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In some ways, Guy P. Harrison's 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God is a breath of fresh air. Instead of yet another rehearsal of the traditional arguments in philosophy of religion, Harrison strikes much closer to home for believers. The reasons for belief given here have little to do with first causes or prime movers. Rather, the reasons in question are more like the old standby "but nature is so beautiful! How can you not believe in a divine creator?"
The god in question is similarly not the 'god of the philosophers', and this in two senses. First, Harrison points out that he is not concerned exclusively with the god of the Judeo-Christian-Islamist world, but much more broadly with whatever people mean when they think of the divine and the reasons they give for believing in it, whether among Australian aborigines, Brahmins or Shinto-ists. But second, the god philosophers typically have in mind is pretty abstract and remote, mainly intended to satisfy tastes in rigorous conceptualization, rather than tastes in practical experience of the divine. The usual attributes given to this God, such as transcendent unity or the three 'omni's', are not much in evidence here. Rather, something more like the Old Testament God is at issue, the jealous, wrathful God, who looks over your shoulder while you say your prayers and is still down with that whole 'hell' business. In other words, the God who still has some personality to go along with being one's personal God.
These fifty reasons come from Harrison's experience of talking with believers around the world about their reasons for believing. Harrison is a photographer and travel writer, so there was no need for going-out-of-his-way to collect the material for this book. As he points out, believers themselves, though they worship different gods, tend to give similar reasons for their belief from one end of the world to the other. From his collection of common reasons are drawn the fifty for this book.
Harrison's mandate in writing this book is best expressed in his own words. "This book is not an attempt to prove the nonexistence of gods. Nor is it an attack on anyone's entire religion. This is a respectful reply to the friendly people around the world who share with me their reasons for believing in a god or gods, nothing more. Too many books that attempt to challenge belief in gods are interpreted by believers as combative and arrogant. I have made a sincere effort to prevent believers from feeling that way about this book." (14) Harrison merely wishes to encourage readers to think more deeply about their reasons for belief.
This doesn't mean Harrison is giving believers a free ride though. Each of the reasons here is subjected to a thorough and, to my mind, usually devastating critique. Just as the reasons themselves vary considerably in sophistication, so do the critiques of each reason. At the more sophisticated end of the spectrum are reasons concerning evolution and intelligent design, and even archaeological research. At the shallow end of the pool, however, are such reasons as 'my god is obvious' and 'better safe than sorry' and 'only my god makes me feel significant'.
Much of what Harrison says in reply to these reasons will be familiar to readers already versed in the literature challenging religious belief. Some of his replies consist in down-home, common sense reckoning, for some of the reasons for belief do not even pass a minimal common sense criterion. But Harrison is not afraid to get his feet wet, and consults a wide range of sources, popular and academic, in replying to some of the more substantial reasons. Each chapter ends with a short bibliography of recommended readings.
As mentioned, this is a welcome change from the usual fare offered on this topic. For comparison, one could also mention the website, "God is Imaginary", which curiously, also offers fifty simple proofs of its claim, though in a considerably more in-your-face manner. As is oft remarked, the rather dusty philosophical arguments for god's existence have never converted anyone or caused anyone to believe. The arguments in Harrison's book provide a 'follow the money' style guide to what is really at stake in everyday religious belief.
The audience for the book is specified clearly by Harrison himself, in the above quote concerning the mandate of the book: he is replying to those thoughtful believers who might be encouraged to 'think more deeply about their beliefs'. His plain-speaking style should put the book within reach of most people, and there is much here of interest to non-believers as well.
Still, one cannot help wonder if Harrison is not a bit naive about the appeal of his book. When he comments that books challenging religious belief are "interpreted by believers as combative and arrogant", it strikes me that the emphasis in this phrase really belongs on the "interpreted by believers" part, not on the "combative and arrogant" part. Believers, or more frequently their professional minders, apologists and pastors, have made amply clear that when it comes to challenging their beliefs, it is not 'what' you say or even 'how' you say it, but rather that you say it. Non-belief is itself an offense, heaven forbid that you should discuss it openly. No doubt this attitude is not universal among believers, but let's keep in mind the usual place of the non-believer in at least the religions of the West: the infidel is to be converted, or failing that, killed. Religion has a healthy track-record for intolerance of dissent. So, much as Harrison is sincere and respectful in his replies, and though he doesn't intend to disprove the existence of gods or attack anyone's religion, in sum, promotion of disbelief is the effect of his book. Believers are unlikely to miss this fact, even if lulled by the deferential tone.
© 2009 George Williamson
George Williamson, University of Saskatchewan