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The New Philistinism

Friday, March 26, 2010

The New Atheist writers are supremely self-confident in their ability to dispatch opponents with a sarcastic quip or two. And they show no evidence whatsoever of knowing what they are talking about.

I once heard a fundamentalist preacher “refute” Darwin by asking rhetorically: “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” He didn’t elaborate. But he did chuckle disdainfully, and since his audience of fellow believers did the same, no elaboration was necessary. They all “knew” that he had just posed a challenge no Darwinian could possibly answer, and that was enough. None of them had ever actually read anything any Darwinian had written—and I highly doubt the preacher had either—but never mind. What would be the point? They “already knew” such writers could not possibly have anything of interest to say, in light of this “fatal” objection to evolution.

This was some time before I became an atheist, which was some time before I became the observant Roman Catholic I am now. Oddly, the rhetoric of the New Atheist writers—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens among the most prominent—sounds much more like that of a fundamentalist preacher than like anything I read during my atheist days. Like the preacher, they are supremely self-confident in their ability to dispatch their opponents with a sarcastic quip or two. And, like the preacher, they show no evidence whatsoever of knowing what they are talking about.

Oddly, the rhetoric of the New Atheist writers sounds much more like that of a fundamentalist preacher than like anything I read during my atheist days.

Take Daniel Dennett. (Please.) In his book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, he assures us that: “The Cosmological Argument … in its simplest form states that since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause—namely God”; he then briskly refutes the argument by asking: “What caused God? The reply that God is self-caused (somehow) then raises the rebuttal: If something can be self-caused, why can’t the universe as a whole be the thing that is self-caused?”

Very good questions, it might seem—except that (as everyone who knows something about the philosophy of religion is aware) that is not what the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God says. In fact, not one of the best-known defenders of the Cosmological Argument in the history of philosophy ever gave this stupid “everything has a cause” argument—not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Thomas Aquinas, not John Duns Scotus, not G.W. Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne. And not anyone else either, as far as I know. Perhaps, like Dennett, you think that when trying to refute some of history’s greatest minds, a good strategy would be to attack an argument none of them ever defended. But if not, you might find something better to do with your time than to curl up with Breaking the Spell.

The New Atheist’s grasp of the chief arguments for the existence of God and related matters is, in short, comparable to the scientific acumen of the college sophomore who thinks the lesson of Einstein’s revolution in physics is that ‘it’s all relative, man.’

Richard Dawkins is equally adept at refuting straw men. In his bestselling The God Delusion, he takes Aquinas to task for resting his case for God’s existence on the assumption that “There must have been a time when no physical things existed”—even though Aquinas rather famously avoids making that assumption in arguing for God. (Aquinas’s view was instead that God must be keeping the world in existence here and now and at any moment at which the world exists, and that this would remain true even if it turned out that the world had no beginning.) Dawkins assures us that Aquinas gives “absolutely no reason” to think that a First Cause of the universe would have to be all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, etc.; in reality, Aquinas devoted hundreds of pages, across many works, to showing just this. Dawkins says that the fifth of Aquinas’s famous Five Ways is essentially the same as the “divine watchmaker” argument made famous by William Paley. In fact the arguments couldn’t be more different, and followers of Aquinas typically—and again, rather famously (at least for people who actually know something about these things)—reject Paley’s argument with as much scorn as evolutionists like Dawkins do.

And those are only (some of) the errors on pages 77–79.

You will find similar howlers throughout the works of the other New Atheists. Their grasp of the chief arguments for the existence of God and related matters is, in short, comparable to the scientific acumen of the college sophomore who thinks the lesson of Einstein’s revolution in physics is that “it’s all relative, man”—or that of the fundamentalist preacher of my opening example. It’s that bad.

The intellectual frivolousness of the New Atheist literature is by now an open secret.

If you have any doubt about this, feel free to pick up a copy or three of my book, The Last Superstition, which exposes the errors of the New Atheists, and lays out the case for the existence of God, at rigorous and polemical length. (Sorry, but you’re simply not going to get an adequate understanding of the arguments of a Aquinas or a Leibniz—any more than of Darwin’s ideas, or Einstein’s—from an op-ed piece.) Or, if you don’t like polemics and prefer a more sedate academic approach, try my book Aquinas. Or play it safe and buy both.

But you don’t have to take my self-promoting word for it. The intellectual frivolousness of the New Atheist literature is by now an open secret. Philosopher and prominent Darwinian Michael Ruse has said that Dawkins’s book made him “ashamed to be an atheist” and that Dennett’s book 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.” The list of the New Atheists’ fellow intellectuals and even fellow atheists who are critical of their work could easily be extended.

Dawkins and Co. have an enormous political stake in the claim that religion is inherently irrational. They want a society in which religious believers are no more welcome in the public square than racists or Holocaust deniers are.

