In face of the recent war in Israel and Palestine (and the outbreak of sharing other people’s 240-character opinions on social media), I felt the need to educate myself a little further about the struggles in the Middle East in particular but also about religion and its history in general. Off to the bookshop I went, to return with my arms full of books which I plan to read slowly over the next few months. To ease myself into the subject I started my religious education with Richard Holloway’s A Little History of Religion from Yale University Press’ Little History collection. This series of short books aims to introduces its readers – both old and young – to a range of complex issues with accessible language and engaging explanations.
In this little book Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh who has since come out as an agnostic, travel across the globe and through centuries to sketch out a history of religion from the beginning of Homo Sapiens until today. While he focusses on the major religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, he takes little detours to introduce religions and sects that are less known and does not shy away from current issues such as hardening lines between religious groups or religiously motivated violence.
When opening this book, I had been hoping for more of a history about the origin of religion, it’s psychological, political and cultural roots. I might not have found exactly what I was looking for in Holloway’s account, but I did find a disarming amount of respect, open-mindedness and empathy for the various religions and their believers, as well as for the reader. Early on the author makes it clear that he is writing for both, those with faith and those without. As a narrator, Holloway stays as neutral as he can without becoming unsensitive and still he always preserves a passion for curiosity and a bit of wonder. At times his language was clearly aimed at younger people, and certain explanations might seem redundant to the adult reader but that never takes away from the point he is making: that whatever our own beliefs – or lack thereof – we have to admit religions powerful impact on all realms of human life and that, even more importantly, we should meet anyone with tolerance and an open heart.
A Little History of Religion might not have answered too many of the questions started this reading project with, but it was a useful little introduction into the world of religion and I am glad I picked it first from the stack.