Letter One: The Trouble with ExperienceMARY EBERSTADT
A wickedly witty satire, The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death and Atheism chronicles the conversion of a young adult Christian to atheism. Amid the many current books arguing for or against religion, social critic, and writer Mary Eberstadt's The Loser Letters is truly unique: a black comedy about theism and atheism that is simultaneously a rollicking defense of Christianity.Dear Sirs (again),
As I get it, our Atheist position on sex boils down to this: the believers with their tard regulations are all wrong about it, while we Brights have been – I'm reaching here for the words that You guys might use – so groovy and hip by throwing out the Christian rule book on all that stuff. Or to put it another way: thanks to Atheism and Secularism, more generally, words and phrases like "privacy", "consenting adults", and "behind closed doors" are in; and ones like "monogamy", "self-restraint", and "staying together for the kids" are out. If there's anything we Brights are all on the same page about – and again, I've read all those pages of Yours pretty carefully! – it would seem to be this; am I right?
Now, as a fresh convert myself, who is in a more or less delirious state at all times just thinking about what my new Atheism will mean for my personal life now that I've been freed from all those commandments, I'm certainly not here to argue with You about the appeal of doing what comes Naturally. At the same time, though, I have to warn You about something. A lot of what the new Atheism says about sex strikes me as strategically dangerous to us – the kind of talk that runs the risk of turning off some of the very believers, especially the younger believers, who might otherwise be tempted to switch over to our side.
Let's start with that generational difference between You new Atheists and some of the rest of us. Did Your parents ever leave home for the weekend when any of You were kids, putting You in the care of teenage siblings? Do You still remember the two-day nonstop party, and the expressions on Your parents' faces Sunday night when they saw the overflowing ashtrays and empty kegs and someone else's clothes in the laundry and throw-up in the fish tank? Well, You should know that's pretty much what it was like for those of us who went through life after You baby boomers did, a decade or so after what might be called the godless generation swept through first.
And this brings us to why Atheists run the risk of losing among this younger generation when You talk about sex the way new Atheists all have so far: because everybody on the godless team writes about sex and freedom from the religious moral rules as if all the years from I960 on never even existed. As if the Sexual Revolution hadn't been staggering along for nearly a half century now! Hello? Well, for better or worse from the point of view of our side, it has. And what that means is that all kinds of people now know that if we try and make a selling point out of trashing Christian sexual morality – as Atheists have been doing since the beginning – a whole lot of Dulls today are going to raise their hands and call us losers again on the subject of sex and say that we don't know what we're talking about. 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.
We can begin where most Americans really begin to learn about sex, i.e., on the typical American campus of the past few decades. To live it is to see up close and personal that Dostoevsky's mantra – when "God" is gone, everything is permitted – is not some lame old literary prophecy, but a vibrating social fact. Of course, by saying "everything" is permitted on campus I don't literally mean everything, after all; these upper-middle-class children, some still wearing braces and nearly all still depending on their doting parents for every library fine, have for the most part proved unlikely to take up mass murder or grand theft auto. But the part of "everything" that involves everybody's favorite something, i.e., risk-and-supposedly-consequence-free sex (or at least the promise thereof), has been different.
Looking back to my own years at the university, I'd say that if the place had had to choose a motto in English, likely the fittest would have been "Let copulation thrive!" if You know what I mean (and I bet You do!). And the connection between all this furtive fun behind doors and the absence of any public religiosity was quite obvious, at least to this former Christian. It wasn't just the deity who'd taken a hike off the quad, of course; authority in practically any form had disappeared along with Loser. But there's no doubt that "God" above all just wasn't done. In four years, I met one student who openly attended church, and the subsequent number I have uncovered were doing so more or less samizdat. That's what I'm trying to explain about this. The place was as pure as any Atheist's dream, as deity-free as the Bravo channel on Sunday morn (or any other time!).
Now why is any of this a problem for the Atheist side? Doy. First, the fact of what's been happening on campus all these years means that we Brights can't very well go around like the Communists always tried to, and say that the problem with our vision is that it "hasn't really been tried". No, Secularism/Atheism, when it comes to sexual mores anyway, has been tried, is being tried, and the empirical fact is that what's happening on campuses is what sex and "romance" look like when we Brights get our way and dispose of all those silly religious rules – two, three, many Charlotte Simmonses.
