Lecture, Dr. Edward Feser: “What We Owe the New Atheists”

Posted: April 10, 2014


by Dr. Edward Feser
Thomas Aquinas College
April 5, 2014

Note: Dr. Feser is an associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College. The following is the prepared text for a lecture he presented as part of Thomas Aquinas College’s St. Vincent de Paul Lecture and Concert Series, endowed by Barbara and Paul Henkels.


The theme of my talk is “What We Owe the New Atheists.” It might seem an odd one for the author of a decidedly non-irenic, highly polemical book like The Last Superstition. In that book I described Richard Dawkins as a man who “wouldn’t know metaphysics from Metamucil.” I proposed, accordingly, that the book Philosophy for Dummies might be reissued in a simplified version under the title Philosophy for Dawkins. I said that Christopher Hitchens’ synthesis of boozy self-confidence and theological incompetence made of him “a riddle, inside an enigma, wrapped in a cocktail napkin.” I wrote that Sam Harris’s work makes that of Madalyn Murray O’Hair look profound, and suggested that we might be forgiven for suspecting Harris’s entire literary career of being an elaborate hoax, a Sacha Baron Cohen-style publicity stunt. (Sam Harris as a philosophical Borat or Ali G.) Then, with Daniel Dennett, I got a little mean. The Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe famously judged David Hume to be a “mere — brilliant — sophist.” I suggested that Dennett could take pride in the fact that he is nearly in Hume’s rank as a philosopher, insofar as if you delete just the middle word in Anscombe’s estimation of Hume, you get a dead-on summation of Daniel Dennett.

As I think anyone who has read my book can tell you, this abuse was not gratuitous, but well-earned by its targets. The depth of the New Atheist writers’ ignorance of the actual content of the philosophical and religious ideas they attack is matched only by the breathtaking condescension and nastiness with which they attack them. Dawkins and Co. were asking for a little abuse. Nor need you be a religious believer to think so. Prominent Darwinian philosopher Michael Ruse has said that Dawkins’s book The God Delusion made him “ashamed to be an atheist” and that Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell is “really bad and not worthy of [him].” Another atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel, has described Dawkins’s “amateur philosophy” as “particularly weak,” and his attempts to counter the philosophical difficulties inherent in his own position “pure hand-waving.” Literary critic Terry Eagleton — yet another atheist, and a Marxist to boot — characterizes Dawkins’ writings on religion as “ill-informed,” “shoddy,” and directed at “vulgar caricatures.”

Again, though, this makes the title of my talk a bit puzzling. What could we possibly owe to a group of thinkers as intellectually and morally dubious as the New Atheists (other than a few cheap laughs at their expense)? To see the answer, let’s consider an analogy drawn from a cultural artifact from the early 1980s, whose theological potential I think remains untapped. I’m speaking, naturally, of Rocky III, that classic of boxing cinema starring Sylvester Stallone in the title role and Mr. T as challenger Clubber Lang. I trust you’ve seen the movie. Our hero Rocky Balboa — a Catholic, it is worth noting — is portrayed as a man who has, by this second sequel, at last reached the top of his sport. No longer the somewhat punch-drunk and perpetually bruised lovable lug of the first two movies, Rocky is handsome, tanned, well-coiffed, well-dressed, rich and famous, universally loved. And he’s certainly earned all these good things. Yet he’s also become soft and complacent. He’s gotten used to domestic life, and to wealth and the creature comforts it provides. He doesn’t fight the strongest challengers to his title as heavyweight champ. He trains only halfheartedly, and not even in a real gym but in a hotel ballroom surrounded by fawning admirers. He doesn’t listen to his crusty old trainer Mickey — played by Burgess Meredith — who warns him that he’s lost his edge.

Then there is Clubber Lang, played by Mr. T. He is portrayed as a ruthless, vulgar, swaggering blowhard. He has no respect for Rocky, cruelly insulting him in front of his admirers and even making a crude pass at Rocky’s wife Adrian, in public and right in front of him. He is supremely self-confident and sees none of Rocky’s nobility or inner strength, but only a sham he hopes to expose before the whole world. He glories in his own prowess, his own might. And yet while as a boxer that might lies in sheer brute force, he does indeed have that. He is also focused and self-disciplined. And he is undeniably driven to win, in a way Rocky no longer is, and at any cost.

So, we have, as the first act of the movie reaches its climax, a champion who is a good man but who has become overconfident, sloppy, and short-sighted. And we have a challenger who is a bad man but who is in peak fighting condition and utterly single-minded. Say what you will for Mr. T’s character, he means business. Rocky, it seems, does not. So, though we root for Rocky, when Mr. T knocks his block off we have to admit that Rocky was asking for it.

