September 2011

The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism.  By Edward Feser. St. Augustine’s Press. 299 pages. $19.

Readers recalling religion and philosophy classes as a series of dry, musty musings will be entertained as well as enlightened with this response to the New Atheism of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Daw­kins, and Christopher Hitchens. Edward Feser is not above belittling the atheists, stating that one is “almost tempted to think Dawkins’s research for the philosophical chapters of his book consisted entirely of a quick thumbing through of Philosophy for Dummies….” Harris shuns Aquinas and seems to “dismiss the great religious thinkers of the West without having read them.” Dennett’s paltry three-page, penny-ante address of traditional philosophical arguments for God’s existence is also summarily dispatched. While asserting that “atheist chic is now,” Feser exposes atheism as the “ultimate superstition” with a goofy catechism that preaches extreme environmentalism and animal-rights activism. He also takes on secularism, a snobbish creed that worships science, abhors religion and traditional moral values, and ignores the fact that “Western religious tradition itself very firmly rests on and embraces reason and science.”

A conversational, snappy pace propels lessons from Plato and Aristotle, showing that “reason can reveal to us that there is a God, that we have immortal souls, and that there is a natural moral law.” An atheist and naturalist before the scales fell from his eyes, Feser writes with a passion that turns repetitious at times; however, some redundancy proves helpful with refreshers on the ancient Greek philosophers. Plato’s Theory of Forms concerns non-material, non-mental abstracts (Forms) that are “outside time and space, are eternal and unchanging.” Mathematical principles are presented as one example of a Form, and the single unifying principle — the Form of the Good — is known as the “source of all being.” Feser asserts that Plato “is clear…that the soul, since it can know the Forms,” must be immaterial and immortal.

Aristotle’s arguments for an “Unmoved Mover” (God) and for the human soul as a Form (or essence) beginning at conception, departing the body at death — yet living on — receive exquisite attention. Significant emphasis is bestowed upon Aristotle’s teaching of a “goal-directedness that exists even apart from conscious thought processes and intentions.” Goal-directedness or final causality in the natural world is independent of human action. Feser’s relentless rebuttal of the New Athe­ism’s nihilistic, godforsaken gospel makes it appear more foolish than churlish by showing that “it is conceptually impossible that there could be genuine final causation without a sustaining intellect.” Although reason tells us that God — the First Cause or Unmoved Mover or “pure existence itself” — exists, Feser cautions that He “is not something we should expect to be able to fully grasp, given the limitations on our intellects.”

The great medieval Scholastic realist, St. Thomas Aquinas, supported Aristotelian logic for God’s existence: “By the time Aquinas and the other Scholastics were done refining and drawing out the implications of the Aristotelian system, it was evident that it entailed nothing less than the entire conception of God enshrined in classical monotheism, the immortality of the soul, and the natural law system of morality.” Feser declares that the Scholastic development of Aristotelian reasoning provides the “most powerful and systematic intellectual foundation for traditional Western religion and morality — and…for science, morality, politics, and theology in general — that has ever existed.” Furthermore, “Abandoning Aristotelian­ism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought.” He attributes growing moral and societal ills to this abandonment. It is not surprising that the New Atheists have become celebrated during an age of widespread entitlement mentalities, depraved entertainment industries, failing educational institutions, and the reckless rejection of traditional sexual morality.

Traditional morality, based on natural law, is shown to rest on an “analysis of human nature entailed by classical philosophy.” Homosexuality may exist like other deformities, but it is not natural. Feser argues that a supposed genetic basis for homosexuality is irrelevant since the unnatural character of a homosexual act does not conform, in the Aristotelian sense, “to the essence or nature of a thing.” (Plato and Aristotle both condemned homosexual acts.) Marriage is defined as “an objective metaphysical fact determined by its final cause, inherently procreative, and thus inherently heterosexual.” Feser begs readers to note that “at no point so far in my exposition of natural law theory in general or its approach to sexual morality in particular have I appealed to scripture, or traditional religious teaching, or even to a purely philosophical notion of God.”

Examinations of modernism’s embrace of material causes instead of formal or final causes emphasize the modernists’ belief in the “primacy of subjective human consciousness.” Feser abhors modern philosophy’s forsaking of formal and final causes because it eliminates the basis for morality: “If nothing has any inherent goal, end, or purpose — then reason is not objectively ‘for’ anything either, including the pursuit of the good.”

The loquacious Feser sometimes belabors well-made arguments, but his meanderings into allegorical sideshows are often delightful. Alas, his brief discourse concerning the world’s evil seems simplistic, even dismissive with the proclamation that “God can and will bring out of the sufferings of this life a good that so overshadows them that this life will be seen in retrospect to have been worth it.” Feser’s defense of the Church in the Galileo matter is more mystifying: He contends that the scientist’s “popular image as a heroic martyr for science is only slightly more grounded in fact than the story of Washington and the cherry tree.” Huh?

The Last Superstition flows with bonhomie and a gusto similar to a ringing oration — an agreeable volume for picking up and putting down whenever one’s earthly existence intrudes on the sublime, although the putting-down poses an onerous challenge!

- Mary McWay Seaman

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