Wednesday, November 12, 2014

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 1 Bad Religion)

On almost every page of Feser's book he seems to make about 10 ballsy points that I disagree with. It makes me want to refute his book line by line like I sometimes do with Christian apologists like William Lane Craig, but that would take me forever and isn't realistically possible. Instead, I will have to summarize what I think are his important points and address them, while hoping that I don't miss his intended argument.

Feser opens up chapter 1, entitled Bad Religion, mentioning the alleged conversion of Anthony Flew from atheism to deism. To be honest with you, I never knew about Flew until a few years ago, and even today I know little about him. He was known for being a prominent atheist during the 20th century, but in 2004, it was reported that he became a deist. I can see how many theists would love to showcase such an example of an atheist's change of mind. Feser brings up Flew's alleged conversion because he thinks it was due to an underlying adoption of an Aristotelian metaphysic, and Feser argues that this is what's been erased in modern philosophical thinking. Adopting classical Aristotelian metaphysics, Feser states, "effectively makes atheism and naturalism impossible."(7)

Without defining secularism again, Feser asserts it's a "religion to itself" and is "necessarily and inherently, a deeply irrational and immoral view of the world". (2-3) He accuses secularists of being intolerant of defectors with "close-minded prejudice" and that they hypocritically act just like the religious believers they oppose. (2) He seems to have no problem conflating "secularist" with "atheist."

There are many ways one can use the term secular. It has both a political meaning and a philosophical meaning. In the political sense, secularism is "the principle of the separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and religious dignitaries." To be a "secularist" in the political sense is to maintain that principle regardless of whether one believes in god or not. A theist can therefore be a political secularist. However, in the social or philosophical sense, secularism can be a "social philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faith and worship." This definition can be almost synonymous with atheism, since virtually all atheists are secularists in the philosophical sense. But a deist can be a secularist in the philosophical sense too, and a non-religious theist arguably could be as well. This makes the term "secular" very confusing and the context it's being used in very important, and Feser should have made that less confusing by defining what he means, especially when he calls secularism "deeply irrational, immoral, and indeed insane." It seems that Feser is using the philosophical sense of the word rather than the political sense, but he never makes that clear.

Feser embarks on several ad hominem attacks on the New Atheists, fallaciously arguing that they don't understand religion, classical philosophy or metaphysics, nor what faith really means.(4) It is true that many of the New Atheists do often engage religion in its stupidest forms, because that's what you have to deal with when you debate religion. The Ken Hams and Jerry Falwells of the world are more prominent than the Edward Fesers are, and perhaps that's a sad fact on the state of religious belief. One third of Americans still accept young earth creationism in the 21st century. If religion hadn't kept so many people so ignorant, the New Atheists wouldn't have to spend so much time dealing with the fundies and creatards and would only have the "sophisticatedviews of religion to deal with that Feser so desperately wants to popularize. It should therefore be every "sophistocated" theologian's mission to eradicate the voices of ignorance from within their faith that are constantly drowning out the whispers of the more rational.

On a side note, there are plenty of atheists addressing the most "sophisticated" arguments theists have, and it doesn't seem like Feser will address their arguments in his book. Instead, it appears he will declare New Atheism intellectually bankrupt simply because the "New Atheists" have not addressed his particular favorite arguments for god. But as I emphasized in my original post on this book, atheism's tenability in no way rests on the arguments of Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins or Dennett.

Feser makes several bold claims in this chapter. On pages 5-6 he writes:

The truth is precisely the opposite of what secularism claims: Only a (certain kind of) religious view of the world is rational, morally responsible, and sane; and an irreligious world is accordingly deeply irrational, immoral, and indeed insane. Secularism can never truly rest on reason, but only on "faith," as secularists themselves understand that term (or rather misunderstand it as we shall see): an unshakable commitment grounded not in reason, but rather in sheer willfulness, a deeply ingrained desire to want things to be a certain way regardless of whether the evidence shows they are that way.

