At the outset, [Konner] identifies himself as an atheist who, after adolescence, left behind his own religious upbringing, and draws upon his experience as an anthropologist living among hunter-gatherers in Botswana. Then, in each of the following lively chapters, he explores an astonishing range of perspectives ... Best of all, Konner refrains from offering a simple answer, which people asking questions about religion often expect ... Some readers may take this to mean he is ducking the question; yet the energy and passion the book articulates belie that charge ... Konner’s Believers offers a terrific running start for anyone who shares his excitement about the questions he raises. And in his bibliography, he offers much more: a list of over 40 pages of recent articles and books discussing each topic — which leaves this reader eager to dive into that trove of sources he cites.
Examining the scientific and cultural origins of religion, including the makeup of the human brain, Konner looks at religion sympathetically and thinks the world would be poorer if religion were to disappear, as those he calls the 'Quartet' (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens) have hoped for ... While at times tough going, Konner’s argument in favor of religion is well stated, with numerous examples from many different fields to back up his argument.
The author, if I may put it only slightly facetiously, is a charitable atheist telling obnoxious atheists to restrain their hostility because it won’t do any good and may do harm in the long term. That is a reasonable argument, but not an entirely cogent one. Take away Dr. Konner’s irenic language and it’s about the same as: Don’t harass the nitwits—they can’t help it ... Dr. Konner is careful to disavow the conclusion from...studies that religious faith consists only of cognitive responses to stimuli. Which is a relief, since many of the studies he relays sound like social-scientific balderdash, conducted with the aim of finding that religious faith has its origins in cerebral or bodily abnormalities. For Dr. Konner, they support the more modest claim that religious affections are a natural, innate human impulse, not a consequence of undesirable and eradicable social pathologies. In any case I’m fairly certain that most of his atheist contemporaries will instead draw the conclusion that religion is a sign of lunacy and ought to be discouraged when possible. The chief flaw of Believers, to this professed religious believer anyhow, is the promiscuous use to which it puts the word 'religion' and its cognates ... One begins to suspect that 'religion,' for Dr. Konner and his fellow anthropologists, can describe any system of beliefs or philosophical commitments outside of ordinary nonbelief ... Dr. Konner treats the New Atheists’ predictions of religion’s demise with too much respect. Mr. Dawkins and company are as wrong about religion’s future as the French revolutionaries were more than two centuries ago. Their arrogant prophecies deserve a simpler response. I suggest: Huh?