Irreligion Hardcover – Dec 26 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Few of the recent books on atheism have been worth reading just for wit and style, but this is one of them: Paulos is truly funny. De-spite the title, the Temple University math professor doesn't actually discuss mathematics much, which will be a relief to any numerically challenged readers who felt intimidated by his previous book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. In this short primer (just the gist with an occasional jest), Paulos tackles 12 of the most common arguments for God, including the argument from design, the idea that a moral universality points to a creator God, the notion of first causes and the argument from coincidence, among others. Along the way, he intersperses irreverent and entertaining little chapterlets that contain his musings on various subjects, including a rather hilarious imagined IM exchange with God that slyly parodies Neale Donald Walsch's Conversations with God. Why does solemnity tend to infect almost all discussions of religion? Paulos asks, clearly bemoaning the dearth of humor. This little book goes a long way toward correcting the problem, and provides both atheists and religious apologists some digestible food for thought along the way. (Jan. 3)
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"For years John Allen Paulos has been our guide for reading newspapers, playing the stock market, and understanding what all those graphs and charts and formulas really mean. No one knows how to dissect an argument better than Paulos. Now he has turned his rapier wit to the grandest question of them all: is there a God? Those who are religious skeptics will find in Paulos’s analysis new ways of looking at both old and new arguments, and those who believe that God’s existence can be proven through science, reason, and logic will have to answer to this mathematician’s penetrating analysis." —Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, and the author of How We Believe, The Science of Good and Evil, and Why Darwin Matters
"Using the methods of mathematics, reason and logic, Paulos wrestles religious belief systems to the ground and in the process proves he is as good a writer as he is a mathematician. The book is short, to the point and humorous, and God knows, this subject could use more humor."—Joan Konner, Dean Emerita of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and editor of The Atheist’s Bible
"Another virtuoso performance from a master in the use of mathematics to explore the conundrums and mysteries of everyday life."--Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind"John Allen Paulos has done us all a great service. Irreligion is an elegant and timely response to the manifold ignorance that still goes by the name of 'faith' in the 21st century."-- Sam Harris, author of the New York Times best sellers, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation
Top Customer Reviews
There are so many better books on this subject. Try instead any of the following:
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens
The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason by Victor J. Stenger
Letting Go of God by Julia Sweeney
In his Preface, Paulos states his skepticism emerged at an early age. He hasn't let it rest, working it to confront numerous situations. He early recognised the unanimity of things, which made him feel part of everything. Instead of attributing the universal relationship of matter to the supernatural, he turned instead to wondering why others did. In so doing he's accumulated a number of assertions purportedly supporting the notion of a deity. Each sets a condition, proposes an absurd - if frequently forwarded - supportive supposition to reach an unwarranted conclusion. A typical classic runs:
1. The world in general seems to evidence intention and direction
2. There must be a director behind this purpose
3. The entity directing must be a god, thereby proving its existence.
Paulos notes that the teleological argument goes back to ancient Greece, but is best typified today by William Paley's early 19th Century concept of "natural theology". That the idea remains current is a testimony to the failure of today's education or Western society's loss of a sense of logic.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Plenty of the arguments for God's existence here are well known; in fact, they are classics, and have been the subject of discussion and refutation for centuries. They may fortify the faith of those who already believe (although Paulos shows that they are untrustworthy fortifications), but again, already believing is the key. Right off the bat is the First Cause argument, presented in Paulos's summary:
1. Everything has a cause, or perhaps many causes.
2. Nothing is its own cause.
3. Causal chains can't go on forever.
4. So there has to be a first cause.
5. That first cause is God, who therefore exists.
It all seems convincing at first sight, and believers who wish to use this sort of thinking as evidence for their beliefs would be wise not to give it a second look. Paulos explains that a big problem is #1 above, which assumes too much. An alternative #1 is, "Either everything has a cause, or there's something that doesn't," and there isn't any way of getting around the truth of that. If everything has a cause, then God does, too, as does his cause and so on forever; and if there is something that doesn't have a cause, there is no reason that this something has to be elevated into the supernatural, for the physical world itself might be the thing that does not have a cause, and that's an end of the chain.
