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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
(978-0-300-20883-2)
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.

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