*** DEBUG END ***

Mostly on the shady side of religion’s street  

25 November 2016

Richard Harries finds that a more positive account can be given

A Little History of Religion
Richard Holloway
Yale £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50



AN INTRODUCTION to the religions of the world could be done a number of ways. Richard Holloway has chosen to write it as a developing story, a history, traversing the world from east to west in roughly chronological order from the evidence of the earliest graves through to scientology.

Religion could also be defined in a number of different ways. He takes it to involve two fundamental questions: “Is anyone there?” and “Is there life after death?” His emphasis is on prophetic figures who have claimed a divine revelation.

As always, Holloway writes clearly and freshly, with good analogies and comparisons. He describes the most basic terms and ideas in the simplest possible way without being patronising. His tone is matter-of-fact, showing the beliefs and practices of each religion much as a guide in a National Trust pro­perty might talk about the different rooms and owners of the house.

When it comes to more modern developments, it is fair to say that with sections on the English and Scottish Reformations and, later, the Mormons, Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, American and British readers will find more here than Indian or Chinese ones.

For the most part, Holloway eschews any judgements about the truth or the value of what he describes, although he expresses great admiration for the Quakers and the part that they played in the abolition of the slave trade.

Towards the end, however, in sec­tions on fundamentalism and reli­gious wars, he becomes highly critical: “It turns out that religion may be a greater enemy of God than atheism. . . 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.”

Nevertheless, he has warm words for the Baha’i faith, which he regards as the most ecumenical one on earth, despite its roots in Islam.

Holloway does not think that people should necessarily abandon religion, and he thinks that it may well outlive secular humanism. The problem is that, on the evidence of this book, it is difficult to see what might attract a person to a particu­lar religion in the first place, or en­able him or her to stick to it despite all the horrors and perversions Holloway exposes.

Without denying anything he writes, there is another story to be written: a story of how religions have sustained and nourished people’s lives, encouraged them to live out the better side of their nature, and, at least sometimes, been the catalyst for social change.


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentre­garth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Honorary Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available


Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)