Review of Guy Harrison's "50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God"

Following is a slightly revised copy of a review I recently posted on for Guy P. Harrison's 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God.

I eventually intend to read and review Loftus' book also, but I've had a backlog of books in my queue and haven't yet gotten around to John's. I see value in both Loftus' and Harrison's approaches, the former being directed at a more sophisticated, apologetics-oriented audience and the latter at more of a popular, uninitiated audience.

Without further ado, here's my review of Harrison's book:

Reading Harrison's book was like a breath of fresh air--courteous and accessible yet effective and to the point. I appreciate his ability to level the playing field of all religions by referring to the "gods" of each using the same terms: Jesus, Allah, Shiva and Zeus are all "gods" worshipped by people in various cultures. Though apologists and sophisticated believers would likely look down on his non-scholarly style, it's a book I could give to my Christian friends and family without having to worry about their ability to process the theological jargon common to many works of this nature.

That's the upside. The downside of treating all religions as equals in the same book is that for certain believers (I think of my Christian friends who are well-versed in apologetics), the meager attention given to biblical prophecies and the Resurrection of Jesus will give them reason to dismiss the book as uninformed about a number of important reasons for believing. For example, Harrison discounts fulfilled biblical prophecies by saying the fulfillments are found in the same book (i.e., the Bible) as the prophecies, implying that same authors wrote both. Now, like Harrison, I do not accept the supernatural nature of biblical prophecies. However, it should be acknowledged that the Bible is not one but many books written over a period of many centuries. All scholars recognize that the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament were written centuries before Jesus' birth, so these prophecies cannot be dismissed using Harrison's approach. It's more likely that the New Testament authors invented details (or passed on details that developed through oral tradition) that made the events of Jesus' life appear to fulfill certain prophecies of the Old Testament.

Left out altogether was any mention of the events surrounding Jesus' Resurrection that convince millions of faithful Christians that something supernatural happened on Easter Sunday morning. This is a cornerstone of Christian apologetics for authors like William Lane Craig, N. T. Wright, and Frank Morrison. I understand it was probably left out because the book attempts to address all religions equally, but this omission will be perceived as a major oversight by many Christian readers.

One of the most powerful of Guy's arguments is his exposition of the well-documented inverse relationship between religiosity and societal health (measured by homicide rates, number of abortions, quality of healthcare, and prosperity) throughout the world. This revelation must be profoundly unsettling for believers who are convinced that the god of their religion is the wellspring of virtue. On the basis of my discussion with believers, the moral argument is appealed to perhaps more than any other to support religion. If this is taken away, it represents a major setback to the legitimacy of religious belief. Unfortunately many believers will respond, "Well, if you look at people who believe and practice their faith just like I do (e.g., those who read the Bible and pray daily with their family), you will find that divorce and crime rates are much lower than average for the population at large. Others may say they're Christians, but their failure to practice it like I do means they cannot be thrown into the same statistical pot as true believers." Much could be said to counter this sort of special pleading, but it's simply hard to pin down anyone with arguments like these. We can always hope that some proportion of Harrison's thoughtful religious readers will take his engaging arguments to heart without persistently exempting themselves from their force.

Don't let my small criticisms of the book discourage you from reading it. It deserves to be read by every believer of every stripe. It will serve as a gentle "jolt" to everyone who believes their religion is special.