An Atheist's History of Belief by Matthew Kneale

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An Atheist's History of Belief by Matthew Kneale

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Susmita Chatto
Reviewed by Susmita Chatto
Summary: An objective examination of the history of belief and religion, spanning several ages and including many schools of thought.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 262 Date: June 2014
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099584421

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I’ve been an atheist since I was old enough to take a view on the subject. (Many atheists would argue that we’re all atheists at birth, but that’s not a subject for a book review). I did have to take Religious Studies at school but have entirely forgotten almost everything I learned!

The result is that most cultural references involving religion are lost on me. Between that issue and having some friends and family members with religious beliefs, it occurred to me it might be good to gain some understanding of their perspective. I had been pondering this for some time when I came across this book – and it occurred to me that reading up on the subject from an atheist’s perspective was probably the most palatable way for me to do so.

Presenting material of this nature to me is a challenge; over the years, I’ve come to believe (no pun intended!) that I have a filter on my brain which automatically removes anything I might pick up about religion. But Kneale’s work is cleverly presented and his perspective – wanting to know why people believe what they believe – means the book is not just an account of the history of belief but a creatively presented and thought-provoking piece of work.

Kneale has gone to the very heart of the issue, examining basic concepts including paradise, reincarnation and monotheism. These are all carefully examined through many stages of civilisation.

The book is divided by concepts, looking at the 'inventions' of gods, paradise and even the end of the world. The book also looks at how major movements developed and divided over time, bringing us up to the modern day. It also includes Marxism, witchcraft and other major movements and belief systems.

A huge vat of knowledge is packed into this book; it actually contains an awful lot more information than you might think, given the size of it, and this is a tribute to Kneale’s beautifully structured and economical writing.

One thing that was entirely new to me was the depth of information on the ancient world. If you have no knowledge of the period, don’t be put off; I had no knowledge and found that the material was presented in an interesting and accessible way. Kneale has a major strength here – this could easily have been a dry piece of work, but now I am planning to read some of Kneale’s fiction too, as his storytelling skills shine through this piece of non-fiction.

A particular highlight for me was his insight into the fear of witchcraft that gripped Renaissance Europe. Highlighting the oddity of witchcraft trials taking place during a period we associate with learning and expansion of the mind rather than paranoia and hysteria, Kneale points out that the period of religious quiet may have actively led to this state of affairs, saying was not as if the devil had retired. If his followers could no longer be found in heretical sects, then they must be elsewhere.

I should be clear; Kneale is extremely respectful of religion throughout this book. However, this insight made me think of how much of human history has been the result of sheer paranoia; a fascinating concept.

Indeed, for me, there are a number of new debates to be had as a result of reading this book. But this is a book review and not The World According to Susmita, so I’ll refrain from having those debates here and simply say that this book will be of great interest to believers and non-believers alike. It could comfortably command a place on a Philosophy course for that reason alone and it is a really useful book for atheists who might need to refresh their knowledge on the major subject of belief.

If this book appeals then we can also recommend Global Modernity and Other Essays by Tom Rubens and The Forbidden Tree: History or Folklore? by Jabulani Midzi.

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Buy An Atheist's History of Belief by Matthew Kneale at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy An Atheist's History of Belief by Matthew Kneale at


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