A small poster shows a grinning Soviet cosmonaut floating outside his spacecraft. His bright red suit and cheerful demeanour contrast with the darkness of space. Above him are some childishly rendered stars; down on Earth, the onion domes of a Russian Orthodox church appear slightly askew. The cosmonaut, having completed his researches, is saluting the viewer and proclaiming his proud conclusion: “There is no God!”
That will come as startling news to the objects all around him, gathered for the British Museum’s new exhibition Living With Gods: Peoples, Places and Worlds Beyond. The 1975 poster is the only artefact here that tells us that religion is not something we need to worry about — but the Soviet Union’s communist regime lost that particular propaganda battle long ago. What we have instead, in this small and tightly organised display, is all the reasons that religion thrives and matters, now as much as ever before.
All aspects of religious faith, from the depths of private contemplation to the unbridled energy of festivals and commemorative rituals, are covered, in forms and places that are constantly surprising. A Jewish skull cap bears the badge of Leeds United football club; a series of wooden phalluses from 19th-century Japan, hopeful offerings from childless couples, shock Christian sensibilities; a car pendant featuring Mao Zedong’s picture and signature, asking the then Chinese premier to “protect our journey”, acknowledges a slippery demarcation, in some parts of the world, between political leader and spiritual guide.
Read it all (my emphasis).