Art and Atheism (The Mistake of Man, Part 2)

I don’t envy the Atheist, for he lives in a world of which he can only explain one half. The other half he can only guess at. By the other half, I mean all the things which are not explained by science: Morality, Happiness, Love, Religion, Art, etc. Of course, the Atheist has explanations for all these things, but none of them are really satisfactory. The animals get along fine without them; why shouldn’t we? That is a difficult question for the atheist.

But it is a question we need to ask. In the cold and cruel universe of atheism, all these things would make life more inconvenient and less efficient. They certainly do not make it simpler. The orangutan never asks why he exists, and so he doesn’t commit suicide when he gets no answer. He also doesn’t build a cathedral when he does. All these human things contradict the machinery of evolutionary efficiency. They should not be. Art is one example that is worth considering.

Animals are not artists. If the lion developed a sudden artistic attachment to its prey, we would hardly call it an advancement. We certainly wouldn’t call it efficient. Lionic poetry about the leaping grace of gazelles would not contribute to the evolution of more advanced and efficient lions. Lions are efficient because they don’t romanticize gazelles–they eat them.

It is the difference between utility and beauty that is the insurmountable gulf between animals and man. It is conceivable that an animal could learn to use tools to survive. But it is inconceivable that an animal would decorate its tools until they were unusable. It is perfectly efficient and reasonable for an ape to turn a rock into a tool for cracking nuts. It is inefficient to the point of insanity for an ape to turn a rock into the Pieta.

Art is not useful. It contributes nothing to the evolutionary process. Utilitarian beauty was a brief Victorian mood, but the fact remains that useful art is a contradiction in terms. A Ming vase may be perfectly suited to hold trash, but the idea of actually using it as a wastebasket is appalling. Some things are too beautiful to use, and this fact is proved by the existence of museums.

That art is wasteful and impractical is almost too obvious to mention, but this lack of utility is an enigma from an evolutionary perspective. Even if an ape could have evolved the intelligence to build a house, it would have never evolved the desire to decorate it. Art is something larger than reason and utility.

I’ve said until this point that art is useless, but that’s not exactly true. It is only true from a naturalistic perspective–not from a super-natural perspective. There is a use for art that can only be explained by spirit: Art is the language of living souls. It is the attempt of one spirit to express to another the inexpressible nature of things–to say something beyond words. Realistic art has never been very popular because the point of art is not to be realistic. Why reproduce what we can see with our eyes? Art is often exaggerated because it is what we cannot see, but still know, that art tries to capture.

The atheist might say the purpose of art is to make the world mean something. Perhaps, but the most reasonable explanation for it is that the world does mean something. We do not create art to invent meaning that isn’t there; we create art because we know meaning is there. All art and music and poetry are simply attempts to remember what the world means.

Back of everything that is, we can sense the purpose of an unseen Will, the breathing of a tremendous Life. We feel Its power as certainly as we feel we are alive, and the sensation is both strange and vaguely familiar. It is familiar because it is the echo of a distant memory. It is strange because we should not have forgotten it.

The insane sublimity of art is simply the striving of the soul to remember and to name this sense. It is the attempt to recall and remake the wonder and innocence of a home long forgotten, and the name of its Maker. It is the struggle to recover the glory and grace of a Garden, a place with two rivers and two trees at the very heart of the world–a place where a man could hear God walking in the cool of the day.


10 thoughts on “Art and Atheism (The Mistake of Man, Part 2)

  1. Well…this is quite the straw man you’ve built.

    I’d like to summarize your argument very quickly in order to keep my comments on point–please correct me if I’ve misrepresented you. You are claiming the superiority (or validity) of Christianity by highlighting a supposed flaw in the theory of evolution. That flaw, as you have presented it, is the fact that art and the recognition of beauty are opposed to the premises of evolution. Your argument fails on three fronts.

    1. There is absolutely no reason to believe that evolution can’t explain the human attraction to artistic endeavor.

    2. Even if artistic endeavors served no evolutionary purpose, there is nothing in the theory of evolution that would prohibit artistic creativity from propagating through the human species.

    3. Even if you were completely right about artistic expression and evolution being opposed to one another, that conclusion would do nothing to bolster the claims of a God of any kind–much less the God of the Christian bible.

    First, let’s examine how artistic expression could, indeed, be an evolutionary advantage…The creative process–whether that creativity manifests itself through literature, music, poetry, painting, etc.–creates new neuro pathways in the brain. These pathways are unique in that they involve both hemispheres of the brain. These pathways are also not exclusive to the experience which created them. In short–painting makes you smarter. Painting rewires the brain in a way that will allow you to not only paint, but to more efficiently use the powers of your brain to creatively solve OTHER problems that have nothing to do with painting–problems which may very well deal directly with survival. Since the major advantage that humans have over their fellow animals is their intelligence (as opposed to strength, speed, etc.), then it seems logical that anything that makes us smarter would enhance that advantage. The process of natural selection would, therefore, promote this trait within the specie. This is just ONE possible explanation of how artistic expression, in fact, SERVES evolution–there could be many, many others.

