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The Hair of the Dog:

And Other Scientific Surprises

Karl Sabbagh

Richard Holloway is that perennially entertaining figure in our national landscape: the trendy left-wing bishop who doesn’t believe in God. The BBC loves him, of course. He’s safe on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, and won’t put listeners off their breakfasts with any distasteful talk of sin, death and redemption. He prefers to talk about the legalisation of cannabis — he calls it “hash” to show how intensely relaxed and youthful he is (he was born in 1933) — and advocates “making harder drugs legally available”. “It should be up to individuals to decide if they want to experiment with drugs or engage in whatever form of sexual encounter,” he says. Presumably, he would add a few footnotes to the second bit of this exciting vision for the future, but you never know. In 2000, he named the gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell as one of his five most “Christ-like” figures in the modern world. Now he has written yet another book on religion, whose purpose is to show us how all religions are man-made, and that, although of some interest from an anthropological point of view, it is really time we grew up and left them behind. Instead, the Rt Rev Prof Richard Holloway, while professing a modest and searching agnosticism, wants to lead us all over Jordan and into a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey and hash and meow meow and sexual freedom. He calls this new dispensation “Secular Humanism”, though it sounds more like an evening in a particularly nasty nightclub. Still, there’s a lot of faith in this book. He tells us confidently that when Moses encountered the Burning Bush, what he really saw was a bush “ablaze with red berries”. How does he know? Has the bishop time-travelled? He is even more pontifical and know-all when he explains that Moses led the Children of Israel across something called “the Sea of Reeds close to the shore of the Mediterranean”, not the Red Sea at all. Nobody knows this as fact, and treating the timeless stories of the Old Testament in this ploddingly literal-minded way drains the magic out of them like a vampire bat with its teeth stuck into Santa Claus. In general he doesn’t much like the great monotheisms and prefers Buddhism. He also likes Quakers and the gentle Jains, who won’t even eat root vegetables but only windfalls. Sallekhana, or self-starvation, is the highest Jain ideal. And he goes all gooey over the Native Americans (“They lived lightly on the face of the earth... a sacred connection to the land... the wind that stirred the grasses of the high plains”), suggesting that the bishop might have watched Pocahontas once too often. He is clear-eyed on Islam, though. Every other religious founder has reacted against violence; Muhammad practised it. “War was an instrument of his spiritual purpose.” He is also clear on the difference between the Bible and the Koran: the former is a collection of centuries of writings; the latter is regarded by Muslims as “God’s presence on earth”. The Koran is to Muslims what Jesus Christ is to Christians, and it frequently advocates bloodshed against non-Muslims. But it is Christians he really seems to dislike. They introduced slavery to North America, he tells us, which is poppycock. The Native Americans not only kept slaves, they sometimes ate them. He especially dislikes American Christians. “Statistically, the USA is the most Christian country on earth. It is also one of the most violent.” More poppycock. Dozens of countries are more Christian by percentage. The UN places America at 107th out of the world’s 218 countries for homicide rates per 100,000 population.

The final chapter is entitled, with eager hopefulness, The End of Religion? 'Secular spirituality finds meaning and beauty in this life. It is the only life we’ll ever have.' Another faith statement there, to end this bland, vain, arrogant and unenlightening book.

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