This being a Rocky movie, that is, of course, not the end of the story. Jolted back to reality by his humiliating defeat at the hands of Clubber Lang, Rocky regains his focus and drive to win, gets himself back into fighting shape, and goes on to reclaim his title after defeating Mr. T’s character in a rematch. He may even be a better fighter for having had to pick himself up again after his initial defeat; certainly he is a wiser one. In that way the challenge posed by Mr. T’s character was a blessing in disguise.

Now, what has all this to do with the New Atheists? Let me explain by recalling something that Cardinal George Pell — then Archbishop of Sydney and currently Prefect of the new Secretariat for the Economy in the Vatican — said to me when I was on a speaking tour in Australia a couple of years ago. (I realize that sounds awfully pretentious — like the Cardinal and I hang out or something. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t remember me. But when I had the honor of meeting with him, a remark he made certainly stuck with me.) The Cardinal had recently debated Richard Dawkins on Australian television. And he said to me that the New Atheists had actually done the Church a service, because they were forcing us to return to apologetics, a discipline which has been neglected now for many decades within mainstream Catholic intellectual circles.

This seems to me a very deep insight, and I would like to expand upon the Cardinal’s brief remark in my talk this evening. I certainly do not claim that he would necessarily endorse everything I will have to say — including my admittedly somewhat goofy Rocky III analogy. But I think the analogy is apt, and its import is by now perhaps obvious. The Church, in her human element and in particular in her intellectual life, has in my view in recent decades too often been like Rocky at the beginning of the movie — undisciplined, unserious, inattentive to the true nature of the challenge on the horizon and unprepared to deal with it. Just as Rocky coasts on the reputation he acquired from his past victories but has little to show for it when confronted by a vigorous new challenger, contemporary Catholic churchmen and theologians are the heirs of a glorious philosophical and theological patrimony of which they have, in the face of the moral, political, and intellectual challenges posed by secularism, made little use. And just as the Mr. T character, despite his boorishness and vanity, at least knows what it takes to win, so too do the New Atheists, for all their smug ignorance, know where the fundamental issues really lie in the dispute between religion and secularism. They understand that it is, at the end of the day, useless to appeal to the social advances that Christianity ushered in historically, or to the dignity that Christian morality attributes to human beings, or to the beauty of Christian art and architecture, unless there is good reason to think that the central claims of Christianity are actually true. They know, as St. Thomas Aquinas did, that it is useless to talk about faith unless you have shown that faith is something other than the self-deception its critics take it to be — that is, unless you have first established the rational preambles of faith, the praeambula fidei. They know, at least implicitly, that since man is a rational animal, you will not win him over in the long run if you cannot win over his intellect.

In short, the New Atheists know that, especially in a culture in which science has the prestige it has in ours, the moral, social and intellectual influence of Christianity stands or falls with the success of the central arguments of Christian apologetics. To be sure, the New Atheists do not even understand those arguments; much less have they refuted them. But when so few prominent churchmen and theologians put forward those arguments or even understand them themselves, the ignorance of the New Atheists is irrelevant. They will win by default. If you’re going to compete in a boxing match, you’d better be prepared to box. And if you are not, your opponent will have the victory whatever his own deficiencies as a boxer. So, the New Atheists are doing the Church the service that Mr. T did to Rocky — if, again, you’ll pardon my somewhat fanciful analogy — by forcing us to get serious, to get back into fighting shape, to recover our intellectual muscle and argumentative rigor.

Now so far that’s all very general, and it might even seem not quite right. For obviously there are and always have been many works of popular apologetics, and some of them do what they do very well. But that is not the sort of thing I am talking about. I am talking about apologetics pursued at the highest intellectual level, in a way that addresses the deepest assumptions informing the thinking of those who dominate the modern university and our modern scientific culture more generally — contemporary academic philosophers; physicists, chemists, biologists, and other natural scientists when they bother to think about philosophical questions; workers in the high tech industry; and so forth. These are the people to whom not only opinion makers but also, increasingly, the man on the street look for guidance on matters of objective truth. And needless to say, they are people who are unimpressed by works of popular Christian apologetics on the rare occasions when they take any notice of them at all. If they have any problem with the New Atheists, it is primarily that they see Dawkins and Co. as flogging a dead horse, and perhaps with unnecessary rudeness. But they think that what the New Atheists are saying is, at least in general, and its rudeness notwithstanding, not wrong but rather too obviously true to be worth bothering about. They don’t see Dawkins, Hitchens, and the rest as failing to see the strengths in religion, but rather as needlessly bullying an already defeated weakling. UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle — who is, it is worth noting, a very good philosopher indeed and a trenchant critic of many of the ideas associated with contemporary naturalism and scientism — captures the attitude that prevails in vast swaths of the contemporary intelligentsia. Writing a few years before the rise of the New Atheists, in his book Mind, Language, and Society, Searle said:

