A C Grayling on David Lewis-Williams and the evolution of religion

April 9, 2010 • 2:04 am

by Matthew Cobb

Last week, the British magazine New Statesman carried a thought-provoking review by A C Grayling of David Lewis-Williams’ new book Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion. Lewis-Williams is an anthropologist who specialises in cave and rock art (in particular from South Africa). He has written two brilliant and highly-recommended popular books on prehistoric cave art, the Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, and Inside the Neolithic Mind.

In his new book (which I haven’t read), Lewis-Williams casts his anthropologist’s eye over the origins and continued existence of religion, and the reasons for it. He also kindly quotes a letter Jerry and I wrote to Nature, protesting about their coverage of the Templeton Foundation. I hope that Jerry – or myself, or Greg – will have the time to write our own review here at WEIT, but for the moment Grayling’s review will more than suffice:

Are direct arguments against religious beliefs likely to dissuade their votaries? The anecdotal evidence seems to suggest not; robust attacks by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, it is said, only annoy the faithful and make them dig further in.

I am not so sure about this. In my experience, waverers and Sunday-only observers can find forthright challenges to religious pretensions a relief and a liberation. They give them the reason, sometimes the courage, to abandon those shreds of early-acquired religious habit that cling around their ankles and trip them up.

Still, Darwin and David Lewis-Williams have a point in thinking, as the former put it, that “direct arguments against [religion] produce hardly any effect on the public, and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science”. In the preface to this book, Lewis-Williams says that he intends to follow Darwin’s strategy, seeking to achieve by flanking manoeuvres what Dawkins and Hitchens attempt by cavalry charge.

Actually Lewis-Williams does both. There is quite a lot of galloping straight at the opposition with flashing sabre. But the main thrust of the book is incremental: a well-informed and steady march through the history of religion and its conflict with science, reprising what the author describes as the evolution of his own thought about these matters.

“Over the years I pondered the long history of religion. In particular, I thought about the implications of the earliest archaeological evidence for religion . . . I found it salutary to explore social (cultural) anthropology . . . As we look over this sorry tapestry, we must face a fundamental question – one that many today, believers and non-believers alike, try to avoid: Is there really a spirit realm occupied by supernatural beings and forces that are concerned with human life on earth? By contemplating the history of religion and science we are able to answer that question in a way that gradually leads to “freedom of thought”.”

The need to do so is all the more urgent, the author notes, because the great dividing line in the world today is between opponents defined by religious commitment or tradition.

Lewis-Williams is a highly distinguished archaeologist and palaeoanthropologist who has written some of the definitive works on ancient cave art, in particular the rock art of the San (Bushman) people of his native South Africa. He wrote the classic Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meaning in Southern San Rock Paintings (1981), whose ideas animate his account of Stone Age religion and the nature of religious belief and experience in three chapters of this book. His descriptions and interpretations are fascinating, though highly speculative.

If Lewis-Williams’s expertise in Stone Age art is one plank for the argument of the book, the other is the adventure of thought in the epochs that have elapsed since classical antiquity. He traces the development of both religious and scientific thinking from ancient Greece to the 19th century – from Plato to Darwin – which includes the establishment, from Constantine onwards, of religious orthodoxy against all comers (“heretics” and pagans alike). It is an instructive review; it leads Lewis-Williams to remind us that large sections of official Christianity now merely shrug their shoulders over the question of the position of Planet Earth in the universe, a matter on which they were once prepared to kill people for taking the wrong view.

The historical chapters constitute a lucid survey of the background, from which certain patterns can be deduced that Lewis-Williams explores in chapters on religious experience, belief and origins. Together, these suggest an analysis of the nature of religion itself. They are the most original parts of his discussion. He summarises the conclusion he arrives at as follows:

“Religion is one possible explanation, not for natural phenomena, but for highly complex experiences that the human brain generates. It does so in such a way that a whole range of further explanations (for natural events, death and so forth) becomes available. Moreover, religion makes possible powerful social and political hierarchies not based on sex or brute strength. The persistence of the neurology of the brain through time ensures that the “origin” of religion is always with us.”

