Plusieurs religions semblables à la nôtre,
Toutes escaladant le ciel ...
(Le Voyage *)
|Four faces on the museum wall|
advertise the current exhibition
The exhibition is not about theology or the history of religions; it concentrates on contemporary religious practices.Whoever is responsible for this has had to tread very carefully, because if there's one thing that inflames people it's the subject of religion; I think the curators have succeeded in being both objective and respectful in what they chose to display. The presentation isn't completely bland either. It juxtaposes "primitive" religions with the more sophisticated ones so that visitors can be duly startled by how much they have in common, and it asks mischievous questions, such as showing a display of Elvis and Che Guevara memorabilia and asking "Is this a religion?" (... because it looks suspiciously like one).
The first exhibit is a map showing the distribution of various religions around the world. Christianity is by far the most popular with 2,264,500,000 adherents, apparently, Islam coming second with 1,523,200,000. The next two religions on the list are Hinduism––935,500,000 and Buddhism––463,800,000; how those figures are obtained, I'm not sure.
Otherwise the displays and exhibits are grouped according to themes, relating to things that the various religions tend to share. "Light" is one such element; then there are exhibits relating to"Life Cycles," "Rites of Passage" (videos of baptisms, weddings, confirmations and the like) "Music" (where you can sit under a canopy to listen) and the "Beyond" (described in the exhibition notes as an invisible world). The comparison of acts of worship displays the receptacles of ritual meals served by priests or their counterparts, pictures of these ceremonies and the props used by people who pray (nearly every religion encourages the use of beads, for example) and shows the various ways in which people of different cultures supplicate or praise their god(s) or atone for their sins. All religions proselytise as well.
As you come to the end of the show there's a chance to pause and think about "Conflicts and Co-existence" in the world; a wall of quotations leads you to consider the ways in which one's religion can be both a justification for atrocities and a means of making peace. Élie Barravi wrote that the separation of church and state is the only feasible way of keeping religious violence under control. On the other hand, it's clear that our secular "divinities"––the notion of Class, Nation or Race, not to mention the despots of this world who become quasi gods to their followers––can also instigate violence and division, so setting religion aside and turning to politics doesn't solve every problem.
Willard Oxtoby (in World Religions: Western Traditions, OUP) wrote about our differing opinions of religion:
We tend to notice what we were looking for in the first place.be it "contentiousness" or "generosity of spirit." This is true, I think. The atheists among us don't seem to look for the latter very willingly, being too eager to score points on the other side.
The website associated with this exhibition encourages its visitors to leave comments in response to questions like "Do you wear a visible religious symbol? or "Would you like to go on a pilgrimage?" What I find interesting here is that by far the most comments have been made in answer to the question "What do you believe will happen to you after you die?" Is this the essential question, then? Is this the concern that generates the world's beliefs?
* fleursdumal.org, by the way, is a marvellous website, i.e. a terrible time-consumer for people like me! Scroll down to read a series of translations of Baudelaire's poems. Le Voyage is the longest.