Thinking out Loud about Published Atheists

A brief (ha!) look at 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God by Guy P. Harrison (Prometheus Books, 2008).

[Again, like my last 3 part post, I’m not after a soft target to score an easy point, but finding myself gobsmacked yet again by an atheist tome, I feel the need to give some thought to this source in order to move my thinking forward in some way. At this point in my life, as I go through material like this, a fundamental problem that I face is that I’m pulled in two directions – my first reaction is invariably to tag what is, in one way or another, wrong with the work in question; but my subsequent reflections consist of asking how does this fit into the bigger religious picture? The latter approach is the far more interesting one and, I think, the only really viable one for the academic study of religion – I just don’t know precisely what it looks like yet. But that the atheists neither bring an A-game nor play fair cannot be ignored; so, they still need to be called out on the shuck and jive they often pull.]

For all the atheists’ talk of their reverence for empiricism and critical thinking (whatever that is), and the sanctity of evidence and peer review, it’s surprising how often they flout their own basic dogmas. (K, not really surprising.) Of course, make an argument for the existence of god or creationism and you’ll face the litany of, what is your evidence and where do you get it from? what does science have to say? and your logic will be carefully scrutinized …. and found wanting. As it should: WTF are you up to arguing such positions? (Sorry, not really a good objective RLST response.) But, there’s no denying that many writing/blogging atheists lack both the wherewithal to interrogate adequately evidence of religiosity as the find it, or simply invent it to suit their purposes; and they simply have little or no interest in what current scholarship on religiosity has to say. Hence, their arguments almost never entail anything more than the evaluation of the truth-claims expressed or implied within believers’ religiosity wherever they encounter it. And so it is on this basis that we who study religion for a living must make our way from how atheists get religion wrong to how their reactionary position fits into the complex of phenomena that we call “religion” (used for convenience’ sake, speaking to the laity at least). Alas, with respect to the matter at hand, I can’t get myself much past the intellectual travesty that is this book, and its like, for the present.

50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, is as good a title for a monograph about religiosity as any, I assert charitably. But of course, my hermeneutically suspicious tendencies demand that I ask what the range of meanings such a title might include. (Thoroughly parsing this title seems a little over the top. Still, note that ’50 reasons’ is a common trope in middlebrow publishing.) Is it too much to ask that ‘belief’ and ‘god’ get some extended consideration or definition? (They don’t here. And while this point invites reference to a distinction that might be made between belief and faith, I can’t consider it here – that’ll have to wait for some other time and place.) More nuanced, how exactly were those 50 reasons derived? Who was asked? How were they asked? What specifically were they asked? The answers given are pretty sketchy stuff in this book, where they’re even addressed (so I’ll have lots more about that later). All’s to say, we’re in no way dealing with a formal monograph about belief among the religious, but a conception which serves only as a foil for an atheist author seeking a means to argue that any reason to believe is specious. All I’ve got to say at this point is… And?

At the outset, indulge me in the tedious presentation of the list of those 50 reasons. From the ToC:

***BTW, full disclosure, I haven’t read all 50 reasons. I just can’t face them. I read the first few, put the book down, and now have taken to reading them randomly now and again.***

