Book review - A Little History of Religion

Questioning Church
Being Church
Abstract image of light rods from above
Richard Holloway

Review by Michael Bayley

This is a breathtakingly bold attempt to give an overview of religion and religions. By and large it succeeds. You might think that a book that takes on: ways of looking at religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, the Jews, prophecy, Zoroastrianism, Confucius, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Mithraism and the mystery religions, Christianity, Islam, the Reformation, Sikhism, John Knox, the Quakers, native American religion, Mormons, Scientology, fundamentalism and secular humanism in 237 pages would be a superficial dash in and dash out.

However the great strength of this book, especially the first part, is that he shows how the various religions relate to one another, how they were changed by meeting other religions and the dynamic of how religions have developed over the centuries.

He is good on the contrast between the exclusivist, proselytising emphasis of two of the three great Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam, and the Jews, of whom he says: “Jews have been better at living with this kind of uncertainty (he was talking about the book of Job) then most other believers. They don't try to inflict their God on other people. They are too busy arguing with themselves to have time for that." (pp69–70)

The relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam is generally well known. But the relationship between the great Eastern religions is less well-known. He shows the links between Hinduism and the Wheel of Life and Buddhists (“a practice not a creed)". Though Buddhism had its origins in India, it is hardly found there at all now but has become a world religion in different forms, for example when Buddhism met Taoism in China it became Zen Buddism, and Tantric Buddhism in Tibet.

He points out how Confucius is concerned with this world and society but is rather serious while, by contrast Taoism “once you get the hang of it, can be rather fun." Its emphasis on being ready to learn from nature is reminiscent of what he says about Shintoism. “The Japanese experience themselves as in folded in a great web of being, consisting of the land, themselves and the spirits that animate everything. It wasn't something they believed, it was just the way things were." (p93) This too has parallels with the way Native Americans see themselves and the land they live in.

There is so much I could pick out that is fascinating. The Zoroastrians developed the nature of resurrection, heaven and hell; the Catholics developed the idea of purgatory to mitigate the horrors of hell - but that then gave rise to the selling of indulgences, which gave rise to Luther's condemnation etc etc.

This is typical of the big bold assertions he makes. They seem convincing and they do make for a very good and easy read, though I wonder if some scholars would swallow their false teeth in horror. But the great advantage is that it gives you an overall picture which has a degree of coherence rather than lots of isolated bits and pieces of beliefs and practices.

My only real quibble is that I think he is a bit unfair on Islam. He talks about the mindset behind the violence of Islam. That is an important point and needs to be made. But it is surprising that he makes no mention of, for example, the enlightened regime of the caliphate in Spain or that in the Ottoman Empire where other faiths had some restrictions but by and large were treated far better than Jews have been treated by Christians. Indeed Jews expelled from Spain were made welcome by the Ottomans.

It is also strange that he makes no mention of the gentler more mystical Sufi tradition in Islam.

But I recommend this book as an entertaining and instructive way of getting a handle on the world's religions. It reflects his own searingly honest journey of faith and doubt and will help anyone to keep an open mind.

Yale University Press
Edition / Date Published
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Books and book reviews