John Allen Paulos Interview

I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up as much as I have.

Irreligion is an excellent (and fun) resource for those of us who want to hone our ideas about why the arguments for the existence of God just don’t hold up under scrutiny, and it’s a great book to spur discussion between moderate believers and unbelievers.

The book, however, did not pass my “mother-in-law test.” What’s that, you ask? It’s my shortcut way of saying, “Most of the evangelical Christians in my family would not understand this book.”

I don’t think Irreligion would be effective in leading more conservative believers to doubt, or even to critical thinking about their beliefs. The text requires too much pre-understanding of complex topics, and it relies on logical discourse rather than the emotional appeal that I find is necessary to communicate with many believers.

I highly recommend this book to anyone — believer or unbeliever — who already enjoys thinking about these issues, and to those anyone new to these issues who enjoys exploring unfamiliar topics. For those familiar with the many scientific and philosophical concepts Paulos dances lightly around, the book will be an enjoyable reminder of many other books you’ve read in the past. For those unfamiliar with the concepts that are not covered in depth, the book can serve as a springboard to much more enjoyable and mind-stretching reading. For those who prefer not to exercise their brains, the book will be tedious and boring.

My interview with John Allen Paulos is below the fold.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your new book, Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up. I was feeling a little burned out on all the books arguing against the existence of God, and was going to skip yours, at least for now, but the editor of my knitting books recommended it, so I couldn’t resist seeing what you had to say. I was surprised to find that your book is lighter and less serious than many of the other tomes on this topic, even though it has that scary word “mathematician” in the title.

Skepchick: In the preface you wrote that you suspect you have an “inborn disposition to materialism” because you never believed in God, not even when you were a young child. Do you have any ideas about what makes some people have a need or longing for the supernatural while others lack this?

Paulos: We probably all have an in-born tendency to attribute all events to agents, rather than some to natural causes, to the bogeyman rather than to the wind rustling the bedroom curtains. We also want comfort and security and the feeling that someone is “out there” watching out for us. But we generally outgrow many of our quasi-innate psychological foibles. Fearing people different from our parents is pretty natural too, but not many would take this a defensible reason to be racist.

Skepchick: You break the arguments for the existence of God into three major categories: Classical Arguments, Subjective Arguments, and Psycho-Mathematical Arguments, and you address four specific arguments in each of these categories. There are so many arguments for the existence of God, how did you decide which to address?

Paulos: These seemed like the primary arguments and my organization of them is a bit arbitrary. There is a lot of overlap between and among the standard arguments.

Skepchick: Which was your favorite argument — or category of arguments — to refute and why?

Paulos: First cause, design, and the ontological argument, although fatally flawed, all have some logical bite to them. I also like the non-argument: I believe what I believe because I want to. At least it’s honest, albeit pig-headed.

Skepchick: Many of the arguments you refute in Irreligion are hundreds or even thousands of years old. Why do you think the same old arguments keep cropping up over and over again as if they have never been refuted?

Paulos: They grow out of somewhat natural ways of looking at and explaining the universe and seem, if one doesn’t think about them too critically, like the best responses to unavoidable questions.

Skepchick: Right out of the gate, your book is different than the other atheist books I’ve ready lately because you differentiate between three groups: fundamentalists moderate believers, and atheists. It seems popular these days to bundle everyone who believes in God into one big group of irrational people who are enemies of reason and the Enlightenment, yet you acknowledge that there are certain things about religion that you appreciate and that there is a lot of good done by religious followers. Why do you think so many atheists seem to feel that everyone who believes in God is automatically uneducated, ignorant, or irrational?

Paulos: I’m not sure most atheists do think that. In any case, I think there is a much more fruitful distinction than the common one between atheists and theists. The real fissure is that between those who acknowledge that there are no compelling logical arguments for God’s existence (even if they choose to believe and practice their religion anyway) and others, especially those who are certain not only of God’s existence but also of the verbatim truth of their particular holy book with all its idiosyncratic inconsistencies and egregiously false pronouncements.

Skepchick: Given that your book includes a lot of humor, you talk about the fact that so few religious people have a sense of humor. From my experience this seems to be true for public figures, but not necessarily for individuals, and it also seems to be something that has become more prevalent in recent decades. Do you have any insights into the reasons that the public display of religion leaves no room for humor?

Paulos: To appreciate humor, you have to have a certain ability to stand outside yourself, recognize different points of view, alternative interpretations, and the like, and religion often militates against that. On top of this there is the silly idea that being humorous and being serious are somehow in opposition. (A good counter-example is Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.) Another contributing factor to the lack of humor among public officials in general is that they fear that their humorous or ironic utterances will be taken literally. The consequence is usually bland formulaic pablum.

Skepchick: Are there any arguments for the existence of God that you found difficult to refute, or that gave you pause to consider whether you might be wrong in your disbelief?

Paulos: Not really.

Skepchick: In the last chapter, Atheists, Agnostics and “Brights” you note how many Americans, especially conservative Christians, view atheists as immoral and alien. As moral unbelievers, we know that this is patently false. You mention two ways to work to change this: first, to create popular stories in movies, TV shows, and books that show atheists in sympathetic roles; second, to find a new name, which seems to have failed at least once in the “Brights” experiment. Can you offer any suggestions as to how individuals who don’t have Hollywood credentials or national platforms can work to change this impression?

Paulos: Be honest about your disbelief. You don’t have to be aggressive about it, but an occasional, “I don’t believe that. Do you really?” or “That doesn’t make any sense.” or “Come on.” can go a long way. We aren’t so fearful of expressing skepticism in other areas. Almost everyone would concede, for example, that a presidential candidate who wanted to outlaw interest on loans and revert to a barter system would be an absurd steward for our troubled economy. So why isn’t there a similar consensus that someone who believes the Earth is 6,000 years old and that Noah’s Ark is an event in zoological history would be an absurd leader on issues such as stem-cell research, climate change and renewable resources?

Skepchick: Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us. There’s so much packed into this slim book, that I could come up with at least 50 more questions. I’m sure we’ll have a great time reading your book this month, and I look forward to hearing more from you in the future.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. I know there are a couple of typos in this post, but I had such a terrible time getting the formatting to hold — the paragraphs kept melding together into one big lump — that I am not going to fix anything.

  2. I really like that last point about a well placed “c’mon!”. There are some aspects of religious belief that can stand up to a far bit of argumentation and discourse, and there are others (like Creationism) that are just plain wrong. There shouldn’t be an issue calling people on this.

  3. Hah! Don’t worry about the typos. I noticed them, but had no trouble understanding. :)

  4. Great interview. I really enjoyed Irreligion and I’ll have to recommend it to all of my math and engineering friends, now. Especially the one who’s surrounded by fundagelical engineers.

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