Nenia Campbell's Reviews > Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up

Irreligion by John Allen Paulos
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's review
Sep 28, 14

bookshelves: philosophy-morality-ethics, religion-cults-and-faith
Read from November 10 to 11, 2011

This is the first skeptical book about religion that I've read, which is kind of funny to me. I'm agnostic, but I've read more books about religion than atheism. It's kind of ironic, really. I've even read the Bible (or parts of it, anyway. The New Testament and most of Genesis). John Paulos is fairly verbal for a mathematician which was refreshing; so many math people I have met suck at explaining things for me and my fellow word-nerds. However, I did not find his arguments particularly convincing -- and I found his personality grating -- for reasons which will follow.

1. The ontological argument. Oh, God, how familiar am I with this argument. It basically states that God is the greatest possible being imaginable. Nothing is greater than God. Existing in the flesh is greater than existing in the mind. Therefore God, being the physical manifestation of all that is great, must exist. One of the biggest criticisms of this argument is that it is a priori and that anything could be substituted for God (unicorns, a wheel of cheese the size of the moon, Gerard Butler's sexy long-lost twin and my future soulmate -- ahem), and "proved" to exist. All of his proofs seemed to revolve around this argument, which is unfortunate because using it to prove that something does not exist is just as subject to fallibility (which, to his credit, I believe he pointed out).

2. Grouping agnostics and atheists together. Really, this bothers me a lot, because we are not the same. It's quite offensive to presume otherwise. There's an old joke that everybody hates the poor agnostics because religious people think they're atheists, and the atheists think they're wishy-washy. Personally, I believe that atheism shows just as much hubris as claiming to follow "the one true God" because in both cases, you are claiming that YOU know the ABSOLUTE. You either believe utterly and irrevocably that there IS NO GOD or you believe utterly and irrevocably that there IS A GOD. We really have no way of knowing (yet), and if there is a God, I do not believe that He would appreciate such arrogance on His part.

3. Using religion as a form of therapy or denial. This, I think, is where he really hits below the belt. If people prefer to believe that their departed loved ones are in a Better Place, why convince them otherwise? It seems cruel to do so. Granted, there are limits: like the horrible Jonestown issue, where people engaged in mass suicide to go to this better place; or the people who spend their whole lives without really "living" because they are living a literal, highly orthodox interpretation of the bible; or the people who actually kill themselves or others in the name of God. These behaviors are not adaptive, but as a coping strategy, I can see why religion is so comforting. To be honest, sometimes being an agnostic is quite lonely. I sometimes wish I had been reared in a religious environment, if only to believe that some benevolent eye was constantly keeping a lookout for me and my best interests.

4. His explanation of factorials confused me. He wrote out that the product of 5! was 4 x 5. Is that correct? I understand that he IS a math professor, but I was under the impression that five factorial was 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1. At first I wondered if it was shorthand, but generally 5! is written out as 5 x 4 x 3... if it's shorthand. He did it again several times saying that 3! was 3 x 2, and so on. It was very odd. I found it hard to take his arguments seriously, because if he's a math professor but doesn't understand factorials... Jeez.

5. His dream conversation with God. OMG. I wanted to punch him in the face after reading this segment. The arrogance! I hate it when authors do this, inserting their dreams as if it gives them some sort of credibility. I think Michael Moore did this once, which was totally unfortunate, as it made me dislike the book I was reading because after that, I just couldn't take him seriously. The hubris! The sheer hubris! I simply could not believe his arrogance. After all that talk about basing arguments on wispy premises, he had to go and do THIS. /credibility

