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the Complete Review
the complete review - religion / mathematics


John Allen Paulos

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To purchase Irreligion

Title: Irreligion
Author: John Allen Paulos
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2008
Length: 149 pages
Availability: Irreligion - US
Irreligion - UK
Irreligion - Canada
  • A Mathematician Explains why the Arguments for God just don't Add Up

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Our Assessment:

B : clear, simple, to-the-(obvious)-point -- but will it convince anyone ?

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times . 22/1/2008 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/1/2008 Jim Holt

  From the Reviews:
  • "The volume gets off to a bracing start (.....) Writing in clear, direct prose, Mr. Paulos shows how even everyday references to purpose and intention can be easily reformulated in scientific, nonpurposive terms. (...) Still, there is something perfunctory and hurried about all of Mr. Paulosís arguments, which will be shrugged off by anyone who has made the leap of faith into belief, and which will seem obvious to anyone who is already a proud heathen. Indeed, the reader finishes this volume with the suspicion that it was a rushed and cursory project, turned out quickly in an effort to catch the coattails of Messrs. Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Clearly, Paulos is innocent of theology, which he dismisses as a "verbal magic show." Like other neo-atheist authors, his tone tends to the sophomoric, with references to flatulent dogs and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Ann Coulter crops up in the index, but one looks in vain for the name of a great religious thinker like Karl Barth, who saw theology as an effort to understand what faith has given, not a quest for logical proof. When Paulos is dealing with matters more familiar to him, however, he often lurches into sense, almost redeeming the book." - Jim Holt, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Irreligion John Allen Paulos basically goes through what are apparently the main arguments for the existence of 'god' and ... skewers them. It's a breezy, short book, each 'proof' neatly summed up and then, in a few sentences, slashed to pieces. Paulos comes at many of them from a mathematician's perspective, but there's relatively little maths involved: a few useful reminders about things like probability and complexity (which humans' 'gut feelings' tend to get terribly wrong) and the like, but barely an equation or mathematical symbol in sight.
       Paulos writes fairly engagingly -- a bit of passion comes through (including small asides extending all the way to the Iraq-war), as does a bit of humour -- and he states his cases clearly and very concisely. Yet it's not an entirely satisfying book.
       Coming to Irreligion as utter non-believers, our reaction, page after page, was, pretty much: "Well, duh." The god-concept is completely foreign to us. Sure, we 'get' the basic idea, and we can conceive of a god or gods -- but then we can conceive of pigs that can fly, or travelling back in time, too, and it all seems pretty pointless and certainly without any basis in reality -- and certainly nothing to base our lives (or even a small part of them) on. But we're aware that it's a really, really popular delusion, and we're always curious as to why so many remain convinced. Yet going through Paulos' list of 'proofs' -- even though he packs in quite an extraordinary variety -- we just shake our heads and wonder: Is that the best they got ? Because if this is what people are basing their belief in 'god' on ... well, that's pretty weak.
       So it's hard not to wonder whether there isn't more to these arguments. Coming into this, we're already convinced, so what would be helpful is someone who thinks these arguments are convincing making a case for them. Paulos' easy dismissals, page after page after page, seem convincing to us -- but it all seems a bit too easy. Are believers so deluded by their faith that they can't see the obvious ? Because Paulos' arguments all seem entirely obvious and straightforward.
       Maybe it really is that simple. Maybe it's time to stop writing these books and railing against the persistent belief in a 'god' (or gods) and simply treat believers like the mentally ill (as, in a sense, they arguably are, stuck with a delusion that prevents them from properly understanding the world), not trying to 'cure' them but instead focussing on limiting the harm they can do because of their affliction. It's with 'organised religion' that things generally go really wrong, after all, and focussing constructive criticism on that might prove more fruitful. But then again religious delusion tends to be so deeply ingrained and powerful that if it's not channeled properly it can (and constantly does) lead to folk doing all sorts of terrible things .....
       There's also the problem that in many countries believers (sometimes vastly) outnumber non-believers -- i.e. the inmates are running the asylum. Paulos repeatedly notes the resurgence of religion as an influence in the United States, and he closes the book on an interesting note, discussing the position of non-believers -- 'atheists, agnostics, and "Brights"' (whereby he's not a great fan of the silly last term) -- specifically in the US. He cites statistics which suggest that atheists and their ilk have a big image problem, with, for example, almost half of Americans saying they would disapprove if their child wanted to marry an atheist. He suggests it's time non-believers were more pro-active (and made themselves more visible in general), and that certainly sounds like a good idea.
       The non-believer won't find much new in Irreligion, beyond further proof that believers aren't standing on very solid ground (indeed, aren't standing on anything at all). But what of believers ? Will Paulos convince them, as he smashes one 'proof' after another ?
       One problem with the whole approach is that one has to assume that almost no one comes to believe in a god because they came across a good proof of his/her/its/their existence. Rather, they tend to be brought up and/or indoctrinated into faith, rarely worrying about the foundations until it's too late -- i.e. they're so under the spell that nothing can convince them otherwise. (Tellingly, when people 'break' with their faith it seems also most often to happen for reasons that are more emotional than logical.)
       In his closing remarks Paulos hopes that even believers might move towards: "candidly recognizing the absence of any good logical arguments for God's existence" -- but there's the rub: believers don't much care for logical arguments, and while the subtitle claiming the Arguments for God just don't Add Up may be catchy believers will surely just say the arguments are not meant to 'add up', not in this way ..... And that might be part of the problem of the book -- and of religion in general --: believers don't much care for a mathematical (or scientific or in any way reality-based) approach to trying to understand religion, and even when they're willing to go along with it for a bit, in the final instant blind faith trumps all to explain and excuse it.
       One hopes that religious folk will respond to Paulos' arguments in reviews of the book, perhaps providing greater insight into where they are going wrong (though that simple 'leap of faith' explanation seems to be the basic (and ultimately perhaps only) thing they always fall back on). One hopes a sort of dialogue can arise, but likely the two sides will just continue talking by each other, each so certain they are in the right that they completely fail to get what the other is saying.

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Irreligion: Other books by John Allen Paulos under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       John Allen Paulos teaches mathematics at Temple University. He has written numerous books about mathematics.

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© 2007-2010 the complete review

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