Excerpt from Feser’s “Walter Mitty Atheism”

Edward Feser is not only an excellent philosopher, whose books The Last Superstition, Aquinas, Locke, Scholastic Metaphysics, and Philosophy of Mind are all well worth reading, but also a very fine blogger, whose blog is well worth following.  Along with Bill Vallicella’s Maverick Philosopher, Feser’s is one of my favorite philosophical blogs.  Unfortunately, Blogspot doesn’t seem to have a ‘reblog’ function, so if I want to share something of Feser’s, beyond just giving you a link, I have to do it by hand. I wrote him and asked if it would be all right for me to share parts of his blog, and he  graciously said it was fine.

I find his post “Walter Mitty atheism” to be very insightful about the psychology of at least a good number of contemporary atheists, especially those who identify as New Atheists, so here’s a lengthy excerpt.  Of course you should read the whole thing, which has details about Feser’s personal experiences with the marvel of intellectual insipidity that is Jerry Coyne, but this portion seems to me to get at the heart of something crucial, namely, that many atheists are driven, at bottom, by emotion and imagination, rather than reason.  Of course, having had long experience with Ayn Rand cultists, also known as Objectivists, I know very well that endlessly professing one’s adherence to reason is an entirely distinct thing from actually being reasonable, so it is hardly surprising to see this dynamic at work elsewhere.

Here’s Feser on what makes at least some ‘New Atheists’ tick.  I think his analysis is dead on:

Needless to say, there is something truly pathological going on here. And that, by the way, is one reason Coyne, Krauss, and company are worth at least a little of our attention. Some readers have asked me why I bother replying to people who are so extremely irrational and dishonest, and therefore unlikely to respond well to serious criticism. Part of the reason is that though Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and many of their fans are indeed impervious to rational argumentation, there are onlookers who are not impervious to it. And those people are reachable and worth trying to reach. After all, Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and some of the other better known New Atheists are, though irrational and dishonest, not stupid. In their own fields, some of them even do interesting work. For that reason, some people who know as little about philosophy and theology as they do but who are rational and honest might falsely suppose that these New Atheists must have something important to say about those particular subjects. Hence it is useful now and again to expose Coyne et al. for the frauds that they are, so that well-meaning third parties will see that they are not to be taken seriously on philosophical and theological questions. The more they make fools of themselves, the more they should be discussed rather than ignored, at least so long as there is any intellectually honest person who still somehow thinks the New Atheism is anything but a bad joke.

Another reason for paying them some attention, though, is that Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and company are simply genuine curiosities. Again, they are not stupid, and indeed have serious intellectual accomplishments to their credit. And yet on the subjects of religion and philosophy they are incapable of seeing that their self-confidence is laughably, cringe-makingly out of proportion to their actual competence. They exhibit exactly the sort of stubborn, bigoted closed-mindedness and ignorance that they smugly condemn when they perceive it in others. What exactly is going on here? What makes these weird people tick? That is a question of real intellectual interest.

The answer, I would suggest, is sentimentality. I use the word in a semi-technical sense, following the analysis offered in The Aesthetics of Music by Roger Scruton (who was in turn building on some ideas of Michael Tanner). A sentimental person, according to Scruton, tends to be quick to respond emotionally to a stimulus, will appear to be pained but will enjoy his pangs, will respond with equal violence to a variety of stimuli in succession, will nevertheless avoid following his emotional responses up with appropriate actions, and will respond more readily to strangers and to abstract issues than to persons known to him or to concrete circumstances requiring time, energy, or personal sacrifice. In short, a sentimental person is one whose emotional life becomes an end in itself and loses its connection both to the external circumstances that would normally shape it and to the behavior that it ought to generate. Feelings of moral outrage, romantic passion, and other emotional states become valued for their own sake to such an extent that the actual moral facts, the well-being of the beloved, etc. fade into the background.

