A more pointed and descriptive headline for this essay is “Feser comes on like Apollo Creed from Rocky III, but winds up as Apollo Creed from Rocky IV.” In what follows, I will address Feser’s recent talk on “What We Owe the New Atheists,” where Feser himself uses Rocky III to describe the current state of Catholic apologetics against a popular and effective “New Atheist” movement. At about 10 years old (really older) the New Atheism continues to influence American and worldwide cultural thinking—indeed, atheism and its arguments, as well as the persistent perniciousness of religious dogmatism and fundamentalism, gain wider currency year after year. Feser wishes his beleaguered co-religionists and theologians to see themselves as Rocky Balboa, the reigning champ who loses his edge until a brash and hungry upstart takes the belt and forces Rocky to get back the “eye of the tiger.”
Feser casts the New Atheists as Rocky III’s Clubber Lang (played ably by Mr. T), and although Feser doesn’t say, he must himself take the role of former Rocky rival Apollo Creed. Feser-as-Creed (a pun resides here somewhere) coaches and wheedles the Italian Stallion back to glory; for Feser, that glory is the metaphysical system of the medieval Scholastics, represented par excellence by Thomas Aquinas.
I plan to cover some detail from Feser’s talk, as he is an interesting enough speaker to warrant serious consideration for most everything he says. In the end, however, his arguments and ideas remain impotent and actually shy away from the fight he seems to want. To put a finer point on it, to the extent that Feser himself gets in the ring, he is already over-matched and gets fatally clobbered. If Catholicism/Christianity/Theism-as-Rocky will ever come back against the New Atheism, it won’t be because of Feser or his Scholasticism—but he just might inspire Rocky to get up and fight again.
Now, to the essay itself.
Feser’s opening illustrates the ultimate impotence of the entire talk to come. Like a long since almost-been prize fighter, he brags about his clever insults against Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. Feser’s sympathetic audience and fans must love the insults, but really the quips sputter. For all Feser’s self-congratulation and assurance of his own subtle, nuanced thinking, the New Atheists have made more of a difference. They reached the center from the periphery; to the extent Feser even wants to claim the center—as I suggest later, he seems not to have the will for it—he fails. So the first failure is the lame review of insults and the in-group hugging that assures the faithful of their unassailable philosophical chops.
The second failure come straightaway when Feser assumes the moral high ground. I insulted those bad people, he says, because they deserved it. They deserved it. It’s their fault. They made Feser insult them. He would not have attacked them if they didn’t provoke him.
Yes, Feser uses the abusive spouse gambit, the one where the abuser blames the victim for causing his outburst. The one where the abuser asks the victim, “You see what you made me do? Do you think I wanted to do that?” Feser himself justifies the behavior: “As I think anyone who has read my book can tell you, this abuse was not gratuitous, but well-earned by its targets.” Yet Feser also dishes out the same kind of victim-blaming when talking about the drubbing of religion. In the language of Rocky III, religion/Rocky has brought the beating down upon itself/himself: “Say what you will for Mr. T’s character, he means business. Rocky, it seems, does not. So, though we root for Rocky, when Mr. T knocks his block off we have to admit that Rocky was asking for it.”
Feser crosses a couple of lines in the two examples above, the most basic of which is moral principle our parents taught: two wrongs don’t make a right. Even if we were to grant that the New Atheists are as ignorant and rude as Feser portrays (in reality, that cannot be granted), one would think a good and sophisticated religious philosopher could or should restrain himself from emulating the behavior he detests in his opponents. Another line crossed is one of good taste. In claiming that “Rocky was asking for it,” Feser uses the old excuse of many a bitter second-place team: “They didn’t beat us. We beat ourselves.” The response to this excuse is easy and devastating: scoreboard. Clubber Lang deserved to win more than Rocky deserved to lose. Similarly, Catholicism specifically and religion generally face increasing criticism and marginalization because better options, arguments, and ideas exist in the same space.
But Feser doesn’t get this point, it actually never occurs to him, and so he doesn’t realize how lame his trash talk is. From the sidelines and away from a real contest, he tries to motivate the philosophical troops. In his address to the team, he tells them they are the sleeping giant that the New Atheists have awoken; the apologists are coming back to claim the title. And what major weapon do the philosopher apologists have that can stop the New Atheist juggernaut? Why, medieval Scholasticism. Yep, medieval Scholasticism. Knowing that many sympathizers will bristle at the suggestion, Feser carefully argues why a return to Scholasticism makes the best sense. Scholasticism, he says—
requires that we recognize that where the apologetic task is concerned, metaphysics wears the trousers. Specifically, a defense of classical metaphysics — grounded in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions and brought to perfection by the great Scholastics — is an unavoidable prolegomenon to the defense of the classical arguments for the existence of God and the natural law conception of morality. In no other way, I maintain, can modern secularism of the sort represented by the New Atheism be decisively rebutted.
