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on 24 July 2008
John Allen Paulos is not alone in having been intrigued by "questions of existence and belief" since childhood, but few of us will have feigned belief in Santa Claus in order to protect our parents from our "knowledge of his nonexistence". Unsurprisingly, Paulos suspects he has "an inborn disposition to materialism" (the "matter and motion are the basis of all there is" and not the "I want more cars and houses" kind). Don't let this put you off if you think there must be more to the universe than atoms and energy. While his opening question - "Are there any logical reasons to believe in God?" - will make some wretch or reach for the remote, curious atheists and theists will find "Irreligion" irresistible.

The book is organized into three parts: first come four classical arguments for God's existence, then four subjective arguments, and finally four "psycho-mathematical" arguments. It's worth emphasizing that these are arguments in the grown-up sense of offering reasons or evidence in support of a conclusion, and not simply statements of personal opinion. You're meant to take them seriously, to be prepared to change your mind if persuaded, and, if you disagree, to offer reasons why. Faith so often "wins" because it avoids the hard work of argument and plumps for wishful thinking to get to where it wants to go.

Each argument is clearly laid out, premises and conclusions enumerated and simplified so we see exactly what's going on. (This admirable quality, the will to explain and not obfuscate, is more often found in scientists and novelists than in theologians or pedlars of new age quackery, who cater for and prey upon the ignorance of those who "are more impressed by fatuous blather that they don't understand than by simple observations that they do".) The first-cause argument begins with "1. Everything has a cause, or perhaps many causes." It goes on to assert "there has to be a first cause" and ends with "5. That first cause is God, who therefore exists." To see whether this argument - or any argument - is true involves examining the premises to see if they are reliable and then checking that the conclusion follows. The gaping hole here is the opening premise: "If everything has a cause, then God does, too, and there is no first cause." If an exception is being made and one thing is allowed not to have a cause, "it may as well be the physical world as God".

There follow the arguments from design and the anthropic principle, and the ontological argument, then the subjective arguments from coincidence, from prophecy, from subjectivity itself, and from interventions, then the psycho-mathematical arguments, which explore complexity, cognition, universality, and Pascal's notorious wager. Unfortunately for religion, if true, some of these arguments have a wider utility and could support all kinds of hogwash. Fortunately for irreligion, Paulos shows how each fails to convince.

"How can an agnostic or atheist learn anything from someone who simply claims to know there is a God?" While acknowledging the fact that such "knowledge" is often strongly held and has a powerful effect on the person's life, the problem is that the "knowledge" possessed by different religious people and groups "is quite contradictory." It would be absurd to remind the reader of a novel "that writing about a character isn't sufficient to conjure up his or her existence." Holy books, whose taste for fiction is not widely enough recognized, ought to come with a health warning: "Statements or expressions can have a meaning yet lack a referent." The Christian knows as much about Jesus as I do about Hamlet, but only one of us is confused about reality.

In discussing so-called Bible codes, Paulos makes one of the few claims I am sceptical of: "Once the discovery of seemingly prescient sequences of letters is brought to our attention, it is only natural for us to wonder about the probability of their occurrence." Natural for a professor of mathematics, perhaps, or, flatteringly, for a reader of his books, but not for the average buyer of a lottery ticket. That's surely part of the problem: it's not just that people can't work out probabilities, but that they're not even curious. One other dubious note is the glib credit paid to Jesus as a great moral leader "whose ideas constitute a good part of the bedrock of our culture". There is truth in this, of course, but it should not pass by unexamined. Does Paulos rate the obscene notion of hell and eternal punishment as a crowning achievement of the human spirit? Or perhaps he was thinking about the more palatable (ifunoriginal) sayings?

A smile is never far away from the serious. Humpty Dumpty - that unwitting theologian and splendid role model for the religious - gets namechecked in the preface: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less." If God is defined "in a sufficiently nebulous way as beauty, love, mysterious complexity, or the ethereal taste of strawberry shortcake" then "most atheists become theists". Paulos prefers clarity and truth to these word games, and his book is an oasis of sense for anyone tired of "nonsense proffered in an earnest and profound manner".

"Irreligion" will not lead you into a spiritual desert nor will it suck meaning from your life. It is a handy prompt for when we stand up for what we don't believe, and contains a message rarely heard above the din of competing faiths: "the world would benefit if more people of diverse backgrounds were to admit to being irreligious."
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Although titled "Irreligion", this book might is better typified by "Irrational". Paulos lines out the litany of weary old arguments in support of the deity now dominating Western society. Reading them simple, straightforward format, they seem more like excuses than arguments. There are a dozen of them, the Classical, the Subjective and the Psyche-Mathematical. Each has been addressed many times, of course, but Paulos' particular style of wit seems to breathe a new, if transient, life into them. Paulos' examination of each proposal is incisive and devastating, relying on a combination of a mathematician's logic and a showman's delivery.