And so Paulos goes on, through this brisk little book which takes on one supposed proof after another: the Argument from Design, the Anthropic Principle, the Ontological Argument, Pascal's Wager, and more. Each of the chapters, most less then ten pages long, dispatches each would-be proof. Paulos has used more logic and less mathematics here; there are no equations in the book, for instance, although there are dips into pure mathematics when discussing such things as probabilities for Pascal's Wager. There is a good deal of humor and wonderfully clear writing. Nonbelievers are probably already familiar with the arguments for and against God's existence, but some of Paulos's counterarguments are novel and all are expressed in a pithy and easily memorable form. Believers ought to enjoy puzzling out the challenges here, and should have a renewed appreciation for the importance of faith, however lacking logical confirmation, as the foundation of their beliefs.
The book would not convince religious people whose minds are closed, even if they read it. It will not convince people who deny the role of reason in the question of God's existence. And it is not a polemic with ivory tower theologians.
This is a gentle book. Paulos does not bring up the horrific facts of the criminal history of religion that Dawkins, Hitchens and others have explored in recent books. He concentrates on a few common arguments for God's existence, and shows how an intelligent person would find them wanting.
Paulos is not one to convince a worried six-year-old that no Monsters lurk under the bed. Sure, he could logically and incisively prove Under-the-Bed-Monsters do not exist, as he exquisitely disproves a dozen different beliefs older people use to explain God. His logic, reasoning and explanations are impeccable - - but hollow. When anyone deals with Monsters, Ghosts, Angels or God, they are dealing with emotion rather than logic.
This is a delightful book for those who already know God is false. But it doesn't address the central issue: Why are so many Americans, and especially engineers and technology workers, so committed to God-cults? Why are so many Americans "crusaders" for God, just as so many Moslems are "jihadists" for Allah? In Iran today, there is a separation of mosque and state with each having separate leaders. In America today, a prime requirement to be president is an absolute faith in a close personal relationship with God.
Richard Hofstadter said Puritan resistance to old religious and civil hierarchies in England launched a fervent opposition to all book learning in America. This founding principle of the United States led to the War of Independence, but it has also produced a trend to self-chosen religion instead of what the state imposes. Today's mega-churches, extreme fundamentalism and televangelists are part of a rich American heritage; a direct product of Salem witch hunts, frenzied tent revivals, the fanaticism of radio evangelism and unrestrained freedom itself.
Disproving God is similar to disproving Monsters. If the emotional origins are understood, a parent can comfort such fears. It is the emotional approach to religion which explains why Americans, after rejecting the dictates of an Established Church, are so suscepticle to the dictates of any church - - the more independent in its belief the better - - provided it is of their own rebellious choosing. Paulos attempts to use logic to explain such emotion; religion uses emotion to create its own logic.
Although this is a wonderfully logical rebuttal of current fads about God and fully deserving of its many five-star rankings, a skeptical reader is left with a suspicion that Paulos couldn't calm the fears of a six-year-old who believes monsters do lurk under the bed.
The logic of Paulos is impeccable; BUT, Under-the-Bed-Monsters don't listen to logic. Nor do Crusaders, Jihadists, or many Americans.
While Professor Paulos is a mathematics professor, no reader need fear that the math in Irreligion will be difficult. There is indeed very little formal math in the book. Part of the compelling appeal of this book comes from the examples that math and a razor sharp wit, when combined, provide devastating and lasting impact on the subject of religion. Professor Paulos asks what a miracle means, and answers the question in this fashion: "If a miracle is simply a very unlikely event, then miracles occur every day. Just ask any lottery winner or bridge player. Any particular bridge hand of thirteen cards dealt to you and proclaim them to be a miracle, or, worse, say that the hand's very improbability was evidence that you were not really dealt it."
The speculative physics that underscore religion are exposed for their transparent absurdity. Irreligion draws the distinction between science, which lives and dies by the sword edge of the falsifiable, and religion, which is based on tautology, a circular argument that never dies so long as the head of faith never catches the tail of belief. These are two very different mindsets, approaches, and explanations. There is no middle ground to reconcile the two ways of asking questions about life, death and the universe. In this remarkable book, John Paulos had drawn a line in the sand between outlandish religious positions that defy the laws of physics, reason and probability, and the scientific community, which recoils from "theological sleight of hand, a pulling of God out of a top hat."