Yale’s Little Histories represent an admirable project, whereby true experts perform the exceedingly difficult task of summarizing a large field of knowledge in a short space, and in an accessible manner.  Ideally, the resulting book offers a good introduction for the novice, while even the most knowledgeable reader will gain some new insight.

Even within this scheme, Richard Holloway has tackled a truly vast subject—not even Christianity or Islam but religion, all of it—and his book has some good qualities.  Holloway is clearly a decent person sympathetic to human spiritual cravings, and his writing is usually clear and concise.  To that extent, he fulfills the role of the friendly guide who leads the pupil through the thickets of knowledge, while dividing the material into 40 bite-sized chapters certainly makes the reader’s task easier.  Having said that, the book has many disappointments, and it is often startlingly credulous and even fundamentalist, because the author simply is nowhere near up to date with current scholarship.  Nor does Holloway ever get close to the heart of the matter.

Holloway’s own background is relevant to understanding the book.  Born in 1933, he became a cleric in the Scottish Episcopal Church, a small but historically significant body that among other things had a mighty influence on the Episcopal Church in the years following the American Revolution.  He even served as the church’s head, its primus, from 1992 to 2000, before retiring, and identifying himself as an agnostic, or more precisely, an “after-religionist.”  He is particularly active in promoting gay and lesbian causes, fighting sexism, and writes extensively on ethical issues surrounding genetics and procreation.  Think of him as a more substantial and intellectually credible version of radical American clerics like John Spong and Gene Robinson.  One way or another, then, he has been engaged with the study of religion for most of his 80-plus years, although he is militantly noncommitted to any particular form of faith.

Holloway’s objectivity is an impressive feature of the Little History of Religion, which makes an honest effort to treat each tradition according to its own terms.  The problem, though, is that the book ignores so much recent writing and research, often indicating the mind of an intelligent thinker who reached intellectual maturity in the late 1950’s and early 60’s.  There really is very little here that need have been written after the 1970’s.

Sometimes, that positioning leads him to critical conclusions, and we see a somewhat wearying revival of the pop psychology of that era.  Oddly though, given the author’s skeptical stance on many issues, the book is likely to strike contemporary scholars in many fields as far too willing to accept traditional claims.  This conflict of approaches sometimes raises real questions about the author’s voice.  For a radical after-religionist, he sounds a lot like a reactionary pre-modernist.

Early on in the book, for instance, Holloway cites Moses’s vision of the Burning Bush, which he sees as a transformative inner experience: “The experience was genuine.  It happened.  But it came entirely from his subconscious mind.”  Well, yes, taking God out of the story certainly does mesh with his enlightened modernist approach, but plenty of modern scholars, Christian and Jewish, would be very dubious about accepting the vision story as sober fact.  A sizable number would challenge the existence of Moses as an historical figure, and would be very reluctant simply to assume it.  Ditto for events like the night of Passover, here cited as historical fact.

Even odder is the chapter on Abraham, whom Holloway treats as an historical figure who lived around 1800 b.c., who made the intellectual leap to monotheism.  Admittedly he qualifies his account by mentioning the “story that has come down to us,” but he clearly thinks he is dealing with sober history.  “The story of Abraham was a turning point in the history of religion.”  You would look long and hard in the ranks of nonfundamentalist biblical scholars to find many modern authorities so confident in the record of Genesis.  A standard academic account today would date the emergence of Jewish monotheism anywhere between 800 and 400 b.c., a good millennium after Abraham’s supposed date.

No less impervious to the scholarship of the past three or four decades are his accounts of other faiths, and especially the dates at which critical changes are believed to have occurred.  Of course, he thinks that the Vedic Aryans were “hard-riding cowboys” who galloped into the cities of the Indus civilization.  Whatever the faith, he presents its origins as simplistically as he does Hinduism, usually relying on canonical accounts and ignoring the role of later reconstructions and reimaginings.  Zoroaster lived in the sixth and fifth centuries, says Holloway, although most modern scholars would offer dates a half-millennium earlier.  And don’t expect any of the countless recent insights concerning Islamic origins to have an impact on his rigidly traditional account of Muhammad and his first followers.

So much of the book sounds groaningly like the content of an undergraduate course in World Religions—one offered several decades back.

That same mix of would-be skepticism and fossilized thinking naturally marks his discussion of Christianity, which is presented in terms of the obsessions of Saul of Tarsus, who thus becomes the true founder of the new religion.  If you missed anything in German scholarship circa 1900, don’t worry, you can find it all here, and untrammeled by any research of the past half-century.  (Even with that limitation, I have no idea why Holloway cites 1 Corinthians as the earliest surviving Christian text, rather than 1 and 2 Thessalonians.)

For all his aspirations to even-handedness, it is clearly the Christian aspects of the story that most interest him, and that emphasis points out just how forced is the coverage of Asian faiths.  Significantly, all those Asian stories focus entirely on the religion’s founders, such as Nanak and Confucius, with next to no sense of the later developments or evolution, or whether indeed these movements constituted faiths in anything like the Western sense.  The reader is left to conclude that Asian faiths reached perfection immediately following the time of their supposed founders, and remain today in something like that pristine state.  Obviously, they don’t.

That approach might be justified if applied in a fair and balanced way, but it isn’t.  In his account, Christianity is allowed to evolve and mutate, chiefly in the British Isles and North America.  Even Judaism drops off his map after the fall of the Second Temple, with no sense of the vigor and influence of Rabbinic Judaism.

Moving to later times, Holloway discusses new movements such as Mormonism, Christian Science, and Scientology, but again his focus is entirely within the Anglo-American world, with no hint of the role of comparable movements in other traditions, especially Japan.  His choice of “movements” is incredibly selective and idiosyncratic, with no room even for John Wesley.  Regardless of the vast numerical disparities between the groupings, Quakers receive a full chapter, while Baptists are not even mentioned in the Index, nor are Pentecostals.  There is such a thing as idiosyncratic, and there is also downright perverse.

I am skimming lightly over the manifold flaws of this book, but enough, I hope, to make clear its serious shortcomings.  Given those failings, we would not expect Holloway to have much of value to say about such a key issue as violence and religion, and indeed he does not.  He does indict various faiths for promoting and provoking violence: “So yes, religion has caused and continues to cause some of the worst violence in history.”  But Holloway’s history is consistently so weak that little attention need be paid to his views.

He also addresses the question of whether religion will die or fade away, and magnanimously concludes that it will not.  His discussion does not mention the expansive growth of fiery and traditional-minded religion around the world over the last decades, especially the surge of Pentecostal Christianity in Africa and Asia.  (African-Americans feature in the Index, but not Africa or Africans.)  If the world is supposedly moving to a “post-religion” state, then evidence to the contrary is unlikely to receive serious attention.  As the old maxim has it, we see things not as they are, but as we are, and his main point of reference throughout continues to be the British Isles.

By way of reference, by 2050 there will be a billion Christians in Africa alone, to say nothing of Muslims, and that says nothing of Hindus and Buddhists.

I remain baffled why this curious tract has received such rave reviews from really able and credentialed scholars who should have known better.

To my surprise, I left the book on an optimistic note.  Holloway’s Little History is a relic of a bygone scholarly universe, marked by a simplistic and quite credulous approach, in stark contrast to the nuanced complexity that so marks contemporary accounts of faith, and of experiences of faith.  We have truly come a long way.


[A Little History of Religion, by Richard Holloway (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press) 244 pp., $25.00]