Tucker's Reviews > 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God

50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God by Guy P. Harrison
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Dec 19, 10

bookshelves: finished
Read in December, 2010

The value of this book is its careful emphasis that arguments for God are really arguments in favor of a particular god. In this respect, Harrison takes a cue from Stephen Prothero and others who have pointed out the multiplicity of gods and their dissimilarities. Christians argue for Christ; Muslims argue for Allah; they obviously can't both be right, and it is quite possible that no gods whatsoever exist. It's a historically neglected approach that can immediately be put to good use demolishing arguments such as Pascal's Wager. Pascal's Wager is often criticized for its crass opportunism, but not enough for its failure to consider all possibilities. (You think, in siding with "God," that you've successfully cast your bets in favor of heaven and as insurance against hell? Well, what if you picked the wrong god?)

This asset is also a problem. I disagree that all arguments for God are really arguments in favor of a particular god. There is value in this approach, but it's possible to go overboard with it. I'm not convinced that theists in general really do engage in such strict denominationalism as to feel that they are praying to a specific god that excludes other people's definitions or understandings of God. What I have observed, in contrast, is that while theists may be ignorant of, skeptical of, or repulsed by religious practices that differ from their own, they generally respect the theism at the core of these alien practices. The theological details may be important, sometimes a matter of life and death, but there is still an underlying universal idea of God (as creator, judge, or "presence") to which theists occasionally refer without specifically referring to any particular god. Harrison acknowledges that neuroscientists have been able to stimulate "religious experiences" in laboratories, but he seems to assume--with no apparent justification--that believers are incapable of understanding the implication that "religious experience" is a universal capability of the human brain that transcends their personal religious lenses. In general, he seems to assume that one cannot acknowledge one's own religious particularities and simultaneously acknowledge that there might be an underlying truth shared with other people; instead, he seems to assume that one must cast off all theistic prejudice before being able to understand religious belief as a general category. I'm not sure that's correct. He treats believers and non-believers as monolithic groups with this overgeneralization: "Any given believer thinks most believers in the world today are worshipping an imaginary god while the atheist thinks they are all wasting their time." (p. 167)

Additionally, while he is aware that some people experience their god as a feeling or presence, he subsumes this under the reasons people give for believing in a god. Well, being in love with someone or some-deity is not a rational route to knowing them. In sticking to his logical turf, he misses the trans-logical nature of much religion. In at least one place he briefly acknowledges that debate isn't always the way to convert people to atheism, since "the believer who did not make a rational choice to believe is unlikely to make a rational choice to stop believing. There are other things at play here. There is feeling..." (p. 157) Where pays closer attention to this feeling, however, he seems to be scared off by it. Referring to a woman dancing and touching a stone that allegedly had been touched by Jesus, he commented that her rejection of "truth and reality" was "not beautiful". (p. 243) He misses that fiction can be be beautiful, all the more so when it is understood to be fiction. The willing suspension of disbelief is a beautiful experience in itself.

The author claims to have derived these "50 reasons people give for believing in a god" from conversations he's had with believers (as illustrated by his anecdotes from his own extensive travels), but the book would have better lived up to its title if he had let believers provide their reasoning in their own words. Since Harrison has digested the reasons and presents them with his own extensive commentary, a better title would have been "50 reasons I've been given for why I should believe in a god" or "50 reasons why I don't see any evidence for a god". I recognize a lot of these reasons from books about atheism, creationism, theodicy, and so forth. None of them are new enough to be individually mentioned here.

Furthermore, the 50 reasons weren't listed in any particular order, and Harrison often seemed to expand the scope of his rebuttals to connect to other points in the book, repeating himself in the process. The book could have been written much more tightly and knitted into a handful of arch-arguments. If I were to group the 50 reasons and slightly rephrase them, I'd come up with something like this:

MY GOD IS GREAT! His existence is obvious and no one's ever disproved him. He inspires people and changes lives. Religion is beautiful and unites people. Faith is good, makes me happy, and doesn't hurt me or anyone else. My religion makes the most sense. I feel my god when I pray. He's the only god who makes me feel significant and makes me feel like I'm part of something bigger than myself. He answers prayers and heals the sick. He created the universe and the human body and sacrificed his son for me. FACTS PROVE IT! The Earth must have been created because it is so beautiful and so perfectly equipped for life. My god has been proven by archaeology, a sacred book, miracles, ancient prophecies, divine justice, intelligent design, people who have crossed over into heaven and returned to tell about it, and the coming apocalypse. I'M AFRAID OF ALTERNATIVES! I'm afraid of losing my faith. Atheism and devil-worship are terrible alternatives. I want to go to heaven and I'm afraid of going to hell. I need my god to protect me, and it's safer to stick with him. Without religion and faith, no one would have a moral sense and society would fall apart. I DON'T LIKE THE ALTERNATIVES! Science can't explain everything and only offers the hideousness of evolutionary theory. I hate to think I'm related to monkeys. Atheism, in its ignorance, is just another religion, a sterile pessimism that fosters arrogance. JOIN THE CROWD! Belief is natural, so most people are religious. My religion is the right one: How could billions of people--some of them quite intelligent, and a few of them personally trustworthy to me--have been wrong about it for thousands of years?


My last criticism is simply that Harrison hasn't really succeeded in his goal of writing an atheist book that is respectful of believers. He avoids direct schoolyard insults but delivers sentences unflattering to believers, such as: "Many atheists tend to confront reality like grown-ups." (p. 323) With a staggering lack of irony, he writes, "'Faith head' sounds a lot like an insult. Okay, maybe some believers' heads are filled with too much of that intellectual poison called faith, but why call them 'faith heads'? It's counterproductive..." Someone should let him know that "intellectual poison" also sounds a lot like an insult and is counterproductive to dialogue.

A good deal of logic went into this book. Unfortunately, not enough holistic thought went into it that I feel comfortable sharing the book with my theist or atheist friends. The book reflects some of my personal beliefs and opinions, but not the approach by which I arrived at those opinions nor the way in which I care to make use of them.
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