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Memo to the BBC: today’s zeitgeist is faith, not civilisation

October 1, 2014

Sistine Chapel

Suppose you could go back in time to when early humans were emerging from caves. You’re a genetic engineer, and you have the means to switch off a gene that causes us to form religious beliefs. You have the ability to snuff out religion before people become sufficiently organised to practice it. You know that if you do so, you will remove one of the principal causes of war, and thereby allow millions to live full lives that will otherwise end in early death by violence, starvation or disease.

But you also know that some of the most inspiring and beautiful works of art, literature and music will never be. No Iliad, Ramayana or Masnavi of Rumi. No Aya Sofia, Sistine Chapel or Angkor Wat. No Monteverdi’s Vespers, Bach’s Matthew Passion or Mozart’s Requiem. No Leonardo’s Last Supper, Michelangelo’s David or Rubens’ Descent from the Cross. No Holy Quran, King James Bible or Torah.

Would you switch off the gene?

A crazy thought, and among millions of believers in the divine hand in life, it would probably be seen as an act of blasphemy to suggest that religious faith is a mere genetic predisposition.

Certainly it would be crazy to think of just about any civilisation past or present without the religions that have defined them.

Back in the Sixties and Seventies, when television was coming of age as a medium not just of entertainment but of cultural enrichment, families like mine would be encouraged to sit down together and watch programmes dealing with such weighty matters. These days Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man and Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation would be regarded as special interest, screened on satellite TV and punctuated every ten minutes with interminable ads for things we neither want nor need.

Civilisation didn’t have to compete with a thousand digital channels, Netflix and the attention deficit disorders of twitchy teenagers switching between WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. For British TV viewers, it was on when it was on, and if you missed it, you would have to wait for the repeat. If you didn’t want to watch it, you watched  BBC1 or ITV, or just switched off the TV. Not much choice, really. And since Civilisation occupied a prime-time slot on BBC2, it got far bigger audiences than it probably would today.

So I was surprised to hear a few months ago that the BBC was planning to produce a new version of the series. As the UK’s Daily Telegraph commented when Britain’s public broadcaster announced the planned remake:

“The original, presented by Kenneth Clark as an emphatically Eurocentric personal view of mankind’s greatest artistic achievement, was unashamedly didactic and would nowadays doubtless be seen as stiff and boring. Invariably wearing a suit and tie, Clark would stand before a painting, building or sculpture and just talk about it. To watch Civilisation was to be enriched, enlightened and educated – and no gimmicky shots were needed of the presenter walking in silhouette across a beach or lying on his back. It is hard to imagine a new version will be done in the same way, and nor should it be. But is it too much to ask that the programme is presented by someone who, like Lord Clark, knows what he or she is talking about and is not fronted by a “celebrity”?”

I got to thinking about the original programme a few nights ago as I was listening to a sublime performance of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem Mass) at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Berlioz wrote the work to commemorate the dead of the 1830 revolution in France. A religious commemoration of a secular conflict – a reminder that not all wars are caused by religious divides.

The world in which Civilisation was conceived and produced was dominated by secular concerns. It was first shown in 1969 – the year of the first Moon landing, the year after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. In 1969 two secular superpowers – the USA and the USSR – faced off against each other in an endless Mexican stand-off. The Arab-Israeli dispute was between a largely secular Israel and nationalist regimes in Syria and Egypt. Religion had its place, but it was not the cause of conflict and anxiety as it is today. Sectarian tensions – except in Northern Ireland – were underlying, not often overt.

Today, the power of religion is at the forefront of our concerns. We in the west worry about the divisive issue of Islam in our societies and about the Islamic State. In America, the religious right has become ever more strident and assertive. Ultra-Orthodox politicians hold the balance of power in Israel. In India a Hindu nationalist government has taken power. The Middle East is riven by sectarian tension and open conflict. China battles to suppress religious sentiment in Tibet and Xinjiang. Russia has seen the return of the Orthodox Church as a major influence in society, and is engaged in a long-term counter-insurgency campaign against Islamist fighters in its southern republics. And few days pass without stories about the activities of various al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia, Mali, Algeria, Nigeria and Yemen.

It may have been appropriate to explore and celebrate European civilisation in 1969, but today?

If there’s an underlying theme about the world that has evolved since then, it’s the role of faith and religion, and how they intersect with and define politics and society. And if there’s a consistent theme among adherents of faiths, it’s ignorance on the part of the vast majority of the faithful about the origins and essence of the beliefs of others.

So I suggest that instead of devoting vast sums of public money on further perspectives about the origins of what we call western civilisations, the BBC should be focusing on a history of faith.  What did the first humans believe in? How did the great world religions evolve? What lay behind the schisms that produced Sunni and Shia, Catholic and Orthodox? What do religions have in common? What of the outliers, the deviations, the beliefs that most of us find inexplicable? How does society shape religious belief? What influence does the physical environment exert? To what extent have religions been fashioned in support of political ends?

