Guy P. Harrison - 50 Reasons People Give For Believing In A God

August 1, 2008

Guy P. Harrison is a graduate of the University of South Florida with degrees in history and anthropology. He currently lives in the Cayman Islands, where he is a columnist and travel writer for a national newspaper. He has won several international awards for his writing and photography.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Guy P. Harrison talks about his new book 50 Reasons People Give For Believing In A God, and details such reasons for god-belief as the obviousness of God, "playing it safe," the fear of hell, that belief in gods brings genuine happiness and comforts, and the fact that so many people are religious. He explores similarities between the reasons people give for their belief in Western gods and Eastern gods, and also similarities between the reasons people give for belief in gods and in the paranormal.  He calls for a wider understanding of religion in general as an important first step in inculcating skepticism about religion. He argues that the reasons people proffer are often very different than the reasons theologians argue that people should believe. And he offers advice for what he thinks is the best approach for engaging believers on these matters of belief.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:


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Comments from the CFI Forums

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just blatantly telling people they’re wrong definitely has very little results - but to sew the seeds of doubt like this book does, that’s a great start - the gift of skepticism is really wonderful - i wanna get this book

Posted on Aug 02, 2008 at 9:11am by robotaholic Comment #1

I enjoyed his approach to arguing about God. I do often think that promoting secularism is very important and promoting atheism is just an added bonus.

I’m not exactly one for “bending over backwards to be polite” though. I generally try to listen to people’s beliefs respectfully so that I can understand their position. But when it comes to challenging them, the second I begin to question their beliefs they automatically get very defensive, angry, and generally unpleasant and it’s hard not to get snarky in response. A lot of people are just like that no matter how you approach them. Sometimes I wonder if religion is just another word for “something that gets people unreasonably riled up at the very mention of it”.

There is one other thing which I would like to take issue with. Obviously, arguments for atheism need to be understandable to the average person, but avoiding a tough argument just because it’s complex seems a bit like disrespecting the average person’s ability to understand things like natural selection or cultural relativism and why they are good ideas or bad ideas. Arguments need to be understandable, yes, but we shouldn’t shy away from it because it looks complex at first glance.

Hell, I’m fifteen. I haven’t completed my high school education yet. If I can understand these books I would hope that the average adult can too.

Posted on Aug 02, 2008 at 10:06pm by logicisrefreshing Comment #2

... But when it comes to challenging them, the second I begin to question their beliefs they automatically get very defensive, angry, and generally unpleasant and it’s hard not to get snarky in response. A lot of people are just like that no matter how you approach them. ...

That’s because their belief has no depth. If you wanted to say this football team or that singer or those dancers are talentless clods they would either agree or argue the point with facts but they have no facts to argue the point with when it comes to religion. Most Christians, for example, know almost nothing about their faith except for smatterings of bible stories they heard as children.

Posted on Aug 02, 2008 at 10:14pm by A Voice of Sanity Comment #3

Guy P. Harrison talks about his new book 50 Reasons People Give For Believing In A God, and details such reasons for god-belief as
the obviousness of God, “
playing it safe,”
the fear of hell,
that belief in gods brings genuine happiness and comforts, and
the fact that so many people are religious.

Good interview.
[ Nice Cover Design ]


[Here is a review at Friendly Atheist for the Harrison book]

I really think that it sounds worth getting.

Googling the author, I found this book will be the November selection for
[  www. religoius tolerance.org—Ontario consultants on religious tolerance]
Two curious things:
1. they note The title of this book is a little deceptive. The author presents reasons why people believe in a god and then critiques those reasons
2. The October selection has a similar title but is theism-promoting:
“20 Compelling Evidences That God Exists: Discover Why Believing In God Makes So Much Sense”
by Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M., Jr. Bowman

.

Posted on Aug 03, 2008 at 5:43pm by Jackson Comment #4

I thought Harrison had a really useful approach. I particularly like the fact that he recognizes people’s need for the comfort of belief may trump anything reason has to offer, and that that’s something we have to accept. If we can erode religious belief and offer other sources of comfort, and if we can diminish the spread and influence of the more virulent forms of religion, we may be accomplishing much.

Posted on Aug 04, 2008 at 10:56am by mckenzievmd Comment #5

The book sounds interesting, but it is unlikely most of the reasons believers give has anything to do with why they believe. People will readily justify their actions and beliefs with all manner of nonsense.

For example the “comfort” answer makes little sense when we consider that largely atheistic societies exist (like Sweden). Presumably, such people endure tragedy and adversity and yet somehow resist the comforts of the magical beyond.

Posted on Aug 08, 2008 at 11:15am by sate Comment #6

The book sounds interesting, but it is unlikely most of the reasons believers give has anything to do with why they believe. People will readily justify their actions and beliefs with all manner of nonsense.

I think most of the reasons will not be unexpected.