To be fair, he did bring up many good points. Such as the fact that criticism of agnostics and atheists by the religious is tolerated much more than criticism of the religious by agnostics and atheists. Something else that shocked me was a survey at U of Minnesota, where roughly 43% said that they would be reluctant if their son/daughter wanted to marry an atheist. Agnostics were not included in the responses listed, so I can't help but wonder if they were grouped together or, as is sadly very common, ignored completely. Did I find his book enjoyable? Somewhat. It was a short, brisk read. I'm glad it wasn't any longer than it was. Would I recommend it to others? No. It will only piss off the religious, but I think it will piss off agnostics and atheists as well, because he doesn't really "condemn" religion at all. He just argues why their spokespeople suck at advertising it. The result is that he comes off as a flip-flopper that nobody agrees with... rather like us agnostics, ironically. Did he change my beliefs? Nope. Those are between me and the Great Unknown. :)
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Alexander Livingston Nenia, I was fooled by the way 5! was given, too. It took me some time to work it out. But what he actually wrote (top of page 45 of my library hardcover) is "It's 5 x 4!". Note the ! after the 4. In other words, 5 factorial is 5 times 4 factorial. It's because the ! comes at the end of a sentence that it's so deceptive; there's actually a typo in that sentence: there's no . following the !. In the subsequent sentences ending in a factorial sign, there's a period (full stop) immediately after it. So 4! is 4 x 3!, 3! is 3 x 2!, 2! is 2 x 1!, and 1! is 1.
I didn't react at all like you did to the dream dialog, though. Is it this particular "dreamy" experience that you find so hubristic, or just the reporting of any purported dream in general? I don't get why you think he thinks it would add to his credibility. Credibility about what? Do you suppose that dreams are somehow a means by which incorporeal beings make their presence felt to others, and that therefore it's one in the eye to you and others who feel the same for this author to have one that pokes fun at such beings?

message 2: by Khanh (Clowns, Nightmares, and Bunnies) (last edited Sep 13, 2013 08:00PM) (new)

Khanh (Clowns, Nightmares, and Bunnies) Um, what? He's a mathematician? Any idiot who's taken Algebra 2 knows 5! = 5x4x3x2x1.

Edit: Just read Alexander's explanation....and I don't get it. 5 x 4! is still 5! because it would still be 5X4x3...etc. Huh??

I would disbelieve the use of dreams in anyone's argument, too. It's too personal, too subjective, and there's no way to actually prove that it existed. I could tell you that God told me to eat 5 blocks of chocolate today. There's no way to tell whether I was lying or not. Dreams are useless in any rational argument.

Alexander Livingston Khanh wrote: "Um, what? He's a mathematician? Any idiot who's taken Algebra 2 knows 5! = 5x4x3x2x1.

Edit: Just read Alexander's explanation....and I don't get it. 5 x 4! is still 5! because it would still be 5X..."

The misunderstanding was about whether the author wrote that 5! = 5 x 4, as opposed to 5 x 4! ("!" meaning in this case "factorial", and see point 4 of Nenia's review). If you turn up the page I referred to, perhaps you will understand how this misunderstanding could happen (as I tried to explain in my previous message).

Nenia Campbell I still don't really get it. If that was what he meant, I feel like it was pretty ambiguous for a philosopher. :P

Alexander Livingston Let me spell it out in even more detail. 5 x 4! means 5 x 4 factorial. Now 4! (4 factorial) = 4 x 3 x 2 x 1, so 5 x 4! = 5 x (4 x 3 x 2 x 1) = 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 5! (5 factorial). Does that help?

Nenia Campbell That's not what he said, though, if I recall. I'm pretty sure he said 5! = 5 x 4. I remember because I wrote it down, it was so strange.

message 7: by Alexander (last edited Sep 14, 2013 01:18AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alexander Livingston Nenia, I referred to the book to check. I tried to explain it in my very first message. At the top of page 45 of the copy I read is the sentence (the "it" in the sentence refers to the value of 5!, five factorial that is):
It's 5x4!
This is followed by a new sentence, starting with a capital letter. Do you see how the sentence I quoted could be misunderstood? The "!" could be taken for an exclamation point, rather than a factorial sign, meaning that it meant "It's 5x4", with emphasis. The problem was that the "!" was not followed by a ".", so it was not clear that the "!" meant "factorial". If the "!" is understood to mean "factorial", then "It's 5x4!" is a correct statement of the value of 5! (5 factorial), because 4! = 4x3x2x1, so 5x4! = 5x4x3x2x1. Does that make sense now?

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