Review: Skeptics and True Believers

Does anyone but me remember "The Conversion of Aurelian McGoggin?" It's a short piece from Rudyard Kipling's "Plain Tales From the Hills," set in British India. McGoggin is an obnoxious autodidactical windbag. Having read some Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, he has concocted his own creed, a hodgepodge of materialism, positivism, humanism and Darwinism, which he insists on preaching at length to anyone unlucky enough to be within reach of his stentorian voice. His put-upon comrades lovingly refer to him as "The Blastoderm". One day the Blastoderm suffers something like heat stroke, which renders him speechless for 2 days and occasions a 3-month convalescence. That's enough to drive him to serious introspection: being struck dumb was undreamt of in his philosophy. Freed from the pressure of constant oral self-affirmation, he begins to doubt that he is the repository of ultimate wisdom. His associates revel in blessed silence. We all know a Blastoderm or two.

Addressing the zone where science and religion meet, Raymo divides people into "skeptics" and "true believers." ("A term which is charged with the sacred demonizes its antonym," said Jean Starobinski.) However, things are not all that simple. There are religious skeptics — deeply religious skeptics — and atheist — profoundly atheist — true believers. The Blastoderm is a specimen of the latter type. Skeptics and True Believers is about mind-sets. It is firmly opposed to the mind-set of anyone who claims to be In possession of absolute truth, be it theistic or atheistic. In the tradition of Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman-philosopher who popularized the term "true believer" about 4 decades ago, it is a manifesto against all varieties of Blastoderms.

Chet Raymo is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at StonehiII College in North Easton MA and writes a weekly column, Science Musings, for the Boston Globe. He was raised Catholic — he tells of being indoctrinated from Frank Sheed's Theology and Sanity, a book arguing that a truly sane person by definition must be Roman Catholic. Although he has by his own account outgrown all the mumbo-jumbo of his youth, he has never stopped being troubled by how faith and science fit together.

Skeptics and True Believers is a book for other reflective adults. It begins somewhere beyond where certainty has been lost. Call it an affirmation for those looking for hope. But it has little patience for New-Age gurus trying to build cults on foundations of quantum physics or chaos theory and even less for the current "angel" fad. Raymo sees such stuff as foredoomed and contemptible for its shallowness. He is looking for something deeper, something closer to ultimate meaning. For those who reject any prospect of ultimate meaning, his quest is at best quixotic. Raymo's basic argument is not new, but it is lyrically, indeed poetically, put forward here. Scientific method is the pinnacle of human civilization; with all due acknowledgement of its intrinsic falsifiability, scientific knowledge cannot be rejected or ignored. Science neither desacralizes nor demystifies the universe.

Raymo quotes EO Wilson: "Our sense of wonder grows exponentially: the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery." Only a soul that is deadened, or dead, can resist the majesty of the universe as revealed to us by science. Speaking of "knowing and being", Raymo says (p 232-4):
Cosmology, spirituality, cerebration — these are the attributes of religion. ...Cosmology reveals the creation. It answers the big questions. ...For better or worse, this is the task of science... now embraced globally as the one truly human instrument of cosmic revelation.

For the method to work, we pretend for the moment that it is possible to step out of ourselves into the world as it is. To this end we invent names — Cercyonis pegol, Cercyonis meadi — that match the patterns we think we see in nature. Of course, perfect objectivity is impossible. ...Science that wall of liquid between mind and world...., the arrow of transference is inward, from world to mind, a soul-making vector, incandescent with facts, sparks of the white fire kindled in our hearts.... Only when we are emotionally at home in the universe of the galaxies and the DNA will the new story invigorate our spiritual lives and be cause for authentic celebration. Knowing and believing will come together again at last. Cautious and skeptical as knowers, we can then give ourselves unreservedly to spiritual union with creation and communal celebration of its mysteries.
Once again, for the true believer materialist-positivist this is all literal nonsense. But most people are not Blastoderms. The physicist-priest John Polkinghorne says that there is "a God-shaped hole in many people's lives." The Czech president and intellectual Václav Havel has been saying something similar for years (Raymo chides him on p 165-6 for going too far with this). Some sociobiologists argue that religious belief has an evolutionary function, and most social scientists ascribe important social functions to religious belief. The recent history of state-mandated atheism belies the canard that, given a choice, people will gladly throw off the oppressive burden of belief. False consciousness and opiates of the people notwithstanding, most people seem to find it very hard — at least very depressing — to believe in nothing larger than themselves.

Raymo wants to believe that a new spirituality grounded in science will emerge. He fears that if it does not, that God-shaped hole will be filled by oppressive old orthodoxies and superstitions. He has no clear vision of what this new spirituality might be like — only that it has to be cleaner and purer and more uplifting than the incantations of one or another kind of Blastoderm.

[Technical note from the author: The Cercyonis are butterflies and hark back to an earlier discussion of how taxonomy allows us to order nature. Unfortunately, Raymo got one of the names wrong. It's Cercyonis pegala, not pegol. But pegol is intrinsically a pretty word, and I hope someone names a butterfly Cercyonis pegol some day.]

About the Author(s): 
Arthur M Shapiro
Center for Population Biology
University of California
Davis CA 95616
18, 23
Skeptics and True Believers
Arthur M. Shapiro
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Chet Raymo
New York: Walker and Company, 1998. 288 p.