And if the campuses don't do it for You, take a look at what Secular sex is doing in post-Christian western Europe! Pornography is everywhere, over-the-counter medicines for STDs are front and center in every convenience store, red-light districts showcase poorer and younger people (mostly from the East) being paid for every possible combination of sex by richer and older people (mostly from the West), the age of consent keeps getting pushed lower – and marriage and children and families are disappearing.
Please don't misunderstand me here – I'm not saying it isn't all fantastic! I'm just saying something none of You mentioned when You talked about sex, which is that this is what things look like when we Atheists get our way.
See? That's Secularism for you; that's what it does. You can stand on your hind limbs like a proud biped and applaud it; you can pretend it is something other than what it is; you can say with a straight face that you're happy to send your own daughters into that kind of world, that you don't care how many men or women or even what Species she sleeps with – or what her partner devours for hours on end on the computer when she's asleep – as long as they are all somehow "responsible" about it; but that's pretty much the limit of what the facts will allow us to do.
What You can't do, any more than I could back in my Christian days, is to pretend that this atmosphere on campus, any more than the sterility of western Europe today, is somehow accidental to the absence of religious practice. Of course the two are glued together. Secularism is as Secularism does.
The second point I'd urge You all to consider – and, again, it's not the kind of thing guys of Your age might know, if You'll pardon my saying so – is that when we Atheists say with a straight face that deep-sixing the old sex rules will make everybody happy, we're dissing the experience of most people who have passed through college since the godless generation. I mean to say, that's pretty much everyone under the age of fifty. The Gen Xers on down have all seen firsthand the same things this former Christian did – that all this rutting and strutting and getting free contraceptives and living for the moment was not exactly the way Atheists all paint it in their books, i.e., as some fantastic liberation from the sexually repressive hand of the doddering Church.
Oh snap! In fact, and to the contrary, throwing out all the rules has actually been making a lot of people very miserable indeed – to say nothing of how miserable plenty of them were making other people. Maybe You somehow weren't around for all the hangovers and detoxing, the panicked trips to the shrinks and the clinics, the door slammings, and crying jags and suicide threats that so many of us think about when we think about college; but some of the rest of us saw enough to get pretty sick of all that and were tempted to think that a rule or two about how some members of the Species ought to treat others might not be all bad. It was mostly worse for the women than for the men, I'm thinking – which reminds me of something else that's the subject of a later Letter: You all do know some women, don't You? – but it wasn't so great for plenty of the guys, either.
So You see, one other reason for my own former resistance to Secularism and Atheism – and a big reason why many other believers resist us too – was just this: it seemed plain as the ring in my nose that the so-called Sexual Revolution, which is celebrated to a man (again, not a typo; more on that later too) by every Atheist, turned out not to be the benign bacchanal everyone said it would be; it was not the nonstop party of so many panting descriptions; it was not even the "Love Shack" of the B-52's; it was instead, from the point of view of many of the believers, proof that Secular so-called morality once unleashed would do some real damage in the world.
I mean, even Christians can count on their fingers, You know, about things like the number of peers from broken homes who seemed to have "issues" that the ones from intact homes didn't; the number of girlfriends unhappy about their abortions, their sexually transmitted diseases, their inability to treat men as dispos-ably as they were treated themselves; the number of men who turned out to make particularly crappy boyfriends because they'd been around the block one or ten or twenty too many times; the number of marriages split by the kinds of things consenting adults do when they're consenting with people outside of it – all just for instance.
Does any of this sound familiar? I'm sure it doesn't, because it's a part of sexual reality that Atheists never mention! But that's exactly why I'm harping on it. If our Movement is really going to go around arguing that the sooner we get rid of all those rules, the happier humanity is going to be, we're going to get blown away by this kind of counterevidence. It's enough to make You envy Bertrand Russell and all the Atheists who came before us, isn't it? Who were able to paint a happy face around all those things that didn't exist yet? Well, unfortunately we in the twenty-first century can't pretend we don't know.
The third point is that it's another very bad fact for our side that if people actually followed Dull sexual teaching, this would be a better and happier world than one in which they did not. (Note that I'm not including myself in there! As St. Augustine should have said, "Make them good, God, not me!" But You have to admit, there's a lot to be said for having the rest of the Species play by the rules.) Even worse, it suggests to some of them that the Dulls are on to something with this notion of natural law. Of course we Atheists should call it unnatural law, since nothing could be more foreign to our biological imperatives! But the odd thing is, again, that if everyone lived under their unnatural law, an awful lot of people would seem to be better off than they are now – and this is even true of the most controversial teachings, the ones You all most enjoy snickering at.
For example, if You had asked me back in my Christian days questions like: Would those girls have been better off without those abortions? Or: Would those kids have been happier being raised by both biological parents? Or: Do guys who have already slept with a hundred women make worse boyfriends than those who haven't? Or: – hit me where I really used to live! – Which set of rules, Atheism's or religion's, would You want Your own hypothetical children to live by? I'd have said the answers to all those and more were no-brainers – no-brainers that made points for the religious side, that is. I'll confess a terrible weakness here and say that even now, after I've evolved so far, I still want to reach for the Xanax just thinking about an Atheist like any of You dating my hypothetical daughter – as opposed to, say, a nice, antiabortion, save-sex-for-marriage Christian. I know it's terribly unfit; but is that just me?
The bottom line is, after everything that's happened since the Sexual Revolution, I'm telling You that we Atheists really need to knock off all the happy talk about how fantabulously liberating sex is. Privacy, privacy, privacy is everybody's mantra – as if that word settles anything at all! It's messed up, isn't it, when You think of how otherwise puritanical our own times are, that the Church's notion of sexual discipline should seem so funny to so many people? After all, it's the only kind of discipline that's out of bounds! We all know that people who eat too much are pigs, people who drink too much are drunks, people who don't exercise are slobs and parasites on the body politic what with all their health costs, and people who smoke are just as disgusting as it's possible to be, like an old person crossed with a fat one wearing a fur coat and eating venison and cake at the same time or something – and the rest of us are all really put out at every single one of those kinds of people for being such slobs and so hard on our own eyes and wallets. You know?
Yet sex behind closed doors, just as the Dulls point out, has more serious consequences for the world than any of these other kinds of piggishness. It's those "private acts" outside of marriage that have sent illegitimacy soaring and put so many kids in the rough hands of Mom's rotating boyfriends. It's consenting adults who have turned AIDS and STDs into global health problems. All this is to say nothing of the consequences that are harder to measure of all those mature adults doing as they please "in private". And kids know all about those kinds of consequences, as You can see if You ever look at their music and movies and Facebook pages. There's a backlash out there that none of You seem to know about – one You might call Ozzie and Harriet, come back – all is forgiven! I would go even further, based on what I saw as a Dull, and say that this notion of sexual discipline and its importance is not only serious rather than unserious; it is also what pulls many of the Dulls into practicing or even turning to religion in the first place, because they feel somehow better about life when it's lived inside of those rules.
Please understand that I'm not criticizing here! Cheering for pornography and omnivorous sex and, by extension, broken homes and abused and screwed-up kids and all the rest of the Sexual Revolution's fallout may not be everyone's thing; but most of You new Atheist guys have definitely made it Yours. I respect all that! I'm just saying for now that we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that the believers' sexual codes are an unmitigated bad on them and a plus for us, when most evidence suggests it's quite the other way around.
Meanwhile, while we're still on this subject of what does and doesn't work for us when it comes to bringing others around to godlessness, let me raise a related point that You've been indulging to our possible long-term detriment (though not just You; the Enlightenment started it!). That is the argument that Reason itself is also on the Atheist side. As I'll explain in the next Letter, that's one potato we really need to drop before somebody gets burned by it.
Yours pretty faithfully,
A. F. (A Former) Christian
Mary Eberstadt. "Letter One: The Trouble with Experience." chapter one from The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death and Atheism (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2010): 15-26.
Reprinted with permission from the author and Ignatius Press. All rights reserved.
Mary Tedeschi Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and consulting editor to Policy Review. She is the author of The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death and Atheism, Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs and Other Parent Substitutes and the editor of Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys.
Eberstadt focuses on issues on American society, culture, and philosophy. She has written widely for various magazines and newspapers, including Policy Review, the Weekly Standard, First Things, American Conservative, the American Spectator, Los Angeles Times, London Times, Newark Star-Ledger, and the Wall Street Journal. Between 1998 and 1990, she was executive editor of the National Interest magazine. From 1985 to 1987, she was a member of the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. State Department, a speechwriter for Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and a special assistant to Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. She was also managing editor at the Public Interest. A four-year Telluride Scholar at Cornell University, Eberstadt graduated magna cum laude in 1983. She is an associate member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
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