Thursday, May 7, 2009

Harrison's 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God

In his extensive world travels, Guy P. Harrison discovered that religious people everywhere, regardless of which particular religious tradition they belong to, tend to offer the same reasons when asked why they believe in god(s). He also discovered that few of these arguments have anything in common with the kinds of reasons theologians offer (a point which theological critics of popular-level atheological writers like Hitchens and Dawkins keep failing to understand—the Four Horsemen don't bother with Aquinas because no one outside of the academy does). Finally, he discovered that none of these reasons are much good in the end. The result, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in God.

50 Reasons is a good addition to the corpus of critiques of popular religion. It is very easy to read, most of its arguments are sound, and, most importantly for me, it makes a few novel points, at least in its emphasis. One of them, repeatedly stressed throughout the book, is something which I already knew, but which I never appreciated before, despite having the figures right there, staring me in the face: no matter what religion you belong to, even if you define your religion fairly broadly (like "Christianity" or "Islam"), there are at least four billion people in the world who think you're wrong. Every religion is in the decided minority. We so often tend to take whatever religion dominates our surroundings, together with its conception of the divine, as the default. A little travel, a little broader perspective, should at least shake our conception of what the obvious contenders are.

(I actually have wondered about something related to this, but applied to the academy. I notice that the way philosophers of religion, particular the evangelical ones, argue, it is as though they believe that Christianity and naturalism are the only two options. They will do things like try to show that, as evidence for the existence of god, the cosmological fine-tuning argument "outweighs" the argument from evil. How ridiculous! Why not accept them both—that the former argument shows that there is a god, and the latter shows that the god in question is evil or uncaring? And, yet, that option is not even on the table for them. Why shouldn't it be?)

I was a little surprised by the size of the book: for some reason, I had expected brief, 1-2 page entries, like the kind of thing I am doing in my Atheological Thoughts web series, but the book is actually a hefty 354 pages. I also thought that Harrison did not come across nearly as sympathetically as he seems to think he does, even though he is folksy and good-humored throughout. In any case, though, it is a good book. I recommend it if you care about the reasons why most people believe; if you prefer to fence with Oxford dons and Aquinas scholars, look elsewhere, and may the devil take you.


Steelman said...

"...there are at least four billion people in the world who think you're wrong."I hadn't thought of it quite that way; more in the context of answering the believer's certitude of biblical truth with the equal certitude of those who regard the Quran as holy: "I'm sure you believe that, but there's over a billion other worshipers of the God of Abraham who say you've got the wrong book."

I consider another set of numbers when someone jingoistically proclaims the foreign policy "rights" of a certain country are always superior to those of any other population:

"Do you think it would be fair for 5% of the people to tell the other 95% what to do?"

"No way! screw those Europeans. We saved their butts in WWII."

"Uh...never mind."

Of course, I don't promote an argumentum ad populum; that's the other guy's rhetoric. I just throw those figures out there to put the subject in perspective.

Mark I. Vuletic said...

That's the key: putting things in perspective. Harrison understands (of course) that being in the minority does not make one wrong; however, a lot of people think their particular viewpoint is obvious, simply because it's what "everyone" believes. In that case, it's helpful to point out the actual numbers.