I'm going to spend some time refuting his most egregious points.
This was some time before I became an atheist, which was some time before I became the observant Roman Catholic I am now. Oddly, the rhetoric of the New Atheist writers—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens among the most prominent—sounds much more like that of a fundamentalist preacher than like anything I read during my atheist days. Like the preacher, they are supremely self-confident in their ability to dispatch their opponents with a sarcastic quip or two. And, like the preacher, they show no evidence whatsoever of knowing what they are talking about.
If this were actually true, it would be a pretty serious concern. Let's see what evidence he has.
Take Daniel Dennett. (Please.) In his book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, he assures us that: “The Cosmological Argument … in its simplest form states that since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause—namely God”; he then briskly refutes the argument by asking: “What caused God? The reply that God is self-caused (somehow) then raises the rebuttal: If something can be self-caused, why can’t the universe as a whole be the thing that is self-caused?”
Very good questions, it might seem—except that (as everyone who knows something about the philosophy of religion is aware) that is not what the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God says. In fact, not one of the best-known defenders of the Cosmological Argument in the history of philosophy ever gave this stupid “everything has a cause” argument—not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Thomas Aquinas, not John Duns Scotus, not G.W. Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne. And not anyone else either, as far as I know. Perhaps, like Dennett, you think that when trying to refute some of history’s greatest minds, a good strategy would be to attack an argument none of them ever defended. But if not, you might find something better to do with your time than to curl up with Breaking the Spell.
His argument here begs the question. While he is correct in saying that the proponents of the Cosmological Argument generally do not claim that everything must have been caused, the Cosmological Argument itself is about the First Cause for the universe, implied to be God. In other words, the ultimate cause for the entire universe. Yet there is no cause given for that cause (indeed, that is the point of the Cosmological Argument, that the First Cause was uncaused). So Dennett's objection is still valid. If God does not need to have been caused in order to cause the universe, then there is no reason to propose that the universe itself needs to have been caused by anything.
Richard Dawkins is equally adept at refuting straw men. In his bestselling The God Delusion, he takes Aquinas to task for resting his case for God’s existence on the assumption that “There must have been a time when no physical things existed”—even though Aquinas rather famously avoids making that assumption in arguing for God. (Aquinas’s view was instead that God must be keeping the world in existence here and now and at any moment at which the world exists, and that this would remain true even if it turned out that the world had no beginning.) Dawkins assures us that Aquinas gives “absolutely no reason” to think that a First Cause of the universe would have to be all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, etc.; in reality, Aquinas devoted hundreds of pages, across many works, to showing just this. Dawkins says that the fifth of Aquinas’s famous Five Ways is essentially the same as the “divine watchmaker” argument made famous by William Paley. In fact the arguments couldn’t be more different, and followers of Aquinas typically—and again, rather famously (at least for people who actually know something about these things)—reject Paley’s argument with as much scorn as evolutionists like Dawkins do.
Since I haven't actually read The God Delusion, I can't comment on what Dawkins said. However, I can comment on Aquinas's arguments. I'll start with the last one, the fifth of his Five Ways.
The Fifth Way: Argument from Design
- We see that natural bodies work toward some goal, and do not do so by chance.
- Most natural things lack knowledge.
- But as an arrow reaches its target because it is directed by an archer, what lacks intelligence achieves goals by being directed by something intelligence.
- Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.
While this is not exactly the same form as the Divine Watchmaker argument, it follows the same lines. It is essentially arguing that things without intelligence must be directed by things with intelligence, and thus God must have ultimately directed all things. I can see why Dawkins might have made the comparison, because it follows the same general path - it takes intelligence in order to make things happen, whether it's shooting an arrow or building a watch.
Both are flawed for that reason, as they presuppose that intelligence is necessary for anything to happen. This is based on our experience - we make things happen, we're intelligent, thus things that we can't see an obvious cause for must have been made to happen by something intelligent. However, our experience, limited to a few thousand years of recorded history on a single planet in a nondescript galaxy, is not a valid basis for either argument.
Regarding the second point he makes regarding Aquinas's argument (specifically that the Uncaused Cause must be all powerful, all knowing, all good, etc), while it is true that Aquinas did give reasons to think that the First Cause must be an omnimax being, they are not convincing because of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, in which he stated that an infinite series could not exist. For example, it is impossible for a being to be all-powerful unless it is infinitely powerful, yet it cannot be infinitely powerful because that would be an infinite series. Therefore, the existence of an omni-anything being is automatically ruled out by the Principle of Sufficient Reason, and there are no good arguments to serve as the basis for it.
And finally, regarding Aquinas's argument that God is keeping the universe in existence...while it is true that this might preclude there ever having been a time when no physical things existed, it ignores the far greater problem, namely that there is absolutely no proof that God is keeping the universe in existence to begin with.
