An Atheist's History of Belief: Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention

An Atheist's History of Belief: Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention

by Matthew Kneale


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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 since, shaping thousands of generations of shamans, pharaohs, Aztec priests and Mayan rulers, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, Nazis, and Scientologists?

As our dreams and nightmares have changed over the millennia, so have our beliefs. The gods we created have evolved and mutated with us through a narrative fraught with human sacrifice, political upheaval and bloody wars.

Belief was man's most epic labor of invention. It has been our closest companion, and has followed mankind across the continents and through history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619022355
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 02/11/2014
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Matthew Kneale studied Modern History at Oxford University. He then spent a year in Japan where he began writing short stories. He is author of several novels, including English Passengers (2000) which won the Whitbread Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He currently lives in Rome.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Inventing Gods

i. Someone who picked up a piece of mammoth bone

Around 33,000 years ago, in what is now Baden-Würtemburg in southwest Germany, but which was then a frozen wilderness nestling between great ice sheets, somebody picked up a piece of mammoth tusk and, probably crouching by a fire to keep warm, began carving.

When finished, the piece they made was only 2.5 centimeters, or less than an inch high. Tiny though it was, it is immediately striking, and also a little puzzling. It stands on two legs, in a pose easily recognizable as human, yet it has a lion’s head. Precisely what was done with it remains a mystery, though it was clearly the object of much attention. Over time it became polished smooth from being held by fingers. Eventually, whether deliberately or by accident, it was broken into fragments, and left deep in a cave, the Hohle Fels. Here it remained until 2002, when it was discovered, and carefully reassembled, by the team of paleoanthropologist Nicholas Conard.

Why should we be interested in this tiny lion person? It is one of the very oldest examples of figurative art yet found. It also, though, holds another first that, to my eyes, makes it much more intriguing. It is the first convincing example of religious art. It provides the earliest strong evidence that people believed in supernatural beings.

Can one really have an idea what beliefs people held 33,000 years ago? The answer is, perhaps a little surprisingly, yes.

Why, one might ask, should we be interested in what people believed so very long ago? Put simply, beliefs have a way of staying with us. Despite the claims of religious visionaries across the ages, I would suggest that there is no such thing as a new religion. Religions are like ice cores. In each, one can find layer upon layer of past belief. Beliefs, even from 33,000 years ago, are still present in our world. This book seeks to examine some of these ice cores, and to uncover where and how key layers first emerged. Finally I hope to see how these beliefs continued to profoundly influence our world, also outside religions, in some most unexpected places.

Before looking at what beliefs the maker of our lion person may have held, I would like to pause for a moment, and consider what one might expect them to be? What would people today, whether they believe in a god or not, consider to be the essential prerequisites of any religion?

Paradise would surely come top of the list. One of the chief functions of any religion, surely, is to offer an alternative to the grim prospect of our temporary existence. Almost all modern religions dangle the hope of a happy afterlife, which can be reached by their faithful, if they follow the religion’s rules, at least most of the time. And yet, as will be seen, heaven first appears from around 4,000 years ago. This makes it, when compared to the lion person, a fairly new-fangled invention.

What, then, of morality? This, many would say, is at the very heart of all belief. According to almost all modern religions, one’s behaviour is carefully supervised by gods, and one’s actions will be appropriately rewarded or punished. Yet morality, too, is a relatively new innovation. It appears, in fact, to have emerged side by side with the idea of heaven.

If heaven and morality are not the key element of all religions, then what is? The answer, I would suggest, is reassurance. From the earliest times, every religion has given people comfort, by offering ways - so their followers believe - of keeping their worst nightmares at bay.

What these nightmares are, has, inevitably, changed a good deal over time. 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. In effect, our need to quell our own fears has inspired humankind’s greatest imaginative project: an epic labour of invention, that puts fiction writing to shame.

What were people’s worst nightmares 33,000 years ago? How can we possibly know? How can one hope to have even a vague idea of beliefs that existed a full 28,000 years before writing was first developed, or before records were first kept? By making comparisons. By examining peoples who lived recently, and whose way of life was recorded, but who led a similar existence to the carver of the lion person. Humans, as I hope to reveal, are unoriginal creatures. Put them in similar locations, give them similar ways of spending their hours, and similar needs and fears, and they will generally come up with similar ideas about their world.

Studies of hunter-gatherer peoples in recent times have revealed something rather surprising. All across the world, from the Arctic to Australia, and from Patagonia to southern Africa, hunter-gatherer peoples, who had had no direct contact with another for many tens of thousands of years, had a remarkable amount in common. They all lived in tribes of the same size, of around 150 people. They all moved from place to place with the seasons, and in search of animals to hunt. And they were all very interested in the curious business of going into a trance. Entering a trance, in fact, lay at the centre of all their beliefs.

There was great variety in how different tribes entered a trance, from taking psychotropic substances, to starving their senses in silent darkness. Likewise there was variety in who did it: in some tribes many people became entranced, though it was more usual that only one or two specialists did so. They are best described as shamans. The experiences such people had when they entered a trance, though, were very similar the world over. They heard noises like the buzzing of bees, saw geometrical patterns, and had the sensation of being drawn into a great tunnel. They felt they could see themselves transformed into something else, usually an animal. They felt themselves to be flying, and often claimed to be guided by a spirit bird. They would enter a land of spirits, which were usually animals. These animal spirits had the power to help humans, especially in three precise areas, which recur in hunter-gatherer beliefs all across the world. Firstly, spirits could help heal the sick. Secondly, they could control the movement of animals to hunt. Finally, they could improve the weather.

