Nothing New about the “New Atheism”

It is as irrational and willful as old superstitions, argues Edward Feser.

Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism is a crushing reply to the string of recent books by the so-called New Atheists—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett , and Christopher Hitchens, among them. It is a stunning work that deserves far more attention than it has received.

The claim that the traditional proofs of God’s existence do not work has reached the status in the culture of something “everyone knows.” But Feser rejects this view, finding the arguments against the traditional proofs to be surprisingly weak. He likewise demonstrates how the Christian tradition has taken these proofs and deduced from them the important att ributes that God must possess.

Richard Dawkins claims there is “absolutely no reason” to believe that the Uncaused Cause or First Mover Thomas Aquinas equates with God must possess the qualities of omniscience, omnipotence, and goodness, and Dawkins claims that Aquinas offers no argumentation for thinking so. In other words, Dawkins claims belief in God is intellectually contemptible even as he ignores the 300 pages devoted to these questions in Book One of Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, the lengthy treatise De Potentia Dei, and the nearly 300 pages of questions on God in the Summa Theologiae.

Nor does Dawkins engage, or show signs he is even aware of, the countless other treatments of the subject, including relatively recent ones like Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s extremely rigorous God: His Existence and His Nature, the second book of which spends 500 pages on these issues.

It must be a source of relief for Dawkins that the intellectuals who praise his work do not know any more about the relevant primary literature than he does, for he can thereby get away with mind-boggling sophistries. Those who do know about the primary literature have not been kind to Dawkins: Michael Ruse, a fellow atheist, told Dawkins in a letter that he is “an absolute disaster in the fight against intelligent design.”

Feser observes further that the New Atheists, if they are serious about their intellectual project, should take the trouble to understand the position they are attacking and be engaging the most intelligent and sophisticated representatives of the position they reject, not rattling on “for hundreds of pages about the dangers of ‘faith’ as an irrational will to believe something in the face of all evidence, when this is an attitude that the mainstream Christian theological tradition has itself always condemned.”

Feser suspects that the reason such writers prefer to seek “debating partners at madrasahs and revival tent meetings, rather than at a cathedral or a quodlibet” is that they prefer not to pick on someone their own size. Feser is at pains to show that the New Atheists’ caricature of faith has nothing to do with how the Christian tradition has traditionally understood it.

“At every point in Aquinas’ account of the soul,” Feser explains, “as at every point in his arguments for God’s existence, the appeal is to what follows rationally from such Aristotelian metaphysical notions as the formal and final causes of a thing. There is no appeal to ‘faith,’ or to parapsychology, ghost stories, near-death experiences, or any other evidence of the sort materialists routinely dismiss as scientifi cally dubious.” It is on this straw man that the New Atheist concludes that “faith” and “religion” involve mere wishful thinking and exist at the extreme end of a continuum ranging from credulity to scientific rationality.

Feser spends considerable time defending the metaphysical ideas of Aristotle and St. Thomas, since those ideas were such an important support for the classical defense of theism, and because the modern project in philosophy involves a rejection of Aristotelian metaphysics, particularly its emphasis on formal and final causality.

The propositions that things possess essences and that ends or purposes are evident in nature were dismissed out of hand by modern philosophers; references to goal-orientedness, to teleology, were henceforth brushed off as “unscientific.” This dismissal is often done so crudely that countless philosophy students to this day think that in order for the ancient and medieval philosophers to have believed in final causes, they must have held that the planets consciously intended to orbit the sun, or that fruit trees deliberately, as an act of will, brought forth their fruit.

This rejection of Aristotelian metaphysics, Feser continues, was just a methodological stipulation, not a “discovery,” and the portrayal of it as such was intended to make it seem as if the older view had actually been refuted when in fact it had merely been set aside. As he puts it, “This falsehood transformed what was in reality merely a highly contingent, controversial, and problematic methodological stipulation into a ‘discovery,’ that made what was and is a dispute between rival metaphysical worldviews appear instead to be a ‘war between science and religion.’”

Modern science, moreover, far from refuting Aristotle’s metaphysics, was “simply defined in such a way that nothing that smacked of Aristotelian formal and final causes and the like would be allowed to count as truly ‘scientific.’” Materialists have found it rather difficult in practice to evade the language of teleology altogether, as their position logically demands. Modern science has not, and indeed could not, undermine the idea of goal-orientedness in nature.

To the contrary, Feser says, such modern discoveries as DNA only confirm the old metaphysics. “It is no accident that terms like ‘encoding,’ ‘information,’ ‘instructions,’ ‘blueprint,’ and the like are often used to describe the workings of DNA…and yet the notion of being encoded, or being information, or being a set of instructions, or being a blueprint all involve directedness of something toward an end beyond itself, and thus final causality.”

Feser then turns to a provocative discussion of the various philosophical dilemmas that confront modern philosophers, and suggests that it’s not so difficult to resolve them if only we advert once again to Aristotelian metaphysics. (They only became “dilemmas” in the first place when the older metaphysics was rejected.) Thus the “mind-body problem” that has vexed philosophers since Descartes is not a problem at all within the Aristotelian-Thomistic framework, which conceives of the soul as the form of the body. And this is not to mention the outright absurdities— such as the claim that the “person” or the “self” cannot be said to exist—with which the modernists must reckon.

“One sorry byproduct of all this,” Feser writes, “is that generations of hapless Philosophy 101 students have come to think that philosophy is fundamentally about wondering whether the table in front of you really exists.” And this does become a genuine problem when one takes for granted what Feser calls “the standard modern philosophical assumptions.”

Even science itself, on whose behalf we are supposed to welcome the new metaphysics, rests on precarious foundations under the modern framework. Hume’s “problem of induction” suggested that there was no reason to suppose that events in the future will be as we have observed them in the past, and that what we take to be causal relationships could cease to hold in the future. Science, which takes for granted an orderly universe that is intelligible to the human mind and susceptible of prediction, is severely threatened in such a philosophical world. It is very difficult to answer Hume’s challenge if formal and final causality are excluded from the philosopher’s toolkit.

The book’s only drawback may be its polemical tone; Feser puts forth his case with the same rhetorical punch that Dawkins and others do theirs. It is a striking departure from Feser’s other books, such as Locke and Philosophy of Mind: An Introduction, but then its intended audience is much broader. Whether someone skeptical of Feser’s thesis would endure it for the whole book is hard to say.

All the same, The Last Superstition is a persuasive and powerful argument in defense of theism and Aristotelian metaphysics. It is sophisticated enough to convey to professional philosophers the seriousness and rigor of the theistic argument, while still being clear enough for the intelligent layman to understand. Indeed, it gives the layman the indispensable knowledge he needs to defend theism against the smart alecks who try to intimidate him but who themselves, as Feser shows, represent far more bluster than substance.

The presumption these days is to ask, “If you’re so smart, why are you religious?” In light of Edward Feser’s indispensable book, a better question would be, “If you’re so smart, why are you still an atheist?”