Conceiving God: the Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion

Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens confront the faithful head-on, but there may

Are direct arguments against religious beliefs likely to dissuade their votaries? The anecdotal evidence seems to suggest not; robust attacks by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, it is said, only annoy the faithful and make them dig further in.

I am not so sure about this. In my experience, waverers and Sunday-only observers can find forthright challenges to religious pretensions
a relief and a liberation. They give them the reason, sometimes the courage, to abandon those shreds of early-acquired religious habit that cling around their ankles and trip them up.

Still, Darwin and David Lewis-Williams have a point in thinking, as the former put it, that "direct arguments against [religion] produce hardly any effect on the public, and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follows from the advance of science". In the preface to this book, Lewis-Williams says that he intends to follow Darwin's strategy, seeking to achieve by flanking manoeuvres what Dawkins and Hitchens attempt by cavalry charge.

Actually Lewis-Williams does both. There is quite a lot of galloping straight at the opposition with flashing sabre. But the main thrust of the book is incremental: a well-informed and steady march through the history of religion and its conflict with science, reprising what the author describes as the evolution of his own thought about these matters.

Over the years I pondered the long history of religion. In particular, I thought about the implications of the earliest archaeological evidence for religion . . . I found it salutary to explore social (cultural) anthropology . . . As we look over this sorry tapestry, we must face a fundamental question - one that many today, believers and non-believers alike, try to avoid: Is there really a spirit realm occupied by supernatural beings and forces that are concerned with human life on earth? By contemplating the history of religion and science we are able to answer that question in a way that gradually leads to "freedom of thought".

The need to do so is all the more urgent, the author notes, because the great dividing line in the world today is between opponents defined by religious commitment or tradition.

Lewis-Williams is a highly distinguished archaeologist and palaeoanthropologist who has written some of the definitive works on ancient cave art, in particular the rock art of the San (Bushman) people of his native South Africa. He wrote the classic Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meaning in Southern San Rock Paintings (1981), whose ideas animate his account of Stone Age religion and the nature of religious belief and experience in three chapters of this book. His descriptions and interpretations are fascinating, though highly speculative.

If Lewis-Williams's expertise in Stone Age art is one plank for the argument of the book, the other is the adventure of thought in the epochs that have elapsed since classical antiquity. He traces the development of both religious and scientific thinking from ancient Greece to the 19th century - from Plato to Darwin - which includes the establishment, from Constantine onwards, of religious orthodoxy against all comers ("heretics" and pagans alike). It is an instructive review; it leads Lewis-Williams to remind us that large sections of official Christianity now merely shrug their shoulders over the question of the position of Planet Earth in the universe, a matter on which they were once prepared to kill people for taking the wrong view.

The historical chapters constitute a lucid survey of the background, from which certain patterns can be deduced that Lewis-Williams explores in chapters on religious experience, belief and origins. Together, these suggest an analysis of the nature of religion itself. They are the most original parts of his discussion. He summarises the conclusion he arrives at as follows:

Religion is one possible explanation, not for natural phenomena, but for highly complex experiences that the human brain generates. It does so in such a way that a whole range of further explanations (for natural events, death and so forth) becomes available. Moreover, religion makes possible powerful social and political hierarchies not based on sex or brute strength. The persistence of the neurology of the brain through time ensures that the "origin" of religion is always with us.

This last remark explains what he means by the phrase "origin-as-process", and his reason for thinking that the stock analysis of earlier
anthropology - that religion evolves from animism through totemism to polytheism and thence monotheism - is incorrect. He has an interesting point here. Polytheism persists in both actual and disguised forms: actual in the Hindu pantheon; disguised in the "Trinity" or in any religion, including Islam and Judaism, that admits the existence of angels and demons (and, in the former at least, a populated afterlife) along with the deity.

Lewis-Williams does not leave matters at the level of analysis. In a long and thoughtful concluding chapter entitled "God's Empire Strikes Back", he considers the current tensions and conflicts generated by the revived debate about religion. He concludes that there is no future in attempting reconciliation between theistic and non-theistic world-views, and that our hope must be that Darwin will be proved right eventually, that science will finally cut the taproot of religion. He ends by quoting Matthew Cobb and Jerry Coyne: "In reality, the only contribution that science can make to
the ideas of religion is atheism." That is surely right, and it serves as the guiding principle of Lewis-Williams's endeavours in these rich and educative pages.

There is, accordingly, a great deal to applaud in this book. One aspect of it left me intrigued, however: the chapter on Stone Age religion, describing and offering interpretations of cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago, long before the dawn of history. Did our remotest ancestors really distinguish between natural and supernatural realms? Or did they regard the significant agencies that controlled nature as part of nature, and such that they could be encountered and communicated with, just like any other part of nature?

Lewis-Williams thinks that cave walls were viewed as the sacred interface between human beings and chthonic forces. Can we really know? Perhaps he can appeal to the continuity of brain structure and function to suggest that religious experience is likewise continuous. However, he is careful enough to talk often of "maybe" and "perhaps"; and to an amateur being offered the explanation, it is the tentativeness that sounds most persuasive.

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.