Does secularization of culture threaten the arts?



What would we do without the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Or the architecture of the great cathedrals throughout the world? Surely, the world would be a poorer place artistically if not for religion.

This is a pretty common trope to come from people of different religious persuasions when attempting to convince the nonreligious of the importance of their faith. “You may not believe in God, but just try to argue against the totality of art and culture in the world that wouldn’t be here if not for the God you reject!”

It’s stated pretty plainly here, but I don’t think this is a straw-man version of what many religionists argue when looking to use the world of art in defense of their faith. After all, when atheists are described by the greater culture, we’re often painted as a people who are cold, unpersuaded by beauty, and slaves to reason and rationality; a subsection of humanity that has more in common with Dr. Spock than Mr. Spielberg.

I have to confess, when I myself was a Christian, this argument certainly held water for me. I started becoming interested in art and literature in my mid-to-late teens, starting first with visual art before I drifted more into poetry and plays. Conversations that I had with fellow artists at my family’s church often had to do with how our spiritual mindset made us the artists that we were. I remember clearly one of my friends remarking how we were blessed with a unique view on the world because of our faith, the result of which was directly related to how good of artists we were or could be (the sect of Christianity that I belonged preached that we were the chosen few, solidifying why the adherents would consider themselves unique despite there being nearly two billion Christians in the world). I didn’t necessarily view artistic ability as solely a gift from god, but I certainly saw an important link between the ability to have a relationship with god and the creative ability to make art. After all, god couldn’t be seen with worldly eyes. As far as I was concerned, without the vision to know god, one couldn’t paint a beautiful picture or write an epic poem either.

It turns out that I was far from the only Christian to make this link, in so many words at least. Whether or not my specific rationalization was the preferred reason for thinking that the world would be without art if not for god, the connection is pervasive in cultures throughout the planet.

My particular take on the matter, in some ways, may have helped me get away from religion in the first place. Once the ball of skepticism got rolling, I of course realized the irony of using one’s creative talents, or in other words, one’s ability to make things up, to know a deity that doesn’t otherwise appear to exist. Really, it was kind of embarrassing how obvious it all was. But even though this idea was helpful in freeing me from the bonds of a constrictive faith, it in no way refuted the idea that religion and faith were necessary for artistic talent.

As time went by and I began to know the world anew without the Jesus-shaded lenses that I had used my entire life, I would occasionally have little epiphanies about the world. Often times they were old ideas that I had a new grasp on given my different worldly outlook. And one day it hit me. This, too, was kind of embarrassingly obvious: It’s not that religion is required for creativity, it’s that creativity is required for religion.

The “Sistine Chapel argument” and others like it have been answered time and again by noting that artists need to make money just like everyone else, and it just so happens that the superintendents of the world’s churches, mosques, and synagogues have often had more than their fair share of money to spend on art that glorified them, not to mention the marketing rationale to do so. This is a pretty easy idea to buy, but it’s quite another matter to try to sell the concept that one’s religion in its entirety is basically the creative equivalent to that chapel ceiling. If, like me, you’ve rejected the truth claims of religion, then I’ve likely told you nothing new. But if you are more similar to my pre-deconversion self, then I have all my work still ahead of me in convincing you of the truth of my claim.

Since that would mean convincing you that your religion is nothing more than a figment of our cultural imagination, I may have bit off more than can be chewed in a single blog post. If I may be so bold, I think I’ll wait for a later post in this still infant blog to tackle the matter of creating mass apostasy. Even Rome wasn’t created in a day.

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