Book Review: Paul F Cockburn ‘An Atheist’s History of Belief’

This piece originally appeared in Humanitie magazine, Winter 2015 

Paul F Cockburn talks to author Matthew Kneale about ‘An Atheist’s History of Belief’

What motivates an author to write a book? Given how much time and energy such an endeavour usually takes, as well as the likely absence of any significant financial reward despite what you might hear, being a full-time novelist is rarely an effective ‘get rich quick’ scheme.

The ultimate answer might appear somewhat selfish. They may not always admit it but most authors write their books because they want to read them. They want them to exist.

Certainly, this was the case with Matthew Kneale. Best known for literary novels such as Whore Banquets and the Whitbread Prize-wining English Passengers, the author found himself  looking for “a book that would give me a simple, straight-forward explanation of all religions, where their ideas came from, how they develnped and how one idea had led to another – all from a non-religious perspective.”

He couldn’t find one.

“A lot of books about religion are from a religious perspective, or you get some excellent history but they tend to cover one specific area” he explained while attending the 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival.

“I just wanted something that covered a lot of ground in a simple, clear way.” So Kneale ultimately decided to write it himself. The result was An Atheist’s History of Belief, published by Bodley Head in 2013, with a slightly expanded paperback edition from Vintage released the following year.

Given that he describes himself in the book’s introduction as “the son of a Manx Methodist atheist and a refugee German Jewish atheist” why did he want to read such a book in the first place?

“I’ve always been interested in religion,’ he said. “I’ve always been curious about it. Even at school assemblies, when hearing readings from ihe Bible, and I was always wondering where it all came from, what if any of it was historically known?”

Living in Rome for several years simply stoked his interest, and he’s the first to point out that it’s a city with “quite a lot of religion in it”, and as a result, he’d already been reading a lot about early Christianity and Judaism. Having, as a student, studied history at Magdalen College, Oxford, he thought an overview of human beliefs was potentially a subject he’d know his way around.

“But when I started looking at all of this I was just amazed.” he said. “Beliefs are so important. Nothing really makes sense unless you know about all these beliefs. You don’t really understand why a lot of the major historical events occurred, or what was going through people’s minds, unless you understand the beliefs in their heads.”

A self-declared “obsessive researcher” he began a vast amount of concentrated research, based mainly on the work of previous historians but with an eye for accuracy. “I’m an obsessive researcher: I research for years” he pointed out. “I tend to he obsessive about getting everything exactly right, so I check and re-check. It was too broad a subject to get back to much of the original texts, so I was to an extent relying more on historians, but I obviously wanted to make sure that I’d got the right historians, and to get verification of the facts.”

Some authors also insist that writing a book is the only way they can learn how to write it – a useful lesson, obviously, one they can then apply to any subsequent hooks. Given this was his first non- fiction book, did Kneale find it particularly challenging?

“I was very self-conscious at first; I rewrote it a number of times.” he admitted. “The first time I wrote it I just hadn’t got the style right; I feel much easier writing non-fiction now, because I’m used to it. To be honest I don’t think it’s as different as you might think because I was trying to use my storytelling skills in this as well, because I wanted the book to be a fun thing to read. Non- fiction can benefit from storytelling as much as fiction.”

Kneale is by no means the first to point out how certain ideas and concepts can be found in different belief systems around the world, but he insists that this isn’t down simply to cultural cross-fertilisation on the back of either war or trade.

Nor is it a sign, as some might suggest, that certain beliefs are necessarily hard-wired into the human brain. From a Cro-Magnon shaman the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, Kneale sees a simple common theme.

“My main idea in the book is that all belief systems, all religions are intended to reassure us against our worst nightmares.” he said. “I see all religions as being an exact mirror of the nightmares of the time. So for example, the nightmares of the hunter-gatherer societies were terrible weather, disease and not being able to find any animals to hunt. These are preoccupation you find in every hunter- gatherer society that’s known about; when painting animals on cave walls, they were trying to contact the spiritual animals, to try and find the animals.

“In the age of agriculture, meantime, you’re frightened about gods turning against you, of vital floods not coming, or diseases eating your crops, so you start making make sure those things don’t happen. Those ideas arise certainly in every society, including the key ones in what’s now Latin America and Mexico – the Incas, the Mayans, the Aztecs. Because they’d been separated from the other civilisations of the world for around 12,000 years, you might expect their religions to be completely different, because they were totally disconnected. Yet actually they were very similar to early Mesopoiamian and early Egyptian religions – which had similar problems with farming going on. So I’d say we’re not very original creatures. We do what the world around us makes us do.”

While some book reviewers have been less than kind about An Atheist’s History of Belief especially the Tom Holland in The Guardian and David L Ulin, in the Los Angeles Times – has Kneale any sense of the reaction to the book from the wider reading public? “I think individuals who read it seem to enjoy it including some who are actually quite religious.” he said. “It’s contentious in that its approach is not religious – it’s about religion but from an irreligious point of view – but I didn’t want to ‘diss’ religion, if you want to use such an expression.

I think religion is an important thing to know about, whereas some of the more scientific atheists just dismiss the whole thing as a complete waste of time.” Naming no names, does Kneale think that’s a mistake? “I think it’s a great sadness” he said, “and I also think you’re not going to understand this world if you don’t understand the ideas that are inside our heads. Whether you believe in them or not, a lot of the ideas that are inside our heads come from religions. I think you enrich your understanding of the world if you know the ideas that fill it.”

‘AN ATHEIST’S HISTORY OF BELIEF’ MATTHEW KNEALE Paperback: 288 pages Publisher: Counterpoint LLC (10 Feb. 2015) Language: English ISBN-10:1619024691 ISBN-13:978-161902469411

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