A Little History of Religion



Spoken Word

St Andrew’s & St George’s West, George St

Venue 111

7.30 pm

15 August ONLY


Mary Woodward


Richard Holloway, ex-Chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, patron of LGBT Youth Scotland, and one-time Bishop of Edinburgh, is a man of many parts.  His life-long obsession with what people call religion has made him constantly question the nature of the universe, the meaning of everything, why and how we live our lives as we do, and how to make sense of our experiences of ‘Other’, which some would call ‘god’.


This evening Richard was talking about his latest book “A Little History of Religion”.  Yale University Press invited him to contribute to their series introducing major topics [religion, literature, science] to a target audience of older children and first year college students.   As he said “I knew one corner of the religious territory very well, and relished the opportunity to look at the rest.”   It’s a vast field, and Richard’s aim was not to produce a gigantic tome outlining everything that could be said, but to produce a guide which gave some basic factual and unbiased information.   He set himself the task “to try to learn two things about each religion to help him understand it”, focusing on its theology, not its “cultic practices”; and as he added, there are pictures to make it nice…


He discussed the writing process: a writer can research the facts, but then needs to find metaphors and analogies to help the reader understand the ideas being talked about.   As one who scribbles a bit, I found it comforting to hear such a prolific author explain that, after doing the research, you have to trust the process, let go of trying to control it, and “something will come through”.  Prophets saw visions and heard voices: these days we tend to medicate such people, but there is the beginning of realising that this is not necessarily the way forward either!  Prophets have a lot in kin with writers and artists – great art is created from the ideas that appear, who knows how, in the artist’s head…


Religion is about stories, the stories we tell ourselves to try and make sense of our world.  Richard’s aim in this book is to “let the stories speak”.   His greatest strength is his ability to explain complex ideas and concepts simply and intelligibly: for example, giving a clear and simple outline of the seemingly contradictory nature of the Tao, which seems to speak in riddles.


He is very tolerant about the possibilities of belief: he outlines ideas, and lets you make up your own mind.   He is very clear on a few things, not least the things that are not ok – religions that make people cruel, people who insist on forcing their truth on other people, even to the point of using violence.    He sees as god’s biggest enemy not atheism, but religions that claim to know everything about god.   He is wary of religions when the institution becomes the substitute for God, and when fear of change and resistance to new ideas result in fundamentalism.


We only had a chance to hear about a few of the book’s many chapters.  He found Jainism attractive, especially- their insistence on non-violence even in the mind, but fears their diet [only eating fruit which has already fallen from the tree] would be impractical in Scotland.  He uses America as a case study, looking at the change that occurred when Europeans brought their version of religion and destroyed the Native American way of living in harmony with the Earth and all its inhabitants.   Talking of his chapter on secular humanism he mentioned his children’s feel that their children have lost out on many good things by not being brought up in a religious environment – the opportunity to be part of a community where deep thoughts can be voiced, where discussion can take place, and where the idea of agape – selfless love, poured out on ‘the other’ whom we may not know, and with whom we have no obvious connection – gives people the feeling of a moral duty to care for other people instead of solely concentrating on self and those near to us.


There were so many fascinating ideas, and so little time to hear about them: other ideas were raised in the questions which followed, and were discussed over the (ooh!) prosecco and canapés afterwards.


I had been debating whether to buy this book when I discovered that it has a chapter on Quakers: since I’m one I had to buy it – I can’t wait to see what Richard has to say about us!