This is point of inquiry for Friday, August 1st, 2008.
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This week, we have Guy P Harrison on the show. He is a graduate of the University of South Florida with degrees in history and anthropology. He’s a columnist and travel writer for a national newspaper, and he’s won several international awards for his writing and photography. He’s going to talk with me about his new book, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God. He joins me on the phone from the Cayman Islands. Welcome to Point of Inquiry.
Guy Harrison, thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be on your show.
Guy, I love this book. 50 Reasons People Give for believing in a God. It’s different than a lot of these other books out there criticizing God belief. You’re actually just listening to people about why they say they believe in God. Tell me why you explored the question of belief in this way rather than just writing a screed against God belief.
Yeah, well, there’s two reasons, really. One. It’s not my personality to just want to beat somebody over the head with my personal perspective on the world or the universe. So I thought, you know, this is something the world needs. I mean, I might feel a little arrogant, but I really thought there was a need for a book that just bent over backwards to be polite and respectful to believers and say, you know, hey, I don’t really care what you believe. I don’t care what goes on in your head. But, you know, please, let’s just stop, pause and think a little bit more about this claim that all these different gods are real, OK? Because if we think about it. And you really get down to it. There are no good reasons to be absolutely confident that any particular God is real.
Well, a guy that claim that you just made. Seems like you’re trying to argue people out of their beliefs.
No, I’m not. I’m really not. If something about their religious belief is so important to them, they need to keep it. That is absolutely cool. That’s fine. No problem. But I think by reading this book, any believer is going to walk away, hopefully with their belief, at least a road it just enough. So they’re not going to be confident enough to hate somebody, to want to kill somebody, to want to reject science nerd, discriminate against people, that kind of stuff, because, OK, maybe it won’t cancel out your belief in their head, but it’s certainly going to chip away at it a bit because I’ve made these arguments so simple and so easy to read and so polite and respectful. They can’t imagine believers just easily dismissing this book is all this is just some arrogant atheist jerk who wants me to, you know, get rid of the source of all morality or something that, you know, because, I mean, it’s pretty thorough. I think I’ve covered all the bases. I know. So far, the reactions and good actually from believers. I’ve actually had a lot of Christians so far. I haven’t heard from any other religions, but Christians have said, you know, hey, I’m still a believer, but you have given me so much to think. And and I could tell they weren’t pissed off by the book. So I was really pleased.
I want to get into the reaction from the believing community and a bit a bit more. But before we get into the reasons people give you. Tell me where you got these answers from. Was it just informally or you trip? You’ve traveled extensively.
Yeah, I’ve traveled a lot. I mean, some for pleasure, some for business. I’m a journalist for 20 years and I’ve always had a fascination for religion. I mean, I’m a student of anthropology at university and have continued without interest always. So everywhere I go, I’ve always asked people just in conversation about their religious beliefs. I’m just fascinated with it. And so it just dawned on me years ago that what is amazing is that regardless of the religion, regardless of the country, whether you’re in, you know, India, Africa, Canada, when you talk about religion of people, whether they’re Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, whatever, the same kind of reasons for belief come up. And that’s fascinating to me because you have Hindu saying, well, I believe in all of these gods because they’re obvious because the world is so beautiful, because the universe is perfectly tuned for life and the same kinds of reasons that you get from Christians. Yeah, exactly. And that really fascinated me. And I thought, well, you know, if you address these reasons, you’re kind of you know, you just taken on religion as a whole, as a global concept, which is why people should do really. And also, I thought it was important a lot of books that are critical of religious belief. They assume a lot. They say, well, these people believe in their God because they are uneducated, they’re weak or something like that. Well, I didn’t I didn’t take that position at all. I actually listen to the believers. I mean, I you know, I’m showing them respect. I’m saying, why do you believe in whatever the answers are? That’s what we’ll talk about. That’s how I approached it. So given up 50 reasons that I think people believe in God, these are what believers themselves actually say around the world in various religions.
One thing I get out of your book is that the reasons people are giving you, the reasons you’re reporting on in this book are actually really different than the reasons theologians or religious thinkers say that believers should believe in God.
