A Tale of Two Skeptics

| By

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.


About the Author

Karl Giberson

Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

More posts by Karl Giberson