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New Atheism ‘is devoid of moral, intellectual merit’
A conversation with Dr Edward Feser, university professor, author, philosopher and former atheist
22 July, 2012 |
The so-called New Atheism is completely devoid of any intellectual or moral merit
whatsoever, and its representatives are “ignorant thugs” and to treat them otherwise is to aid and abet their errors, says visiting American philosopher and former atheist Dr Edward Feser.
“That is because their strength lies entirely in their rhetoric,” said Dr Feser, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in California.
“They are so absurdly self-confident that even fair-minded onlookers are tempted to think that there must be something to their arguments.
“That is why I have been as aggressive as I have been in responding to them. The only way effectively to puncture their pretension to seriousness is to hit back both with solid arguments and with equal and opposite rhetorical force.”
He continued: “Now there are also serious and fair-minded atheists out there. I like to think that I used to be one of them. I am not saying that all atheists are ignorant thugs.
“But the New Atheist types – people like Richard Dawkins and his ilk – simply poison the
discussion, and the sooner this is generally acknowledged the sooner a more serious public discussion of the dispute between atheism and theism can occur.
“Lots of people seem to me falsely to suppose that the vacuousness of the New Atheism is already generally acknowledged, but that is not true.
“You will find lots of atheists in academia who do not write on these issues in the public way Dawkins and co do but whose views are no more serious or well-informed. What needs to happen is for New Atheist-style arguments to become disreputable. Anyone who dismisses the arguments of traditional natural theology the way so many do today should be ashamed, but only someone ignorant of what the classical writers really said could think they can easily be dismissed.”
Regarded as one of the best contemporary writers on philosophy, Dr Feser believes Catholics, and especially Catholic philosophers and theologians, need to recover the “scholastic intellectual heritage” that once provided the common language of Catholic intellectual life, but has been “largely forgotten in many Catholic circles”.
“Aquinas, Scotus, Suarez, and many other thinkers of genius, along with those who built on their work, put together a philosophical and theological edifice that has no rival in the history of the world,” he said.
“They did not give us the last word on every topic of modern interest but they did give us what, in my view, every Catholic intellectual should regard as the first word. When Catholic thinkers in general once again master and build on this body of thought, then they will be well armed not only against the New Atheists – who are, intrinsically, pretty unimpressive – but also against more formidable critics.”
Dr Feser holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of California, an MA in religion from Claremont Graduate School, and a BA in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton.
His primary academic research interests are in the philosophy of mind, moral and political philosophy, and the philosophy of religion.
He was drawn to study philosophy and religious studies when he took a course in Greek
literature as an undergraduate.
“We discussed the Pre-Socratic philosophers – thinkers like Thales, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Zeno,” he said.
“I was absolutely fascinated and before long I knew that I wanted to spend my life doing what they did. I have never regretted it.”
He describes his childhood as “cerebral rather than sports-oriented”.
“Lots of comic books and science fiction … that might seem like rather odd preparation for a career as a philosopher, but I do think that the fantastic scenarios I found attractive in that sort of literature got me used to looking at things from odd perspectives, and at the big picture,” he said.
“And as any philosopher can tell you, that’s a large part of the job description.”
Raised a Catholic, he left the Church as a teenager as a result of coming across various anti-Catholic arguments of the “It’s not in the Bible!” sort.
“I later came to see that this sort of argument is actually exceedingly feeble,” Dr Feser explained.
“Why on earth should we suppose that if God wants us to know something, He would have put it in the Bible? Where does the Bible itself teach sola scriptura? What counts as part of ‘the Bible’ anyway? None of the Protestant responses are any good. But when you grow up surrounded by a Protestant culture, sola scriptura arguments can have a rhetorical force that makes up for their lack of any logical force.
“I didn’t become an atheist until studying philosophy. Then I came across all the standard objections from Hume, Kant, and others and assumed, like so many people do, that they had essentially demolished all the traditional arguments for the existence of God.
“It took me a long time to see that that is the reverse of the truth. The reason is that most of the standard objections are really directed, not at the arguments given by ancient and medieval writers like Aristotle, Plotinus, and Aquinas, but at the arguments of modern writers like Paley and Leibniz.
"And even then they are directed at simplistic versions of these arguments. Most academic philosophers don’t know the difference, and assume that the older writers were more or less saying what the more recent ones were saying. People get annoyed with me when I say this, but it’s true, and whenever an atheist philosopher who doesn’t specialise in these matters opens his mouth on the subject you find out within about a minute that it’s true.”
