Posted February 26, 2008

Heaven can wait: John Allen Paulos’ latest book examines flawed arguments for the existence of God


Does God exist? Mathematics’ John Allen Paulos will tell you that he cannot prove that God doesn’t exist, but that the arguments for the existence of God are “flawed, empty and even nonsensical.”

Paulos states his case in his latest book, Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up (Farrar Straus, December 2007). The 176-page volume, he says, is meant to be a compendium of the standard arguments for God’s existence and a common-sense deconstruction of those arguments, along with various digressions on topics such as Bible codes, creationist misuses of probability, complexity theory, coincidences and miracles, and cognitive illusions.

“My focus in the book is primarily on the 12 most common arguments for God’s existence, not on the balance of good and bad that can be chalked up to religion, and these arguments don’t hold any water,” said Paulos. “It’s not intolerant or smug to point out that there’s no real argument, logical or empirical, that lends support to the existence of God, much less to particular religious claims and assertions.”

He believes the issue is timely and timeless, but has greater prominence now because of politics and how politicians like President Bush and presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, who injected religion into their campaigns in a very assertive way.

Irreligion, by John Allen Paulos

“I’ve had the idea for this book in the back of my mind for a long time,” said Paulos, whose other titles include Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (1989) and A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market (2003). “I’ve always been concerned with the topic and have touched on it tangentially in some of my previous books and in many of my columns for”

Irreligion is “selling extremely well,” Paulos said, and has received positive reviews in publications including the Boston Globe, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Toronto Star, Raleigh News & Observer, and Publisher’s Weekly, which wrote, “Few of the recent books on atheism have been worth reading just for wit and style, but this is one of them.” The book also received a rare two reviews in The New York Times.

“The reviews in The New York Times were mixed,” he admits. “Any time you write a book about atheism you are going to get some mixed reviews. But there were a lot of good things stated in them, too.”


Paulos, who admits to not being very keen on theology, says even if you are religious, it can be useful to expose yourself to such arguments. He points out that the book contains some “snarky stuff, but it is not in the same vein as Christopher Hitchens’ book, where religion poisons everything.”

Paulos says that he does recognize that religion can be the source of stories, narratives, ideals that enlighten and even rituals that can bind people together. But, he says, it can also be the source of fanaticism, cruelty, hatred and superstition.

He says he never went through a religious phase, even though he was exposed to religion as a child, and describes himself as an atheist and an agnostic.

“I think it is possible to be both,” he said. “If you are talking about a more conventional notion of God, as an all-powerful, all-knowing creator, then I’m an atheist. But if you define God in a sufficiently nebulous way, say as complexity or emergent disorder, then I’m more of an agnostic.”

And because he describes himself that way, he says he expects to be criticized for writing a book on such a topic.

“It is controversial, but it is not as incendiary as some similar books have been,” Paulos said. “There’s no way one can prove that God doesn’t exist. I just don’t believe there’s a logical, compelling argument for the existence of God.”