There were some brilliant facts in this book but I found the overall structure confusing: the parts are entitled Our Part in the Pattern, Believing Together, Theatres of Faith, The Power of Images, One God or Many, and Powers Earthly and Divine. It was as if I was wandering through the galleries of a museum, each one with such a title. It just seemed a strange way of categorising aspects of the religious experience and consequently I found it rather rambling. Perhaps, as he suggests in chapter 22, I am a closet monotheist.
His thesis is that religion is a universal human experience which is manifested in all sorts of religion. I dare say he is right. But to say that the religious experience is an inherent part of the human psyche is not to say that it is good. Hate and greed and lust are inherent parts of the human psyche. In fact, time and again, MacGregor shows how religion has been interpreted or devised or manipulated to serve the needs of those seeking power over others. For example, in chapter 10 MacGregor celebrates the power of communal singing and then reminds us that “Every totalitarian regime has used marching, singing and synchronized movement - many people acting as one - to rouse participants and spectators alike to a confident conviction of shared purpose.” (C 10) Many organised religions in history have behaved in the same way as totalitarian regimes, claiming a monopoly on truth and exerting a monopoly on power.
One of the interesting discussions is that between monotheism and polytheism. Islam, Christianity and Judaism are three monotheisms, each claiming a monopoly of truth. The result has often been conflict. There are other major religions, such as Hinduism, which are polytheistic. Even nominally monotheistic Sikhism in syncretic. MacGregor suggests that monotheism has assisted Science, since “If there is a single will, a single intellect that created and sustains the universe, then everything must ultimately be organized on coherent, comprehensible principles.” (C 22) However, he points out that the Romans built a long-lasting multi-faith empire by adopting other people's gods: "If you honour other people's gods, you acknowledge them, and the people who worship them, as a legitimate part of your community.” (C 21) He also quotes Mary Beard as saying that “One of the big advantages of having lots of gods is that you can have more or fewer as you decide.” (C 21) and he tells the original flood story (Noah's tale is an adaptation of what was them a widespread middle-eastern myth about Gilgamesh) which involves “a group of dysfunctional insomniac gods" who decide to drown the noisy humans keeping them awake and are thwarted when a single god rescues a single human: "The problem with the gods in assembly is that they often have beer to drink, and therefore their discussions are not always thought out properly.” In the end they decide to create death to control the human population. “They saw that their decision to unleash the flood had been a wrong one, which a dissenter had put right, allowing them to change their collective mind. It is a model of governance that is possible only if you have many gods, and only if they are, and know themselves to be, fallible.” In contrast, “In the Book of Genesis, Noah is saved because Noah alone is righteous. Those who drown are wicked: the victims are to blame for their own suffering.”
Sometimes, Neil MacGregor uses other commentators in a way that shows the origins of this book in a series of radio broadcasts. So, for example, Eamon Duffy says: “In thirteenth and fourteenth century Europe there is a new kind of spiritual interiority, not just in religion but in love poetry too. People become more interested in what we would now call human psychology. This brings with it an emphasis on the emotional element in religion, cultivated particularly by the Franciscan order but also on people like Saint Anselm and the Cistercians. That approach to faith moves out into the lay world, where people explore a wider range of emotions in their religious experience. This is the beginning of the age of the Christmas carol, for example, when you think tenderly about the baby in the crib. There is none of that in the first millennium. And, in the same way, you think sorrowfully about the sufferings of the god-man on the cross. Images like this become a spiritual tool, helping people to come to their senses about what life is for.” (C 19) This linked very much to what I had just discovered about the context in which early Renaissance art operated, according to Andrew Graham-Dixon in Caravaggio.
There are many, many wonderful moments in this compendious book:
- “Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, who requires of his followers truth, good thoughts, good words and good deeds: the consequence will be a just society.” (C 2)
- “Zoroastrian priests take and combine different kinds of fire, from the hearths of bakers and metal-workers, priests and warriors, and so on: in all, fires from fourteen sectors of the community, combined and purified, until the whole of society is emblematically brought together in one shared flame. But to achieve the sacred fire, two further fires are needed. First, from a cremation pyre, so that the dead are joined to the living in reverence of Ahura Mazda; and lastly lightning, fire from the sky, binding earth to heaven.” (C 2)
- "The water of baptism serves as the door through which every Christian enters not just the faith but the whole Christian community, past, present and future.” (C 3)
- “The British monarchy to this day uses Jordan water for royal baptisms.” (C 3)
- "South is the direction of death.” (C 3)
- “In English to this day we refer to mid-winter as ‘the dead of winter’ and for most of history that was no mere poetic conceit, but a lethal reality. ...European mortality rates increased substantially in the winter months.” (C 4)
- “How do the living stay in touch with the dead? Do they need our help? Or is it we who need their help? And, if so, how do we ask for it? Are the dead and the living bound, for a while at least, in a network of reciprocal obligations?” (C 5)
- “In England 500 years ago, the dead were major employers.” (C 5)
- “Every [Roman Catholic] altar - even a portable altar-stone should contain within it the relics of a saint, ideally a martyr who died bearing witness to the faith.” (C 5)
- The Muisca used the ‘lost wax’ method to cast gold figues which they then cast into Lake Guativa during El Dorado ceremonies. “In order to have waxes with varying degrees of malleability, which would allow them to achieve the greatest possible precision in modelling, they kept several different varieties of bees.” (C 12)
- “At festival time, our ordinary lives, our everyday schedules, our plans for the future - all these are put to one side. In their place, for a few short, intense hours or days, we think about - and indeed come to feel - much larger patterns of life which contain us, but which also stretch far beyond us. And because each festival is a re-enactment of all its predecessors, we come to a powerful appreciation that life, both communitarian and cosmic, is not a lonely, one-act story with a beginning and an end, but a grand dramatic cycle, whose end - if it has one - lies beyond our own lifetime.” (C 15)
- “The interesting thing is that this idea of the virgin really relates less to the idea of being sexually chaste than to the idea of being single and powerful, which is more the essence of the classical Greek or Roman idea of the virgo. The word is actually related to vir - the Latin for a man, a strong man - as well as to virtus, the word for virtue.” (C 16)
- “It is a major conservation hazard of Russian icons that they are on occasion kissed into extinction.” (C 17)
- “Saint Luke's account of Christ's birth seems to report a historical event which occurred when Caesar Augustus ordered a census. Neither ox nor ass, however, appears in the Gospel. Hundreds of years earlier the Hebrew prophet Isaiah had foretold that those animals would one day recognise the future master of Israel the Messiah.” (C 18)
July 2020; 470 pages
Lots of brilliant illustrations
Also see Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists