In times like these, where it can seem that our differences outweigh our commonalities, Neil MacGregor’s Living with the Gods is a comforting big-picture consideration of the significance of belief and religious practice. The book, a companion to the award-winning BBC4 programme of the same name, sets out to explore “the stories which give shape to our lives, and the different ways in which societies imagine their place in the world…. (i)nterrogat(ing) objects, places and human activities to try to understand what shared beliefs can mean in the public life of a community or a nation.”
With this ambitious goal in mind, MacGregor uses these “objects, places and activities” to explore themes like gender, doubt, time, nation building, war, human-animal relationships, the body and belonging, uncovering along the way some surprising – at least to anyone allergic to the topic of religion – arguments about the way religion has been used to shape the relationship of the individual with the collective. I was surprised and intrigued by his reading of the Iranian revolution not as an anomaly in the midst of the generally declining significance of religiosity in the world, but instead as the canary in the mine, foretelling a coming religious renaissance.
An ideal rainy Sunday read, MacGregor’s writing is accessible and unpretentious. A profusion of avuncular anecdotes about various practices, rituals, turning points and objects becomes an overall exploration of what he terms the essential “human predicament.” It is about our individual participation in “a narrative bigger than ourselves, [as] members of a continuing community in which there is a shared companionship of purpose.” With this moving conclusion the book transcends the merely interesting. In spite of all the examples he provides of religion and belief being instrumentalised to harm, corrupt, control and displace, he nonetheless insists that religion has always been a means of building community; it is this “living properly with other people, living with each other, [that] is the nearest we can get to heaven.” While belief holds the power to divide, it has an equal power to bring people together, satisfying the most basic of human necessities: relationships with other human beings.
It is not, however, entirely clear if MacGregor comes down on the side of religion as a net good. If belief and tradition are the means to creating community, and community is an essential need of humanity, is belief, in turn, a basic requirement of humankind? While I don’t think he is claiming belief and/or tradition to be synonymous with religion, his conclusion seems to somewhat undermine the delicate nuance of his previous arguments, in which he deftly navigates complex assertions for and against religion, avoiding straw men, and allowing those he quotes to speak without interruption. At the same time, the structure of his argument tends to encourage the view that institutional religion is a necessity for community. If MacGregor’s final take-away is that heaven is other people, his quotation of Sartre’s famous, yet often misunderstood, line “hell is other people” falls into place. But where MacGregor claims that Sartre and he are fundamentally opposed, a closer reading of Huis clos (No Exit) shows us that Sartre’s claim in fact aligns with MacGregor’s. Our dependence on others gives us the greatest potential to do harm to one another – and just as we may do harm, we may also do good. Though MacGregor’s final words are stirring, I suspect that they undermine a significant aspect of the book by suggesting that he is indeed arguing in favour of religion, contrary to his stated claims. In spite of this, Living with the Gods is a valuable reminder, in these troubled times, of why and how we live together.