Posted on Aug 08, 2008 at 5:02pm by Jackson Comment #7

Very interesting podcast, but I have to agree with sate that the reasons people give are probably not the real reasons. I think it’s been pretty well established that we tend to make decisions and only then come up with rationalizations for them (rather than examining all arguments first).

I have my own list of the real reasons why people persist in believing in religion. It’s quite speculative, I know, but ...

1. People usually are indoctrinated in childhood. Children tend to believe what adults tell them, and those beliefs tend to persist a long time.
2. Repetition - you hear the same thing over and over and over again, and it’s hard not to believe it, especially if you hear no other viewpoint.
3. Confirmation bias. We tend to look for reasons to support our beliefs, not reasons against them.
4. Lack of serious engagement with the issues. How much effort do most people expend thinking seriously about religion? I think a look at church attendance statistics tells us “not very much”.
5. People want to believe in the prospect of life after death, with rewards.
6. There’s still an incredibly strong social and moral stigma attached to atheism.

The “It’s obvious” reason discussed in the podcast strikes me as a shorthand for the first three reasons. It’s clearly NOT obvious, otherwise there wouldn’t be so much disagreement. However, if you already believe and don’t consider other explanations for the world, then, yes, it seems obvious.

Posted on Aug 10, 2008 at 8:23pm by not completely useless Comment #8

The almost frantic speech and behavior of all of “God’s Warriors” of whatever belief is telling however. Clearly they don’t want to lose their crutch and are prepared to resort to violence if threatened. I can’t help but perceive this as a symptom of the end of religion.

Posted on Aug 10, 2008 at 9:56pm by A Voice of Sanity Comment #9

1. People usually are indoctrinated in childhood. Children tend to believe what adults tell them, and those beliefs tend to persist a long time.
2. Repetition - you hear the same thing over and over and over again, and it’s hard not to believe it, especially if you hear no other viewpoint.
3. Confirmation bias. We tend to look for reasons to support our beliefs, not reasons against them.
4. Lack of serious engagement with the issues. How much effort do most people expend thinking seriously about religion? I think a look at church attendance statistics tells us “not very much”.
5. People want to believe in the prospect of life after death, with rewards.
6. There’s still an incredibly strong social and moral stigma attached to atheism.

At Edge and elsewhere there are fascinating arguments that belief in religion is tied most strongly to economic factors at a nation level (not merely an individual one). Anyway my $.02 on your list.

1. I am American but have had the good fortune to live in Germany the past 2+ years. What I’ve discovered is that German children are forced to endure religious indoctrination in schools. I mean “bible study” in the sense of worship not scholarship. This happens from about 5th to 13th grade- not to worry both existing religions are an option: Catholic and Protestant. Also, most people pay tax to churches directly through the federal tax system. This is essentially an opt-out system but most people never bother. Most major political parties in Germany have the word Christian in them: Christian Democratic Union, Christian Social Union etc.., in spite of all of this, this Fundamentalist wet dream, religion is on life support here. It is clearly on the way out, and no one will mourn it. Where did the effect of indoctrination go? How is it our American assumptions about the needful separation of church and state seem so upside-down?

3, 4 & 6: These are not causes so much as effects. Why should there be a stigma about atheism (or anything)? Why should we have theistic beliefs to wrongheadedly defend in the first place? Why don’t we care about the issues you just said we were indoctrinated to believe? These effects are telling but probably are not in themselves causative.

5. How do you explain societies or broad subcultures who lack any kind of predominant religiosity? Do you assume these million people are terrified of death, but that million over there is not? Even if true (and it may very well be), it’s more of a mystery than an explanatory construct.

I think these are all fertile grounds for exploration but Harrison’s book is probably irrelevant to them. Not that that means its a bad book, just one with different aims and different but perhaps fascinating discussion.
cheers

Posted on Aug 15, 2008 at 2:08pm by sate Comment #10

... It is clearly on the way out, and no one will mourn it. Where did the effect of indoctrination go? How is it our American assumptions about the needful separation of church and state seem so upside-down? ...

Familiarity breeds contempt. When the state is in bed with the church, contempt for one leads to contempt for the other. Anti theism gives religions an importance they would not have without it. When the church is on the same level as the garbage collector, what respect is due either? In fact most would miss garbage collection sooner.

Posted on Aug 15, 2008 at 9:09pm by A Voice of Sanity Comment #11

The God Gene (LINK)

It turns out that spirituality seekers like myself probably carry—embedded in our DNA along with the gene that determines whether we can roll our tongues and all the others that make us not only human but unique individuals—a particular version of a gene called VMAT2. Genes come in different flavors, which is why all of us have colored irises but some are brown and others blue or green. The VMAT2 gene comes in two forms—one of which, it seems, makes people more likely to seek out transcendent experiences (Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia doesn’t count). Some call it the “God gene.”

51 reasons?

Posted on Aug 17, 2008 at 1:20am by A Voice of Sanity Comment #12

I think the most if not all the media stories with headlines like “[complex behavior] Gene Found!” can be safely ignored. They are generally a mix of sensationalistic journalism, dramatic oversimplification of science and cursory+unreplicated+highly speculative studies. For anyone to say any one gene is responsible for sexuality, politics, religion, or Iced tea preference is to admit to not understanding what genes are.
Not to say genes don’t matter, but that any one gene is a very small piece of a very big puzzle in matters of complex behavior.

Posted on Aug 17, 2008 at 5:59am by sate Comment #13

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Posted on Aug 17, 2008 at 6:57am by jholt Comment #14

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Posted on Aug 17, 2008 at 8:17am by jholt Comment #15

... But, Kristof does go beyond what he intends I believe by confusing the term ‘faith’ and what the evidence he presents may tell us.

A propensity to faith in some form appears to be embedded within us as a profound part of human existence, as inextricable and perhaps inexplicable as the way we love and laugh.

I’m not sure we can run to the word ‘faith’. But, as a more appropriate substitute (which I think is being said, but clumsily) would be to say some type of feeling of ‘spirituality’ and how that is interpreted by individuals, groups and society.

My own view is that humans are wired to pick one person as a leader, even in a group of two. There’s always a sergeant, a captain, a foreman, a spokesperson - we have an incredible number of words for this role. Religion is just us projecting this from the visible and imperfect to the invisible and perfect - but non existent. Even popes, kings, mikados and emperors are not perfect - the invisible man in the sky may be believed to be (although the evidence says he is not).

Posted on Aug 17, 2008 at 9:57am by A Voice of Sanity Comment #16

I’m actually a fan of EP and am greatly intruigued by the new field of behavioral genetics. My problem with a book like The God Gene (which I have not read) is that I do not think humans are innately religious.
People are innately sexual, for example. At puberty every healthy human will start to assert some sort of sexuality regardless of what they know or don’t know, regardless of what they are exposed to or are not.
People who are born into a secular society/family rarely (though assuredly sometimes) start becoming religious. They usually stay nontheistic and left alone will not understand another person’s religious “need” to believe.

I think there are reasons why most societies are or were religious ones and that those reasons are even rooted in biology but the root is not an A-to-B need for God or magic. It is more like optical illusions. To ask if there is a gene for optical illusions would be absurd. Religion could be a by-product of naturally selected machinery that is actually useful even if the by-product is not.

The fact that over time and social progress societies are becoming less and less religious supports this view. Cognitive illusions like optical ones, do not fool us forever.

Posted on Aug 17, 2008 at 11:08am by sate Comment #17

Well said, sate. The only quibble I have is that, sadly, I think cognitive illusions likely will fool us (collectively, as a species) forever. They are, presumably, based in our biology as much as optical illusions, and while there is unlikely to be “a gene” for them, there is likely to be a fundamental structural or functional feature of our brains that predisposes us to them, and that makes it hard to envision ever entirely overcoming them, as does any study of history.

Posted on Aug 17, 2008 at 11:28am by mckenzievmd Comment #18

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Posted on Aug 17, 2008 at 4:53pm by jholt Comment #19

Well said, sate. The only quibble I have is that, sadly, I think cognitive illusions likely will fool us (collectively, as a species) forever. They are, presumably, based in our biology as much as optical illusions, and while there is unlikely to be “a gene” for them, there is likely to be a fundamental structural or functional feature of our brains that predisposes us to them, and that makes it hard to envision ever entirely overcoming them, as does any study of history.

Thank you Mckenziemd. I look at history and see precisely the opposite. I think the demise of wide-scale religiosity is certain. Well, certain presuming trends of the last few thousand years continue (trends toward literacy, economic growth, political equality).
Our biology might predispose us to religiosity but only under certain conditions. Consider two Christians meet. One is from 1563 and knows that blasphemy is a capital offense, that demons inhabit people and witches must sometimes be burned. The other from today who could not name 3 different books from their bible if their life depended upon it. Both typical of their society and time. Numbers of adherents to faith are measured but what is meant by “adherent” almost never is.

Also I propose a challenge: name me any society on Earth with high literacy/education, robust economy, and relative sociopolitical equality in which religion is a dominating force. (btw: no points for saying America. By the standards of the truly “religious” societies, our religion is laughable and impotent)

Posted on Aug 18, 2008 at 12:49pm by sate Comment #20

sate,

I agree that religion exerts considerably less direct control over political institutions in the developed world than it once did here and still does elsewhere, but I’m still not as optimistic about the decline in religiosity as you are. I think people have learned to accept the findings of science in practical, everyday matters and yet completely suspend reason and skepticism when it comes to the myths they’ve learned as children. Religion may occupy a smaller role in the economy and government and in how people spend their daily lives today as compared with the Middle Ages, but it still has deep meaning for many people, and defines their sense of purpose and identity. It still influences policy very directly (c.f. the “culture war” issues). And even apart from religion, the same general mistakes of thought that support religious belief support a vibrant and virulent acceptance of unscientific believes in medicine (the domain I struggle most directly against it) and other areas of life. And let’s not forget that more deirect religious control of science, political life, and daily life is still widespread in much of the world outside the developed West.