    Second, natural selection and the process of evolution does nothing to weed out “neutral” traits. Even if artistic expression bestows no advantage at all, there is no reason why it couldn’t be passed from generation to generation–as long as it didn’t significantly DECREASE a specie’s chance at survival. In this theory, think of art as the mental equivalent of the appendix or male nipples–it may not really do anything, but it’s not harming anybody so it gets to stick around.

    Third, you have made the same basic mistake that nearly all apologists make when talking about evolution (or science in general). You seem to think that by poking holes in Evolution’s balloon, you are somehow strengthening your case for Christ. Even if you were right–and art was somehow diametrically opposed to the tennets of the evolutionary theory–then all you would have proved is that we either don’t understand the processes of evolution as well as we thought. In fact, even if you were to uncover some revolutionary new evidence that completely disproved evolution–indisputably and in its entirety–you would still have done NOTHING to prove that there is a God–and even less to prove that there is a Christian God. You can’t prove your own theories by discrediting alternate theories–that’s not the way evidence works. I understand, however, why you do it. Let’s face it–Christianity and evidence have never walked paths that come very close to one another.

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  3. Evolutionists don’t have a leg to stand on. If man is highly evolved slime and he is programmed to survive at all costs, the notion of self-sacrifice or compassion is utterly counter to his programming. (Nobody, however, actually is supposed to have programmed man. It was just a big cosmic accident, ha ha.)

    Like Sam says, the notion of a beast creating his own beauty is further ridiculous. What purpose to survival does the Pieta serve? I missed the evolutionary purpose behind the Brahm’s violin concerto?

    Evolutionists and atheists are suppressing the truth that they tacitly acknowledge every day. They believe in “laws of nature”, but deny a law giver. No atheist gets up in the morning and wonders if his feet will go up or down. He knows gravity, accepts it, puts faith in it. Yet an orderly universe is completely counter to their professed belief on origins. It’s actually funny to think of men who believe in life as random chance acting on matter going to an art museum or a symphony concert. They have to borrow the Creationist’s worldview just to appreciate what art is, or what music is. The atheist emperor wears no clothes. He mugs the Christian in the ally and wears his clothes, each and every time he sees and admires beauty.

    • Ingrid,

      I think that your comment personifies the problem with trying to discuss the nature of the universe with people of faith better than anything I could have possibly said. Virtually every sentence of what you wrote contains at least one factual error. In addition, you ask questions that have already been answered for you–indicating that you either have no interest in seeking the answers and have failed to even READ what’s been written before you, or you are purposefully ignoring the facts in front of your face. Let’s go to the highlight reel…

      “If man is highly evolved slime and he is programmed to survive at all costs, the notion of self-sacrifice or compassion is utterly counter to his programming.” Even the most blunt mind can see that human beings have survived through the millenia through a combination of intellect and communal effort. Compassion serves that communal effort–therefore helping THE SPECIES to survive. Natural selection works on species–not on individuals.

      “It was just a big cosmic accident, ha ha.)” This reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about how evolution works. There is nothing “accidental” about it. In fact, evolution’s very nature makes the emergence of complex organisms a certainty once the process of self-replication has begun. Your comment likens evolution to buying a single lottery ticket and winning–in fact, it is more like buying EVERY SINGLE ticket possible–making a win a “sure thing”.

      “What purpose to survival does the Pieta serve? I missed the evolutionary purpose behind the Brahm’s violin concerto?” If you missed it, then just scroll back up to my original comment–I explained it quite succinctly for you.

      “He knows gravity, accepts it, puts faith in it.” I don’t have FAITH in ANYTHING. I make educated decisions based on the preponderance of evidence available–with the understanding that those decisions may be reversed at any time if better evidence becomes available–this is the opposite of “faith”.

      “They have to borrow the Creationist’s worldview just to appreciate what art is, or what music is. The atheist emperor wears no clothes. He mugs the Christian in the ally and wears his clothes, each and every time he sees and admires beauty.” This is just blather. As Shamelessly Atheist said, my appreciation of beauty is a byproduct of aesthetics–an evolutionary quality of my brain. I have never, and will never, borrow anything from the creationist’s world view.

      • You have no standard by which to judge anything. I laugh when I hear atheists use things like “straw man” argument (that requires logic to determine a straw man argument, doesn’t it?) Atheists decree that certain things are “wrong”, “blather”, “nonsense”, and so forth. Yet by their very beliefs, they have no standard by which to determine what is blather and what is wisdom, what is truth and what is error. They want us to believe that we are the products of random chance, a cosmic accident, yet they want to use logic (orderly thinking can come out of chaos?), reason, morality. In the foggy world of the true atheist, there can be no right and wrong, no truth or error because they have no intellectual or moral plumb line to judge anything. So they borrow heavily from those who do have a standard of right and wrong, truth and error. An atheist cannot explain why the holocaust was wrong. A Christian can. Let me rephrase that. An atheist can attempt to explain why the holocaust was wrong, but he can’t explain what ‘wrong’ even is. He is an accident, you see?

