In “Irreligion,” mathematician John Paulos explains why arguments for God just don’t add up

February 13, 2008 | By | 3 Replies More

John Paulos, well-known for his writings on mathematics (he is a professor of mathematics at Temple University), has now published a book on the topic of God. In Irreligion he asks whether there are any logical or mathematically substantiated reasons to believe in God. He concludes that the answer is a resounding no.

Irreligion is a short book (only 150 pages) and it is written cleanly, with lots of humor stirred in.

Paulos gets off to a good start when he insists that you can’t really argue whether God exists unless you define what you mean by “God.” He recognizes, for example, that some people use the term God to refer to the laws of physics or nature itself. This book, however, is addressed to those who believe in a more traditional version of God:

Most conventional monotheistic characterizations of God (Yahweh, Allah) take Him to be an entity or Being that is, if not omnipotent, at least extraordinarily powerful; if not omniscient, at least surpassingly wise; if not the Creator of the universe, at least intimately connected with its origin; if not completely and absolutely perfect, at least possessor of all manner of positive characteristics. This formulation will, on the whole, be my definition of God and the many flawed arguments for this entity’s existence will be my primary focus.

By this definition, an atheist is “someone who believes that such an entity does not exist.” An agnostic is “someone who believes that whether God exists or not is unknown, unknowable, or a meaningless question. Paulos goes on to point out, however, that “it’s certainly possible to be both an atheist and an agnostic.” I found this to be an interesting intellectual move, since many nonbelievers spend considerable energy trying to figure out whether they are atheistic or agnostic. Here’s Paulos view:

Think, for example, of the innumerable historical figures or events and whose existence or occurrence we don’t believe, but about whose existence and occurrence we’re not absolutely sure. The definitions of these terms are, of course, sensitive to the definition of God to which one subscribes. Define God in a sufficiently nebulous way as beauty, love, mysterious complexity, or the ethereal taste of strawberry shortcake, and most atheists become theists. Still, although one can pose as Humpty Dumpty and aver, “When I use the word it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less,” others needn’t play along.

(p. xiv). On this question of definitions, Paulos offers a possible “proto-religion” for atheists and agnostics:

By this I mean a “religion” that has no dogma, no narratives, and no existence claims and yet still acknowledges the essential awe and wonder of the world and perhaps affords as well an iota of serenity. The best I’ve been able to come up with is the “Yeah-ist” religion, whose response to the intricacy, beauty, and mystery of the world is a simple affirmation and acceptance, “Yeah,” and whose only prayer is the one word “Yeah.”

After establishing these ground rules, Paulos gets to work, surgically taking apart one dozen of the major arguments for the existence of God, including four classical arguments, four subjective arguments and four psycho mathematical arguments. These argument each fail basic applications of logic and math.

Paulos writes that the intelligent design argument is a “creationist Ponzi scheme” because any creator “would have to be of vastly greater complexity and vastly more unlikely than the life forms it created.” Somehow, this does problem does not bother most creationists. In fact, no logical arguments regarding the existence of God seem to bother creationists-they refuse to consider logical arguments. This resistance to reason irritates Paulos. He reminds us of the recent study by Jon Miller of Michigan State University showing that, of 32 developed nations, only Turkey has a higher percentage of its citizens rejecting evolution than the U.S. Darwin gets no political traction in most developed nations: “There is no major political party in Europe and Japan that uses opposition to evolution as part of its political platform.”

Is evolution a random process, as argued by many creationists? Absolutely not. They argue that evolution fails because it’s like monkeys randomly picking on typewriters who come up with a long work of Shakespeare. That’s not the right metaphor, according to Paulos:

It’s more akin to monkeys randomly picking on the special typewriter that marginally more often than not retains correct letters and deletes incorrect ones.

At page 112, Paulos examines the “like causes like” fallacy:

  1. The world is exceedingly complex.
  2. Like causes like.
  3. So something very complex caused the world.
  4. That cause is God, who therefore exists.

This is a fallacy precisely because there are numerous examples (in nature and in mathematics) where simple causes generate complex results. The field of “emergence” is rife with such examples. From Wikipedia, for example, we learn that “An emergent behaviour or emergent property can appear when a number of simple entities (agents) operate in an environment, forming more complex behaviours as a collective.”

Paulos also addresses the issue of religion and humor, asking why fundamentalists are not funny. “Why does solemnity tend to infect almost all discussions of religion?

Certainly an inability or reluctance to stand outside one’s preferred framework is part of the answer. So is an intolerance for tentativeness and whimsy. The incongruity necessary for appreciating humor is only recognizable with an open mind and fresh perspective.

But do the arguments and counterarguments in this book conclusively prove there isn’t a God? No, of course not, but neither is there an argument that conclusively proves there isn’t a dog who speaks perfect English out of its rear end. One of the most effective arguments against most traditional religious police? They are the basic questions that children would be inclined to ask, at least before those children are properly socialized by their religious parents:

According to Christians, for example, God sacrificed his son, Jesus, in order that we might live forever. But does an omnipotent being really need to sacrifice? Are his resources limited? And if God did this for us, why was he not more transparent in his actions and offerings rather than demanding that we blindly subscribe to statements written in an opaque, contradictory book? If He loved us so much, why would unending torment be the consequence of choosing skepticism over faith? Why would God state, in effect, that if you don’t believe in Him, then too bad for you (hell, that is)? And on and on.

It is apparent that one motive for writing this book is Paulos’ frustration with society’s attitudes toward nonbelievers. That topic is the topic of the last chapter of the book, where we learn that 47.6% of people would disapprove of their child’s wish to marry an atheist. “Only” 33% would disapprove of their child’s marriage to a Muslim. Almost 40% of Americans feel that atheists do not share their vision of American society. Sociologist Penny Edgell commented that these statistics constitute “a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years.”

Before reading Irreligion I was familiar with many of the arguments for the existence of God. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this book and I admire Paulos for his ability to crystallize arguments while making his writings entertaining. I’m tempted to buy ten of these and send them out anonymously to some religious acquaintances of mine who, I suspect, still have a tiny bit of an open mind on these issues.

Paulos was one of the many distinguished speakers at 2007 Beyond Belief Conference held at the Salk Institute [Here are links to the videos of each of the speakers]. For DI articles regarding Paulos, see here, here and here.


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Category: American Culture, Religion, Science, Statistics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. "According to Christians, for example…blah, blah, blah…"

    When did christians become the authority? It is easy to show the silliness of man-made belief systems {religion}. Why not poke the big dog instead of the weeney dog? I do think his "good start when he insists that you can’t really argue whether God exists unless you define what you mean by “God.” got quickly derailed… Too Bad.

    "He recognizes, for example, that some people use the term God to refer to the laws of physics or nature itself. This book, however, is addressed to those who believe in a more traditional version of God:" again why pick on the little guy? Jesus' greatest rebukes were reserved for those who followed the "traditions of the elders, and put away God's Commandments."

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    LJC: What's become of It's your DI login href, but Blogspot says it doesn't exist.

  3. I've added the word "the" and started over. Lost access to the old one because of sig-in issues. Be warned: I need to more.

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