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