Monday, June 27, 2016

A New Take on New Atheism

I was reading one of Ed Feser's recent posts, in which he takes his customary swipe at "New Atheists".  This time, he didn't criticize anything that a particular person said or did, holding it up as an example of the bad behavior that he so often decries among the breed of modern atheists that he so despises.  This time, Feser takes a pot-shot at the broader community of modern atheists who he thinks fail to understand the implications of their own beliefs in the manner that some of the "Old Atheists" like Nietzsche did.

In this article, Feser cites several passages from Nietzsche's writings that he interprets as providing justification for his belief that atheism is absurd.  So according to Feser, if you are an atheist who reads Nietzsche and concludes (as Feser does) that the implications of atheism are untenable, you are one of the good "Old Atheists" who properly understands it, but if you disagree with Feser's conclusions, you are a "New  Atheist" who lacks the sophisticated understanding of that earlier generation of atheist philosophers.  This is a somewhat surprising definition of New Atheism that will probably come as a surprise to some modern atheistic philosophers who have so far eluded the label of Gnu but who nevertheless don't share Feser's interpretations of Nietzsche's philosophy.

There are a few problems with Feser's reading of Nietzsche.  Not the least of them is that he thinks we should all agree with it and view it in the same manner that he does.  Feser discusses the issue of the death of God:
But he was not so stupid as to think that “paradise on earth,” “a much better chance of no more war,” and other such Dawkinsian fantasies would be the immediate sequel.  On the contrary, he foresaw that “shadows… must soon envelop Europe,” that a “sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm… is now impending,” indeed a “monstrous logic of terror… an eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth”
Feser then goes on to ask:
Why all the melodrama, if the “death of God” amounts (as the New Atheist would have you believe) to nothing more momentous than (say) a child’s coming to realize that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster don’t really exist?

The answer is that, as Nietzsche understood more profoundly than even many religious believers do, a religion is not merely a set of metaphysical propositions but embodies a culture’s highest values and thus a sense of its own worth
I must admit right away that I'm not an expert on Nietzsche's philosophy, but I see no reason to accept the idea that Christianity embodies culture's highest values, or the idea that the abandonment of Christian belief entails the destruction of our culture, which would be a necessary step in the eventual realization of godless society.  In fact, we have seen in 20th century Europe that while the adoption of Soviet communist ideology seems to partially fulfill that horrific vision, the non-ideological secularization of western Europe is prima facie evidence that it isn't true.  Feser believes that it is naive to think that we can achieve an improved society without religion, but the facts tell us otherwise.

Feser also examines the question of egalitarianism, noting that Nietzsche sees it as a product of Christianity, and that it must fall by the wayside with the abandonment of Christianity:
This collapse of any reason to believe in the basic moral equality of all human beings is among the repercussions of the “death” of the Christian God that Nietzsche thinks European civilization has yet to face up to.  Modern secular moralists presuppose this egalitarianism but they have no rational grounds for doing so.
I disagree that egalitarianism  is a Christian concept in the first place.  The Christian bible supports slavery and the subjugation of women.  The church was a long-time supporter of monarchies, aristocracies, and feudalism.  It wasn't until the Age of Enlightenment in Europe that egalitarianism became popular, and that was something that the church fought against.  And while I agree that there is no rational basis for egalitarianism under atheism, I think it is naive for Christians to think they they have a rational basis for it.  Scientific studies show that humans and even some animals have an inborn sense of fairness.  This is naturally evolved behavior.  That's why egalitarianism is accepted by Christians and atheists alike in free societies.  Belief in God has nothing to do with it.

Feser also interprets Nietzsche's materialistic views on the rationality of man as being supportive of the Argument From Reason:
Nietzsche here anticipates an element of the “argument from reason” later developed by writers like Karl Popper, C. S. Lewis, and Alvin Plantinga (though of course he doesn’t draw the anti-naturalistic conclusion that Lewis and Plantinga do).  Survival value must not, in his view, be confused with truth; the idea that science gives us truth rests on a “metaphysical faith”
What Feser completely fails to understand is that this understanding is not only accepted by modern atheists, but it is an argument against the AFR, as I discussed in an earlier post about Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.  Our beliefs are not completely reliable, and this is a consequence of natural reality, as Nietzsche points out.  It does not argue against naturalism - it corroborates it.  In this case, it is Feser - not the modern atheist - who fails to understand the implication of what Nietzsche is saying.