Nowadays nobody bothers [to attack religion], and it is considered in slightly bad taste to even raise the question of God’s existence. Matters of religion are like matters of sexual preference: they are not to be discussed in public, and even the abstract questions are discussed only by bores…

I believe that something much more radical than a decline in religious faith has taken place. For us, the educated members of society, the world has become demystified… The result of this demystification is that we have gone beyond atheism to a point where the issue no longer matters in the way it did to earlier generations… (pp. 34-35)

Commenting on some examples of purported miracles, Searle writes:

That is not a possible thought for us because, in a sense, we know too much… The point is not that we believe it is false, but that we don’t even take it seriously as a possibility. (p. 35-36)

It is these people, I maintain — those for whom the debate between atheism and theism is a historical relic, no longer a living one worth a moment of their attention — that modern churchmen and theologians have done far too little seriously to address. In Catholic circles there has been a tendency to retreat from engaging big picture metaphysical questions and to resort instead to a moral appeal to the “dignity of the human person,” as if this could provide common ground on which the Church could engage the secular world. But in fact by itself it provides no common ground at all, because what counts as a human person, and what dignity entails, are themselves highly contested questions. Euthanasia is, after all, defended as “death with dignity.” Opposition to “same-sex marriage” is routinely characterized as a denial of the dignity of homosexuals. Feminists who promote abortion and contraception would obviously deny that they are opposed to the dignity of women. And so on. So, merely to appeal to the “dignity of the human person,” as if this by itself settled anything, is just to beg all the important questions.

Other conservative theologians and religious writers have emphasized what Eastern orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart calls “the aesthetics of Christian truth” in the subtitle of his book The Beauty of the Infinite. Yet for the typical contemporary secular intellectual, our tendency to regard something as beautiful is entirely explicable in terms of biological and cultural evolution. Our aesthetic reactions may not be as variable as the relativist supposes, but they are on this view still subjective, reflecting the way Darwinian selection pressures hardwired our ancestors’ aesthetic psychology rather than any features of mind-independent reality. Accordingly, they have no ontological implications whatsoever. This is in my view utterly wrong-headed, but it is not a position which can be refuted merely by purpling up one’s prose or waxing eloquent about J. S. Bach. To suppose otherwise is to bring a harpsichord to a gunfight.

Then there is so-called “Intelligent Design” theory, which I have criticized many times, not because it is bad biology but because it is bad philosophy and theologically completely irrelevant. It is sometimes criticized as a “God of the gaps” approach, but it is in fact even worse than that. For even in the best case scenario, “Intelligent Design” theory, by its own admission, cannot really get you to a designer who might not be just one other part, albeit a grand and remote part, of the natural order itself. It could only ever get you to a god with a lower case “g” — essentially to a superhero like the sort you’d see in The Avengers or the other recent Marvel Comics based movies — and not one step closer to true theism. The critics of “Intelligent Design” accuse them of doing bad natural science while the ID people themselves claim to be doing good natural science, but what matters is that either way, what they are doing is natural science, not divine science. They are not really challenging at all the scientism that keeps the modern intelligentsia from taking religion seriously, but rather merely aping its methods and assumptions. Hence they are really just confirming scientism and the view of religion it supports. As John Searle wrote in the book I quoted a few moments ago:

For us [that is, the citizens of modern secular society], if it should turn out that God exists, that would have to be a fact of nature like any other. To the four basic forces in the universe — gravity, electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear forces — we would add a fifth, the divine force. Or more likely, we would see the other forces as forms of the divine force. But it would still be all physics, albeit divine physics. If the supernatural existed, it too would have to be natural. (p. 35)

Searle was not writing about “Intelligent Design” theory, but he might as well have been. So thoroughly has the metaphysics of scientism been assimilated by the modern intelligentsia that they assume that even if some kind of theism were defensible, it would have to be merely an eccentric riff on the sort of thing they already believe in. There is in their minds simply no conceptual space left for anything else.

The New Atheism is just a particularly loud and obnoxious expression of this basic mindset. Dawkins and Co. differ from more subtle and polite thinkers like Searle and Thomas Nagel in showing greater impatience with those who do not yet see what they regard as the plain truth. To allude to my Rocky analogy one last time, the New Atheists are like Mr. T, who wants cruelly to expose Rocky as a complete sham, whereas everyone else is happy gently to leave Rocky to his illusions. Of course, Rocky is not really a sham, but just off his game, and of course, neither is Christianity a sham. Mr. T forces Rocky to prove it — to prove himself and to become once again what he was. We owe the New Atheists for forcing us to do the same.

