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The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism
by Edward Feser
St. Augustine’s Press, 2008
(312 pages, $19.00, paperback)
reviewed by Graeme Hunter
Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens are the big four among a group of militantly anti-religious writers who have come to be called “the new atheists.” What is “new” about them is not their ideas. It is the strident, adversarial tone of voice in which they shout about old-fashioned atheism. Their aggressive style has made atheism newsworthy again, in bestselling books like Harris’s The End of Faith, Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. If such blustering titles make you think of adolescent rebellion, you can skip the books. You have already got from them most of what they contain.
Christians who bother to read these books come away with mixed feelings. On the one hand, their sheer stupidity seems to make intelligent rejoinder impossible. On the other hand, seeing the new atheism atop the bestseller lists makes us long to respond. But how? The arguments offered against faith are so weak and patronizing that sneers of derision seem more appropriate than careful refutation. The loud, accusatory tone the new atheists adopt makes you want to shout back at them, rather than waste your breath on reasoned argument. But shouts and sneers do not a rejoinder make. So you resign yourself to maintaining a dignified silence.
Almost. But then you recall that if our Christian heritage had not been so neglected, such books would have no readers. As a conscientious believer, you long to remind readers of the origin and power of Christian thought, to reintroduce them to the matchless legacy of Christian philosophy, from which they have allowed themselves to be disinherited. So back around the circle of good intentions you go, wondering whether to sneer or shout at the new atheists, or whether to try to reason with them.
Descent into Absurdity
The first good thing you can say about Edward Feser is that he doesn’t allow that vicious circle to trap him. His book is exceptional for the way in which he explains the Christian position with care, hurling just enough jeers and sneers at the new atheists to make his writing fun to read. Let’s begin with the Christian part.
Feser is a talented philosopher who can present Christian thought in broad strokes or in fine detail with equal authority. His book is notable for the clarity with which it reassembles the essential elements of Christian philosophyshowing its debt to ancient Greece, its development in the Middle Ages, and its canonical expression in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Feser then uses his expertise in later philosophy to isolate and elucidate certain interconnected fallacies of thought from the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and more recent times, up to the present. He shows how these fallacies have insinuated themselves into our minds, limiting our ability to think clearly about science, truth, God, and the human condition.
You need have no prior knowledge of the history of philosophy to follow Feser’s guided tour, but he takes for granted a reader prepared to go slowly and think things through. The reward for doing so is great. Though I have spent a lifetime teaching and writing about the same matters as this book discusses, I was challenged and instructed on almost every page.
The core of Feser’s argument is this: The Christian tradition teaches us to understand the universe as God’s creation. God endowed created things with distinctive natures, enabling them to serve discernable purposes. Because the heart has auricles, ventricles and valves, for example, it can serve the purpose of circulating blood. Because of our nature as rational animals, we are capable of the society of God. Form and purpose are everywhere apparent in the created order.
Since the Renaissance, however, we have been alternately bullied and bamboozled (but never argued) into thinking that creatures have no detectable natures and that nothing serves any purpose. As we have drifted away from our Christian moorings, spurious conflicts have arisen between faith and reason, and between common sense and science. Our understanding of the world has become technical, scientistic, blinkered, and, for those reasons, often sterile. At the end of that narrowing road is a dark place in which even books by new atheists can seem bright. Feser does a fine job of recounting that headlong descent into absurdity.
Scoffing at the Sophists
It is rather to Feser’s credit that he sometimes allows himself (and his reader) the simple pleasure of scoffing at the other side. Here and there he turns the adversaries’ weapons against them, as when he writes:
However well-meaning this or that individual liberal secularist may be, his creed is, I maintain (and to paraphrase Dawkins’s infamous description of critics of evolution) “ignorant, stupid, insane, and wicked.” . . . [R]eason itself testifies that against the pest of secularist progressivism, there can be only one remedy: Écrasez l’infâme.
Or again, he reproaches secularism for exhibiting “the close-minded prejudice and irrationality it typically attributes to religious believers.”
Feser also lobs occasional one-liners into the new atheists’ asylum. “Sophists are still with us,” he reminds us at one point. “Today we call them ‘lawyers,’ ‘professors of literary criticism,’ and ‘Michael Moore.’”
On a more serious note, concerning liberalism, he writes:
Purporting to offer a middle ground between radical individualism and collectivism, what it really gives us is a diabolical synthesis of the two, a bureaucratically managed libertinism.
The reader who begins this book prepared to think will end it thinking much more effectively. He will see the new atheism for the stale, unprofitable confusion it is. At the same time, he will accumulate some useful ammunition for the culture wars. Few books reward our labor so richly. •
Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.