Thursday, March 25, 2010

The New Philistinism

Here is a polemical piece on the New Atheism I wrote for The American, the journal of the American Enterprise Institute. In part it summarizes points I’ve made elsewhere, but it is primarily a discussion of the New Atheists’ tactic (invented by my longtime admirer P. Z. Myers) of shouting “Courtier’s reply!” whenever someone exposes their utter ignorance of what some religious thinker they are criticizing has actually said – a piece of Orwellian doublethink which by itself would suffice to illustrate the extreme decadence into which much secularist “thought” has fallen, if that were not blindingly obvious already. (For the memory impaired, I suppose I need to repeat what I have acknowledged so many times – that not all atheists are worthy of the contempt the “new” atheists so richly deserve. J. L. Mackie, J. J. C. Smart, Quentin Smith, and Jordan Howard Sobel – to take just four examples off the top of my head – are serious thinkers whose work must be treated by the theist with respect. Dawkins, Myers, Harris, Dennett, et al. are not worthy to be mentioned in the same breath.)


  1. Great article, but I think Eagleton described himself as an agnostic Methodist (or something like that.)

    As an Irishman, I find the New Atheist's dismissal of leprochology bigoted and offensive.

  2. Nice article, Dr. Feser. It's difficult to fathom how increadibly bad the "Courtier’s Reply" really is. It's even more difficult to understand how people can actually accept and use it. I even saw a reviewer on Amazon try this in a comment of a review by Timothy McGrew of all people.

    Atheist philosopher Eric Wielenberg in his article, "Dawkins's Gambit, Hume's Aroma, and God's Simplicity" summarizes this abysmal failure of a response quite nicely:

    "...if one intends to disprove God’s existence, it is hardly reasonable to dismiss criticisms of one’s putative disproof on the grounds that God doesn’t exist anyway."

    It's a simple as that.

  3. This is one of my favorite analyses of the Courtier's Reply.

  4. Excellent article. It amuses me (I am cynical) that I will now be able to do the following when confronted with some atheist using "Courtier's Reply" in defense of his not having to do the reading in theology, philosophy, Bible, etc. If an atheist uses, "Courtier's Reply", I can say,"Ah yes, the devastating refutation of Darwinism by fundamentalists and creationists through use of the allegory of the Emperor's New Clothes, with Darwinism as the Emperor, creationist critics of Darwinism as the child, evolutionary biologists as the courtiers..."

    And then watch as the atheist leads with his chin, saying, "No! Religion is the Emperor, atheists are the child..."

    Since most atheists I know have no sense of irony, it will probably take them a while to recognize the trap they just walked into. It took an atheist friend of mine quite some time to get it. He was a great admirer of Dawkins and Myers. Not so much now.

  5. If Christianity is worth a s**t, it better be compassionate.

    In addition to losing the divisive polemics, I am convinced that ending animal suffering/slaughter is the BEST witness available to the world that the compassion of the Christ has vitality today.

    Otherwise, Christians are just another special interest group in the babble.

    No polemics.

    Stop animal suffering.

  6. Dan,

    You turn this into yet another animal rights threadjack, and I start deleting. Take it elsewhere.

  7. OK

    Where can I go and discuss proactive agency of Christian compassionate awareness of animal suffering.

    Seriously, I would like a good recommendation.

    Please do not delete this...I want to find a viable source of discussion of the thinking propounded by Dr. Stephen H Webb.

  8. Call me crazy, but I think Dawkins is on the path to becoming a theist. In a recent article or interview (I forget which), he conceded that a strong case could possibly be made for a Deist god, a statement he would have never thought of making a few years ago. I think that even his (willfully) limited exposure to his intelligent philosophical critics has rubbed off on him a bit. True, the man may be an unrepentant fraud at present, woefully blinded by scientism, but we can nevertheless catch glimpses of hope if we look closely at his character. Whatever the cause, I hope he does become a theist, for many reasons, not only because it is the more rationally consistent worldview, and we all ought to be as rational as possible, but also because the ensuing fireworks and tumultuous chaos within the atheist community should be a heck of a lot of fun to watch, to put it mildly. I want front row seats at when that paradigmatic event happens.

