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We needn't play along with Humpty Dumpty
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."