Editor’s note: This is the tenth and final edition of “The Loser Letters” on National Review Online. Click here and start from the beginning.
Dearest Leading Atheist Saviors (as it were),
Major big day here in this funky psychobuggin’ rehab place, Guys! Today I’ll finally meet with the Director, and find out where they’re sending me next!
Now on the one hand, I’m totally psyched about all that. There’s nothing like that first day out of rehab to make You feel alive, know what I mean?! At the same time, I’m shaking just a little in my flip-flops. Do you think they’re really going to let me go home (wherever that is now)? I’m not sure how. I haven’t seen the outside of this place since I got here. I don’t even know if they have one of those uh-oh buses for getting back and forth, like any normal rehab would have.
But never mind about what happens next, Guys — we’ll stress out about that later! The important Fact for now is that since I am leaving one way or the other, this has to be my last Letter to You about Our new atheism. And it’s one You really, truly need to read, even if it’s a little long and You might want to print it out for Your friends so Nobody writes in complaining again because they missed certain plot details(!). It’s about an absolutely critical subject — in fact, what for many of the believers is the most critical subject standing between us Brights and them.
Let me start by saying that I hope Nobody got too bummed about my last Letter. I realize it was not exactly the most happy-bo-bappy story ever posted on the web. But the thing is, I really had to go into all those details — You know, about how Mom died, and my honking dork ex-BF Lobo walked out on me, and how I had a You-know-what instead of having Hypothetical Daughter (H.D.), all within a just few months of each other. And I also had to fill You in on what happened next, i.e. my substance-laced “party of one” that last night in Portland, which is what landed me in this weird detox slammer or whatever it is that I am.
Now, I wouldn’t ordinarily go into all those personal details with some random bunch of Guys on the Internet. But the reason I had to do it with You particular Guys — i.e., You most popular atheists on the whole Planet — is because exactly that story brings me to the point of this last Letter. The problem for atheism that my story illustrates ridiculously well goes like this: Why did I feel the way I felt in Portland about letting down Mom before she died? Why did I feel so totally hideous about what I did to H.D.? What’s the meaning — or even just any plausible Natural purpose — of the Human enigma called personal guilt?
I know what Your first thought is, of course! You want to explain that feeling of guilt away. You want to say it’s just some vestigial Adaptation that we Humans needed once and don’t need anymore, like an appendix or a tailbone or a novel by Ayn Rand. But that kind of response just begs the question. The point here — as my own case goes to show, and plenty more starting with A for Augustine can too — is that this feeling of personal guilt can be highly destructive of a Human Organism. It’s Disadvantageous to Human survival in the extreme. It’s just not the sort of Trait You’d expect to find in any creature who is truly ruled by selfish Genes at all.
Okay, maybe You want to take some other tack — like saying I felt “guilt” because my mind had been poisoned by useless Dull superstitious toxic crap about how certain things are quote sins, when in Fact as Science has shown they’re all perfectly fine. If only I had been as unflinching secularist as You, Everybody might be thinking, I would have understood that a blob of cells has been firmly established to be no big deal — it’s just a blob of cells and nothing more.
You could say all that — and if I had still been a practicing Dull, some of it might even have made sense. But again, the Facts are otherwise. As I told Everybody already, by the time I exercised my quote freedom of choice there in Portland that day two months ago, it had actually been years since I’d been a Christian in anything but name only. Remember, I went all the way through a typical American college! Following which I spent two years shacked up with scumolicious Lobo! Who was not exactly a poster person for the Loser and his laws under any circumstances, let alone once we both got back into the sauce and the drugs.
I mean to say, by the time I went to Planned Parenthood that day, I was as empty of religious superstitions as any former believer can be. So why, again, did I feel as ripped up about what happened as I did? I mean, shouldn’t Nature have designed me to be happy about getting rid of something that was going to interrupt my life? Wouldn’t You think, given all Our theories about Survival, that a gene for putting nasty things behind You, and fast, would have been Selected by now?
Why should I feel regret, if H.D. was only what You say she was? I don’t cry when I get a pedicure! I don’t go home and chop and snort a weeks’ worth of Lobo’s Ritalin prescription after I’ve just had a haircut! Just look at what happened to my measly little life — all because of that guilt over Mom and H.D. Do You know, I think took so much stuff that last night in the apartment that I could have died? I get all shivery just thinking about that one. Because despite everything that’s happened, and without even having a reason for it, I seriously don’t want to die. I just wanted the remorse to stop.
