Back in 2011, a £1.9 million Oxford University study proved that human thought processes were rooted to religious concepts. The project involved 57 academics in 20 countries around the world, and was multi-disciplinary, spanning anthropology, psychology, and philosophy. Titled “The Cognition, Religion and Theology Project”, the study underscored our “religious” predispositions, though not necessarily the truth of those concepts.
The findings of this and other similar studies fly repeatedly in the face of Nietzsche’s famous 19th century “god is dead” declaration – a few Enlightenments, industrial and technological revolutions later, we’re still talking and walking religion, and even killing in its name.
In his new book, Living With The Gods: On Beliefs And Peoples, famed British art historian and museum professional, Neil MacGregor, drives home this point further. This anthology is the transcript of a highly successful 30-episode BBC Radio 4 show that MacGregor hosted in 2017 in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name at the British Museum. After the immense popularity of The History of the World In 100 Objects, the British Museum, BBC and Penguin came together for this amazing collaboration with MacGregor as their star.
The Big Mac (Gregor)
What makes MacGregor one of the world’s most respected names, especially in the fields of art and museums, is not just his erudition but his marked professional success. He was Director of the National Gallery, London from 1987 to 2002, and is at present one of the (founding) directors of the ambitious Humboldt Forum, Berlin. But he is credited most for turning around the fortunes of the British Museum in his tenure between 2002 and 2015, and making it the second-most visited museum in the world after the Louvre.
Naturally, when MacGregor talks museums, everyone listens. But he wears his erudition lightly. As a museum professional, he is constantly aware of the need for simplicity in communication, and talks about the most profound of subjects in ways that laypersons can understand without losing out on the depth.
Rendering complex matters simply is, of course, the prerogative of those whose knowledge runs deep. In Living With The Gods, he tackles the subject of religion – often thought of as contentious – with practised ease. It is, as he says, “emphatically, not a history of religion”, but an interrogation of “objects, places and human activities to try to understand what shared religious beliefs can mean in the public life of a community or a nation, how they shape the relationship between the individual and the state, and how they have become a crucial contributor to who we are. For in deciding how we live with our gods we also decide how to live with each other.”
In including “places and human activities”, MacGregor makes a departure from History Of The World In 100 Objects – which depended entirely on material evidence to tell the story of our past. As lived religion is a subject of this book, it includes many intangibles. But MacGregor’s handling of them is just as masterful, with some help from other experts and academics. He prises meaning from mute objects, and deftly cuts out the noise around the rhetoric of the living, distilling and delivering the essence behind them both. What is remarkable about his writing (he is a devout Christian) is that it is equally respectful and objective about all faiths and their articles. The metaphor of his handling these stories – and they are numerous – with a curator/conservator’s careful gloves is hard to miss.
Bound by faith
Although there are only 30 essays between the covers of Living With The Gods, the scope of religious practices they cover is astonishingly vast. Their timeline ranges from the Ice Age to the present day, and the width, pretty much the whole globe. These essays are divided into six parts, namely “Our Place in the Pattern”, “Believing Together”, “Theatres of Faith”, “The Power Of Images”, “One God Or Many”, and “Powers Earthly And Divine”. Five essays in each section deal with fundamental religious ideas, the places, and the protocols in which these ideas play out.
However, before enumerating the different ways in which we live our religions, MacGregor – in his introduction – offers a beautiful illustration of one way in which we have all managed to unite. A 19th century cameo bracelet exhibit from Italy depicting the seven gods of the seven respective days of the Gregorian calendar week becomes representative of the format of time that has found almost universal acceptance with the peoples of the world.
While many regions and religions continue to have independent almanacs, the Monday-to-Sunday week is the norm for all intents and purposes the world over. MacGregor traces the naming convention of the seven days, reminding us how it emerged from a conglomeration of pagan Roman gods with Anglo-Saxon names, was adopted and spread by Christian colonisers, and is now accepted by nations with all manner of religions.
Many roads, multiple journeys
A unity of ideas is, however, rare in the realm of religious thought. Amply demonstrated in successive chapters, Living With The Gods jolts us into an awareness of the incredibly diverse ways in which we think about, relate with, and sometimes impose upon others, the idea of god.
The first part of the book takes into account many creation and elemental myths – prisms through which communities determine their place in the world and their relationship with nature. The 40,000-year-old ivory “Lion Man of Ulm” (a figurine with the head of a lion and the body of an adult man) becomes the starting point of the grand narrative of religion. This invaluable object is the earliest-known representation of “something beyond human experience”. It tells us how even the most primitive societies, for whom mere survival would have been the greatest challenge, had the need and mental space for ideas that were greater than themselves.
The second part deals with the idea of the collective and its role in religion. MacGregor points out that religion becomes the common thread that binds not just the living members of the society, but also those who have passed before us, and those who are yet to arrive. From the earliest times, religious/ spiritual activity around death has been the norm. The world’s most awe-inspiring tombs, catacombs, mausoleums, and pyramids stand as testimonies to these beliefs. As with death, religion manifests in all other important life events. Births, initiations, rites of passage, and weddings – all bring the community together. United in prayer, ritual and song, communities become channels through which religious legacy is passed down from one generation to another.
In the third part, we are introduced to what MacGregor calls the various “Theatres Of Faith”. It is in the temples and churches, through sacrifices and offerings, or pilgrimages and festivals, that faith articulated is most visibly. Whether in the (seemingly) brutal human sacrifices of the medieval Aztecs, the holy Hajj pilgrimage of contemporary Muslims, or the annual celebratory Hindu Durga Puja in India, we find a manifestation of religious beliefs. Even the most private acts of faith become public in these contexts, and grant a believing individual that much longed-for card of belonging.
The fourth part investigates the power of images in the narrative of religion. Whether a religion is monotheistic or polytheistic, images become the focal points and carriers of the faith. In case of Judaism and Islam, where imagery is strictly forbidden, the word takes the place of the image (though a few may miss the irony of the word becoming the image). The worship of relics and idol, the reading and chanting of “sacred” hymns and verses have all been seen over the centuries, tying together communities, whether it was the ancient polytheistic societies of Rome and Mesopotamia, and of present day India, or the monotheistic Christian and Islamic nations.
The idea of divine ordinance is explored in part five of the book. Whether the ordinance flows from one god, many gods, spirits or monarchs, depends, of course, on which religion and what point in time is under discussion. This belief also, then, becomes the reason that makes us accept some people and reject others.
Further, in part six, the subjects of divine and earthly power overlap. The inevitable conflation of religious and political matters occurs here, and brings us back into the present, where the two constantly engage in dangerous ways. With a thorough awareness of the destructive force that overzealous religion can be, MacGregor touches upon the idea of godless existence and, finally, co-existence in the last two chapters.
Despite the “globalisation of indifference” – to borrow Pope Francis’ words, religious traditions seem to be one of the few glues holding people together in communities. As diverse as they are, their recognition of and ability to offer solace from the human condition is resoundingly similar across cultures. And in this lie their worth and resolute continuation. MacGregor’s writing of this book (and our reading of it) is beautifully justified in his disagreement with Jean Paul Sartre’s “Hell is other people” statement at the end, with the compassionate assertion of the idea that “living properly with other people, living with each other, is the nearest we can get to heaven”.
Living With The Gods, Neil MacGregor, Penguin/ Allen Lane.