Now, if pop apologetics — which is fine as far as it goes but is unable to speak to the deepest issues or to the most sophisticated opponents of Christianity — if that is not what I am saying we need to return to, and if I have criticized as ineffective or irrelevant the moralizing, aesthetic, or pseudo-scientific appeals made by many contemporary churchmen and theologians, what exactly is it that I would recommend? What is it to which I am saying we need to return if the human element in the Church is to be restored to its full intellectual vigor and fighting strength?

I am going to take the remainder of my time this evening to answer that question, but I can begin by summing the answer up in one word: Scholasticism. It’s a word that will raise hackles on the backs of some Catholic necks, and not only liberal ones. Some years ago, at an initially friendly dinner after an academic conference, I sat next to a fellow Catholic academic, to whom I mildly expressed the opinion that it had been a mistake for Catholic theologians to move away from the arguments of natural theology that had been so vigorously championed by Neo-Scholastic writers. He responded in something like a paroxysm of fury, sputtering bromides of the sort familiar from personalist and nouvelle theologie criticisms of Neo-Scholasticism. Taken aback by this sudden change in the tone of our conversation, I tried to reassure him that I was not denying that the approaches he preferred had their place, and reminded him that belief in the philosophical demonstrability of God’s existence was, after all, just part of Catholic doctrine. But it was no use. Nothing I said in response could mollify him. It was like he’d seen a ghost he thought had been exorcised long ago, and couldn’t pull out of the subsequent panic attack.

Now he was not, it should be emphasized, theologically or politically liberal. Far from it. Nor is his response, though extreme, as unusual as you might think. There is something about Thomism, Scholasticism more generally, and “rationalistic” or philosophical approaches to religion and morality even more generally that a certain kind of religious sensibility, even a certain kind of conservative religious sensibility, simply finds off-putting. I think this owes in part to a kind of fideism which is offended by the very idea that there is theological or moral knowledge to be had apart from grace and apart from divine revelation — and perhaps especially offended by the very idea that a pagan like Aristotle or Plotinus might know something important about these topics that the ordinary simple Christian with his Bible or rosary does not know. I think it owes also in part to a worry that philosophical arguments are too cerebral, too cold and bloodless, to be relevant to concrete religious or moral life.

Now it goes without saying that from a Catholic point of view, it is possible to go too far in the direction of rationalism. For example, to treat theology like a mere intellectual game while ignoring its spiritual and moral implications would, needless to say, be to miss the whole point of it. And it would be heretical to deny that there are truths knowable only through divine revelation, or to deny that acceptance of those truths on faith is a free act to which we are drawn by grace. Hence the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia says in its article on “Faith”:

[I]n the minds of many faith is regarded as a more or less necessary consequence of a careful study of the motives of credibility, a view which the Vatican Council condemns expressly: “If anyone says that the assent of Christian faith is not free, but that it necessarily follows from the arguments which human reason can furnish in its favour; or if anyone says that God’s grace is only necessary for that living faith which worketh through charity, let him be anathema.”

However, the Church also teaches that it is possible to go too far in the opposite direction, and condemns fideism no less than extreme rationalism. As the very same Catholic Encyclopedia article immediately goes on to say:

On the other hand, we must not minimize the real probative force of the motives of credibility within their true sphere — “Reason declares that from the very outset the Gospel teaching was rendered conspicuous by signs and wonders which gave, as it were, definite proof of a definite truth” (Leo XIII, Æterni Patris).

What is said about the subject in the same Catholic Encyclopedia in its article on “Fideism” is worth quoting at length:

As against [fideistic] views, it must be noted that authority, even the authority of God, cannot be the supreme criterion of certitude, and an act of faith cannot be the primary form of human knowledge. This authority, indeed, in order to be a motive of assent, must be previously acknowledged as being certainly valid; before we believe in a proposition as revealed by God, we must first know with certitude that God exists, that He reveals such and such a proposition, and that His teaching is worthy of assent, all of which questions can and must be ultimately decided only by an act of intellectual assent based on objective evidence. Thus, fideism not only denies intellectual knowledge, but logically ruins faith itself.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Church has condemned such doctrines… [In] 1840, [the Catholic fideist thinker Louis-Eugène-Marie] Bautain was required to subscribe to several propositions directly opposed to Fideism, the first and the fifth of which read as follows: “Human reason is able to prove with certitude the existence of God; faith, a heavenly gift, is posterior to revelation, and therefore cannot be properly used against the atheist to prove the existence of God”; and “The use of reason precedes faith and, with the help of revelation and grace, leads to it.” … [T]he [first] Vatican Council teaches as a dogma of Catholic faith that “one true God and Lord can be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason by means of the things that are made”…

As to the opinion of those who maintain that our supernatural assent is prepared for by motives of credibility merely probable, it is evident that it logically destroys the certitude of such an assent. This opinion was condemned by Innocent XI … and by Pius X … Revelation, indeed, is the supreme motive of faith in supernatural truths, yet, the existence of this motive and its validity has to be established by reason.

