My second question:
Q. So, did you understand those philosophical principles back when you were a practicing atheist, or are you classifying your beliefs in retrospect, looking back as a Catholic? I ask because one of the things that struck me in your book (which squares with something I've heard Fr. Barron say) is that although the older atheists, i.e., the existentialists, had some real intellectual depth, the new atheists don't have knowledge of the great philosophers, have no real understanding of the depth of wisdom and thought throughout the ages. It's like the new atheists are not connected to anything, or somehow do not work in reason and logic in the same way the old atheists did. Do I have that right?
A. I believe you (and Fr. Barron) hit the nail on the head. I sometimes tell people I couldn't have been pulled away from the faith by the "new atheists" because 1.), I'm too old, and 2.), I knew a little philosophy. It was the older atheists who had some sense of intellectual history who lured me away from the faith. Bertrand Russell was an eminent philosopher himself. Ayn Rand, who rarely gave credit to predecessors, wrote that her philosophy was the natural development and fulfillment of Aristotle's. (Because of that influence, unlike almost all other prominent atheists who are relativists, Rand believed in objective truth. Hence, she called her system "Objectivism.") Psychologist Albert Ellis acknowledged that his vastly successful system of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy found its origins, not in modern psychological theory and research, but in the philosophy of the ancient Greek and Roman Stoics. So, the folks who pulled me toward atheism saw their connection with the great ideas of the past, but saw their role as developing them further. They also led me to read the great ancient thinkers themselves. It did not hit me fully until decades later that those great foundational pagan thinkers (e.g., Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius) were not atheists. Though they did not know Christ, their reasoning led them toward belief in God.
So, when I left the Church, I did come to believe those four key ideas I laid out and I thought I grasped their principles. Still, it did not occur to me until the last year or so, to lay them out that way in how they relate to four key areas of philosophy.
As for the "new atheists" who are popular today, when I've read their books I've been stunned by their lack of awareness or acknowledgement of the wisdom of the past. They seem to think reason came into the world when they attained their own reasoning capacity in their own teenage years. I remember in 2010 when an atheistic group put up an anti- Christmas billboard in New York, their message included a phrase about their group being "reasonable since 1963." I thought I'd like to see a billboard from the Catholic Church stating "reasonable since 33."
I find a huge intellectual hubris or overweening arrogance among some of the new atheists. They dismiss religion despite the slimmest acquaintance with religious history and its philosophical and theological underpinnings that have the deepest roots in human intellectual history. Ironically, at the same time, they promote the idea that truly smart and well-educated people do not believe in God. Forgive me for quoting myself, but I summed it up this way in From Atheism to Catholicism: "How grand it must be to so confidently declare that the profound questions which so taxed the greatest minds in human history are mere child's play for one's own."
This is not to say that there are not some philosophers among the new atheists, or that their ideas are not influenced by philosophy (whether or not they are aware of it.) Their ideas, however, are influenced by modern philosophy, the philosophy of the last several hundred years that neglected or misunderstood the perennial truths of Aristotle and St. Thomas. These ideas led to materialistic, mechanistic views of the universe with so many inconsistencies and problems that modern-day philosophers are rarely heard in the public square. They embrace what Blessed Pope John Paul II described as a scientism -- an impoverished view of reason that seeks truths in the material realm, ignoring the spiritual and ethical dimensions of reality. (For those who would care to look any deeper into the problems of modern philosophy, I recommend Mortimer Adler's Ten Philosophical Mistakes, and Edward Feser's Aquinas, as well as JPII's Fides et Ratio - Faith and Reason.)
Interestingly, as for as this intellectual pride or hubris among the new atheists, the greatest thinkers in the history of humanity took an opposite approach and arrived at the opposite conclusion. Pick up the writings of Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas, and without fail, you will see that whenever they address an important issue, they begin with a careful and accurate survey of what others before them believed, before they apply their reason (and Scripture for St. Thomas), weigh the pros and cons, and arrive at their conclusions. Neither believed that reason entered the world the day that he was born!
Dr. Vost's words remind me of a post that I have had in draft form for months, from an exchange I had with some "new atheists" on another blog. I think I might finally dust it off and publish it next, as it really is an illustration of what he just said.