In this week’s books podcast, Sam talks to the former head honcho of the National Gallery and British Museum, Neil MacGregor, about his new book Living With The Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples. Neil tells the story of the world’s religions through objects — beginning with a 40,000-year-old carving that might be the first human representation of an entirely imaginary object. What do religions have in common? How do you represent icon-averse creeds through physical objects? Why should there be an evolutionary advantage in engaging with the intangible or imaginary? And what does the history of religion tell us about the common threads of humanity?

Presented by Sam Leith.

United States


00:00:01hello I'm Dominic green and life enough said itself a spectator USA and I'm inviting you to join me on a weekly life enough support cost each week will be running the gamut of American cultural life talking to writers actors musicians philosophers and even the old politician so join
00:00:22me search for spectator USA on the iTunes store hello and welcome to the spectators books put cost I'm certainly attention this week I'm joined by new McGregor the former head of bush museum and art for the National Gallery before that and all of his for the world a
00:00:48hundred objects his new book is living with the colts on beliefs and people's near welcome you take on a very big subject and you made even bigger at six you said in your introduction you said well you know this about religion and yet the something that you always
00:01:03drink willing to religion systems audiology and nationalism and so forth so I mean what led you to start on this enormous piece of territory and to make it a much wider those starting but was a discussion of the British Museum about the questions the British Museum should be
00:01:22addressing the idea of the museum being to enable the citizen to understand better the world as it is now and we've done a number of exhibitions on themes it seems was important for that like Iran will Gemini also sort of a coach was in use in we we
00:01:37normally think of it as something with his club stunned the world as it was then the reason was since you asked the resume is unusual in that regard is it set up by parliament in the middle of the eighteenth century in order to allow the bridges to understand
00:01:51the world that they are in countries to global trade and you would normally expect that to university but Oxford and Cambridge had vetoed university not to serve the museum is a kind of open university for the people who are encouraging the first modern globalized world so they can
00:02:07understand it and unions done now through the past one of the questions it seems was very important to address is why is religion again a major political force in the world I think most people a generation ago would assume that religion was going to retreat into a more
00:02:25private realm but in fact quite the reverse and that seems was really important to us why is it that religion has this power to mobilize people in a political dimension and has that always been the case with the collections are using here particular about the sort of clash
00:02:42of cultures the sort of Islamist terror and so forth bring lot or been in the American Christian rights I mean what what if you look in the world you see the phenomenon that community is states choose to identify themselves through religious regions as much or more than political
00:02:59leeches obviously with the collapse of the states in the Middle East more more communities there define themselves primarily as a religious community that's the identity but from the Philippines to Nigeria people are being attacked killed on the basis primarily or the GT of religious identity announced who looks
00:03:22something like Russia until nineteen eighty nine a state atheist country not %HESITATION proudly loudly energetically orthodox yes Putin proclaiming Russian identity as being orthodox identity is everywhere in the world and I think western Europeans above all find this very hard we were brought up to believe that religion
00:03:44was essentially an attempt to explain the world to explain why lightning war earthquakes happened on that science had superseded that on the top that was simply a private matter I think what we've lost sight of is that religion is also and perhaps even more so more than just
00:04:03being about explaining the world it's about giving a meaning to existence around the nation is state of the nation state particularly in times of war articulated that meeting so it'll be about kind of criminal practice and await ridges practice role is that we're doing much in the book
00:04:19is absolutely not the the the villages or otherwise of a set of beliefs but the way in which belief is articulated into a sense of belonging and how you manage that how you organize the rituals the practices so that the community of belonging is established under the wave
00:04:38approach this is a new book through objects I'm one of the advantages of the house and a space with limitations about the great advantage is that it lets you treat on an equal basis the greats monarchy isms with texts like obviously present as you Judaism Islam the other
00:04:58great religions like Hinduism Buddhism the don't have won the sacred text and perhaps most important of all those religious practices those communities where the whole landscape is part of a spiritual religious world binding people place across time thing goes straight average yes you can look at all these
00:05:20practices and how they work out in society through objects much more easily objects let's just look at a world that is otherwise very hard to enter the a particular those worlds like the woman Michael the animated landscape worlds like there's trillion of original worlds we don't have words
00:05:40for their ideas in English as usual early on about how difficult it is to articulate something so the the advantage of the object the thing is it lets you move from the the text the takes usually managed by the clergy yes to the things which are usually made
00:05:57by the people and to be used in rituals that's what we've looked at and how do you organize a book like this I mean a week because he jumped from social you know one religion to another one part of the world to another one time frame to another
00:06:10I mean does does one research but like this by as you have the privilege to some kind of wandering around the British Museum often don't think it was up one looks interesting and good as perambulation part of it was exactly that walking around the museum with called X.