In short, the Catholic teaching that grace guides us to faith does not entail that at some point we just have to close our eyes real tight and will ourselves into believing some proposition for which there are insufficient rational grounds. That is William James style fideism, not Catholicism. When someone says “There but for the grace of God go I,” he does not mean that he did not freely choose to avoid a life of sin and that God somehow programmed him to avoid it, as He might program a robot. Similarly, when we say that we are led to faith by God’s grace, this does not mean that we are not at the same time led to it by reason. As Thomas Aquinas writes:

Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity… Hence sacred doctrine makes use also of the authority of philosophers in those questions in which they were able to know the truth by natural reason… (Summa Theologiae I.1.8)

Here’s a way I would suggest thinking about the proper relationship between nature and grace, reason and faith, philosophy and revelation. Natural theology and natural law, both of which play a key role in apologetics, are like a skeleton, and the moral and theological deliverances of divine revelation are like the flesh that hangs on the skeleton. Just as neither skeleton alone nor flesh alone give you a complete human being, neither do nature alone nor grace alone give you the complete story about the human condition.

By natural theology and natural law I have in mind, specifically, the philosophical knowledge of God and of morality embodied in what is sometimes called the “perennial philosophy” — the tradition represented by the classical (that is to say, Platonic and Aristotelian) philosophers and brought to a higher degree of perfection by the great Scholastics. By themselves natural theology and natural law as developed within this tradition are like a skeleton: striking, solid, and enduring, but also dry, cold, and dead. That is to say, on the one hand the central arguments of natural theology and natural law are (when rightly understood, as they often are not) impressive and rationally compelling, but can also seem remote from everyday life insofar as they are sometimes hard to understand and deliver a conception of God and of morality that can seem forbiddingly abstract. To be sure, I think the “coldness” and “abstractness” of natural theology and natural law are often greatly overstated, but I don’t deny that there is some truth to the standard caricature.

By the deliverances of divine revelation I have in mind, of course, what we know of God and of morality from scripture, from the creeds, councils, and tradition more generally, and from the Magisterium of the Church. By themselves these deliverances are like flesh without a skeleton: warm and human, but also weirdly distorted and unable to stand on its own or to offer resistance. That is to say, on the one hand the theological and moral deliverances of revelation are more profound than anything natural theology and natural law can give us, and speak to us in a more personal and accessible way. But they can also seem (when wrongly understood, as they often are) to lack any objective rational foundation, and to reflect a culturally and historically parochial view of human life that cannot apply to all times and places. To be sure, these purported defects of Christian theology are also, to say the least, greatly overstated, but there is some truth to this caricature too to the extent that Christian theology is not informed by natural theology, natural law, and the methods of philosophy more generally.

Now there have of course been times when the significance of nature, reason, and philosophy have been overemphasized — when the claims of grace, faith, and revelation have been deemphasized and religion reduced to a rationalist skeleton. But the pressing danger today comes from the opposite direction. Talk of “faith” has been bastardized, so that many believers and skeptics alike wrongly take it to refer essentially to a kind of subjective feeling or irrational will to believe. Too much popular preaching and piety has been reduced to trashy self-help sentimentality or vague moralizing. Too many philosophers of religion have for too long been playing defense — maintaining, not that theism is in a position rationally and evidentially superior to atheism, but instead conceding the evidential issue and pleading merely that religious belief not be regarded as less rational for that. Too many theologians have turned their attention away from questions of objective, metaphysical truth to matters of aesthetics, or moral sentiment, or psychology, culture, or history.

In short, religious believers have been fleeing into a non-cognitive ghetto almost faster than skeptics can push them into it. They are too often like the hypochondriac in science fiction writer Ray Bradbury’s short story “Skeleton,” who is pathologically fearful of his own bones and ends up losing them — reduced in the horrific climax to a helpless, amorphous blob. This is why the New Atheists have had such success in making punching bags of them. It is why the charge that religion is all emotion and wishful thinking, detached from objective reality and without rational foundation, seems for so many people to stick. What Christian theology needs now more than ever is its traditional backbone, its Scholastic backbone.

What does this mean concretely? Several things. First and most fundamentally, we need to re-learn what Catholic philosophers and theologians of earlier generations knew well: that all bodies of knowledge, including apologetics, rest on metaphysical foundations, and cannot be adequately defended without defending those foundations. As the Catholic philosopher Fr. Henry Koren put it in his 1950s era manual An Introduction to the Science of Metaphysics:

Without metaphysics, the ultimate foundations of all other sciences are left insecure. In other sciences, we presuppose and take for granted such things as the principles of contradiction and of causality, the multiplication of individuals in the same species, the possibility of change, etc. If we accept all these things without examining their value, the whole structure built upon them stands on insecure grounds and thus leaves everything open to doubt. On the other hand, if we do not accept them, scientific knowledge of any kind will be impossible. Hence, in order to make true science possible, these principles and presuppositions must be examined, and their validity established. (pp. 10-11)

Fr. Koren was using the term “science” in the broad Aristotelian sense, which applies to any systematic body of knowledge, including apologetics. If the Faith is going to be defended effectively against the New Atheists or anyone else, its metaphysical presuppositions must be carefully set out and rigorously defended.