Exactly. That is something that blows my mind because most books about religion, regardless perspective, they you know, first of all, a lot of them tend to be really heavy with the philosophical jargon and science and all this stuff, which turns off a huge percentage of the world’s population right there, unfortunately. But that’s true. And a typical theologian or a typical atheist who’s writing a book about religious belief. They get bogged down in these really, really complicated and just these extrapolated ideas that are so far from what’s going on down in the trenches of real humanity. You know, when you when you stop a day and you’re having a chat, you know, a Mumbai or in Fiji or in Papua New Guinea or something, they don’t bring up all these things comes acquaintance and all this stuff. They don’t care. They maybe they haven’t heard of it. They believe for the reasons I’ve put in this book. This is why they actually they believe because their parents taught them. And they’ll say that, you know, my parents wouldn’t lie to me. They told me this God is real. What do you mean it’s not? You know that. They’ll say, well, look, I have this book here, this ancient book. It’s full of full of wisdom. That’s why they believe there are very few people are really, really concerned much about the complex kind of arguments that go back and forth between these atheists and theologians and all that stuff like that. That stuff’s not important. I mean, I completely I think that kind of discourse has to go on. That’s important, too. But more attention needs to be paid for the actual reasons that people believe in these guys.
The reason they’ve always believed that I’m from, you know, throughout history, before we get into some of the 50 reasons that you listen in the book, you you’re only focusing on the popular religions in the West. Is that because the reasons people give for believing in Eastern gods are different than those were given the West?
No, actually, I disagree with that. The reasons I’ve got a lot of them are hurt. You’ll get them from Hindu’s. This is not specifically about Christianity or Islam or anything. So this is this is Goldwasser’s where I talked to I mean, I haven’t trying to think unfortunately, I do not have examples of talking to, say, an animist, you know, who lives in rural, you know, somewhere in South America or something. But but these are not specific to any religion. In fact, if you noticed throughout the book, I constantly refer to a god or gods. I refer to gods, that kind of thing. I’m trying not to be specific to one religion and also not even time wise, you know, deject if I think too. Too often we hear in the early days of the 21st century, we get completely, especially on this side of the world, we get completely bogged down in this concept of one God. And even atheists are completely guilty of this. If you look at all the books and articles and discourse that goes on, it’s almost always a discussion about God, uppercase, g, singular, talking about, you know, your way, Ullo, Jesus. And why is that? Why no one ever disproved of thousands and thousands of God who are worshiped by very smart people long ago. And nobody’s certainly disproved the hundreds and hundreds of Hindu gods at all today. Nobody just proved all the spirits that are worshiped by people in Africa and South America today.
If it’s not a form of ignorance that you could almost say at worst, it’s like ethnocentrism or even maybe racism. I mean, why why are the people who don’t believe in Yahi ologies is just dismissed. And why do atheists play along with that game? Jim Underdown.
So when you say that no one’s disproved the belief in spirits and in sub-Saharan Africa or something like that, you’re not you’re not saying it hasn’t been disproven. You’re saying people haven’t made that a project. They’re only focusing on the Judeo Islama Christian concept of God here.
Personally, I don’t believe any God can be disproven. I don’t think they can. I mean, may surprise some people, but I as an atheist, do not discount the possibility that any gods are real. I mean, maybe some are real. Maybe one is real. I have no idea. I don’t think they are. There’s a complete lack of evidence. Good argument. But it’s I’m open to the possibility. You know, the universe is a huge place.
You don’t have a strong claim that God doesn’t exist. You just lack belief that he does.
Exactly. Exactly. In my view, that’s the only really defensible intellectual position you can have because it is possible that souce or Apollo or Yahweh’s or any of these guys. It is real. Possible. It’s extremely unlikely. I mean, I wouldn’t can imagine it being true, but it could be true. So I am an atheist only in the sense that I lack belief because nobody’s been able and all these thousands of years. Nobody has ever been able to come up with some really good reasons for believing in any particular God.
So let’s get into some of these reasons you think aren’t good reasons, but reasons a lot of people are giving first. People actually tell you they believe in God because it’s just obvious to them that he exists.
