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THE LAST SUPERSTITION

A REFUTATION OF THE NEW ATHEISM

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By Edward Feser

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The Montréal Review, November 2011

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 "The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism" by Edward Feser (St. Augustines Press, 2010)

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Available on Amazon US and Amazon Canada

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"[Feser] has the rare and enviable gift of making philosophical argument compulsively readable... The publisher's blurb tells us that this book has been widely hailed as the strongest argument ever made against the New Atheists. Having read and reviewed quite a number of other similar books, I concur with this judgment."

Sir Anthony Kenny, Times Literary Supplement

"With energy and humor as well as transparent exposition, Feser reestablishes the unassailable superiority of classical philosophy."

ALA Booklist (starred review)

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The central contention of the "New Atheism" of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens is that there has for several centuries been a war between science and religion, that religion has been steadily losing that war, and that at this point in human history a completely secular scientific account of the world has been worked out in such thorough and convincing detail that there is no longer any reason why a rational and educated person should find the claims of any religion the least bit worthy of attention.

I argue in The Last Superstition that in fact there is not, and never has been, any war between science and religion at all. There has instead been a conflict between two entirely philosophical conceptions of the natural order: on the one hand, the classical teleological and essentialist vision inaugurated by Plato and Aristotle and developed by Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastic tradition in general, on which purpose or goal-directedness is as inherent a feature of the physical world as mass or electric charge; and the modern "mechanical" vision of Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, according to which the physical world is comprised of nothing more than purposeless, meaningless particles in motion. As I argue in the book, on the classical teleological and essentialist picture, the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the natural law conception of morality are rationally unavoidable. Modern atheism and secularism have thus always crucially depended for their rational credentials on the insinuation that the modern, mechanical picture of the world has somehow been established by science.

Yet this modern "mechanical" picture has never been established by science, and cannot be, for it is not a scientific theory in the first place but merely a philosophical interpretation of science. Moreover, as I argue in the book, the philosophical arguments in its favor given by the early modern philosophers were notable only for being surprisingly weak. The true reasons for its popularity were then, and are now, primarily political: It was a tool by which the intellectual foundations of ecclesiastical authority could be undermined and the way opened toward a new secular and liberal social order oriented toward commerce and technology. So as to further these political ends, it was simply stipulated, by fiat as it were, that no theory inconsistent with the mechanical picture of the world would be allowed to count as "scientific." As the centuries have worn on and historical memory has dimmed, this act of dogmatic stipulation has falsely come to be remembered as a "discovery."

But this modern philosophical picture of nature is not merely unfounded. It has rationally unacceptable implications, making the relationship between mind and body, our knowledge of the external world, causation and induction, free will and personal identity, all utterly mysterious or even unintelligible. (Many of these so-called "traditional problems of philosophy," I argue, are largely artifacts of the novel and historically contingent assumptions put at the center of Western thought only with the mechanistic revolution.) Indeed, this mechanistic picture, at least as developed by contemporary naturalists, is demonstrably false. For it entails that rationality, and indeed the human mind itself, are illusory. The so-called "scientific worldview" as it has been distorted by the New Atheists thus inevitably undermines its own rational foundations; and into the bargain (and contrary to the moralistic posturing of the New Atheists) it undermines the foundations of any possible morality as well. By contrast, and as The Last Superstition argues, the classical teleological and essentialist picture of nature can be seen to find powerful confirmation in developments from contemporary philosophy, biology, and physics; moreover, morality and reason itself cannot possibly be made sense of apart from it. The metaphysical vision of the ancients and medievals is thereby rationally vindicated - and with it the religious and moral worldview they based upon it.

Moving beyond the pointless and point-missing dispute between "Intelligent Design" advocates and Darwinians, The Last Superstition holds that the key to understanding the follies of the New Atheism lies not in quibbles over the evolutionary origins of this or that biological organ, but in a rethinking of the philosophical presuppositions of scientific method itself back to first principles. In particular, it involves a recovery of the forgotten truths of classical philosophy. When this is accomplished, religion can be seen to be grounded firmly in reason, not blind faith. And despite its moral and intellectual pretensions, the New Atheism is exposed as resting on very old errors, together with an appalling degree of intellectual dishonesty, philosophical shallowness, and historical, theological, and scientific ignorance.

As this summary indicates, the book is polemical in spirit, though no more so than the New Atheist works to which it is responding. My follow-up book Aquinas covers some of the same ground in a more traditionally academic and non-polemical style.

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Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College. His other books include Philosophy of Mind, Locke, and On Nozick. He is also the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Hayek. More information about his work can be found at his webpage and blog

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