1. My god is obvious. 2. Almost everybody on Earth is religious. 3. Faith is a good thing. 4. Archaeological discoveries prove that my god exists. 5. Only my god can make me feel significant. 6. Atheism is just another religion. 7. Evolution is bad. 8. Our world is too beautiful to be an accident. 9. My god created the universe. 10. Believing in my god makes me happy. 11. Better safe than sorry. 12. A sacred book proves my god is real. 13. Divine justice proves my god is real. 14. My god answers prayers. 15. I would rather worship my god than the devil. 16. My god heals sick people. 17. Anything is better than being an atheist. 18. My god made the human body. 19. My god sacrificed his only son for me. 20. Atheists are jerks who think they know everything. 21. I don’t lose anything by believing in my god. 22. I didn’t come from a monkey. 23. I don’t want to go to hell. 24. I feel my god when I pray. 25. I need my god to protect me. 26. I want eternal life. 27. Without my god we would have no sense of right and wrong. 28. My god makes me feel like I am part of something bigger than myself. 29. My religion makes more sense than all the others. 30. My god changes lives. 31. Intelligent design proves my god is real. 32. Millions of people can’t be wrong about my religion. 33. Miracles prove my god is real. 34. Religion is beautiful. 35. Some very smart people believe in my god. 36. Ancient prophecies prove my god exists. 37. No one has ever disproved the existence of my god. 38. People have gone to heaven and returned. 39. Religion brings people together. 40. My god inspires people. 41. Science can’t explain everything. 42. Society would fall apart without religion. 43. My religion is so old, it must be true. 44. Someone I trust told me that my god is real. 45. Atheism is a negative and empty philosophy. 46. Believing in a god doesn’t hurt anyone. 47. The earth is perfectly tuned to support life. 48. Believing is natural so my god must be real. 49. The end is near. 50. I am afraid of not believing.

I don’t know about you, but I reckon there’s one to way in excess of 50 dissertations to be written on this list (and none of them would pass an oral exam in any university department if they were to argue for the inadequacy of any or all of these reasons). All that’s to say, close scrutiny of these reasons threatens to be endless. But perhaps a few general comments on the 50 will suffice to show that we are not looking at an inquiry undertaken in good faith (so to speak). Rather, the question is so obviously a challenge to Harrison’s informants that no thoughtful person should take these 50 reasons at face value.

It seems to me that we can identify (at least) three kinds of reasons here (again though, not that even these tell us about belief as such or anything else). Not surprisingly, many of the reasons are theological. Other reasons I’ll call existential. And also significant are the many reasons that we can recognize as defensive (or hostile even, towards atheism). What these kinds of responses all have in common is that they are all reactionary (meant in a neutral sense) with respect to the question: a question deemed theological gets theological answers (for ex. appeals to scripture, its theological standing, and its theological contents); a question that cuts to the heart of people’s personhood or identity is answered with reflections of – what to call it? – being-in-the-world; finally, the question is seen for what it is – an attack on belief – and as a result, it’s turned on the questioner, and the answer consists of a reflection on the wages of unbelief.

The question itself (with or without any knowledge about the conditions under which it was asked) skews to elicit religious responses, not measurably objective ones about belief: the question then serves as an invitation to a religious activity, ie. forms of religious testimony in the evaluation of which we cannot be certain that we are getting expressions of earnest belief rather than defensives of belief informants imagine to be expected of them. Social-scientifically speaking the question is, like the kids say, an epic FAIL.

Now, I just can’t leave it at that. Rather, I’m itching to peer a little deeper into the colour and the shape of the author’s project. To this end, let’s have a gander at the Introduction to the book (Harrison, 2008: 13-15).

I have asked many believers in many countries over several years a basic question: Why do you believe in your god or gods? This book is a response to the fifty most common answers I heard to that question. Many people gave me virtually identical reasons for belief, despite being adherents of contradictory religions. I learned that the gods may be very different and the faithful may sometimes hate and kill one another, but believers are remarkably synchronized on why they believe.

      With a boatload of questions beginning with the first clause I’m not being
      merely pedantic here, am I?

  • Look, I’m no expert on quantitative and qualitative analyses, but I gotta ask: how many believers? demographic breakdown according to age, gender, income, level of education, degree of religious observance, etc. etc.? how many countries? which Countries? over how many years?  was that your actual survey question? any others? what were the rest of the terms of your (what appears to be strictly) qualitative data gathering?
  • The results of your ‘research’ are a “response.” Not an analysis? Of course, I already know that your response is a challenge to belief. At what point were your informants aware of that and more importantly were they aware that you intended to publish your response to the data they provided? I’ve got limited experience with REBs, but I’m pretty sure clear informed consent is taken a tad more seriously than the Prime Directive – you don’t get to bend it in order to move the plot forward. (See Harrison’s about page on his website where he declares that he oft times employs Star trek to teach his children life lessons.)Not only would most self-respecting social scientists laugh you out of the room for your means of gathering data, I’m pretty sure you’d find yourself subject to a pretty serious tongue-lashing for your shaky ethics.
  • Explanation for the “virtually identical responses?” What does “contradictory” mean? What’s wrong with ‘different’? Nevertheless, what does that tell you? What assumptions are you making about differences between your informants? And oh yeah, back to basics, what’s the breakdown of religious affiliation among your informants?
  • Ok, so you use “different” in the next sentence. But HTF does hate and murder end up a feature of different? Ain’t saying such conflict doesn’t exist, I just wonder what in the name of Krishna and Christ and Kobo Daishi has this to do with the question at hand and the answers you got to it? Did you interview a bunch of murdering psychos, or are you merely suggesting that you assume that your informants carry with them a latent capacity for religious violence?

