Member Reviews


Riveting, insightful, and skeptical. Atheists and theists alike will turn their heads at this one.

Few people understand disbelief as well as Gervais, a truly radical thinker in any circle. Down with the subtle pseudoscience of the New Atheists ... even heavyweights like Dawkins ...! Finally, someone who calls them on their BS and can back it up with rigorous, peer-reviewed research. I can only imagine how high Dawkins's brows will raise if he deigns to read this text ... putting aside my schadenfreudean glee, this is an excellent and easy-to-understand text on the science of disbelief that I do believe anyone can grasp. Of course, this is coming from a self-identifying agnostic atheist who's already thunk a bunch on this particular people puzzle. I really appreciate how atheism is framed: "a human quirk demanding serious scientific explanation." I appreciated even more the author's ability to criticize his own work and admit to academic failure ("small samples, unvalidated methods, flashy and counterintuitive findings: a recipe for irreproducible science" ... this one published in Science itself, as I recall). The tear-down of modern atheist philosophy on religion hand-in-hand with clearly reasoned and described empirical research ... mwah. After recent events in my own discipline, I took heart that I'm not alone in bemoaning the childish antics of certain professionals. At the same time, this work and Gervais's down-to-earth prose left me feeling hope.

I'm not without my confusions and criticisms. I do feel that Gervais was out of depth when it came to social identity theory. Group categorization is as much about the categories we define and place ourselves /without/ as within. Revisiting the theory and especially subtheories with this perspective could be enlightening for understanding atheism and disbelief. I'm also surprised that he wasn't wise to another very obvious problem with the "mindblind atheism" label: it's ableist (as well as inaccurate). I also felt like some details were glossed over (even in the many footnotes).

But this is quibbling. I highly recommend this book to anyone. After all, belief and its lack are fundamentally human modes of being. We're the only species on the planet, as far as we know, that has religion ... as well as people who decline belief. As Gervais summarizes, "cultural learning is a better predictor of atheism than is rational sophistication, science knowledge, or any other cognitive proclivity we've tried." To have faith or be faithless? Well, "we've evolved cultures that naturally sustain either," so I guess it's another kind of lottery by circumstance.

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Fascinatingly, this book was about belief and disbelief studied in a scientific context. I found the tone very conversational and Dr. Gervais demonstrates a good sense of humour. His personal journey was also very interesting and I found the footnotes were definitely worth reading. Although not the point of the book, the book also did a great job of talking about how science works, with some information on study design and reproducibility, all written at a very basic level. Thank you to Netgalley and Prometheus for the advance reader copy.

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This is a well-structured and detailed non-fiction book about the origins for atheism. The book is divided into chapters that gradually build up.
The second part of the book title goes “in a religious species”, and this marks the central question of this book: why do members of a religious species choose disbelief? Or do they not choose it, perhaps?

To answer these question, the writer talks about religion and belief.

I will not spoil the conclusion. It surprised me a little, based on my own experiences.
Overall, this is a nicely organised history and a comprehensive summary of belief and disbelief. The argument is supported with research, statistics and examples. It was nice to read about Ireland.

I need to reread parts of this to fully make up my mind about what I will read next about atheism and absorb the discussions in this book, however, I kept wondering, who is the target audience? As an academic, I value and enjoy scientifically written books but those who do not like to see numbers, graphs, statistics, research summaries can benefit from this book. I hope the publisher and the writer consider a more popular science style book about the same topic.

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A well-researched and informative account of how and why atheism occurs.

To understand atheism, we must first understand religion. The book informs us that there are essentially four factors which promote and explain religiousness. They are summed up as ‘imagine, motivate, learn and maintain’ (Chp.11). What that means is that people need certain cognitive powers of imagination (which are found more in women, than men, and that may be why more women are religious than men). People need to be motivated by a degree of hardship. They need to learn religion by seeing displays of behaviour which make it seem credible. And they need to maintain that belief when confronted by challenges.

Atheism occurs when those four factors are reduced, or absent. Lack of motivation is a particularly interesting factor which is at work in countries like Denmark and Sweden. Life is so stable in those countries that there is not the hardship to ‘motivate’ religious commitment. That means that in those kinds of contexts there is also a lack of ‘credibility enhancing displays’ of religious behaviour, and so there is no incentive to maintain a belief in theism. Instead, people tend to drift into atheism through a kind of apathy towards religion.

That may seem an initially controversial view, as it flies in the face of the New Atheism polemic, which essentially argues that atheism is the product of superior reasoning. That New Atheism view is examined and dismissed, as simply lacking evidence. There is a certain irony in the fact that some of the polemical atheists who make the loudest calls for rationality, are actually not being rational enough in their own commitments to evidence.

Across the 427 pages of this book, there is a wealth of detail and significant referencing of sources and evidence bases. With a commendable honesty the author is clear about where he has personally changed his mind on issues, and he also flags up conclusions which rest on less secure research or evidence.

Although I enjoyed the overall thrust of the book, I wished in places that the editing had been a little tighter. There were digressions to describe the Natural History Museum (Chp 1) and St Bartholomew’s Church (Chp 15). And it wasn’t clear how some of the notes were relevant when they described the working of elementary schools (18%) or the author’s difficulties in coming up with ideas when he is sitting in his office (55%).

Overall, this is an interesting book which provides an excellent summary of research and leading theories about the developments of religion and atheism. The level of detail means that it is a book to be savoured, rather than skimmed quickly. But inveterate skimmers will be pleased to find that there is a helpful summary of key ideas at the end of each chapter.

(These are honest comments based on a digital advanced review version of the text).

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