On last week’s Thinking Unenslaved podcast, we considered raising for discussion the topic of religion in the arts, and what might become of the arts if religion were not the force it is in our society and culture. We wound up not getting around to it, though I expect we probably will. Regardless, I had written up a few paragraphs to get the conversation started, and I thought I’d post them here. Remember, it’s intended to be the beginning of a conversation, not a complete thesis. But here you go.
A common form of fretting done by theists and atheists alike concerns anxiety over whether a religion-free society would be capable of producing great works of art, music, poetry, etc. Would we have Bach or Michelangelo without Christianity?
The question posed by our host before we began tonight was, “How would future societies replace the creative energies of religion in the Arts?” It presumes that a large enough percentage of quality art today is inspired by or derived from religious belief, and that its absence, in a vacuum, would leave a significant hole in our society’s cultural life, which I think it almost certainly not the case. Particularly if we’re talking not about less trite or less propagandistic art and media, but rather the kind of art that makes lives richer in the broadest sense. My confident guess would be that the vast majority of quality art and culture is produced without religion ever coming into the picture.
There were almost certainly times in human history when religion was a driving force behind wonderful visual art and music that will weather the centuries. But I don’t think this is so today.
But even if we grant the premise, that a lack of religious influence and inspiration would leave a great vacuum in our artistic and cultural life, I believe that vacuum is easily filled.
What we’re really talking about when we worry over this question is; what could possibly move the human heart to the degree that the wonder over the supernatural does? My answer: Plenty. First, consider the things that are already in place that move the human heart: love in all its forms (romantic, familial, etc.), idealism and deep belief in a cause, and despair, just to name a few.
But of course, these are not necessarily based on awe over something greater than oneself (but can be, I suppose), so the hole left by hypothetically-absent religion must be filled by something that satisfies that need. Well, lucky for the arts, humans are very small in the grand scheme of things. Earth is, too, as is our sun, our galaxy, and possibly even our universe. There is so much to ponder, so much to imagine when it comes to the workings of the cosmos and our place within it — and that encompasses the positive connotations of “wonder” as well as the feelings of insignificance or alienation. Even with no religion, the human heart cannot help but be stirred by such images, concepts, and questions.
And we need not even be so lofty: why not be awed by the ecosystem of our planet, the fact that civilization lumbers on despite our species’ missteps and greed, the potential for us as individuals and as a global society, the bonds of family and community. This just scratches the surface, but the point is, how can the artistic soul NOT be moved by such thoughts? How can the creative person NOT weigh in or react? If you ask me, these ideas are more full of wonder than any stories about fictional celestial superheroes and their meddlings in our lives.
So would we have Bach or Michelangelo without Christianity? Of course. Because artistic genius will not stay hungry. It will find its food of awe and wonder wherever it lies.