For instance, someone who constantly chats up the plight of the homeless, but without any real interest in finding out why people become homeless or what ways of helping them are really effective, might plausibly be described as merely sentimental. “How awful things are for the homeless!” is not really the thought that moves him. What really moves him is the thought: “How wonderful I am* to think of how awful things are for the homeless!” His feelings of compassion function, not to get him to do what is necessary to help those who are homeless, but rather to provide him with assurance of his superior virtue. His high dudgeon functions, not to prod him to find out whether the homeless are really being victimized by evildoers, but rather to reinforce his assurance of his superior virtue by allowing him to contrast himself with the imagined evildoers. This kind of onanistic moralism requires a fantasy world rich enough to sustain it. Poignant or dramatic images of suffering and of injustices inflicted are far more likely to foster such fantasies than are cold statistics or the actual, mundane details of the lives of homeless people. Hence someone who is merely sentimental about homelessness might prefer movies, songs, and the like to social scientific study as a source of “information” about homelessness and its causes.

Now, the New Atheism, I submit, is exactly like this. The New Atheist talks, constantly and loudly, about reason, science, evidence, facts, being “reality-based,” etc. Equally constantly and loudly, he decries dogmatism, ignorance, wishful thinking, whatever is merely “faith-based,” etc. And he relentlessly denounces “religious” people, whom, he imagines, are central casting exemplars of the latter vices. But it is not reason, science, etc. that really move him. What really moves him is the pleasure that the thought of being paradigmatically rational, scientific, etc. gives him. Nor is he really moved by what religious people actually think. After all, he not only doesn’t trouble himself to find out what they actually think, but often will expend great energy trying to rationalize his refusal to find out what they actually think. (Consider e.g. P.Z. Myers’ shamelessly question-begging “Courtier’s reply” dodge.) Rather, what moves him is the self-righteous delight he takes in his belief in his intellectual and moral superiority over “religious” people. His “rationalism” consists, not in actually being rational, but in constantly chatting up rationality and constantly badmouthing those who, at least in his imagination, are not as rational as he enjoys believing that he is.

Here too, we have a kind of moralistic onanism which requires a rich fantasy life to support it. Finding out what thinkers like Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. actually said would completely destroy the fantasy, because they simply don’t fit the New Atheist’s caricature of religion. Hence the New Atheist nourishes his imagination instead with made-up examples of purportedly theistic ideas and argumentation, which he typically derives from reading other New Atheist writers rather than by reading what religious thinkers themselves have written. He repeatedly calls these examples to mind when he wants to reassure himself of the stupidity of religious people and of his superiority over them — especially when he encounters some religious opponent who doesn’t seem to fit his stereotype. He thinks: “First cause arguments start from the premise that ‘everything has a cause’; all such arguments founder on their inability to answer the challenge ‘What caused God?’; theism is incompatible with science, or at least presupposes outdated science; theism always ultimately rests on appeals to faith, or the Bible, or emotion…” and so forth. None of this is true, and it is all easily refuted simply by consulting the actual writings of religious thinkers. But the New Atheist is able to keep himself from seeing this by translating everything an opponent says into something he pulls from his mental bag of clichés about “what theists think.”

* This phenomenon has become so widespread today that we have developed a name for it: virtue signalling.  James Bartholomew, a writer for The Spectator, takes credit for the term, in this article, and expressing his surprise and pleasure to have introduced a new term to the English language here.  He writes:

I guess the reason that ‘virtue signalling’ has been used so much is that it fulfils a need. For years, people have noticed the phenomenon but did not have a word or phrase to describe it. One person tweeted, ‘Love it when you find out something that’s irritated you for years has a name #virtuesignalling.’ The lack of a phrase obstructed open discussion of what was going on.

I personally would like to thank Mr. Bartholomew for enriching the English language with this much-needed term, one that names the phenomenon perfectly.