Why, if Evolutionism is right and the Loser is wrong, should there be any place in the otherwise oh-so-sophisticated scheme of Natural Selection for a Trait as useless and powerful and inefficient and self-destructive as Human guilt? Nobody who’s an atheist talks about that, anywhere! And the problem is, Guys, that while we Brights don’t, the most strategically dangerous of the Loser’s heavier hitters do — because they totally get that the existence of shame and guilt does more to put people in touch with the Loser than any other force.
Their idea, as Our mortal enemy Phillip E. Johnson once put it, is that “the heartfelt admission that there is a moral law and that we have violated it is often the first step that brings the unbeliever to faith.” They believe, along with another mortal enemy, Fulton Sheen (R.I.P. — not!), that “Every man and woman alive experiences a sense of guilt when he breaks a natural law.” The R.C.s have whole centuries of brainos lined up who have done nothing but develop what they call this “natural law” stuff, starting somewhere around Paul and hitting a major Leap with Aquinas and on into our own day with plenty of names You may not know but who trust me know all about Your ideas — in addition to Weigel and Novak and Neuhaus and some others I’ve mentioned, dangerous guys like J. Budziszewski and Robert George and Germain Grisez and more.
And it’s not only the professional Christians who believe that guilt is inborn. Sheen, making the point that the experience of remorse is universal, quotes old Seneca saying that “Every guilty person is his own hangman.” He quotes Shakespeare going, “Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” James Q. Wilson, who is probably the leading Social Scientist in America, wrote a whole book in 1993 on this same idea — that “we have a moral sense [and] most people rely on it even if intellectuals deny it.” And this notion that there’s an inborn moral code “written on the heart,” in that traitor Paul’s phrase, is exactly what leads many people to theism — because theism and theism alone accounts for the otherwise Evolutionarily preposterous Fact of Human guilt.
Now You Guys all know me by now! By zeroing in on this problem of Natural Law, I’m not saying Our Movement isn’t vulnerable on other fronts. That’s why I wrote those first nine Letters You know! As they all indicate, there are plenty of people out there taking issue with atheism in other ways, and some of those treacherous Loserites have Synapses and Neurons that fire at least as fast as Yours. If You ask me, given the sheer volume of complaints we’re generating, we Brights need to get more strategic about our targets. How about jumping up and down on Kathryn Jean Lopez’s Blackberry for starters! Every little bit will help You know!
Now, I know from some of Your friends who’ve been writing me that some perfectly earnest nonbelievers don’t approve of Your ferocity toward the Dulls. For those guys, godlessness is just part of the personal Ecosystem they share with their peers — no more demanding than deciding between one recycled paper towel and another, say, or what to get from Netflix tonight. Furthermore, they don’t think their atheism has much downside. They don’t think that by walking away from religion, they’re going to jettison anything major that they might want back some day — morality, ethics, human dignity, that kind of thing. For reasons explained in Letter Eight, as You know, I think there’s plenty of Evidence that those nice-guy kind of Brights are wrong about that particular bet.
But whether they’re easygoing secularists or Dawkins-thumping major believers like You, militant Loser-haters or just fellow travelers, nobody out there on the godless team has answered the question in any way that makes Scientific sense: why do Humans feel shame and guilt in the first place? And that failure, to be honest, has me very worried. I’m worried for Our new atheism, of course. But I’m also worried about me. Somewhere inside, I’m worried that something Michael Novak says in his horrible new book, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, might be true:
…I have come to understand what the Jewish Testament and the Christian Testament teach us about God, about human beings, and about ourselves is a truer account of reality than any other I have ever encountered. Much as my atheist friends will loathe it and mock it, I have tested this judgement in living and found it to ring true. It better meets the facts of my own reality, and the urgent inquiries of my own mind, and better turns aside thrusts intended to wound it and to destroy it, than any other account I have discovered.
That’s what I’m afraid of, Guys — that something like the Dulls’ quote natural law does more to explain “the facts of my own reality” than anything I can find in all Our godlessness. I don’t want to up the ante on Anyone, but I haven’t much time left in here. If atheism can’t explain my feelings of guilt and remorse, which after all are the most powerful feelings I have, then I might have to go back to the Side that does have an explanation for them — and I don’t want that! Too much uncomfortable explaining to do there!
So please put on Your thinking caps, Guys, and fast. I’m happy to be Your Human guinea pig for some new atheist explanation for guilt. (You know I don’t mean that in a Peter Singer sense!) But can Somebody please try and come up with something pronto?
One of those creepy gray-robed attendants is knocking now, so I guess it’s time to go see the Director. Everybody cross Your fingers for me, okay? Don’t worry — I’m still Your biggest fan ever! Nobody’s more attached to this atheism than I am, word, Guys! Nobody, and I mean nobody, needs it more!
[Editor’s note: At this point there is a break in the Word document. The next keystroke occurs two hours later.]
Dearest atheist brothers,
I know you won’t believe these next few pages, and I probably wouldn’t either if I hadn’t been there. “Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears of little value,” like somebody you might want to read someday says somewhere. But I do want to get this all down before I go, because it’s the craziest thing ever and I know I’m going to want to remember it over and over! Even if nobody else out there does get it. Even if no one reads this but you.
So here’s my story. When the freakazoid robotic attendant thing came to get me, he/she/it didn’t take me straight to the Director’s office like I expected. Instead, we went the other way — down to the ward where the crack babies are kept. At least I’ve always assumed they were crack babies, because I’ve never seen a rehab with as many infants as this one has. I had a spooky feeling all over just for starters. Then the attendant opened a door and brought me over to a crib and handed me — I am not making this up — a baby. And not some pathetic plastic doll like I found in Portland, either. I mean a real, breathing, pink baby in pink bunting, reaching out her teeny tiny fingers for me.
So I asked the attendant, how old is that baby, and the attendant thing said, two months exactly. Well what are the Chances of a coincidence like that!!!??? You know that’s exactly how old H.D. would have been now, if the due date was right!! And I was just so blown away I couldn’t believe it!!!
So I asked could I just touch her fingers, and without saying anything the metro gray thingy put the baby in my arms. And of course I just bawled my eyes out like I was coming off my first binge! I kissed her little eyelids and played with her toes like a hundred times, and she did all the baby things that we’re all “wired” to react to just like you guys are always saying, cooing and smiling at me. She even patted my arm on the exact spot where there’s a tattoo of Lobo’s stupid name, you know, that he designed himself with a little green snake running through the two “O’s”.
And I told her how sorry I was about everything, and she just sort of smiled some more and went Zzzzzzz and Brrrrr and whatever else random baby kind of noises. And all the while the attendant just stood there looking at us through those weirdy unblinking eyes they all have and didn’t say a thing.
It was the freakiest moment ever! Because it seemed like it took forever and at the same time was over in a second, do You know what I mean? And I asked the attendant could I come back again and see the baby tomorrow, and he/she/it said I don’t know, it depends on what the Director says about where you’re going next. And I said I don’t care if I stay here forever as long as I can see her, because that’s how I felt.
But after a while the gray thingy laid a hand on my shoulder, and I understood without its saying anything that I had to put the baby back. I must have been crying like it was raining in there, because I could feel that my whole face was soaking salty. Still in we went to the midget Director’s office anyway, and the attendant sort of swooshed me into a chair next to him and left.
The first thing the midget did, and it really surprised me, was to take the silky edge of his red cape and wipe the wet crap off my face. Then he told me not to be scared of anything, including him, and that he doesn’t always look the way he does right now. He said that because of all the babies in this place, he makes himself into a midget when he’s visiting them so he’s more like their size and their level. He says he can do that with whoever is around if he wants to, put himself into whatever shape they need. Like apparently he can speak any language he wants, too, and change himself however he wants to make people comfortable.
I know! I told you! How crazy was that — and just for starters! Sure, there’s this midget who’s got my life in his hands, drying my eyes with the hem of his red cape and telling me he’s like some kind of alpha Animorph! Like I said, I wouldn’t have believed any of it either two hours ago. But it’s all true, and there’s even more.
He asked me if I knew where I was, and I said sure, some kind of super-secure rehab. Then he asked if I’d ever read Dante, and I was kind of taken aback. I mean it seemed so random! Now it’s true that I’d read plenty of the Loser’s apologists and quoted them to you guys, back when I was thought-stalking all their books in the effort to improve on your new atheism. But Dante just seemed so 14th century I didn’t think he even counted, know what I mean? I had the feeling the midget knew the answer already, but for some reason he wanted to hear it from me. Anyway I told him no, I hadn’t read Dante, and the midget just sort of nodded his head for a minute, then sat down close to me and took down his hood.
And that was like the freakiest thing of all, because I still couldn’t see his face! In fact I couldn’t see anything at all — just light, light, and more light, in every direction I tried. But it wasn’t light like we usually experience it; it felt liquid; only it wasn’t exactly liquid either, because I could even breathe it too. It felt like the most wonderful thing that ever had gotten into my lungs (and in my case you know, that’s saying a lot!) Then the midget started to talk again, and this time when he talked it was just like when I was holding H.D. — I just wanted it to go on, and on, and never, ever come to a stop.
