Monday, September 19, 2011

John Allen Paulos' "Irreligion": Book Review

This mathematician takes on "why the arguments for God just don't add up." As the subtitle shows, Paulos aims to deflate theological affirmation with scientific calculation. The results, in this brief book, are decidedly mixed; the parts prove more valuable than their sum. 

"Disdaining Occam's Razor, they like their arguments hirsute" (75) is a great one-liner, the best in this sometimes entertaining book. It's used to attack the argument from subjectivity: that because a believer fervently asserts a gut feeling or tender emotion of a divine presence, that "leap of faith" will verify that God exists. A few pages on, after citing Mencken well, Paulos notes that contrary to stereotypes, atheists are not as arrogant as many overbearing religious folks. He tends here to dig into reasoning to counter unprovable claims, and while some sections are strong (as in "miraculous interventions," "prophecy" and supposed "Bible Codes," and his "dreamy instant message exchange with God") many of the more mathematically grounded chapters take on the classic arguments and some newer ones with uneven skill.

They often end suddenly; they roam despite being a few pages each into what feels as if more a record of Paulos's inner thoughts on paper or a casual blog entry or notes rather than a solid, full-fledged argument. The demolition of Anselm's ontological argument, the problems with the anthropic principle, or the argument from cognitive tendency exemplify chapters that fell short for me of the perfection you'd expect this professor, whose career rests upon logic applied to popular culture and common beliefs, would display. 

The casual, off-hand nature of his musings does work well when rationalizing what many tend to surrender to faith instead, but the book appears put together too casually at times to be wholly satisfying. Still, as a decidedly math-challenged reader, I appreciated the fact that while no "formula" technically appears, the references to mathematical theories and famous mathematicians and scientists did not overwhelm the tone of this book. I agree with his conclusion, too, that we might be better off if more of us could find the courage to admit our being "irreligious"-- at least some of the time until we play the next lottery! (Amazon US 8-31-11)


AM said...


a very concise review which makes me want to read more.

Fionnchú said...

AM, it's your kind of book!

AM said...

I sort of felt that from reading your review