This last remark explains what he means by the phrase “origin-as-process”, and his reason for thinking that the stock analysis of earlier anthropology – that religion evolves from animism through totemism to polytheism and thence monotheism – is incorrect. He has an interesting point here. Polytheism persists in both actual and disguised forms: actual in the Hindu pantheon; disguised in the “Trinity” or in any religion, including Islam and Judaism, that admits the existence of angels and demons (and, in the former at least, a populated afterlife) along with the deity.

Lewis-Williams does not leave matters at the level of analysis. In a long and thoughtful concluding chapter entitled “God’s Empire Strikes Back”, he considers the current tensions and conflicts generated by the revived debate about religion. He concludes that there is no future in attempting reconciliation between theistic and non-theistic world-views, and that our hope must be that Darwin will be proved right eventually, that science will finally cut the taproot of religion. He ends by quoting Matthew Cobb and Jerry Coyne: “In reality, the only contribution that science can make to the ideas of religion is atheism.” That is surely right, and it serves as the guiding principle of Lewis-Williams’s endeavours in these rich and educative pages.

There is, accordingly, a great deal to applaud in this book. One aspect of it left me intrigued, however: the chapter on Stone Age religion, describing and offering interpretations of cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago, long before the dawn of history. Did our remotest ancestors really distinguish between natural and supernatural realms? Or did they regard the significant agencies that controlled nature as part of nature, and such that they could be encountered and communicated with, just like any other part of nature?

Lewis-Williams thinks that cave walls were viewed as the sacred interface between human beings and chthonic forces. Can we really know? Perhaps he can appeal to the continuity of brain structure and function to suggest that religious experience is likewise continuous. However, he is careful enough to talk often of “maybe” and “perhaps”; and to an amateur being offered the explanation, it is the tentativeness that sounds most persuasive.

27 thoughts on “A C Grayling on David Lewis-Williams and the evolution of religion

  1. “Polytheism persists in both actual and disguised forms: actual in the Hindu pantheon; disguised in the “Trinity” or in any religion, including Islam and Judaism, that admits the existence of angels and demons (and, in the former at least, a populated afterlife) along with the deity.”

    I have long maintained that the Trinity was a desperate attempt to have your monotheistic cake and eat it (in three pieces) too. Likewise the endless hierarchies of angels, archangels, cherubim, seraphim, saints, and no doubt more. And if we are not to be completely powerless in the afterlife, we too will be gods. At least the Mormons admit this frankly. It’s as though one god is just not enough for people, so they find a dozen ways to wriggle round it. Sadly, as people shake off the intangible gods of religion, they revert to the pagan polytheism of celebrity worship. It’s as though there was truth in what the believers used to repeat to me, a lone atheist, at high school, “You’ve got to believe in SOMEthing.”

    “large sections of official Christianity now merely shrug their shoulders over the question of the position of Planet Earth in the universe, a matter on which they were once prepared to kill people for taking the wrong view.”

    If they took modern astronomy seriously, they’d have to admit that most if not all of the things their Almighty takes so very seriously are pretty trivial on a cosmic scale. It’s less than a century since we thought the Universe was of a piece with the Milky Way galaxy, and I had a primary school teacher who “corrected” me when I said the sun was not the centre of the Universe. (I remember her exact words – “Uni-verse means One Centre.”)

    1. I agree, I have long thought that all religions tend towards polytheism; even Buddhism which appears originally to have abjured gods has accumulated multiple ‘divine’ appendages in every culture it flourished in.

    2. Not only are more Christians “merely shrug their shoulders” over the position of Earth, many are actively endorsing environmentalism which flies in the face of “Earth as God’s offering to be exploited.” Our local paper headed its LifeStyle feature with Going Green for Easter.

      I think–hope–earth’s fate is in the hands of our youth.

  2. Sounds like an interesting book.

    This review show something that many in the science-and-religion-are-compatible crowd often seem to ignore: that biology and cosmology are not the only sciences that cause conflict with religion. Clearly, anthropology, history, and psychology do so as well. These and other sciences provide much of the various evidence that suggests that religion is made up, rather than a valid world view.

    1. I think neuroscience will have a big hand in burying most supernatural claims in the next 30 years. It may get to the point that mainstream religious belief will become an embarrassment for the majority and will be treated like astrology is now by most people.

      PS: Why do the two “notify me of…” seem to randomly shift order now under “Post Comment”?

      1. I agree – I considered putting neuroscience in, got distracted and forgot about it again.

        I think a lot of religious people are unaware about how much is already known. Recently I read a very interesting article that showed you could disrupt someone’s moral judgment simply by applying a magnetic field to the appropriate area of the brain. This pretty much rules out the idea that morals come from God. Unless you want to accept that God can’t transmit his morality through a little magnetic field, of course.

        1. Agreed. And, I think that Sam Harris, with his PhD in Neuroscience now under his belt, is embarking on this very quest with great seriousness. I’m looking forward to reading about the results of his, and, all of the others who will work on this.

      1. At least it isn’t actually helping.

        I have to say, though, that the wording of the Big Bang question that they took out is exceptionally poor.

        But here we have another great example of the waffling you get when trying to defend accommodationism:

        When Science asked Bruer if individuals who did not accept evolution or the big bang to be true could be described as scientifically literate, he said: “There are many biologists and philosophers of science who are highly scientifically literate who question certain aspects of the theory of evolution,” adding that such questioning has led to improved understanding of evolutionary theory. When asked if he expected those academics to answer “false” to the statement about humans having evolved from earlier species, Bruer said: “On that particular point, no.”

      2. The board member who took the lead in removing the text was John Bruer, a philosopher who heads the St. Louis, Missouri-based James S. McDonnell Foundation.

        I can’t resist the chance to pounce on philosophy of course. The problem of philosophy being confused with empiricism is compounding accommodationism and vice versa.

        So unless we can chuck religion from society (unlikely), we have to keep weeding non-fact based reasoning from science. “Eternal vigilance is the price of knowledge.”

        “There are many biologists and philosophers of science who are highly scientifically literate who question certain aspects of the theory of evolution,” adding that such questioning has led to improved understanding of evolutionary theory.

        I’m not aware that philosophy has made any factual contribution in science ever. I’m aware that philosophy has been a great hinder against empiricism. (Aristotle is a prime example.) The cluelessness and inaptness of Bruer’s claim is astounding.

        It is amazing that Bruer has managed to get into two separate leading positions in science. It is akin to let the catholic church leader pontificate on sexual behavior.

  3. “we must face a fundamental question … Is there really a spirit realm occupied by supernatural beings …”

    And can we actually even assign an intelligible meaning to the word “supernatural”?

    1. Yes. It belongs to the logical set completion of natural processes. In fact, such things as non-causality and non-conservation of symmetries (say, energy) is often properties of theistic ideas.

      Of course, if you need an exact definition, you are probably out of luck since those ideas are non-consistent. [And after all these “non-“, they still posit that _atheism_ is defined by a “negative claim”! Really?!] But as often in such cases you can contain the domain in something definable.

    2. “And can we actually even assign an intelligible meaning to the word “supernatural”?”

      I’ve never seen one. This is perhaps the most compelling reason that I have little doubt that I will die an atheist. “The supernatural” is not even a coherent concept in priciple, let alone a plausible phenomenon in fact.

  4. I have read Lewis-Williams’ book “The Mind in the Cave”, in which he describes his idea about stone-age cave paintings and religion at length. It is a brilliant, beautifully written and very convincing book. I loved it and I feel I understand what was going on in those caves thousands of years ago in a way I never would have believed possible previously.

    I whole-heartedly recommend it.

  5. ““we must face a fundamental question … Is there really a spirit realm occupied by supernatural beings …”

    And can we actually even assign an intelligible meaning to the word “supernatural”?”

    Karl Rove would leap at the opportunity to define his political opponent. As atheists, we should also take advantage of opportunities to define terms, and to frame issues so our ‘opponents’ actually confront the “fundamental question(s)”.

