The Atheists’ Picnic

Julian Bell

  • Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion by David Lewis-Williams
    Thames and Hudson, 320 pp, £18.95, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 500 05164 1

‘God created man.’ There are various ways you might read those words even without looking beyond the scriptures. Set them in the context of archaeology and a different reading altogether suggests itself. Primates turn recognisably human when factors beyond the reach of the senses leave traces in their behaviour. It is an intrusion of the invisible that sets homo sapiens apart from other species. This animal has the unique habit of making one thing stand for another: where prehistoric evidence of that habit shows up, we infer that the agents knew – in the way that we know, and in a way that other creatures seemingly do not – what it is like to contemplate and to relate physical objects, on some plane distinct from the objects themselves. ‘Mind’ is the obvious label for that not exactly material zone. It is not obvious, however, where mind cuts off from the larger bodilessness that we point towards when we speak of God. Perhaps objects interrelate in our individual minds because they are already interrelated within a communal mind. Perhaps understanding is located not in us alone, but in the world about us in the manner of water under the ground, of blood under the skin or the flame within fuel: perhaps it’s a stuff within objects, awaiting release. In which case, homo sapiens becomes sapient by dowsing for that flow – or, to switch metaphors, by seeking spark-points where that fire will catch to illuminate the world.

Engraved ochre block
Engraved ochre block, c.75,000 BCE

Was it in some such matrix that the concepts ‘God’ and ‘man’ first arose? That seems to be the implication when, in the opening pages of Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion, the archaeologist David Lewis-Williams examines the earliest records of symbolic behaviour. It is unlikely we will ever pinpoint just when the human habit of investing objects with significance took hold. But for the moment, until fresh discoveries arrive, the most striking evidence we have comes from the Blombos cave on South Africa’s Cape coast, which was inhabited some 75,000 years ago. Another site along the same coast, Pinnacle Point, indicates that anatomically modern humans had already added an interest in collecting chunks of red ochre to their long-standing use of hand axes and of fire nearly a hundred thousand years before that. It was occupants of Blombos, however, who fashioned what Lewis-Williams calls ‘the world’s oldest objets d’art’, when they scored a linear design onto two small blocks of ochre, each the size of a box of cook’s matches, making their marks on one of the long narrow faces – on the striking panel, as it were. What was the purpose of the patterns? Perhaps, Lewis-Williams writes, they ‘refer to something inside the ochre’ – a pre-eminently symbolic substance, he suggests, in its intense inherent redness – ‘rather as the title on a book spine refers to what is inside the volume’. He pursues the speculation further: ‘We may have here an early hint of an important component of religious thought: immanence. Gods and supernatural powers can be inside statues, mountains, lakes, seas, nature itself, and of course people.’

We also have here – though the fact does not concern Lewis-Williams – our earliest evidence of systematic line-drawing. The ends of the blocks were flattened to make planes suitable for patterning. The closed off criss-cross hatchings rendered on one block roughly correspond to those on the other; the intervals and intersections of the scorings aim at regularity. Such patterning makes best sense as a conscious stab at perfection. Beyond each scratch that we can see, there lay an intended ideal geometry, luring the draughtsman on. A pure, complete and cohesive network of interrelations was evidently the endpoint. If we take these little chunks of red mineral seriously – if we accept that as 3D objects, they possessed a symbolic charge that set them apart from their environment and that they were in effect keys to unlock its meanings – then we might also consider that the scratches on the objects’ 2D planes had to do with thought as a weightless, abstract thread, one fit to weave the environment around it into unity. Religion, Lewis-Williams might have added, has always shuffled from one foot to the other: here it isolates some object, place or person and declares them special, there it proposes to embrace everything in a resolved coherence.

Lewis-Williams’s pen-picture of the Blombos cave, on a high cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean, is brisk and vivid – a testimony to skills honed over fifty years of lecturing. His career in archaeology began elsewhere in South Africa, in pursuit of the nation’s most haunting relics, the vast corpus of rock paintings left by the retreating San (or Bushmen) after farmers drove them from the land during the mid-19th century. As of the 1960s, this field of research was still being freshly harvested. It was Lewis-Williams’s senior colleague Patricia Vinnicombe who brought out the foundational study of San rock art, People of the Eland, in 1976. Her book, recently republished,[*] is a monumentally thorough documentation of exquisite, eloquent paintings and, moreover, a remarkable biographical document. Vinnicombe set out as a girl on horseback, trekking the Drakensberg hills above her own family’s farm: the figure-filled pictures she noticed on the rocks sent her poring through grim newspaper reports of dispossession and massacre from just a couple of generations back, with which many of the depicted scenes turned out uncannily to correspond. But her ever widening investigations of San life and thought shifted her interests towards a structuralist theorisation of the field: by the book’s conclusion, she was serenely contemplating a Lévi-Straussian cat’s cradle of cultural oppositions.

