The Unlikliest Theist

mgstandsbysPhilosophy is concerned with two matters: soluble questions that are trivial, and crucial questions that are insoluble.”-Stefan Kanfer

With that epigraph, Martin Gardner begins his wonderful book, The Whys Of A Philosophical Scrivener—a book that has been, for me, one of those special ones I keep at my bedside so I can repeatedly browse it and scribble notes in its margins.

Gardner is a prolific author of over 70 books on mathematics, puzzles, skepticism, science, and philosophy. He wrote for Scientific American from 1956 to 1981, and has been a key figure in the modern effort to debunk pseudoscientists and paranormalists of all stripes. A founding member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, he wrote a column for their magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, from 1983 to 2002. He has been a loud critic of creationism, and has earned the respect and friendship of the likes of the late Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, as well as Michael Shermer, James Randi, and Douglas Hofstadter.

In short, he’s just the sort of brilliant mind and gifted writer that we freethinkers love to have in our corner. But here is the surprise: Martin Gardner is a theist. And this book, in which he attempts to set out and justify all of his philosophical positions, is mostly about his personal religion, and how he tries to reconcile it with his considerable rational prowess, skepticism, and education.

Before I address the theological topics that comprise the bulk of the book, I’ll briefly gloss over some of the other subjects he considers. Each chapter title is of the form “Why I Am Not An ( X )”. Gardner is not a Marxist, a Smithian, a solipsist, a pragmatist, or an ethical relativist, and there are chapters devoted to each of these entries and other matters of politics, economics, and philosophy. They are all fine essays, but not nearly as interesting as those devoted to religious topics, so I will not say anything else about them here.

Several chapters that every non-theist will clearly appreciate include: “Why I Am Not A Paranormalist”; “Why I Am Not A Polytheist”; and “Why I Do Not Believe God’s Existence Can Be Demonstrated”. He dismantles all of the standard arguments, including the always popular Argument from Design (where he employs a quote from William James, of all people: “To the grub under the bark, the exquisite fitness of the woodpecker’s organism to extract him would certainly argue a diabolical designer.”)

And then, the book makes its sudden u-turn, for directly on the heels of his chapter which dismisses any and all purported demonstrations of God’s existence, comes a chapter entitled “Why I Am Not An Atheist”– and this is followed by: “Prayer: Why I Do Not Think It Foolish”; “Evil: Why?”; “Evil: Why We Don’t Know Why”; “Immortality: Why I Am Not Resigned”; “ Immortality: Why I Do Not Think It Strange”; “ Immortality: Why I Do Not Think It Impossible”; and “Surprise: Why I Cannot Take The World For Granted”. In these chapters, he puts forth his justification for his own, rather unorthodox religious beliefs. He’s not a Christian, Jew, Muslim, or anything else that is easily recognizable or simple to categorize. He rejects all revelation, holy books, fundamentalist doctrines, or prophets that claim to have direct contact with the divine.

Gardner is no dummy; he doesn’t rely on any of the specious arguments that infest the books of less well-read theists. He never points to DNA or quantum electrodynamics and says “See? Too complicated to arise without God.” He doesn’t harp about some innate moral sense that we supposedly have and which “could not have arisen naturally.” He does not subscribe to what Richard Dawkins has called The Argument From Personality Incredulity. None of those tired arguments are here, since he discredits them all himself. In fact, he makes the admission at several points that all the best arguments belong squarely on the atheist side.

So what, then, is the basis of his belief? You will need to read the book to find out the details. Gardner is a fideist, and accepts the credo consolans: He believes because he finds it consoling. No other reason. As dubious as it may sound in the context of this review, his book builds as compelling a case as anyone would ever be able to do. And while he didn’t sway me in the end (I’m still an atheist, after all), this book did far better than any other in terms of presenting a theistic worldview that I could at least partially understand, maybe even sympathize with.

Gardner is the kind of believer that we non-theists wish all believers would emulate. Intelligent, and honest enough to admit his doubts and uncertainties: if the world’s religious were like him, our quarrels with them would be mere interesting philosophical asides; not the life-or-death matters that they unfortunately too often become. And we could then take Spinoza’s high-minded path: “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.

One of the key questions that books like this force me to ask, and I try to ask this of other atheists and agnostics often, is: how should we non-theists deal with the liberal religious? Believers like Gardner, or the Reverend Barry Lynn, who heads up the organization Americans United For The Separation of Church And State. Are Unitarians our friends, or just a less obnoxious and less harmful group that follows slightly less harmful nonsense? In our quest for a more tolerant, more rational, less dogmatic world, should we be expecting that for calls for pure atheism will make many converts? Or should we look to take baby steps? Many people, today, will simply not accept a complete lack of theistic belief—would it behoove us to then encourage them to explore the ideas of theologians like John Shelby Spong, who has written books such as Why Christianity Must Change Or Die?

Personally, I think Spong, Lynn, and Gardner et al. are powerful allies in the battle against the truly dangerous aspects of religion. Without comprising what we (don’t) believe, we will get further, faster, with their help.

To summarize, and getting back to topic, I highly recommend Gardner’s book. It is a wonderful conversation with a kindly yet precise thinker and gifted writer. The book introduced me to a number of authors and ideas I’d likely otherwise never have heard of. (I was so impressed that I wrote to him about it, and received a nice reply back.) His stance is so unlike what most atheists are used to encountering from their interlocutors that it might even come as a bit of a shock to some.

But hey, shock is good.


2 Responses to “The Unlikliest Theist”

  1. Hello, Everybody!
    I have to apologize for my inability to take this sort of thing seriously – my fault really … I’ve been warned, it’s most likely part of a larger character defect.

    While there’s absolutely no hope for mankind, nor for this World – and none at all that there might be any residual world existent after the first catastrophes (vaporized rock and that sort of thing), there is, however, hope – indeed, human hope (?) – hope eternal for mathematics – as is born out by its containment of – say – the endless firmament itself along with its roundabout physics- with or without chaos!
    I met Martin Gardner once – introduced to him by Steve K. Very kindly, MG gave me what was then one of the first Rubic’s cubes (the colored squares were simple paper paste-ons in those early days. That was several decades ago up in Gardner’s garret in his house of the time in Hastings.-on-Hudson I took this “toy” home to my son who “solved” the “cube” instantly.)
    I do recall that, despite his kindness, I didn’t particularly like Martin Gardner, but neither did I dislike him. Something about him – I donno. I’ve forgotten why. It happens that way sometimes. Caleb Cane

  2. Mary Severinghaus Says:

    “Without comprising what we (don’t) believe, we will get further, faster, with their help.” I assume you meant “compromising”?

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