Who isn't an atheist (or agnostic) these days? The Celebrity Atheist Web site (celebatheists.com) lists hundreds of movie stars (Angelina Jolie and Woody Allen, for example), business tycoons (Bill Gates and Warren Buffett) and scientists (Steven Pinker and Steven Weinberg) who don't believe in God. Books by nonbelievers abound. The biologist Richard Dawkins came out with "The God Delusion" a little over a year ago, and Christopher Hitchens jumped on the bandwagon recently with "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." These writers not only don't believe in God, they are downright hostile toward God.
The latest book debunking God has a lighter tone. John Allen Paulos aims to prove -- with logic, dry wit and a mild manner -- that God does not exist. Despite his less rancorous approach, Paulos is dead set against the idea of God. "Why postulate a completely nonexplanatory, extra perplexity to help explain the already sufficiently perplexing and beautiful world?" he asks.
Paulos, a mathematician at Temple University, is a very good writer, who spices his clear prose with touches of humor. In this book, he lines up 12 arguments for God. Then, using well-honed mathematical reasoning, he shoots them down. A few of the arguments for God's existence are arcane, making the arguments to disprove them difficult to follow.
One ontological argument, for instance, comes from Descartes' idea that God is a perfect being. Since he (Descartes) is not perfect, then the idea of perfection must come from something outside him -- an external perfect being: God. Paulos points out that the only way such a proposition can be proved is for its negation to lead to a contradiction. But no contradiction of Descartes' statement follows from God's not existing. Maybe not, but both argument and counter argument seem slippery and unconvincing.
A stronger argument for God is called "the argument from presupposition." Paulos outlines it as follows:
"(1) In presenting its divine narrative, a holy book presupposes God exists. (2) People read and come to accept the narrative. (3) The narrative must be true. (4) Therefore God exists."
This argument is so straightforward that it has been summarized on bumper stickers: "God said it, I believe it, and that settle's it." The sentence includes, Paulos notes, a "telling apostrophe." Paulos easily exposes the flaw in this argument. "Claiming that a holy book's claims are undeniable because the book itself claims them to be is convincing only to the convinced."
And there are plenty of the convinced around -- from pious politicians to celebrated scientists. Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, is one prominent scientist who has publicly proclaimed his belief in God. In "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief," Collins revealed the source of his deeply religious views. They stem, he wrote, from the concept of a "Moral Law," a major component of which is altruistic behavior. Collins believes that the Moral Law is contrary to all natural instincts and must come from God.
Paulos calls these views "the universality argument." What's considered moral or immoral, he writes, is strikingly similar across cultures. Unprovoked murder, for example, is condemned by all societies. Many believers, like Collins, conclude that these similarities in behavioral codes must come from a single source -- God. Therefore, God exists. This is a serious effort to establish the existence of God. It was put forth first by C.S. Lewis, the respected British writer and scholar, in his book "Mere Christianity."
Paulos accepts the existence of a Moral Law, but doubts that its universality has anything to do with God. He dismisses the argument by invoking an evolutionary explanation. Prohibitions of murder and theft, a standard of basic honesty, and a concern for children -- mores found in almost every society -- developed because adopting those standards of behavior helped those societies thrive. "Murdering one's neighbors and killing one's own children are not activities that conduce to the success of any group," Paulos asserts. This leads him to conclude that these natural constraints -- not God -- account for the similarities in the moral codes of disparate cultures.
Many believers will question Paulos' unsupported conclusions. When in our past did these widespread behavioral codes develop, they might ask. What data supports your hypothesis about natural constraints? Paulos does not directly address these questions. But others have.
In 2005, Frans de Waal wrote "Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are." It is a remarkable book recounting the author's decades of studying captive chimpanzees. He is convinced that his research with chimps can enlighten us about the origins of morality. De Waal believes that morals spring from emotions and that chimps (and other apes) experience those emotions. He provides loads of anecdotal data illustrating the chimps' capacity for kindness, for cooperation, for altruism -- the building blocks of human morality. De Waal's work establishes that our closest relatives are capable of empathy, leading him to conclude that "the building blocks of morality clearly predate humanity." Thus, universal morality did not spring from God; it is a gift from our primate ancestors.
De Waal's research buttresses Paulos' conclusion that universal morality does not prove God's existence. But Paulos does not need much buttressing. He is as sure-footed as a tiger as he prowls through the theocratic landscape pouncing on sloppy thinking. To a large extent he succeeds in demolishing the arguments of believers.
Minds won't change
Despite that, his book will likely not change many minds. The reason stems from another argument for God, the so-called argument from subjectivity. As Paulos puts it, some people "feel in the pit of their stomach that there is a God." Employing his usual combination of wit and logic, Paulos exposes the flaws in that argument. But what he cannot do is change the powerful longing for God that exists in many people. To shake that deep-seated yearning requires more than wit, logic and a parade of celebrity atheists. Paulos accepts this. "I have little problem," he writes, "with those who acknowledge the absence of good arguments for God, but simply maintain a nebulous but steadfast belief in 'something more.'"