A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway

By Elizabeth Summers / May 9, 2017 / No comments
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This is a well-written book, from which most of us will come away knowing more about the religions of the world than we knew before. If its prose style is clear and uncluttered, so is its message: that religion is the product of human imagination; it served our needs when we knew no better; it did some good things; it did more bad things (at least in its monotheistic forms); and it is now on its way out.

Richard Holloway, the former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, does not offer any reflections on the possible connection between his conclusion and the sort of leadership offered by his generation of churchmen, and in its own way, this engaging book might be best seen as a period piece.

Alongside a considerable erudition, there is a teleological view not uncommon among bishops of his generation, which is that with the advance of science and the spread of better education, religion has had its day. For an author sensitive to the cultural imperialism of some religions (including the one he used to belong to), this is a strangely western viewpoint, ignoring the fact that Europe is very much an outlier in global terms.

The notion, once common (and implicit here) that the rest of the world would surely follow the enlightened example of the West, gets little support from trends outside the western world. His (to him) optimistic conclusion that religion will be replaced by “secular humanism” seems doubtful on a long-term projection of demographic trends, which see Islam becoming steadily more important. Since he is critical of the founder of Islam for using war as an instrument of his spiritual purposes, one might have expected a pause for thought.

Holloway’s technique, like his prose, beguiles. He takes what he calls a “zigzag” approach, which could, in less skilful hands, have been disastrous, but offers us an interesting path through the subject. It begins with why humans have always needed a god or gods then proceeds on an erudite pilgrimage through the world’s religions. It is easy to spot his favourites.

He likes those religions which he thinks sit most lightly on their devotees and which align them (in his view) with western environmental concerns, so the Jains, with their renunciation of desire and refusal to make judgments about right and wrong, like the Quakers, score highly with him. The religion of the Native Americans inspires one of his few rhetorical flights (“They had a sacred connection to the land that sustained them . . . They felt themselves to be enclosed in a living mystery”), and he writes movingly of their “crucifixion” at the hands of the slave-owning colonists, without noting their own slave-owning habits and some of the less desirable manifestations of their culture.

If, at times, this comes close to being an A-level primer for world religions (with better prose but no illustrations), it is also curiously dated in its treatment of Christianity. With the exception of a mention of the Eastern Orthodox Church, his Christianity is that of the West, and his treatment of that fails to reflect the scholarship of the past 30 years. Despite the work of historians such as Eamon Duffy, Holloway still gives us a Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation that was corrupt and in decline, and persists in writing as though in England it was all about Henry VIII’s libido.

His Reformation story is mainly about England, which allows him to deal with America, but from this point on, there is a sense that the book loses its global ambitions and becomes about the anglosphere. Here, as ever, he has interesting asides about some of the stranger manifestations of apocalyptic belief, charting the myriad disappointments of those who have preached the end of the world; one day, no doubt, their moment will come.

As Holloway eases us into the modern period, his focus remains eurocentric in the areas he treats and the way he treats them. Naturally, he approves of the ecumenical movement in Christianity, but seems to see it as the antechamber to his favoured “secular humanism”, as it perhaps was for him and has been for others. He has predictably hard things to say about fundamentalism, which shades into disapproval of any church that fails to accept the dictates of 20th-century western liberal humanism. This gives the impression that, in a very unecumenical way, he fails to understand the theological arguments against women priests, or (more likely) considers them spurious, self-serving excuses not to do the right thing (as he sees it).

In the end, Holloway offers us a period-piece to which people will react in different ways: to those who suspect that some bishops have never quite believed what the men and women who pay their salaries believe, this book will offer succour; to those who stick with the secularisation thesis, it offers hope; and to those who think religions are a bad thing, it offers ammunition. But to those wondering why, across the globe, religious belief is rising, and wonder where it will lead us, it offers disappointingly little. The book starts by asking the biggest questions, but ends with conventional answers.