The road from atheism

by Edward Feser

As most of my readers probably 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 anything written by a “New Atheist.”  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…


Edward Feser: The road from atheism