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. Paley influenced Charles Darwin in his early years, but the evidence Nature presented him on his HMS Beagle journey overturned Paley's failed assumption. Complexity means things are complex, but no designer is required, just time and opportunity. Paulos recommends a trumpet fanfare when we consider Darwin's achievement.

The author goes on to consider the remaining assertions, using logic that comes easily to a mathematician. He doesn't belabour the reader with formulae, since such arcane methods would leave one bewildered or exhausted. Instead, he laces his explanations with a wit that must be a wonderful experience in his classroom. He spares none, taking to task the recent works attacking various forms of belief as "arrogant and overbearing". Instead, he presents his refutations of the hoary assertions in a conversational style that can appeal to any level of reader, whether a sceptic or suffused with faith. He doesn't lash out, but presents the arguments for a deity as commonly stated, and shows their flaws without rancour.

As such, this book deserves the widest readership, perhaps starting with every minister of whatever faith permeating your local society. And he is at some pains to get his message across to his many countrymen who seem bent on "repealing the Enlightenment". If nothing else, the presence of such a threat makes this book mandatory reading - at least in North America. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 31 October 2008
First the good. It's extremely useful to have all these arguments and their refutations laid out in one place. Most treatments I have read tend to concentrate on the cosmological, teleological and ontological arguments. Here the author also deals with four subjective and four psycho-mathematical arguments. Full marks for breadth then. Also full marks for style - this is extremely readable and very funny in places, and all without dumbing down.

The flaw, in my opinion, is that Paulos races through each argument, and particulary the refutations, far too quickly. Each one deserves more than a few pages, more depth and more consideration of counter-arguments. This might have been excused if there were a useful list of further reading for each argument, but one is not included.

A good read then, but there is not enough depth here for my taste.

I would recommend Roy Jackson's "The God of Philosophy" for anyone who wants a deeper look at some of the arguments, though this concentrates on the arguments themselves and is rather light on their criticisms.
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on 26 May 2010
It is always good to see scientists, academics and intellectuals stating boldly and clearly the reasons why they do not believe in what most of us have been told we must believe in: a personal God. It is a shame that more do not do so. So that is the one point which, for me, counts most for Paulos's book. He has had the courage to publicly declare that he's an atheist and that theism is unreasonable and illogical.

The main reason that I give it only three stars is that it left me feeling unsatisfied. Now this may well be because this is an area in which I have read considerably and I may be unfairly comparing it to other books on irreligion.

It is important to clarify something: despite its title this book is not really about religion but rather the inadequacy of the arguments for belief in God. (By contrast, "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins is possibly more about religion than about the latter. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is a far more enjoyable read.)

The arguments do indeed seem very inadequate, so much so that one gets the sense that Paulos didn't have to think too hard to dispose of them. One is left wondering, "Is this really all that theism has going for it?" Unfortunately I think it is - those of us who would like to believe in an omnibenevolent deity are unable to do so for this very reason.

Anyone who takes the question of God's existence seriously should read at least one book of this kind. In that respect, this short book is as good as any.
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on 5 December 2009
Not quite the "virtuoso performance" referred to in a quote on the dust cover, but a mix of incisive demolition of many common "there must be a God because..." arguments and contrived logic that doesn't quite do the job convincingly for others. It is a quick and thought provoking read though, and the simple logical approach that Paulos uses to analyse each argument for a deity is very powerful, clearly exposing where in the argument the leap of faith from the rational to the irrational occurs. This alone should cause many believers to gain a better understanding of why they believe, and to judge whether the foundation of their personal faith really stands up.
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on 23 April 2012
In this book John Allen Paulos,uses mathematical argument to show why belief in God is illogical and inconsistent with a rational perspective. His other books Innumeracy and A mathematician reads the newspaper,were forays into maths in society. The tendency is for people to dismiss mathematics,but maths is more than just counting,it is the propensity to think critically and analytically,which Prof Paulos demonstrates by showing what innumeracy can lead to. In most cases it is making mistakes about the world,or where writers have used maths unintelligently or wrongly.But in Irreligion,he uses this strategem to make pointed remarks about the one social mistake that many refuse to accept;belief in a deity that does not exist.
Paulos himself does not actually go that far,since he says that proof cannot be incontrovertible of God's non-existence,he also makes the point that one cannot disprove unicorns or the flying spaghetti monster,which does not mean they have any real chance of existence. The book focuses on the myriad fallacious logical arguments theists use to make their case,and as with his other books suggests the faulty reasoning and logic behind belief in a deity. Sometimes straying into abstruse verbage,nevertheless Paulos is entertaining and to my mind,utilises maths for one of the reasons it ought to be used for,undermining silly notions that are based on lack of understanding and illogic.Irreligion is an excellent contribution to this process - another gem from a great writer.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 September 2008
God will exist as long as humans in their present form exist. God lives within the hearts and minds of humans. Whether God exists outside of our hearts and minds is what is at issue, and once again when the arguments are examined in some objective depth it becomes clear that, as Paulos puts it, they "just don't add up."

