Conceiving God, I’ve read it

A little while ago I posted about a book I’d just bought called “Conceiving God” by David Lewis-Williams.  I hadn’t read the book at that stage but I have now.
I just wanted to highly recommend it. I don’t think it’s in paperback yet and the hardback costs the best part of $50.  I’m not reviewing it but I thought I’d give people a bit of a taste. The title tells you what it’s about. People invented God. But why?

Lewis-Williams basically relates this to human interpretations of neurological activity, rather than just social and cultural factors, or the “need” to have a god to explain things e.g. migraines… St Hildegard of Bingen was famous for her visions but Lewis-Williams postulates that she may have been a migraine sufferer and there was no other explanation for some of her experiences at the time other than the divine. He gives lots of other examples and includes dreams and near death experiences etc. He also spends a lot of time explaining really old cave art (people thousands of years ago went very deep into caves and decorated them with what he interprets as religious pictures). He spends several chapters on this, focusing on some famous caves in France, the Volp caves of the “Upper Paleolithic”  people (I think this was 16,000-18,000 years ago).  He claims that “people probably took entry into the caves as equivalent to entry into an underworld”.  He manages to somehow link this to near death experiences. Hard to explain, you better read it.

But the joy for me is the profundity of the one liners and the lightning bolts of truth and common sense on almost every page. I’ll mention just a few or I’ll be here all day:

He quotes Dobzhansky

No evidence is powerful enough to force acceptance of a conclusion that is emotionally distasteful (p6).

Scepticism, not faith, is the hallmark of science (p25).

Re science

..its ‘holy scriptures’ lie in the future, not in the past (p33).

Saint …

Paul exhorted his followers to dismiss as ‘craftiness’ any reasoning that began to appear persuasive – an injunction that religious leaders still today urge their followers to heed (p39).

They (theologians) try to use reason to show the reasonableness of unreason (p39)

…Augustine enunciated the malign dictum that unquestioning faith in (ambiguous) revealed knowledge is the road to salvation… (p56).

Theology, like politics, is a matter of compromise (p57).

If God does intervene in the material world, then he exposes himself to scientific investigation (p61).

Science seeks change; religion seeks an eternal God (p63).


…has had to change its stance again and again in the light of scientific discoveries. Science has never adjusted its findings in the light of theological positions (p85)

Darwin and Wallace’s lives illustrate a pattern that recurs through history: both Wallace and Fitzroy were driven deeper into irrationality by the successes of rationality (114).

If a spirit world exists, it must impinge in some way on the material world. How else could we know of its existence? (p117)

They…are constantly on the lookout for things that science can’t explain. The Big Bang is their last resort (p130).

It is better to seek fulfillment than meaning (p131).

A significant part of all religions is devoted to explaining mysteries of their own making (p160).

Because disputes about religion cannot be settled empirically, theology will continue to flourish (p173).

…when should we stop talking about ‘the faithful’ and instead refer to  ‘the gullible’? (p201).

Religious experience is generated by the human nervous system. This explains why religious experiences reported by devotees of diverse religions exhibit parallels, no matter what the specific cultural input may be. Culture does not swamp neurology. (p232).

…much (not all) of religion is concerned with explaining not merely the natural world, as we are repeatedly told, but rather with coming to terms with mental experiences. (p232).

In all religions, ordinary people mistakenly think that ritual specialists know more than they in fact do know  (p 254).

Why is God waiting for us to pray? If we do not pray, will the child go on suffering? (p266).

With good reason, spirituality has been called ‘religion’s poor cousin (p275).

Evolution…has no need of ‘meaning (p277).

The question of the meaning of life is meaningless (p227)

Religion becomes really dangerous when people really believe in a supernatural realm and revealed knowledge. It seems to me that the difference today between Christianity and Islam is that many Christians no longer really believe while most Muslims do (p278).

Repeatedly, science has modified religion, never vice versa (p289).

Great book, profound and very easy to read.


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