00:06:23no so much off to dock as in the light of cookies knowledge around talking about the idea of different questions about religion we could ask under dressed to the things we were very keen to get some kind of spread across time from the first things we can regard
00:06:41as religious experience evidence of religious yes there is is a I mean I'd like to talk about that but that because you do begin with this one absolutely remarkable objects this land management which was founded in Germany I think yes is it for inside Germany and it's a
00:06:56small world sculpture carved out of mammoth ivory and it shows the body of a man with the head of a lion and it was made about forty thousand years ago in the ice age in south Germany as far as we know to date it's the oldest three dimensional
00:07:12object we have the represent something that can't exist it's the physical king of an idea or the making visible and grasp the blister degrasse bubble of an idea and that seems good place to start because it's about an idea that goes beyond the confines of just through manatee
00:07:33it's about humanity in a world of dangerous animals huge animals fierce animals but about the human role in that and somewhere in that idea is of course what we're looking for which is our place in this world and one of them is a remarkable things by that you
00:07:51mean the experts who have withdrawn have figured out how long it would have taken to make on the notice of the cave you know didn't have lots of the old remittance you'd expect from habitation so it was kind of a church that's seems to be the case and
00:08:06we know that this would have taken many hundreds of hours to make using stone tools are mammoth ivory the first question was is why would you allow someone to spend so long acquiring skill to make it disappear for a scope to this person made and why would you
00:08:20devote so much time to it what is the advantage to society of having this kind of object and the spaces you say it's not a normal case it appears not to be careful people lived but in that cave were found the sculpture ornaments like on was teeth used
00:08:37as necklaces we think and I'm close to objects that have no practical use around the space as noted in the place of living so it looks to be in a church in in in that sense a place where people gather to think about something beyond themselves but only
00:08:53for that purpose he said in the in in the ice age %HESITATION life expectancy was not high and many people busy it DG with very easy it's done spending lots lots of hours making a call the what's the suggestion in a do you have a stereo or their
00:09:07scientific ideas to the extent to which religion is adoptive I'm at what point does it become useful for the community I have someone is doing that the the historic does his stories of deep history would argue I think that societies that have communities that have a shared belief
00:09:25about themselves as a community that goes beyond the individual are stronger than ones without thought if you can articulate an idea %HESITATION that the group will go all the individuals will come and go but the group will go on and there's a narrative that carries the community through
00:09:44time that community will be stronger than others more likely to make it so you could I think argue that communities with patterns of belief and strengthen notions of belonging and what the individual differences contribute to the community so that it goes on those committees are more likely to
00:10:03survive and that for the belief patterns more likely to continue up of lan idea of something larger than yourself or something that provides an account of the community in time what are the commonalities that you found gonna annual New Hope three religions is the rest of it would
00:10:20you civil court of what you could call religious or religion in human paid I think the notion that the individual is fulfilled in the context of the community is one of the central things and how that is articulation so that the community includes everybody that many different kinds
00:10:39of rituals to ensure that everybody is in the embrace of the community and that's one thing the second thing is I think the notion of the past and the future being present now until we get shin to act and to think in the context of the past has
00:11:00left us and with responsibility for the future to to my mind the great example there is Peru the Peruvian mummies the before the the Spanish conquest the Peruvians mummified the the bodies particular of the then leader is under these bodies are brought out to join discussions to decide
00:11:21the politics of the future budget ribbon from is just as well as is like having Dustin Disraeli's suddenly wheeled out to run the cabinet table but what that does is it's been so lists that everything you're doing is to be seen in a long dimension of time and
00:11:36that's another thing about religion is always about time as well as about the community and I think that's why it in both cases western Europe now finds this difficult the cause society that has in the last couple generations focused very strongly with wonderful results on the rights of
00:11:53the individual to fulfill themselves as an individual who it was that that the whole expansion of rights which has been liberation for it for if it ferment for millions that's the kind of the other side of that is that the the view of the individual being fulfilled in