Lewis-Williams pursued a contrary route. He sifted the ethnographic evidence – picture tracings, testimonies from the last of the Drakensberg’s departed San, field reports on those still living in the Kalahari desert – until he had to his own satisfaction isolated its dominant theme: the fact that trances, induced by communal dancing, led the San to believe that they lived in a tiered cosmos. Whatever they saw happening at ground level related to what happened in the skies above and in the earth below, and their paintings were a means to connect with those spirit-ruled zones. Lewis-Williams wanted not so much to explore how that cosmology was expressed as to determine exactly what made these people think this way. The task required that he cross disciplines: it lay, in a word, in neurology. From the late 1980s, he became a frontman for an approach to the study of hunter-gatherer societies headlined by the words ‘entoptics’ and ‘shamanism’. Entoptics is what you see as you enter a trance: shapes generated by activity in your own stimulated brain, either nakedly geometric in appearance or dressed up in costumes from your culture’s mythic wardrobe, often followed by wholly hallucinatory scenes and stories. Lewis-Williams claimed to identify these little twists of neural scrap metal – zigzagged, chequered or cupular – in the rock art, not just of the San, but of other small-scale societies across time and space. The study of such ‘shamanic’ cultures, in which affairs typically coalesced around a cosmos-hopping thaumaturge, had major historical implications. For this was the way all our ancestors originally lived: the San were our nearest available witnesses to the distant and elusive palaeolithic age.

The Mind in the Cave (2002) put Lewis-Williams’s researches before the general public. The famous subterranean art shows of southern France and Spain, painted between 30,000 and 12,000 years ago, became the foreground of the discussion. When hunter-gatherers plunged inside the limestone flanks of the Dordogne and the Ariège, Lewis-Williams argued, they believed they were passing into a spirit zone. For them, the walls of the caves were ‘membranes’: running their eyes and hands over the passages’ bumps and hollows, they sensed the ghost-animals who dwelled within the rock. Painting them, ‘they reached out to their emotionally charged visions and tried to touch them, to hold them in place … They were not inventing images. They were merely touching what was already there.’ Lewis-Williams’s fetchingly empathetic interpretations of the art were underpinned by schemata of how minds operate. The ‘entoptic’ zigzags and chequers appearing on Lascaux’s walls alongside the visionary bison suggest that the cave-art complex was intended to sustain an acutely ‘intensified consciousness’, a state of mind which lifted upwards from the thought patterns of daily activity rather than falling down away from them in the manner of sleep and dreaming. At the same time, the actual construction of that palaeolithic Gesamtkunstwerk indicates considerable social organisation – the artists must have built platforms to paint the 13-foot-high ceiling of its ‘Hall of the Bulls’ – and hence must point us to a proto-politics, centred around a master of ceremonies. Lewis-Williams’s book bound the neurological and the sociological together into a single argument.

His feat was all the smarter for being highly self-conscious. In its course, the professor pushed his way forward through the history of palaeolithic studies, appraising and criticising predecessors, before borrowing from the philosopher Alison Wylie a name for his own method. He was ‘cabling’, he claimed: that is, ‘intertwining multiple strands of evidence’. Where – as so often in archaeology – one such strand was weak and incomplete, strands from associated fields of research could carry the weight instead, allowing the story to clamber up towards a plateau of coherence. What height, then, had Lewis-Williams arrived at? Not actually at ‘an origin of image-making’, as one of the book’s chapter titles brashly claimed: he never fully told us why one cave-goer should first bring paint to the rockface nor why a second should make sense of the resultant markings, let alone why they and the San rendered their spirit-animals with such marvellous lyrical naturalism. (Besides, 45,000 years separate the Blombos engravings from the earliest cave art, a gap from which we have next to no evidence of complex symbolism: our ignorance remains stupendous.)

And yet the integrated perspective gained by Lewis-Williams’s cabling of disciplines opened up plenty of interesting new questions. If at Lascaux we glimpse the beginnings of social stratification, how did that process develop, and how did it interact with the arrival of agriculture? Inside the Neolithic Mind (2005), which Lewis-Williams wrote with a colleague, David Pearce, carried the inquiry over to the megalithic sites: first to the astonishing ‘temple’ constructed around 9600 BCE at Göbekli Tepe in south-eastern Turkey, one of the major archaeological discoveries of our era; then on from the Near East to Stonehenge and Newgrange, and hence into the third millennium BCE. This successor volume, equally rich in bold conjectures, took care to justify and qualify the seemingly provocative reductionism of the neurological approach. Their argument, they pleaded, was ‘in no way deterministic’, for ‘all the stages and experiences of consciousness that we distinguish are mediated by culture.’

It turns out, now, that Lewis-Williams wants to carry his interpretation of history forward yet again – through the classical world and on into the present. It turns out that in the course of his long scientific career he has been assiduously going through the library of great thinkers and making critical notes. It turns out that in his mid-seventies he feels there is something he ought to let the world know. He wants to make it clear that the anthropological empathy colouring his earlier writings was merely a heuristic ploy. Let there be no doubt: those San trance-dancers, those cave-painters, those megalith-erectors – those countless subscribers, across the millennia, to the epiphenomena of an intensified consciousness – have all been in the grip of a grievous and fundamental error. The process of identifying that error started in 585 BCE, when Thales of Miletus combined observations and mathematics correctly to predict a solar eclipse. From then onwards, very haltingly at first and yet, from the 17th century, inexorably, scientific reason has been rolling back the brain’s wayward tendencies. For sure, those tendencies are innate, but then so is the appendix: from a modern Darwinian perspective, they’re similarly anomalous features of the organism. Surely by now those who would erect an ontology on them are looking pretty cornered. Sooner or later, they’ll be forced into saying it. Go on, it’s simple: ‘There is no God.’

And so the intrepid mountaineer hauls himself up over the final overhang – and collapses into a company of picnickers. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris motored up to his chosen summit a while ago; and here, sure enough, stepping forward to pat the newcomer on the back and welcome him along, who should it be but Philip Pullman? ‘Magnificent … a sane, courteous and devastating criticism of religion,’ reads his statutory puff on the dust jacket of the latest addition to the New Atheist library. Lewis-Williams, however, makes a hesitant arrival. The seasoned communicator of archaeologists’ excitements, the masterly critic of methodologies, he has too dry a temper for any popular cut and thrust. In his preface he expresses scepticism about the effectiveness of his fellow atheists’ tracts and claims that he’s joining their company ‘reluctantly’.

Yet within a few pages, he too feels obliged to hack and slash his way through Western history. Overshadowed by déjà vu and a weary sense of duty, his efforts make for stale, sour reading. The usual suspects are named: authoritarian Plato; ‘a man of the first century AD named Saul’ who ‘hailed from Tarsus’ (what age group is this pitched at?); the ‘wily’ Emperor Constantine; and Augustine and Aquinas, with ‘their obsessed, twisted minds’. At last, after the benighted Middle Ages (‘another country, another world, and a distasteful one at that’), glimmers of reason start to shine through (‘all in all, Newton was a man of mixed beliefs’) before Darwin sheds his sunlight. And yet even today, we find supposed men of reason – those theologians across campus – determined to go on blundering around in the dark!

Lewis-Williams sounds not just cross with most of history, but fed up with everything from ritual dances and cathedrals (‘they all come down to tinkering with the neurology of the brain’) to Eastern meditation (‘no more than consciousness fiddling’). He cares nothing for level-headedness or, pace Philip Pullman, for courtesy. ‘How ghastly,’ he yelps, gawping at the ritual bloodlettings of the Maya. In fact, he sounds pretty peeved with the universe itself. ‘The world and all that is in it is actually a higgledy-piggledy, wasteful mess … Evolutionary history is littered with wasteful, meaningless dead-ends. Perhaps human beings are another.’

Possibly – but it’s a poor way to win them over. No doubt Lewis-Williams should have taken lessons in rhetorical comportment from the bullish, sanguine Daniel Dennett, whose Breaking the Spell (2006) is by far the best mannered of the atheist tracts. ‘The world is sacred,’ Dennett paradoxically affirms, even while he tries to subsume sacredness within a story of Darwinian causation: yes, he urges his all too God-respecting fellow Americans, you could at once be ontologically virtuous and still have your epiphanic cakes and ale. Nonetheless, when it comes to content, the grumpy neuro-archaeologist may just have the edge over the jaunty philosopher. Dennett’s speculations as to how religion might have evolved among palaeolithic humans, drawing on the work of anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran, hardly come together in a reliable ‘cabling’: rather, his narrative is a flimsy clutch of ‘what ifs’, patched up with this or that ‘plausible candidate for filling in the blank’, as he himself puts it. Religion must certainly have evolved, but it is anything but certain that Dennett’s book tells us how. In the middle three chapters of Conceiving God’s ten – the book’s most worthwhile section – Lewis-Williams gives the issues a tighter conceptualisation. God, he reckons, has been a persistent presence in human affairs because a trinity of interlocking categories sustains him. ‘Religious experience’, tied to certain brain states, generates socially arbitrated systems of ‘religious belief’, and these get expressed in concrete, hierarchical forms of ‘religious practice’ – which in turn foment new experiences. His familiarity with the neurology of trances and shamanic ‘inner journeys’ makes the chapter on ‘experience’ particularly incisive.

