19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Two warring empires of the mind
At the end of the introduction to this fascinating study of religion, David Lewis-Williams asks: "Why is it that belief in religious revelation continues to exist alongside rational thinking?" This invites all sorts of answers, from religious apologists, historians, politicians, social scientists and so on, but for cognitive archaeologist Lewis-Williams this is primarily...
Published on 20 Nov 2010 by Sphex
6 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing
This book comprises familiar stories of the church's responses to Galileo and Darwin, interesting ideas on the role of dreaming and disturbed mental states (some drug-induced) in the development of belief in the existence of some kind of spirit world, a lot of speculation about the religious significance of stone-age art, and a fair bit of anti-religious ranting. There...
Published on 17 Dec 2010 by Jago
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Two warring empires of the mind,
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This review is from: Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion (Hardcover)At the end of the introduction to this fascinating study of religion, David Lewis-Williams asks: "Why is it that belief in religious revelation continues to exist alongside rational thinking?" This invites all sorts of answers, from religious apologists, historians, politicians, social scientists and so on, but for cognitive archaeologist Lewis-Williams this is primarily an epistemological question, and one that "lies at the root of the present conflict between religion and science". Not for him the polite accommodation favoured by many: he is in no doubt that science and religion "are contradictory, not complementary". The idea of a parallel supernatural realm occupied by beings who intervene in the material world is a scientific one ("virgin births and resurrections are scientific statements") and therefore open to scrutiny. Not only have the past few centuries of modern scientific enquiry found no evidence of a supernatural realm, we are now beginning to understand why we ever thought there was such a realm in the first place. Religious faith in the end doesn't care about the evidence, of course, and its elimination cannot be brought about by appeal to reason alone. Reassurance is also needed, and Lewis-Williams denies that disbelief in supernatural forces and beings necessarily leads to despair. His hopeful message is that, on the contrary, such disbelief is liberation.
In the first third of the book, Lewis-Williams takes us on a whirlwind tour of Greek philosophy, Christian theology and the emergence of science "from the cocoon of religion". This draws out deep-seated continuities that "cannot merely be products of specific historical events and processes" but which "point to something innate in human beings". This something, a part of us since at least Upper Palaeolithic times, is what we call religion.
The middle third explores the nature of religion, understood as comprising three domains: experience, belief and practice. These interlock in complex ways to provide an almost unlimited variety of religious expression across different cultures and historical periods. "Some people emphasize feeling and pay little heed to doctrine. Others, like Aquinas, cogitate and set less store by feeling. Still others, like Orthodox Jews, emphasize behaviour and ritual observance more than religious experience. But all are recognizably religious."
Crucial to the foundation of religion was an ability to distinguish between natural and supernatural realms, and far from being the cognitive nuisance it is today Lewis-Williams argues that this ability was originally extremely useful for our ancestors. "All sorts of aberrant experiences, such as bizarre dreams in which people cavorted peacefully with lions, could be relegated to the supernatural realm and not allowed to influence behaviour in the material environment in tragic ways."
The final part continues the exploration of the neurological and evolutionary origins of religion, and then comes up to date. Lewis-Williams takes a particular state of altered consciousness, the migraine scotoma, to show that culture does not swamp neurology. Although the experience is neurologically generated, its meaning is contingent. "This, in short, is the history of religion." Continuing this theme, he compares the spaces in Upper Palaeolithic caves such as Blombos with Christian cathedrals, and the San rock paintings with the manuscript illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, to show how religious experience, belief and practice are manifest in vastly differing societies.
Today, religion is adapting once again, but this time it's having to contend with a "rising tide of disbelief" and a culture in many parts of the world that values freedom of expression over unthinking deference to authority. Where once religion monopolized knowledge, now it is a distant second to the naturalistic (and true) explanations offered by science. Even ethics, for so long supposed to originate with the supernatural realm ("one of the great deceptions of religion"), can be understood as a natural outcome of evolutionary processes and reasoned consensus, not as something handed down from on high.
One of the major themes of the book, introduced in the first chapter, is "the origin and development of two contrasting kinds of knowledge: supernaturally revealed knowledge and that which comes from scientific thought and observation". In terms of personalities, the contrast is between early pioneers of science such as Thales, Anaximander and Aristotle and those like Plato and St Paul who believed firmly in the supernatural. Historically, science played second fiddle to religion and had its wings clipped whenever its findings contradicted doctrine: after all, revelation was secure, scientific knowledge provisional. Indeed, one of the distinctive features (and a great strength in the service of truth if not in politics) of science is that its statements are open to criticism and revision. To illustrate how this openness was exploited by the Catholic Church, which could not tolerate this new threat to its power, Lewis-Williams uses the trial of Galileo, the classic skirmish between "challengeable and unchallengeable" kinds of knowledge.
Now that science is established as the best way of understanding the natural world (and not forgetting that it has taken millennia to loosen religion's grip on this knowledge), the reality of the supernatural realm itself is being questioned. Indeed, the ignominy for religion is that it is now clear that it must look to science for proof of its beliefs, "to the material world for evidence that there is a spirit realm". What other support is there? Inner experience, the foundation of religion, is "not a persuasive argument for the existence of a supernatural realm": we are discovering too many ways in which such religious experience "is generated by the human nervous system".
This tremendous book is much more than just another atheist critique of religion and supernaturalism. David Lewis-Williams also challenges the body of received opinion about religion, the "masking ideology" put about by religious institutions that tells us what religion is for and that is too often taken at face value. Exploring why religion came into being in the first place provides a deeper understanding of why religion persists today.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a great book with a dispassionate denial of the supernatural,
This review is from: Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion (Hardcover)This is an interesting and thought-provoking book, constituting an important addition to the multitude of books been published on the subject of Religion.
