"As the son of a Manx Methodist atheist and a refugee German Jewish atheist," Matthew Kneale tells us in the first sentence of "An Atheist's History of Belief: Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention," "I have never been much of a believer." It's a great way to begin a book on faith, by staking out the territory of skepticism.
"What," he continues, "… had really happened? What had caused people to come up with such strange-seeming notions as paradise, or sin?" What, indeed? We have a tendency to take faith for granted, to imagine that it is part of our evolutionary toolbox, that we are hard-wired for God. Science is, um, agnostic on this, suggesting that, while the brain does not have a specific "God spot," there are neuropsychological factors to spirituality. And yet, Kneale argues, faith (or religion) is more broadly social, a matter of movements as opposed to meaning, of culture rather than soul.
"From the earliest times," he reflects, "every religion has given people comfort by offering ways — so their followers believe — of keeping their worst nightmares at bay.… As people's lifestyles have altered, so have the things they most fear. It is the changes in our fears, I would argue, that have caused our religious ideas to change."
Kneale is a novelist — his "English Passengers" (2000) won the Whitbread Prize and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize — 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 (just look at the title) as an investigation of belief and even more as an inquiry by a nonbeliever, which suggests a certain tension, an intellectual push and pull. What Kneale delivers, however, 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."
I have no doubt that this is true, although I also think it cuts both ways, that such an illusion became a strategy for keeping people in their place. Regardless, it has little to do with faith, with the search for meaning, with the question of why, and not what, we believe.
This may seem like hair-splitting, but really it's a matter of point of view. By calling the book what he does, and opening it as he does, Kneale is making a promise on which he never follows through. His account of humanity's religious history is matter-of-fact, if a bit perfunctory, taking us from ancient cave dwellers to the worshipers at Turkey's Göbekli Tepe, from the Mesopotamians to the Egyptians and the Jews, and exploring Christianity in some detail.
What this suggests, of course, is a tilt toward what Richard Rodriguez has called "the desert God." To his credit, Kneale acknowledges that. "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 were 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 Kneale notes, there is no particular evidence, archaeological or otherwise, that it happened as described in the Old Testament; the true story is likely more nuanced and complex.
I'm struck as well by his sketches of Jesus, Martin Luther and Muhammad, all of whom he portrays as human beings. Here, perhaps, we see the influence of his atheism, which (one imagines) leads him away from orthodoxy, to read the stories of these leaders, and the religions they created or catalyzed, through a more subjective lens.
In the end, though, these are just bits and pieces that don't add up to a satisfying whole. Kneale never reveals enough — of himself, his skepticism, his perspective — to make the book fulfilling on any but the most superficial terms.
An Atheist's History of Belief
Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention
Counterpoint: 272 pp., $26