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Martin Gardner


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
We come now to the most scandalous, most shocking, chapter of my confessions. I, who am widely regarded as a skeptic and an atheist, who am an unabashed disbeliever in ESP, PK, precognition, and all things paranormal, am actually going to defend the hope and belief in a life after death! Let it not be said that this signals senility. I have believed in an afterlife since my boyhood, when I first began to believe in God.
This is the opening paragraph of a chapter with the title "Immortality: Why I Am Not Resigned". Martin Gardner, who died in 2010 at the age of 95, was a popular mathematics and science writer who was prominent in the skepticism movement, where his belief in God was something of an embarrassment for some of its members. In this book he presents his views on a number of philosophical questions, many though not all concerned with religion.

Although he believed in God, Gardner did not accept the validity of any revealed religion and was not a member of any church. This might suggest that he was a deist—someone who holds that God started the world going but is not involved with its day-today running and does not answer prayers. But Gardner was not a deist, he was a theist. His God does care about individuals and it is rational to pray to him. But while Gardner insists that his views are not contrary to reason, he is equally certain that what he believes cannot be proved—it depends on what Kierkegaard called a leap of faith.

Gardner is, in fact, quite open about his reason for believing in God and an afterlife: it is emotional. He discounts all the classic 'proofs' of God's existence and concedes that, on purely rational grounds, the atheists have the better case. So why believe?

That the leap of faith springs from passionate hope and longing or, to say the same thing, from passionate despair and fear, is readily admitted by most fideists, certainly by me and by the fideists I admire. Faith is an expression of feeling, of emotion, not of reason.
But this fact, he insists, does not invalidate his belief. He finds plenty of support for his views in the writings of others, especially Miguel de Unamuno, with whom he seems to be in almost complete agreement. Immanuel Kant, G.K. Chesterton, William James, and C.S. Lewis also figure a good deal, although not uncritically.

Bertrand Russell provides a contrary view, although not wholly; Gardner sees him, with some justification, as a rationalist with mystical leanings. But Russell remained adamant that emotion was not a reason for faith. Gardner quotes him as writing:

However ardently I, or all mankind, may desire something, however necessary it may be to human happiness, there is no ground for supposing this something to exist. There is no law of nature guaranteeing that mankind should be happy.

At the end of the book Gardner explains his reasons for writing. Partly it was to clarify his ideas for himself as he approached the end of his life. But mainly, he says, he wanted to help those who, like him, believe in God and pray but are "unchurched".

I doubt if these essays will convert any atheists, but Gardner would not expect that. But they are very readable and provide an insight into an original mind, so they are worth reading, whether you agree with their author or not.

3 August 2013

%T The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener
%A Martin Gardner
%I The Harvester Press
%C Brighton
%D 1983
%G ISBN 0710806760
%P 453pp
%K philosophy, religion

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