Former British Museum and National Gallery director MacGregor (Germany: Memories of a Nation, 2015, etc.) takes readers on a whirlwind, though deeply satisfying, tour of the world’s religions.
The protestations of compatriots Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens aside, it is “one of the central facts of human existence,” writes MacGregor, that people everywhere have cultivated worldviews that extend beyond individual lifetimes to reach the afterlife as well as a shared sense of what it means to be human. Arguing that many of the concerns of religion are coextensive with those of politics, the author adds that the way in which we share existence with the gods has bearing on how we share the world with other humans. Belief dates back a very long way; MacGregor opens his long, richly illustrated narrative with a consideration of the “Lion Man,” an anthropomorphic carving 40,000 years old, recovered from a German cave, that “represents a cognitive leap to a world beyond nature, and beyond human experience.” It also speaks to a people who depended on interactions with animals for their living—and who would have known big cats for real. Religion, MacGregor suggests, may seem static, but it changes with the times; as an example, he writes of once-polluted holy rivers of India that may become cleaner with the legal recognition that rivers, trees, and the like have the rights of personhood (for if a corporation can, then why not a river?). This is a world-ranging book of sharp juxtapositions and surprises: MacGregor writes of a Torah binder in the same breath as he does the dreadlocks of young Vanuatuan men as well as the meeting of the worlds of the beatific Buddha, the suffering Christ, and the ancient gods: “Clothed in drapery clearly influenced by Greek and Roman models,“ he writes of one statue, “the Buddha is shown here in mid-career, a halo behind his head, already in his enlightened state.”
As good a comparative survey of religion as there is and a pleasure to contemplate.