    PZ Meyers, on the other hand, is a complete joke who shows no signs of mental recovery. I recall a sublime experience I had a year ago as I skimmed through one of his blog entries in which he struck a glib, confident posture in the opening paragraphs before proceeding to "refute" Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Suffice it to say, the whole thing was a catastrophe, although peppered with bits of humor that at times reached the level of the transcendental. It's as if these poor biologists and physicists still haven't realize that they are completely out of their depth in all matters philosophical. One can only wonder why. Another time, he made a very telling post about some atheists who, just to get a cheap thrill stole the communion during a Mass (pretty much the equivalent of slaughtering a pig in a mosque), and, after subsequently posting a rather tasteless picture of his own mimicry of consecrated bread in his home trash can, Myers vehemently sounded the typical lone battle-cry of the trendy liberal skeptic: "Dear comrades and friends, we can hold nothing sacred anymore, because guess what? Science has shown that there is nothing that is in fact sacred! The era of irrational faith in Gods, fairies, and unicorns is over! At long last, a new dawn has arrived...the dawn of atheism!"

    With regards to Mr. Hitchens, though, I really haven't been paying much attention to him after he was administered a thorough, categorical spanking by William Lane Craig. Anyone have news on the whereabouts of this fine fellow?

    (as an aside, even more frequently voiced than the Leprechaunology objection is what I like to call the "Purple Unicorn Argument", wherein apparently a purple unicorn is perfectly substitutable for the God of classical theism. The only rival for it in the atheists toolkit is the Flying Spaghetti monster. Anyone encounter this response on as much of a regular basis as I do? For supposedly "freethinkers," they sure do enjoy parroting the same dreary "arguments" over and over again.)

  9. "It's as if these poor biologists and physicists still haven't realize that they are completely out of their depth in all matters philosophical."

    Perhaps so. But the overwhelming majority of professional philosophers are atheists. So you folks in this echo chamber ought to acknowledge that philosophical study more commonly leads to atheism than theism.

    (And to head off the usual miss-reading: my comment is not an argument for atheism.)

  10. Actually, that's not the case. Though Ed has touched on the results of the survey you have in mind more than once on this blog, particularly here.

  11. It's a huge leap to go from the proposition that the majority (I wouldn't say overwhelming) of philosophers today are in fact atheists to the claim that philosophical study leads one more to atheism than theism.

  12. That's right. It is more probable that the dominance of physicalism is what makes most modern philosophers atheists (at least in the analytic tradition), not simply philosophical study. As Dr. Feser never tires of pointing out, the great philosophical minds of even the fairly recent past were overwhelmingly theists.

    And they engaged in quite a bit of philosophical study, I seem to recall. Some it serious!

  13. I had 3 yrs philosophy at Adelaide Uni. - what a wasteland. No A-T the entire time, virtually entire staff are physicalists. Students adopting organisational thinking, and self-selection in departments world-wide has created a big echo chamber. Its clear to me who are the hidebound stakeholders, and who are the liberated. The secular bubble is just too large now, its protections too tempting.

  14. I think it's cute that Dan is turning the focus on compassion....
    childish, but cute.

  15. I don’t follow animal rights issues, so I cannot give Dan the any advice or direction, and I have no idea or concern as to what Stephen Webb says, or who he is.

    What he (and many others like him that come on these blogs) does not understand is that there is zero room or interest in things compassionate in philosophical discussion - which is cold, hard, and brute.

    This is why there is generally NO interchange between philosophers and theologians.

    These two fields focus on totally different things.

  16. "This is why there is generally NO interchange between philosophers and theologians."

    "These two fields focus on totally different things."

    This is just patently false. If you pick up any major work in systematic theology, you'll find that it draws heavily on ancient, medieval, modern, and post-modern philosophy. Two perfect examples are "Aristotle East and West: The Metaphysics and Division of Christendom" and "The Beauty of the Infinite." The latter is by far the hardest but most beautiful book I've ever read. There are also important exchanges between analytic philosophers and theologians (ex. Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas).

    Here's an excellent short piece on what is required to practice theology:

  17. "This is why there is generally NO interchange between philosophers and theologians."

    "These two fields focus on totally different things."

    This is just patently false."

    Patently=clearly, so you did not really make much of a case when contradicting me.

    What is clear is that if there is any serious talk of compassion to be found in the two fields, it will be theology, and not philosophy.

    I found a video of Webb on Darwin, so what's that got to do with suffering?

  18. I took my limited knowledge of A-T philosophy (having only recently learned of it from Dr. Feser's books) over to Pharyngula (PZ Meyer's Blog) and started a debate.
    link (My entrance is at post #222)
    I've made several rookie mistakes and would welcome any critiques or ideas as to how to best answer some of the objections thrown at me there.

