Becky Garrison's Immodest Proposal
A review of "The New Atheists and Their Unholy Grail."
By Mary Beth Crain
In my 30-odd years as an author, journalist, editor, and critic, I have admittedly encountered conceited writers. I have, however, found one truth to be pretty much self-evident: the most self-enamored writers are generally the worst. Really good writers are usually humble, and appreciative of any edits or advice that might make them even better. And they would never think of bragging about themselves; they let their work do that for them.
But I must say that in all my years in the writing, editing, and publishing field, I have never encountered an author so unabashedly amazed by her own brilliance that she spends most of her book telling us about it. Until, that is, I read--or made a valiant attempt to read--Becky Garrison's "The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail."
Ms. Garrison is, as she reminds us, oh, around a million times, a "religious satirist." And not just a religious satirist, but the star literary warrior at The Wittenburg Door. In case you happen to be wondering what The Wittenburg Door is, well, let's just say it's not The Atlantic. But shhh--don't tell that to Garrison, who's convinced it's the most important publication since the Bible rolled off the Gutenberg Press. In fact, "The New Atheist Crusaders" is, in too many ways, one shamelessly long plug for The Door and herself.
"In my position as senior contributing editor of The Wittenburg Door, I have become quite the spiritual sharpshooter as I hunt down sacred cows. While my focus has been smashing religious idols to smithereens, we now have these New Atheists peddling their misguided mess in the marketplace. Looks like I gotta adjust my scope and take aim at these ungodly gurus."
I couldn't believe I was seeing what I was seeing, but there was more--lots more--to come. "While it may appear to the casual observer that I am on a random hunting spree when I respond to their vitriolic venom with spiritual snark, my intent is to use the satirical format to get these secular scholars to look a little closer at themselves. This can be a lonely battle, for satire appears to be a lost art form in today's tense times."
Satire? SATIRE? Let me warn you--Ms. Garrison's idea of this "lost art form" is a collection of snotty comments laced with alliteration ad nauseum, and peppered with so many repetitions of the words "dude" and "kewl" that she ought to be slapped with a WUI--writing under the influence, of Nick at Nite. Other times, she simply spins into a rambling state of ego extremis:
"New Atheist Daniel Dennett confuses me...when he tries to explain how our experiences evolve. 'You cannot just learn from your own experience, but you can learn vicariously from the experience of everybody else. From people that you never met. From ancestors long dead. And human culture itself becomes a profound evolutionary force...' I find I just don't get it...Yes, I know I'm a product of my environment. Suffice to say, I've done enough family systems work that I can map out some pretty cool, as well as some really, really creepy components of my family tree. A quick romp through my lineage shows a preponderance of rebel ministers starting with Roger Williams. So no wonder I keep bucking the church. It's in my genes. Ever since this Yankee gal with an accent befitting a Southern debutante was born breech first, I have always viewed life from a singular perspective. No question about it. And perhaps my love of the ocean is somehow tied to the fact that I'm related to John Howland, an indentured servant from the Mayflower..."
What the hell has her family tree and her Scarlett O'Hara accent and her breech birth and her love of the high seas got to do with anything Daniel Dennett said? To paraphrase that ungodly rake Rhett Butler, frankly, my dear, we don't give a damn.
Here's another gem. "When Francis Collins remarks, 'If God is outside of nature then He is outside of space and time,' the New Atheists start to sneer and glare as if they are ravenous wolves about to devour their prey. But they still haven't explained how this thing we call 'life' got to earth in the first place. Yes, nature presents us with many of God's wonders. But unlike these secular scientists, as I gaze upon a sunset or another display of God's gloriously gooey finger paintings, I choose to contemplate the One who created such magnificent handiwork. Why in God's name did He want to greet us each morning with a flaming yellow sunrise and then end the day with a brightly colored sunset? Beats me, but man, oh, man, am I glad God gets off showing His glory like this."
God's gooey finger paintings?
I slogged through the book in search of even one example of genuine satire, but alas, this was about as likely as finding a pearl in a vast expanse of quicksand. All you have to do is log on to The Onion to get a dose of what truly brilliant satire is all about. Believe me, there's none of that in "The New Atheist Crusaders." And the biggest hoot is that Garrison actually feels it's necessary to inform the reader of just what, exactly, satire is, opening the book with--nope, I'm not kidding--Webster's definition and then using that definition to glorify herself and, snorrrre, The Wittenburg Door!
"Our good literary friend and dictionary diva"--whoops, there's that satirical alliteration again--"Noah Webster describes satire as follows: a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn, or trenchant wit, irony or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly. According to Robert Darden, senior editor of The Wittenburg Door, the world's pretty much only religious satire magazine, 'The purpose of religious humor and satire is to hold a mirror before the church. We're the little boy who shouts, 'Yo, People! The emperor is buck nekkid!'"
Looks like Mr. Webster forgot one other definition of satire: "to toot one's own horn until one's audience goes stone deaf." Just when you think Ms. Garrison can't go any further overboard singing her own praises, she refers to that Father of Satire, Jonathan Swift, and his classic "Modest Proposal," but only in relation to her own immense talents. "Please don't take everything I say at face value," she cautions us. "When fellow satirist [!] Jonathan Swift penned 'A Modest Proposal'...back in 1729, he never intended that the poor actually eat their own children as a means to alleviate poverty. Rather, as an Anglican clergyman living in Ireland, he employed his satirical skills to address the massive ills he saw before him. Likewise, while I make my statements with my tongue firmly implanted in my cheek, buried beneath the literal text are golden grains of truth."
It might surprise Madame Not-So-Swift to learn that a whole bunch of people know what satire is, and don't need her to give them a long-winded explanation, let alone instruct them just how to "read" her satirical genius in the bargain! Many of us are actually familiar with Mark Twain and James Thurber and Robert Benchley and George Bernard Shaw--you know, writers who figure their readers have enough intelligence not to require a dictionary definition of what they're doing.
As to the rest of the book, well, it's Garrison's attempt to "duke it out" with the popular atheists of the day, like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom, whether you agree with their positions or not, are so far and away intellectually superior to her that it's a little like an ant trying to get the attention of an elephant. But what's most frustrating is that the people she dismisses with a flick of her "satirical" finger are brilliant thinkers who've put far more thought into their work than she's bothered to put into her smugly superficial criticism of them. She makes a few defensible points--that the New Atheists can be as self-righteously close-minded as the religious devotees they scorn, that by decrying atheism, one is not necessarily embracing evangelicalism and by being religious, one isn't necessarily evangelical, things like that--but this isn't the apex of profundity, and frankly, her self-aggrandizing tone and annoying habit of explaining things to the reader (yes, she even enlightens us with Webster the Dictionary Diva's definition of "religion"!) are so off-putting that you really don't care about her opinions.
In the end, "The New Atheist Crusaders" is a satire--an unintentional self-satire. I couldn't make up the kind of things Garrison says about herself if I tried. So here's a modest proposal: don't buy this book. Unless you want a good laugh, and not for the reasons the author intended.
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last essay for SoMA was Will Rogers, Where Are You?
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