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Passing through my third-life crisis peacefully in South London, finding out new stuff, and then getting cross and excited about it.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Irreligion - a blogger reviews the book

If asked to name a 'New Atheist', most people would think of Richard Dawkins.

If asked to name more than one, most people in the UK could then pluck out some high profile names like Stephen Fry, Derren Brown, Russell T Davies or Ricky Gervais.

A good chunk could also come up with one of the other horsemen - Messers Dennett, Harris and Hitchens - but if you hear the names PZ Myers, Jennifer Michael Hecht or Hemant Metha then, chances are, you are delaling with someone who takes their non-theism pretty seriously.*

I personally don't know anyone who would include John Allen Paulos in their list, but his book Irreligion sold a decent number of copies in the States, so perhaps he should spring to mind more readily.

I've just finished the book, and the first thing to say is that the full title is revealing - Irreligion - A mathematician explains why the arguments for God just don't add up. This should be compared to his 2007 book A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market and his 1995 work A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. A pattern emerges.

One gets the feeling religion is just one of a number of topics where Paulos has just enough interesting thoughts to write a book on the subject. I don't mean to suggest he is insincere, and his writing is convincing and typically lucid throughout , but there's definitely a sense that he is not as aroused by this topic as the other names listed above.

Each chapter deals with a different argument, but many of them are overlapping and cover such similar ground that the book is repetitive and tough to read in one sitting. I found that I enjoyed the 5 chapters where Paulos makes personal asides much more enjoyable, because they were freed from the rigidity of the rest of the book's structure, and he allowed his mind free reign. This fits with my previous experience of his writing from Mathematics & Humor, which is brilliant and where the range and accuracy of his insights is staggering.

I also found the way Paulos categorised the arguments to be lacking in detail. For example, in the chapter on The Argument from Subjectivity, he gives the following logical form:

1. People feel in the pit of their stomach that there is a God
2. They sometimes dress up this feeling with any number of unrelated, irrelevant and unfalsifiable banalities and make a Kierkegaardian "leap of faith" to conclude that God exists.
3. Therefore, God exists. 

Most arguments from subjectivity are longer and more complex than this, although I agree that this is all they boil down to. The trouble is, Paulos simply presents this as if it were the full extent of the argument, and in so doing he can only succeed in preaching to the choir. Those who are persuaded of God's existence by a version of the argument from subjectivity won't recognise their experience here. His case would be stronger if he presented more classic examples and then reduced them to his very simple version.

Overall, then, a nice addition to the canon, but you can see why other writers have been more successful on the topic. Dawkins and Harris are more passionate and Dennett more philosophically ruthless; Hitchens is more devastating and Hecht more comprehensive. Start there, and then move on to Paulos if you get a taste for it.

*Ariane Sherine is becoming more famous by the day. However, if she is the first atheist someone can name, more than anything else, this still reveals they need a cold shower.

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