Does his conceptualisation here support his assertion that there is no God? Clearly, if it works, it adds a level to our preceding descriptions of religion. It doesn’t however cancel them. If you tell me, ‘The thermometer reads -7º centigrade,’ you aren’t superseding my remark that ‘it’s bitterly cold.’ When you say ‘I sense the presence of God’ and I say, ‘The right temporal lobe of your brain is aroused,’ we have no cause to argue. What, then, is the order of priority here? The pervasive coloration of affairs with intention and emotion that’s implicit in calling the cold ‘bitter’ – or for that matter in remarks on the cosmic weather, ranging from ‘God loves us’ to ‘the world is a wasteful mess’ – is fundamental to any narrative of our personal experience and will not be wished away. And without personal experience we have nothing: personal experience comes first. At the same time it constantly awaits correction. When the temperature drops to -12º C that ‘bitter’ may acquire a retrospective sweetness; equally, you may come to realise that your inward vision left you blind to your next-door neighbour’s distress. Against that perspectival flux, the abstract linear registration of the thermometer – and of science in general – seems to offer a necessary neutral constant.

To ring-fence events from scientific description, as the religious-minded often do, to insist that, here and there, spiritual weeds ‘miraculously’ burst through the world’s physical tarmac, is essentially incoherent. At root, there can only be one structure of causation – call it physical, call it spiritual, call it what you like – because that’s what causation is: it’s how all events are temporally related. It seems, however, that we have at least two indispensable ways to describe events and that these track each other somewhat inadequately. Maybe we can think of them as ‘levels’ – accepting, like the San, that we inhabit a tiered cosmos – but somehow we have to keep both in view. That, it seems to me, is one of the challenges taken on by theology: to attend to the personal, intention-suffused perspective that seizes on a given place (or person, or chunk of bright ochre, or archaeological discovery) and affirms it to be crucial, at the same time reconciling it with the contemplation of place-neutral, ideal, linear pattern, the type of vision promised by science.

I think theology enrages Lewis-Williams and his fellow New Atheists, partly no doubt because they would prefer their enemies to be stupid, but chiefly because it assails their own sentimental ring-fencing: they zealously cherish their apprehensions of a pure, intention-free Darwinian universal story. Such a vision of the cosmos can be beautiful and spiritually consoling – it is, after all, a prospect of selflessness – and they long for nothing to disrupt it. Threatened, claustrophobically, by any reminder that the totality of experience is stained through and through with feeling and that large swathes of human behaviour make no sense without that acknowledgment, the atheists fire barrages of angry, distracting flak – witness Lewis-Williams’s specious claim that ‘supernaturalism inevitably leads to oppressive government’ – but they also, more reasonably, ask their assailants to spell out what character any creator of such a world as this could have.

That question forms the flipside of the scientific question that Lewis-Williams tries to answer – ‘Why are human beings typically religious?’ – and probably neither of them will ever get a wholly satisfying reply. Suppose I am lying very ill in a hospital ward. The viruses in my body and those dragging my neighbour to an agonising death, not to mention the cold pasta bake and the Daily Mail on my bedside tray: all these, by any intelligible theology, are either as God wills, or ‘in’ his nature somehow – he’s answerable for them, anyway. Suppose that, praying to God, I gain the strength to make an unlikely recovery; and suppose I then thank God for his mercy. If I do so, I do not assert that my neighbour failed to pray hard enough, nor that the hospital should now drop the forms of medical care that – in the staff’s view – enabled me to live. I simply claim that this is the minimal necessary story into which my own experience fits. My recovery is my chunk of ochre, my place to start. If my prayer of thanks for it could be recast as a statement, it might not exactly be refutable, but it would be patently incomplete and I would have no idea how to perfect it. Nonetheless, all causes and events most certainly form a single fabric, and seeking to live, trying to retain a conscious purchase on that unity, I implicitly state both that I stand dependent to it and that it is precious. There is a way to sing those statements: ‘God created me, and God is good,’ the voices go; though you may prefer to stand aside from the song.

[*] Wits, 400 pp., R650, November 2009, 978 1 86814 497 6