So for Feser, the real and only battleground left for apologists—for any theism, really—is metaphysics. But this is where Feser ultimately fails most spectacularly. He says, “all bodies of knowledge, including apologetics, rest on metaphysical foundations, and cannot be adequately defended without defending those foundations.” A bit later, he says, “If the Faith is going to be defended effectively against the New Atheists or anyone else, its metaphysical presuppositions must be carefully set out and rigorously defended.”
These two statements go far awry. First, our metaphysics must follow our physics, as cosmologist Sean Carroll excellently explains in his recent debate with apologist William Lane Craig (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07QUPuZg05I&feature=share&list=FLRhV1rWIpm_pU19bBm_2RXw&index=4). Contra Feser, metaphysics is not a foundation but rather more like a flexible set of connections that help clarify and define the full picture afforded by our knowledge of reality. Furthermore, Feser’s attitude is all wrong: one should not aim to “defend” presuppositions but should instead seek to examine and update them in light of new evidence from the physical world.
So there you have it: Feser has lost his battleground—metaphysics—and his thinking about one what can do with metaphysics is parochial and outmoded. To complete the Rocky analogy, when Apollo Creed steps in the ring with the Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, he takes a fatal beating because he misreads the fighting situation (Creed thinks it’s an exhibition) and he doesn’t account for the training and strengths of the opponent. If I may advise Feser on how to improve, I counsel him to update his model of the nature of metaphysics, and to put his metaphysics in better contact and conversation with physical evidence.
Feser’s blind spot for why one might reasonably prefer other metaphysical approaches to those (yes, plural) of Scholasticism comes across in his very basic misunderstanding about the New Atheism. Feser nowhere acknowledges that the New Atheism has explicitly and consistently targeted popular religion, not the philosopher’s religion. For the New Atheists, the problem is the practical behaviors and political maneuvers made by people citing religion as their inspiration and motivation. New Atheism is not primarily philosophical but political and cultural. So while Feser dismisses Intelligent Design and American fundamentalism/literalism, that’s exactly where the New Atheism wants to exert pressure. Feser can keep harping on divine simplicity—a lovely idea, by the way—but the fundies and other wingnuts are trying to control civil liberties, so the latter groups deserve more attention. Feser can continue to defend his old metaphysical presuppositions, but there’s new knowledge of reality to be gained and he simply adds nothing to that more important project.
To close, I want to cite two more instances of Feser’s blindness. I admit these are minor examples, but I think they speak to the intellectual harm Feser is doing to himself. First, look at Feser’s casual use of the idea of heresy. He says,
from a Catholic point of view, it is possible to go too far in the direction of rationalism. For example, to treat theology like a mere intellectual game while ignoring its spiritual and moral implications would, needless to say, be to miss the whole point of it. And it would be heretical to deny that there are truths knowable only through divine revelation, or to deny that acceptance of those truths on faith is a free act to which we are drawn by grace.
Feser forgets or seems not to realize what the Church and Christian Europe thought of hersey and what they did to heretics. Feser blithely accepts that it would be heretical—heretical—to believe X and not Y. Heresy is thoughtcrime, and one branded a heretic is available to persecution. Often the heretic was literally branded, burned, and violently dispensed with. It is telling that Feser lets heresy slip from his lips and keyboard without even a suggestion of shame at the term.
The second instance of blindness comes later. Feser criticizes his co-religionists’ retreat from metaphysics by saying “In short, religious believers have been fleeing into a non-cognitive ghetto almost faster than skeptics can push them into it.” A ghetto. The word, like heresy, has been made heavy by the religiously inspired implications, drawn from real ghettoes where non-believers were forcibly kept. Heretics and ghetto-ized Jews and others received real and severe physical and economic persecution at the hands of Christians and Christianized society.
There’s no need to make more of these examples than they are, but they further confirm what Feser’s talk is and who Feser is. Despite its bravado, the talk ultimately serves as a kind of consolation of apologetics, a justification for remaining in Plato’s cave. Feser calls himself a philosopher, scholar, and writer. Overall, however, he is a decent coach in a game passing him by. To be honest, I hope he reads this essay and considers challenging himself to go beyond Scholasticism.