Last year, visitors to the British Museum’s exhibition ‘Living With Gods’ were greeted by a strange figure carved from a mammoth’s tusk, 31cm tall and 40,000 years old. It had a human body and a lion’s head. The sculpture, discovered in Germany in 1939, had been worn smooth by prehistoric hands, suggesting that it was frequently passed around, held, possibly stroked, perhaps in rituals of worship or storytelling. This mysterious little ‘Lion Man’ reprises his curtain-raising role in Karen Armstrong’s latest work of religious history. Here he is introduced to readers to show that, by the Ice Age, ‘human beings were … able to think of something that does not exist’.
For Armstrong, the Lion Man is ‘a product of the imagination’, and religion is part of ‘a world that we construct for ourselves’. Many modern atheists would, of course, agree with this, but Armstrong is not inclined to dismiss human spirituality as an elaborate delusion. Instead, she argues that we are always ‘surrounded by transcendence’, since the objective nature of reality is beyond our grasp. This philosophical claim, which is stated rather than argued for at the beginning of her book, applies to scientific theories as much as to religious doctrines. Although this is a sceptical view, it is open-minded and benign, leaving room for spiritual insights and cosmic imaginings alongside the claims of experimental science.
Having carved out this interpretative space, Armstrong tells an epic story with a polemical edge. Throughout her lucid account of the evolution of sacred texts, she flirts with modern neuroscience, drawing particularly on Iain McGilchrist’s influential 2009 book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the