8 July 2013


Guy P. Harrison. 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian. Prometheus Books, 2013.

In his introduction Harrison acknowledges that there are "many different kinds of Christians who hold many different views". This means, of course, that the questions he asks cannot be simple. There is also the problem that within mainstream Christianity and the large number of smaller sects there are many interpretations of the different doctrines.
Trying to sort these out and ask intelligent questions about them could obviously be a lifetime's work.  
The method used to deal with the questions is to ask ordinary Christians for their comments and definitions. As Harrison does not concentrate on one or two varieties of Christianity, but interviews people with very different ideas on the subject, and has apparently not sought out theologians, or consulted books on theology, or at least not quoted from them, to provide material for discussion of the questions he has chosen, the result can be rather confusing in places, as he devotes much space to matters considered marginal by the mainstream Christian churches.

As an example of this he devotes a whole chapter to the Great Flood and Noah's Ark. He notes that: "For some {Christians}, the biblical story of Noah's Ark is not to be taken literally. They regard it as a sacred tall tale, loaded with important meaning, perhaps, but definitely not as an accurate account of a real event". The problem here, though, as in the rest of this book, is that it is American, and much of Christianity in America can perhaps be described by those of us who don't live there as "not Christianity as we know it". Apparently the percentage of Evangelical Protestants who believe the story is literally true is 87, and even for all Americans is 60.

Harrison then goes on to explain how it would be physically impossible for such a story to be literally true, and goes on to complain that it is a "gruesome story of death that raises questions". He does not comment, of course, on the findings of Bible scholars and others who study ancient writings, concerning the extensive use of hyperbole to emphasise important points.

This confusion over what Christians generally regard as literally true, or perhaps as purely symbolic, makes some of Harrison's arguments difficult to follow. He has made extensive studies of the religious practices of many varieties of Christians, as well as people of other faiths, but vainly tries to make any sense of Christianity, or religion in general as his approach is similar to that of one trying to understand some abstruse scientific theory, rather than religious beliefs and observances. He constantly demands proof of religious beliefs as if Christianity were a collection of scientific, or pseudoscientific, hypotheses. In other words, he just doesn't get it. It cannot be proved in the sense he means, just as one cannot prove the truth of some secular way of life or political philosophy.

For example, in the chapter discussing intelligent design, he demands that believers should explain how God created and guides life, rather than why he created it, which is what is relevant to Christian belief. The intelligent design argument, whether one regards it as valid or invalid, is not an attack on science as it does not deny any scientific facts or theories, at least not so far as Christians who are not devoted to extreme biblical literalism are concerned. He also includes a chapter deploring the fact that many Christians reject the scientific findings concerning evolution. It seems to me that there is far too much concern with the more eccentric fringes of religious belief, possibly because such believers are so prominent in the United States, although few of them are likely to read this book.

We are sternly warned against attempting to sit on the fence between theism and atheism. Agnostic is a meaningless term, so if you are not religious then you must be an atheist. The argument is a bit too convoluted to be easily summarised here, but is similar to that advanced by other atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and friends. For an atheist, it seems to me to be remarkably Jesuitical. -- John Harney.

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