Edward Feser, a Catholic philosopher at Pasadena City College, is notorious on this website for touting the Cosmological Argument for God’s existence (short explanation: every contingent thing has a “cause”; the universe is contingent; therefore the universe has a cause; therefore God). He’s equally notorious for claiming that one can’t truly understand this compelling argument without reading at least six books and seven articles, two of which of course, are by Feser himself. (Go here, here, and here to see Jason Rosenhouse’s refutation of Feser’s arguments.)
If you’re not reading Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald’s site, you should be. He is a serious man, a former Anglican priest, who knows his theological onions and makes serious arguments against the fatuity of theologians like Feser. This week Eric has a two-parter on Feser—not about the Cosmological Argument, but about Feser’s book, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism.
Eric’s first post, “History is not an argument,” deals with several issues, including Feser’s strident and militant anti-atheism, which seems to exceed in vitriol anything produced by the supposedly vicious Gnu atheists. A specimen of Feser’s prose:
One is almost tempted to think that Dawkins’s research for the philosophical chapters of his book consisted entirely of a quick thumbing through of Philosophy for Dummies. Almost, except for this: Though I haven’t read Philosophy for Dummies, I would not want to insult its author, Thomas Morris, who is a very capable philosopher indeed. . . [76-77]
I don’t care so much about that brand of mockery except that it’s hypocritical to indict the Gnu Atheists without also mentioning stuff like this. More disturbing is Feser’s obsession with the “natural law” of Catholicism, especially when it comes to sex. Feser sees “natural law” for sex as based on the “final cause” of sex, which, of course, is procreation. Feser’s prose borders on the salacious here, as if he’s licking his mental lips:
If we consider the structure of the sexual organs and the sexual act as a process beginning with arousal and ending in orgasm, it is clear that its biological function, its final cause, is to get semen into the vagina. That is why the penis and vagina are shaped the way they are, why the vagina secretes lubrication during sexual arousal, and so forth … The point of the process is not just to get semen out of the male, but also into the female, and into one place in the female in particular. 
Any form of intercourse that doesn’t aim at procreation is thus immoral:
It cannot possibly be good for us to use them in any other way, whether an individual person thinks it is or not. 
This is one example of the immorality of Catholicism. God gave us sex, so the argument goes, to have children, not pleasure. To subvert that God-given purpose by using contraception is a sin. Of course, contraception via the rhythm method (now called “natural family planning“) is fine, because you’re not putting an artificial barrier between egg and sperm. Why this is more moral than contraception has always escaped me. In either case a “potential life” is thwarted, in one case by a chemical or a barrier of latex, in the other case by having sex when a conjunction between sperm and egg is impossible. Perhaps the distinction is based on some moral difference between passive abstinence and active intervention, but that makes no sense to me.
Yes, orgasms and sexual pleasure are there to promote the production of offspring, but they were vouchsafed for us not by God but by evolution. And we regularly subvert evolutionary-derived pleasures. The love of fats and sweets probably evolved to make us seek out scarce and valuable commodities on the savanna; now we subvert them by going to McDonald’s or Baskin-Robbins. God knows why our neuronal network evolved in a way that makes us love music, but I’m pretty sure that, despite the assertions of some evolutionary psychologists, it wasn’t directly adaptive. We now subvert the evolutionary genesis of that network by making music and going to concerts.
The point is that unless you adhere to the outdated dictum of an Iron age book—or, rather, to the living fossils who interpret it—it’s not obvious why it’s immoral for consenting adults to use their evolved pleasure centers to enjoy each other’s company. There is no “natural law” beyond the ambiguous and confused musings not of God, but of a bunch of old celibates. And if there is “natural law” based on the Bible, does it also tell us that sometimes genocide and stoning are okay? Who determines what part of the Bible is “moral law,” and what part can be happily ignored?
Eric’s second piece, “Argumentum ad verecundiam” (the “argument from authority”) takes on the Catholic Church’s touting of authority—in particular the philosophy of Aquinas—as the arbiter of morality. Here’s an amazing statement by Feser:
… very likely only on the classical Western philosophical-cum-religious worldview that we can make sense of reason and morality. The truth is precisely the opposite of what secularism claims: Only a (certain kind of) religious view of the world is rational, morally responsible, and sane; and an irreligious worldview is accordingly deeply irrational, immoral, and indeed insane. [5-6]
Eric goes on to recount the immorality that has occurred in the guise of Catholic authority, including child abuse and the prohibition of abortion that, in some cases, results in the death of both mother and child. Some might take issue with MacDonald’s comparison of church policy to Himmler’s rationalization of killing Jews (do watch Eric’s clip of Himmler’s speech: it will raise the hair on your head), but he has a point:
Someone will tell me that this is an outrageous comparison, but I am not so sure. Of course the scale of the horror is not so great, but is the injustice and the horror any less because it happens only to a few? And when does a few become many? Is it outrageous to suggest that there is a resemblance between, on the one hand, a church that would condemn a 9-year-old girl to remain pregnant with twins, raped by her step-father, and excommunicate peremptorily those who took part in the abortion, and, on the other, the callousness of men who steeled themselves to act without mercy to fellow human beings, as the Nazis did? Perhaps nothing will ever equal the horror of the Holocaust — hopefully it will not – but the resemblance does not consist in equality of horror, but in a disregard for the humanity of others in response to the dictates of a belief in some “ideal” tomorrow, some “obvious” truth. Consider the outrageousness of the excommunication of the nun in Phoenix, Arizona, because she approved, in a Catholic hospital, the abortion of a woman whose pregnancy would have led both to the woman’s death, already the mother of children, as well as to the death of the foetus she was carrying. Is it outrageous to suggest that this is evidence of a callous disregard for human rights and dignity, based on Catholic “morality”? Himmler at least had enough sense to know that what the Nazis were doing was morally disreputable, and could never be spoken of, yet the man who stands behind these acts of Christian inhumanity, as well as many many more, is widely regarded with adulation little short of the kind of worship offered by Catholics to the God they believe in.
MacDonald is a treasure, worth dozens of Fesers, and it’s great that he’s using his enormous acumen against religion.