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The New Atheism and Martin Gardner

"I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith." --I. Kant, preface to the 2nd edition of The Critique of Pure Reason

3 Feb 2010. Martin Gardner's latest book, When You Were a Tadpole and I was a Fish and Other Speculations about This and That, reprints several classic articles, reviews, and notes, including his essay "Why I am not an atheist." Gardner's essay, which should have been titled "Why I believe in god and immortality," was first published in his Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (1983). (The article doesn't have much to say about atheism at all.) I was baffled when I read the essay many years ago, and I'm still baffled by it after reading it again. He tells us in the new introduction to the essay that he's responding to many best-selling books that "devoutly defend atheism." He says he was tempted to write a book on philosophical theism. All I can say is, thank Zeus he didn't.

The essay is without a doubt his least persuasive and most weakly argued. He repeats himself repeatedly, making the same point again and again that faith in god and immortality (the two concepts are joined at the hip in his book) are irrational, can't be defended logically, have no evidence in support of them, but he and others like him believe them anyway. Since there is no argument to make here, he fills his pages with references to other likeminded souls: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Unamuno, Santayana, William James, and Immanuel Kant. Kierkegaard was the first of these philosophers that I read in depth and I recommend his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, Fear and Trembling, and The Sickness Unto Death. They changed my life. After reading Kierkegaard I realized that belief in the various Christian mysteries and faith in god were absurd in the sense that these beliefs were not defensible by any rational argument. They required a leap of faith to believe them. Evidence was irrelevant. Unlike Kierkegaard, however, I was not filled with awe and inspiration, but with amazement that such a brilliant man did not see that a leap to any belief that is irrational was equally justified or unjustified. Ultimately, what leap a person makes depends on his deepest urges. Kierkegaard's urges happened to be Christian. Gardner's urges happen to be toward universal justice, immortality, and god. What he means by any of those terms is never clearly defined. The good should be rewarded and the bad should be punished. He leaves it there. He tells us nothing of what he thinks immortality might be like, and he has only a couple of vague things to say about the nature of god.

Faith is an open door to fantasies limited only by an individual's desires. A leap of faith need not lead to a just god and immortality; it could just as well lead to a Satanist madman who eats children. It won't do to simply assert that only your own fine urges qualify as worthy of leading to a leap of faith; any other urges are forbidden. It certainly won't do to claim that your urges are universal and indicative of a god who put them there, while other urges and desires are perversions. The fideist assumption is arbitrary and, while admittedly irrational, nonetheless absurd and repulsive on its face. Why? Because anyone who values reason must find such a position self-defeating. There can be no reasons that support the rationality of irrationality.

But, here is the rub. Gardner and the philosophers he cites in support of his fideism are masters of separating areas where they are perfectly rational and scientific from the area of religious faith where they are irrational and reject science, evidence, and logic. Nobody has produced a more impressive body of work in science, reason, critical thinking, and logic than Martin Gardner....as long as he is dealing with subjects in science or the paranormal. He has no trouble applying all the skills of a man of reason to the many claims of many organized religions. But he has carved out a small space in his belief system for god and immortality, and admits that he did not arrive at these beliefs by argument, logic, evidence, science, or reason.

The fact is that Martin Gardner is not unique. He is living proof that a man can be perfectly rational in most areas of his life but a complete fool when it comes to religious beliefs. This would seem to pose a problem for those atheists who have been arguing that religion turns our brains into mush and should be eliminated. Religion encourages irrational thinking, say the new atheists, and leads to all kinds of evil things and very little that can be called good. However, it seems obvious that many people are very religious and hold many irrational beliefs while being able to compartmentalize their irrationality without it necessarily spilling over into other areas of belief. In short, many religious people can be perfectly rational, scientific, logical beings in all but one part of their lives.

I admit that I am baffled by how they do it, but I know it can be done. In my youth, I held many irrational religious beliefs. I grew up and studied philosophers like Kierkegaard and became an atheist after many years of not finding any reason to believe in any kind of god. My early belief in immortality wasn't based on any urge or desire on my part. I was indoctrinated with that belief from birth. Eventually, I did some thinking on what it might be like to live forever. I'm sorry, but the appeal isn't there for me. I know that some people think that if they don't live forever then there is no point in living now. I disagree. In fact, since I don't believe I'll live forever, I consider every moment I'm alive precious and valuable. Why some otherwise perfectly rational people have a desire to live forever and a need for belief in god and universal justice is something I don't have the answer to. Likewise, how some perfectly rational people can set apart a section of their beliefs for irrational faith in god and immortality is something I don't have the answer to. I don't think the new atheists do, either.

The remaining chapters of When You Were a Tadpole are vintage Gardner and I highly recommend the book. His classic essay "Why I am not a Paranormalist" is as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. I will always love and respect Martin Gardner and can honestly say that I wouldn't be where I am today had I not read many of his books. Even so, I'm sure that I will go to my grave shaking my head over the fact that the same man who wrote Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science believes in god and immortality because he wants to. I suppose I should just resign myself to the fact that what a person believes in the privacy of his own mind or feels in the privacy of his own heart is none of my business.

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