So, it seems, we catch a glimpse of humans’ earliest angsts. These do not seem particularly surprising. Sickness would have been a constant and incomprehensible danger. For people who hade no choice but to spend much of their time outside, weather was crucial, and bad weather could be not only frightening, but life-threatening, if rains did not come, denuding the land of green, or if the cold or heat were too intense to endure. Finally, if hunter-gatherers failed to find game to hunt, they would slowly starve to death. So it is only natural that the trio of disease, animal availability and meteorological conditions would have been high on people’s worry list.

Can one be sure that these recent hunter-gatherer beliefs were also followed 33,000 years ago, by the carver of the lion person in the frozen wilderness of Baden-Würtemburg? It is widely accepted today that the lion-person statuette found in the Hohle Fels cave depicts a shaman, who is lost in a state of trance, and believes himself, or herself, to be transformed into a lion. Such beliefs, as I mentioned, occurred almost universally among all known hunter-gatherer peoples. Besides, it is clear that the Hohle Fels statuette was no random piece of creativity. A second and larger lion-person, dating from soon after the first, was found in another, nearby cave. It seems these figures represented something that was well established in people’s minds.

So it appears that as early as 33,000 years ago people had already devised a religion that offered a form of simple exchange. If one went to the trouble of entering a trance, and of contacting spirit animals, they might reward one with help against disease and bad weather, and make one’s endless search for prey a little easier. A way of lessening life’s frightening uncertainties had been found.

How might this early religion have looked and felt? Clues can been found in the remarkable cave paintings found in southwestern France and northern Spain, some of them dating from only 1,000 years or so after our lion person was carved. The paintings are almost all of animals, and it used to be thought that they depicted hunting scenes. Rather puzzlingly, though, the creatures often lack hooves, so they seem to hang in the air. Also lacking are details of rocks or foliage. What does this signify? Cognitive archaeologist David Lewis-Williams came up with a notion. Having studied one the last hunter-gatherer tribes to have kept its old ways right up to the present - the San people of southwestern Africa - and then examining early European cave paintings, he concluded that these paintings in fact represented animal spirits.

How would these first supernatural have been worshipped? What were these earliest religious services like? Archaeological finds give some clues. People would have crept into the depths of caves, far beyond the reach of any natural light, using simple lamps, of animal fat on flat pieces of stone, with strands of moss as wicks. These would have flickered feebly, illuminating tiny patches of the paintings. Deep in the caves, perhaps with a small congregation gathered round them, shamans would have entered a trance and tried to contact the spirits.

There may well have been music. A number of bone flutes have been found in early caves, while people could also have sung or chanted, and used stalagmites as natural bells, striking them to produce deep booming sounds. The caves often lacked oxygen, which would have added to the sense of unreality for those taking part. The whole effect of music, smoke, near darkness, and airlessness, would, when combined with the utterings of the shaman lost in trance, have been intense.

So, even thirty millennia ago, religion was already a leading sponsor of the arts. As people endeavoured to make their world less frightening, and to feel less helpless, they devoted their hours to making music, to carving sculptures, and to creating paintings that, to this day, remain hauntingly beautiful. It was the beginning of a remarkably fruitful association. To this day religions have encouraged breathtaking art, architecture, music and stories. Whatever reservations one may have about religion, it is hard not to admire the many beautiful creations it has inspired.

To step back for a moment, we have established that as far distant as 33,000 years ago, people almost certainly believed in supernatural beings. We have seen, very roughly, what their beliefs would have comprised of, and we have glimpsed, also very roughly, what the earliest religious services may have been like. Before leaving this distant era, though, I would like to ask one more question, though this takes one even further back, to times when evidence is negligible, and conjecture can only be of the vaguest kind. Why might people have devised such a strange thing as religion? What on earth could have prompted people to believe that their fate lay in the hands of beings they could not see or hear, except when lost in a state of trance? Here, unsurprisingly, no clear answer is forthcoming. Yet a little theorizing is possible.

In recent decades there has been increasing interest in a remarkable human ability: one that is on a par with our skill for using complex language, or finely crafted tools. That this talent had escaped much notice before now was perhaps because it is so basic to our nature that it was almost invisible to us. It is our skill at imagining others’ points of view, known as Theory of Mind.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Inventing Gods 5

Someone Who Picked Up a Piece of Mammoth Tusk 5

A New Pastime on a Bare Mountain 12

Dressing for Breakfast 19

2 Inventing Paradise 28

Cape Canaveral of Dead Kings 28

Zarathustra and Friends 36

Revenge of the Supernatural 41

3 Inventing Deals with God 47

4 Inventing the End of the World 61

Be Careful What You Prophesy 61

The Wrong End of the World 80

Daniel's Dream: The Sequels 86

5 Inventing Humble Heaven 100

Jumping Hurdles 100

Jesus for Gentiles 110

6 Inventing a Religion, Inventing a Nation 132

7 Inventing Elsewhere 147

Ecstasy in Sober China 147

Blood, Calendars and the Ball Game 157

8 Inventions from the Underground 167

Laughing All the Way to the Pyre 167

Opening Pandora's Box 179

9 Inventing Witches 188

10 Inventing New Comforts 200

Balm for New Wounds 200

Waiting for the Revolution 203

Ahead to the Past 207

Filling the Great Vacuum 214

Acknowledgements 239

Notes 241

Sources and Further Reading 244

Index 251

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