50 reasons for not believing guy harrison’s book
By Arron Bergeron
A couple of years ago I picked up a copy of Guy Harrison’ book “50 reasons people give for believing in a god”. After thumbing through it, it has been sitting on a shelf collecting dust. I just didn’t have the time then to dig into it as deeply as I wanted. I thought recently I would dust it off. The more I read the more I discovered that the dust didn’t come from sitting on a shelf. Instead it is the stale dust of the same old arguments, assumptions and rhetoric from those who wish to disprove the existence of the divine. This introduction is meant to be the first in a series answering common objections to the Christian faith using Harrison's book as a template.
An Attempt at Fairness
The title “50 Reasons…” is pretty self-explanatory. It was written to provide some thought provoking counter arguments and commentary on the reasons people give for believing in whatever deity they have chosen to worship. In it Harrison attempts to be fair in addressing all forms of theism equally. From an atheist standpoint I can grant this might make sense. At the same time grouping today’s living religions, especially Christianity, under the same umbrella as other forms of theism long dead for many centuries is equivocating unfairly. It denies or ignores the fact Christianity is not divorceable from historical events, while faith in the gods of ancient Greece, for example, was clearly based upon unverifiable mythology.
It is also clear in places Harrison's main target is Christianity. This shouldn’t bother the Christian reader. I don’t fault him, nor would I even assume this is intentional. There are two reasons for this. First, I personally know of no other religion which has produced philosophers and theologians who have made such a concentrated effort to prove out the existence of God so rigorously. Harrison unintentionally tips his hat…
“Today a high school student with a fair understanding of religious claims and a good science education can defeat, or at least cast crippling doubt on, every argument for a god ever posed by the greatest religious minds of history. This is not to say that Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, and all the others were dumber than a high school kid.”1
All of the greatest religious minds Harrison listed are Christian. Secondly, it is most likely due to the cultural context in which Harrison has been immersed, and therefore the most prominent form of theism he would have contact with. It is only fair to give him the benefit of the doubt.
In a greater attempt at fairness, there is some common ground I believe we share. Harrison states no worldview should be closed to questioning2. I agree. In the scriptures we Christians are commanded to love God with our entire mind3 , to test all things and cling to what is good4 . It is unfortunate, but Harrison is right in assessing that a good many believers of every stripe are quick to be critical of other belief systems, while shutting the door at questioning their own. The Bible is the central authoritative text for the Christian and denounces this idea as part of Christian practice. Any believer behaving in such a manner should bear a measure of guilt.
My experience, on the other hand, is that no worldview is immune to this lack of questioning one’s own beliefs. In spades this includes the atheist and skeptic community. The overall tenor of 50 reasons exemplifies this truth. Example after example of unqualified and unjustified presupposition and proposition fill the pages. I will deal with many of them in subsequent writing pertaining to this book. For now, I start with just a couple essentials as a preliminary.
Unfounded Value Judgments
“If a significant portion of the species insists on discriminating, hating, killing, and slowing scientific progress in the name of 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?”5
“Many people think 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.”6
Who wouldn’t agree? But what has Harrison just done? He has made a moral judgment against specific actions attributed to religion. The question then must be asked of Harrison, and atheists, what frame of reference is used to discriminate between what is “good religion” and what is not? Why it is wrong to hate? Why is it wrong to kill? Atheists can believe these truths if they choose to. There are even some atheists who are better champions of what is right then some theists. No contest. But what foundation do the atheists have for calling these things evil? On a Monday the skeptic community says there is no absolute right or wrong. On a Tuesday they argue, irrationally, God cannot exist because there is so much evil. Then on Wednesday they choose to champion women’s rights and children’s education. Finally, on Thursday they are resolute in their conviction it is okay to kill baby girls in the womb. This makes no sense on the non-believers view. This makes no sense on the non-believers view. Chance chemical reactions do not and cannot produce moral duties and responsibilities. Further based upon evolutionary principles, which is the only game in town for the atheist, people are not culpable for wrong doing, because they are predetermined by those same chemical reactions. Maybe the minority acting out of the boundaries of socially accepted ethical behavior is displaying the first signs of further moral evolution. Or perhaps they just haven’t caught up yet. This objection has been noted and repeated many times over. I have to wonder if Harrison and those who think like him realize that this is a blind spot in their faith and it is being ignored. This has already derailed his train. Perhaps it is time to get off.
In addition, if Harrison wants to use these dangers to justify the authoring of his book, what of the atrocities committed at the hands of secular idealism running unchecked? On more than one occasion, in more than one debate, perpetrators like Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, and Pol Pot have rightly been cited as examples of the dangers of atheist ideals. A simple web search of those death toll statistics is available to any and all that wish to take even a minimal amount of time to search them out. In comparison to Christianity, those were logical out workings of the beliefs, whereas the rule of Christ can never be said to lead logically to those same ends.
The Christian theist believes science is a tool to be used to understand the universe God has created; it is an attempt to think God’s thoughts after Him. Theists believe God is the source of all the answers we seek regarding life’ meaning, origin, morality, and ultimate destiny. The underlying need to search out these answers is another part of what I personally believe is mans incurably religious bent.