Now imagine that some of the friends and coreligionists of the fundamentalist preacher I quoted earlier let him know that his “refutation” of Darwinism was completely worthless, that he clearly knew nothing about the subject, and that he really ought to try seriously to understand it before commenting further. Suppose the preacher’s response to this criticism was to dismiss it as providing aid and comfort to the Darwinist enemy, and that since he already knew from his “refutation” that Darwinism was too ludicrous to take seriously, there could be no point in investigating it any further. “After all,” we can imagine the preacher slyly replying, “would you need to read learned volumes on Leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?”

Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens would, of course, be outraged by such a dismissal of Darwinism. And rightly so; it would be sheer, question-begging bigotry. For whether Darwinism is really comparable to “Leprechology” is of course precisely what is in question, and anyone who actually knows something about Darwinism knows also that such a comparison would be ludicrous. But the preacher will never know this, dogmatically locked as he is into his circle of mutually self-reinforcing prejudices. In his view, Darwinism must be too absurd to be worth taking seriously, because it cannot solve the chicken/egg “problem” he has posed for it; and the chicken/egg “problem” must be a serious objection to Darwinism, because he already knows that Darwinism is too absurd to be worth taking seriously. He is on a merry-go-round, but insists that it is the rest of the world that is moving. Even Richard Dawkins can see that.

These apostles of open-mindedness, free thought, critical thinking, and calm rationality insist that they will not look, that they will simply not bother to try to understand the ideas they criticize.

Or maybe not. Because this is exactly the sort of response Dawkins has made to his critics. Indeed, the “Leprechology” line was in fact uttered by Dawkins himself, in reply to the suggestion that he should learn something about theology and philosophy of religion before commenting on it. Similarly, in the preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion, he says: “Most of us happily disavow fairies, astrology and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, without first immersing ourselves in books of Pastafarian theology.” Yet whether the work of Aquinas, Leibniz, et al., is really comparable to “Leprechology” or “Pastafarianism” in the first place is precisely what is in question—and precisely what people who actually know something about Aquinas, Leibniz, et al., know to be a suggestion that is simply too stupid for words. The reason Dawkins and Co. don’t see this is that, like the fundamentalist preacher of my example, they literally refuse to see it. The truth is sitting there, in easily available books, waiting for them to discover it. And yet these apostles of open-mindedness, free thought, critical thinking, and calm rationality insist that they will not look, that they will simply not bother to try to understand the ideas they criticize. (All the same, in the very letter to the editor of The Independent in which he makes his “Leprechology” defense, Dawkins whines that his views have been misrepresented and that the “decent” thing for his critics to do would be to read his book before attacking it! Apparently, the reason Dawkins will not study theology is that he has been too busy studying Yiddish, and wants to show off his mastery of chutzpah.)

What accounts for such madness—for the inability of the New Atheists to see that they are guilty of precisely what they accuse their opponents of, that their position rests on exactly the kind of hypocrisy, willful ignorance, and fallacious reasoning they would not tolerate in others?

What accounts for the inability of the New Atheists to see that they are guilty of precisely what they accuse their opponents?

Well, as our preacher could tell you, one sin leads to another. Like the killer who has to commit a second murder in order to cover up his first one, Dawkins and Co. are able to blind themselves to their sophistries only by perpetrating a further and bolder exercise in rhetorical sleight of hand. In his book The Rediscovery of the Mind, philosopher John Searle once criticized eliminative materialism—a bizarre theory propounded by some contemporary philosophers according to which the human mind does not really exist (don’t ask)—for the dishonest way in which its adherents often respond to their many critics:

Another rhetorical device for disguising the implausible is to give the commonsense view a name and then deny it by name and not by content. Thus, it is very hard even in the present era to come right out and say, “No human being has ever been conscious.” Rather, the sophisticated philosopher gives the view that people are sometimes conscious a name, for example, “the Cartesian intuition,” then he or she sets about challenging, questioning, denying something described as “the Cartesian intuition”… And just to give this maneuver a name, I will call it the “give-it-a-name” maneuver. (4–5)

Well, the New Atheists have incorporated this “‘give-it-a-name’ maneuver” into their own rhetorical bag of tricks, and the name they’ve chosen is “The Courtier’s Reply.” The label comes from Dawkins’ fellow biologist and atheist P.Z. Myers, and it refers to an imagined defense a court sycophant might give of the naked emperor of Hans Christian Anderson’s famous story: “Haven’t you read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots?” etc. The idea is that complaining about a New Atheist’s lack of theological knowledge is no better than the courtier’s complaint that the naked emperor’s critics haven’t read the works of Count Roderigo. In other words, it is just the same old question-begging “Leprechology” and “Pastafarianism” pseudo-defense, now tarted up with a clever marketing tag.

