A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway

Religion is an extremely complex social and cultural phenomenon. No simple definition can capture its manifold nature. Rich, simple, consoling, disturbing, unifying, divisive, colourful, austere, prayerful, practical, doctrinal, mystical, peaceful, militaristic, solitary, communitarian, supernatural, worldly. It has all of these (often contradictory) aspects. The very briefest attempt to get a conceptual handle on the phenomenon can be found at this link http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philosophy-religion/. In short, it is as variable as the multifarious forms of human life and culture that are found across the entire globe.

At its best religion delivers social order, compassion, and a sense of purpose in people’s lives before they die. The difficulty is that it is in the name of religion that some of the worst atrocities have been, and are being, committed. In our globalised world, we hear about these conflicts and atrocities every day. It is because humans are a pack animal that most religions have their origins in the formation of group/tribal identity. In binding one group together around an enforced ideology, cohesion is gained at the expense of excluding and vilifying other human groups. Each group asserts that its god is the only ‘true’ god and that they are in receipt of the only ‘true’ revelation.

Cultural anthropologists say there as many as 18,000 named gods in human culture. (Why Do Humans Keep Inventing Gods to Worship? | Psychology Today United Kingdom) Three of them (commanding many votaries) have been ‘Jahweh’, ‘Allah’, and ‘God’. Naturally, all these gods are either false or fictional except the one you happen to believe in yourself. Competing groups on this account have to be converted or exterminated. This has applied to divisions within the main faith groupings as well as between them. The predictable result is conflict and brutality. In the past it led to crusades, pogroms, genocide, burnings at the stake and so many similar unspeakable horrors. Today we have jet aircraft flown into tall buildings, maniacs with kalashnikovs, kidnapping, slavery and suicide bombers. In recent years they’ve gone back to crucifixions (Isis ‘crucifies children for not fasting during Ramadan’ in Syria | The Independent | The Independent) in the afternoon sunshine of the Levant. The nightmare is now that a religious believer gets hold of a nuclear weapon. His conviction will be so absolute and his spirit so generous that he’ll take us all into the afterlife with him.

If anyone could give us a short guide to this bewildering topic it’s Richard Holloway (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Holloway). This churchman has published extensively on Christianity in our age of doubt. His titles have been Crossfire: Faith and Doubt in an Age of Uncertainty (1988), Dancing On The Edge: Faith In A Post-Christian Age (1997), Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics (1999), Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity (2001), and his autobiography Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (2012). He is also makes frequent appearances on radio and television, having presented a history of Christianity in Scotland at the time of the Covenanters entitled ‘The Sword and the Cross‘. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p019pmxr) With a broad ranging intellect, Holloway has taken interest in the whole span of religion and its meaning.

‘The Little History’ series from Yale University Press ‘gently takes the reader from ancient times to the present through bite size chapters, ideal as bedtime reading or on the journey to work‘ (according to their own webpage, http://littlehistory.org/about-the-series/). There are already titles on Language, Science, Philosophy and Literature. Publishing houses are keen on this kind of thing now. Examples are the Very Short Introduction series from Oxford (https://global.oup.com/academic/content/series/v/very-short-introductions-vsi/?cc=gb&lang=en&), the ‘Introducing’ series from Icon Books (with pictures) (http://www.introducingbooks.com/), and the ‘Bluffers Guide’ series (https://bluffers.com/). The busy person with no time to think can easily avail himself of ‘Philosophy in Minutes‘ (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Philosophy-Minutes-Marcus-Weeks/dp/1782066462/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473834473&sr=8-1&keywords=philosophy+in+minutes) which handily reduces the wisdom of 4000 years into the mentality of a Twitter user.  The resolutely infantilized mind should still reach for Ladybird (https://www.penguin.co.uk/ladybird/) from Penguin.  The first assumption is that we all live such busy lives (a good thing, obviously?) that there isn’t time for sustained reading. Any serious reading must therefore be served up in ‘bite sized chunks’. The second assumption is that the general level of education is so dumbed down that content must be simplified. Happily, Holloway, the former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, has done the best possible job, given his publisher’s constraints, not to insult our intelligence. His 40 snappy chapters are neither shallow nor slight.

Starting with the anthropological roots of the idea of ‘religion’ itself – how humanity first started asking why there a universe and what is death – Holloway covers the Hindu Vedas, the Buddha, Confucianism, Zoroaster, Shintoism, Taoism, Sikhism and atheism.

Holloway also covers ‘the people of the book’ –  the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. When dealing with his own strand of that trio, he is both generous-spirited and intellectually curious. He gives succinct and sympathetic narratives of the various schisms, from Arius to Cerularius to Luther to Fox, and also includes discussions about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), Seventh Day Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Christ, Scientist – not to be confused with Scientology.