Yes, absolutely. That is probably the most popular reason for belief in the world. Probably the most popular justification, in my opinion. I mean, I have hope, doubt on that. But if I had to take a stab, I’d say that’s why people believe, because in their mind, it’s just obvious and way. What is amazing about that is that what plays into it is really an ignorance about the world, about how many gods there really are. How many religions there really are. How many religions there have been in centuries past. So when people say, you know, they look around the corner of the world and everybody might be believing in generally the same God in sort of the same way. So it just seems like an obvious truth, like, well, you know, the sun comes up in the morning, it sets in the evening. My God is real.
Well, look, I mean, it’s obvious, but you’re saying that if more people learned about religion in general, comparative religions, they’d be more skeptical of the one religion they happened to adopt?
Absolutely. That’s a strong theme in this book, is that when I say ignorance, I don’t mean stupid people. Nothing like that at all. I mean, extremely smart people can be misled in this way. So it has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence or if it’s just a matter of their awareness. That’s a better way to put it. Because if you don’t know that, for example, there are many Christians in America who feel like, well, obviously Christianity is true. I mean, almost everybody believes it. But the fact is, the majority of humans in the world today do not think that Jesus is an actual God or the son of about God. Whatever they are, they are completely unconvinced by that claim. The majority of people there’s about two billion Christians in the world today. So you’ve got about four billion people who are utterly unconvinced. And yet when Christians share, that kind of strikes them as odd because in their world where they live, in most places in the world, they are dominant and they think it’s just an obvious truth. Everybody believes it. And what’s interesting, when you travel in the middle. He should talk to Muslims. To them, that’s obvious. They have the same exact perspective because to them, well, virtually everybody believes in Allah. The Koran is truth and Mohammed was the prophet. It’s obviously true. It’s you know, yes, there are some people somewhere else, some minority. But then you say, well, wait a minute, you know, there’s maybe a million and a half Muslims in the world who think Allah may be obvious, but you’ve got maybe five billion people who don’t care. I’m convinced by that claim that the Koran is the ultimate source of truth and that kind of stuff. So when you break down the actual numbers of who believes what around the world, it paints an entirely different picture that can actually, I hope, change people’s mind and change your perspective a bit.
So you’re kind of winking those two reasons you list in the book. One, the the reason that. Well, it’s just obvious God exists. That’s a reason some people give you. Another is that hate. Everybody’s religious. So many people believe in God. Therefore, there must be something true to believe in. There kind of both obvious answers that people given that sense, you hear that a lot.
Is it everybody’s religious? It must be true. But in that context of what I’m talking about there, people will say, look, everybody’s religious, meaning, say a Christian in New York will say, listen, religion has to be true. Everybody’s religious. And then they say that including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, they’re saying you atheists, you pure and nonbelievers are such a small minority. Well, actually, it’s not that small minority. Most believers are shocked when they heard actual number, but when they see so many religious people in the world, it has to be true. But then I point out to him, I said, well, wait a minute, wait a minute. Okay, religion is popular, but there’s so many contradictions in these various religions and in the claims that they cannot all be true. A Hindu who believes in hundreds of gods does not offer any kind of intellectual support for the Jew who believes in only one God and they contradict each other. One of them has to be wrong. They can’t both be true. They don’t support each other in the sense of religion is valid. So if you’re more aware, I think it erodes that confidence a little bit.
I think something the science, the Athie ISM community hasn’t concentrated enough on is the simple truth. That belief in God actually makes people feel better. It makes people feel special, significant. That’s a big reason people gave you for believing in God.
