The Daily Telegraph
‘Swinging Sixties was the starting point for fall of religion in UK’
BRITAIN is trying to become the first society in the world without religious belief at its core, according to the former director of the British Museum.
In a BBC Radio 4 series, Living With The Gods, Neil Macgregor is going to trace “40,000 years of believing and belonging”. The 30-part programme, broadcast daily over six weeks, will feature objects from the British Museum archive that show how religion has shaped society.
Religion provides a “narrative” that explains our place in the world, Macgregor said, and its decline is “a striking phenomenon across Western Europe” but nowhere more so than Britain, where Christianity has been in decline for decades.
“In a sense, we are a very unusual society. We are trying to do something that no society has really done. We are trying to live without an agreed narrative of our communal place in the cosmos and in time,” Macgregor said.
Asked if he was referring to the disappearance of religious faith from people’s lives in Britain, he replied: “Yes, exactly that. As a country, we no longer have an agreed narrative of that sort.
“Our society is, not just historically but in comparison to the rest of the world today, a very, very unusual one in being like that. We are exceptional. It’s important to know that we are different.” The change began in the Sixties, he said, and “it does mean we have changed very profoundly”.
Few people today understand the relationship between the monarchy and the church, Macgregor said, and they would be surprised by the role it played in the Coronation. “Nobody questioned at the time, in 1953, that the head of state would go into Westminster Abbey, be stripped down to a white shift, and then everything is given to her by the Archbishop. It was a great, public, religious ritual. “We have moved in the course of her reign to a point where most people would hardly understand that,” he said.
“What’s very striking about our society now is the fact that our head of state was invested with her power by God, directly, in a public ritual and that’s something most citizens don’t know. That idea has dissolved with astonishing speed in this country.”
The purpose of religion is to engender a sense of community, Macgregor said, and the one communal ritual to survive in modern Britain is Christmas.
“It does what religious festivals do: it is the one moment of the year everyone thinks about their obligations across the community, and you think about your place in time, and the future.
“Christmas still does work extraordinarily well as a great religious festival in that sense, even though for most people the story behind it has evaporated.”
The series begins on Oct 23. Lord Hall of Birkenhead, the BBC directorgeneral, said it was a collaboration between “two great British institutions that can do so much for understanding and for enlightening people”.