What first prompted prehistoric man, sheltering in the shadows of deep caves, to call upon the realm of the spirits?
And why has belief thrived ever since, leading us to invent heaven and hell, sin and redemption, and above all, gods?
Religion reflects our deepest hopes and fears; whether you are a believer or, like Matthew Kneale, a non-believer who admires mankind's capacity to create and to imagine, it has shaped our world. And as our dreams and nightmares have changed over the millennia, so have our beliefs - from shamans to Aztec priests, from Buddhists to Christians: the gods we created have evolved with us.
Belief is humanity's most epic invention. It has always been our closest companion and greatest consolation. To understand it is to better understand ourselves.
Yet another atheism title attempts to make the reader "forget Dawkins or Hitchens," as this book's publisher suggests, and render skepticism understandable. And British writer Kneale accomplishes just that in his lively look at the history of religious belief, from ancient humanity to the 20th century. The author succeeds not because he formulates sharper theories or ideas about non-belief, but because he barely mentions non-belief at all. Where other authors, like those apostles of atheism, Dawkins and Hitchens, have become bestsellers by condemning religion and haranguing its followers, Kneale takes a more gentle, reasoned approach. He views religion as the invention of cultures seeking to assuage their various fears and insecurities. That's not a new tack scholars have long studied religion in the context of its inventors' needs and aspirations. But Kneale, a novelist whose English Passengers (2000) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, brings to this angle a storyteller's, rather than an academic's, touch. It's a pleasant read, just not a very hardline atheistic one.