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A Tale of Two Skeptics

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June 7, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews
A Tale of Two Skeptics

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Richard Dawkins uses scientific metaphors to great effect, for better or worse. One such metaphor is to call religion a “virus” of the mind. People with faith, he says, are people with infected minds:

In ‘Viruses of the Mind’ [an essay from his book A Devil’s Chaplain] I developed this theme of religions as mind parasites, and also the analogy with computer viruses….To describe religions as mind viruses is sometimes interpreted as contemptuous or even hostile. It is both.

The trouble with religion and thinking people, Dawkins asserted on Bill Maher’s television program, is that smart people know too much about science to believe in stuff like talking snakes.

And people of faith by definition, he and Maher agreed, based on their vast and careful scientific surveys of religious people, believe in talking snakes.

Elsewhere Dawkins writes that faith is completely alien to evidence or reason, and scientists devote all of their practice to experiments based on evidence and reason. Faith, by these rapidly dimming lights, apparently celebrates lack of evidence as a virtue.

Scientific ideas, of course, are testable, have evidence to support or refute them, have precision, and are repeatable, universal, and independent of variables such as culture. But, says Dawkins, “Faith spreads despite a total lack of every single one of these virtues.”

In this view, intelligent people simply cannot be people of faith. Religion is nothing but prejudice passed on to children like a virus being spread maliciously. Science is the domain of truth and evidence. And, as a “lover of truth,” Dawkins says, “I am suspicious of strongly held beliefs that are unsupported by evidence: fairies, unicorns, werewolves.”

Outside of science, the quest for ultimate truth is foolish, according to Dawkins. Drawing on the myth of perpetual conflict, he argues that faith and science are opposed in every way. The fact that there are so many different religions, many of which contradict each other, proves that God is a delusion.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York fueled Dawkins’ view that religious belief was not only delusional, but dangerous. “Only the willfully blind could fail to implicate the divisive force of religion in most, if not all, of the violent enmities in the world today,” he wrote in A Devil’s Chaplain. “Those of us who have for years politely concealed our contempt for the dangerous collective delusion of religion need to stand up and speak out. Things are different after September 11th. All is changed, changed utterly.”

If the purpose of science is to discover deeper realities, then religion does the exact opposite, says Dawkins: “My objection to supernatural beliefs is precisely that they miserably fail to do justice to the sublime grandeur of the real world,” he wrote in The Ancestor’s Tale. “They represent a narrowing-down from reality, an impoverishment of what the real world has to offer."

Dawkins is certainly the most influential scientific soldier assaulting religion, but he has allies. For decades, many high-profile scientists have publicly proclaimed that modern science shatters religious beliefs, making them irrelevant at best, and stupid or dangerous at worst. Common themes in these writings are that religious belief replaces the need for argument, reason and evidence, and often leads its followers to commit vicious acts. Many prominent scientists conclude that there is no ultimate meaning to the universe and human experience, and that there is no transcendent power outside of what we can measure.

The ideas of arch-skeptic Richard Dawkins are quite familiar to BioLogos readers. I was reminded of them recently because of their remarkable contrast with the beliefs of another notorious skeptic who passed away last month—Martin Gardner.

Gardner was a paradox. Best known as a hard-nosed, card-carrying, take-no-prisoners skeptic, he cleverly and ruthlessly exposed the fakery of spoon bending, alien abducting, mind-palm-tarot-card reading, holocaust denying, and every other imaginable pseudoscience.

But, unlike the more well known skeptics in the blogosphere, he believed passionately in God, prayer, and eternal life. He called himself a "fideist"—someone who embraces belief in God without having a rational foundation to do so.

Fideists sometimes get a bad rap for being irrational. But refusing to be constrained by rationality is not the same as being irrational. One can celebrate and even demand rationality in some areas, without insisting that this is the only route to truth.

Gardner was loath to oversimplify the world, which is my main objection to Dawkins and company. It has always seemed to me that their explanations were not so much wrong, as incomplete. And this is why Gardner was so interesting. He was a founding member of the Skeptic Society and its most powerful voice for the latter half of the 20th century. He appeared for year in the pages of Scientific American with his “Mathematical Games” column. He had as much appreciation for the value and rigor of scientific thinking as anyone.

But this did not stop him from believing passionately in a God that could both answer prayer and provide eternal life.

Gardner, in dramatic contrast to many of his fellow skeptics, believed that the world was full of mystery. Free will, evil, and God are intertwined mysteries that Gardner suspected were beyond our comprehension. But this does not mean they were not real.

Gardner was genuinely skeptical about paranormal claims that went against science but, paradoxically, he affirmed and celebrated a world that went beyond science. We can believe, says Gardner, when our will compels us to believe. We are not constrained to accept only the truths of science.

In an age of when many insist that science is corrosive to faith, Gardner was a voice in the wilderness reminding us that we can be enthusiastic about science without denying a reality beyond it.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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Bilbo - #16886

June 7th 2010

Gardiner sounds like he would have been a fascinating person to know.