Yeah, I hear that a lot. And that’s a valid reason why while many atheists might just dismiss that as, oh, that’s trite, meaningless, whatever, I don’t. I say, you know what? That’s a that’s a major reason to believe in a God or to keep believing at it and maybe shy away from skepticism is because it makes you happy. And the thing is, it was challenging for me because I’m the last guy in the world that wants to rain on anybody’s parade. I don’t want to take anybody’s happiness away. I want as much happiness in the world as it can be. So how do I handle that? The way I dealt with that, as I say, you know, think about what is it what is it that’s really making you happy? Is it an actual God or gods that really exist? Is that the source of your happiness or could it be the process of belief that belonging to a large group of people, that going to a church or a mosque or a temple singing with other people, the feeling connected to some kind of traditional literature and all this kind of stuff? Isn’t it possible that is the source of your happiness? And and what backs that up as being a very likely possibility is that you hear Muslims say, I am happy because of other. But then you hear Christians say, I am happy because of Jesus. You will hear a Hindu say, I am happy because of a variety of gods. Analysts will say I am happy because of one spirit or another. And these again, these are not supporting each other. These are these are contradicting each other in a way that cast doubt on all of them. And the consistent thing is the interaction and the socialization of other people and all that. And that is probably the source of the happiness. And I make a strong point that, you know what if if belonging to a church or a temple or an organization or reading these stories, if that makes you happy. If it really does keep fit, that’s fine. And I encourage you to hold onto it. You know, be happy, but don’t be dishonest your mind. Don’t be dishonest to yourself. You know, be skeptical. Be a thinker. And if you come to the conclusion that, you know what, my God may not be real, that’s OK. It doesn’t mean you’re immediately banned from attending church or look at Jews. There’s this rise of cultural Jews. Jewish people who are really atheist. Yet they go to temple. They participate in Jewish holidays. They do all the stuff. They enjoy that connection to the Jewish tradition. They do the whole thing. They’re having the religion without having to surrender any thought process and believe in a God that they they sort of figured out is probably not real. And anybody can do that. I’d love to see cultural Christians become a popular phenomena.
For example, I think to be good for the world’s cultural.
And, you know, why not enjoy all the good in religion, keep it. Be happy. Do good deeds do all that? That’s great. That’s fantastic. But don’t. Don’t be so confident the belief in this actual invisible being that you’re going to going to give up your mind.
I was with you until you said cultural Muslims or something like that. I think there are aspects of the culture of some religions that even if you were skeptical of the God belief, but adopted all those cultural practices, they might not be very helpful, kind of good for the world.
But but on the point of the payoff of belief in God, you know that it makes people happy. I grant you that kind of the social benefit of being in a church, you know, especially some churches that really love on you and take care of you. Well, that that’s a real payoff. I think that’s a real reason people are happy because they believe in God.
But isn’t it true that also people are brought some sense of happiness or comfort just from the actual belief that there is a God in the universe who’s looking out for them, who’s going to take care of them, who loves them, who makes them feel special, who kind of has their eye on them?
So it’s not just the the social benefits, but this actual kind of this feeling of being at the center of the universe.
Yes. The actual confidence and inspiration and these kind of things that come from the feeling or the knowledge or the belief that you’ve got this this massive, profoundly powerful being that is with you along the way in your journey, a life that obviously can bring happiness. It can bring all kinds of incredible joy, I’m sure, in a way that is separate. You’re right. Separate from socializing with people and attending a church and that kind of stuff. But here we go again. Is it really that being. Because I keep coming back to the central question of is your God real? That’s the point of his book, OK? It’s about is are these guys real? So you’ve got to ask yourself, is the source of this joy? My belief, my act of believing or is the source of joy, this actual being that is touching me and influencing me and interacting with my existence and that stuff. Now, again, people who are looking to very different gods that cannot possibly coexist with your God. Pretty much make a powerful argument that it’s more likely that you are benefiting, you’re getting this joy from the act of believing not directly from this God. We can only have one supreme individual almighty creator of the universe.
Right. We can’t have 30 different ones. Right. That doesn’t make sense to me. If according to the biography’s was given to us from their believers, we can’t have all these gods as being real’s just to complete logical contradiction. So when you’ve got people pointing to the different gods saying this God makes me happy. He gives me joy. He or she gives me joy. Then somebody along the line, if not everybody, is obviously only getting joy from the act of believing. And if I can go back deejay, if I can go back one thing just to defend the Muslims, for a matter. But we said sometimes just having that connection to the culture and all can still be destructive to the world that you obviously can be. But I would argue that religion is infinitely, infinitely flexible. It just it can be anything to anybody. I mean, we’ve seen it. Look at Christianity, America. You know, you’ve got you’ve got one Christian who will donate time at an AIDS clinic and help poor people with HIV or something like that. You’ve got another Christian who pickets the funerals of gay people, you know, screaming God hates fags. You know, they’re all so flexible that, yes, you can be a Christian and Muslim, whatever. You you can be associated with those religions and be the most pure hearted, wonderful person in the world because you just dismiss the negative things in those religions and cling on to the positive. So it is possible I mean, there are many Muslims who are just absolutely wonderful people. And in their minds, they may think they are absolutely devout, precise Muslims doing everything they should do. But clearly, probably you’re I agree they’re ignoring a lot of bad stuff that may be, you know, a part of the package that comes with it. And I’m glad they ignore the bad stuff.