00:12:09the community has declined and fulfilling yourself as an individual is not about the future of the community it's from the time scale and I think that's why we in western Europe in the west in general find the power of religion difficult released across yes there's a there's a
00:12:25one feel Quinn to objects in it they describe the van auctions tying knots into the hair of young men cute about that it's just look what this is all university one of the key points of choosing objects as it is that you have a glimpse of traditions of
00:12:41belief and practice this don't have texts gent tied the world which is a visible most of the world from its history has had an inventor what to the system of training the boy in his obligations for the future informing him about the stories the narrative of the community
00:13:01which he needs to know are performed by the elders and as they tell him the stories they plopped his heroic Rastafarian dreadlocks and then the examine him and to go on clutching so over several years the boy's hair will be sturdily placid and then when he knows enough
00:13:22that will be cut off and in the British Museum we have one of these bundles of platted head which was cut off in the eighteen thirties and when people prevent what you came to look as bush museum they were thrilled to see it yet and points out that
00:13:37this is our university this is where we train people in their obligations and this is if you like this is the diploma to show that they they know enough to take their place in the community local I mean at what's very striking that would be because that way
00:13:53it when which certain rituals Ole images and metaphors right did seem to have run through a number of different religions and you begin with fire and water data and then go on to do a thing that which is a yeah us to deliver cool get slammed into TS
00:14:09Eliot but I think it's because fire and water but purify arms it's %HESITATION it and it it is was very hard to reach you and I is you can either do without you to extinguish it tool that arms S. is just one was with us but the it's
00:14:27not surprising that fire everywhere is seen as very close to the divine because it has that remarkable power of course to be visible you you need five %HESITATION it'll just live in the the not just for cooking and heats but the hearth would be the focus of the
00:14:46community so does investors flame in Rome becomes the symbol of the whole community but what is so remarkable about you just as great powerful thing will actually die in this human look after it civil service in order to get in but you also does the policies processes do
00:15:05the same and the policies have what to my mind is one of the most brilliant bits of social theology signed that the most sacred kind of flavor the policies is constructed of flames taken from the hearts of every different part of the community server from the priest the
00:15:24doctor the soldier the Baker would have and then you add to those different flames the frame from %HESITATION cremation pirates of the data present but you also adds five from like being sued heaven is there to and with all these flames are combined you don't worship the flame
00:15:43but you feel that in that purity of the flame for the whole of community heard of the community is present you are nearer to the divine than in any other place and this idea that the divine is present only when the whole community is that in some purified
00:16:01service is a wonderfully poetic notion of the community spy ring to be something rebuttals parents be older bracing and then for the policies to be truthful and do good acts %HESITATION until the those symbols arm that's very little collision with maturity what whether it is it is it
00:16:25must be the first type of sacred flames flight on Air India flight yes I took the the the the because the the flame has to be revered it can only be tended by policy priests aren't they wear masks is it a polluted by speaking with sneezing aren't when
00:16:44every party community has to have that so when the policies moved eighteen with the British Empire and they had the temple of the fought when the policies had to leave it with the British left the question was how do you take the flame bat and fortunately touch our
00:17:01family at that stage were very closely connected where India touch a great policy found it on the provided a special place where the flame could be taken in the play intended in the proper way and flown from eighteen to India that's the idea of the flame being so
00:17:19many ways the symbol of the the community the the sacred aspect of what a community isn't can be it's it's one of the most powerful images I think that any community is invented to to to to to articulate its aspirations its hopes what what I mean there's so
00:17:36much going on so many different aspects of the different agency touch on but did you find a sort of divide and I'm I was struck for instance that in a total of about %HESITATION death and the afterlife notice there's some religions honestly that particular that sort of a
00:17:49product mentions that say that you know the promise of eternal life is life after death and then you know in Hinduism the promise is quite the opposite is of escape from since all right if it escapes and ability and and going over a mistake in the cycle of