Bilbo - #16887

June 7th 2010


Rich - #16889

June 7th 2010

For those interested interested in comments on Gardner’s life and thought from other Christians, there is a column by Paul Nelson over at Uncommon Descent:


Gregory - #16898

June 7th 2010

“Many prominent scientists conclude that there is no ultimate meaning to the universe and human experience, and that there is no transcendent power outside of what we can measure.” – K. Giberson

I’d really like to read your book “Oracles of Science”, which addresses some of the ‘prominent scientists’ who conclude ‘no meaning’ to the universe.

It is noteworthy, first, none of them is a human-social scientist (HSS), but rather all are natural-physical scientists (NPS), & second, the % of religious believers is actually higher in the NPSs than in the HSSs. Why is this?

“Who – aside from certain big children who are indeed found in the natural sciences – still believes that the findings of astronomy, biology, physics, or chemistry could teach us anything about the meaning of the world? If there is any such ‘meaning,’ along what road could one come upon its tracks? If these natural sciences lead to anything in this way, they are apt to make the belief that there is such a thing as the ‘meaning’ of the universe die out at its very roots.” – M. Weber

Gregory - #16899

June 7th 2010

Why is this? Well, in human-social sciences, there are often multiple ‘paradigms,’ perspectives or ‘heuristics’ that can be used to approach one & the same problem. In natural-physical sciences, usually only one or at most a few ‘options’ are considered. Thus, in this case, ‘harder’ is actually ‘simpler’ & ‘softer’ or ‘more complex’ (e.g. people making choices) is ‘more ‘difficult.’

E.g., in biological sciences today, after ‘modern synthesis’, *most* professionals in the field say that nature ‘evolved’ from non-existence into existence, from non-life into life. Is there another ‘option’ possible in biology, other than biblical literalism; can life be understood without (the light of) ‘evolutionary theory’?

It is interesting also to consider if there is a “transcendent power ‘inside’ of what we can measure.” So, for human-social scientists who accept a transcendent soul, which is not ‘measurable’ using quantitative methods, those ‘prominent’ natural-scientists’ doubts prove nothing. It is easy as a spiritual anthropologist to brush off Dawkins like chalk. But what would it take for more HSSs to believe & promote this knowledge sovereignty across the board?

merv - #16902

June 7th 2010

According to the Wikipedia article about him, Gardner may have been a theist, but it sounds like he didn’t believe in miracles (or Christianity then either, I don’t suppose.)  Is that article at all accurate?  A rejection of miracles, but an acceptance of the efficacy of prayer must have been an interesting combo.


James - #16904

June 7th 2010


  Thank you for that insight!

Rich - #16916

June 7th 2010


I read, but have not confirmed, that Weber was influenced by Nietzsche.  Certainly there are Nietzschean echoes in the passage you quoted from Weber.

Does that figure you give (more religious believers in the natural sciences than the social sciences) apply to modern Europe as well, or is it only an American statistic?

I think there are at least two reasons why there are more religious believers in the natural sciences than social sciences.  First, natural scientists, perhaps because of the narrow specialist nature of most of their work, find it easier to compartmentalize their minds, keeping “science” over here and “religion” over there.  Devices like Gould’s NOMA help to promote this compartmentalization.  Second, for those natural scientists with eyes to see and ears to hear, things like fine-tuning in cosmology and integrated complex systems in biology tend to suggest an organizing mind.  Social scientists are less inclined to compartmentalization, and they rarely deal directly with nature; they are also generally politically and socially left-wing, and God (or any idea of absolute truth or morality) is generally seen as the enemy of the unlimited “freedom” which left-wing people seek.

katz - #16972

June 8th 2010

There are fewer theists in the social sciences (IMHO) because social sciences involve more non-scientific assumptions (most predominantly that mind states are the same as brain states), and the level of rigor is so much lower that one’s personal beliefs play a much larger role in the results: you find what you were looking for.  That’s why there are so many fads in psychology.  People who believe that science can be used to describe everything are more likely to go into the social sciences and are more likely to be atheists.

“*most* professionals in the field say that nature ‘evolved’ from non-existence into existence, from non-life into life.”

Source?  That only seems right if you define ‘evolving’ as ‘going from nonexistent to existent,’ regardless of mechanism.  The specifics of evolutionary theory (genetics, selection) are obviously inapplicable to the universe.  You’d have to be using ‘evolution’ to simply mean ‘change,’ in which case it has little to do with biological evolutionary theory.

karl Giberson - #16997

June 8th 2010

Gardner was interesting because of the odd combination of things that he believed and rejected.  He rejected many traditional Christian beliefs but kept belief in God, immortality, prayer, etc.

Rich - #17058

June 8th 2010

Well, Gregory, you’ve been longing for someone to discuss social science with you here on Biologos.  Both katz and I have responded to your comments on social science, so let’s hear back from you.

Gregory - #17075

June 8th 2010

Gladly, James!

Yes, Rich, I’m interested in what both you and Katz wrote. ‘Two skeptics’ doesn’t seem to be such a popular topic though, at least thus far.

