A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway review – God versus oppression

Tim Whitmarsh

The former bishop is excellent on the crisis we face today, but has too narrow a concept of religion and too obvious an agenda about true believers fighting state power

As a history of religion this book is ill‑conceived. As an informed reflection on the state of faith in the western world in the 21st century, written by someone who has plenty of experience (Holloway is the retired bishop of Edinburgh and primus of the Scottish Episcopal church), it is insightful and intelligent. But it is as a history that it announces itself, and that is how it will be judged.

The task of writing a “little history” of religion is an ambitious one. Religion is by its very nature big, arguably almost as big as humanity itself. The term itself has been endlessly debated: what counts as a religion? How is it different from magic, philosophy, superstition? And where does it sit, in human society, between aesthetics, metaphysics, economics and politics? Holloway approaches his task as if Mary Douglas, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Émile Durkheim and Keith Thomas had never been born. This history is “little” not in the sense of being compact, punchy or condensed, but in the way that you might say “that’s a nice little house”, or “I’ll just have a little cup of coffee”.

It is a “little history” because it is written from a comfortable armchair. Holloway’s is an unashamedly, but apparently unselfconsciously, Protestant account. He takes it for granted that the only religious experience that matters is divine revelation, when God talks directly to human beings: none of that ritual mumbo-jumbo that bothers the anthropologists. So we race past entire areas of human experience. He explicitly states that Shinto, ancient Greek polytheist and native American beliefs aren’t proper religion; presumably he would say the same about the indigenous cultures of Africa or South America, since he never mentions them.

His account is largely narrative-driven, and every story always begins with the little guys – by implication, there were no women in religion until Mary Tudor – for whom the voice of God offers the route out of an oppressive society, whether it be Moses in Egypt, Christ or Muhammed. Religion is good in these situations; it only becomes bad when ossified into rigid, coercive social structures. God’s voice is generous and true, if we have the ears to hear it; it is human society that introduces the vanity and toxicity. For Holloway, it is the second commandment, forbidding idolatry, that defines the essence of religion. All great religious revolutions are founded in the rejection of artifice. “Like Muhammad and the leaders of the Protestant Reformation,” he writes of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, he “hated showy religion. He was a monotheist with a profound contempt for the merchants of idolatry.” It is no surprise to find a celebratory narrative of Europe’s Reformation occupying the heart of the book. When the plucky Protestants cast off the shackles of corrupt, idolatrous Catholicism, it’s the culmination of the same story that he has told from the start.

Holloway certainly tries to moderate the Protestant teleology of his history. He begins dutifully with Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, but then leaves these parked in the first millennium BCE. He has later excursions into Chinese and Zoroastrian thought, but these too prove to be dead ends in his overall story. Judaism features heavily, but only in its time-honoured role as parent of Christianity. (No Jewish history since the time of Jesus, then.) Islam too, is viewed primarily as an episode in medieval history, although even in his account of its formation Holloway introduces discussion of violent jihad and smuggles in metaphors of armed conflict (for example, when discussing concepts of Hell: “the Church’s holy book couldn’t beat the Qur’an in the terror stakes”), hinting that 21st-century fundamentalism was a theological inevitability. Modernity is represented in this history primarily by America’s Christian and para-Christian developments: Quakers, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists and so forth.

Those with a little postmodern learning often opine that history can never be objective; it always tells a story. That may be true enough in a crude sense, but the writing of history remains a subtle art. Bad history is transparently ideological: it uses a crude narrative to make an obvious point. Good history, on the other hand, is based on deep learning. It surprises the reader, using the past to disrupt our expectations, or showing how what seems to be one thing in fact may be something very different. On these criteria, I am afraid to say, Holloway is a bad historian. It is not just the distortion of fact and the absence of any critical handling of sources (though it is disturbing, to me at least, to see chronological dates attached to the Biblical Abraham and Moses). The main problem is that his accounts always serve the same black-and-white agenda, painting the same picture of pious types battling monstrous state power.

The Romans obsessively persecuted Jews and Christians because they didn’t understand them, we are told; no acknowledgement that early Christians themselves recorded, embellished and invented martyr stories on an industrial scale for their own reasons, replaying the story of Christ’s passion. Or again, the Reformation was, we are told, impelled by brave piety resisting the degeneration of the Catholic church into a giant medieval Amazon for papal indulgences; there is not a single word about underlying social or technological changes (Gutenberg – who?). We then read of British Protestants butchered by “Bloody Mary” in the Counter-Reformation – but the brutal suppression of Catholicism by Protestants throughout Britain (particularly in Ireland) is never mentioned. I could go on.

This is a vast oversimplification of religious history, even (especially) for the younger readers whom the dust-jacket identifies among the book’s target market. A Sunday school prose style adds to the impression of corners being cut. “Though David was a great warrior and a charismatic leader, he was a far from perfect man.” “Bad things can happen to good people.” “So who was this man called Jesus? And what really happened to him?” It is hard to get the image of Cliff Richard delivering “Thought for the Day” out of your head.

Holloway is at his best in the closing chapters, where he explores the meaning for us today of thousands of years of reflection on religion, this most peculiar aspect of human culture. Here he captures sympathetically and undogmatically the impasse that we have reached, where science, liberal values, secularism, religious conservatism, global diversity, postcolonialism and fundamentalism are on a terrifying collision course. His diagnosis of the situation is spot-on. If there is a solution to be found, however, it will lie not in partisan “little histories” like this, but in an expansive, generous, self-aware and intellectually sophisticated understanding of how we ended up here.

• Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World is published by Faber. To order A Little History of Religion for £12.29 (Yale, RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.