be a Natural Scientist to get that one right!

This brings us to one more problem that not one of You guys has addressed no matter how many Dull critics complain about it: All this atheist talk of wish-fulfillment furthermore dumps a big problem of its own down on our Side. After all, if metaphysics is something that humanity just wishes on itself for deep unconscious this-thing-is-bigger-than-the-both-of-us kind of reasons, then where does that fact leave our worldview, i.e. atheism?

As that professor Alister McGrath — a former one of Us who has gone totally over to the other side (don’t worry, I have a whole Letter about those convert traitor problem cases coming later) — has pointed out, the trouble with wish-fulfillment is that it raises the question of what atheists wish for, too. In other words, do we Brights want to abolish the Loser for reasons of our own — because that lets us off the hook to do whatever we please in this world? Is it possible that — as that totally outrageous public enemy Dinesh D’Souza has said — “the reason many atheists are drawn to deny God, and especially the Christian God, is to avoid having to answer in the next life for their lack of moral restraint in this one”?

I hate it when the believers turn Our ideas on their heads that way, don’t You? But You have to admit, there’s a kooky kind of sense in that criticism! That kind of potential embarrassment is one more reason to downplay the wish-fulfillment “theory,” or so this former believer totally advises.

Another problem with learning a bit of logic was this: just as it helped in locating where a real contradiction might be skulking, so did it illuminate other claims as being not contradictory, valid, invalid, and so on. And here again, atheism lost some points in my book for a while.

Take what some Brights have been making of the fact that there are lots of different religions in the world saying plenty of different things. Many of You have been right out front, going on and on about how all this religious diversity somehow “proves” that not one of those religions can be correct. But of course this is what’s called a fallacious inference. The presence of other religions doesn’t affect the truth value of any one of them — any more than having twelve answers to a math problem tells you which one is right, say, or having ten pairs of Manolo Blahniks tells you which ones to wear with a cheetah leather skirt.

And just as one can’t argue against any particular religion by pointing out that another one exists, neither can You really argue with a straight face anyway that god’s existence is somehow “disproven” by the complications of a bureaucracy of saints and clergy, or by the many commandments and rituals of Christendom, no matter how twisted and stupid they may be. I know C.S. Lewis isn’t anybody’s favorite writer here (mine neither!), but I have to admit he got at least this point across. The problem with arguing that Christianity is too complicated to be true, he pointed out, is that the objection doesn’t conform with the evidence of our everyday senses. In real life, just about everything of interest is complicated; why should religion be different? And not only that:

Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect. For instance, when you have grasped that the earth and the other planets all go round the sun, you would naturally expect that all the planets were made to match — all at equal distances from each other, say, or distances that regularly increased, or all the same size, or else getting bigger or smaller as you go farther from the sun….Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity….it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have.

Now back to our Movement! I bet that after all this constructive criticism of mine You’re all really starting to wonder how I learned to love atheism and ignore the contradictions! Aren’t You? I hope so!! Well, all I can say for now is that it goes to show that there are plenty of things in life that are more important than logic — and they don’t all come from a locked medicine cabinet, either! Not to worry Guys — as Michael says to Pop in The Godfather, “We’ll get there.”

Before that though, I want to take us on another detour into some other rhetoric that we atheists need to jettison and fast, because even the Dulls are beginning to realize how We’re handing them plenty of ammunition with it: i.e., what the losing Side would call the question of “good works.”

Adaptively (and Helpfully!) Yours,

A.F. Christian

Editor’s note: A. F. will be back with another LETTER on NRO next Friday at noon.

Mary Eberstadt — Ms. Eberstadt has written for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including National Review, Policy Review, The Weekly Standard, Commentary, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, First Things, and the American Spectator.


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