The persistence of religion is one of the more surprising features of the past forty years or so. Looking at the decline of institutional religion in the West during the 1960s and ‘70s, many commentators imagined that this trend would continue and that secularisation would squeeze religion out.
Instead, religions and religious behaviour have not gone away and have in fact become an ever more important key to understanding the world we live in. True, significant parts of this might be deemed ‘bad religion’, but nevertheless religion, be it as a system of belief or a means of belonging, shows no sign of decline.
The exhibition at the British Museum, Living with gods – people, places and worlds beyond explores this phenomenon. In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, the curator Jill Cook writes:
There is no known human society without beliefs in invisible spiritual powers. While the nature of these beliefs and the rituals that accompany them are diverse and vary according to their environmental and cultural background, what underlies them is a natural human inclination for transcendent worlds and beings.
The exhibition (which closes on April 8) takes a great variety of objects in order to explore how humans have given expression to their beliefs. It deliberately avoids commenting on the content of the belief itself but looks at how humans seem to be united across the ages and across all cultures in their need to navigate the challenges of life. The rites of passage surrounding birth and death, the coming of age of adolescents, the cycles of light and dark, water and fire, appear to be universal concerns which receive expression by trying to communicate with something that is both invisible and beyond.
The prevalence of such human behaviour does not of course make its assumptions true; it may indicate no more than human longing, but even then we may reasonably ask where such longing comes from.
One of the unarguable lessons to be taken from the exhibition is the part that religion plays in helping to form community. Religious practice helps bind us together, giving us shared values and turning individuals and family groups into cohering societies. More than this, religion locates us on the canvas of the universe, as it has been put, offering a sense of identity, destiny and purpose and ‘those societies that have tried at great cost to eradicate religion, have ended up copying it’.
The most explicit illustration of this truth came in the form of a Mao Zedong car pendant with his picture and signature on it and the inscription ‘Mao protect our journey’. In a society in which he sought to destroy the practice and places of worship, he had become accepted as an ancestor or semi-deity.
The oldest object in the exhibition is a mammoth ivory sculpture called the Lion Man from 40,000 years ago, whilst the most recent is the Lampudesa Cross made in 2013 from the wood of the boat in which 300 migrants died as it sank off the island of Lampudesa.
From 38,000 BC to the present day, us humans seek to make sense of our lives and seem to find it necessary to do so through referring to something beyond ourselves. Is that something a projection of our own or is it a reality? Rarely have I been given such food for thought!