Big questions, and there’s probably not a single individual alive who could do justice to all of them. Too big for a Kenneth Clark or an Edward Gibbon. Yet we do have a wealth of thinkers who would be able to contribute to what would be a compelling series. I have my favourites – Mary Beard, Tom Holland, John Julius Norwich, Michael Shea, Karen Armstrong and Simon Schama for example. There are many others to choose from. But to create a truly global perspective there would need to be Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu contributors, as well as archaeologists, anthropologists and even economists.

It’s unlikely that such a series would be required viewing by the occupants of an ISIS dugout. And yes, it sounds like a very liberal middle-class project, as the original Civilisation was. But if it were to cause a few people to stop and think before coming to conclusions about the religions of others, it might do more good than a hundred well-intentioned inter-faith gatherings.

Leopards do change their spots. Think of the Reverend Ian Paisley, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, who died earlier this month.  Here was a man who spent most of his life denouncing in thunderous language the Catholic Church and all its works, and championing the Unionist cause against the Irish nationalists of Sinn Fein and the IRA. And yet in his later years he felt able to work with Martin McGuinness, the former IRA chief, in a coalition government. He and McGuinness even became friends. In the end common humanity overcame political and religious differences.

If we could at least understand better the legacy of Greco-Roman divinity, the similarities between early Muslim and Christian practice, the origins of the ISIS ideology, the beliefs of the Twelver Shia, Confucian values, Tibetan Buddhism, the history of the Sikhs and the multiplicity of Hindu deities, then surely we might learn to show greater respect  to “the other”. We might even learn to fear less, to tolerate more and to disentangle political and social issues from matters of faith.

You might argue that the efforts of a British broadcaster would be dismissed as propaganda in the cause of a country that is firmly aligned with the values of the western civilisation that Kenneth Clark celebrated in his broadcasts. But if any country in the west has a public broadcaster that could undertake such a monumental project it is Britain. After all, we have probably the most culturally diverse, multinational and multi-faith population in the world.

Perhaps the values of the BBC have changed since the days when Sir David Attenborough as controller of BBC2 commissioned Civilisation. The broadcaster is still funded by public money, but perhaps not for much longer. It is as much a commercial concern as it is allowed to be. A quarter of its income comes from sales of its programmes overseas. It long ago embraced the digital future. Its website is among the most popular news sites in the world.

Commissioning decisions are no longer made by visionary broadcasters like Attenborough, but by career bureaucrats anxious to protect their turf and conscious of the need to protect their organisation from the jealousy of commercial broadcasters, accusations of bias by politicians and the consequences of a culture that allowed the likes of “Sir” Jimmy Savile to treat it as a playground for sexual exploitation. Avoidance of risk would seem to be a dominant concern in an organisation under siege.

But maybe the ethos of public broadcasting embodied in its motto – that “Nation shall speak peace unto Nation” – is still to be found in the BBC’s DNA.

If so, what better way of showing it than to bring some of the best minds on the planet together with the object of promoting religious tolerance through understanding?

A History of Faith would be a project for our time.

  1. Robert permalink

    I disagree that there would not have been great works of art without religion. Mankind’s aesthetic impulse and desire would have produced equally great works of art as those you’ve listed but about different subjects. After all, Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote in the language of the King James Bible. And they would have been produced by great women as well as great men for religion was one of the great forces keeping them uneducated and subjugated. Also let us not forget the slavery of our black brethren into the 19th century for those who had “the mark of Cain”.
    I just read a very good book entitled “Infinitesimal” about the development of the concept of the infinitely small in mathematics. It was being explored in Italy during the Renaissance, but the python-like hold that the Jesuits were starting to exert over all areas of science and mathematics slowly put out the light in Italy and all other Catholic countries (except France which had expelled them for conspiring against the King), since it didn’t conform to the writings of Aristotle and therefore could only be studied and written about in Protestant countries. Thus the development of the calculus by Newton and Leibnitz. From there sprang the laws of motion, pressure, electro-magnetism, etc. that resulted in the Industrial Revolution and mechanized agriculture, which meant people could now be clothed and fed – the elimination of famine that was one of the ‘biblical’ curses.
    The Church also forbade autopsies thus retarding the development of the medical sciences and condemning millions to die of disease and quackery. Even up to this very moment it forbids contraception thus condemning even more millions in large parts of the world to want, lack of education, early deaths from excessive child-bearing and unbelievable misery.
    And I’ve only just started,

    • Good points all, and I certainly wasn’t suggesting that all the greatest works of art are inspired by religion. But I do wonder whether our aesthetic impulse would have been so strong without the channel of worship. Though I’m no advocate of organised religion, I do believe that there is another side to your charge sheet, incomplete as it may be. For example the Catholic church would be able to say in its defence that without its patronage many fine artists, musicians and architects would not have been able to flourish as they did.

      But we’ll never know, will we? Thanks for a great comment.

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