I also discovered that if you ask believers on the streets of Jerusalem, Cairo, Paris, Nairobi, New Delhi, Athens, Suva, New York City, and Port Moresby why they believe in their gods, the answers you hear are significantly different from the noise coming from theologians and religious philosophers. Most of the Christians I have encountered around the world, for example, don’t give much thought to the works of St. Thomas Aquinas or C. S. Lewis. They will tell anyone who asks, however, that they believe Jesus is a real god because the Bible says so or because they feel his presence when they pray. Out in the real world I found that believers have little interest in convoluted arguments for gods that involve imagining perfection, irreducible complexity, or the laws of thermodynamics. Unlike professsional creationists and apologists, most of the believers I talk with do not feel the need to cite long lists of questionable evidence to attempt to prove that their god is real. They “know” their gods are real because they have “faith” that they are. They believe because they think that they must in order to be a good person. They believe because the world is “perfect” or at least “beautiful.” They believe in a god because it is the only way they have ever known.

  • Ok, ok, I can’t help myself here. Were the authorities in Israel, Egypt, France, Kenya, India, Greece, Fiji, and PNG aware when they gave you your visas that you’d be conducting research whilst visiting their countries? Cuz, I tellya, the tourist and research visas I got for India were VERY clear about what I could and couldn’t do in the country under them. Alright, on to more serious things.
  • “noise coming from theologians and religious philosophers.” Alrighty, as long as we’re clear on the regard (or lack thereof) in which you hold formal explanation and explication of the faiths. Irregardless, doesn’t the fact that believers do not appeal to such rational enterprises tell you something? The importance of this question is reinforced by the fact that, as you say, believers don’t even appeal to the arguments of creationism, those thoroughly modern forms of religious justification, and the fact that believers don’t even “cite long list of questionable evidence.” Basically you’re saying that believers tend not to appeal to standard or prevalent forms of argument for belief. Seems to me then that your enterprise consists of cornering them into making arguments (or simply making up arguments for them).

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 shared 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. There is no name calling or condescending tone here. I do not think that I am smarter than believers, nor do I agree with anyone who feels that believers’ minds are hopelessly closed. My fifty replies to common justifications for belief can be read as friendly chats designed to do nothing more than stimulate critical thinking. I am not interested in winning debates or insulting anyone. I only want to encourage readers to think more deeply about why they believe in a god.

