Why Do Atheists Believe What They Do?

Loser Letters (cropped)Dana Bowler

Globalization, individualized apps, information silos, or fake news; election 2008, election 2012, or election 2016; coastal elites, flyover deplorables, income inequality, or unending culture war. Name your culprit, life in these United States seems to be ever more polarized and divided.

All the more reason, then, to find truths about which people from different compass points can still agree. And one perennial fascination is that whatever our differences, the question of why individual people believe what they believe about the biggest issues in life remains one of the most interesting questions in the world.

Why, for example, are some human beings religious believers and others not? Curiosity about possible answers to this question led me ten years ago to an experiment in fiction, an epistolary novel called The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism. The Loser Letters has since taken on life in three forms: first, as a weekly series at National Review Online in 2008; next, as a book published by Ignatius Press in 2010; and, most recently, in fall 2016, as a stage-play with a two-week run at the Catholic University of America’s Hartke Theater, adapted and directed by playwright Jeffrey Fiske.

Onstage, as between covers, The Loser Letters tells the story of a young woman named A.F. Christian, who explores the meaning of her existence through a series of letters to fellow atheists written while in rehab. Creating her character was an effort to engage the so-called “new atheism” not in the abstract — as so much other conversation does — but by using a fictional form to pose a more immediate, existential question: What is it about godlessness that might appeal to people, especially Millennials? Thus the story inverts the usual cultural narrative, or at least the explanation dominant at a time of ascendant secularity.

As their books show, the new atheists — like other atheists before them — have their own answers to the question “Why do people believe in God?” For the most part, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens assert a series of stereotypes: Religious believers are irrational, backward, sexually repressed, opposed to science, prone to authoritarianism, and so forth. Or, in the language a Washington Post reporter once used to describe American evangelicals, they are “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.”

The Loser Letters asks the opposite question: Why might some atheists — or agnostics, or “anti-theists,” in the fine phrase of theologian Henri de Lubac — believe what they believe about life’s big questions?

That’s where protagonist A.F. Christian comes in. Played onstage by Madeleine Murphy, a recent graduate of the College of William and Mary, A.F. writes a series of letters to the new atheists, ostensibly to instruct them on how to make their movement more appealing to people like her. Between the lines, this character’s own story is revealed — where she really is, why she’s there, and what it is about her experience of the world that gave atheism its gravitational pull in her life.

A.F. is meant to be a fictional Everygirl for the new millennium. Like many in her generation, she abandons the traditional teachings of her childhood and adolescence only to enter a fraught existential wilderness at odds with the promise that godlessness liberates. Like Tom Wolfe’s troubled undergraduate Charlotte Simmons, A.F. Christian apprehends clearly enough — to invoke one of Nietzsche’s most arresting images — that someone has taken a sponge and wiped away her horizon. Initially, she celebrates as much.

A.F. embodies the notion that delusion and self-delusion are human constants, in chronic need of inspection — most especially at those moments when we believe ourselves to be driven by the purest or most logical of motives. Her example shows that, despite what is asserted by aggressive secularism these days, the rejection of God does not always spring from abstract philosophical argument —the problem of evil, or the finer points of evolution, or other elevated topics of Philosophy 101. Nor can it be the case that unbelievers are simply smarter others (as implied by their self-applied label, “Brights”) — that the religious split amounts to an I.Q. divide. As A.F. observes in one of her most detailed letters: our cultural and intellectual patrimony shows otherwise.

The play’s ending underlines that certain extra-rational factors might entice some to a world without God — among them, the profoundly felt desire to be free of Judeo-Christianity’s unwanted rules.

In the stage version, playwright Jeffrey Fiske brought A.F. to life by drawing on his previous experience as adaptor and director of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. As a foil to A.F.’s soliloquies, he invented the character of The Shadow — a silent but physically loquacious player who dramatizes the protagonist’s turmoil (played thrillingly in the premiere by Chellsie Memmel, one of the country’s most decorated gymnasts). Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili, nominated for fifty-four Helen Hayes awards, created the movement onstage; and other members of the team contributed a hypermodern, stark set and a sepulchral music score to the theatrical bells and whistles.

As to possibilities for the future, the team plans to revisit the script and other creative elements, based on their work in the D.C. run, and consider tour options. Moreover, a DVD version now underway may soon be finished and available for distribution, thus offering the opportunity to consider A.F.’s story in one more new media form.

Whatever its platform, The Loser Letters is in part a response to the problem that conversation about secularism vs. religion has become a one-way street, conceptually speaking. In social science as well as in the arts, religion is now studied and presented as if it were the outlier in human affairs — the odd thing that needs “explaining.” The hidden premise is that secularism is the “norm,” and religious belief the outlier. In countering that claim, A.F. Christian’s story is an attempt to start a conversation where none has existed, one that asks whether atheism is what needs explaining.

