Written by Mary Eberstadt
(Ignatius Press, 2010), 150 pages
Reviewed by Amy MacInnis
* This review originally appeared in our Summer 2014 issue.
The concept of this book is great: critique the new atheism by satirizing the conversion of a young Christian to atheism and having her write letters of advice to the new atheists. Sounds like a contemporary version of C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, right? The only problem is Eberstadt’s execution. I could tell right from the first page’s awkward references to a rave and Facebook that The Loser Letters was not written by a Millennial. In fact, based on the year of her college graduation (1983), Eberstadt is either a late Baby Boomer or early Gen X-er. Thus, The Loser Letters is written from the outside looking in—or rather, one feels, from above looking down—which is unfortunate because it loses authenticity and credibility as a result, putting off people my age. Perhaps older readers would enjoy the way Eberstadt mocks things like college students and anorexia, but I doubt members of my generation would. Furthermore, not only are clumsy and overused phrases like “tard,” “doy,” “oh snap,” and “LOL” annoying, they make the fictional author of the letters seem moronic. Again, although this characterization of a Millenial may get laughs from older generations, unfortunately, I think it serves only to alienate a younger audience that could really benefit from the book’s underlying message.
After all, The Loser Letters makes some excellent points. The new atheists still attack traditional sexual morality, but unrestrained sex has been tried since the sexual revolution and found wanting. The new atheism presents itself as the counterpoint to illogical and unreasonable religion, but it has some serious holes, and religion has more intellectual merit than atheists would like to admit. There is less motivation for atheists to be moral, particularly to care for the marginalized. Theism inspires better art. There are more converts from atheism to theism than vice versa. The new atheism is not as attractive to those who, due especially to spousal and parent-child relationships, believe that love must be eternal. That religion is predominantly pro-life, unlike the new atheism, draws in young people. There is a slippery slope when it comes to issues of human dignity and atheists are more likely to go down that slope. People may turn to atheism to suppress guilt and justify sin. All of this goes to show that the new atheism flirts dangerously with the culture of death, and this is reflected by the main character’s conversion experience.
I do not disagree with what The Loser Letters is saying at bottom, but, overall, I dislike how it was said. Sure, there are a few excellent lines, a nice plot twist and some food for thought, but for me, The Loser Letters is too much of a caricature, both of its main character (and by extension its target audience, as I mentioned above) and of atheism. Part of the problem is that there are still serious atheists (I know some) who have reasons for unbelief that cannot be dismissed simply as idiotic or evil. Maybe many atheists are stupid and immoral; maybe many people of my generation are likewise. But is painting them as such really a good means of criticism, let alone evangelization? Furthermore, to my mind, good satire has an element of dead seriousness to it, which does not take the views of that which it satirizes lightly. Eberstadt’s version of satire was just too sneering for my taste. Then again, those who find sarcasm funny will likely have no problem with The Loser Letters, so don’t let my opinion sway you.