    Based on this article, a working atheistically-framed definition of ‘supernatural’ would be ‘imaginary’ or ‘only in your head’.

    I have often thought that we atheists have missed wonderful opportunities to publically pose David Lewis-Williams’ fundamental question: “Is there really a spirit realm occupied by supernatural beings?”. This simple question really does get to the quick of the issue, doesn’t it? Plant a seed of doubt in a believer’s heart on this issue and half the battle is won. And it just begs to be used theatrically.

    Every atheist group around the world should have their own annual publicity stunt to offer any and all deities, and any and all intercessory prayers, to demonstrate their power through a ‘Feat of Strength”, to riff on Festivus. Think of the possibilities for humor! And for interviews.

    1. The idea of a spirit realm inhabited by supernatural entities is only half the point. Religious believers also maintain that these supernatural entities physically interfere with the natural world – either by speaking to humans, by altering the laws of nature from time to time, or in the case of Jesus, for example, by simultaneously doing both.

      1. “The idea of a spirit realm inhabited by supernatural entities is only half the point. Religious believers also maintain that these supernatural entities physically interfere with the natural world – either by speaking to humans, by altering the laws of nature from time to time, or in the case of Jesus, for example, by simultaneously doing both.”

        The more I think about the religious world-view, the more it seems like living in Disneyland. Maybe that’s why religious people like their world-view so much. Except that in Disneyland (I imagine, never having been there), you try not to think about what’s going on behind the scenes. Imagine a Disneyland where the customers pray and make offerings to Walt and the mechanics.

        (I would only ever visit D. if I could see round the back. Not sure if a guided tour would count, either, since of course they’d show you only a sanitised version. A friend who lives in LA calls it “Mauswitz”.)

    2. “Based on this article, a working atheistically-framed definition of ’supernatural’ would be ‘imaginary’ or ‘only in your head’.”

      That is not so much a definition as a conclusion – which is most probably correct, but is jumping beyond where I was trying to get. What I was trying to ask is whether a definition of ‘supernatural’ can be found that actually makes it worthwhile to try to answer the original question. As Sigmund has hinted, it appears that most people who try to defend the existence of the ‘supernatural’ have barely the haziest idea of what it is they are actually asserting. On the one hand they assert that the supernatural is outside of nature and unobservable – and on the other hand they assert the opposite.

  6. Thanks for the post. As with any subject, the veracity of religion depends on ones definition. In presupposing its beginnings, imagination is essential. For me, everyone who probes life for values and meaning is on a religious course–referring to the root term religio which is variously defined as “linking back” or “binding”.

    Since early religious myths and rituals were oral, and as contemporary study shows, ever-changing with new knowledge, we can only speculate as to the meaning of early burials and cave paintings.

    As with any subject which edges beyond rational proofs, we choose a position, albeit tentative, to be modified in light of new knowledge.

    The current discord between scientific/atheism and creationism/religion excludes the broader view of religion which sees atheism/theism/non-theism as personal views held, not facts known.

    What is lost in this narrow debate is the possibility that religion is, at its core and in its beginning, merely a way of imagining that which is not known and expressing it in stories to be continuously updated as new knowledge is formed.

    The idea of religion being strictly about the supernatural is a limited view. For me, religion is about what may have been humankind’s first question, “What the…?” the answer to which keeps moving as we expand knowledge.

    On that basis, I see religion ending when we know it all. Can humans ever know everything? I don’t think so. Imagination is how we “see” beyond the known and religion begins with imagination. It reaches terminus maximus when someone tries to prove it. It’ll never happen.

    1. religion is […] a way of imagining that which is not known and expressing it in stories to be continuously updated

      The problem with religious metaphor, and especially in the context of an “anthropologist’s eye over the origins and continued existence of religion”, is that the earliest evidence for religion is ritualistic and artefactual, not metaphorical text.

      You claim that early religious myths and rituals were oral. I’m certain that you can find oral myths in modern societies, but that doesn’t test historical claims. In fact, looking at the roots of burial ritual it seems you can probably find it in other species. (Chimps and elephants have been claimed to cover their dead; it is googeable if not peer reviewed.)