One’s intelligent listeners will be baffled, wondering how shouting ‘Courtier’s Reply!’ is supposed to excuse not knowing what one is talking abut.

How does it work? Well, suppose you confront a New Atheist with the overwhelming evidence that his “objections” to Aquinas (or whomever) are about as impressive as the fundamentalist’s “chicken/egg” objection to evolution. What’s he going to do? Tell the truth? “Fine, so I don’t know the first thing about Aquinas. But I’m not going to let that stop me from criticizing him! Nyah nyah!” Even for a New Atheist, that has its weaknesses from a PR point of view. But now, courtesy of Myers, he’s got a better response: “Oh dear, oh dear … not the Courtier’s Reply!” followed by some derisive chuckling. One’s intelligent listeners will be baffled, wondering how shouting “Courtier’s Reply!” is supposed to excuse not knowing what one is talking about. And one’s more gullible followers—people like the www.infidels.org faithful who have been buying up The God Delusion by the bushel basket—will be thrilled to have some new piece of smart-assery to fling at their religious friends in lieu of a serious argument. In the confusion, the New Atheist can slip out the back door before anyone realizes he hasn’t really answered the question. Call it “the Myers Shuffle,” and feel free to fling that label back at the next fool atheist who thinks yelling “Courtier’s Reply!” should be enough to stop you in your tracks.

So, the New Atheist covers up one fallacy with another. But how do otherwise-intelligent people get themselves into this rhetorical regress in the first place? Here we need to turn from logic to politics and psychology. Dawkins and Co. have an enormous political stake in the claim that religion is inherently irrational. They want a society in which religious believers are no more welcome in the public square than racists or Holocaust deniers are. To admit that there really are respectable arguments for religion—that it is something about which reasonable people can disagree—would be at once to admit that all the extremist talk about religion being tantamount to child abuse, no more worthy of respect than belief in the tooth fairy, etc., goes out the window. It would have to be conceded that Catholic theologians and Jewish rabbis, say, have as much right to be heard on matters of public policy as boozy Vanity Fair columnists and writers of popular-science books.

The New Atheism must of necessity be a New Philistinism, deliberately closing its mind to the wisdom of millennia lest these dangerous ideas tempt one to doubt the secularist creed.

Of course, it would for the same reason mean that as yet unsold copies of The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, God is Not Great, The End of Faith, etc., would be consigned to the remainder bin, where they belong, for ill-informed extremist political tracts is really all they are. And that brings us to the last, psychological reason the New Atheists have worked themselves into such a fit of irrationality. One final thought experiment: Suppose you are Richard Dawkins, the former Charles Simonyi Professor in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. You’ve spent years criticizing creationists and Intelligent Design theorists for not doing their homework before attacking Darwinism. You’ve staked your reputation as a scientist (or as a science popularizer, anyway) on a years-long crusade against religion, dismissing it as the province of ignorant, bigoted yahoos and without a single serious argument in its favor. You’ve sold hundreds of thousands of copies of The God Delusion, presenting it as a once-and-for-all demonstration of the truth of this proposition. Experts in the relevant fields—theologians and philosophers of religion—have criticized you for not knowing what you are talking about. Fellow atheist academics have done the same. And you have dismissed them all as the objective allies of the fundamentalist bigots. The people who actually know the stuff are wrong (you claim) and you are right—despite the fact that this is the very attitude you condemn in fundamentalist bigots themselves.

In short, you’ve dug yourself into a very deep hole, and seem irresistibly compelled to keep digging. What are you going to do at this point—admit that the critics are right? Admit that you’ve been making a fool of yourself for decades and leading many less intelligent people to do the same? That you’ve done a grave injustice to the religious believers you despise, and who would relish your public humiliation? That you are a hypocrite? Not a chance.

Pride goeth before a fall. And before a fallacy. So “Courtier’s Reply!” it is, and damn the torpedoes. The New Atheism must of necessity be a New Philistinism, deliberately closing its mind to the wisdom of millennia—to the serious consideration, or even the reading, of the arguments of writers like Aristotle and Plotinus, Augustine and Aquinas, Leibniz and Clarke, lest these dangerous ideas tempt one to doubt the secularist creed. Or, in the words of a better-known exercise in doublethink: “Ignorance is strength.”

Edward Feser is the author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism and Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide.

FURTHER READING: The American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Novak discussed religion as one of “The Ties That Bind” civilization, and in “Looking For an Honest Man” Leon Kass explains how the humane letters illuminate the deepest questions of philosophy. Jason Richwine explores a related question in “Are Liberals Smarter Than Conservatives?” Evan Sparks reviews a book by two Economist writers who argue “The News of God’s Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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