Review: Judging Religion

Review of our meeting in February 2021 with speaker John Holroyd talking about his book Judging Religion

John Holroyd, the speaker at our February meeting, has attended SELHuG meetings in the past and also gave a well-received presentation a couple of years ago. So, when he offered to speak about his recently published book Judging Religion we were pleased to accept. As preparation for his session he sent us an excerpt from the Introduction to his book. This highlighted several issues worth thinking about and discussing, and he enlarged on these during his talk.

First, Holroyd is very critical of those he called the ‘new atheists’ – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris & Daniel Dennett in particular – who, he believes, are too biased against religion and argue from a very subjective point of view, lacking a real understanding of the religions that they so vocally oppose. He asserts that ‘What is needed in current discussion and reflection about religion is a more disinterested intent and a keener desire to understand’.

Next, he argues that we need to form an opinion about religions because the world is becoming more religious and increasingly its impact will affect everyone. One could reply that, although this may be true in terms of total global numbers, it is not necessarily true in all parts of the world. Western liberal democracies, and particularly the UK, are becoming less religious, This is especially true among the young.

Third, what do we mean by ‘religion’? What criteria should we use to distinguish between what is a religion and what is not? Is a defining component the existence of and a belief in a supernatural being? If so, Buddhism, Taoism & Shinto would be excluded. Alternatively, ‘if religion is more about how people believe than what they believe then it is hard to see why football doesn’t count in some respects’. He concludes ‘the word religion does have meaning, despite evading a precise definition that fits all instances of its use’. A further definitional problem is that it is often difficult to distinguish between what is religious and what is political. Was the fatwa issued in 1988 by Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie religious or political? What about The Troubles in Northern Ireland or anti-Semitism?

Fourth, how should we make a judgement about a religion? Holroyd asserted that our understanding of a religion is always provisional therefore all judgements should also be provisional. Then there is the problem of what criteria to use – should they be absolute or relative to the times and circumstances? Is heresy always bad? Are the writings of Mohammed always true? Was the missionary movement always good? Are my ethics right and so yours are necessarily wrong or is there room for both and we can agree to differ?

Holroyd concluded that the issues of religion, faith and belief are very problematical and that what is needed is what he called ‘better disagreement’. He suggested that, in judging religions, we should place less weight on the infrequent but highly publicised failings of religions and more weight on their underlying value. As Humanists, we can conclude that, although we believe that we only have one life and that we should think for ourselves and act for others, we should also respect those who do observe religious belief. Both sides can benefit from a constructive discussion. And on that basis John’s contribution was both very interesting and very helpful.

Review by Tony Brewer

Reference: Judging Religion by John Holroyd, published by SilverWood Books.

For an excerpt from the Introduction, click below: