Review: Feser – Part 2

Part 1 is here.

The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism: Refuting what?

The first thing that needs to be said here is that title of Feser’s book is deeply misleading. The book is not particularly a refutation of the New Atheism. Yes, Feser frequently makes rhetorical stabs at Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens but these barbs are more like asides rather than a pulling apart of their arguments. If anything Feser is primarily dismissive of these writers and a reader hoping for a blow by blow deconstruction of the arguments put forward by modern atheists will be disappointed.

Instead Feser is actually mounting a constructive argument rather than a destructive one. Rather than a refutation of the New Atheism, he is mounting a confirmation of an old theism – specifically that of the Aristotle infused philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. As a consequence the ‘refutation’ is primarily by default – Feser arguing that Aquinas was rational and correct and hence god exists and hence atheism is wrong and irrational. In terms specifically related to the ‘New Atheism” of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, Feser’s arguments amount to:
Some snarky comments (nothing wrong with that in itself – some good snark can be amusing and Dawkins is a good target for snark, but frequently Feser’s snark is a bit weak).

Claims that none of the said writers have properly engaged with Aquinas’s argument and that specifically Dawkins misrepresents Aquinas’s position.
Grumbling that modern atheists obsess over William Paley’s watchmaker argument for the existence of god (which he calls ‘every atheist’s favorite whipping boy). On that last point Feser rather disingenuously says:

Why atheists are so fixated on Paley, I cannot say, unless it is precisely because he is such an easy target: If her didn’t exist, atheists would have had to invent him, or find some other straw man to beat.

Which is a very odd thing for anybody to say but in particular somebody who had already acknowledged in his book that Paley’s argument was one used by creationists and the intelligent design movement. I doubt that Feser is such a poor thinker as to not realize that modern atheists like biologist Richard Dawkins spend a lot of time discussing arguments such as Paley’s precisely because these are the arguments used by the more strident of theists.

This rather obvious misstep by Feser highlight his more general objection to modern atheists not engaging with the complexity of theology. In reality the arguments many defenders of science education (not just atheists) have to make are not to combat the insights of medieval scholastics but 21st century evangelical Christians demanding that their specific religious myths are taught as science in classrooms. The radicalisation of non-believers into vocal atheists has been in reaction to anti-secular politics movements that are even less inclined to engage with traditional Catholic theology than Richard Dawkins.

Feser’s book tends to feel like the sections of ‘New Atheism’ have been bolted on – as if he wrote a book with a different title (maybe ‘Thomas Aquinas was right all along’) but was worried than nobody would read it. Recasting the book as a take down of noted popular writers makes it sound more interesting and might catch the eye of a bigger audience – presumably people of a theistic bent looking for good counter-arguments to Dawkins et al. I’d be curious to know what such people make of Feser’s book? Disappointed or delighted to find a book framed in more positive terms?

Either way Feser’s strategy is risky. Aquinas has a specific metaphysics and Feser’s ‘refutation’ of the atheists is very much built on claiming that Aquinas was right. That in itself suggests that many other people are wrong – and not just Richard Dawkins. Either way, making sense of ‘The Last Superstition’ means making sense of Aquinas and that means making sense of Aristotle and Plato, and that is where I will go in Part 3.