In the longer run, the project might also turn out to be a microcosm, or pilot of sorts, for other undertakings to come. These include a multi-dimensional examination of the varieties of secularism and secularization and the diverse consequences — cultural, social, political, legal, and other — of that same transformation. Fiction and non-fiction, social science and art, philosophy and popular culture — all of these lenses can help to illuminate the secular, and at times secularist, re-shaping of our civilization.

To toy with a fillip of Karl Marx: secularization has already changed the world; the point is to study it. We need to do so more creatively and in more depth than we have thus far, using as many instruments as it takes to better map this changing territory, ever more distant from God, whose geography and underlying tectonics are only just beginning to appear.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What kinds extra-rational factors might make atheism attractive to some, especially Millennials?
  2. How might dramatic or other artistic forms play a role in advancing the conversation about secularization and religious belief?

Discussion Summary

Most of our discussion focused on the motivations for religious belief or unbelief. Several readers asked about the comparative roles of rationality, aesthetics, and moral rules in shaping these beliefs. In my responses, I pointed out that the reasons for belief (and unbelief) may not always be what they appear — that self-deception is a constant of humankind — and that art in various forms can play a role, too, as well as help us explore the question of whether atheism or Christianity delivers a better world for humanity. One reader asked whether there are any contemporary writers who grapple with these questions with the same depth as older writers such as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, or Kierkegaard. I suggested that to build a thriving counterculture, we need first to invest in the same kind of literary and artistic infrastructure that secular progressivism currently enjoys. It was the hope of those involved in the stage-play that The Loser Letters can be a step in this direction, a pilot for other efforts to come.

16 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    A theist putting his or her own words into an atheist character’s mouth will probably work out about as you’d expect (the opposite likely is also true), especially in making an anti-atheist point. In either case, whatever reasons atheism or theism may have, it doesn’t tell us if they are in fact true. To me, that is really the only thing of importance.

  2. Phil Garmey says:

    Thank you for this comment, Michael. I am interested in your use of the adjective “true.” My own view is that in the realm of discussion we are into here, “truth” cannot be the final goal, however much we might wish it could be. The issue under reflection…belief or unbelief…is simply not within our human capacity to resolve definitively. As I see it, the option for belief demands the proverbial “leap of faith.” The question is whether or not the leap is a reasonable one…as opposed to being a “prove-able” truth statement.

    • Michael says:

      I disagree. While absolute certainty on this (or anything else) will probably not be within our grasp, an inference to the best explanation could be made. It seems like the leap of faith you propose would require there be some criteria of truth too, or else how would we determine if it’s reasonable? Or perhaps we’re speaking about the same thing with different language.

    • Mary Eberstadt Mary Eberstadt says:

      Part of the point that C.S. Lewis makes with The Screw-tape Letters is that self-deception is a constant of humankind, demanding constant introspection in turn. We always ascribe ourselves the highest of motives, when often we’re being driven at least in part by more earthbound desires. In The Loser Letters, for instance, protagonist A.F. Christian peels back layer by layer the reasons for her unbelief, only to reveal its deepest roots at the very end.

      None of this is to say that we’re all prisoners of our pasts when it comes to our most cherished articles of faith (including secular faith). But it is to say that the reasons for belief — and unbelief — may not always be what they appear, and that this is all artistic fair game.

  3. Tommy James says:

    Where are today’s Dostoevskys, Tolstoys, Kierkegaards, and Nietzsches? I don’t mean necessarily in terms of genius. But these writers and thinkers were profoundly artistic and creative in imagining why people believe or disbelieve. Do you have any recommendations for exceptionally good novelists, poets, playwrights, filmmakers etc. who do this today?

    • Mary Eberstadt Mary Eberstadt says:

      It’s hard to think of a first-tier writer who is to our own time what Flannery O’Connor was to the twentieth century. On the other hand, the comparison is hardly fair, since O’Connor’s literary and moral sensibility is so distinct (Thomas Merton once said that she was hardly even an American writer, but more like Sophocles).

      We live in an ideological time, and, unfortunately, ideology has also infiltrated contemporary art in all its forms. For many decades, the arts have been almost wholly owned subsidiaries of secularist progressivism, with all the infrastructure to match: artists’ colonies, prestigious awards, writing programs inside academia and out, etc. It’s hard to build a thriving counterculture without first investing in similar infrastructure for writers and artists who think differently than those in cultural authority.

      The good news, though, is that more and more people outside establishment circles are beginning to think that alternative artistic views deserve a hearing. That’s what we tried to do with The Loser Letters stage-play: provide a pilot of sorts for that kind of innovation; a different, even shockingly different, storyline to audiences for whom modern art has more often become predictable rather than provocative.

      Monopoly, including cultural monopoly, gets old after a while. It would be good for people on both sides of the divide to encourage other countercultural projects in the future, if only as a foil against which to measure their own deeply held views.

  4. Jess says:

    Might not a profound desire to be free of Christianity’s moral rules be a rational factor, if one judges Christian moral rules to be irrational, wrong, and bad for human flourishing?

