A Little History of Religion

By Dan Clendenin

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Richard Holloway, A Little History of Religion (New Haven: Yale, 2016), 244pp.

There has never been a time or place when humanity has not been religious. Atheism, observed the Harvard scholar of comparative religions Wilfred Cantwell Smith of Harvard, has always been “oddly parochial in space and time.” In his book World Christian Encyclopedia (2001), David Barrett identified 10,000 distinct religions, 150 of which have a million or more followers. And, although it’s not fashionable to say so, to argue that all religions teach the same thing is both false and patronizing; as this book shows, that’s precisely what they don’t do.

The first undisputed evidence for our religiosity comes 130,000 years ago in the funeral rites and burial customs in which people painted the bodies of the dead with red ochre paint, and laid them to rest in special places, with special objects, and in special ways. Death, these rites seemed to say, was a door to another place rather than to nothingness. In another recurring quest, humans have always wondered why we are here, why there is something rather than nothing, and Who made it all.

In this brief handbook of the history of religions, Richard Holloway zig zags back and forth in time and place to tell the stories of our religiosity. There are 40 (!) chapters in 200 pages, so the pace is brisk, to say the least. That means that each religion gets about five pages, beginning with the oldest of them all, Hinduism, and ending with our newest “religion,” secular humanism. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam get slightly fuller treatments.

A recurring theme for Holloway is what he calls “the most important insight into God ever discovered by humans” — the Second Commandment prohibition against idolatry. And note, “it’s real target was religion. And not just the kind that got people dancing around a golden calf. It was warning us that no religious system could capture or contain the mystery of God. Yet in history, as we’ll see, that’s exactly what many of them would go on to claim. The Second Commandment was an early warning that the organizations that claimed to speak for God would become God’s greatest rivals, the most dangerous idol of them all.”

Holloway writes in a deliberately simple style. There are no footnotes or any bibliography for further reading. He has an irritating habit of using exclamation points that makes him sound dismissive. And simple can sometimes be simplistic, like when he says that “sensible people” during the Roman period didn’t take their gods too seriously, or that the mindset of the east is “patient” while the western mind is “hasty.” There’s nothing in the book about African Tribal Religions. And some of his editorial decisions are baffling, like his treatment of religion in America, which covers Native Americans, African Americans, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah Witnesses, Christian Science, Scientology, and the Moonies. No John Wesley or Jonathan Edwards?

Holloway (born 1933) is the former Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. He’s written about 30 books in the last 40 years, most notably a memoir called Leaving Alexandria (2012) in which he discusses his loss of faith. In an interview he described himself as an agnostic “after-religionist.” All of which is to say that Holloway has some skin in this game, and that it’s hard to separate any history of religion from important questions about the nature and philosophy of religion.

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