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Having curated the acclaimed History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor’s latest project brings him from Newgrange to CERN and beyond to explore human societies’ shared beliefs, writes TP O’Mahony
WESTERN man has lived with gods since the birth of civilisation in ancient Athens and Rome. The Greeks had their gods who made their abode on Mount Olympus, with Zeus and his formidable wife Hera being the chief among them. Their Roman counterparts were Jupiter and Juno. But the significance of these deities is that they represented archetypal forms which were central to man’s self-understanding and his self-constructed system of meaning. In other words, they were crucial elements in the “stories” which mankind told to itself and about itself. From this creative process emerged “religion”.
In his lavishly-illustrated book (based on an award-winning BBC Radio 4 series), Neil MacGregor, former director of the National Gallery and afterwards of the British Museum, traces the history of religion through a selection of artefacts. Best known for his earlier work, his acclaimed History of the
World in 100 Objects, MacGregor was the curator of the Living with the Gods exhibition in the British Museum, which drew in big crowds.
This reflected in part the reawakening of interest in religion as a cultural and political phenomenon in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington DC. As Linda Woodhead, Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, has noted, in “early 2001 the subject of religion in the modern world was still considered marginal by many people — in the intervening years that situation has changed out of all recognition. Like it or loathe it, religion is back on the agenda again”.
gods have never gone away, of course. It may have been in the post-1945 world, after the truly appalling loss of life and the widespread devastation, along with the concentration camp horrors of the second world war, that we were witnessing their twilight. The “absence” of the gods emerged as a defining characteristic of post-war culture. This was the matrix from which issued forth Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece Waiting for
Godot, emblematic of a loss of faith in the divine across Europe. A decade or so later we saw the growth of the “Death of God” movement in the United States.
That situation has changed dramatically. “Fifty years ago it was widely assumed that religion was on the wane almost everywhere: now, far from being marginalised, the relationship between faith and society has moved to the centre of politics and global conversation,” writes MacGregor himself. Why has belief come back? And why does it matter so much?
This is the background against which the author worked on the exhibition in the British Museum, and then went on to write this excellent 470-page volume. But right from the outset he makes it clear what the aim of the book is, and what he is not attempting.
“Living with the Gods is about one of the central facts of human existence: that every known society shares a set of beliefs and assumptions — a faith, an ideology, a religion — that goes far beyond the life of the individual, and is an essential part of a shared identity. Such beliefs have a unique power to define — and to divide — peoples, and are a driving force in the politics of many parts of the world today. Sometimes they are secular, most obviously in the case of nationalism, but throughout history they have most often been, in the widest sense, religious.
“This book is emphatically not a history of religion, nor an argument in favour of faith, still less a defence of any particular system of belief. Looking across history and around the globe, it interrogates 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.”
MacGregor reminds us that not all religion is founded on beliefs based on diThe
vinely inspired texts held to contain absolute truths from which religious authority ultimately derives. “If there is one image that sums up that view of organised religion in the West, it would surely be Moses on Mount Sinai, receiving, directly from God, the Ten Commandments: one all-powerful, all-controlling God, handing down a text, written in unchangeable stone, which sets out clear and immutable doctrine about how we should worship him, and what we should (but mostly should not) do.”
In the West, the three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — are central to our understanding of religion, with their belief in a single God and a set of sacred texts. Accordingly, dictionary definitions of religion would exclude Buddhism, for instance, which does not require belief in a personal God, entitled to obedience. It is indeed true that Europeans struggle to cope with unfamiliar, disconcertingly fluid ideas of the divine.
But, as the author emphasises through the kaleidoscope of objects, monuments and ideas he has assembled, religion and our understanding of the divine cannot be confined to synagogues, churches, and mosques.
Among the many examples embodying older manifestations of the divine which he explores are Newgrange, the headquarters of CERN (the European Centre for Nuclear Research near Geneva), and the Temple of Vesta in the centre of the Roman Forum.
The author reminds us that Newgrange, about 50km north of Dublin, is older than Stonehenge, or than the pyramids of Egypt. “We cannot know with certainty what beliefs or rituals led to the making of Newgrange, but all experts agree that there must have been both. Walking into the heart of this circular manmade mound feels like making a short journey into the mystery of life and death ... some complex structure of faith and ritual must lie behind the making of Newgrange.”
CERN is chosen not so much for itself but because at the entrance to its headquarters the Hindu god Shiva is shown dancing in a perpetual circle of fire. “In Hindu tradition Shiva’s fire creates and sustains us, yet it also destroys us. Like nuclear energy, fire ultimately eludes human understanding or human control.” Fire is also central to the story of the goddess Vesta and her Vestal Virgins in Rome. The central job of the latter was to tend the sacred flame of the city. The author quotes Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge: “Like almost all Roman priesthoods, this was an elite job. But it was very unusual because it was a female elite job, which guaranteed the Vestal and her family a place at the very heart of Roman religion — and so at the very heart of the Roman political world too”.
What MacGregor’s book reinforces is the crucial distinction between religious instruction (indoctrination) and religious education, and the importance of the latter which teaches students about a range of religions and beliefs but does not promote any one religion. In Irish secondary schools, the State-approved syllabus on religious education is compulsory and is an examination subject. That’s increasingly important because, as Peter L Berger, Professor of Sociology at Boston University, has emphasised: “Those who neglect religion in their analyses of contemporary affairs do so at great peril.”
ALL BOW: Neil MacGregor, is once again examining human-made objects — but also places and activities — to help us understand the nature of religion and society.
Living With the Gods Neil MacGregor Allen Lane, £30
ALL RISE: The winter solstice at Newgrange; the neolithic burial chamber in Co Meath is one of the many examples of more ancient manifestations of the divine.