  4. The animals get along fine without them; why shouldn’t we? That is a difficult question for the atheist.

    Not a difficult question at all, because animals DO display moral behavior. Where ever did you get the idea that they do not? Chimps and bonobos display every aspect of our own inter-individual behavior, including love, empathy and morality. Why will a chimp prefer to starve if another chimp is going to receive an electric shock if it eats anything? Not an ethical experiment by my standards, but it does prove the point that other species have these traits and we aren’t anything special in this regard. Our species just stepped it up a notch because of our large brains.

    And let’s lose the “there’s us and the rest are animals” denialism. We ARE animals, and it is silly to suppose we are not. The idea that we did not evolve from common ancestors simply flies in the face of a mass of evidence from disparate disciplines (geology, paleontology, embryology, development, molecular genetics, cladistics, comparative morphology…) that points to a single conclusion: we are a result of descent with modification and we share common ancestry with every other organism on this planet. How can anyone not think that to be incredibly wonderful?

    And John has already ably dealt with the adaptationist parts of your entry, so I will not belabor the point. But art is a bi-product of aesthetics, something we use to determine the fitness of a potential mate. Belief in gods is a bi-product of looking for agency (something that actually does help us to survive but ran amok) behind naturally occurring events that we didn’t understand. There were gods for trees, rivers, lightning, you-name-it. Eventually, these gods became personal and then became woven into a single unit. Art, religion, literature – things arose once we had energy and time to spare when shelter and food gathering allowed for it. It wasn’t till the development of agriculture and animal domestication that these and other ‘wasteful’ pursuits took off in a big way.

    I’ll take the “cold and cruel universe”. It’s an incredibly wonderful place with no need to belittle it by making stuff up about it. I’m certainly not about to commit suicide any time soon, and if that is what you think of us, I question whether you know any atheists. Perhaps you’ve read Ravi Zacharias. I don’t know. If you have, stop. He hasn’t a clue and his book was filled with emotionalist nonsense. Not a single evidence-based argument was presented. People – religious and non-believers alike – kill themselves, too, in case you haven’t noticed. Keep your belief in the monster who punishes for eternity the merest “bad” thought, then decides that a human sacrifice is necessary without occurring to it that “Hey, I’m a god, for crying out loud! I could actually be benevolent for once and just forgive everybody without offing my anybody!” You can have him. I’m free from the shackles that religions place on its adherents. I pity you.

  5. Ingrid,

    I apologize that this message is showing up at the wrong place on the thread, but your last comment doesn’t have a “reply” option associated with it.

    Like I tried to explain before, you’re basing your indictment of atheism on faulty premises. You said, again, that evolution is a “cosmic accident” and that it is “random chance”. That is simply NOT what the theory of evolution states. We’re not talking about a subjective opinion here. We’re talking about verifiable facts. Read Darwin. Read Dawkins. How do you expect anything you say to be taken seriously when you’ve demonstrated that you don’t even know what the theory you’re arguing against even says? How would you react if I argued against Creationism based on the fact that Jesus couldn’t have been resurrected because his body is on display at the Smithsonian? My argument would make no sense because it is based on factual errors.

    The second prong of your argument is that atheists have no objective basis for morality or logic because they deny the existence of the “lawgiver”. You are simply ignoring the fact, however, that morality and logic can easily be explained withing the confines of evolution–which makes a whole lot more sense than the God-myth. I have explained–with art, but it applies equally well to morality–how this is possible. Shamelessly Atheist even went so far as to tell you where morality can be observed in nature–you know, the animals with no souls…Your inability to use facts and evidence, combined with your willingness to simply ignore them when they are forced upon you, make your entire position indefensible.

  6. This will be my only comment in response to the arguments made.

    Your intricate explanations are not really explaining anything. They are explaining it away. Evolutionary atheism has the character of a vast and intricate conspiracy theory. The essence of a conspiracy theory is that it is intent on explaining away the facts that are so obvious to the vast majority. They grow increasingly complex, all the while descending into absurdity.

    Atheism will always be the domain of a an irate minority intent on denying the obvious: that humans are spiritual beings.

    But here is another thing to consider. Even if all of the complexities of human existence could be explained scientifically, atheism by nature says that an explanation doesn’t matter. Everything is meaningless. An accidentally advanced mass of matter is not better than a protozoa. Nothing is better, only different. This mass of matter trying to justify his meaningless and puzzling existence to a universe that does not care whether he lives or dies is cold comfort indeed.

    Continue to spin the complex theories that by your own reasoning are meaningless if they bring you some satisfaction. But if evolution is true, they are but the crying of an agonized mind into an unhearing and uncaring void—sound and fury signifying nothing.

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