In their respective books A Little History of Religion and Zealot, authors Richard Holloway and Reza Aslan explore a wide range of questions on religion and its socio-cultural impacts. Both writers study religion from a combination of perspectives, including theological and historical standpoints. Among the questions that the books address include the origin of religion and the nature of the environment in which it may flourish. The books also focus on the functions of religion and its relationship with politics. Beyond the conventional understanding of religion, the authors reveal the profound ways in which the meaning and functions of religion have transformed over the centuries. From the medieval to contemporary times, religion has shaped worldviews and conditioned the manner in which societies appropriate the meaning of different kinds of phenomena. Taken together, the two books explore the nature from less familiar perspectives that expand the readers’ understanding of religion in its broadest sense.
Holloway establishes his perspective on religion from a forthright position that interrogates its meaning and the various claims to which it is ascribed. According to the scholar, religion is distinguishable from other discourses in the sense that it is an all-encompassing discipline, which seeks to define the totality of human experiences as understood in accordance with its relationship to higher supernatural beings. Holloway introduces the subject by explaining why, unlike humans, animals are incapable of experiencing or practicing religion. In his view, animals are at one with their lives and do not need religion to fulfil anything that matters to them (Holloway, 2016). On the other hand, the human potential for self-consciousness and the capacity to think are the defining aspects that make people capable of religious experience. Perceived in this sense, religion becomes a distinctive reality that establishes itself from the moment a human being develops the capacity for self-consciousness.
What is more, Holloway claims that religion entails the belief of the existence of reality beyond this world. In line with this view, the origin of religion should be considered to be as old as the beginning of humankind. This impression derives from the generally acknowledged fact that the early man believed in the supernatural and offered sacrifices to a higher being whom he regarded as his creator. Moreover, nearly all kinds of civilizations took special care of their dead because they believed in some kind of ascension of the demised person’s soul to supernatural realms. On the other hand, Aslan reflects on the nature of religion in terms of the concept of God. In his view, every society believes in some supreme being. Aslan (2013) brings out this dimension of religion and God in the contest between Prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
In the contest, Elijah successfully convinced the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel to bring down fire and burn his sacrifice. However, the prophets of Baal did not succeed in asking the Supreme Being to do the same (Aslan, 2013). Beyond the relative superiority or inferiority of the gods, the contest was proof of the fact that every society of culture maintains the belief in a supernatural being. Concerning the relationship between Aslan and politics, the author seems to provide a resourceful response in which he points out the reason behind the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Aslan gives the story a political twist by describing Jesus as a revolutionary figure who made a bold entry into Jerusalem and tried to take over the temple before the Romans captured and executed him because of the crime of sedition. Aslan’s secular approach to the subject gives it an interesting turn, but one that helps to reveal the narrow line between religion and politics.
Holloway answers the question of religion and politics by exploring the many ways in which the gods have intervened in wars and conflicts, which were mainly political in nature. Such interventions show that religion has a limitless practical appeal that determines the nature of politics. Aslan also explains the difficulties involved in the attempt to establish a dividing line between religion and politics. An example is the Buddhist tradition and the role of the Dalai Lama. The esteemed position of the Dalai Lama gives him the privileged position of serving as both a political and religious leader of the people (Aslan, 2013). The society estimates the value of religion in the same way as politics.
Altogether, the two authors provide insightful positions that help to broaden the essence and purpose of religion in all of its manifestations. The general impression is that religion is a complex subject that cuts across various spheres in society. The outstanding merit of both books is that the writers explore the various subjects in an objective and insightful manner that does not restrict the reader from a singular perspective. In effect, the reader is able to connect with the presented insights in a detached but intellectually immersive manner, which can contribute towards the development of greater discernments. Moreover, the books are uniquely resourceful because their perspectives are not established on religious dogma, but on historical facts that help the reader to reset his or her perspectives on the different aspects of religion.
Aslan, R. (2013). Zealot: The life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Random House.
Holloway, R. (2016). A little history of religion. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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