You see, A.F., he said, this place you’re calling rehab is kind of like House. You like House, my dear, isn’t that right? And just like on the show, there are a bunch of really smart helpers in here — I call them the Messengers, though there are other names for them — and one of their main jobs is diagnosing the patients who come in.
Now the Messengers aren’t perfect, the midget continued — and here he gave some weird little snort — and as a matter of fact, between you and me, A.F., some of them can be pretty obnoxious. But they are quite knowledgeable about what goes on inside a person — far more knowledgeable than any of the patients here can be themselves.
And just as House’s job on the show is to let his posse take the first crack at diagnosing everyone who comes in — because that’s the only way they’ll ever learn to get better at it — that’s how it is with me and my posse, too, the midget continued. The Messengers go as far as they can and no farther. That’s where I come in, just like House always does eventually — to explain what they’ve done right or wrong, and to figure out what the patient needs next.
That’s what happened in here in your case, the midget explained. You showed up unexpectedly, and the Messengers had to decide what to do with you. And the most important things they had to figure out were, did you feel remorse about what happened with H.D.? And did you really mean to check out for good that last night in Portland when you took all those drugs? Because everything about what treatment you get next depends on those two things.
As it turned out from the rest of what he told me, the Messengers had quite a fight over my case! (I told you I didn’t like some of those fey buggy two-faced little Kabuki posers!!) And some of them said no, I didn’t mean to leave Portland for good, and others said yes I did. Just like some of them said I didn’t feel remorse about Mom and H.D., and some of them said yes I did too. So they talked it all over and finally took votes, and both times around the ones who were wrong won.
That’s why they gave me the Rosetta Stone German, the midget explained. It’s because there are only two places where people can go from here, and in one of them — called Stalag Eins — that’s the only language anybody is allowed to speak. And it was shortly after they did that that the midget stepped in. He suggested there was a better way for the Messengers to figure out what the truth was than taking votes on it. He said that if I wrote out all these Letters to you, they’d all be able to see exactly what I was thinking at the times in question. He said that after reading the first half of today’s Letter — which apparently they did while I was holding that baby — they took another vote; and this time around, even the creepy sneaky metro backstabbing Messengers (my words, not the midget’s) were unanimous about where I go next.
Holy crap guys — I can’t believe the midget watches House! Can you? But he sure seemed to know everything about it. He knows about lots of other random things too, as it turned out. He loves Johnny Cash, for instance. And guess what — I even asked him about the red cape and where he got it from! He gave a little laugh about that — he said nobody ever asked him before — and told me it was actually quite new. He saw one like it in a shop window in Rome that he liked, so he told some Polish friend of his named Karol. And when the Polish guy checked in here a couple years ago, he brought a red cape just like that with him for the midget! How cool is that?!
Oh, and speaking of Italy, how cool is this: The Director also told me that where I’m going next — someplace called La Terza Sfera, which he says is as far away from Stalag Eins as it’s possible to get — they also only speak one language! And guess what: it’s Italian! He gave me the Rosetta Stone kit for that, instead, as a good-bye present. Isn’t that AWESOME?
You say it’s all absurd, I know. And it is! But compared to what? The idea that the chronological line from the lungfish, say, to a Bach sonata is somehow straight and self-evident? That a Shakespearean play really is just a matter of mathematical inevitability? That H.D. really was just a blob of cells? Or that the feeling that only grows in every man and woman as they get older, according to which their loves are infinite even as their time is increasingly finite, actually signifies nothing, nothing, nothing — nothing at all–despite the fact that something deep down inside almost everybody says otherwise?
If it’s any consolation though, I really did enjoy writing those Letters to you all! I don’t need them any more I guess, so they’re yours to keep. Feel free to put them in the paperback editions of your books, everybody!
BTW, the Director also said that Mom and I — Mom! — could come here and get H.D. and take her back to our place for a tea party any time we wanted to. He said we could have real cake, too, this time, because in La Terza Sfera they don’t serve any crappy Little Debbie cookies. In fact he said it would be the best cake I’ve ever tasted. And after everything I’ve seen, I believe Him.
No longer yours! Ciao ciao ragazzi (guys)!
P.S. Even if we aren’t BFF’s anymore, could you guys do me one little favor? I mean seriously, nobody’s spent more time on your books than I have, and it’s just a tiny thing!
If you see Lobo around anywhere, could you please tell him for me to stay away from his friend at the Internet café who gives him all those supposedly hot books and ideas? Because the Director told me he knows that guy, too. It turns out he’s only moonlighting there in Portland, you know. His real job is running Stalag Eins. How seriously stalking creeptastical not good is that?!