    Thanks in advance.

  19. Daniel Smith, why on earth would you waste your time tossing pearls of sanity into that particular pigpen? Especially when your grasp of the relevant philosophy is by your own admission shaky?

  20. Daniel,

    Your mistake was engaging with folks who know something about how the actual world works. A-T philosophy has been abandoned by the overwhelming majority of philosophers and scientists because it is just not consistent with empirical facts.

    Oh Well! Neat ideas anyway.

  21. I made the mistake of engaging the Pharyngula regulars here (I entered the thread at post #372) in a "discussion" about Myers's mangling of Planting's evolutionary argument against naturalism. I set out to clear up Myers's blatant misrepresentations of Plantinga's argument, but instead wasted a colossal amount of time clearing up the regulars' repeated misrepresentations of me! Of course, their misrepresentations included the obligatory Pharyngula insults directed at all who dare to disagree with Myers the Magnificent. I tried to stay above all that and to focus on the issues, but it was difficult. (One joker even claimed that Plantinga's argument was essentially the same as the arguments made by young earth creationist Kent Hovind -- I kid you not!)

    Anyway, after a few more attempts, in other threads, to learn how to think as rationally as the Pharyngula regulars do (well, they say -- repeatedly and emphatically -- that they're the rational ones, and they wouldn't lie about such a thing, would they?), I decided that I simply couldn't handle all the clear, rational thought at Pharyngula anymore, and have since avoided posting there. But some day I'll come across the intellectual equivalent of the Charles Atlas bodybuilding program, and then they'll be sorry!

  22. Daniel Smith,

    Of all the places to have a discussion about such things, you chose a cesspool. It's at most one step above arguing with people in the comments section at Youtube.

    But if you want constructive advice, I'd say to start off with arguments that zero in on what naturalism ultimately leads to if consistent (Rosenberg is instructive here), and what the result is if the naturalism is not consistent (Feser's TLS is instructive here). The downside of this is, you're going to quickly find that the number of consistent naturalists out there is shockingly few.

  23. Thank for the input everyone. To answer the question "why would you go there?": I figured the best way to learn something was to be challenged on it. Even though I don't answer most of the objections raised, I go over them mentally and try to come up with a coherent answer. 99% of the time, it's pretty easy to see the fallacies of their arguments. The 1% is what keeps me digging.

  24. Eric,

    Wow. I've read a lot of thoroughly uncomprehending and painful things this year, but that Myers article takes the cake. The title itself-"Alvin Plantinga gives philosophy a bad name"-immediately raises the question of what qualifications Myers has in making such a categorical statement. With gems such as "I've read some of his work, but not much; it's very bizarre stuff, and every time I get going on one of his papers I hit some ludicrous, literally stupid claim that makes me wonder why I'm wasting time with this pretentious clown, and I give up, throw the paper in the trash, and go read something from Science or Nature to cleanse my palate," "The workings of the man's mind sit there naked and exposed, and all the stripped gears and misaligned cogs and broken engines of his misperception are there for easy examination," and "It's not a good start when the author is so oblivious to irony that he opens his paper with a name-calling screed in which he lambastes others for writing name-calling screeds. Especially when, as we read further, we discover that Plantinga is the one lacking in competence, good sense, and logic" (oh, irony abounds), how did you manage to get past the first few paragraphs? What a ridiculous caricature of an extremely subtle thinker, whose analytical arguments, just like any other in philosophy, ought to be treated with respect.

  25. E.Feser: "(For the memory impaired, I suppose I need to repeat what I have acknowledged so many times – that not all atheists are worthy of the contempt the “new” atheists so richly deserve. J. L. Mackie, J. J. C. Smart, Quentin Smith, and Jordan Howard Sobel – to take just four examples off the top of my head – are serious thinkers whose work must be treated by the theist with respect. Dawkins, Myers, Harris, Dennett, et al. are not worthy to be mentioned in the same breath.)"

    I don't entirely agree.

    These "not-New Atheists" may not be so perennially nasty as the “New Atheists,” but they’re still fools -- they still willfully choose to advocate clear falsehood. How can one, in honesty, treat their work with respect?

  26. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  27. The link is broken. Is there anywhere else to find the essay? I remember having read it before and enjoying it tremendously...