Why scepticism can be good for your faith



When Martin Gardner came out as a believer in God, fans and colleagues were shocked.

Author of more than a hundred books on maths and science, Gardner’s monthly column in Scientific American established him as one of the most influential science writers of the century. Numerous leading scientists and mathematicians credit Gardner as the one who first sparked their interest and professional vocation.

He was also a flag-bearer for modern scepticism. A founder of the American Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, an organisation dedicated to advancing science and critical thought, he attacked anything that smacked of pseudo-science or woolly thinking. UFOs, astrology, scientology, theosophy, parapsychology, dowsing, ESP: Gardner relentlessly debunked them all.

A rationalist to the core, Martin Gardner did not fit the public stereotype of a man who believed in God, let alone (as he admitted) prayer and life after death.

In his book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, he explained his beliefs. In keeping with his sceptical method, he didn’t offer much by way of a positive reason to believe in God. Instead, his approach was to show why all the alternatives were worse.

In chapter after chapter, with vast knowledge of western intellectual history, Gardner explained carefully and logically why he was not persuaded by relativism, pragmatism, determinism, Marxism, atheism, or any of the other ‘isms’ of the age. It was not so much an argument in favour of God as an argument against everything else.

GK Chesterton once said that when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing: they believe in anything. If it’s not Christianity, it’ll be something else. Get rid of God, and by choice or by default, our world view will be shaped by some other set of values, based on dodgy foundations and untested presuppositions. There is no neutral ground.

Whether it’s libertarianism, nationalism, fundamentalism, relativism, scientific reductionism, socio-biology, materialism, or the naked will-to-power, there is no shortage of contemporary ideologies vying to fill the intellectual gap at the heart of western secularism.

Believe in these alternatives to Christianity if you want to. I’ve been attracted to some of them myself over the years. But ultimately, I’m not persuaded.  Today’s secular ideologies contain too many questionable assumptions, inconsistencies, and undigested dogmas for me. I just don’t have the faith.

In the modern marketplace of ideas, belief in God is the only rational option for the sceptical mind.



3 thoughts on “Why scepticism can be good for your faith

  1. Murray Low says:

    OK Charles I can sense you’d like more blog feedback. No wonder after spending time on it!
    I read this and I remember your sermon that used some of this material. I’m an academic and pretty skeptical, by what combination of personality and training I can’t say.
    To me, you give a good example of the compatibility of skepticism and faith. The conclusion, though, that other world views have problems, I didn’t find motivating enough (as Christian doctrine seems to have it’s fair share of these).
    However, I found myself reflecting on how much these other perspectives on the world are – usually covertly- dependent on religious assumptions or patterns of thinking in various ways.
    I’ll keep thinking, but some examples. Larry Siedentop in his recent book on the origins of the liberal individual (Penguin), makes a strong case for Christianity as the originating matrix for liberalism. Marxism, at least in its most basic, coherent forms – there are complex versions more recently but they often veer away from this coherence – is in part underpinned by a narrative about fall and resurrection, surely. In social thinking more generally after 1900, similar basic narratives of a falling away from various forms of grace or community turn out to be basic over and over. I keep finding more of them, and anecdotally I know that a lot of early sociologists came from clerical families or other religious backgrounds.
    I won’t go on but I even think there’s a case for seeing submerged theology in Nietzsche’s later attempts to say something positive about how the world works and this perhaps carries through to later uses of this, perhaps in conjunction with Spinoza, that have been fashionable in the social sciences and humanities.
    Even when it comes to broadly social democratic thinking, I’ve been reading a biography of Jürgen Habermas where I know it will end up with dialogues with Cardinal Ratzinger (of all people) and an attempt to stop avoiding issues of religious faith.
    So the other possibilities are not necessarily an escape at all… (but I haven’t covered them all!)

    • admin says:

      Thanks Murray! As far as Martin Gardner goes, I certainly think he doesn’t give enough positive reasons for belief in God (and in any case whilst he was a believer in God, he was explicitly not a Christian). So a more positive defence of Christianity is certainly desireable (and possible, in my view). I think you’re right that numerous aspects of modernity (liberal and marxist) have implicit Christian underpinnings (the notion of human rights, for example, or origins of the scientific revolution), and what is interesting to me is whether these positions are ultimately sustainable when separated from the theological metaphysics that originally generated them. One of the things I find interesting about Nietzsche (I went through a great Nietzsche reading phase!) is that he seems to push atheism to a logical conclusion which results in the collapse of liberal values. So what intrigues me is whether it is really possible to generate a coherent epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics (something more than the will-to-power) without some concept of transcendence or divinity… We’ll have to have a beer sometime!

  2. Murray Low says:

    Ha yes a beer sometime would be good but I’ll certainly make an effort to go to the cocktail party. You hit the spot with question about transcendental subject, I have no answer there yet but happy to talk.
    I suspect one has to find a way of making an immanent god less like a purely natural process or producer of “creativity”.
    See you on Thursday maybe

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