The Road from Atheism: Dr. Edward Feser’s Conversion (Part 1 of 3)
NOTE: Today we share the first part of Dr. Edward Feser's conversion story from atheism to theism. We'll post Part 2 this Friday and Part 3 on Monday.
We'd also like to note that Dr. Feser's contributions at Strange Notions were originally posted on his own blog, and therefore lose some of their context when reprinted here. Dr. Feser explains why that matters.
As many friends and readers know, I was an atheist for about a decade—roughly the 1990s, give or take. Occasionally I am asked how I came to reject atheism. I briefly addressed this in The Last Superstition. A longer answer, which I offer here, requires an account of the atheism I came to reject.
I was brought up Catholic, but lost whatever I had of the Faith by the time I was about 13 or 14. Hearing, from a non-Catholic relative, some of the stock anti-Catholic arguments for the first time—“That isn’t in the Bible!”, “This came from paganism!”, “Here’s what they did to people in the Middle Ages!”, etc.—I was mesmerized, and convinced, seemingly for good. Sola scriptura-based arguments are extremely impressive, until you come to realize that their basic premise—sola scriptura itself—has absolutely nothing to be said for it. Unfortunately it takes some people, like my younger self, a long time to see that. Such arguments can survive even the complete loss of religious belief, the anti-Catholic ghost that carries on beyond the death of the Protestant body, haunting the atheist who finds himself sounding like Martin Luther when debating his papist friends.
But I was still a theist for a time, though that wouldn’t survive my undergrad years. Kierkegaard was my first real philosophical passion, and his individualistic brand of religiosity greatly appealed to me. But the individualistic irreligion of Nietzsche would come to appeal to me more, and for a time he was my hero, with Walter Kaufmann a close second. (I still confess an affection for Kaufmann. Nietzsche, not so much.) Analytic philosophy would, before long, bring my youthful atheism down to earth. For the young Nietzschean the loss of religion is a grand, civilizational crisis, and calls for an equally grand response on the part of a grand individual like himself. For the skeptical analytic philosopher it’s just a matter of rejecting some bad arguments, something one does quickly and early in one’s philosophical education before getting on to the really interesting stuff. And that became my “settled” atheist position while in grad school. Atheism was like belief in a spherical earth—something everyone in possession of the relevant facts knows to be true, and therefore not worth getting too worked up over or devoting too much philosophical attention to.
But it takes some reading and thinking to get to that point. Kaufmann’s books were among my favorites, serious as they were on the “existential” side of disbelief without the ultimately impractical pomposity of Nietzsche. Naturally I took it for granted that Hume, Kant, et al. had identified the main problems with the traditional proofs of God’s existence long ago. On issues of concern to a contemporary analytic philosopher, J. L. Mackie was the man, and I regarded his book The Miracle of Theism as a solid piece of philosophical work. I still do. I later came to realize that he doesn’t get Aquinas or some other things right. (I discuss what he says about Aquinas in Aquinas.) But the book is intellectually serious, which is more than can be said for some books written by the “New Atheists.” Antony Flew’s challenge to the intelligibility of various religious assertions may have seemed like dated “ordinary language” philosophy to some, but I was convinced there was something to it. Kai Nielsen was the “go to” guy on issues of morality and religion. Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification was a doorstop of a book, and a useful compendium of arguments. I used to wonder with a little embarrassment whether my landlord, who was religious but a nice guy, could see that big word “ATHEISM” on its spine when he’d come to collect the rent, sitting there sort of like a middle finger on the bookshelf behind me. But if so he never raised an eyebrow or said a word about it.
The argument from evil was never the main rationale for my atheism; indeed, the problem of suffering has only gotten really interesting to me since I returned to the Catholic Church. (Not because the existence of suffering poses a challenge to the truth of classical theism—for reasons I’ve given elsewhere, I think it poses no such challenge at all—but because the role various specific instances of suffering actually play in divine providence is often really quite mysterious.) To be sure, like any other atheist I might have cited the problem of suffering when rattling off the reasons why theism couldn’t be true, but it wasn’t what primarily impressed me philosophically. What really impressed me was the evidentialist challenge to religious belief. If God really exists there should be solid arguments to that effect, and there just aren’t, or so I then supposed. Indeed, that there were no such arguments seemed to me something which would itself be an instance of evil if God existed, and this was an aspect of the problem of evil that seemed really novel and interesting.
I see from a look at my old school papers that I was expressing this idea in a couple of essays written for different courses in 1992. (I think that when J. L. Schellenberg’s book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason appeared in 1993 I was both gratified that someone was saying something to that effect in print, and annoyed that it wasn’t me.) Attempts to sidestep the evidentialist challenge, like Alvin Plantinga’s, did not convince me, and still don’t. My Master’s thesis was a defense of “evidentialism” against critics like Plantinga. I haven’t read it in years, but I imagine that, apart from its atheism and a detail here or there, I’d still agree with it.
