Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Martin Gardner, the token theist

Martin Gardner, who died earlier this year, was one of the earliest great skeptical leaders.  He was also, as many know, a theist.  Specifically, he believed in a personal god who did not involve himself in the affairs of men.  And he believed in immortality after death.  He called himself a fideist, because he explicitly admitted that he had no rational basis for his beliefs, and merely chose to believe them on faith because they made him feel better.1

When it comes to discussing theistic skeptics, Martin Gardner is occasionally mentioned as an example.  I'm quite sure that this happened at TAM8, though I can't remember exactly what they said about it.2  Martin Gardner's fideism was briefly described, and someone said that Martin Gardner is still cool because his belief is entirely untestable.

According to Wikipedia, tokenism is defined as "policy or practice of limited inclusion of members of a minority group, usually creating a false appearance of inclusive practices, intentional or not."  To be honest, the skeptical movement's treatment of Martin Gardner strikes me as tokenism.  To demonstrate, here are some similar statements:
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say atheists deserve respect.  They're not hurting anyone as long as they're not mocking my beliefs, like that Richard Dawkins guy (why's he so angry?).

People think I'm putting fiction down, but I love fiction!  As long as it is science fiction and stays as true as possible to accurate science, I love fiction.

Of course I respect gay people!  My best friend is gay, and that's cool with me since he doesn't do any of those annoying girly things.

Some say you can't be a skeptic who believes in a god, but just look at Martin Gardner!  This doesn't disqualify him as a skeptic, because he's a fideist!
But maybe you don't think that these statements should be interpreted the same way.  Maybe you think it's different with Martin Gardner because fideism really is the only possible form of theism which is compatible with skepticism.

But I must disagree with this point of view, because, well, I disagree pretty strongly with fideism.  I believe the act of forsaking reason for faith is very anti-skeptical in spirit.  It doesn't matter how little evidence there is to bear on the question, you still shouldn't answer the question with faith.3

In short, I think fideism is very anti-skeptical, and yet I still consider Martin Gardner to be a personal hero and a hero to the skeptical movement.  So why should I treat other forms of theism significantly differently?  Fideism is a wrong belief and that is my opinion.  And all my opinions are greatly influenced by skeptical thought, so I could definitely call it a skeptical opinion.  But that's okay, because there is room for disagreement in skepticism.

There are limits, of course.  If a skeptic believed in the miracles at Fatima, I might regard him/her with the same suspicion as I'd regard a skeptic who believes that UFOs must be visiting aliens.  And not all wrong beliefs are made equal.  But it is silly to highlight fideism as especially acceptable.

In general, I think the best path to inclusion is by accepting disagreements rather than shoving them under the rug in hopes that they'll disappear.  If you shove them under a rug, it's not just the disagreements that will disappear, but the people who are doing the disagreeing as well.

1. See Martin Gardner's own words
2. To show that I'm not completely making this up, Hemant mentioned it in his TAM8 liveblogging.  Randi states that JREF is not an atheist organization, and avoids untestable claims.  Then Martin Gardner's belief in a god comes up, and Paul Kurtz refers to the belief as "charming".
3. For a more expanded opinion, see Robert Carroll.


Jeffrey Ellis said...

I wonder if fideism is the proper term to describe Gardner; it seems to go too far to be compatible with his stated beliefs/opinions. It certainly goes too far for me. I believe in God but do not believe that faith trumps evidence and reason. Where the two disagree, reason/evidence is the winner. And I do think that's the only way I can claim to be both a Christian and a critical thinker.

The Barefoot Bum said...

I wonder if fideism is the proper term to describe Gardner

That's the word he uses to describe himself. As he was a native speaker of English, reasonably well-educated, and in a privileged position to describe his own beliefs, we should probably take him at his word.

I believe in God but do not believe that faith trumps evidence and reason.

Unless your belief in God is as entirely vacuous as Gardner presents his own fideism, these two clauses flatly contradict each other.

that's the only way I can claim to be both a Christian and a critical thinker.

Stupidity, delusion, ignorance and schizophrenia are viable alternatives.

miller said...

Haha, you guys... I think I have a tendency to not take flaming very seriously.

For clarification purposes, fideism as described by Gardner is not characterized by faith trumping evidence and reason. It's more like, faith where there is no evidence one way or another, under the condition that the belief is something that makes you happy.

Jeffrey Ellis said...

miller -- Then I suppose I am a fideist as described by Gardner. It seems he has a somewhat weaker definition than what I thought fideism was.

The Barefoot Bum -- Based on miller's clarification of Gardner's definition of fideism, yes - my belief in God is as "vacuous" as Gardners, so I suppose my two clauses do not contradict each other. I would encourage you to practice the principle of reciprocity rather than being spring-loaded to flame people you disagree with.

DeralterChemiker said...

Since you guys are batting this subject around, I would like to hear your comments on my belief. I am an agnostic deist. Reason leads me to believe that something preceded and caused the Big Bang (or Big Bangs, if there was a series of events). Whatever that cause was, I will call it God. I don't know what that God is like, and I don't think that anyone else does, so I call myself an agnostic deist. I doubt very much that that God is anything like the God imagined by the dominant religions of this world.

miller said...

I nearly agree with you DeralterChemiker. My main disagreement is that I don't think it makes sense to call it God. Maybe the least you could do is call it a little-g god.

I also have some small doubts about the cosmological argument.