Yes, Weber was influenced by Nietzsche, as were most Germans of the time. But he wrote a whole lot more about ‘science’ & ‘objectivity’ than did Nietzsche. Not sure why you note him.

There are several recent surveys @ religiosity of scholars, with interesting results. One commentator speaks of an “academic reversal,” where social scientists are now *more religious* than natural scientists. Depends on field.

These are all USA surveys:
Eklund and Scheitle
Tobin and Weinberg

We can speak on this, but its off-topic.

Katz, not sure what ‘lower rigour’ means. I know many rigorous social scientists. It’s a different ‘kind’ of science, not positivistic, but reflexive. If the ‘reversal’ is true today, then both of us are wrong about our ‘reasons’.

I raised the issue, regarding Giberson’s book, which deals *only* with natural-physical scientists. Would have loved to see a human-social scientist in the book too.

katz - #17083

June 9th 2010

Katz, not sure what ‘lower rigour’ means.

Lower rigor simply means that, when dealing with human beings, there are a far greater number of variables and far more situations in which the variables can’t be controlled.  For instance, any study or survey with knowing participants is inherently skewed towards the type of people who are willing to participate in studies and surveys.  Additionally, due to the greater difficulty of gathering data, social science studies tend to have far fewer data points than natural sciences.  Fewer data points and more variables equals less rigor.  (These are generalizations, of course.)

Rich - #17084

June 9th 2010


I didn’t “note” Weber.  You did, with your quotation.  I was just commenting further, suggesting that his view on science and religion might have been partly derived from Nietzsche.

Gregory - #17088

June 9th 2010

Here’s another ‘study’:
Majors and Religion

In this one, more social sciences training = less religious. Not sure how they get importance-down, attendance-up.


If you are just using ‘rigour’ in a generalizing way, Katz, about data points and variables, I can accept as long as you are not asigning any value to it. One has a scale of ‘rigour’ from field to field in HSS and NPS. E.g. economics is more ‘rigourous’ than some NPSs. But I question if rigour can be applied only in a quantitative sense or also in a qualitative sense.

I guess we really would need to have a discussion about relations between fields of knowledge in the Academy to do this any justice.

Must admit that I’m partial to H. Dooyeweerd’s ‘reformational’ model of multiple ‘aspects’ of reality. But after living east of western Europe, my thoughts have developed (not ‘evolved’) on this as well.

Leaving out or under-representing HSSs when speaking about ‘science, philosophy, religion’ creates a great void in knowledge.

Gregory - #17089

June 9th 2010

Rich, re: Weber, I was unclear. Wasn’t sure why you mentioned Nietzsche. Und zo?

Weber was influenced by Marx, Rickert, Windelband & Dilthey also. He studied world religions quite seriously. The idea of a ‘disenchantment of the world’ is relevant to the topic Karl began in speaking @ skeptics. Weber’s book “The Protestant Ethics & the Spirit of Capitalism” is standard fare for sociology classes.

But it is his “Science as a Vocation” (1919) that the above quotation comes from, which is imho a rewarding read for science, philosophy & religion issues. I think you’d like it.

Science as a Vocation

“science as a way ‘to God’? Science, this specifically irreligious power? That science today is irreligious no one will doubt in his [sic] innermost being, even if he will not admit it to himself.”

Katz wrote:
“You’d have to be using ‘evolution’ to simply mean ‘change,’ in which case it has little to do with biological evolutionary theory.”

Yes, I think we’re on the same page. Thus, the power of ‘evoutionary philosophy’ should be considered as well as just evolutionary biology. Evolution & change are *not* the same.

Charlie - #17470

June 15th 2010

If science and faith are compatible, I’d be interested to know how.  To me they take opposite contradictory approaches to determining something is true.  Or is it that it’s acknowledged the two are different but you categorize certain questions so some can only be answered by faith whereas others are only by science?

Norwegian Shooter - #18184

June 21st 2010

“But this did not stop him from believing passionately in a God that could both answer prayer and provide eternal life.” No it didn’t, but Gardiner had the intellectual honesty to say that “believing passionately” wasn’t evidence for its truth, or even an argument for its truth. He acknowledged that he believed in spite of science, not because of it.

“We can believe, says Gardner, when our will compels us to believe.” Note he doesn’t say we can believe by interpreting scripture and he would vigorously denounce anyone who said we can believe through scientific evidence. Only when “our will compels us.” Thus, the world is divided between those with this will and those without it. It’s really very arbitrary. Gardiner is merely endorsing NOMA, not saying something profound.

Finally, his life’s work was in the skeptical community working against appropriating science for non-scientific ends. This should make it clear that the theist community should look elsewhere for comfort. Claiming him after his death is particularly deceiving and contemptible.

PS Charlie - you’ve hit the nail on the head, don’t expect a straight-forward answer here, however.

Norwegian Shooter - #18191

June 21st 2010

Charlie, just remembered a good link the compatibility debate:

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