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Science explains and religion gives meaning to the world: Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor, writer, art historian, former director of the British Museum and chair of the Steering Committee of the Humboldt Forum, Berlin. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/MintPremium
Neil MacGregor, writer, art historian, former director of the British Museum and chair of the Steering Committee of the Humboldt Forum, Berlin. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

In an interview with Mint, Neil MacGregor, chair of Steering Committee of Humboldt Forum-Berlin, talks about the challenges faced by religion today in creating the identity and stories of different communities across the world

Mumbai: Neil MacGregor was director of the National Gallery, London, from 1987 to 2002 and of the British Museum from 2002 to 2015. In Mumbai as a speaker for the Tata Literature Live! festival, Macgregor spoke about his latest book, Living With The Gods, and discussed the idea of religion and their changing relevance in the world over millennia.

MacGregor considers a museum to be a lending library and his books are extremely well-curated repositories of knowledge drawn from this library to tell the stories of people and our world. For him, historical objects are much larger than symbols of national significance and form our collective world heritage. His approach to religion and culture draws on these historical artefacts and examines their multiple dimensions and the stories they tell of different communities. Edited excerpts from an interview:

You talk about the idea of all religions emerging out of a need to tell stories in order to give meaning to our lives. But what happens when these stories are increasingly conflated with historical truth?

This argument is captured in that wonderful phrase by Joan Didion, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live". For most of history, the value of the story was the extent to which it enabled you to understand your place in the big scheme of the world. The difference between a story that was imagined and a story that was historical was not a central one; it was the effect of the story enabling us to live with each other. The fact that there was only one kind of historical, scientific and verifiable truth was an 18th-century idea. Two big things happened since the Enlightenment in Europe—firstly, the Europeans tried to say that religion and politics were different things. And they saw in religion things that could not possibly be true like the Virgin birth for example. They also saw that the church and state were in it together to oppress and that’s the basis of all European secularism—a hostility to the church as an instrument of state oppression and the idea if a story wasn’t historically true, then it could have no value. And this misses a central point that this story does not just have to be the opiate of the masses administered by the powerful, it can also be the strength of the masses.

You speak about religion as stories that work to give the oppressed dignity but how does this idea work for those who are equal stakeholders in the state and economy?

We are in a different position with respect to the conversation about religion than any previous generation. Until the 1960s-70s, it was only possible to think of the individual being fulfilled in the context of the whole community. Religion is about dependence, on each other and on the world around us, and all the stories of all religions is about how you manage that dependence and find in it strength and truth. In the last three or four decades, with the rise of wealth and technology, a huge number of people can now believe that they are not dependent and that they are in control as individuals, and this is historically completely new. So the crisis we are approaching is completely new where the individual asks the question whether it is possible to have a life which is not dependent on the rest of the community. And that is why the stories of our dependence have disintegrated—communism, socialism as well as the ideas of Western European and American social democracy. This has happened because a critical mass of people believes that they are in a position to chart this path on their own. And there isn’t one story that works for everybody anymore. This is a frightening concept, especially for those who are dispossessed as they can ask the question, “Where is my story now?" The political stories have been taken from them and the only ones that remain are the religious ones and this is a phenomenon we are seeing from South America to Africa, from Asia to large parts of Europe. Our previous narrative was that everyone in the community had to be looked after by the welfare state. With immigrants coming into Europe, the western world is not prepared now to go on accepting that and the demonstrations rather than being a Christian-Muslim confrontation, is an “us and them" confrontation. They are taking a secular narrative of a collapsed social democratic system and turning it into a religious one.

How does atheism fit into this notion of religion as stories for the whole community?

Science explains and religion gives meaning. Atheists have really struggled to do this on a communal level. This is an idea I discuss in the book and the two examples I looked at were 18th century revolutionary France, which abolished the church and God and established reason as religion. That wasn’t enough and a religious identity was replaced with a national identity. Most atheist philosophies have turned into very violent nationalisms and this is yet another example of a story—albeit a secular one. The second example was that of the Soviet Union, which tried very hard not to be nationalist but it didn’t work out like that. Communism became a religion and the teachings of Lenin and Marx took the place of the Holy Scripture. We haven’t therefore seen an atheist state and we’ve got various surrogates. And while individuals can be atheist in their own capacity, it is extremely difficult to carry this forward on a community level.

How is it possible to have multiple narratives of religion that work for all of society?

The Indian model struck me as it has long struck Europeans as an example of multiple narratives. It is why what is happening in India is so important for the world at the moment. What has always been fascinating for Europeans is that from Ashoka to Akbar to Ambedkar and the Constitution, India has always understood that religion is an important part of the public life of the citizens. The state acknowledges that public role of religion and is at equidistance from all of them and that is Indian secularism. The European tradition was completely different and there was one religion for the state and the ruler imposed it. It was unthinkable to have different religions as it would mean civil war and the state would split. Later on, when European secularism emerged, it was a different secularism which was hostile towards religion and denied it a public role. The wisdom of the Indian model recognized that both politics and religion were about the same thing. The question being asked today is how people of different religions will live together. We are looking at India with concern and interest to see if the longstanding religious traditions of India are robust enough to negotiate the particular questions of today.

What about the rise of majoritarianism and religious fundamentalism in India today?

Many have argued that what is happening is that European traditions of single religion nationalism, literal truths and Semitic monotheisms, which are alien to India are being introduced here. But we came from a different place and they are our historical inheritance. Those problems and approaches are being introduced into India, and it is a tension between a long traditional Indian way of thinking and exclusive habits of thought which are very characteristic of European thought and monotheism.

What is the role of a museum today?

I think a museum has a critical role to play in today’s world as it is the place where the artefact is preserved, examined and made available to the wider public. It is the place where it can be demonstrated to what extent this object supports the interpretation of a particular narrative and whether the texts are or are not true. And therefore, museums need to have the courage in performing this role and also need to be protected spaces. One of the defences against fundamentalism is the courageous academic research of museums. This is a much bigger role than it was 50 years ago. And while none of us can be entirely neutral, a museum has to keep aspiring to neutrality. And in order to do this, a museum must be a space of debate. A museum is not a temple of truth but a workshop struggling towards truth. And this is possible because museums on the whole are civic spaces and belong to everybody. The museum is a safe space for dangerous conversations.

What are your favourite museums?

One of them has to be the CSMVS (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya). I love the building itself and in that building exists the whole story of Mumbai, its links with Europe, China, Japan, links with opium trade and the fact that this museum could only exist here. The other museum I am extremely fond of is the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which is a perfect example of how you can tell a national story in a global context. Both these museums combine the local and global dimensions which bigger spaces like the British Museum don’t have as they are trying to look at the larger picture.

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