Book review: An Atheist's History of Belief, by Matthew Kneale

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 12:40pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 12:40pm

An Atheist's History of Belief: Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention
by Matthew Kneale
3 stars

David Ulin

Matthew Kneale is a novelist, so it makes sense that he would frame faith as an evolving story we tell ourselves. Beginning 33,000 years ago, with the development of animal spirits and trance worship, he works his way up to contemporary movements such as Scientology and al-Qaeda, for which spirituality masks a more secular set of ends.

At the same time, his focus on institutions, or ideologies, illustrates a fatal flaw in his approach. The book presents itself as an investigation of belief and even more as an inquiry by a nonbeliever, but what Kneale delivers is a fairly straightforward, if selective, history of religion, which he depicts as an inherently political force.

"In a world where the gap between the poor and the rich was steadily widening, and where ostentation ruled," he writes of the early Christian church, "Christianity, uniquely, gave the poor a sense that they were winning the class war."

By calling the book what he does, Kneale is making a promise on which he never follows through. His account of humanity's religious history is matter-of-fact, taking us from ancient cave dwellers to the worshippers at Turkey's Göbekli Tepe, from the Mesopotamians to the Egyptians and the Jews, and exploring Christianity.

"Until now," he observes at the end of a chapter on Islam, "this book has concentrated very much on beliefs invented in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. I make no apologies for this fact, as this region was the seedbed for a remarkable number of key religious beliefs."

He does give some attention to the religions of India and China - if only to prove that people the world over are "remarkably unoriginal", that "they will have broadly the same fears and will seek to reassure themselves by inviting similar beliefs" - but essentially glosses over vast corners of the globe as if the faiths there are the stuff of spiritual reruns.

This seems indicative of a stunning lack of curiosity or, worse, an unconscious bias to the religious culture of the West.

That's unfortunate for An Atheist's History of Belief highlights some interesting material, not least the straightforward way Kneale lays certain myths to rest. "Exodus" is one example. As he notes, there is no particular evidence, archaeological or otherwise, that it happened as described in the Old Testament; the true story is probably more nuanced and complex.