  • Well, insofar as the book doesn’t attempt to disprove god, it simply assumes god’s non-existence, doesn’t?
  • Not an attack on any entire religion? First page of the book in the main: “if a significant portion of our species insists on discriminating, hating, killing, and slowing scientific progress in the name of the gods, then don’t we owe it to ourselves to at least try and confirm whether or not these gods are even real in the first place?” (17). Ok, I suppose this isn’t an attack on any entire religion, but sure reads like an attack on religion entire. Oh, and so disproving the existence of the gods is at least an implied purpose of the book?
  • By all means, stimulate critical thinking (whatever that is, though it’s apparently code for arguments against any expressed or implied ‘reason’ – as in your response in 7. Evolution is bad.), particularly in the face of religious truth-claims (again, see 7. for ex.).But, you’ve already asserted that truth-claims are not at the heart of believers’ reasons to believe, eg. the world is beautiful. At least, I don’t take that as truth-claim, at least not of the same order as the reason that actually appears in the book as 8. Our world is too beautiful to be an accident.No. reasons such as “34. Religion is beautiful” are not truth-claims, they are aesthetic valuations reflecting on believers’ experience of religiosity. Your response – a litany of religious wrong-doing, summarized in the statement, “religion is not pretty when it motivates terrorism, antiscience activists, and prejudice among people who might otherwise be cooperating to build a better future for everyone” (245) – is, first, hardly a friendly chat and certainly an attack not merely on religion itself but several particular religions. But second, and more importantly ATM, you endeavour to turn this straw-manish ‘reason’ (no believer is cited as saying religion is beautiful) into a truth-claim with the presentation of all the evidence that religion is ugly as you response.Lest it be imagined that I’m merely recasting your argument to suit my own purposes, let’s consider the material out of which you construct ‘religion is beautiful’. Smiling, crying, emotional, excited Jamaicans worshipping in a makeshift church in a shopping mall in the Cayman Islands. Pilgrims within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. You standing in the centre of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus encountering kind, friendly and hospitable Muslims. Those good people are obliged to give an account of the bad and the ugly in the religions to which they belong? AYFSM! That’s neither friendly nor respectful (just an aesthetic observation on my part). But make no mistake, this is no invitation to critical thinking, this is an effort to score debate points, and it’s insulting. This isn’t mere debate, argument or persuasion, this is evangelism.

Readers will notice that I do not limit the scope of this book to the religions that are currently popular in the West. In my view all gods are equal, regardless of how many people believe in them at this moment in history. My skepticism for Ra and Apollo, for example, is no more or less than my skepticism for Jesus and Allah. Throughout this book I usually will write of gods in the plural rather than singular. This may feel awkward to readers who are used to only hearing and talking about one god. The fact is, however, there are many thousands of other gods that people have confidently claimed to be real throughout history. Failure to acknowledge this important truth would be historically ignorant and culturally prejudiced. Fairness and logic demand that we respect the indigenous tribal believer who sees many gods in the forest and the ancient Greek who saw several gods atop a mountain as much as we do the contemporary monotheist who sees one god in the sky.

  • Alright, I’ll let all this slide, since I’ve commented so much already. ‘Sides, smart people will see how some of my other remarks (and more I haven’t made, I assume) apply here.

Many people think that religious belief should be above challenge or somehow out of bounds. I disagree. There is a lot of good to be found in the world’s religions. I would never deny that. However, the dark side of religion cannot be overlooked. When claims for the existence of gods negatively impact world peace, the education of children, the development of new medical cures, safety and justice for women, and the progress of science, they must be challenged.

      “Many people.” Who? How Many? What are you data for that?

  • Anyway, there you have it. So much of what’s unseemly in contemporary atheism in a nutshell. Not to mention almost a complete contradiction (again) of what you’ve previously claimed the tenor of the book is.Who am I to tell you not to challenge religious belief? My only question is, why would you bother? Well ok, I understand why (alas, the legitimacy and politics of the claim that religion poisons everything must wait for another time). But, clearly your investigations of religion don’t teach you anything, and you’ve got nothing to teach others. (Plenty you feel the need to preach, however.)I’ve been fascinated by – no, gleeful about – the atheists’ responses to Alain de Botton’s recent book, Religion for Atheists. I’ve no doubt that de Botton knew full well that no dyed-in-the-wool atheist was going respond in any other way than to argue that any value or utility offered by religion can easily be recreated within an atheist community. I’m assured of this by the very first sentence of de Botton’s book which surely was intended to set off every atheist with a blog or facebook account:”The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.”But of course, you’re completely invested in that question, or rather your answer to it. And as long as that’s the case with you and the other atheists, I can’t really regard you as interlocutors, I have to regard you as anthropological subjects. The basic problem I face is, I just can’t seem to find my way over to an analysis appropriate to that disposition; the grander intellectual, moral, and existential problem I face is that I just can’t stop taking you to task for the shit that you continue spout without consequence, thus contradicting the very stance I need to take.

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