Have you had a chance to read Thomas Kida’s Don’t Believe Everything You Think or some of the other recent books on how our brains fool us? I think the evidence is strong that for all the real progress in knowledge and reason, we are still very irrational creatures by nature, and the most “progressive” of us (in the sense of leaving superstition and cognitive illusions behind) are still more in the grip of faulty, irrational ways of thinking than we care to admit. Of course, I don’t think the situation is hopeless, since progress does occur. But I think we have to be careful not to underestimate the pervasiveness of the behavioral mechanisms that lead to relgiion and other forms of illusion, and I am not sanguine that these will ever go away. Hopefully, they can be marginalized at least.

Posted on Aug 18, 2008 at 1:26pm by mckenzievmd Comment #21

sate,

I agree that religion exerts considerably less direct control over political institutions in the developed world than it once did here and still does elsewhere, but I’m still not as optimistic about the decline in religiosity as you are. I think people have learned to accept the findings of science in practical, everyday matters and yet completely suspend reason and skepticism when it comes to the myths they’ve learned as children. Religion may occupy a smaller role in the economy and government and in how people spend their daily lives today as compared with the Middle Ages, but it still has deep meaning for many people, and defines their sense of purpose and identity. It still influences policy very directly (c.f. the “culture war” issues). And even apart from religion, the same general mistakes of thought that support religious belief support a vibrant and virulent acceptance of unscientific believes in medicine (the domain I struggle most directly against it) and other areas of life. And let’s not forget that more deirect religious control of science, political life, and daily life is still widespread in much of the world outside the developed West.

Have you had a chance to read Thomas Kida’s Don’t Believe Everything You Think or some of the other recent books on how our brains fool us? I think the evidence is strong that for all the real progress in knowledge and reason, we are still very irrational creatures by nature, and the most “progressive” of us (in the sense of leaving superstition and cognitive illusions behind) are still more in the grip of faulty, irrational ways of thinking than we care to admit. Of course, I don’t think the situation is hopeless, since progress does occur. But I think we have to be careful not to underestimate the pervasiveness of the behavioral mechanisms that lead to relgiion and other forms of illusion, and I am not sanguine that these will ever go away. Hopefully, they can be marginalized at least.

Hey Mckenzie. I will submit to readily to built-in frailties of the human pysche.. capacity for self-deception and the astoundingly awful proliferation of psuedo science but then the topic on the table is religion. I recall Penn Gilette saying that progress is like a graph of the stock market. Any one segment.. any one day it goes up or down seemingly at random.. but stand back and look at 100 years and there is no mistaking the direction (even including the great depression). Stand back and look at all recorded human history on one graph and there is no mistaking the direction religion is heading. It would require magical intervention indeed to reverse all the factors that have driven it that direction for thousands of years. Progress hasn’t simply been made, progress has been stark and in the big picture, unstoppable. The fact that it has not been instant and reached every corner of the globe is not an argument to the contrary. In fact I would argue the fact that atheism is tied so closely to economic and political growth, that religion dominates poor/autocratic nations proves the point rather well. The number of autocratic nations has fallen over time and the trend is unlikely to cease.

The only evidence that would convince me otherwise would be widescale reversals such as a Nation-state reverting to chiefdom, chiefdom reverting to feudal system or tribal groups etc.., This sort of thing of course is sometimes observed, but these occurences are like an occasional Black Monday on the market. A drop in the proverbial bucket of nations and time.

Religion, superstition and other awful ideas will never be 100% gone but certainly religion will one day enjoy the same population ratio that the Flat-Earth society now enjoys (which by the way, also once dominated thought).

Posted on Aug 18, 2008 at 2:44pm by sate Comment #22

As a believer, i found this book to be best on the questions regarding God or Gods because a lot of the reasons that people gave were some the responses that i would give. It’s different than books by Hitchens, Dawkins, or Harris by looking first through the eyes of a believer. Some people who have faith will never be convinced that there might not be a god. But i think this book does the best job in looking at faith and might give believers some doubt or skepticism. Most believers will probably not pick up this book which is a shame. Questioning your beliefs will do two things, either strengthen your faith, or change it completely. I would recommend this book to everyone, but most importantly people of all faiths.

Posted on Sep 10, 2008 at 10:11am by beliefdoubt Comment #23