Harrison on Religon

Tom Shipka

After years of interviewing hundreds of believers of more than a dozen religions around the world, Guy P. Harrison has written a book entitled 50 reasons people give for believing in a god (1) in which he strives to be a kinder and gentler religious skeptic than the so-called "new atheists." (2) Harrison writes:

This (book) is a respectful reply to the friendly people around the world who shared with me their reasons for believing... My fifty replies to common justifications for belief can be read as friendly chats designed to do nothing more than stimulate critical thinking. (p. 14)

Let's take a look at three of the reasons which believers gave Harrison and his replies.

Firstly, believers say, it is obvious that god exists. After all, god is everywhere, god made everything, god answers prayers, and god runs the universe. But how can god's existence be so obvious, Harrison asks, when you consider that between 500 million and 750 million people on our planet are non-believers and that 93% of the elite scientists in the United States are non-believers? And how do you explain that beliefs about god in the two largest religions – Christianity and Islam – contradict one another? Christians insist that Jesus is god and the Bible is god's revelation while Muslims insist that Allah is god and the Koran is god's revelation. (3) (pp. 17-22)

Secondly, believers claim that "Society would fall apart without religion." (p. 295) If this is true, Harrison replies, then we would expect to find the least religious nations to be "bastions of crime, poverty and disease" and the most religious ones to be "models of societal health" but this isn't the case. He cites reports by the United Nations and research by social scientists which show that indicators of societal health are highest in the least religious nations and lowest in the most religious ones. The most secular nations – Sweden, Norway, Australia, the Netherlands, and Canada – lead the world in life expectancy, adult literacy, per-capita income, educational attainment, and the status of women, and have the lowest rates of homicides, AIDS, and HIV. By contrast, the worst performing nations on these same indicators are among the most religious ones. (pp. 295-301)

Thirdly, believers say that the age of their religion is evidence of its merit. "A lie or a mistake," they declare, "could not have endured for so long." (p. 303) The problem with this justification, Harrison argues, is that many religions are old and many are not. If age is pivotal, he notes, we should all be Hindus because Hinduism is at least 6,000 years old and has roots in prehistory, and we should abandon "relatively young religions" such as Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, and Scientology. (pp. 303-307)

During his travels and interviews, Harrison made important discoveries. One is that, when it comes to religion, comparison shopping is non-existent. Nearly all believers follow the religion of their parents and their geographical region. Another is that most followers of a given religion have little or no knowledge of other religions. (4)

It remains to be seen whether Harrison's 50 reasons will spur the self-assessment and critical thinking that he hopes for in religious circles. That aside, the book is a helpful and informative guide to the deeply felt convictions of believers around the world and one observer's measured response to them.


  1.  Prometheus Books, 2008, p. 14. Future references to this book are by page number.
  2. The "new atheists" include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Many readers, both religious and non-religious, have judged their work to be arrogant, dismissive, and insulting. For instance, see John F. Haught, God and the New Atheism, Westminister John Knox Press, 2008, and Chris Hedges, I Don't Believe in Atheists, Free Press, 2008.
  3. Harrison also notes that half the world's population rejects both Jesus and Allah.
  4. Harrison also mentions a third, namely, most believers rely on faith and have little interest in formulating or evaluating arguments. (p. 13)

© 2012 Tom Shipka