Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Signs and Wonders: Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens Confront the Faithful Head-On, but There May Be Another Way to Dispel Religious Beliefs

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Signs and Wonders: Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens Confront the Faithful Head-On, but There May Be Another Way to Dispel Religious Beliefs

Article excerpt

Conceiving God: the Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion

David Lewis-Williams

Thames & Hudson, 320pp, [pounds sterling]18.95

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. …

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