The American journalist Martin Gardner (1914-2010) has ranked among my favourite skeptical thinkers ever since someone gave me a book of his essays one Christmas. In article after article he debunked pseudoscience and mystical nonsense of all kinds, explored real science, philosophy and mathematics with a sense of playfulness and wonder, and offered up insightful thoughts on cannibalism, the Wizard of Oz, the writings of G. K. Chesterton, and anything else that happened to catch his attention. The only real constants in his work were a commitment to rationality and a near-unfailing clarity of thought and expression.
Someone like that would pretty well have to be an atheist… right?
Well, no, as you’ve probably guessed from the way I posed the question. Or at least, not exactly.
Gardner set out his views on a wide range of philosophical topics in a book called The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. I have yet to make my way through this one, but I encountered an illuminating chapter called “Why I am not an atheist” in reprinted form in an essay collection, When you Were a Tadpole and I was a Fish. In this chapter, Gardner offered a relatively cogent and clear-eyed explanation of his commitment to what he called “philosophical theism”. Reading about it made me feel more secure than ever in my own atheism, while also perhaps better able to understand some of the factors that impel people towards religion.
The thing that elevates Gardner’s faith above most religiosity, in my opinion, is his willingness to ask the hard questions about what is likely to be out there in the universe and arrive at sensible, scientifically informed answers:
Faith is indeed quixotic. It is absurd. Let us admit it. Let us concede everything! To a rational mind the world looks like a world without God. It looks like a world with no hope for another life. To think otherwise, to believe in spite of appearances, is surely a kind of madness.
The only difference between a respectable atheist and Martin Gardner is that the atheist stops right there, whereas Gardner goes ahead and willfully embraces the “madness” of belief. His reasons for doing so are unapologetically subjective and emotional:
I am quite content to confess…that I have no basis whatever for my belief in God other than a passionate longing that God exists and that I and others will not cease to exist. Because I believe with all my heart that God upholds all things, it follows that I believe that my leap of faith, in a way beyond my comprehension, is God outside of me asking and wanting me to believe, and God within me responding.
This is beginning to sound dangerously tautological, as if Gardner was willing to make his leap of faith at least partly because he had already made it. I suspect, however, that the second sentence of the quote describes his attitude towards the leap of faith in retrospect. He made the leap in the first place because of his “passionate longing”. I should probably clarify that his leap did not take him all the way to organized religion, but only to a theistic belief in some sort of afterlife and in a being “who has provided for” this afterlife.
At this point it would be fair to accuse Gardner of conflating belief with mere hope. Passionate longing could engender the latter, but shouldn’t lead to the former in the absence of evidence that the longed-for thing will in fact manifest itself in reality. Perhaps Gardner, who confessed that he was in the grip of “an ugly Protestant fundamentalism” before finding his theistic perspective, simply couldn’t let go of the language of faith and belief. Nobody’s perfect. I would have no quarrel, however, with someone who acknowledged the absurdity of faith and yet decided to simply hope that there might be a God and an afterlife.
However, this not a hope that I personally share. I would rather live in a chaotic and open-ended universe than one presided over by a supreme cosmic dictator, however benevolent, and I agree with Greta Christina that immortality begins to seem less than entirely attractive when one thinks about how it would actually work. Gardner, on the other hand, seems to find views like mine well nigh incomprehensible. He refers to the views of the “Spanish philosopher and novelist Miguel de Unamuno” with a strong sense of tacit approval:
“Not to believe that there is a God or to believe that there is not a God,” wrote Unamuno, “is one thing; to resign oneself to there not being a God is another thing, and it is a terrible and inhuman thing; but not to wish that there be a God exceeds every other moral monstrosity; although, as a matter of fact, those who deny God deny Him because of their despair at not finding Him.”
To me this attitude seems distinctly peculiar. I would be more likely to succumb to despair if I genuinely believed in the existence of a being powerful enough to negate any action of mine at the merest whim. This may reflect a fundamental difference in temperament between straightforward atheists like me and hopeful theists like Martin Gardner. I just wish all religious people shared his willingness to acknowledge the quixotic nature of their beliefs.