Almost fifteen years ago, Sam Harris’s best-seller The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reasoninaugurated what became known as the New Atheist movement. Other books written by the so-called “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism (Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens) followed. The religious response to this movement has included the likes of Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, with his snarky yet serious 2009 Atheist Delusions, and Reformed theologian Douglas Wilson, who toured America debating Hitchens. These apologetics have been largely theological and historical. A more explicitly philosophical apologetic has been offered by philosophy professor Ed Feser, whose 2010 book, The Last Superstition, ably refutes the most salient arguments of the New Atheism. Surprisingly, given Feser’s rhetorical talents (visible in numerous interviews and on his website), it elicited little response from the “Four Horsemen.” Feser has recently published an additional text of importance to the debate, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, which also deserves a response.
Such a title may suggest that Feser plans a rehashing of the famous “five proofs” offered by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. Though there is significant overlap with Aquinas’s work, this is a quite different approach, one that brings a freshness to the well-worn debates of believers and nonbelievers. Feser instead categorizes five proofs for God’s existence under the headings of five intellectual giants: Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, and Leibniz. Some of these will sound familiar to those who have studied natural theology, the study of God through an examination of the natural world. These include Aristotle and Aquinas’s argument from change (things move from potentiality to act, demanding a “purely actual actualizer,” or “unmoved mover”), and Aquinas’s argument from essence and existence (and the subsequent argument that there must be one in whom essence and existence are identical). Yet Feser is also treading different ground, for example offering an argument from Plotinus regarding parts and wholeness—and the subsequent logical requirement for something that is purely simple (that is, God).
The book will satisfy a diversity of readers. The five chapters representing the five proofs operate on different levels. Each chapter begins with an informal presentation of the proof for philosophical novices. Feser then offers a more sophisticated, formal discussion of each proof—helpful for philosophical veterans on both sides of the aisle. The text is also an effective introduction to natural theology and many of its most salient concepts, such as the principle of proportionate causality and the doctrine of divine concurrence. Feser also uses natural theology to refute other popular understandings of God associated with major religious and philosophical traditions: pantheism (Hinduism), occasionalism (Islam), and deism (many Enlightenment thinkers). Feser, like any good Thomist, also devotes considerable energy to considering and refuting objections to natural theology. Even Feser’s frequent theological and philosophical sparring partner, the same David B. Hart mentioned above, has lauded the book.
Years ago, Hitchens debated Anglican historian and theologian Alistair McGrath. Hitchens was quick-witted, sarcastic, and polemically aggressive. McGrath was comparatively mild, moderate, and unassertive. Hitchens’s style and strategy played to the crowd, and it was clear who the audience favored. After considering the clarity and acuity of Five Proofs, one wonders how the New Atheists would manage against a thinker with the training, wit, and rhetorical ability of an Ed Feser. God willing, we may one day find out.
Casey Chalk is a graduate student in theology at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He is also an editor of the ecumenical website Called to Communion.