A Little History of Religion

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Richard Holloway
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , September
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religion is a contested category. In our day and age, this goes without saying. Richard Holloway, however, does not shy away from religion’s conceptual battles—in fact, he embraces them. A Little History of Religion sets out to answer the questions: What is religion and where does it come from? In answering these two questions Holloway takes his readers on a long religious journey. Starting with Hinduism and ending with secular humanism, Holloway touches on most of the world’s religions. To some, this can only amount to a stomach-cringing generalization, but to others—such as the non-expert—A Little History of Religion has the potential to be a welcomed introduction to a difficult and often muted topic.

What is religion then? According to Holloway, religion is seeking to answer the big questions of life. Is there anybody out there? What happens after death? Did somebody or something create the cosmos? Religion is the way in which any culture has answered these questions—even though the answers are constantly under revision, practiced or embodied, and susceptible to reformation. Separating himself from either the truth or falsity of religion, Holloway proposes to analyze the religions of the world through their histories—the stories of the prophets and sages that were passed down until they eventually created movements.

While there is much that is admirable here, there is also much that is amiss. But—and this cannot be stressed enough—that which is amiss is only the case when A Little History of Religion is read outside the confines of what it is. It is not an academic book, and it is not seeking to inform either current conversations or trends in academic theories of religion. It is a book for people—most likely Western, secular humanists—who are intelligent but not looking to become academic experts in a field or discipline, and who are looking out into the world and questioning the rise of religion in a post-secular world. For them, A Little History of Religion is a fine place to start. Are there caveats? Qualifications? Of course! But a book that intentionally sets out to generalize should not have that held against it.

That which Holloway does well is threefold. First, he is a wonderful writer. The book is a joy to read. Second, he seeks to give every religion that he covers a “fair hearing” (8). And third, he admits his own biases, and this is important. While he focuses most of his time on the “belief” side of any given religion, he admits up front that he is “more interested in a religion’s inner beliefs than in its external rituals” (16). This should not result in critical or academic readers lambasting Holloway for ignoring religious studies’s turn to materiality. If anything, it serves as a good reminder that scholars such as Manuel A. Vasquez (More than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion, Oxford University Press, 2010) or S. Brent Plate (A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses, Beacon, 2014) are more important than ever, and they should, perhaps, also write a brief or generalized introduction to religion that accounts for materiality.

In the end, is A Little History of Religion too Western, conceptualized using Protestant categories such as “belief,” and all too generalizing? Yes. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. It’s also a useful book in a time when religion is continually thrust into the public eye and people—religious and secular alike—are seeking to answer questions such as What is religion and why is it still rearing its—beautiful or ugly—head? A Little History of Religion is a great starting point that, when read generously, has the potential to awaken others to the questions that religious scholars ask themselves every day. If this book does anything, at the very least, it reminds us that religion cannot be essentialized. For, as Holloway states “religion is an anvil that has worn out many hammers” (237).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin John Peters is a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies at the University of Denver.

Date of Review: 
April 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, is an internationally popular writer and broadcaster. His more than twenty books include the best-selling Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. He lives in Edinburgh, UK.


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