    • Mary Eberstadt Mary Eberstadt says:

      To play devil’s advocate, as it were, we can turn that question around, and ask what a world devoid of God looks like. That’s a main theme of The Loser Letters, in fact: the idea that secularization is accumulating a moral record all its own, and a problematic one, too.

      The twentieth century was the bloodiest in human history, and the two most efficient engines of mass murder — Communism and Nazism — were both grounded solidly in anti-Christian ideology (atheistic in the case of Communism, and atheistic/pagan in that of Nazism). That’s not to say that atheism leads inevitably to mass murder. But it is to say that the worst horrors of the century past had atheism at their epicenters, and that we need to take account of that fact in asking which worldviews benefit or harm people, and how.

      Closer to our own time, some could argue (and do) that a world without Christian moral rules can be irrational, wrong, and bad for human flourishing in other ways. The most obvious consequence of secularization today, for instance, is historically high rates of family breakup and fatherless homes. Sociologists have been documenting for half a century now the strong links between fatherless homes and increased risks for all kinds of social, criminal, educational, and other problems. To say that isn’t to point a finger at anyone. It’s just to observe that all of this fallout is well-known, including in secular academia, and that it doesn’t serve the cause of human flourishing.

      The question of which delivers a better world for humanity, atheism or theism, is an essential moral and cultural question; and the more art in various forms can explore that question, the better.

  5. Passionate Theist says:

    I heartily agree that a person’s movement toward faith, as much as away from it, or to a different faith, is generally motivated by more than rational deliberation. That’s just what being human is like; we’re aesthetic and moral beings too, not just truth-seekers. When I’ve seen people convert one way or another, toward or away from religious faith, it has almost always involved loves and passions, deep longings for some type of order or some type of freedom, attractions toward or repulsions from certain moral sensibilities, and so forth — in addition to reason. (My sense is that love really comes first in how we think about God and the world.) That’s not to say that those things are *irrational*, just that they often precede our thinking and motivate it. But with all the effort that many religious people spend on presenting their belief as rational, they often ignore those other aspects, and so I wonder if when we look at secularization we also overemphasize the role of reason alone.

    • Mary Eberstadt Mary Eberstadt says:

      That last sentence is especially compelling — and true. Ten years ago, the new atheists and their adversaries took a long, extended crack at examining the rationales for belief and unbelief. It’s the subterranean currents of belief that could benefit from exploration now. Again, what’s beneath the surface can be just as illuminating as the rationalism up top — and is less examined by far.

      As you point out, beauty is one particularly compelling example. Two thousand years of Christian-inspired art and music have given humanity many of the greatest works ever created. Some people look at that aesthetic record, and find that it points them in the direction of theism, just in and of itself. History’s full of examples.

  6. Teddy McCormick says:

    You mention plans being explored to bring the play out on DVD. Are there any discussions about streaming on Amazon or Netflix or somewhere?

    • Mary Eberstadt Mary Eberstadt says:

      The DVD plans should be firmed up in the coming couple of months. As for Amazon or Netflix, thanks for the thought — will relay it to the team in charge.

  7. Kathy Swanson says:

    I appreciate your article and what you are trying to do here, but I am an atheist humanist, and so are most of my friends, and I feel that we lead very fulfilled and moral lives. Yes, there are problems that young men and women feel today, but many of those problems are created or reinforced by patriarchy & capitalism & technology.

    • Mary Eberstadt Mary Eberstadt says:

      It’s not the intention of the play or the book to praise believers or denigrate unbelievers or otherwise to alienate any potential audience member — far from it. We’re focused on ideas here, not individuals. What might be called the “religious fluidity” of A.F. Christian herself, who changes her mind more than once, goes to the point: human beings are complicated. To the extent that they’re free to choose the ideas they follow, it’s fair to ask what the historical record of those ideas may be — on either side.

  8. rationalist_thinker says:

    If a profound desire to escape Christianity’s rules explains why some people become atheists, then what about the many nominal Christians or liberal Christians (or agnostics, or “nones”) who do not commit themselves to atheism, but nonetheless ignore or reject many rules of Christian morality? (For instance, the vast majority of Catholics do not agree with official Catholic teaching on contraception.)

    And on the other hand, what about those atheists who, though rejecting the specifically Christian moral rules, nonetheless live orderly lives, in accordance with norms of decency and respectability?

    • Mary Eberstadt Mary Eberstadt says:

      As A.F. Christian observes at different points in the story, plenty of believers have given unbelievers a dim view of religion by violating the Commandments and cherry-picking their own Christianity and otherwise giving theism a bad name. Fair enough!

      And there’s no doubt, either, that there are unbelievers and non-believers who live in conformity with what believers would call God’s law. In fact, Catholic teaching holds that heaven includes non-Catholics, for exactly that reason.

      That said, the mere fact that most people seem to want to live by a moral code, whatever else they believe, strongly suggests something that weighs in on the religious side of the ledger: There’s something inside us all that acknowledges the reality and the pull of higher rules, even when those rules inconvenience us.

      To some people, as A.F. suggests, that insight can become a door all its own that opens to something transcendent.

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