Now many will balk at this suggestion on the grounds that metaphysical issues are just too controversial in a modern pluralistic society like ours to be susceptible of useful public adjudication. Maybe in private a Catholic intellectual can uphold a commitment to Aristotelian-Thomistic views about the nature of substance, causality, essence, and the like, but — so the argument might go — when defending Catholic moral and theological teaching in a public context, he should confine himself to less controversial premises. Indeed, this is in effect what Catholic intellectuals and churchmen have been doing for several decades now. But the result, I maintain, has been disastrous. For the truth is that we are already engaged in a public dispute about fundamental metaphysical issues, whether we like it or not. The policy of avoiding engagement on these issues has thus amounted to a kind of unilateral disarmament. The result is that in the eyes of its critics, it is not that Catholic theological and moral teaching have an intellectual foundation in something other than metaphysics. Rather, it has come to seem that Catholic teaching has no intellectual foundation at all.

There are at least three ways in which we are, whether we like it or not, engaged in a dispute about fundamental metaphysics. First, the New Atheism rests on scientism, the view that natural science alone can give us objective knowledge, where “natural science” is understood as the sort of thing Galileo and Newton were up to. The empiriometric methods of modern physics are taken to be the gold standard, and the further something is from the predictive and technological successes of physics, the less “scientific,” and thus the less reflective of objective reality, it is taken to be. Now this is by no means a view held by the New Atheists alone. It is an attitude that is widespread in modern intellectual life, and taken for granted by at least a large part of the general public. What it entails is that if some claim is not supportable by science so understood — that is to say, if it does not have the kind of predictive and technological successes that modern physics has had — then we have no reason to think it corresponds to objective reality. Hence since the claims of Christian theology and ethics lack the kind of predictive successes and technological applications of physics, they do not count as genuine knowledge.

Now scientism is itself a metaphysical thesis. It entails a view about what it is to be a substance, what it is to have an essence or nature, what sorts of causes there are or could be, and so forth, and thus it has implications for what can count as a legitimate explanation. It also happens to be a self-refuting position, since scientism is not itself supported by the methods of empirical science. The point to emphasize for present purposes, though, is that you are not going to refute the arguments of New Atheists and like-minded critics of religion unless you refute scientism. But that requires addressing issues of fundamental metaphysics. So, that is one way in which defenders of Christian moral and theological teaching are ultimately engaged in a public dispute about fundamental metaphysical issues, whether they like it or not.

A second way is that there are no arguments for the existence of God or for the rationality of Christian moral teaching that do not rest on metaphysical presuppositions, and on presuppositions that New Atheists and other critics explicitly or implicitly would reject. Take, for example, Aquinas’s famous Five Ways of proving the existence of God. I think that all of these arguments are cogent — indeed, that they are genuine demonstrations of God’s existence — and I have defended them at length in several places. But to defend them you have also to defend the background philosophical assumptions that enter into the arguments. For example, you have to defend the Aristotelian theory of act and potency as essential to accounting for the possibility of change, you have to show that the contingent material objects of our experience are hylemorphic compounds, you have to show that all efficient causality necessarily presupposes final causality, and so forth. I would also argue that you cannot defend natural law arguments, or any other moral arguments for that matter, without addressing the metaphysical question of what a human being is — in particular, without defending the claim that a human being is a substance by nature directed toward the realization of certain specific ends. So, the defense of Christian moral and theological claims inevitably entails defending the deeper metaphysical commitments they presuppose.

This brings me to a third respect in which any defender of the Catholic faith is already engaged in a public dispute about fundamental metaphysics, whether he realizes it or not. Consider the alternative approaches I cited above — the strategy of appealing to the notion of the dignity of the human person as common ground between the Catholic and the secularist, or the strategy of appealing to the aesthetic qualities of Christian doctrine and practice. These approaches represent, in effect, attempts to engage the secularist by way of the notion of the good and the notion of the beautiful, respectively. Now, to use the language of Scholastic metaphysics, goodness and beauty are transcendentals — albeit in the case of beauty its status as a transcendental is a matter of some controversy, but we can put that controversy to one side for present purposes. As transcendentals, goodness and beauty are convertible with being; that is, being, goodness, and beauty are really the same thing looked at from different points of view. Goodness is just being considered as the object of appetite, beauty is just being considered as pleasing. In one sense, then, being, goodness, and beauty are equally fundamental insofar as they are convertible with one another. This, I think, may help explain why it has seemed to some a promising strategy to approach the defense of the Faith from the point of view of goodness or beauty rather than from the point of view of the more blatantly metaphysical notion of being.