Holloway’s treatment of Scientology is a revealing instance of his general method. He notes its kinship with other religious concepts, such as the cycle of reincarnations found in both Hindu and Buddhist texts. He allows himself a wry aside – noting the wealth accumulated by the Scientologists. He observes “Lafayette Ron Hubbard died in 1986. Whether he came back as a Scientologist or something else is impossible to say”. But he admits, with kindness, that their vision of an endlessly battered human psyche struggling to become better, healthier, happier, or preferably all three, is an everlasting concern of our species.

Whether it is in comparing different forms of Reformation, or in noting shared sympathies and grievances across continents, Holloway is always courteous. This is not wholly JG Frazer’s Golden Bough or the old ‘one mountain, many routes to the summit’ view of religion. He states where religion has been complicit in oppression, politically manipulative and determined to close off humanity’s awareness of itself rather than enlighten us. Holloway often uses analogies from art. In the wise sense, it reminds us that much of our culture, history and philosophy is derived from religion but that art, like religion, is a human universal. It is clever in that it allows a curious atheist to read the book without feeling they’re getting a sermon.

Towards the end, Holloway deals with two vexed issues. Will religion die out? And is it responsible for violence? The answer to the second is indubitably yes, but not all violence. The answer to the first, probably no; though some iterations may succumb and new ones arise. Holloway writes in the finale of this book “Atheism says God doesn’t exist. If God does exist he is more likely to be amused than outraged by the atheist’s impudence… but if God is not a monster, then he is unlikely to be amused by religious teachers who make him out to be one… religion is God’s fiercest opponent”.

Will this become your ‘bedtime reading’ or ‘in hand for the journey to work’? At the end of it, will you emerge a dispassionate critic of religion, or on fire with zeal for the Lord? To find out, enquire at your local library or consult  https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0300208839/ref=rdr_ext_tmb  for full bibliographic detail.

For further reading on the subject of  comparative religion the locus classicus is The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Varieties-Religious-Experience-Study-Nature/dp/0140390340/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1448202390&sr=1-1&keywords=varieties+of+religious+experience+william+james) by William James

Move on to the much admired On the Long Search (1979) (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Long-Search-Ronald-Eyre/dp/0006253733/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1448202676&sr=1-3&keywords=long+search) by Ronald Eyre, based on a 13 part BBC documentary from 1977 about world religion.

Your anthology ready to hand should be Roger Eastman’s excellent The Ways of Religion (1999) (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ways-Religion-Introduction-Major-Traditions/dp/0195118359/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1448203385&sr=1-1&keywords=eastman+the+ways+of+religion) Eastman surveys all the major religious traditions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and African religions – as well as covering Zen Buddhism and the religious experience in America. He allows each tradition to speak in its own voice, excerpting passages from its scriptures, prophets, and distinguished authors.

For a recent scholarly treatment reach for Moojan Momen’s Understanding Religion (2008) (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Understanding-Religion-Thematic-Moojan-Momen/dp/1851685995/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1448203827&sr=1-2&keywords=momen+understanding+religion) This draws from all major religious traditions in the world, as well as a variety of non-religious disciplines such as psychology, philosophy and sociology. It is a thematic presentation of the role of religion in society, covering everything from art and history to theology and the World Wide Web.

To pursue the connection between religion and violence, the following are useful.

In the name of God : the evolutionary origins of religious ethics and violence (2010) by John Teehan (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Name-God-Evolutionary-Religious-published/dp/B00XWRQ9CG/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1474442752&sr=8-2&keywords=In+the+name+of+god+teehan).

Not in God’s name : confronting religious violence (2015) by Jonathan Sacks (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Not-Gods-Name-Confronting-11-Jun-2015/dp/B011T7BC2M/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1474442885&sr=1-2&keywords=not+in+gods+name+sacks)

In the name of God : violence and destruction in the world’s religions (2006) by Michael Jordan (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Name-God-Violence-Destructions-Religions/dp/0750941944/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1474442989&sr=1-2&keywords=name+of+god+jordan)

Fields of blood : religion and the history of violence (2014) by Karen Armstrong (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fields-Blood-Religion-History-Violence/dp/1847921868/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1474443104&sr=1-1)

The Oxford handbook of religion and violence (2013) edited by Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts, and Michael Jerryson (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Handbook-Religion-Violence-Handbooks-Theology/dp/0199759995/ref=sr_1_1_twi_har_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1474443287&sr=1-1&keywords=oxford+handbook+religion+violence)

Terror in the mind of God : the global rise of religious violence (3rd ed., rev. and updated, 2003) by Mark Juergensmeyer (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Terror-Mind-God-Religious-Comparative/dp/0520223012/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1474443412&sr=1-1)

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris (originally published 2005) (https://www.amazon.co.uk/End-Faith-Religion-Terror-Future/dp/0743268091/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1474531769&sr=8-1)


A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway

288 pages in Yale University Press

First published 2016

ISBN  978-0300208832 

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Richard Holloway

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