The first thing that has to be said about any book by Richard Holloway is that you will want to argue with him, and this book is no exception to that rule. And, of course, that is a good thing because it means that he has made you think. When you are dealing with the ideas behind religion that is something that is absolutely necessary. It is the unthinking who are dangerous, because these are the people who become zealots simply because they have no questions and no doubts, and Richard Holloway has no truck with those people.
Before going any further it has to be said that this is a very short book, given the subject matter. Those who want to go into the depths of the arguments about the filioque clause or the divisions within Shia Islam will probably be disappointed. I however am in awe of Richard Holloway’s ability to explain such complexities so succinctly. In that, he is truly astonishing.
There are mistakes in the book, that good editing should have prevented. The Assyrian Empire was not destroyed by the Persians. Their Babylonian subjects rose in rebellion against them and defeated them. It was the Babylonians who were conquered by the Persians. The Persian emperor, Darius, was not the son of Cyrus the Great. He married Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great. Elizabeth of England did not die in 1601. She died in 1603. These mistakes are irritating but they do not detract from the force of the argument that Holloway is putting forward. It is to be hoped that they will be dealt with in a second edition.
So what is the argument? First, that this something deep within humankind – the need to explain how the Universe in which we live came into being, and the nee to explain what happens when we die. Even those who do not believe in a creator God have a need for these explanations. Humanists look for ceremonies that celebrate our passage through this world. Secondly, that religion can be dangerous, especially when people forget what they have been told, and adhere to interpretations of the rules that make them forget the fundamental principles. Holloway quite rightly refers to the parable of the Good Samaritan when explaining this argument, but that is not the only example that he gives. Holloway argues that some people, because of their absolute certainty that they are right, abandon faith. So they start persecutions because they are right and the others are wrong, and the others need to be saved from themselves.
The Crusades are one of the best known examples of this. Interestingly, Holloway does not mention the provocation. The Caliph Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site of Christianity, and the Sultan Nur-ed-din crucified pilgrims on their way to jerusalem. But the response of Pope Urban II was not to obey the instructions of Christ “to turn the other cheek”. It was to summon armies and to wage war because Christians, in his view, were right and Muslims were wrong. An unchristian response was unleashed on the world, and it reverberates to this day, with President George Bush calling for a crusade in revenge for the 9/11 attack.
Holloway also argues that religions develop. Neither the Bible nor the Qu’ran condemn slavery, but in 1688 the Quakers of Pennsylvania decided that slavery was wrong and launched the abolitionist movement on the world. But the more interesting story to me is that of Abraham not sacrificing Isaac. In the Bronze Age Middle East, human sacrifice was the norm. Moloch demanded it. Ashtaroth demanded it. But not the God of the Hebrews. He rejected it. The Abrahamic religions have represented this as Abraham’s submission to the will of God. Holloway says that the story of Abraham shows that religion is a moving picture, and that the ability to change is one of the hallmarks of religion. What has occurred to me, and this is something that Holloway does not consider, is what if Abraham was lying, and he did not hear a voice telling him to spare Isaac? What if he just could not go through with it? Which, for the religious, is the voice of God telling Abraham that it is not necessary. Holloway points out that we are not told what Isaac thought of all this. Nor are we told what Abraham’s community thought about him imperilling the welfare of their crops and herds but not sacrificing Isaac. It speaks volumes about Abraham’s authority as a patriarch of his people.
There is a lot more that could be said, especially about Holloway’s comments on the religions of India, China and the Americas before Columbus, and of the religions that have emerged in the USA in particular over the last two centuries. If I have not commented on them in detail, it is because my knowledge of them is sketchy and I therefore cannot really add anything useful to what Holloway has written.
The point about this book is that it makes you think, as I hope that I have shown in my responses above. It will certainly infuriate those who have a limited approach to religion, and who are not willing to think about what they believe and why. It will make you see the similarities about religions, and clearly sets out the areas in which they are different. It is very clear that religion is important in the development of our humanity, and in the rules of civilisation that have arisen from it.
I would argue that this is an important book regardless of whether or not you believe in the concept of godhead. This is essentially a book about us, an examination of our psyche and any book that helps us to understand ourselves is useful and important. This book does that.