I was also greatly impressed by the sheer implausibility of attributing humanlike characteristics to something as rarefied as the cause of the world. J. C. A. Gaskin’s The Quest for Eternity had a fascinating section on the question of whether a centre of consciousness could coherently be attributed to God, a problem I found compelling. Moreover, the very idea of attributing moral virtues (or for that matter moral vices) to God seemed to make no sense, given that the conditions that made talk of kindness, courage, etc. intelligible in human life could not apply to Him. Even if something otherwise like God did exist, I thought, He would be “beyond good and evil”—He would not be the sort of thing one could attribute moral characteristics to, and thus wouldn’t be the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (Richard Swinburne’s attempt to show otherwise did not work, as I argued in another school paper.) The Euthyphro problem, which also had a big impact on me, only reinforced the conclusion that you couldn’t tie morality to God in the way that (as I then assumed) the monotheistic religions required.
Those were, I think, the main components of my mature atheism: the conviction that theists could neither meet nor evade the evidentialist challenge; and the view that there could be, in any event, no coherent notion of a cause of the world with the relevant humanlike attributes. What is remarkable is how much of the basis I then had for these judgments I still find compelling. As I would come to realize only years later, the conception of God I then found so implausible was essentially a modern, parochial, and overly anthropomorphic “theistic personalist” conception, and not the classical theism to which the greatest theistic philosophers had always been committed. And as my longtime readers know, I still find theistic personalism objectionable. The fideism that I found (and still find) so appalling was, as I would also come to see only later, no part of the mainstream classical theist tradition either. And while the stock objections raised by atheists against the traditional arguments for God’s existence are often aimed at caricatures, some of them do have at least some force against some of the arguments of modern philosophers of religion. But they do not have force against the key arguments of the classical theist tradition.
It is this classical tradition—the tradition of Aristotelians, Neo-Platonists, and Thomists and other Scholastics—that I had little knowledge of then. To be sure, I had read the usual selections from Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Anselm that pretty much every philosophy student reads—several of Plato’s dialogues, the Five Ways, chapter 2 of the Proslogium, and so forth. Indeed, I read a lot more than that. I’d read the entire Proslogium of Anselm, as well as the Monologium, the Cur Deus Homo, and the exchange with Gaunilo, early in my undergraduate years. I’d read Aquinas’s De Ente et Essentia and De Principiis Naturae, big chunks of Plotinus’s Enneads, Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, Augustine’s Concerning the Teacher, and Bonaventure’s The Mind’s Road to God. I’d read Russell’s History of Western Philosophy -- hardly an unbiased source, to be sure—but also a bit of Gilson. I read all this while becoming an atheist during my undergrad years, and I still didn’t understand the classical tradition.
Why not? Because to read something is not necessarily to understand it. Partly, of course, because when you’re young, you always understand less than you think you do. But mainly because, to understand someone, it’s not enough to sit there tapping your foot while he talks. You’ve got to listen, rather than merely waiting for a pause so that you can insert the response you’d already formulated before he even opened his mouth. And when you’re a young man who thinks he’s got the religious question all figured out, you’re in little mood to listen—especially if you’ve fallen in love with one side of the question, the side that’s new and sexy because it’s not what you grew up believing. Zeal of the deconverted, and all that.
You’re pretty much just going through the motions at that point. And if, while in that mindset, what you’re reading from the other side are seemingly archaic works, written in a forbidding jargon, presenting arguments and ideas no one defends anymore (or at least no one in the “mainstream”), your understanding is bound to be superficial and inaccurate. You’ll take whatever happens to strike you as the main themes, read into them what you’re familiar with from modern writers, and ignore the unfamiliar bits as irrelevant. “This part sounds like what Leibniz or Plantinga says, but Hume and Mackie already showed what’s wrong with that; I don’t even know what the hell this other part means, but no one today seems to be saying that sort of thing anyway, so who cares...” Read it, read into it, dismiss it, move on. How far can you go wrong?
Well the answer is very, very far. It took me the better part of a decade to see that, and what prepared the way were some developments in my philosophical thinking that seemingly had nothing to do with religion. The first of them had to do instead with the philosophy of language and logic. Late in my undergrad years at Cal State Fullerton I took a seminar in logic and language in which the theme was the relationship between sentences and what they express. (Propositions? Meanings? Thoughts? That’s the question.) Similar themes would be treated in courses I took in grad school, at first at Claremont and later at UC Santa Barbara. Certain arguments stood out. There was Alonzo Church’s translation argument, and, above all, Frege’s wonderful essay “The Thought”. Outside of class, I discovered Karl Popper’s World 3 concept, and the work of Jerrold Katz. The upshot of these arguments was that the propositional content of sentences could not be reduced to or otherwise explained in terms of the utterances of sentences themselves, or behavioral dispositions, or psychological states, or conventions, or functions from possible worlds, or anything else a materialist might be willing to countenance. As the arguments sank in over the course of months and years, I came to see that existing naturalistic accounts of language and meaning were no good.
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