As a university lecturer whose research and teaching examine the philosophical relevance of religion, I have been struck by the way in which critical discussion often reduces religious discourse to issues of psychology, science or morality. To interpret the relevance of religious scripture through these disciplines is tantamount to saying that religion is merely a primitive form of something else. So, for example, religious sentiment can be explained in terms of psychological repression; the account of the creation in Genesis provides historical and scientific explanations of the natural world; or religion is morality for those who cannot reason and require instruction from authority figures. But what if religion is not reducible to these fields? This is a question significant for believers, non-believers and ex-believers alike, for each would then appear to be misunderstanding the very thing on which they have passed judgement.
I begin with this personal note because it indicates how a form of circumspective questioning can reveal a new understanding of religion. My teaching of the philosophy of religion is motivated by this, and I joke with my students, “By the end of this module, I hope to turn atheists into theists and theists into atheists.” In a similar vein, Richard Holloway provides a vivid account of the problems of religion when its believers and authorities fail to see how its historical form has become unreflective and stagnant. His memoir reflects not only on the complex buildup of events leading towards his break with the Anglican Church (and religion more generally) but also the compelling philosophical reasons for doing so.
Holloway recalls in eloquent detail how his life was driven by a tension between two competing sensibilities—passionate commitment and a lingering hesitancy. Yet what is most striking is his meditation on the roles of certainty and doubt. As his autobiography unfolds, the reader begins to see that certainty and doubt do not relate simply to the existence of a deity or the ways in which humans attempt to translate theistic belief into moral and social practices, but also to the manner in which these affective powers act as the cornerstones of our capacity to co-exist with one another. Holloway suggests—indeed, is life story exemplifies—our attempts to understand reality and ourselves require maintaining a healthy relationship between certainty and doubt, not letting ourselves gravitate to either extremity where, respectively, certainty becomes zealousness and doubt a continual postponement of decision. Such intricacies of belief serve only to exacerbate the problems associated with the genuine role of faith and how faith has been misconceived especially by religious authorities. “Believers are not encouraged to take the plunge of faith,” Holloway writes, “they are invited to swear to the certainty of a series of historic claims that come in propositional form” (185). Of course, one cannot help but read comments like these as providing the buildup to the book’s conclusion—that is, Holloway’s resignation from the office of the Bishop of Edinburgh. Yet there is more to Leaving Alexandria than a simple and straightforward rejection of religion. Take for instance his strong yet undogmatic conclusion that “[t]he mistake was to think religion was more than human” (343).
Whilst describing himself in interviews as post-religious, Holloway’s memoir suggests that his departure from religion stems from the failure of the Anglican Church to genuinely consider, explore and respond to its ambiguities. What if the Church had responded to all the critical points raised by Holloway? Is there more to religion than the current form that religious institutions allow? “I was less sure whether God was also just a human invention,” continues Holloway, “but I was quite sure religion was” (343). The conspicuous absence of God, to which Holloway refers frequently, changes in meaning depending on what stage of his life he is recounting; in his youth, God was the absence he sought to be present; and whilst an official of the Church, God could never be present. Yet whatever the case, this absence is not a destructive void. It is filled with a kind of mourning, a longing for what can be present and yet forever seems to recede into a mystery.