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Neil MacGregor: belief is what holds a society together

The historian and author on belief, identity and the meaning of Christmas

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

‘But what must it be like for the fish?’ We’re talking about cormorants, Neil MacGregor and I, and the spectacular way they dive for food, when he pauses to consider the situation from the perspective of a fish.

‘I mean just think, there you are swimming along with lots of chums and then suddenly there’s this great whoosh and the chum next to you has just disappeared! He’s vanished! And of course you can’t see the cause of it.’

MacGregor tilts his head. The sunlight in the offices of Penguin on the Strand seems to condense to a point in his eye. ‘Can you imagine it?’ he says. I can’t. It’s not easy to empathise with an anchovy, but MacGregor has a gift for inhabiting other points of view. It’s part of his charm and part of his success. During his 13 years at the British Museum he had us imagining ourselves Romans, Vikings, Iranians, Aztecs…

It’s also why it’s such a crying shame that he’s not here any more. MacGregor lives in Germany these days, directing the Humboldt Forum in Berlin — but a MacGregor-ish interest in other perspectives is exactly what we all need right now.

In many ways he’s one of Goodhart’s ‘citizens of nowhere’ — an insider, at home all over the world. But he’s an insider who looks out; one who wouldn’t think to sneer. When I ask him whether he understands the feeling of belonging to a particular place, he says: ‘I do feel part of Arran, of the island. It’s where every childhood holiday was spent and was also where my family had farmed for a century, and that sense that this land had a connection with your forefathers, ancestors, whatever, is strong.’

MacGregor is an atheist (I assume) but being MacGregor he doesn’t bang on about the credulous idiots who believe, but instead tries to understand what purpose religion serves. His latest project, Living with the Gods (first a radio series and now a book) follows the same format as his previous one, History of the World in 100 Objects, but this time explores the subject through sacred artefacts. It’s a lovely-looking book, a perfect present, in case you’re struggling — and is perhaps the only coffee-table book that doubles as a global metaphysical investigation into how on earth we can all find a story that lets us live together.

‘The secular West is often inclined to write off religion as superstition — something old-fashioned,’ he says. ‘But belief systems play a part in holding a society together. One of the obvious phenomena we need to try to understand better is why religion matters so much to so many people.’

Does he include in his definition of religion things like meditation and individual spirituality? ‘No,’ says MacGregor, a little sternly. ‘I think the growth of the notion of individual spirituality is one of the reasons that makes it hard for the West to understand religion. This is about religion in the communal sense, which can be tremendously powerful.’

As a force for good? Aren’t we used to thinking of religion as malign — a madness that inspires war?

‘Well, it can hold a community together,’ says MacGregor. ‘You can see it very clearly in Judaism, the idea that a community can survive and flourish without a territory, and you can see it just as strongly, I think, in the way the Afro-American slave population survived with its own dignity thanks to a communal religious tradition. I mean, we don’t know of societies in the past without belief systems that engaged more or less everyone.’


Well, what about our own? I’ve heard MacGregor describe Britain as post-Christian. Aren’t we now just a bundle of separate creeds and cultures? Does modern Britain have any shared beliefs?

‘Well, there’s Christmas!’ MacGregor says happily. ‘You know, I think it’s the only thing we’ve got in this country that’s commensurate. It’s remarkable the way a non-Christian Britain has stayed with that festival and adapted it and rewritten it. It’s not led by clergy at all and it’s very embracing. I’m sure we all know lots of non–Christians — not just “no longer” Christian but non-Christian families — who treat Christmas as the moment where you think about the family and where you give money to the poor.

‘Dickens articulates it in The Christmas Carol so dazzlingly, that Christmas is about past, present and future. There’s that wonderful bit where Scrooge’s nephew says not to think of the different bits of society separately, we’re all travelling together, and that once you think of yourself as part of this group, all sharing the same experience of the journey, that’s what changes everything.’

It’s another MacGregorish shift in perspective. So modern-day Christmas isn’t hollow and crass? Doesn’t he worry about all the commercialisation?

‘Festivals are always commercial, they’re always about having fun. I mean, the point of a festival is you splash out.’ He laughs.

I have a mental image of him on Arran this Christmas. I hope he’s there drinking whisky, unwrapping cashmere scarves with his usual good grace. But though his heart may be in Scotland, if I had to guess after reading the book, I’d say that spiritually he’s most comfortable beside the Ganges.

‘India is inspiring, in part because polytheism allows a very different approach. Very tolerant,’ says MacGregor. ‘As Andrew George says in Babylon, if you’ve got a single god, then if things go wrong it must be part of a plan which has to be morally defensible; the victim becomes guilty, responsible for his own suffering. The polytheistic explanation for something like the flood would be: “Well the gods got into a muddle and things went wrong.” It’s not in any sense the fault of the person who died, and that’s a huge shift. So I do worry about our model, the Christian, monotheistic model.’

Isn’t that a very evangelical interpretation of Christian monotheism? I’m not sure Catholics have a sense of deserving what you get. I’m not sure Jews do either. There’s more a sense of resignation, that freedom brings with it tragedy.

‘It’s true when Jesus was asked about the Tower of Siloam, “Why did these people die?” he refuses to say it was because they’d done something wrong. I mean, clearly it can’t be like that, but the tension is there, because in the Noah narrative there’s no doubt that Noah is rescued because he is good. Obviously no monotheist, no Christian, would now articulate that, but the tension’s always there: why did these people die and others not?’

So here we are, Neil and I, just before Christmas — and at a stumbling block in the pursuit of a unifying creed for our country — in the heart of the Christian dilemma: how can God be all good and all-powerful?

Monotheisms can be flexible, I offer, feeling a little defensive. They can and do co-exist — until very recently, in the Middle East for example.

‘Yes, and the Ottoman Empire is the supreme example. But it’s easier for polytheisms I think.’

At least (some Christmas cheer) MacGregor doesn’t see much potential in any national atheism. No Richard Dawkins as our new high priest. He’s keen not to be judgmental. His book is an exploration, not a prescription — but one of MacGregor’s observations about world religions is that they address our need for shared identity over time.

‘The secular alternatives to religion on the whole don’t appear to endure, because they don’t address that dimension,’ he says. ‘You need to have obligations in both directions across time. That seems to me the two things all religions share — they articulate how you engage with the dead and what the dead mean to you, and more importantly, what this means for the future and how you prepare things for the future.’

So it’s not good enough to say: well, there’s no afterlife and we’re all just dead?

‘We need a narrative that goes beyond the individual life.’ MacGregor looks suddenly, uncharacteristically serious: ‘That I think is what we’re all struggling with. It’s got to be one that includes death and it’s got to include suffering, either just accidental or chosen. Do you remember the Lion Man?’

I do. He’s a lion-headed figure carved from a mammoth tusk, some 40,000 years old, a talisman that united our suffering ancestors facing the frozen future. In his book, MacGregor explains the figure’s significance. ‘It’s not just a supreme representation of two closely observed species [lion and human]: it is by some margin the oldest evidence yet found of the human mind giving physical form to something which can never have been seen.’

‘It’s all there somehow in the Lion Man,’ says MacGregor. ‘How does a community get through the winter in the Ice Age? That’s something of course we’re all still asking.’

Living with the Gods is published by Allen Lane.


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