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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up » User review

Religion not Required

  • Jan 31, 2009
Pros: It's a logical argument which is actually convincing!

Cons: Sam Harris is blurbed on the back! That damages credibility right off

The Bottom Line: Beware of gods and pop atheists!

I don't buy into the logical arguments against the existance of a god. As I've stated on other reviews, the may work for disproving some gods. But when it comes to disproving the Abrahamic god or just a large, general, all-powerful being, they can be swept aside more easily than many atheists would care to admit. This god, after all, is a being of infinite logic - as compared to the very finite logic of humans - and infinite power. According to the believer, this god can do anything it wants for any reason it wants, and if a pop atheist can't find it in his clearly limited imagination to fathom such a being, than it's the problem for the atheist, NOT the theist. There are many ways to attempt to shoot down a belief in an ultimate being, and logic is simply not one of them.

Irreligion, a book by mathmetician John Allen Paulos, came tantalizingly close to getting me to change that line of thinking. Paulos used an easy metaphor to make his point: That of a movie and the person watching it. Basically, the movie represents laws of logic which exist only in its own world. If you are sitting outside the laws of the movie logic by watching the movie, you can't change anything that happens in it. Now THAT is a great simile! Paulos doesn't quite understand this god is supposed to be beyond even that kind of logic, but it's an ingenius way to explain why so many pop atheists think they can disprove a god by trying to explain it in a logical sense.

Irreligion is a pro-atheist argument in which the kind of logical thinking associated with math is dominant. It is by far the strongest pro-atheism argument I've read yet. Assuming I thought logic would matter in a spiritual argument, I would be sold. I also liked that Paulos isn't a pop atheist, a person who is actively trying to wipe religion off the planet by using outdated arguments which are unrelated to religion and childish insults. Paulos is an atheist, but in one of the several anecdotes he sprinkles throughout Irreligion, he says he understands the need for belief and isn't trying to deprive anyone of it. And that's exactly how he comes off. Paulos isn't trying to talk you into ditching whatever god you may believe in. He is merely trying to tell you where he stands and why he stands there.

While Paulos claims he doesn't use any mathematical formulas in Irrelgion, he isn't quite telling the truth. There are a handful of mathematical formulas in this little book, but Irreligion is by no means grounded in them. Irreligion instead revolves around the type of logic which makes mathematics tick in that wonderfully bulletproof way they tick. But the lack of math doesn't keep Paulos from using plenty of logic formulas: Taking the arguments for a god's existance and breaking them down in a short series of numbered statements. For example, here is how Paulos explains the argument from design:
1 - Something - the diversity of life forms, the beauty of the outdoors, the stars, the fine structure constants - is much too complex (or too perfect) to have randomly come about by sheer accident.
2 - This something must have been the handiwork of some creator.
3 - Therefore God, the Creator, exists.
Paulos then goes on and explains why the arguments don't make any sense in the world of logic.

Perhaps the biggest misconception one who glances at Irreligion may get is that it is a light airplane book. Irreligion is a very small, light book which ends properly at page 149. But that doesn't mean it's light on material. I found Irreligion to be pretty difficult. I took a course on logic in college and I can't say I really understood it the way I wanted to. So I constantly found myself retracing some of the things I read in Irreligion to make sure I got the full gist of what Paulos wanted to say. Paulos seems to have known some people may have this difficulty, and so for every few chapters detailing his arguments against a god, he writes another chapter with a story or an anecdote to let the reader relax from the straightforward intellectual approach Paulos takes in the proper argumentative chapters.

Irreligion is divided into three sections featuring four classical arguments, four subjective arguments, and four psycho-mathematical arguments. In each section, there are also a couple of stories or anecdotes every couple of chapters. In each chapter, Paulos breaks down the pro-god argument using the logic diagram I described above, brings forward his counter-argument, and provides a couple of helpful examples to help those like myself who trust their imaginations more than their understanding of logic. I found the first section was the hardest to understand because it reads more intellectually than the others and gets almost obscenely complicated. But the second and third sections introduce what I find to be more common arguments for a god's existance. These include the common arguments from coincidence and prophecy. The section names may sound like they were handed out by a computer brain, but the arguments themselves are ones anyone, theist, deist, or atheist, will recognize.

The anecdotes are there just for fun, and they help out a lot to make Irreligion more readable. In one of them, Paulos texts back and forth with a being of superintelligent power. In another, he tells a story of explaining to a group of Asian women what certain acronyms used in online conversations mean. In some of them, he really doesn't even come to a very fine point. But they help a lot with the flow of the book.

I am an atheist. But this is the first time I have ever given a wholehearted endorsement to a pro-atheist book. There aren't a lot of good pro-atheist books out there. The mainstream pop atheists - Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins - aren't atheists so much as they are bombastics. (The Dawkster has even said he wants atheists to be known as "Brights." If that's not trying to turn atheism into a religion, I don't know what is.) They are attempting to force their own version of morality onto the world. They are the Pat Robertsons and Fred Phelpses of atheism, and I have steadfastfully refused to let them do my thinking for me. John Allen Paulos is a reasonable guy who I want in my corner because he knows atheism shouldn't be forced on anyone. And his arguments make far more sense than anything any of those pop atheists have said.


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Nicholas Croston ()
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About this book


A mathematician considers a dozen of the classic arguments in favor of the existence of God, devoting a full chapter to each, and striving to render them accessible to the modern reader--even when he finds them logically inconsistent. John Allen Paulos also offers his own commentary on topics and issues that strike him while considering many of the arguments, making this a sometimes stimulating, sometimes a tad irreverent, excursion into the religious realm.
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ISBN-13: 978-1400106301
Author: John Allen Paulos
Genre: Religion
Publisher: Tantor Media Inc
Date Published: February 01, 2008
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"Religion not Required"
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