I’m not the resident math-guru here at First Things. So I’ll be interested in what Amanda (with her CUA math and English double-major background) might have to say about this review by Jim Holt of John Allen Paulos’s Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up.
On the Mirror of Justice blog, Rick Garnett points to one particularly egregious passage in the review, and asks: “What on earth would make Mr. Holt write—after a few sentences about Platonism—that two features of religious believers, which mathematicians ‘of course’ do not share, are (a) a propensity to ‘drag’ beliefs where (presumably) they don’t belong and (b) a propensity to fly planes into buildings.”
Yet the review isn’t totally out in left field. Sure, the reviewer (like the author) is clearly contemptuous of religion—and shows little indication that academically rigorous debates are still going on about the merits of the traditional philosophical proofs for God’s existence (see, for example, John Haldane’s book-length exchange with J.C.C. Smart in Atheism and Theism). Nevertheless, Holt is brutally critical of Paulos’s lack of intellectual seriousness:
Just when the going ought to get good, intellectually speaking, he [Paulos] bales out with a jokey allusion to self-fellating yogis. He has a similarly glib way with the other classic arguments for God’s existence. The ontological argument — which, in its most up-to-date version, involves a subtle analysis of how existence might be built into the very definition of being like a god — is “logical abracadabra.” The argument from design is a “creationist Ponzi scheme” that “quickly leads to metaphysical bankruptcy.” You wonder how such transparently silly arguments could have engaged serious thinkers from Descartes, Leibniz and Hegel to the present day.
Clearly, Paulos is innocent of theology, which he dismisses as a “verbal magic show.” Like other neo-atheist authors, his tone tends to the sophomoric, with references to flatulent dogs and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Ann Coulter crops up in the index, but one looks in vain for the name of a great religious thinker like Karl Barth, who saw theology as an effort to understand what faith has given, not a quest for logical proof.
It’s nice to see a reviewer in the New York Times characterize the neo-atheists in these terms, even if, as Garnett points out, he commits the same intellectual errors in process.