Thursday, August 19, 2010

Absurdities Which Only Rationalists Believe

Book Review

The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death and Atheism
By Mary Eberstadt
(Ignatius Press, 2010)

Mary Eberstadt, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, has written a wickedly devastating critique of the New Atheism. The book is simultaneously deep and humorous as each chapter is a "letter" written by a recent convert to atheism ("A.F. Christian"= A Former Christian) to leading New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris attempting to help these "Brights" (their own self-designation) offering them advice on how to win new converts to the cause. Each letter encourages the Brights to avoid a certain topic or area of life in which atheism can not succeed. By the end of the book it becomes clear that the New Atheism can succeed only by avoiding all significant areas of human life: Because of its embrace of materialism, reductionist evolutionism, pragmatism and moral relativism, it is incapable of actually sustaining a genuinely human form of life and must, in effect, live off a residual cultural Christianity.
A.F. Christian's first letter concerns sex. The New Atheists contend that society will be a lot better off when all of Christianity's sexual restraints are thrown off and we are finally able to enjoy complete sexual freedom. Christian notes that this has actually happened: the Sexual Revolution was a putting into practice of what the New Atheists want and the results have been devastating. From an explosion in the divorce rate to an explosion of pornography, from rampant sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) to post-abortion trauma in young women, the sexual morality of the New Atheism has been anything but liberating.
In another letter the subject of morality is addressed. Here Christian makes clear that the New Atheism is much better at pointing out the failings of Christians than it is in generating moral action. Since the New Atheists embrace Darwinism as a metaphysical principal, they have difficulty justifying what Christianity has excelled at: caring for the sick, the weak and the old. When New Atheists like Peter Singer begin to make the case for forcibly euthanizing the old and Steven Pinker begin to argue that the whole notion of "human dignity" is a fairly useless concept, it becomes clear that significant moral problems are just around the corner.
One of the best letters focuses on the problem of aesthetics and the inconvenient fact that the world's most beautiful music, art, poetry and architecture have all be motivated by religion. If this is the case, why is it that the New Atheists argue that religion is degrading and primitive? Why is it that they have nothing to offer in its place? And doesn't it seem that there is an essential connect between the religion and the artistic achievement, a connection which suggests an inherent human desire for transcendence?
Another letter raises the difficult issue of atheist converts to Christianity. If atheism is so sophisticated and the view to which the brightest of minds eventually arrive at, why are so many recent converts from atheism to Christianity people of such great abilities (G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Francis Collins, Alistair McGrath, etc)? If Christianity is so barbaric and irrational such conversion should not occur. But they do!
Eberstadt's argument against the New Atheism resembles G.K. Chesterton's argument against skepticism in his book Orthodoxy. She offers not so much a point by point refutation of New Atheist positions but a cosmic argument against it, an argument aimed at showing that if its premises are put into action we will find ourselves spiritually, morally, socially and aesthetically impoverished. To borrow a phrase from Orthodoxy, the New Atheism represents the kind of absurdity that only rationalists can believe in. Christianity does not lead us to irrationality but saves us from it.
This book belongs in the hands of every Christian high school and college student!

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