Feser really thinks that atheists have gotten it ass backwards. It is atheists who are running on blind faith, not the (certain kind of) theist whose supernatural views are well grounded in reason. I couldn't disagree more. We'll have to see how good his case is and his arguments are in the following chapters.

On the idea of wishful thinking, which many atheists, including myself, think guides a large part of the religious, Feser acknowledges this but counters that "it is no less true that a desire to be free of traditional moral standards, and a fear of certain (real or imagined) political or social consequences of the truth of religious belief, can also lead us to believe that we are just clever animals with no purpose to our lives other than the purposes we choose to give them, and there is no cosmic judge who will punish us for disobeying an objective moral law."(10)

There a few things I want to say here. First, Feser in a way is assuming that the only god that could possibly exist is the "cosmic judge" type that he believes in. Atheists reject non-judgmental gods too, for which there are plenty of varieties. And liberal theists often believe in these versions of god. So if atheists were just wishful thinkers, why wouldn't they just believe in the nice gods? It's because atheists reject all notions of god because we see no evidence, and we see nice versions of god as also the product of wishful thinking. Second, some atheists adhere to "traditional moral standards," albeit, a minority of them, and a very large percentage of theists reject traditional moral standards while maintaining a belief in god. Third, many theists, especially Christians in the West, are secular in the political sense. So believing in god does not necessarily entail political consequences. Forth, it seems to me that atheists tend to ground their worldview in evidence more than theists do (but of course Feser would contest this view). And finally, we don't see any objective purpose to our lives because there is no good evidence for it.

Feser makes another argument on wishful thinking that Dinesh D'souza often made. The idea of hell, Feser notes, "shows that atheism is hardly less plausibly motivated by wishful thinking than theism is. For while it is hard to understand why someone would want to believe that he is in danger of everlasting fire, it is not at all hard to see why one would desperately want not to believe this." (10) This is actually easy to explain. Hell is a product of wishful thinking too because it's where you wish people that you don't like go to. Many theists relish in the idea of those they don't like, who they deem "wicked" in some sense, being tortured in hell.* It's totally wishful thinking. And also, Feser ignores the masochistic aspect of the human personality. Some people wish to be tortured and subjugated, and religion in some sense very likely is a manifestation of human masochism. (For more on this see here).

All through this chapter Feser makes huge claims. On science he writes:

Finally, a complete account of the universe and of human nature in terms that make no reference whatsoever to purpose, meaning, and design is not within our grasp and never will be, for the simple reason that such an "account" is in principle impossible, and the hope for it based on nothing more than muddle-headedness mixed with wishful thinking. We can no more eliminate purpose and meaning from nature than we can square the circle. (12)

This is a huge claim and he knows it. Since Feser promises to back these claims up in later chapters I will refrain from critique until I get to his actual arguments. But moving on, he makes a fuss about how science assumes methodological naturalism, quoting several scientists and philosophers in the process. Science assumes methodological naturalism for good reason. At every single point in the history of science where there has been a tough question or an apparent dilemma, like a chicken and egg scenario, there were those who posited a supernatural explanation. But every single time the answer was found it was found to be a natural explanation. The tendency for people wanting to posit supernatural causes for tough questions would destroy science and hinder our intellectual progress.

But it is one's first philosophy that Feser maintains is what really matters in the debate over god or the soul. If one accepts modern philosophical metaphysics, then the game is rigged in favor of the naturalist. But if one accepts classical philosophy, the kind advanced by Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, then naturalism becomes impossible and classical theism triumphs. He writes:

By ignoring the challenge posed by the classical philosophical worldview, and distorting its key ideas and arguments on those rare occasions when it is taken account of at all, secularism maintains its illusory status as the rational default position. (13-14)

Maintaining a worldview grounded in a classical philosophical outlook is paramount for Feser's arguments to work, which are largely derived from Aristotle and Aquinas. I will refrain from addressing this, again, until we get to that point in his book, as it is premature now. I mention these quotes largely to showcase Feser's views that he promises will be justified later on.

