This is the sort of book that was needed eventually, even though what it does is not all that difficult. John Allen Paulos is one of the county's leading essayists on the topic Mathematics and Society. Like David Krumholtz's character Charlie Eppes in television's "Numb3rs" he finds a surprising array of applications of math in everyday life. He will look at mathematical issues raised by political advertisements or the stock market or the effects on society of "innumeracy." The latter is a word of his own coinage, I believe, and is the numerical equivalent and parallel to illiteracy.
In IRRELIGION he looks at the pseudo-logical arguments believers give for the existence of God and shows the flaws in each argument. This is immediately certain to make him persona non grata in a certain sector of the religious camp. Many of these are people who consider a flawed and misleading piece of logic that still might convince someone at some level that they are right about God as being far better than an absolutely correct proof about prime numbers. By explaining the flaws he is really doing a favor for those who have accepted the arguments and/or those who use the proofs to convince others. Experience suggests, however, that the favor will not be one that is appreciated.
It should be noted the Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, is not here arguing in any way against the existence of God, though he does declare (I almost said "admit") that he is an atheist. His purpose is to show that some logical arguments, even some that some people have an emotional attachment to, are flawed and do not stand up to scrutiny. In IRRELIGION he examines twelve popular (if that is the right word) arguments used as supposed proofs to convince the credulous that there are correct and logical proofs for the existence. This is a short book, about 150 pages, and the purported proofs he examines are mostly familiar.
I admit that this whole subject has been a personal interest of mine since in High School English we read Thomas Aquinas's supposed proofs of the existence of God and claims he made that were vaguely mathematical were dead wrong. (For example he said that if something is infinite there could be no room for anything else. I knew that a line split a plane into two half planes, each of which was infinite. He said that a chain of causes could not go back infinitely but it is quite possible just as every integer on a number line is one greater than the integer to its left and there is no leftmost.) I do not blame Aquinas for not knowing the mathematics, but even today his arguments are still used to convince the credulous of the existence of God.
My rebuttals are not necessarily the same as those of Paulos, but they frequently amount to being much the same. There are limitations on what Paulos can hope to do. Showing that twelve of the most popular arguments are false lines of reasoning does not show that there does not exist someplace a logical proof. Further, even if he could show that there can be no logical proof it would still not prove the non-existence of God. The Universe just may not give us the tools to decide the question.
Paulos says what needs to be said. This book is certainly less pointed than is the recent THE GOD DELUSION by Richard Dawkins or GOD IS NOT GREAT: HOW RELIGION POISONS EVERYTHING by Christopher Hitchens. This book will not endear Paulos to the religious community. They certainly will not abandon their positions because they do not hold those positions for logical reasons in the first place. But I suspect that it will not get the rebuttals that those books got either. To correct his logic, a critic would have to be better at logic than is Paulos. That does not seem likely.
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper