Sunday, September 14, 2008

He didn't fly far enough

There’s still a mystery about faith,” he went on. “It’s not enough just to recognize the natural impulses behind it.  You can’t live as if God exists when you secretly believe he doesn’t.  You still have to decide, somehow, whether your desire, the projected image, does or doesn’t stand for something outside your head.  And once you make the decision that it does, the decision leads to it own peculiar kind of certainty.”

So speaks our faithful protagonist, in Martin Gardner’s “The Flight of Peter Fromm”.  The book was our latest reading for the Nonbelieving Literati and it was a tortuous read for this atheist.  Not that it was badly written.  Far from it.  Unfortunately it was not ultimately simply unsatisfying.  It was disheartening.

Gardner used the character Peter as an analogy for his own slow slide into atheism.  The difference, apparently, is that Gardner actually reached a higher enlightenment of life without imaginary causations.  Peter Fromm made his flight from the Pentecostal upbringing which propelled him on to the University of Chicago and its theological studies program.  But the lines I quoted at the beginning of this post are not some mid-point in his deconversion process.  It is from the end of the book!  While he is, at this point, not much more than a deist, he is still unable to “let go”.  Sadly, that’s probably where most people end up, and I was truly left exhausted by it all.

Here is an incredibly bright young man, who studies the philosophies of virtually every major theologian of the past two thousand years and keeps finding their apologetics as coming up short.  Yet he still can’t make the final leap out.  Instead, it is his mentor, Homer, who seems to represent the final place where Gardner himself landed.

Is there no hope of reason being the ultimate safe harbor for intelligent freethinkers if they, themselves, don’t make a conscious choice to go there?  And, in fact, is it completely impossible for some people to do so?  This might be Gardner’s message and, if so, he just might be on to something.  Unfortunately.


The Exterminator said...

Gardner, himself, is what you and I would probably call a Deist who also believes in the afterlife.

From Wikipedia:
Unusually for a senior CSICOP fellow and prominent skeptic of the paranormal, Gardner is a theist and professes belief in God, although he is critical of organized religion. Gardner has been quoted as saying that he regards parapsychology and other research into the paranormal as tantamount to "tempting God" and seeking "signs and wonders." He has, however, said that he feels it might be possible that prayers may be genuinely answered. They may minutely affect mathematical probabilities.

And here's a brief description of Gardner's beliefs from Who Knows by Raymond Smullyan.

So perhaps Peter Fromm is Gardner's fictionalized version of himself.

C. L. Hanson said...

I was going to say the same thing -- according to Wikipedia, Gardner's a theist, and Peter Fromm has a large component of autobiography.

I completely agree about how disheartening it is to see someone banging his head on the solution yet unable to reach it. Yet it's part of what makes the book interesting to me: such people really exist. I'd rather try to understand them to figure out how to coexist with them instead of dismissing them as some sort of unfathomable alien species.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

I haven't read the book, but you have to give the guy (Gardner in real life) credit for trying. Most people simply accept what's foisted on them at birth, and never really give it any thought. It's frustrating, having gone through the process and emerged at the other end, to see someone stuck in the middle, or even close to the end, but not quite there yet. Sort of like a butterfly that just can get his wings out of the cocoon.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Yep, Fromm is Gardiner, not Wilson. Not entirely, of course, but mostly. This is, I think, Gardiner's attempt to explain why he never got all the way to atheism - it's inexplicable, really, he just "feels" it. The pivotal point, though Wilson disparages it, is the numinous experience Fromm has at sea.

Cephus said...

As much as I respect Gardner as a skeptic and he certainly has punched a lot of holes in theistic belief over the years, he's one of those sad people who, although intellectually he knows religion is a sham, emotionally cannot bring himself to give it up entirely.

Just being intelligent does not make you necessarily rational across the board.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't read anything about or by Gardner before reading this book. After reading the comments here, I'm not surprised that Peter ended where he did. As C.L. said, such people really do exist. They know that much of the religious structure to which they adhere is man made, yet they hope, for some reason, that it is founded on something substantive.

Ordinary Girl said...

I think deconverts who seriously bought into their faith may find this book more appealing than you or Ex. Yeah, I was a little frustrated with Peter too that he couldn't take the final step, but I think he ended up in a much better place than he started.