Feser makes a strong accusation that secularism is a religion, while still not defining it for his readers. He says an irreligious man who is "positively hostile to religion" is a "bad man, and an irrational man." (14) He's pretty much talking about me here, as I am an atheist "positively hostile to religion." He then says, "a religious sensibility, properly understood, is a moral and intellectual virtue." (14) If there is one thing that the New Atheists have sought to popularize, it is that society's blanket acceptance of the virtue of being religious should stop. (I would have loved to see a debate between Feser and Hitchens on whether Christianity is good.) I cannot disagree more with Feser on this. There is nothing virtuous about believing in unsupported religious metaphysical claims that derive from superstitious Bronze-age tribesmen who knew less about how the universe works than your average high school student today.

Feser then takes aim at the mentality of secularists that he's caricatured in his head. He stupidly thinks your average secularist thinks it's perfectly OK to lump in the morality of same sex marriage with strangling infants, and sodomizing goats or corpses. This is utter bullshit. Then he says secularism is parasitic of religion, saying "there is nothing more to their creed than rejecting and opposing religion." (17) Here he is talking about philosophical secularism, which, as I've defined above, is a "social philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faith and worship." Complaining that secularism is based on opposing religion is like complaining that feminism is based on opposing sexism. Of course secularism is opposed to religion and/or religion mixing with government (depending on what version you're using). But secularism is not a worldview. It is simply a position on religion and government or religion and society. So to say that secularists have nothing positive to offer is to forget that America's founding fathers were secularists, and created our ideas of freedom from and of religion.

Feser repeatedly tries to argue that secularism and naturalism are a "religious phenomena," or, if not a religion per se, then a counter-religion, complete with its "counter-saints," "counter-prophets," and "counter-apostles" (Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, Dennett). It would be premature of me to counter this too much without having gotten to the meat and potatoes of his argument for god, but for now I can say that it's a common tactic for theists to accuse atheists of being as religious as those they oppose. (Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has even proposed that belief in god is properly basic and that atheists might have a damaged sensus divinitatis due to sin.) All these theories to try and explain atheism are based on a worldview that god exists and that one religion is true, and it is because of this reason that its theories will never be grounded in actual evidence. What motivates most secularists against religion is the absurdity of basing a modern society on the antiquated moral values and beliefs of religions that are obviously man-made to any educated person as well as harmful. If that's a phenomena, it isn't a religious one, it's a rational one. I'm sure Feser wouldn't want American laws based on the Koran. You see, the more conservative a theist is in their religion, the more they tend to be opposed to other religions. It's always easy for theists to see the absurdity of other religions, they just can't see the absurdity of theirs beyond their theological blinders.

And that wraps up my review of chapter 1.

So, as we can see Feser is passionately anti-atheist, which pins people like him and people like me as perpetual intellectual enemies, to the extend that accommodationism is impossible. I absolutely seek to destroy his worldview and all its ill-effects and he does mine. I'm looking forward to reading this critique of my worldview and to hear a good case for the existence of god, the immortal soul, and for the natural law theory of ethics, which Feser says are "rationally unavoidable." (25) Indeed, he says that even if you're not convinced by his arguments, "you will understand how reasonable people could be convinced". I am open to this possibility and as I've debated religion over the years, I do recognize that there are very sophisticated arguments for god. But I'm acquainted with the arguments of naturalism and secularism enough to easily spot the bullshit and misconceived accusations towards it, as I've already done here, and so I'm looking forward to this critique with enthusiasm.

*On page 75 Feser even entertains the enjoyment he'd get seeing the New Atheists tortured in the medieval sense, further showing how hell is the product of wishful thinking.

← Preface 
   Chapter 2 →

Edit: A theist who agrees with Feser took the time to critique my review and I responded to him. In my response I clarify many parts of my original critique that perhaps I should have worded better and I address many of his misunderstandings of my review. For further elaboration on my review, see A Reply To Steven Jake On The Last Superstition.

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