You will find similar howlers throughout the works of the other New Atheists. Their grasp of the chief arguments for the existence of God and related matters is, in short, comparable to the scientific acumen of the college sophomore who thinks the lesson of Einstein’s revolution in physics is that “it’s all relative, man”—or that of the fundamentalist preacher of my opening example. It’s that bad.
Actually, it seems to me that Feser has so far failed to show that the "New Atheists" have such a poor grasp on things. Indeed, his defense of the arguments in favor of God's existence so far is little more than, "these people paraphrased in a way I disagree with, therefore they don't understand the arguments they're disagreeing with".
If you have any doubt about this, feel free to pick up a copy or three of my book, The Last Superstition, which exposes the errors of the New Atheists, and lays out the case for the existence of God, at rigorous and polemical length. (Sorry, but you’re simply not going to get an adequate understanding of the arguments of a Aquinas or a Leibniz—any more than of Darwin’s ideas, or Einstein’s—from an op-ed piece.) Or, if you don’t like polemics and prefer a more sedate academic approach, try my book Aquinas. Or play it safe and buy both.
Until Feser has shown himself capable of addressing the errors in his own arguments, I am not likely to buy into other arguments of his.
But you don’t have to take my self-promoting word for it. The intellectual frivolousness of the New Atheist literature is by now an open secret. Philosopher and prominent Darwinian Michael Ruse has said that Dawkins’s book made him “ashamed to be an atheist” and that Dennett’s book is “really bad and not worthy of [him].” Another atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel, has described Dawkins’s “amateur philosophy” as “particularly weak,” and his attempts to counter the philosophical difficulties inherent in his own position “pure hand-waving.” Literary critic Terry Eagleton—yet another atheist, and a Marxist to boot—characterizes Dawkins’ writings on religion as “ill-informed,” “shoddy,” and directed at “vulgar caricatures.” The list of the New Atheists’ fellow intellectuals and even fellow atheists who are critical of their work could easily be extended
I noted the lack of actual citations and context-limited quotes here. Even though this is an op-ed piece, it does not excuse Feser from providing actual sources.
Or maybe not. Because this is exactly the sort of response Dawkins has made to his critics. Indeed, the “Leprechology” line was in fact uttered by Dawkins himself, in reply to the suggestion that he should learn something about theology and philosophy of religion before commenting on it. Similarly, in the preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion, he says: “Most of us happily disavow fairies, astrology and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, without first immersing ourselves in books of Pastafarian theology.” Yet whether the work of Aquinas, Leibniz, et al., is really comparable to “Leprechology” or “Pastafarianism” in the first place is precisely what is in question—and precisely what people who actually know something about Aquinas, Leibniz, et al., know to be a suggestion that is simply too stupid for words. The reason Dawkins and Co. don’t see this is that, like the fundamentalist preacher of my example, they literally refuse to see it. The truth is sitting there, in easily available books, waiting for them to discover it. And yet these apostles of open-mindedness, free thought, critical thinking, and calm rationality insist that they will not look, that they will simply not bother to try to understand the ideas they criticize. (All the same, in the very letter to the editor of The Independent in which he makes his “Leprechology” defense, Dawkins whines that his views have been misrepresented and that the “decent” thing for his critics to do would be to read his book before attacking it! Apparently, the reason Dawkins will not study theology is that he has been too busy studying Yiddish, and wants to show off his mastery of chutzpah.)
This is a rather weak argument. It seems that Feser is complaining because Dawkins makes slighting remarks about religion and compares it to things like believing in leprechauns. While that's his right, for Feser to arbitrarily claim that those slighting remarks are the sum and total of Dawkins's (and other "New Atheist") arguments is deceptive at best. Comparing a non-evidence-based belief to another (whether it's belief in God, belief in Santa Claus, or belief in leprechauns) is a valid argument in my opinion, because we do not accept the existence of Santa Claus or the existence of leprechauns without evidence. It doesn't matter how much rhetorical support those arguments have - any argument can be supported by logic regardless of whether it's true, because logic cannot determine the validity of the premise. That's why we need evidence.
What accounts for such madness—for the inability of the New Atheists to see that they are guilty of precisely what they accuse their opponents of, that their position rests on exactly the kind of hypocrisy, willful ignorance, and fallacious reasoning they would not tolerate in others?
Well, as our preacher could tell you, one sin leads to another. Like the killer who has to commit a second murder in order to cover up his first one, Dawkins and Co. are able to blind themselves to their sophistries only by perpetrating a further and bolder exercise in rhetorical sleight of hand. In his book The Rediscovery of the Mind, philosopher John Searle once criticized eliminative materialism—a bizarre theory propounded by some contemporary philosophers according to which the human mind does not really exist (don’t ask)—for the dishonest way in which its adherents often respond to their many critics:
Yet Feser has not actually proved that the "New Atheist" arguments are based on hypocrisy, willful ignorance, and fallacious reasoning. Indeed, the two examples he gave were not terribly difficult to rebut.