However, there is another sense in which being is the more fundamental notion. Being is at least conceptually prior to goodness and beauty even if, ontologically speaking, they are the same thing considered from different points of view — again, goodness is being as object of appetite, beauty is being considered as pleasing. Now modern philosophy has abandoned the doctrine of the transcendentals, and has also, as a consequence, in general lost any sense of the relationship between goodness and beauty on the one hand and being on the other. It is no surprise, then, that goodness and beauty have come to seem merely affective, features of our reactions to objective reality but in no way corresponding to anything in objective reality itself. This is why appeals to the dignity of the human person or to the aesthetics of Christian truth are ultimately useless unless the notions of goodness and beauty are once again grounded in being. But that means that to appeal to the dignity of the human person or the aesthetics of Christian truth, to be effective, requires a defense of classical metaphysics — in which case they can hardly serve as an alternative to metaphysics when doing apologetics.

So, that is one way in which effective apologetics requires a return to Scholasticism. It requires that we recognize that where the apologetic task is concerned, metaphysics wears the trousers. Specifically, a defense of classical metaphysics — grounded in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions and brought to perfection by the great Scholastics — is an unavoidable prolegomenon to the defense of the classical arguments for the existence of God and the natural law conception of morality. In no other way, I maintain, can modern secularism of the sort represented by the New Atheism be decisively rebutted.

A second way in which a proper response to the New Atheists requires a return to Scholasticism has to do with what we mean when we talk about God. New Atheists and other critics of religion typically operate with a highly anthropomorphic conception of God. They realize that theists regard God as immaterial, but they nevertheless think of him as essentially a disembodied person, like us but without having the limitations we have on our power, knowledge, and moral virtue. They then proceed to argue that to deny that God so conceived exists is really no different from denying that Zeus, or Quetzalcoatl, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists. For like the material world God is supposed to be the explanation of, God so conceived would require an explanation of his own. For example, he would be an extremely complex mind, and so we’d need to ask what it is that accounts for why this mind exists. Since this just pushes the problem of ultimate explanation back a stage without solving it, Ockham’s razor — so the argument goes — should lead us just to reject theism and stick with the fundamental laws of physics as the ultimate explanation. In fact, Dawkins characterizes this in The God Delusion as the main argument against theism, and many other atheists and secularists would say the same.

Now the trouble with this argument is that it simply misses the entire point of classical philosophical theology. God as conceived of in classical theology is not complex but rather absolutely simple. He is not “a being” alongside other beings but rather Being Itself; nor is he “a mind” alongside other minds, but pure Intellect Itself. He not only need not have a cause of his own but could not in principle have had one, since he is pure actuality rather than a mixture of actuality and potentiality, and only what has potentiality of some sort needs a cause or could have a cause. He is not “a god” alongside other gods because he is not a member of a genus of any kind. Though by no means impersonal — God is, after all three divine Persons in one substance — he is nevertheless radically non-anthropomorphic.

Of course, part of the reason the New Atheists so badly misunderstand the divine nature is that they are woefully ill-informed about philosophy and theology in general. But it is not entirely their fault. For one thing, the average unsophisticated religious believer does tend to have a rather crudely anthropomorphic conception of God. But it is not just the ordinary believer’s fault either. Professional philosophers of religion these days also tend to operate with a conception of God that Aristotle, Plotinus, Anselm, or Aquinas would regard as hopelessly anthropomorphic. “Intelligent Design” theorists, inheritors of William Paley’s conception of God as a kind of cosmic watchmaker or machinist, also tend to operate with a crudely anthropomorphic conception of God. When New Atheists attack the notion of God so conceived, it has to be conceded that they have a point.

Their criticisms are, however, entirely ineffectual against the classical philosophical conception of God, which was brought to its highest refinement within Scholasticism. Nor is it merely a philosophical conception; it is at the core of Catholic orthodoxy, incorporated into binding Catholic teaching by councils and creeds. To defend the Catholic Faith against New Atheist and other critics, then, we need to return to Scholasticism not only where the metaphysical foundations or starting points of apologetics are concerned, but also with respect to the end point or edifice we build on that foundation, with respect to the conception of God and his relationship to the world to which the arguments of classical apologetics lead us.

