Mar 27, 2010

Hitch, Hazel Motes, and The Loser Letters, Pt 1

This week I've been wondering whether, in the back of Christopher Hitchens's mind, Jesus is "a wild ragged figure" moving "from tree to tree," motioning Hitch to "turn around and come off into the dark where he's not sure of his footing." I hope so, because I'm a Hitchens fan, except when he's talking about God (the only subject he doesn't seem to know much about).

It's an odd thing, probably, to wonder whether Hitchens is like the Christ-haunted Hazel Motes, the freakish hero of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, who leaves--and doesn't leave-- his revivalist roots to start "the Church Without Christ."

Let me explain. (Though I warn you, it will take me two posts until I return to Wise Blood and the wild ragged figure haunting the recesses of Hazel Motes's mind).

Last week I happened to read two really interesting pieces of fiction. While in the middle of O'Connor's 1952 novel, I had the pleasure of picking up Mary Eberstadt's recent The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism (Ignatius 2010), a satire in the form of letters written by a fervent atheist convert to the New Atheist leaders (Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, et al), encouraging them to shore up some of their weaker arguments. In the course of the book, Eberstadt winsomely exposes the fundamental premises of the New Atheism as problematic, to say the least. At 145 pages, it was a quick and interesting read.

In the tradition of the Screwtape Letters, Eberstadt plays hip, young Devil's advocate, advising the Four Hoursemen-- because "this new Atheism hasn't actually convinced anyone"-- how to get more converts.

In her first seven chapters, Eberstadt, with a mix of snarky backhanded compliments, funny, Twitter-gen slang, and simple logical argument, addresses seven basic problem areas for the new Atheism:

Sex. In her first substantive letter, Eberstadt's convert opines that Atheists run the risk of losing the younger generation "because everybody on the godless team writes about sex . . . as if the all the years from 1960 on never existed."

"So in this letter I'd like to draw Your attention to just some of the legacy of the Sexual Revolution, in the hopes of making our Movement less vulnerable to the unfortunate facts." These facts begin with "the experience of most people who have passed through the godless generation." In short, universal experience in the wake of the sexual revolution has shown that "throwing out all the rules has actually been making a lot of people very miserable indeed." She asks, "You all do know some women, don't You?" (BTW, you can read most of this letter on the Loser Letters website).

The Existence of Belief. If you're going to argue that most of humanity has been wrong about the existence of God, you need to have a compelling reason, besides "the entire rest of the Species up to oneself was stupid as a bag of rocks til the day before yesterday." In addition, why would folks make up a God as demanding and judgmental as the Christian God?

Good Works. In short, "the actual evidence for claiming that Atheism will do as much good in the world as Christianity and other religions is embarrassingly against us." This chapter is like shooting ducks in a barrel, and Eberstadt has some fun with it.

Art. Eberstadt handles the basic problem of atheist aesthetics very well, and humorously, noting over and over again the connection between beauty and transcendence. Along the road, she takes a few not-so-cheap shots: "And against all this . . . artistic excellence, what exactly do we Atheists bring to the table? The Brooklyn Museum of Art? Elton John? Your books? Freak dancing? Rammstein?" Funny.

Atheist Converts to Christianity. She mentions, among others, C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath, Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, G.K. Chesterton, Anthony Flew, Mortimer Adler, and Francis Collins.

Families. Chapter Six of LL is entitled "Query: Do Atheists Know Any Women, Children, or Families?" It is my favorite chapter, as Eberstadt does a great job making simple a central and complex observation about religious faith. "Nobody on our side," she says, still playing the atheist, "really seems to get what it is that drives so many of the believers to [God] in the first place":

What is that thing? It's that most people live in families, and that most experience religion through and because of their family members . . . . That's what Atheist anthropology isn't getting, don't you see? Nobody really settles the big issues like You all imply they do-- like they're some Ayn Randian Ubermenschen sitting by themselves in a garret, say; or the last emo scragglebeard left alive on Lost, stuck on some mountain someplace and trying to piece out [God's] existence on their lonesome own.

She follows with a wonderful discussion of the familial bonds and what they do to the purely materialistic, mechanistic worldview.

Life. Chapter 7 deals with the "moral high ground" on the abortion issue, and the topic is clearly in Eberstadt's sweet spot.

The Loser Letters is short, fun, interesting, and right. I thought that her last several chapters, tying the philosophy into the personal story of the narrator, were a bit uneven-- at times compelling and beautiful, at times contrived-- but they were full of insight, wit, and truth like the rest of the letters.

Pick up the book and learn a thing or two, having some fun while you're at it.

Tomorrow, I'll explain how reading The Loser Letters in the midst of reading Wise Blood, like eating garlic toast on top of a chocolate shake before bedtime, caused me to dream of Christopher Hitchens as Hazel Motes.

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