Feser's interpretation of Nietzsche appears to be selectively biased in favor of his own theism, and he seems to think that unless we all interpret it the same way he does, we deserve to be labeled as "New Atheists" who are naive about the implications of atheism.  He even makes the claim that it was his superior understanding of Nietzsche that led him to abandon atheism and turn back to the comfort and safety of theistic beliefs.
You might say that the reason I’m no longer an atheist is that I took Nietzsche’s advice seriously.  Of course, your mileage may vary.  But what might a New Atheist with the courage for an attack on his own convictions yet learn, even short of giving up his atheism?
If Nietzsche understood his own words in the same way that Feser does, wouldn't it make sense that he would have turned away from atheism, too?  Obviously, there's some distance between them.  And the fact remains that atheists today don't have to agree with everything that Nietzsche said.  That doesn't imply that we fail to understand the implications of atheism.  It does point to Feser's own lack of understanding of modern atheistic beliefs, however.


  1. Feser: "A religion is not merely a set of metaphysical propositions but embodies a culture's highest values..."

    In other words, accept Christianity's metaphysical propositions or reject your civilization's highest values. Choose, atheist!

    No thanks. If those "metaphysical principles" are arbitrary, ad hoc, ungrounded or unconvincing, I can't pretend otherwise, no matter how vehemently Feser protests that my lack of conviction is tearing down the pillars of Western civilization or summoning the armies of the undead from beyond the Wall.

    Feser's quote makes much more sense, however, if we delete the adjective "highest." Religions obviously do tend to embody a culture's values -- though religion can also embody and perpetuate "values" a culture has since discarded as unfair, unjust, or needlessly harmful and destructive.

    1. I agree. And Christians like Feser completely fail to understand where values based on fundamental human morality really come from.

    2. Where does our innate morality come from? It's instinct that evolved in our ancestors as a mechanism for social cooperation. Christians think it comes from God, because they think everything comes from God. And then they go around pretending that people can't have morality unless they are religious. But the facts tell us that's not true.

  2. But the facts tell us that's not true.

    That's one strange sentence there. I see no substantive difference between it and saying "Because I say so!"

    1. When I refer to facts, I am talking about objective, verifiable information - not just "Because I say so!"

      It's objectively true that the happiest countries are the secular nations of northern Europe where religiosity is lowest. This is in stark contrast to what Feser would have us believe "Because I say so!"

    2. His statement is basically this:

      1 - [P is false since "the facts"]

      Say that Q = "the facts"

      1* - [P is false since Q]

      You seem to think his assertion is equivalent to this:

      2 - [P is false since "I say P is false"]

      Say that R = "I say P is false"

      2* - [P is false since R]

      The statements are equivalent if Q and R denote the same thing. Unless IM-Skeptical is referencing the fact that he says P is false as the fact that shows P is false then Q and R are not equivalent since they denote different things. i.e. suppose the fact that he is referencing is "1 + 1 = 2". "1 + 1 = 2" is not the same proposition as "I say P is false", so if that was the fact that he was referencing then Q and R would not be equivalent, so there would be a substantial difference.

      Now I don't agree with IM about interpretations of Nietzsche, but I also think no person should ever bother reading Nietzsche so I obviously have no interest in even talking about him.

    3. I avoided making my own interpretations of Nietzsche's words. I am aware that much of his philosophy is repugnant.

  3. Amongst those who track such things, Bhutan (a very religious country) is often cited as the happiest country in the world.

    1. They don't worship a god either.

    2. You really hate God, don't you?

    3. No, but I do love the truth.

    4. "You really hate God, don't you?"

      How can you hate something that isn't?

    5. For that matter, how can you love something that isn't? How can you receive moral guidance from it? As Daniel Dennett puts it, Christians are in love with belief.

    6. Or more succinctly, they are in love with belief in belief.

    7. crude is obsessed with this accusation. He has been saying the same thing over and over again for years. You, know, because he's filled with the loving spirit of the Lord.

    8. @JoeBtfsplk

      At this point I'm going to venture that you are a Crude sock account.

      Papa L/ must have kicked your ass pretty hard for you to pursue a flame war vendetta this persistently.