Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “An Atheist’s History of Belief by Matthew Kneale – review” was written by Peter Stanford, for The Observer on Sunday 10th November 2013 10.00 UTC

At first glance, such a bold title could almost be intended as a joke, a companion volume to A Vegetarian's History of Meat-Eating or A Virgin's History of the Orgasm. But there's nothing funny about this elegantly written, earnest attempt to explain religion, and its god or gods, as the product of our own imaginations. This is, of course, a familiar thesis, but what just about distinguishes Kneale from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens is his icy, non-polemical detachment from his subject. His tone – curiously for a writer better known as an award-winning novelist – is that of a scientist performing a dissection in the laboratory.

To be fair, he does start on an individual note. "As the son of a Manx Methodist atheist and a refugee German Jewish atheist," he writes, "I have never been much of a believer." When I read this, I wondered if he was leaving himself a bit of wriggle-room, space for recalling the odd fit of religious enthusiasm by way of teenage rebellion, or even a penchant for visiting old churches or graveyards. But no. This is no more a journey than it is a missionary rant.

What follows is a broad-brush narrative that works its way back through the histories and holy books of the various faiths, predominantly Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but with a respectful nod for Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, and brief parting shots at Mormons and Scientologists. It aims to tell you everything you've ever wondered about religion but never dared to ask.

The blows come in thick and fast, no doubt to applause if you are a fellow atheist. Religious zealots, likewise, will get hot under their dog collars. If they can even get beyond the cover, they will set about producing page-by-page refutations of what Kneale presents as historical fact in his telling of the rise and rise of various creeds.

Since I'm no zealot, though, I put down my pen after making a page of notes. Religious history and matters of religious doctrine are a quagmire of detail, translational blips and misunderstood contexts that traps all those who insist on getting down and dirty. There are bigger questions to ask. As a church-going waiverer, what worried me more was Kneale's failure to confront the very pertinent points he raises.

So, it is easy enough, as he does, to show up the shortcomings of, for example, claiming the New Testament or the Qur'an as historical fact. The gospels, he correctly says, are better seen as a kind of prism, mixing handed-down memories of real events with subsequent additions, wish-fulfilment and crude attempts by the early church to provide its congregations with a rallying cry. But surely the next logical step should then be to try to separate out each of these bogus elements so as to arrive at the core insight the figure of Jesus has been offering so compellingly for 2,000 years to the billions of Christians around the globe.

Are these people all just, as Kneale contends, the hapless victims of a colossal and sustained confidence trick by ambitious or mad clerics? Or is there something in the gospels that reaches beyond manipulative institutions to echoes in listeners' experience, that challenges their deeply entrenched instincts (the imperative in all holy books to love your neighbour, to take just one, which cuts across our natural instinct for selfishness and self-preservation)?

Since he is only interested in structures as he fashions his big, over-arching narrative, Kneale never gets beyond superficially attractive catch-all explanations: that those who are attracted to religion are poor, needy, fearful, or women. I'm none of those, as far as I am aware, and yet it has had me hooked for five decades now.

Debunking the claims of institutional religions and showing their habit of playing fast and loose with their own history is absolutely fair game. Many believers do the same all the time. As Kneale would have found out if he'd ever bothered to ask us. And then he might just have come up with something worth reading – a thoughtful atheist's answer to the really tough question that still puzzles me and many like me: why do we carry on with religion?

Peter Stanford is a former editor of the Catholic Herald

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