      What are the chances that religion is a pervasive societal invention for “imagining that which is not known” (whatever that means) and not an evolved characteristic? Slim to none, at a guess.

      1. Your last paragraph, “What are the chances…” lights the heart of the problem for me. Its resolution demands more time and description than a simple post and my limited scholarship allows.

        “imagining what is not known” is my phrase for fantasy as opposed to “what is known” being fact. In my vocabulary, comprehension covers a range of thought from fact to fantasy which have proof and no proof, respectively, with fiction in between.

        I see religion–the linking of humankind to the whole in a meaning or value system–as the human effort to embrace the one’s unknown through imagination.

        As for species covering their dead, we can speculate as to the human causation, but are hard pressed to explain what guides other species to engage in such activities.

        Thanks for your response. I am probably a .4 in evolution and a .6 in religion, both on scales of 1.0, trying to move forward in my understanding of both.

    2. What is lost in this narrow debate is the possibility that religion is, at its core and in its beginning, merely a way of imagining that which is not known and expressing it in stories to be continuously updated as new knowledge is formed.

      Is that “continuously updated” part of your definition a necessary component of your definition? Because I don’t see much continuous updating in modern religions; among the individual people, yes, but among the church dogma and basis of a religion, very little or none. When was the last time the Bible was updated with new information?

      And, what’s the difference between a way of imagining and a way of knowing? I submit that there is one obvious difference: a way of knowing includes some reference back to reality, while a way of imagining includes no such constraint. How is a way of imagining at all valuable, here in the real world?

      1. “I don’t see much continuous updating in modern religions…”

        Almost none offered to the general public, a considerable amount within and among the scholars, but only the diligent inquirer can find it (You have to attend the meetings, the papers of which find little distribution.)

        “… (withing) the church dogma and basis of a religion, very little or none”

        Precisely.

        “When was the last time the Bible was updated with new information?”

        Never, only new translations are offered, but the serious religious inquirer reads the Bible as metaphor, not information, to be interpreted in the context of the period written.

        The refusal of religious leaders to include science as an absolute within the religious dialog is one reason so many are leaving their family religion and seeking meaning and values elsewhere.

        It’s a question of where you search for considered religious inquiry. If literalist Christians are your reference, religion is a waste, but if you examine the renderings of progressives, for want of a better word, you may find something worth pondering.

        My current reading is Pathways to Bliss by Joseph Campbell. It fits where I am and the direction I am headed.

        Setting aside traditional reason is easy to do in light of scientific knowledge. The question for many is, “What is life about?” If formal religion doesn’t answer it–and it’s an important personal question–where does one go? To those who, like Socrates, encouraged others to find the answers themselves which Jesus, Buddha and Confucius/Lao-Tzu did as well.

        1. Clearly, science has caused religion to retreat from many areas of human knowledge that it had traditionally held sway over, but I agree with Old Fuzz that it can only be pushed back as far as the curtains of Cartesian Doubt will allow; there’s always going to be a little wiggle room for The Almighty, for whosoever wishes to worship such a thing.

          I’m not sure what to make of the previous comment suggesting that philosophy is a barrier to empiricism. The empirical approach rarely has the luxury of resting on deductive reasoning, and the question of how best to make the most of an otherwise inductive process (ah, Bayes bless us!) seems to be an issue that has and continues to be under the purview of philosophy (Ah, Popper be praised!).

          1. Whenever someone agrees with me I am tempted to review my original thoughts. 😉

            My wondering has to do with what the earliest human thoughts might have been and how they led to reverence for self, others, the all. In my view, the religious experience flowed through individual humans first, then within a community, a collective religious view was formed.

            As people migrated and new cultures developed, religion took on many forms. In my limited study of religions, I find no differences at the core, only at the surface where those who seek an exclusive identity, something which separates them from other humans and the whole.

            Science, especially biology debunks all thoughts of any human’s claim to exclusivity.

            I hope my reading and posting here are not a problem. I am getting much more from this site than I am giving.

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