Point taken. I love a lot of religious folks if they don’t take their religion seriously, but they take the kind of humanism that I would praise seriously. I think that’s the point you’re making. Yeah. I was really impressed that one reason you report for people believing in God is simply that they don’t want to go to hell. People actually have told you that.
Oh, yeah. It’s very common. Yes, they are actually scared. I mean, it’s incredible. You know, a lot of times I think nonbelievers get so far removed from what it feels like to have been a believer if they ever were, that you forget. You know, there are people who really think there is a place called hell where there’s fire and there’s this mean monster called the devil, and people are screaming and feeling pain. People actually believe that. They really do. They’re sincere in believing. And they’re scared of it. They’re afraid of that. And they will actually say, you know, I have to believe because I don’t want to go to hell. I’m not going to read this book. The God Delusion or or God poisons everything because I don’t want to go to hell or health scares me.
That’s kind of connected to another set of reasons that you give that belief in God is just a good gamble, that it’s better safe than sorry. It ties in with the notion that believing in God doesn’t actually cost you anything and not believing might just cost you your eternal life.
Again, that only works if you’re incredibly unaware of the real state of religion throughout human history and today because, you know, OK, play it safe. Right. OK, well, which God you’re gonna pick and which religion? Which which specific version of that religion that caters to that God. Are you going to pick and and who would take you a lifetime just to get all the God Street and get all the religions on the table before you can make a choice?
There’s so many Jim Underdown and what a rotten God that is that makes it so hard for you to figure out the actual state of affairs.
If he was real, yeah, I would think that was a bit cruel to do it that way. But there is no safe that there just can’t be the safe. That is to just be an atheist and be nice and hope for the best. OK. Play it safe. Better safe than sorry. OK. That’d be a Muslim because if I’m a Christian and I worship Jesus, I’m going straight to the Muslim hell. Because clearly I also know God before me and in the Qur’an clearly says God didn’t have any son, OK? Jesus might have been a revered holy man or whatever like that, but he is not a divine being. And if you start worshiping him and wearing a cross only neck, you are doomed. So you better play it safe. You better be a Muslim, right? Well, no, wait. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You better be a Christian, because Jesus clearly said in the Bible. Only on the way to heaven. There’s no other way, no other way to heaven except through me. So the only way to play it safe is to be a Christian. But wait a minute, wait. My parents are Jewish and they say I am one of the chosen people and I’ve got to follow these laws and I’ve got to do it this way or I’ll be in trouble for that to do that. You know, I mean, it goes on and on. It never ends. And then you get into the religions that are currently unpopular, that have lost favor over the centuries. Why not? Put it to, you know, it’s a place safe. You better start worshiping the pagan gods.
I want to go to Haiti to, do you think, a good place.
By the way, pagan gods are making a comeback now. Just a couple of years ago. They want a legal case where they’re allowed to worship the gods of ancient Greece once again. And there’s a few thousand people in Greece, those that are now actively worshiping those gods.
I love it in a much more venerable tradition than this young upstart of Christianity.
I mean, you’d better play it safe. You don’t want to throw in a lightning bolt. You better safe than sorry. But I worship at it.
It just boggles my mind. There’s no way you could possibly feel cowman to play it safe and be a Christian. I’m going to play it safe and be a Muslim is to really not think very much about all the gods and all the options that are clearly on the table.
