Interview with Mary Eberstadt
Family North Carolina MagazineSummer 2010
On Air With . . .
Mary Eberstadt is a popular social critic, who focuses her writings on issues about American society, culture and philosophy. She is a research fellow at The Hoover Institution, a consulting editor to Policy Review, and a contributing writer to First Things. She has written widely for these and other magazines and newspapers, including The Weekly Standard, The American Spectator, Commentary, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as the online journal, thecatholicthing.org. Mary has written several books, including Home-Alone America and the anthology, Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys. Her latest book is a work of fiction entitled, The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism, which takes a satirical view of atheism among young adults today.
The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Mary Eberstadt conducted by Bill Brooks, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council (NCFPC). An edited version of this interview aired in June 2010 on the NCFPC’s weekly radio program, “Family Policy Matters.” Mary discussed her new book, The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism. This interview can be heard at www.ncfamily.org/radioshow.html or on iTunes® Podcast Family Policy Matters.
You can download and listen to the interview here: Listen (.mp3) (.wma)
Bill Brooks: What inspired you to write The Loser Letters, which I believe is your first work of fiction?
Mary Eberstadt: Yes, it is my first work of fiction, and what inspired me was watching the debate going on for the last several years, a debate that was started by all the celebrity new atheists, you know, folks like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennet and a bunch more I could name. These are the people who have been writing best-selling books promoting atheism. And I noticed that although there were several attempts by believers to counter those arguments, these were very earnest attempts, very worthy and serious attempts, but watching it from the sideline, it seemed to me that what was really missing from this debate was something else, and that was humor. And so I wrote this book as a satire, hopefully to make people laugh, and also to make them think about it as they’re laughing.
BB: Well, I was going to say that you wrote The Loser Letters in the satirical style of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Why did you do this, and do you think the satire might be lost on some readers?
ME: Well, that’s always a risk of satire, but I was inspired, like so many millions of people have been, by the magnificent Screwtape Letters. I would say it only loosely inspired The Loser Letters. The stories are very different. My story is a very contemporary tale of a girl, who’s in her mid-20s. But, that said, what I was aiming for was something like the combination that C.S. Lewis gets across of traditional Christian apologetics on the one hand, and effective satire on the other hand. I found that combination really fascinating in The Screwtape Letters, and I was hoping to deliver something like that combination with The Loser Letters. Now, whether there are people who don’t get it, I suppose that’s possible, but at the same time, this book is not just a work of apologetics, it’s a book that tells a story of a character who I think is very recognizable to many of us, and I’m hoping that anybody can follow her story to the end, and see what happens to her.
BB: Well, the book is written in the form of letters from “A.F. Christian.” Tell us about her.
ME: Yes, A.F. Christian is the main character, and as I said she’s in her mid-20s. She is a worldly, bubbly troubled young woman, and like many millions of other people she has had the experience of growing up in a believing householdin her case a Christian householdand then she went to a university and lost her faith, and moved out into the wider secularized world. And in her case, as I think in many cases, bad things happen to her because of her move into this secularized world. And in telling her story, I’m trying to get across several things. One, you know, when the new atheists and other secular types go around saying that if we just throw out the Judeo-Christian rulebook, we’ll all be better off if we get rid of these silly old rules about sex and obligation and family and so on, we’ll all be liberated and happy. You know, this isn’t true, Bill. I mean it was one thing when Bertrand Russell and people of that generation long ago were making that kind of argument. But we have plenty of evidence in the advanced West today about what happens, especially to young women, in a secularized world that has disposed of its Judeo-Christian rulebook. And some of what happens to them is really awful, because they are easy targets for predatory men, and this is part of the story of A.F. Christian. And part of what I want readers to think about [is that] this debate between theism and nontheism isn’t just some philosophical debate. It’s a debate with ramifications for real world people like her.
BB: Does A.F. stand for anything or will readers have to read the book to find out?
ME: It does, it stands for A.F. Christian, or “A Former Christian.” That’s how she signs her letters. And the book consists of her writing letters, by name, to the new atheists, and telling them what she finds so wonderful about this atheist movement of theirs. In the course of the story we realize that nothing is quite as it seems.
BB: One of the terms you use in the book is the new atheism. What is it and how does it differ from the old atheism?
ME: Well you know in one way, Bill, I don’t think there’s very much difference in the sense that these new atheists don’t really have any new arguments on their side. They’re the same old arguments that atheists have been making about religion from time immemorial. On the other hand, there is something different, and that is the tone of all of this, and one of the reasons I wanted to address them by name and quote from their books the way I do is that I was trying to bring attention to just how belligerent, and condescending these writers are toward people who are religious believers.
In America today, and in the West generally, you can get away with that kind of condescension, because it’s somehow “okay” to attack believers, especially Christians, in a way that it would not be okay to attack certain other groups or minority groups. So these guys have taken full advantage of that, and the tone of some of their work is really beyond the pale, I think. And all you need to do to see that is to read the quotes, which is why I put them in the book.
BB: In the book you also discuss the “Brights” and the “Dulls.” Can you tell us about these?
