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Matthew Kneale

An Atheist's History of Belief

Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Kneale grew up without any religious belief and that is still his position today, but he nevertheless thinks that religion is an important feature of human experience. His view is that it exists because it provides reassurance. He examines this idea by looking at how religion has developed, starting in prehistory and tracing its evolution over several thousand years into modern times. This is a very broad sweep of time and space to squeeze into 238 pages so inevitably there has been a lot of selection and compression.

Much of the book, understandably, is concerned with Judaism and Christianity. Here Kneale emphasises, I'm sure correctly, the importance of apocalyptic thinking, particularly for Jesus and Paul. Both expected the transformation of the world to occur either in their own lifetimes or very shortly thereafter. As time went by and it became obvious that the apocalypse had been at least postponed, Christians began to think more in terms of postmortem survival in Heaven, although the idea of a Judgement at the end of the world did not disappear and this led Christianity to give a somewhat confused description of what to expect when Jesus returned.

Still on the subject of religions that originated in the Middle East, we get a short chapter on Islam which does little more than outline the origin of the faith and describe the schism between Sunni and Shia. While accurate so far as it goes, it doesn't take us very far.

Next, we find ourselves in ancient China, where we get an outline of Daoism and the influence of Buddhism. We then jump, in the same chapter, to the other side of the world, to look at religion in Meso-America and South America, with its fondness for human sacrifice. Kneale seeks to show that religion in all these places was concerned to answer the same anxieties and to provide reassurance in the face of uncertainty.

Coming to the present day, the book touches on Mormonism, Scientology, and Marxism, which Kneale regards as a quasi-religious movement.

In summary, I suppose this book would be interesting for someone who had never thought very much about religion and who was beginning to wonder why it exists at all. But the information it provides, while not factually wrong, is so limited and sketchy as to be useful only as a prompt to further exploration. In this respect the notes and suggestions for further reading are quite good.

20 January 2014

%T An Atheist's History of Belief
%S Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention
%A Kneale, Matthew
%I The Bodley Head
%C London
%D 2013
%G ISBN 9781847922625
%P 262pp
%K religion

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