He formally presents a dozen arguments and finds them all wanting. He begins with the "first cause" argument, namely that everything must have a cause and that God is the first cause. This argument was refuted many centuries ago, mainly because it begs the question of what caused God? The obvious answer, God is the uncaused cause, or God caused himself, or God always existed, doesn't help since we could simply say the universe is uncaused, or that it always existed and leave a superfluous God out.

The second "classical" argument for the existence of God is the argument from design. This is the one creationists employ in their attempt to get around biological evolution. The world is too complex to have come about through the work of natural forces and/or it shows unmistakable signs of being designed. Therefore there has to be a designer and that designer is God. The problem with this argument is that what we think of as being "too complex" is more a statement about our lack of imagination than it is about anything else. The tendency for matter to self-organize along with the interplay of replication, mutation, and natural selection is more powerful in its ability to bring about complexity than our poor minds can imagine. Furthermore, the universe and its systems are not "designed." They evolve. The idea of a designer is an anthropomorphic notion alien to the way the universe works.

The third argument, which Paulos calls the argument from the anthropic principle, is basically a version of the argument from design. Here it is argued that the universe is just so perfectly fine-tuned for humans (or life) that it couldn't have come about by chance. Consequently there must be a fine-tuner and naturally that fine-tuner is God.

The fourth argument, the argument from being or ontology contends that God is the greatest and most perfect of all beings, and that one of the attributes of perfection is existence. Therefore God exists. I might say that an attribute of perfection is non-existence. Therefore God does not exist. The ontological argument is really a play on words and proves nothing. Or one could say, as Paulos reminds us, that the most perfect island (or most perfect anything) must exist since a necessary characteristic of perfection is existence.

Most of the other arguments are even less compelling than these hoary old deceivers. Take what Paulos calls the argument from coincidence:
"1. All these remarkable events happening at the same time can't be an accident.
2. There must be some reason for their coincidence.
3. That reason is God.
4. Therefore God exists."

Note that "1." is an unwarranted assumption, as is "2." "3." is an assertion which assumes that which is to be demonstrated. Paulos allows that this howler "is seldom made explicitly, but a number of common inane statements do more than hint at it." (p. 52)

What most of these arguments have in common is human incredulity. That is, what exists or has happened is just too, too much for us to accept without calling on some supernatural explanation, and that explanation is God. Therefore God exists as the explanation for everything we can't understand, which is an "argument" for God that Paulos doesn't consider specifically. It could even be said that as long as we are confronted with things we don't understand or events that are beyond our comprehension--that is, forever--God will necessarily exist as an explanation for these things and events. Therefore, you can't kill God. God is part of human nature. It could also be said that if God didn't exist, we'd have to invent Him. And it could be added that we did.

All in all this is a very readable introduction to a very slippery subject. Paulos is an engaging writer who knows how to entertain the reader. However, I was not quite so entertained here as I was with his A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market (2003) which I highly recommend. Probably I have been too much with the subject of arguments for and against God for too many years. For those of you interested in a more nuanced and deeper look at this subject you might want to read The Impossibility of God (2003) edited by Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier. Therein you will find that SOME Gods (that is, definitions of God) really are impossible in the same sense that there can't be an irresistible force and an immovable object, or a God that can do impossible things like squaring the circle.

Bottom line on all such philosophic adventures as far as I am concerned is this: you can't prove or disapprove supernatural things. Regardless, unlike Paulos, I am a deist, but as I like to say, the God I believe in is nothing like the usual ideas of God. In fact I guess I could say I believe in a God that represents what is beyond human understanding. Therefore I believe in a God about which nothing can be said.
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on 8 February 2016
Love maths n hate religion so right up my street
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on 12 June 2008
This little book is a short overview about the main logical fallacies of religious deductions as "proof of god" ala Thomas Aquinas or St. Amseln.
J.A. Paulos just show several simple logical claims ridicules them like `I wish this to be true therefore God must exists' to make it very (far too) simple to understand.

The Mandelbrot set for example: instead just a short verbal mentioning it could be displayed as very simple algorithm and then display pictures of wonderful and amazingly complex structures which can be produced with this simple formula. This might show more how complexity can be `created' from very simple things.

A couple of ideas are taken from Richard Dawkins `The God delusion' and some own evaluations about mathematically probabilities with some anecdotes and that's it.
Too superficial for my taste, J.A. Paulos could dig much more into details and make logical sound refutations, but the purpose of this book seems to dumb it down enough, avoid mathematical formulas or logical syntax to make it available to a wider audience.
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on 29 March 2009
Not a bad book - nice and concise - but did not always explain how the maths. related to the truth or otherwise of various religions. Didn't rally help me draw any new conclusions.
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