Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up, by John Allen Paulos (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008, ISBN 978-0-8090-5919-5) 158 pp. Cloth $20.00.
I have certainly never learned how to fruitfully discuss religion with people who have beatific grins on their faces, strangely gleaming eyes, and an air of certitude about them and who respond to any logical point I make by saying that they pity me.
— John Allen Paulos, Irreligion
Is there a saturation point of books on atheism and against religion? In the last five years or so, the number of books disproving religion on moral or epistemological grounds that have been published is unbelievable. Yes, I do think there is a saturation point: if religion stops being a problem, then the enthusiasm to write books about it will rapidly decrease.
Why do I read these books on ath-eism anyway? Being an outspoken diehard atheist, I am familiar with most of their arguments. It is somewhat contradictory for atheists to read books on atheism. Of course, one needs books to become an atheist. My personal guides to atheism were, among others, George Smith’s The Case against God, Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, and Paul Kurtz’s The Transcendental Temptation. But even after becoming an atheist (an atheist, on my view, is not just a nonbeliever, but someone who can argue and reason about disbelief), I continue to read many books on atheism. Perhaps it is a queer hobby, but I am also concerned about religion and its role in society and politics throughout the world. I am a moral atheist; that is to say that if religion did not have such bad effects on morality, I would just be a nonbeliever who pays no attention to religion. Unfortunately, religion does exert a great evil influence on morals and truth-seeking worldwide. No motor of science, religion is one big obstacle to individual freedom and truth. So I actively strive to fight religion (not believers but their ideas) by liberal, nonviolent means. And my reading of New Atheist books provides me with ammunition.
There are different kinds of books on atheism, depending on the scientific background of the author: there is the perspective of philosophy (Smith, Michael Martin, Russell, A.C. Grayling); biology (Richard Dawkins); psychology (Susan Blackmore); physics (Steven Weinberg); and, in the case of John Allen Paulos, the author of Irreligion, mathematics. Irreligion is a wonderfully concise yet powerful display of the most important arguments against religion and nonorganized superstition. Probality and statistics, so Paulos shows, are powerful tools for debunking religious arguments. Irreligion is Paulos’s logical sequel to his well-known book Innumeracy, in which he showed how poorly people cope with elementary probability theory, which has the effect of buttressing irrational beliefs, including religion and superstition.
Paulos’s book has four major selling points. It is concise yet persuasive. The book is humorous (try reading for example Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, and you will experience the difference). The author introduces elementary probability theory as a powerful tool for rationality. Finally, Paulos’s use of probability theory undercuts the threats of nihilism and atheistic totalitarian political regimes and ideologies, because the same tools he uses against religion can be used against any irrational belief system and therefore also against totalitarian doctrines like Stalinism and Maoism.
What is missing in the book is references to sources. Perhaps the publisher did not want to scare the general public, but some endnotes about which books Paulos used would have been convenient. On the other hand, it might be a pedagogical consideration to leave those endnotes out: one can look up names very easily on Google, after all.
Fittingly, Paulos ends his book with an appeal for nonbelievers to come out of the closet and speak out about their disbelief and disapproval of religion: “. . . I think the world would benefit if more people of diverse backgrounds were to admit to being irreligious. . . . A humane, reasonable, and brave outlook just might help move this world a bit closer to a heaven on earth” (p. 149).