Another rhetorical device for disguising the implausible is to give the commonsense view a name and then deny it by name and not by content. Thus, it is very hard even in the present era to come right out and say, “No human being has ever been conscious.” Rather, the sophisticated philosopher gives the view that people are sometimes conscious a name, for example, “the Cartesian intuition,” then he or she sets about challenging, questioning, denying something described as “the Cartesian intuition”… And just to give this maneuver a name, I will call it the “give-it-a-name” maneuver. (4–5)
Well, the New Atheists have incorporated this “‘give-it-a-name’ maneuver” into their own rhetorical bag of tricks, and the name they’ve chosen is “The Courtier’s Reply.” The label comes from Dawkins’ fellow biologist and atheist P.Z. Myers, and it refers to an imagined defense a court sycophant might give of the naked emperor of Hans Christian Anderson’s famous story: “Haven’t you read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots?” etc. The idea is that complaining about a New Atheist’s lack of theological knowledge is no better than the courtier’s complaint that the naked emperor’s critics haven’t read the works of Count Roderigo. In other words, it is just the same old question-begging “Leprechology” and “Pastafarianism” pseudo-defense, now tarted up with a clever marketing tag.
In other words, he's basically saying that anyone who criticizes philosophical arguments that are not based on evidence should be fully acquainted with those arguments before they criticize them. Or at least so I understand his argument.
How does it work? Well, suppose you confront a New Atheist with the overwhelming evidence that his “objections” to Aquinas (or whomever) are about as impressive as the fundamentalist’s “chicken/egg” objection to evolution. What’s he going to do? Tell the truth? “Fine, so I don’t know the first thing about Aquinas. But I’m not going to let that stop me from criticizing him! Nyah nyah!” Even for a New Atheist, that has its weaknesses from a PR point of view. But now, courtesy of Myers, he’s got a better response: “Oh dear, oh dear … not the Courtier’s Reply!” followed by some derisive chuckling. One’s intelligent listeners will be baffled, wondering how shouting “Courtier’s Reply!” is supposed to excuse not knowing what one is talking about. And one’s more gullible followers—people like the www.infidels.org faithful who have been buying up The God Delusion by the bushel basket—will be thrilled to have some new piece of smart-assery to fling at their religious friends in lieu of a serious argument. In the confusion, the New Atheist can slip out the back door before anyone realizes he hasn’t really answered the question. Call it “the Myers Shuffle,” and feel free to fling that label back at the next fool atheist who thinks yelling “Courtier’s Reply!” should be enough to stop you in your tracks.
Personally, I find this caricature of "New Atheists" to fall somewhere beyond pathetic. His whole argument is that they don't know what they're talking about, therefore they make witty comments to disguise this supposed lack of knowledge. Except that he has not even come close to showing that they don't know what they're talking about. All he's actually done is point to a couple of examples (from Dawkins and Dennett) and claimed that since they made comparisons that Feser declared were invalid, they must not understand the subject at all - and gone from there to a blanket assertion about all "New Atheists".
Except that sort of wrongheaded assertion is what he wrote this op-ed to combat. Isn't it?
So, the New Atheist covers up one fallacy with another. But how do otherwise-intelligent people get themselves into this rhetorical regress in the first place? Here we need to turn from logic to politics and psychology. Dawkins and Co. have an enormous political stake in the claim that religion is inherently irrational. They want a society in which religious believers are no more welcome in the public square than racists or Holocaust deniers are. To admit that there really are respectable arguments for religion—that it is something about which reasonable people can disagree—would be at once to admit that all the extremist talk about religion being tantamount to child abuse, no more worthy of respect than belief in the tooth fairy, etc., goes out the window. It would have to be conceded that Catholic theologians and Jewish rabbis, say, have as much right to be heard on matters of public policy as boozy Vanity Fair columnists and writers of popular-science books.
I don't think they are actually trying to force religion out of society, though. Anyone else seen or read them saying this?
I snipped the rest of it, because the reply was getting long, and to be honest, reading him harping on the same point over and over again was getting tiresome. What I got from his argument is that he's doing the exact same thing that he accuses the "New Atheists" of doing - representing their arguments as fundamentally ridiculous, and then dismissing the strawmen he created rather than what they're actually saying. It's tantamount to getting into a mud-wrestling fight with someone because you think they shouldn't mud-wrestle.
I mean, I did do a short Google search and I found nothing by actual "New Atheists" saying this. Just complaints from the religious to the effect that they had. And even if they did say it, it's their opinion - which they have every right to push for, just as the religious have every right to push for their beliefs.