I stumbled upon Guy P. Harrison‘s book in an online bookshop, knowing very little about it. When buying some other books I added it to my shopping basket on impulse hoping that it would give some insight into the psychology of belief. However, psychology isn’t really what the book is about so in that respect I was disappointed. 50 reasons people give for believing in a god is instead a series of responses to the most commonly cited reasons for god-belief, intended to promote critical thinking. Despite the above misunderstanding, I’m glad I shelled out for it because it is, in many respects, an excellent book.
What 50 reasons is not is a book of complex theology. You’ll find little discussion of apologetics, no mention of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, nor any discussion of, for example, what text was or was not interpolated into Josephus’ writings. The author aims to treat all religions equally and so doesn’t spend a disproportionate amount of time on any one belief. Each chapter is prompted by the justifications that ordinary believers across the world have given Guy on his travels, so the book is accessible and relevant to the ordinary person. Examples of the 50 reasons include, “My god is obvious”, “Our world is too beautiful to be an accident” and “Without my god we would have no sense of right and wrong”. I’m sure these are all arguments that those of us who frequent atheist blogs or debate with believers will have heard before, perhaps many times. In which case, the brief discussions in 50 reasons probably won’t be particularly new. What is noteworthy is the tone of this book.
It’s not that Guy Harrison compromises with regard to evidence; he never seems to shrug his shoulders and say, “Well maybe your religion is true”. Instead he makes simple observations and encourages the reader to make comparisons with other beliefs from around the world. The book is clearly intended to speak to god-believers and to get them to think more critically about their beliefs. With that in mind the author goes to some effort to avoid insulting them. For example, when interviewing a believer who claims to feel his god when he prays, Guy describes the problems faced by a skeptic.
“I asked the believer who said he had heard a god how he can be sure that he did not imagine it. It was at this point that I began to sense his rising irritation and decided not to push any further. So how does one question this amazing but common claim of personal contact with a god?”
The answer he comes up with becomes a reoccurring theme in the book. There are thousands of gods that people have believed in. Those believers have had similar experiences and present the same arguments as you – so why should these arguments work better for one god than any other? By treating all religions with equal skepticism and making reasonable comparisons, the arguments for belief are shown to be weak and often flawed.
The book’s simple approach has obvious benefits – 50 reasons is very readable. Probably the most readable book I’ve read on religion or atheism. The author is an accomplished journalist rather than an academic and the style of language is as accessible as you would expect. There are some great insights in the book, many of which will be familiar, but they are expressed with such simplicity and clarity that I found them sticking in my mind. One of my favourite quotes is in chapter 41, “Science can’t explain everything”.
“Gaps in our scientific knowledge are not shortcomings or failures. They are shining examples of why science is better than religion. Science can’t answer everything because science doesn’t cheat by providing answers without evidence.”
Noting the simple style is not to say that the book lacks real content or research. To his credit, Guy Harrison has obviously done his homework and 50 reasons contains some good examples, research and anecdotes to illustrate his points. A good example is in chapter 10 – “Believing in my god makes me happy”. Guy cites research surveying some eighty-thousand people worldwide to discover the world map of happiness. As it turns out, some of the happiest countries are also the least religious.
Critics of 50 reasons have accused it of being superficial and lacking the detail of other similar books. It’s true that others can and have written entire books discussing the points which Guy Harrison covers in short, roughly 5-page, chapters. However, that’s not what this book is about. To thoroughly debunk all religions ever would require many volumes and probably amount to several lifetimes’ work. In any case, as the author points out, the vast majority of believers don’t believe because of convoluted apologetic arguments; they may not even be aware of them.
In my opinion, 50 reasons is the ideal book for a non-believer to swap with a believer as part of an attempt to understand each other’s points of view. I’ve previously taken part in book swaps with believers and found them worthwhile. So I look forward to lending 50 reasons to my religious friends; I’d even consider buying additional copies for this purpose.
But is it worth reading, even for the well-read atheist who isn’t planning a book-swap? Well, such a person may not learn much about the arguments against religion from the book, but the concise insights, style and tone are worth experiencing. It demonstrates a different approach to debating with believers – one which I think is more suitable to discussions with friends and colleagues, especially in person. In these situations it is more important to keep things simple and amicable, whilst encouraging critical thinking. I must confess that several times I’ve made valid arguments which were insensitive and relationships have suffered as a result. I think the approach Guy Harrison uses in 50 reasons is a good example which I’d like to emulate in future.