An anthropologist takes on Richard Dawkins

Believers: Faith in Human Nature
By Martin Konner,
Norton, 336pp, £22/$28.95

As everyone from Teilhard de Chardin to Albert Einstein has taught us, religion and science do not need to be in conflict. Just as the greatest philosophers often reach a point where religion is the only answer, so scientific discovery eventually runs into questions whose answers are ultimately unknowable. But in recent years there has been a rise among some scientists of a militant atheism, dismissing thousands of years of history, instruction, art and belief as mere fairy tales for the feeble-minded.

In his new book, Believers, the renowned anthropologist Melvin Konner takes on some of these thinkers, a quartet of atheists known as the “Four Horsemen” – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens – and applies neuroscience to the question of religious belief, reaching some quite startling conclusions.

Konner, a former Orthodox Jew, himself no longer believes in God, but he does not think faith should fade away and believes it serves a valuable purpose. He is firmly on the side of thinkers who expand our understanding of the universe rather than diminish it, quoting with approval the astrophysicist Carolyn Porco’s retort to Bertrand Russell’s “cosmic teapot” argument. Briefly, Russell wrote that “if [he] were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving around the sun in an elliptical orbit, no one would be able to disprove [his] assertion provided [he] were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.” Porco responded that she could in fact prove that not one but perhaps as many as a billion teapots are in orbit around the sun, with the proviso that they are all on Earth.

The early sections of this book are unlikely to surprise readers. Konner points out the different ways various thinkers and psychoanalysts have regarded religion, neatly explaining how for Freud religion is childish, but for Jung what’s really childish is too much passion for reason. But where he may lose some is in his long sections on the part alcohol and drug abuse can play in belief. He notes that the Bible does caution against drunkenness, with the examples of an intoxicated Noah exposing himself to his sons and Lot committing incest with his daughters. But he then explains just how many Jewish ceremonies and festivals involve what some would consider an irresponsible amount of alcohol.

After discussing how peyote can bring believers closer to God, he turns to one of Dawkins’s most famous rhetorical gambits, where he shows a picture of a Nativity play from the Independent, in which three four-year-olds playing Wise Men are captioned as a Sikh, a Muslim and a Christian. Dawkins suggests it is “child abuse” to label a four-year-old with the religion of their parents and argues that if “you should hear the words ‘Catholic child’ and the child is young, it should sound like fingernails scraping on a blackboard”. Konner sensibly points out that “when we call a child Catholic, we do not mean that she understands Catholic theology; we mean she is growing up in a Catholic family with Catholic parents who are raising her in that faith.”

But then Konner goes further, and this is where it gets interesting (and no doubt, for some, disturbing), suggesting that the religious impulse might not be merely a cultural inheritance, but also a genetic one. He suggests that just as some people get closer to God through drink or drugs, so others have religious experience “because of brain activity that doctors call abnormal”. And then he makes the startling pronouncement: “Religious people have fewer serotonin 1A receptors, which could mean that they have more natural day-to-day stimulation of the 2A receptors involved in the brain’s own hallucinogenic effects.”

So what does this mean? That religious people live in a 3D, IMAX, 4K universe while the rest of the world wander around seeing their surroundings in lo-fidelity black and white? It would certainly explain why Dawkins seems so permanently miserable.

Alongside this headline revelation, Konner offers lots of other bizarre observations (being religious, he argues, is about half as heritable as height, yet twice as heritable as having a penchant for risk-taking).

Konner seems like a mischievous sort, and it’s sometimes unclear whether he is building up to a grand thesis or just having fun with his scientific observations. For a man of science, he can occasionally seem a bit like a crank in a bar, telling you he has some magic vegetables in the boot of his car that will help you see the face of God in the clouds above. But for all that, this book stretched my perception of belief in a way few other books have, and is an intellectual treat for the devout and the agnostic alike.