I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of 50 reasons people give for believing in a God through our website point of inquiry, dawg. Hey, we’ve touched on just a very few of the 50 reasons people give for believing in a God. Do you think that they’re similar to the reasons that people give for believing in other? What I would consider unsupportable claims like ghosts are new age mysticism, even UFOs are. Are they similar kinds of rationales or explanations for belief?
Yes. One of the common reasons I’ve heard, and it’s a difficult one to discuss with people without upsetting them, but people say believers will say, I feel, my God. I just feel his presence. What they’ll say when I pray. I actually feel connected to my God. I feel it. And this is a similar thing. Some people will say when when they have some kind of a psychic phenomenon or they have a dream about some thing that’s going to happen in the future or dead relatives talks to them in a dream or they or they see a ghost or or there has some encounter with an alien while they’re asleep and bad or something like that. These things are very similar. So they family and also tradition. I mean, religion obviously has a lot to do with tradition. You know, let your parents teach you is what you tend to believe. Well, I think this is probably not all cases that in many cases true of these kind of paranormal type strange beliefs as well. You know, because if your father and mother are constantly buying Sylvia Browne books and going on about psychics or obviously such a great source of knowledge and astrology is a great way to figure out your life and how to conduct your affairs, then that is probably going to influence the child and to at least be vulnerable to those kinds of pseudo science. Mm hmm.
Guy, before we wind down, I just want to get your thoughts on whether or not secularists, atheistic science types. Should we be going around challenging people’s belief in gods or ghosts and all the stuff? Your book is avowedly skeptical. But you’re giving the believer a really fair hearing. We’ve talked about that. Do you think this book is gonna make a difference or are you trying to kinda just speak to the non believing community or are you trying to challenge people out of their beliefs, kind of under the radar?
Believe it or not, I mean, this book is far. I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but this book was written with a believer in mind.
I mean, who needs to preach to the choir? You know, I mean, nonbelievers can get a lot out of this book, I think, because I cover so much ground at such a broad way and I push certain methods of talking to believers in ways that won’t piss them off immediately. So I think it’s helpful to nonbelievers. But I think that believers are going to get the absolute most out of this book because like I said earlier, I’d bend over backwards to be polite and respectful and talk to these people as as equals. I’m not talking down to anybody. Challenging might even be too harsh a word. I’m just having a chat with believers. I’m saying, you know what? Let’s think about this. Let’s let’s look at it from this angle. Let’s let’s consider this view. Hey, have you ever thought about this Jim Underdown?
But you obviously have an agenda. You’re trying to get people to be a little more skeptical about their God belief.
Yeah, absolutely. I want people to think more. And it’s my hunch that if people think more, a lot of these gods might flip flip down a little bit. They might lose a little ground in their minds, if you know what I mean.
Because I want to I don’t want to argue with anybody, but I definitely want to stimulate their I. I want them to think much, much more about their religious beliefs, because all around the world, it just is far too much harm going on. And it’s coming from religion. Religion is good. There’s plenty of good in religion, but there is so much bad in it as well that we can’t just ignore it, can’t leave it. Well, you have to challenging. I have to say, you know, wait a minute. If you’re going to fight against science in high school classrooms because of your belief in a God, if you’re going to discriminate against gay people because of your belief in a god, you know, do these kind of things, then, hey, first let’s pause. Let’s just make sure that we’re that confident that this God is real. Let’s just think about it. That’s what I’m saying. And, you know, to be fair with you and kind of hard heading in some points of this book, some believers might be taken back, will as well. And there might be a bit, you know, left unbalanced by it, but it doesn’t have a mean tone to it anyway. I mean, hopefully they’ll read it. They’ll come away thinking, well, OK, that’s something to think about. For example, I can’t imagine a believer reading this book and seeing what an arrogant jerk, you know, would is. You know, they’re going to walk away and say, well, you know what? Hopefully they’re going to say, that’s a nice guy. And he gave me a lot to think about.
And if that happens, unhappiness Jim Underdown on that optimistic note guy. Harrison, thank you for joining me on Point of Inquiry.
Thanks, T.J.. It has been a pleasure talking with you. And let me see, your podcast is absolutely wonderful.
You are doing great things for the world. Keep it up.
Well, Guy, thanks for saying that. And again, thanks for being on the show.
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