He added: “But to find out how very badly contemporary commentators misunderstand the ancient and medieval arguments you need to know a fair bit about the history of philosophy, and most academic philosophers don’t.
“The reason for that is that academic philosophy, like so much of modern academic life, has become dominated by people who specialise in this or that sub-discipline within the field, and there are few people with the general knowledge to see these issues rightly. Naturally, then, it took me a long time to see why in my smugly confident atheism I had gotten things completely wrong.”
Ironically, he says, what drew him back to the faith were a number of secular thinkers.
“Late in my undergrad days and early in my days as a graduate student I took a number of
courses in the philosophy of language,” he said.
“I became acquainted with the work of writers like Gottlob Frege, Alonzo Church, Jerrold Katz and others whom most of your readers would not know of but who are very well-known and respected in academic philosophy.
“They presented a number of powerful arguments that showed that there was simply no way in principle to give a naturalistic or materialist account of language, and this made a big impression on me. Initially I did not take this as having any theological implications - these writers were not arguing about that subject, but just talking abstract metaphysics. But it helped me to see early on that the lazy naturalism that so many academic philosophers take for granted, as a kind of groupthink, was by no means as obvious or airtight as they supposed.
“Two other secular writers on metaphysical issues had a similar influence. I became familiar with the later work of Bertrand Russell, who was the opposite of friendly towards religion, but who argued that physics gives us knowledge only of the abstract structure of the material world and not of its inner nature. It followed in Russell’s view that science really tells us relatively little about what matter is really like. In which case the glibness with which materialists asserted that this or that could be given a materialistic explanation came to seem a bit farcical.
"They don’t even have a clear idea what matter is; frankly most of them don’t even realise there is a problem here in the first place. The work of John Searle, who is a naturalist himself but has presented some extremely penetrating criticism of existing attempts to give a materialist explanation of the human mind, also played a role in helping me to see how poorly thought out naturalism really is.”
Even as an atheist, Dr Feser said, he was always attracted to the “Aristotelian approach to ethics”, and the work of writers like Philippa Foot and Alasdair MacIntyre had made a great impression on him.
“Finally, when I was still in graduate school I got an opportunity to teach a philosophy of religion class, and in preparation for it I began to revisit the traditional arguments for God’s existence,” he said.
“Even though I thought none of the arguments worked, I wanted to help the students see why some people might have found them convincing.
“This got me on the path to reading about what Scholastic writers like Aquinas had actually said, and over the course of several years, as I would teach this material over and over and learn more about it, my views started to change (especially as I had already been softened up by the other influences I mentioned).
“I gradually went from thinking ‘I guess these arguments are not completely lame’ to thinking ‘They’re at least defensible’ to ‘These arguments are actually pretty interesting’ and finally to ‘Oh, my goodness, these arguments actually work’!”
From 23-29 July, the Sydney archdiocese’s Catholic Adult Education Centre, which is based at Lidcombe, is hosting a series of seminars and an intensive course conducted by Dr Feser on the topics of philosophy, atheism and the existence of God.
His seminars will cover The Challenge of Atheism (And How to Answer it), The Last Superstition and Let’s Talk About God: Atheism and Young People.
He will also conduct a two-day intensive course entitled Philosophy and the Existence of God.
Dr Feser is the author of numerous books including On Nozick, Philosophy of Mind, Locke, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, and Aquinas: A Beginners Guide and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Hayek.
“I want Catholics in particular and citizens of Western civilisation in general to rediscover their intellectual heritage – the heritage of Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, the Scholastics and their successors,” he said.
“If my little books accomplish anything, it will be because they pointed my readers toward this great tradition and the better books they’ll find within it.”
Dr Feser is also the author of many academic articles. He writes on politics and culture, from a conservative point of view; and on religion, from a traditional Roman Catholic
perspective. In this connection, his work has appeared in such publications as The American, The American Conservative, City Journal, The Claremont Review of Books, Crisis, First Things, Liberty, National Review, New Oxford Review, Public Discourse, Reason and TCS Daily.
He describes a typical day as “not enough time, not enough sleep, too much caffeine, and a martini, Scotch, or glass of wine in the evening”.
“In between I try to get as much work done on the various writing projects I’ve always got going,” he said.
“Currently that includes several book projects, and there are always academic articles, book reviews, conference papers, blog posts and the like to get done. I also have a heavy teaching load each semester, but fortunately that is broken up by a long winter break and of course by the summer. Sometimes my wife and children see me emerge from the study, and occasionally they even vaguely recognise me.”