Review: The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism by Edward Feser

In various previous posts I’ve looked at aspects of Feser’s book in some detail. In this last post I want to give a more general review.

The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism by Edward Feser claims to be an attempt to show that atheism is essentially irrational and that belief in god can be defended on rational grounds. Overall this is not what the book actually is.

The book is best understand as consisting of three components:

  1. polemic and sarcasm aimed at prominent ‘new’ atheists writers – in particular Richard Dawkins, Daniel C Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris
  2. an overview and defense of the metaphysical tradition of Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas – and in particular a defense of Aquinas’s views on the existence of god
  3. an account of how Feser applies Aquinas’s metaphysics to his own modern politics, in particular on the issues of abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia.

The polemic sections aimed at the atheist writers is the weakest part of his writing. Good snark can be amusing and given Richard Dawkins’s natural pomposity he should be an easy target and yet Feser continually misses. He repeatedly pretends to have no idea why Dawkins spends the effort he does challenging notions like ‘Intelligent Design’ and this makes Feser’s writing seem a bit shallow rather than disingenuous. Failing to achieve ‘disingenuous’ as a target is a substantial failing and demonstrates how far Feser’s writing falls from ‘good’.

The sections where Feser advances his own political views are weak logically and serve largely to demonstrate the flaw in the metaphysical system he advocates. His very selective and self-serving choices of natural categories or final causes, shows how easily his system, can be used primarily not as a rational system but rather as a system for rationalizations. Parts of it are just simply embarrassing and presumably require a strong devotion to the outcomes of the arguments to be palatable.

The historical account and defense of Feser’s preferred metaphysics is easily the strongest aspect of the book. It is deeply partisan and one-sided but it is also passionate and demonstrates his deep understanding as a philosopher. It is substantially weaker whenever Feser attempts to describe the critics of Aquinas and this is unfortunate. The motives and indeed systems of thought of some of Western philosophy’s most notable figures are rendered mysterious and are portrayed as odd and arbitrary to an extent that it should make any critical mind severely doubt Feser’s account.

Overall this is a very lazy book. The most well written parts are the potted history of the Aristotelian tradition in Western philosophy. Yet these really don’t amount to much more than overly partisan notes for the first term of a undergrad philosophy course. Around this framework Feser adds more original writing and yet this writing is largely weakly written and displays poor reasoning.

The book never lives up to its title. It is a sermon to the choir and even then more of a sketch that suggest maybe their prejudices could be defended with an intellectually respectable scheme. He doesn’t actually deliver such a scheme – more points in the vague direction of Aristotle and Aquinas and hopes for the best.

Should you read it? Maybe. It is short. If you are curious as to why certain people on the US right are now talking about Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas then Feser’s book might give you some insights. You might encounter somebody online who claims that Feser has demonstrated something rather than just asserted it and reading Feser’s book will help you see that no, he didn’t demonstrate anything in particular. Having said that much of the book is dull and the political parts tend towards awful even when Feser isn’t intentionally trying to cause offense.

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