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Did Sherlock Holmes Believe in God?


I've become, belatedly, a Sherlock Holmes groupie. I dig the BBC series Sherlock, starring the suddenly ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, and the American series Elementary (which I prefer--Lucy Liu is the best Watson ever).

Sherlock Holmes, in "The Naval Treaty," suggests that a rose might be evidence of "the goodness of Providence."

I've also been plowing through "The Complete Sherlock Holmes" on my Kindle. The stories can get a little formulaic, but Arthur Conan Doyle has a knack for sticking oddities into his narratives to keep us on our toes. Take, for example, "The Naval Treaty," about diplomatic hugger-mugger. Interviewing a young diplomat, Holmes suddenly spots a rose decorating the man's apartment and exclaims, "What a lovely thing a rose is!"

Holmes, whose gargantuan intelligence focuses obsessively on solving crimes (he is interested in science only insofar as it furthers this goal), has never evinced "any keen interest in natural objects," Watson notes. Watson is even more startled when Holmes, after picking up the rose, delivers the following monologue:

"There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from flowers."

Holmes is alluding to what I call the problem of beauty. As I have explained previously, the problem of evil prevents me from believing in God, or at least an all-powerful God who gives a damn about us. But the problem of beauty keeps me from being an adamant atheist. If reality results from sheer coincidence, why is it often so heartbreakingly lovely? As the great physicist Steven Weinberg, an atheist if ever there was one, once wrote, sometimes nature "seems more beautiful than strictly necessary."

My guess is that the hyper-empirical Holmes, if pressed, would say that he is an agnostic, because there is insufficient evidence for either belief or disbelief in a Creator. (Holmes is more rational than his own creator, Conan Doyle, who after the death of his wife and other loved ones consoled himself by believing in ghosts.)

I plan to raise the question of Holmes's religiosity when psychologist and New Yorker blogger Maria Konnikova visits my school this Wednesday, March 5. Konnikova is giving a talk (free and open to all) about her bestselling book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. If anyone can solve "The Mystery of the Rose-Sniffing Rationalist," she can.

Illustration of Sherlock Holmes from "The Strand" magazine, 1914, via Toronto Public Library and Wikimedia Commons,,_2012.jpg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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