A Little History of Religion, Richard Holloway, Yale
The ‘Little History’ series is aimed at a younger audience, and here Richard Holloway, a one-time bishop who himself is something of a sceptic, aims to foster critical thinking about religion rather than simply acceptance. So while his book is about what religious people say about their religion, he also advises questioning what they say.
For example, he asks of the Moses story, was there really a burning bush? Or was Moses simply talking to himself and hearing voices in his head? Further, was there really a Moses at all? Is this just a story, much like that of the Garden of Eden, that tells us not what actually happened, but what believers believe about themselves and their history, and how they understand the world? (Mind you, if this is so, it neither disproves God nor renders religion meaningless.)
In Holloway’s emphasis, religions originate in the human mind, and, in his own metaphor, are various rivers that have branched out from one stream as responses to fundamental questions about origins and destinations. (Other religious scholars might have their own definitions.) (His streams metaphor is obviously deficient, as streams don’t branch out, they converge, but we know what he is getting at.) Primarily there are two questions: Is there something or someone controlling the universe and the lives of human beings, and what happens to us when we die? (Interestingly, the Israelites, at least in the early stages of their ‘religion’, were concerned with the former but not the latter question. Jesus put it slightly differently, saying that what happens to us after we die is already begun on earth with the ‘kingdom’ he inaugurated. Other religions, particularly Eastern ones, proclaim that these aren’t quite the right questions.)
Religion speaks in symbolic terms to these questions. Holloway has understanding, interest and sympathy, mixed with impatience for conservatism, dogma, violence and quick recourse to the supernatural for explanation. Typically for Holloway, religion becomes perverted when it becomes rigid, and so he links orthodoxy to closed minds and suggests that new movements (as corrections, which the Reformation was claimed to be) come from heresy. This is how religion moves forward. Science often proceeds in the same way. This is all true, but heresy can also create even more rigid and intolerant groups (cults), with whacky ideas. As Holloway notices, religion also has a history of prophets and leaders claiming all sorts of privileged access to God, and moving elsewhere, taking with them a loyal band of devotees, with disastrous consequences. So sometimes the conservative, rigid religious traditions can act as a corrective to the self-serving voices in our heads.