ME: Oh yes, that’s actually a good example of what I’m describing. “Brights,” capital B, is a term that was made up by previous generations of atheists to describe themselves. They call themselves the “Brights.” Now if you think about that for just a minute, by implication if they are the “Brights,” then that suggests that the believers are somehow not bright. And so, in The Loser Letters I came up with the term “Dulls” to describe believers, because it stands to reason that if one side gets to be bright the other side has to be dull, right? So, in the book, in one of many examples of the inverted world of the book, the believers are known as “Dulls” and the atheists are known as “Brights.”
BB: Atheism, or more generally secularism, is prevalent in America’s academic institutions today, particularly among college professors. Why do you think that is?
ME: Well, there’re probably a lot of reasons for it. I think for one thing, believers have been increasingly drawn into their own worlds to profess their beliefs, and that includes Christian and other intellectuals, who now have a variety of campuses to choose from that are, you know, more simpatico to their beliefs. And that’s all to the good. But I think part of the effect of that has been to drain the public universities, and the big elite schools especially, even more of believers in the public square. There’s been a certain predominance of left-wing thought, in the humanities especially, for generations now, but most especially since the 1950s, that’s very congenial to secularists and atheists, and so, I think just as many believers feel drawn elsewhere, many atheists and secularists feel most at home on university campuses. So, I think that’s probably part of the reason for the bias as well.
BB: Mary, you briefly mentioned this earlier, but in the book you directly address several prominent real-life atheists by name, including Richard Dawkins. Why did you think it was important to call out these atheists by name, and how much influence do you think they have on our culture?
ME: Yes. First let me say, Bill, in calling them by name, I wasn’t intending anything personal. This book is not a personal attack on anybody. But, I did think it was important to focus on what they have focused on, and that is that these guys are now effectively celebrities. They’re beyond being writers. They are treated like rock stars on many campuses. I’ve heard this from students myself. I’ve seen it happen. They have created this whole celebrity culture around themselves that is actually kind of easy to lampoon. And that’s part of why the book is a satire instead of a straightforward treatment. So, that’s why they’re called by name, because just as Mic Jagger is a name, and John Lennon is a name, these guys have made themselves in effect names something like thatnames with a certain celebrity aura.
BB: In what ways could The Loser Letters encourage a dialogue between atheists and Christians?
ME: Well, to be perfectly honest I think that the hardcore celebrity atheists are probably going to be pretty tough to reach at this point because they have so much invested in the movement and invested in being belligerent toward Christians, especially. But that said, I think there are many, many more people out there who are just sort of wishy-washy secularists, who maybe don’t know very much about the influence of Christianity on Western history, which is another subject I touch on here and there in the letters. A lot of people listening to the new atheists think that religion has been nothing but a toxic influence on world history, and of course, nothing could be further from the truth so, I throw out a little bit of corrective fact in the way of “let’s talk about the church and its aesthetic legacy, let’s talk about the church and its legacy in the law, in jurisprudence, in philosophical thought, etc.” So, there’s a lot of positive stuff that people aren’t really paying attention to, and it’s another reason why I’ve felt compelled to write the book. Because, you know, the danger isn’t so much that we’re going to see an army of these belligerent atheists arise. It’s more that there’s already an army of people who are just sort of wishy-washy secularists and don’t know their history very well, and they’re going to let the new atheists write the script of what has happened in humanity. And I don’t think that should happen. I think we need to take some of that ground back.
BB: Mary, we continually hear from organizations that do polling on what’s happening with Christian young people who go off to college, and something like 80 percent of students who go in as Christians come out the other side as atheists or agnostics, or in some way have shed their Christian faith….
ME: I’m very well aware of this phenomenon you describe, and I think it’s a fascinating phenomenon the way so many kids no matter how devout their households or how much they know about their religion they still, if they go off to a secular campus, tend to have their faith just sort of dribbled out of them. It may not be as dramatic as an atheist conversion, but plenty of kids, millions of kids a year, lose their faith on campus. And I think that’s really interesting, and important. And in writing this book and trying to tell this story with humor, I’m trying to give kids like that, students like that, ammunition, because I think they do often feel overwhelmed at these secular campuses, and they need to keep in mind where they come from and the fact that there’ve been many centuries of Christian apologetics dealing with exactly the same questions they deal with. They may not always know that, but again, I’m hoping that using a light touch, I can put some of that information into their hands and hopefully make some folks think.
BB: Mary, over the years I’ve had an opportunity to talk with numerous young people who are headed off to college, and I’ve pretty much told them one thing in the end, if they’re Christians, and that is, “You either go as a missionary or you become a mission field.”
ME: That’s very wise, and I’m sure that’s true. Little by little, with enough critical mass these students can find each other, and I think in a perfectly interdenominational way they can do that. But somebody has to be willing to step forward in the public square first, and say, “join me here.” And I think on many campuses there are many students looking for that, and to the extent that this book in a modest way can put a little bit of energy and ammunition into the hands of some people like that, it’ll be gratifying.
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