About the Reviews | New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects | Personal Choice

Melvin Konner


Faith in Human Nature

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Melvin Konner is a medically qualified anthropologist who had a conventional Jewish upbringing and was a convinced believer in God until, at the age of seventeen, he lost his faith and became an atheist. But in this book he takes issue with four prominent atheists, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens—"the Quartet".

According to these authors, religion is an irrational and potentially dangerous superstition which is fated to disappear, and the sooner this happens the better. But Konner doesn't think that religious belief is necessarily a bad thing, nor does he believe it will disappear in the foreseeable future.

Predictions by intellectuals about the demise of religion and the end of faith have persisted since at least the eighteenth century. If the latest such predictions are right, they will be the first. The great majority of people in the world are religious, and they have more children than nonbelievers do. There is evidence that religious people are happier, more altruistic and cooperative (at least with co-religionists) and healthier than those without faith.
Attempting to explain the existence of religion, Konner says, has become a cottage industry, with a lot of theorising based often on rather shaky foundations. There seem to be two main kinds of theory on offer. Either religion is a by-product of how our brains work and has no real importance, or else it has evolved because it provides benefits at least for group cohesion (group selection theories). Konner favours the second possibility, although he is sceptical about claims for specific brain adaptations that produce religious belief (a "God map").

Konner concludes that in the future conventional forms of religion will continue to decline but many of their former adherents will become "unconventionally spiritual". This is an important and expanding category, whose members declare themselves as "nones" in surveys of religious views.

I'm broadly in agreement with Konner's criticism of the extreme position taken up by some prominent atheists, so I started his book with a sense of positive expectation. This lasted while I was reading the introduction but then started to evaporate as I continued. I found the writing to be generally rather diffuse and rambling, with long paragraphs and long chapters, in which ideas and topics succeeded one another a little haphazardly. Some subheadings or two-line spaces between paragraphs to signal the transitions would have helped. Much of the material was already familiar to me and I didn't feel I was getting many new ideas or insights.

Although Konner covers a lot of ground, literally and metaphorically, there are some surprising omissions. For example, he has a lengthy discussion of psychedelic drugs in relation to religious experience and also has a separate section on the probable religious significance of the palaeolithic cave paintings of Europe, hut he fails to mention the important connection between these paintings and psychedelics which has been proposed by David Lewis-Williams in The Mind in the Cave and Conceiving God.

A good feature of the Kindle version is that it makes it easy to check the references in the end notes while one is reading; this is done by clicking the underlined words in the text (although there are no return links). However, the "Further Reading" section is just a short essay describing some books Konner has used himself, which is not particularly helpful.

At least for me, the subject of this book has been treated better by others previously; see, for example, The Ghost in the Universe by Taner Edis and The Meaning of Belief by Tim Crane. Thomas Nagel's essays also provide a perhaps unexpected way to think about atheism.

Incidentally, the Amazon kindle version seems to me to be overpriced.


%T Believers
%S Faith in Human Nature
%A Konner, Melvin
%I W.W. Norton and Company
%C New York
%D 2019
%G ISBN 979-0-39365187-4 (ebook)
%P xxv+245pp
%K religion
%O appendix, notes, index
%O kindle version, downloaded from Amazon 2019
About the Reviews | New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects | Personal Choice