ReligionSkepticism

Why the world needed another book about atheism

Author Guy P. Harrison has written such a wonderful guest post about his book, which is now available at Amazon and in bookstores, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, I have nothing to add. I admire his attitude, and I hope you all have or will read this book. Enjoy and discuss! 


Why the world needed another book about atheism

Guy P. Harrison shares the motivations and hopes behind his new book, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God (Prometheus)

As a traveler I have discussed belief in gods with people on six continents. As a journalist I have interviewed a rich variety of fascinating people and many times religion came up. Guess what? I rarely heard the sort of chatter that goes back and forth between theologians, scientists, philosophers and prominent religious leaders. Down in the trenches of real humanity it’s different. Believers don’t talk much about St. Thomas Aquinas, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or Kalam’s cosmological argument. No, the vast majority of the people I spoke with—from India to Africa, from South America to Australia, from France to Fiji—are not concerned with long-dead philosophers and convoluted physics equations. They believe in a god or gods because their parents told them to and their parents would never lead them astray. They believe because their god makes them happy, because everybody else believes, because the world is so beautiful, because they are afraid of hell, because they want to be good, and so on. 

I feel that nonbelievers overlook these reasons too often. Many of these justifications may seem simplistic and easy to refute, but the fact is they continue to work for hundreds of millions of people around the world in a variety of belief systems. Perhaps if nonbelievers who wish to promote reason, appreciation for science and constructive skepticism would pay more attention to answering these reasons we could do a better job of connecting and communicating with the majority of believers. 

My new book, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, is designed to do just this. 

Each chapter is a reason for belief that I heard repeatedly from many believers in many places. I respectfully listened to the world’s believers about why they believe and then responded to what they said, not as a debating rival or as a superior intellect, but as nothing more than a fellow human sharing his thoughts on an important matter. The consistently polite and respectful tone of this book defuses the most common defensive reflex from believers when confronted with ideas that challenge the existence of their gods. They replay the usual condemnation: “This is the angry rant of a bitter atheist who is more dogmatic and closed minded than any religious person I know.” 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God is exceedingly polite. I want readers to be thinking about my ideas in the book, not how mean or arrogant my tone is. I make it clear that I am challenging their reasons for belief, not them personally. 

This book is not a declaration that no gods exist. I have no such conclusive proof so I don’t make the claim. Over the last several thousand years our species has claimed the existence of more than a million gods. Who am I to know that one or more of them can’t be hiding under a rock some in the universe? I only point out that the most popular reasons people give for believing in them don’t hold up under scrutiny. I am not trying to convert anyone or destroy anyone’s religion. I simply encourage people to think for themselves and question their beliefs. My goal is to spread reason and stir up doubt. So long as people continue to hate, kill and fight scientific progress in the name of gods, we will need more doubt. I don’t care if religious people continue to believe in their gods after reading my book. I don’t care if they keep going to churches, mosques and temples. My goal is to erode just enough of their confidence in the existence of gods to make them hesitate before doing harm to themselves, to others and to the world. 

Feedback has been exceptionally positive to date. Nonbelievers have praised the book for its positive tone and fresh approach. Christians, Hindus and Muslims have contacted me to say that they enjoyed the book and were left with much to think about. It has been reassuring to see that believers (so far) are not reacting with anger and contempt. It is a delicate dance to try and dismantle reasons for belief without leaving the believer feeling insulted or attacked but 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God seems to be doing it. 

There is plenty in the book to interest nonbelievers as well. For example, I recommend a move away from arguments and debates over the gods issue. Arguments and debates do not work. Belief in a god tends to be too emotional and too closely tied to one’s identity to be taken down by a tense verbal thrashing. I advise nonbelievers to engage in friendly conversations with believers. Don’t blast them with facts and arguments in an attempt to pummel them into submission. Instead, ask them questions—and make the effort to actually listen to the answers. Ask for specifics on why they believe. Ask them to cite the best fulfilled prophecy, the single-most impressive archaeological discovery, the top miracle, and so on. Politely point out gaps in their logic. Explain to them why you are not convinced their god exists and compare this to their own skepticism toward other gods. Don’t make them defend their belief; make them think about their belief. 

I also stress that nonbelievers must avoid falling into the trap of feeling intellectually superior to believers. I know, it’s hard not to with people who say with a straight face that the Earth is 10,000 years old, for example, but it’s still not an assumption one should make. For example, Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, believes Jesus is a real god and everything in the universe traces its origin to divine magic. Coming to these extraordinary conclusions despite the absence of evidence doesn’t mean he is not intelligent. His problem is consistency, not a low IQ. Collins simply has not applied his brain power to a select group of religious claims the same way he has when it comes to his profession. I remind nonbelievers that we tend to be the ones who openly admit to having no definitive answers to the really big questions. We do not know for certain where we come from, if we are alone in the universe, and what if anything happens to us when we die. We must be humble given all that we do not know and do not pretend to know. We may be more sensible when it comes to religious claims but do not forget that belief is only one arena of an individual’s life; there are many others. 

I have a personal motto I always try to keep in mind when interacting with believers, especially stubborn fundamentalists. It’s a blatant rip off of a popular Christian saying but it works for me. They say, “Hate the sin but love the sinner.” Well, I try my best to, “Hate the irrational belief but love the irrational believer.”

50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God is not a doctoral thesis on why gods are unlikely to exist. It is not a nuclear attack on cherished temples of belief. This book is a gentle message that says the gods deserve more analysis and skepticism. This is my humble contribution to the world I care about, a world that continues to be burdened and bloodied by the dark side of religious belief. 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God offers something positive and unique because this is the book nonbelievers can confidently give to religious friends and family members without fear of confusing or offending. This book is atheism without the attitude, a friendly and welcoming bridge to freethought and reason. 

Guy P. Harrison is a newspaper columnist and science/history lecturer for a Cayman Islands school. 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God is published by Prometheus Books. Guy currently is writing a book about human biological diversity. It is scheduled for publication in 2009.

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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8 Comments

  1. Like all of the “atheism” books this doesn’t look like it has anything to say about atheist just against theism.

    I just have no interest in this shallow genre.

    One of these atheist book writers should take a cue from this guy:

  2. I like the idea of connecting with the people he’s talking to. These sorts of superstitions will pass just as many other mistaken ideas about the world have passed. But it takes time, maybe many more generations of humans, before it would naturally go away and in the meantime I’d much rather be friendly and find a way to understand each other. That way we can all play together instead of fighting all the time, which is really boring.

  3. I think, drockwood, that a book on atheism would be short. I could write a book on atheism and publish it on a sticky note.

    “Atheists do not believe in a god.

    fin”

    I do agree, however, that a book on Humanism or secularism could be interesting.

    I’m looking forward to reading this book.

  4. Now, Writerdd, I hope you will continue to contribute these kinds of posts–about interesting/provocative books. It’s not the *same* as the usual tenor of the site, but so much the better. [Not that there’s anything *wrong* with the usual tenor. But you kick up a notch when you do this.] And it’s awesome when you bring the author in for the introduction and discussion. How cool is that?

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