A third respect in which an effective response to secularism requires a return to Scholasticism is that we need to return not only to classical Scholastic philosophy and apologetics but also to systematic or dogmatic theology. For even if the secularist were to admit the rational demonstrability of the existence of God and the broad outlines of natural law — that is to say, of those themes which Christian theology shares in common with the greatest pagan thinkers — it is bound to seem to him that a specifically Christian theology nevertheless constitute a historically contingent hodgepodge or jumble of doctrines that have been arbitrarily tacked on to this philosophical edifice. Now the great Scholastic theologians showed that this is by no means the case — that in fact the various elements of Catholic dogmatic and moral theology constitute a tight logical system which can be rigorously articulated and defended. But knowledge of this once standard theology has in recent decades largely disappeared within the Church. This has led not only to a collapse of catechesis, but made Catholic teaching vulnerable to attack from without.

Catholic theologian R. R. Reno, now the editor of First Things, wrote in the magazine a few years ago of the unintended consequences of the revolution against Neo-Scholasticism led by nouvelle theologie thinkers like Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Yves Congar. Reno is by no means hostile to these writers; he characterizes them as part of what he calls a “Heroic Generation” of theologians. Yet he also thinks that their one-sided and excessively polemical attitude to the Neo-Scholastic tradition they displaced, as well as their style of presenting theology as a set of poetic and even brilliant but still idiosyncratic and unsystematic insights, inadvertently undermined the sense that once prevailed in the Church of Catholic theology as forming a coherent system. Reno’s remarks are worth quoting at some length. He writes:

The Church is not a community of independent scholars, each pursuing individualized syntheses, however important or enriching these projects might be. The Church needs teachers and priests to build up the faithful. To do this work effectively, the Church needs theologians committed to developing and sustaining a standard theology, a common pattern of thought, a widely used framework for integrating and explaining doctrine…

[T]he Church can no more function like a debating society that happens to meet on Sunday mornings, forever entertaining new hypotheses, than a physics professor can give over the classroom to eager students who want to make progress by way of freewheeling discussions. As Leo XIII recognized in Aeterni Patris (1879), the encyclical that threw papal authority behind the nineteenth-century ascendancy of the theology of St. Thomas, believers need a baseline, a communally recognized theology, in order to have an intellectually sophisticated grasp of the truth of the faith…

The collapse of neoscholasticism has not led to the new and fuller vision sought by the Heroic Generation. It has created a vacuum filled with simple-minded shibboleths…

The post-Vatican II professors who are now retiring and who trained so many of us… perpetuated the myth that nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Catholic theology is a vast desert of dry and dusty theology empty of spiritual significance. Who assigns Joseph Kleutgen, Johann Baptist Franzelin, or Matthias Scheeben; Charles Journet, Cardinal Mercier, or Garrigou-Lagrange? Because of this neglect, the old theological culture of the Church has largely been destroyed, while the Heroic Generation did not, perhaps could not, formulate a workable, teachable alternative to take its place….

Our current situation is absurd. Unlike professors in most disciplines, America’s theology faculties offer almost no introduction to the basic logic of their subject…

We need to recover the systematic clarity and comprehensiveness of the neoscholastic synthesis, rightly modified and altered by the insights of the Heroic Generation and their desire for a more scriptural, more patristic, and more liturgical vision of the unity and truth of the Christian faith. We need good textbooks — however much they might not satisfy a literary genius like Hans Urs von Balthasar and the soul of a poet like Henri de Lubac — in order to develop an intellectually sophisticated faith. (“Theology After the Revolution,” First Things, May 2007)

Now I would argue that this now prevailing general ignorance of Catholic theology as a rigorously articulated system has made it all the easier for New Atheists and others to characterize Christian doctrine as a set of irrational prejudices, and to make the charge stick even with many who have had a Catholic education. Balthasar spoke in a famous book of “razing the bastions” that the Church had constructed in the Neo-Scholastic period. We shouldn’t be surprised that in the wake of this razing, the barbarians have come flooding in and the faithful left defenseless. That is not to say that the bastions were in perfect shape just as Balthasar’s generation found them. But what they needed was not to be razed to the ground, but rather refortification, retrofitting, and perhaps a new paint job.

In summary, then, I would argue that an effective response to the New Atheism and modern secularism in general requires, first, a return to classical apologetics; second, a return to the classical, Scholastic metaphysical foundations that a sound apologetics requires; third, a defense of the classical theistic conception of God toward which the best arguments of traditional apologetics point, and which was championed by the Scholastics; and fourth, a return to a general systematic Christian theology of the sort developed within the Scholastic tradition. Only a recovery of the breadth and depth, argumentative rigor and conceptual precision of Scholasticism, can do the job needed.

If the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church, the New Atheists certainly will not. But to paraphrase that old atheist Nietzsche, what does not kill the Church makes her stronger. For prodding us Catholics to contribute to that strengthening, we can thank the New Atheists.

Dr. Edward Feser 2014
Brian Murphy (’14)

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Cheshire, Conn.

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