The “New Atheists”

Editorial, August 2011

Books promoting atheism have been selling very well in recent years. The main proponents, the “New Atheists,” are biologist Richard Dawkins, philosophers Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, and journalist Christopher Hitchens. A recent closely-argued, philosophical refutation of their naturalism or “mechanical philosophy” was written by Edward Feser (The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, St. Augustine’s Press, 2010). Feser offers a brilliant, careful analysis of the New Atheists’ position and shows that it is based on old philosophical errors and manifests a high degree of intellectual dishonesty, philosophical shallowness, and massive ignorance in the fields of history and theology.

Edward Feser knows what he is talking about, since he used to be an atheist. But after studying the arguments of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas he came to see that materialism and naturalism cannot survive serious rational analysis. Human experience is permeated with awareness of the reality of purpose and design in the world, which cannot be explained by claiming all that exists is matter in motion with no final purpose. Experience also shows that the human mind is essentially different from all material things because it grasps universal ideas that are independent of time and space. The obvious conclusion is that the human mind and soul are immaterial, because they can reflect back upon themselves when they know that they know. No material thing, tied to time and space, can do that.

The driving force behind the thinking of the atheists and materialists is opposition to religion. According to Feser, secularism is an “anti-religion” religion that has its own dogmas and morality, which is really immorality. The moving force behind this atheism is not reasonable argument, but a willfulness that there be no God. For, if there is no Creator God who is the First Mover of all things, then there is no purpose to the universe, no immortality of the soul, no natural moral law, no final judgment or accountability for how one lives one’s life. In effect, it makes man into a little god who creates his own reality and is not morally accountable to anyone for what he does or thinks, especially in the area of sex.

The secularists and naturalists have created the myth that there is a war going on between science and religion. There never has been a war between religion and true science. In fact, the first universities were founded by the Church in the Middle Ages in connection with cathedral schools. The conflict is not scientific, but philosophical—that is, the philosophical interpretation of the results of scientific investigation. The atheists claim that everything in the universe can be explained without any reference to purpose, meaning and design. The atheists have to eliminate purpose from nature because purpose means striving for a definite end, and that implies intelligence. For the universe, that intelligence can only be God. Therefore atheists try to remove purpose and replace it with various forms of evolution, which has been called a “universal acid.” Feser states this well: “And the elimination of purpose and meaning from the modern conception of the material universe was not and is not a ‘result’ or ‘discovery’ of modern science, but rather a philosophical interpretation of the results of modern science which owes more to early modern secularist philosophers like Hobbes and Hume…than it does to the great scientists of the last few centuries” (11). He goes on to say that the war between science and religion is not a scientific or religious dispute, but a conflict between two “rival philosophical worldviews”—moderate realism and materialism.

The author’s arguments are based on the certain metaphysical principles worked out by Aristotle and perfected by Aquinas, namely, the four causes that are involved in the production and motion of all material things: material, formal, efficient and final. The final cause it the most important for, without it, no agent would act. Aquinas said that the final cause is “the cause of causes.” Every agent acts for an end; to deny that is either stupid or perverse. Those who deny final causes are trying to persuade others that there are no final causes—that is their purpose. So they use final causality to deny it and that is a contradiction that should be obvious to any intelligent observer.

If you are concerned about the increase of atheism in America and would like to understand the false arguments for it and how to refute them, I suggest you give yourself a treat by reading this challenging book.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.