Common among skeptics and atheists is the propensity to deify science. The consensus is if science hasn’t given us the answers yet, it will when we understand it better. We must trust science even when it hasn’t given us the answers yet. At present, I can think of no better example of public assent to this faith then atheist Peter Atkins…
“To what can it be applied and what are its limitations? I consider that there is nothing that it cannot illuminate. Because the scientific method has not yet encountered a barrier, except the one asserted to exist by the fearful of its illumination, my optimism leads me to suppose that the reach of its beam is boundless and in particular that it can replace (or even conceivably confirm) the myths that surround all the great questions of being.”7
“My own faith, my scientific faith, is that there is nothing that the scientific method cannot illuminate and elucidate.”8
In contrast to Christian theism, science for the atheist becomes the ultimate revealer and illuminator. Science is omniscient in that, so long as we are listening, it will yield all answers. Any failures in this pursuit, any corrections needed, are purely the fault of the interpreters of what science has brought to our tables. Science is unlimited, and boundless. In “Science” we must place our faith.
Harrison displays a measure of this faith in 50 reasons. Take note, slowing scientific progress and negatively impacting it is clearly delineated as offensive and morally evil. The only evidence for God which Harrison will accept must be empirical in nature; “How is an invisible silent god (at least to most of us) obviously real?”9 “I couldn’t turn away from any unusual discovery- even a god- if I tried. I would never deny scientific confirmation of a god… If the world’s scientific community presented overwhelming evidence that Fidi Mukullu or any other god was real, I would hang my head in shame for having been an atheist.”10 Harrison, like many atheists, has set up the scientific method as an ultimate standard for determining truth. Science dictates if God is real, and science reveals His attributes instead of God revealing them Himself. The scientists become the high priests acting as mediators and administrators of all truth.
A thinking person should be able to recognize a few fundamental errors in this understanding of reality. The following are three such errors.
First on my list is already hinted at by Peter Atkins. The scientific method must be believed a priori, that is, it must be trusted as foundational and authoritative by faith and faith alone. The scientific method cannot validate itself; it is not self-evident like the laws of logic. The scientific method as the ultimate standard for determining reality fails its own test.
Secondly, the scientific method is completely without foundation in a purely material universe, and therefore is completely unjustified as a viable tool for knowing. If blind meaningless chance is what started this universe, then there is no good reason to suggest or trust we can form solid generalizations about what we are seeing. To do so assumes too much. It assumes we can ask meaningful questions of the universe and receive meaningful answers, but how is that possible when every part of this universe is ultimately meaningless. It assumes sense data is reliable, which also depends on minds adequately capable of reasoning about and interpreting the data. That assumption is nothing more than the byproduct of meaningless chemical reactions in the brain. Materialism applied to reason undermines it completely. This brand of scientism lastly assumes there are no immaterial realities, but what about numbers? What about mathematical truths? What about the laws of logic? What about ideas, like equality, fairness, justice, or beauty?
Thirdly, science can never tell us how anything ought to be. It is a complete step outside the boundaries of scientific capability, a boundary which isn’t supposed to exist according to Atkins. The scientific method depends upon making observations, and drawing conclusions from those observations. At best, science is descriptive. However, moving from describing how things are to how things ought to be is not justified. That step moves beyond science. Stated clearly, science is descriptive, not prescriptive. This perfect example of why science cannot dictate morality. These reasons all serve to cast a net of darkness over the whole scientific pursuit.
In the introduction Harrison writes…
“I also discovered that if you ask the believers on the streets… the answers you hear are significantly different from the noise coming from the theologians and religious philosophers”11
“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 professional creationists and apologists, most of the believers I talk to do not feel the need to cite long lists of questionable evidence to attempt to prove that their god is real."12
Elsewhere he writes…
“Today a high school student with a fair understanding of religious claims and a good science education can defeat, or at least cast crippling doubt on, every argument for a god ever posed by the greatest religious minds of history. This is not to say that Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, and all the others were dumber than a high school kid. It just shows that there is a severe lack of ammunition when it comes to defending the claim that gods are real.”13
It is clear from even a peripheral reading that Harrison has heard a good deal of argumentation and apologetic for belief. So, beyond protecting the world from religiously motivated evil, why write such a book?
“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… 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.”14
In Harrison’s view the brightest philosophical and theological minds today are merely making noise. Some of the brightest in history are failures in their fields, and supposedly have not erected even one good argument for God. Even the average high school student today can apparently demonstrate this supposed fact. Don’t forget, there is no condescending implication that theism is dumb? It is all just friendly, sincerely?
If the “noise” is so easy to dismiss, and the “severe lack of ammunition” is so blatant, I have to wonder, in part, why this book doesn’t tackle those arguments and instead aims at the street level. There is some validity to the approach, but clearly an educated journalist is more capable then an average high school student. My personal experience is I have rarely had any atheist actually tell me why the arguments are so weak instead of simply dismissing them. I get the picture in my mind from the Wizard of Oz; “Just ignore the man behind the curtain!” If one wishes to dismiss or ignore, or even hide from the scholarly work in support of theism, it will still be there at the end of the day. I’m not fooled, and no one else should be either. The above quotes demonstrate more than a common thread of dismissal of the arguments, but also an arrogant gusto precipitating an epic failure succeeding in the task this book set out to accomplish.
Notes and References
1. Guy Harrison, “50 reasons people give for believing in a god”, Prometheus books, 2008, pg 18.
2. “Believing”, pg. 15
3. Mark 12:29
4. 1 Thessalonians 5:21
5. 50 Reasons, pg. 18.
6. Ibid, pg 15
7. Peter Atkins; On Being: A Scientist's Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence. Oxford university press, 2011, prologue Pgs. IX and X
8. Ibid, pg 104
9. 50 Reasons, pg19
11. 50 Reasons, pg13
12. Ibid, pg13
13. Ibid, pg20
14. Ibid, pg14