One of the more striking differences between the New Atheists and, say, Freud or Nietzsche is the willingness of the former to engage natural theology on its own terms. Not that they get very far in their clumsy forays—it’s all pretty halfhearted and amateurish stuff, indeed sometimes wincingly embarrassing.
Thus Lawrence Krauss tries to address the scholastic axiom nihil ex nihilo fit (“nothing can come from nothing”) in his book A Universe from Nothing, where he argues, based on string theory, that a vibration in a ten-dimensional string or “brane” started it all. As was already pointed out by Edward Feser in the June/July issue of First Things, even if one grants that string theory is true, Krauss has already conceded the very medieval axiom he thought he was dispatching, since, after all, a “brane” (assuming it exists) is something. Checkmate.
Now one Alex Rosenberg has gingerly stepped onto this vaudeville stage with The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, where scientific reductionism becomes—there is no other term for it—a full-bore reductio ad absurdum. As it happens, the Times Literary Supplement gave the book to the philosopher Anthony Kenny to review, perhaps because he could never be accused of any parti pris in this debate, since he has in the past leveled his own severe criticisms against classical Christian theism for relying on an “outdated Aristotelian cosmology.”
These skeptical conclusions, however, have not led Kenny to a two-fisted atheism; for as he said in his 2004 book The Unknown God: “There is no such thing, I concluded, as the God of scholastic or rationalist philosophy; but of course that is not the only possible conception of God.”
Whatever orthodox believers may think of Kenny’s journey over these decades from classical theism to something vaguer, he is at least an equal-opportunity basher: For his aversion to absolutism can equally well be employed against the New Atheists, who affect an apodictic absolutism in their argumentation that makes them as impregnable to counterevidence as anything found in a creationist textbook.
In his recent book God and the New Atheism, the Georgetown theologian John Haught has usefully captured this quasi-religious absolutism among the New Atheists by summarizing their position as a seven-point “creed”:
1. Apart from nature, which includes human beings and our cultural creations, there is nothing. There is no God, no soul, and no life beyond death.
2. Nature is self-originating, not the creation of God.
3. The universe has no overall point or purpose, although individual human lives can be lived purposefully.
4. Since God does not exist, all explanations and all causes are purely natural and can be understood only by science.
5. All the various features of living beings, including human intelligence and behavior, can be explained ultimately in purely natural terms, and today that usually means in evolutionary, specifically Darwinian terms.
6. Faith in God is the cause of innumerable evils and should be rejected on moral grounds.
7. Morality does not require belief in God, and people behave better without faith than with it.
Freud and Nietzsche no doubt had their dogmatic commitments, but at least they would have recognized the sixth and seventh axioms especially as quite preposterous. They were too familiar with the evil lurking in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the human heart to think it could be expelled by the simple expedient of evicting God.
In that light, what’s really new about the New Atheists is their reliance on an oxymoron: they actually seem to believe in a utopian Darwinism—a faith-based science if there ever was one. Accordingly, I have long felt that the best (if not the only) way of addressing these dogmatisms is just to sit back and let the New Atheists hang themselves by their own rope. Which is where Kenny comes in, as he transposes their assumptions into a kind of atheist Baltimore Catechism:
The main tenets of this philosophy are bracingly summed up in a series of questions and answers: Is there a God? No. What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Why am I here? Just dumb luck. Does prayer work? Of course not. Is there a soul? Is it immortal? You must be kidding. Is there free will? Not a chance! What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.
The great value of this boiled-down atheist catechism is that it directly and ineluctably leads Rosenberg to one of the most hilarious conclusions in all of the New Atheist literature; and Kenny has great fun skewering Rosenberg’s eye-popping absurdities:
One of Rosenberg’s more extravagant claims is that nobody ever thinks about anything. […] His argument goes like this: the mind is identical with the brain, so a thought must be an event in the brain. But no clump of neurons can be about anything. Therefore, no thought is about anything.
This cranial absence of referentiality to the outside world would include, of course, all the “thoughts” in Rosenberg’s book. Checkmate again.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J. is Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago, and author, most recently, of Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology (Eerdmans).
Edward Feser, Not Understanding Nothing
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