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Why Do Atheists Believe What They Do?

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.