Archives for posts with tag: culture

Over the last few weeks, I have been listening to Neil MacGregor’s terrific “Living with the Gods” BBC podcast. It has helped me to reconsider some of my views on religion and belief.

The podcast is wonderful, in that it brings you on an audio journey to places and peoples across the world. You name it, it’s there – from the dank caves of southern Germany, to the sacrificial pyramids of Aztec Mexico, to the great Kumbh Mela festival in India. Newgrange is mentioned, as is the Angelus that booms out on Irish radio each day. It considers the symbolism in religion, the common rituals, the public displays and private moments, and the relationship of religion to the exercise of power. It takes all these disparate elements and synthesizes them into a concrete, powerful narrative.

What I hear from all this is that religion is core to who we are. In all religions, our own nature is echoed back. It is a mirror, reflecting our greatest fears, our greatest needs and our hopes for the future. If you bypass the specific details of any one religion, you find the same needs there. These great longings are familiar to so many of us.

Religion doesn’t even need gods or supernatural agencies. We’ve seen in the last century the damaging power of secular belief systems gone awry. It seems that people will reach out for anything that gives them a sense of security, purpose and answers. God is just one alternative among many.

Such a pity it is that the details become so important. People will kill and die over the minutiae of their own faiths. Wars have started over trivial differences, people executed and tortured for not adhering to the orthodoxy of the day. Even today, so many people take delight in disparaging other people’s religions (and I’ve been one of them) to the point that demagogues can exact discriminatory laws and great injustices can take place with nary a whisper. Behind the details, we forget that at the core of much belief is something entirely understandable: something quintessentially human.

Such a pity that more people don’t reach out to understand religious practices elsewhere around the world, because the impression to be formed is that no matter where we are or who we are, there is a commonality that runs through us all. Having no religion or being inquisitive within one’s own religion, may be advantageous in this regard.

Thought is given in the podcast to life without religion. This is possibly the least satisfying part of the series, as it suggests that it’s unsustainable in the long run. At the end of the series, MacGregor makes the bold statement that we run the risk of society breaking up completely – this is something I would have wanted to understand more. Personally, I see many people making a good fist of living without gods or the traditional rituals of yesteryear. I don’t see how humanistic societies can’t operate for the success and happiness of their peoples: the record of countries like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands is a case in point. Even Ireland is a happier place now that we have allowed God to fade into the background. Perhaps such states of affairs are unsustainable and perhaps communities are in peril, but at least a counter argument can be made in a world where we don’t now have to rely on revelation and traditional authority alone for matters of truth and belief.

Please give the podcast a go and let me know what you think.

My friend Azahar got a laugh out of me this evening. It resonates with something I have been thinking about a lot since I started work in Dublin two weeks ago.

Temple Bar is the central tourist district in Dublin. Walking down its streets, you are assaulted by American themed sports bars, Spanish restaurants, Romanian buskers, French jugglers and Polish and Czech beer-joints, with all things Irish* well out of view. I’m sure this is no accident. Marketing being what it is nowadays, this is likely to be what most tourists to Dublin want. Instead of shamrock emblazoned bars, trad sessions, and Brendan Behan wannabes mouthing off about the price of a pint, what you get instead is an idiosyncratic and vibrant display of World Culture.

I don’t see this in a particularly negative light. To a large extent, “culture” is directly related to backwardness. When Ireland was a land of great culture, thousands of people were buying one-way tickets out of the place. Neither was it a mecca for hordes of tourists back then, as far as I know.

Actually, before I leave this entry, I remember reading once about an accident in the 19th century, where a very large whiskey barrel broke, its contents spilling out on the streets, flooding the gutters. Great crowds of people had to be physically pulled off the streets in a state of extreme inebriation.

Now that’s culture for ya.

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