After a few minutes in the exhibition that accompanies Neil MacGregor’s new BBC Radio 4 series on the power of religion, my skin started to sizzle and my blood to boil. I truly felt branded inside, marked out as a reprobate, for the premise of the show is that belief in God(s) is such a universal human trait that if you lack it, you may not be human.

The premise here is that belief in religion is such a universal human trait that if you lack it, you may not be human
That is signalled by a large wall text at the start, suggesting that the correct name for our species may not be homo sapiens, but “homo religiosus”. As someone who doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t miss her, I felt a bit left out. Is belief really the all-pervasive force this exhibition claims?

This I do believe: religion has inspired some of the world’s greatest art. Before the 18th century almost all art, from the paintings of Caravaggio to the stucco ceilings of the Alhambra Palace, was intended to praise, portray or otherwise invoke the divine. I was therefore more than happy to sign up for a magical mystery tour of global spirituality. The art would surely make it worthwhile.

Indeed, the first thing you see in Living With Gods does not disappoint. It is one of the most astonishing works of art on earth. The Lion-man, as it is known, was carved from a mammoth tusk about 40,000 years ago. That makes it one of the oldest sculptures in existence. It is even older than the cave paintings of Chauvet. What we see here is the very dawn of human consciousness – and what a bright dawn it was. This fierce upright character has a human body and a lion’s head. What does it mean? Nobody knows. Not a single shred of evidence survives to tell us what was going on in the heads of the ice-age hunters who created this potent object. Read more