Written by an eminent South African scholar and expert on the culture of Bushmen, it is a multifaceted book dealing with Paleontology (from patterns engraved 75000 years ago by Blombos in South Africa to the astonishing finds of the Volp Caves in the Ariege Department of France, but also with the culture of the primitives (San, Kalahari) and their trance dances which often bring them to hallucinatory states.
The author, tracing the origin of Religion to such altered stages of consciousness, not only provides a thorough account and classification of these states (the origin of which he attributes to the right temporal lobe) but links them to important religious thinkers and mystics from the apostle Paul, via St.Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas to Hildegard Von Bingen.
The historical narrative is extended to the other side (of evolution) with rich biographical details of Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace (poor Wallace had he had not made the error of sending his manuscript to Darwin but directly to a scientific journal he might be claimed today as the discoverer of Evolution and we could be talking today of Wallacism instead of Darwinism).
The two sides, Religion (and thus Creationalism) and Evolution are contrasted and discussed and the author, being an atheist, does not mince his words to exhibit the irrationality of religion. The arguments however are not passionate or hostile. On the contrary they are presented in a sober and even relaxing style becoming thus more persuasive. The author is not a polemicist of the kind that Dawkins, Hitchens or Bennet are.
In my view, however, the author can be criticized by presenting his own-personal-view on the origin of religion and dismissing out of hand alternative theories based on social and psychological factors. For instance, he alleges that primitive man was unimpressed and thus unafraid of his own death and thus rejects a whole tradition of thought which connects religion with the fear and denial of death. The hallucinatory stages might explain the religiosity of Moses and St Paul but for the common man it is more likely (at least today) that the explanation lies in the fear of death and the hope that religion gives for life after death. This is supported not only by the not infrequent death-bed conversion into religion of previously irreligious people but also by ample evidence of prehistoric (as ancient as those of Blombos) elaborate funeral rituals indicating the psychological importance that death had in the mind of the primitive man.
Besides, Prof. Lewis-Williams errs when "dismisses" Psychology in favor of Neurology for the simple reason that Psychology is based on Neurology and the latter to Neuroendocrinology, Neurochemistry and finally all the way down to Quantum Physics.
However all these are rather understandable errors and omissions in an otherwise highly scholarly and yet readable, great book covering such a wide area.
26 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Draw a breath David!,
This review is from: Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion (Hardcover)Following on from his two other deservedly acclaimed preceding books, Mr Williams delves deeper into the origins of religion, the central message being that all religious activity stems from neurological activity in the brain. Ok, no arguement with that. He also draws fascinating parallels between medieval mysticism and the visions of the San bushmen. Terrific stuff, even though he then seems to postulate that virtually every deep religious experience or spiritual vision can be explained by a migraine attack. Not sure about that but it's a good challenge to wrestle with. What mars the book in my opinion is the relentless, almost suffocating attack on the Catholic church and the Bible. I can quite happily live without either so I have no axe to grind but the constant bile detracts from the rest of the book. I concede quite happily that any debate between science and religion has resulted in a retreat or reinterpretation on the part of religion. I wouldn't agree though that no useful material has ever resulted from the use of hallucinogenics. It's quite likely that the cave paintings Mr Williams admires so much were created or inspired in some part by magic mushrooms or cannabis rather than migraine. And as a child of the 60's much of the music I love seeped out from a drug-hazed creativity. And the assertion that no Shaman can make it rain or mend a broken leg is to my mind, pure, inexcusable ignorance. So - four stars rather than five only because of the caustic overspill that stains much of the book. Something or someone has rattled Mr Williams' cage and he obviously feels compelled to make a stand for science. I respect that, but his case is somewhat overstated and he's in danger of becoming pigeon-holed as just another atheist one trick pony a la the oft quoted but misunderstood Richard Dawkins. Otherwise a good, lucid read.You don't have to agree with a lot of the findings but I admire passion and intelligence - and a good arguement.
6 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing,
This review is from: Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion (Hardcover)This book comprises familiar stories of the church's responses to Galileo and Darwin, interesting ideas on the role of dreaming and disturbed mental states (some drug-induced) in the development of belief in the existence of some kind of spirit world, a lot of speculation about the religious significance of stone-age art, and a fair bit of anti-religious ranting. There are interesting books on the origins and persistence of religious belief, but this isn't one of them.
1 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Conceiving God,
This review is from: Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion (Hardcover)Avery fine, well-researched and well-written book which covers the issues of atheism in the present day. An excellent one-volume work for anyone wishing to get an accurate survey of current atheistic thinking. The author does not, however, deal with the philosophical problem of 'truths' that are not susceptible to 'scientific' investigation e.g. beauty, faith, uniqueness, spirituality.
3 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointed,
This review is from: Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion (Hardcover)Having enjoyed David Lewis-Williams books "The Mind in the Cave" and "Inside the Neolithic Mind" this book came as a grave disappointment. By page 70 I was ready to ditch the book altogether and only persisted on the grounds that there must be something other than his hatred for the Catholic Church in it! I can only endorse Julian Wilde's comments on the "constant bile" and can only assume that David has had some very unfortunate experience that would lead him to jeopardise his hitherto excellent reputation. Stick to the areas you can be objective about David and leave the polemics to the likes of Richard Dawkins who has already amply displayed his lack of objectivity.
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Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion by David Lewis-Williams (Hardcover - 8 Mar 2010)