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David Lewis-Williams


The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
At the end of his previous book,The Mind in the Cave, Lewis-Williams wrote that the mental capacity that produced the great cave paintings of the Late Palaeolithic "also produced the potentially disastrous conviction that God speaks to us, telling us how to conduct our own lives and how other people should conduct theirs." This book begins where the previous one left off. It is an examination of how the human mind automatically generates belief in a world of spirits and why the religions that result from that belief should be rejected.

In other words, Lewis-Williams is in the same camp as as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, and his rejection of religion as divisive and potentially dangerous is as uncompromising as theirs. He takes it for granted that science and religion are based on diametrically opposed views of the world and that there can be no compromise between them. I think myself that this opposition is too stark. Historically, religion and science have not always been so unreconciled. In the first half of the nineteenth century, when Darwin was meditating his theory, evolution was already "in the air" as a result of the speculations of churchmen (see The Darwinian Revolution, by Michael Ruse).

The first few chapters are largely historical and trace how the place of religion in Western society came to be gradually questioned in the light of scientific advance, culminating in the work of Darwin and Wallace. There will not be much here that is not familiar to those who have read other modern critics of religion, although I was startled to find that St Thomas Aquinas had bizarre ideas about the sexual activity of "succubuses" and "incubuses" with humans.

The most interesting part of the book begins with Chapter 5, where Lewis-Williams starts to put forward his own ideas about why religion exists. As readers of his earlier book will know, he attaches a lot of importance to altered states of consciousness. In this he differs from others such as Pascal Boyer, who think that religion can be explained wholly in terms of normal psychology. Lewis-Williams holds that there is a spectrum of consciousness, ranging from the normal waking state through various stages leading to deep trance. Dreams are also part of the spectrum. The capacity to experience these states is wired into the human brain, and this is what gives rise to religion. Humans did not have to invent a supernatural world; it was a natural inference from their range of experience.

In subsequent chapters Lewis-Williams explores the relevance of his ideas for the development of religious belief and religious practice. This leads up to a chapter on Stone Age religion, in which he looks in a fair amount of detail at the Voip cave system in south-western France. Contrary to what some maintain, he thinks it is possible to reconstruct at least part of what these ancient people believed about the cosmos and their place within it.

In the following chapter there is a discussion of the visions of the 12th-century mystic Hildegaard of Bingen. Lewis-Williams follows Oliver Sacks and others in ascribing these experiences to migraine auras, which he regards as yet another form of altered consciousness. He finds important similarities between these visions as recorded in manuscripts of the time and the visions painted by San artists in South Africa.

It could be objected that Hildegaard's visions were pathological and those of the San were not, but Lewis-Williams does not think this is important. "In both contexts the scotoma [loss of part of the visual field], whether triggered by migraine or rhythmically induced trance, was taken to be evidence for supernatural revelation." Both Hildegaard and the San interpreted their visions in the light of their own belief systems. "In that they were not much different from Palaeolithic cave painters, the Maya, biblical prophets, and present-day charismatic Christians."

I think that Lewis-Williams is right to emphasise the role of altered states of consciousness in the genesis of religion. As he says, they do not explain everything about religion but it is hardly credible that they have not influenced it profoundly. And the case for thinking that the experience of such states was the root cause for belief in a supernatural world is surely a strong one. For these reasons, the book should not be missed by anyone who is interested in the question of why religion exists.

18 February 2011

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%T Conceiving God
%S The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion
%A Lewis-Williams, David
%I Thames & Hudson
%C London
%D 2010
%G ISBN 978-0-500-05164-1
%P 300pp
%K religion
%O illustrated

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