00:18:03rebirth I mean this is deficit of you know I I you want talk religion or the other %HESITATION does it divide the world I wrote it does divide the world what they're all about is of course escaping from the cycle of bad behavior me recognizing that bad behavior
00:18:18has consequences for the society islands for the individual and how that's articulated over the various but I think the message is essentially the same the there are consequences of bad behavior and how that's the narrative constructions to convey that meaning there is but I think that's a constant
00:18:40and how you live with the people of the past is also part of that in China the way the ancestors are still very much for several generations they go on being part of the family and then at a certain stage the portrait can be rolled up and put
00:18:57away searching I think is the Chinese assistive portraits that you say they I'd menace that they they tron produces a type specimen in the face of the it's not smiling will not frowning sets itself to time it's kind of yes these it has to be prominently that it's
00:19:12it's no longer subject to the changes of Lytle moved over time but it has to be like enough to insist will recognize themselves and know that they are the ones being venerated you make a very good case for the value of religious practices of kind of means of
00:19:32binding human communities but a lot of people would object that you know the rules said means of social control of reinforcing patriarchal structures of controlling women's bodies I mean how do you balance those two sides of that what I was trying to do in the book was talk
00:19:45about why a religion commands the kind of loyalty and power willing to give this it does in that's common sense there is of course into two parts of the community I'm part of the system there are great constraints and indeed one of the chapters of the book is
00:20:04about breath a particularly childbirth and what that means for the society's view of the body of the woman and who controls the body of the woman of the huge problems of patriarchal structures prediction neighbor havoc religions and what that means for the status of women that's quite clearly
00:20:24central and the same is true of the role of religion when coopted by the state to a press control arms to tyrannized those %HESITATION I hope the kia in the book but with a certain life rails you are kind of aware of stepping around replicable catalyst is I
00:20:45it would be is what the real challenge I think for us is it living in the west is how to understand why so many people find in these narratives the great hope not just the confirmation of their identity and their value in the community but to hope for
00:21:01the future and much of the view of religion and western Europe has been so shaped by the enlightenment criticisms of the profession of the Christian church to support state power either Roman Catholicism or state parks and his birth shackled to state power to make real oppression possible that
00:21:23it's we've I think forgotten that there is also a positive aspect of belonging and hope that with the reason to state or against the state use against it this is a very powerful structure made of objects are you not to disadvantage when dealing with those religions which all
00:21:40against graven images all I called so that these religious traditions which don't like to make objects yes but you can get the somebody who get run I think the the the great challenge it it would might seem to be Judaism or is now but of course Islam has
00:22:00taken the word as the thing that can be made beautiful and calligraphy has become an artistic tradition just as elaborate arms just as satisfying visit today as well as figurative art Judaism is more complicated because so much of it is about arguing in the wet but there are
00:22:22of course objects that you need in order to be able to resist around the yard school the little silver hand which Jews used to read the Torah is ago that's the object we chose because the source of community is a course reading the Torah together and using the
00:22:41you had to read the Torah it is not which kept the Jewish communities together in the diaspora of the destruction of the temple so it brings us back to exactly the same thing votes how is this group found a way with in its belief structure to reinforce the
00:22:57community of the training of the young boys for centuries now we'll see goes to read the Torah to take that parked in the community is another ritual of the lonely island of continuity across time when the rest string is seven in the book from we were doing some
00:23:15of the interviews with young Jewish children the boys and girls from the %HESITATION who had been trained to reach for that bond it's fall but it's fun was there since that they were becoming part of the community that stretch back form many many centuries and would continue so
00:23:35the so you can I think you can do this with objects even in those religions which are supremely verbal like tonight that the Jewish tradition calls did you grow up yourself in a religious tradition in did you it I grew up in a conventional church of Scotland world
00:23:52soon that since very like the Jewish one it was about the word new images the tool islands the rituals the service walls reading the word having the words expounded in a sermon and singing the words in hymns and songs so is a very very word based and did