To end where we began and put Feser’s thesis in a nutshell: A great many atheists are just as dogmatic and irrational as the most fanatical religious fundamentalists, but are even more insufferable because they combine their evident irrational dogmatism with incessant virtue signalling about how rational they are. 

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7 comments on “Excerpt from Feser’s “Walter Mitty Atheism”

  1. Ben says:

    I also think Feser’s meagre attempt at psychoanalysis misses the mark. He wants to portray atheists (“new atheists” in particular) as supercilious and insincere in their interactions with theists. They want to appear reasonable, he says, so they bloviate endlessly about reason, but they don’t care enough to pursue the question reasonably; to wit, they are dogmatic and irrational.

    But nonbelievers can only deal with the material they are presented with on a case by case basis. If they responded in any other way then they would be accused of not addressing the case they were presented with, or of attempting to misrepresent that case. At which point someone like Feser would still say that they are being insincere by not addressing the actual argument under consideration.

    I’ve had believers disparage my responses based on the fact that they *are* relevant to what some theist has claimed, which may or may not reflect the orthodox view. So what? In that situation, I’m not addressing the “orthodox view,” whatever that may be, but the claims of my interlocutor, who clearly believes something else.

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    • Eve Keneinan says:

      Again, you misrepresent Feser. He is well-aware of intelligent, intellectual honest atheists. He mentions Keith Parsons specifically. And in other places, e.g. Quentin Laurer.

      Feser is interested in an explanation of the manifest irrationality common in a certain type of atheists. Since irrational behavior cannot have be the result of reason, but does have a reason, we must look elsewhere. If someone is not acting from reason, it follows they must be acting from another part of the soul, so a psychological explanation is necessary.

      You are taking Feser to task for complaining that some of your fellow atheists don’t do what you say you do do, namely, address the issue at hand, and not something else.

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  2. Ben says:

    Feser is wrong to say that atheists – “new atheists” or otherwise – are relying on “made-up examples” of “what theists think.” We can only deal with what we are presented with, and frequently the “made-up examples” Feser alludes to are exactly what we are presented with, in one form or another. In conversation with nonbelievers, Feser may adopt a different approach in presenting his case for Christian theism, and then we would be obliged to deal with that case on its own merits, independently on what *other* theists might wish to present. But Feser is wrong to assume that the critiques he sees are not critiques of *actual arguments* we have seen put forward by theists. If he wants to improve the situation then he should talk to his fellow theists and advise them to stop using such bad arguments.

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    • Eve Keneinan says:

      Your comment misses the point that it is still intellectually dishonest constantly to attack the weakest arguments for a position and claim you have accomplished anything important by refuting them.

      Furthermore, his point has to do with people like Jerry Coyne, who consistently attack nothing but straw men. It doesn’t matter if they have at some point actually been presented with such. It would be like me “refuting” atheism on the basis of kinds of arguments atheists make on Twitter, e.g. such things as “argument by meme” or the patently false claim “Theism is false because there’s no evidence for theism,” (A non sequitur based on a manifestly false premise).

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      • Ben says:

        In what way is it intellectually dishonest to address the actual arguments under consideration as opposed to some other argument, one that hasn’t even been presented by one s interlocutor? Again, if Feser is displeased by atheists attacking weak arguments for theism, then he should address the issue with the theists who regularly present such weak arguments for consideration.

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  3. notabilia says:

    Does Twitter make people incoherent?

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  4. An interesting thing here is that what we routinely notice about the New Atheists is, in reality, every bad stereotype of atheists you can think of: And what’s worse is, I notice a lot of the young ones, they will deny being “New” atheists and will even nowadays talk about Dawkins with contempt as a has-been (atheists eat their own, they remind me of feminists that way).

    The fact is that what the New Atheist phenomenon is most of all appears to be what in 1900 or 1950 or even 1000 or 1050 is pretty much what everybody recognized as 15 year old juvenile snotty atheism. Which used to wear off but is now, apparently, a lifestyle.

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