00:24:13you have you kept your faith I mean do you do you come to this is a believer will do fine belief is on the I really struggle with and I don't find it difficult to articulate any believe what I have kept from that is that I think like
00:24:26most western Europeans the language we have in which to talk about questions about the meaning of life the obligations of the individual sacrifice what's suffering can mean for the community %HESITATION for the individual any language we have for that is essentially one the comes on their behalf Nick
00:24:45regions any community the does without religion %HESITATION without a substitute religion if you do need to ask since George is I think I think the answer is no and it's the that's communities have always had a narrative of what they are if we take religion to be a
00:25:04narrative of belonging across time I think every society has that on the two obvious examples of states commuters that try to abolish it formerly the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution both of which moved to St religions which were about something else in both cases and in France
00:25:26the nation became the religion try to put a seven day week which is an extraordinary to fill out a few times and the renaming the the months and the days so you get rid of every trace of religion but of course what emerged was a different kind of
00:25:42religions a different narrative of the whole community in this case the nation's going across time and from still has a very strong national narrative Russia the same the attempt to to abolish the church completely Stalin didn't quite abolish it let's plays it down very much very interesting in
00:26:05nineteen forty one when the Germans invaded southern re opened the churches because that I'm not Celtic more self is a great better because it's it is out on to the narrative of buildings was common future is made was a religious narrative that the community has an idea of
00:26:22what it ought to be and individuals will sacrifice to chi that's ideal for the future it's a language which is transposed entirely from a religious one and is in a sense in in this is that I've been using the word is a religious narrative level of common remembrance
00:26:39that I was struck by you you're rushing that even as we've actually forgotten the war more you know we we get further and further away from the second World War and festival the celebrations of remembrance have goal greater I mean is if it meant that you suggest that
00:26:53might be a sort of nostalgia from Australasia what how do you account for that since it is one of the very striking phenomena in Britain the resurgence in the last twenty five years that he has all of the eleventh of November which was in steady decline in the
00:27:09sixties and seventies and again says your just what have you on this but one of the things it's doing is reaffirming the notion of community across time it is a connection with a longer time span it's a notion of a shared community with the dead but is there
00:27:26also do you think something in it that this to do with the idea that we have an idea about what the community was like during wartime and the further we get from it I think that's more research I think that's very likely that's in that memory of water
00:27:40I mean the the the the key shade phrase of the Dunkirk spiritual the spirit is the sense of a community function as a community where everybody is part of an agreed effort and there is clearly a great nostalgia for that in Britain people are drawn to that idea
00:27:58and it's clear I think from the language used around eleven as a member of the year that has an enormous appeal the the idea of of a moment when everybody work together as a community we well then if you like the ideal community and under the sort of
00:28:13coral ridge that to see the sort of general resurgence religion of the starting point feel book as being a source of Hegelian backlash against my dentist executors I don't I think Britain is rather unusual in looking back in that way it's remembrance but I think in jet no
00:28:30I think which is what it's about is rather an assertion that not that communities need a narrative that articulates where the society is going and what kind of site it wants to be on the political narrative of that house for two in the West Indies across the world
00:28:49in the in the last fifty years clearly the communist narrative has broken down in political terms the general social comment on narrative of Europe in the years after the war has full to it people once narrative is explains what they are what will become of what's expected of
00:29:09them and I just think it's he Gillian backlash I think it's an articulation of the fact that communities needs this under looking for it and I think we shouldn't be surprised that if you just can't find it in the political order assisted the case and so much of
00:29:26the Middle East they will look for it in the religious thing we're out of time demographic for much date thank you here listening to the spectators books put cost very much hope you enjoyed it and if you did please to consider raising %HESITATION reviewing us on the iTunes
00:29:41store would love to have

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