Art and Atheism

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 Ulm Cathedral.

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. This is true, 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.

4 thoughts on “Art and Atheism

  1. Sam, your writing is beautiful–quite a pleasure to read!

    You presented the idea that art offers no evolutionary benefit, and I’d like to comment on that. Not all abilities have a direct survival value. For example, my dog enjoys chasing a tennis ball and retrieving it. Would this have helped his wolf ancestors survive? Not specifically. His enjoyment of ball-chasing is a side effect of other skills that benefit his ability to survive.

    It’s been proposed that art evolved as a result of the development of language, which has direct survival benefits. The evolution of the human brain could have favored those with a higher ability to communicate with other tribe members, also allowing the brain to think creatively for problem solving. Once that brain functionality was in place, when a person wasn’t occupied running for his/her life, hunting, or foraging, those communication and creation abilities could have allowed the creation of art. Here’s an article about this idea: http://www.dailytech.com/Human+SuperBrain+Responsible+for+Evolution+of+Language+Art+Technology+Bipedalism/article21438.htm

  2. dear sam,

    i just want to add a quotation i’ve found in the blog of father stephen (saving beauty – june 10, 2011) :

    “When God created the world, He said, “It is good (beautiful)” [both the Hebrew and the Greek of Genesis carry this double meaning].

    We were created to perceive the Beautiful, even to pursue it. This is also to say that we were created to know God and to have the capacity, by grace, to know Him. Consider the Evangelical imperative: “Go and make disciples.” What would it mean in our proclamation of the gospel were we to have within it an understanding that we are calling people to Beauty? The report of St. Vladimir’s emissaries to Constantinople that when they attended worship among the Orthodox they “did not know whether we were on earth or in heaven. We only know that of a truth, God is with them,” is history’s most profound confirmation of this proclamation.

    St. Paul confirms the same when he describes the progressive work of our salvation as “the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” If we would have our hearts cured of the illness that mistakes Sodom for the Kingdom of God, then we should turn our eyes to the face of Christ. There the heart’s battle will find its Champion and beauty will find its Prototype.”

    and i want to conclude with a second reference to ‘father seraphim rose – his life and works’ (p.963-973), where father seraphim himself wrote:

    “Therefore, in our battle against the spirit of this world, we can use the best things the world has to offer in order to go beyond them; everything good in the world, if we are only wise enough to see it, points to God…”

    love in X,

    nikodim

  3. Nikodim,

    I love your reflections on beauty. You are right, God is beauty, and when we are seeking the beautiful, we are knowingly or unknowingly seeking the beauty of God in Christ.

    God bless you!

    Sam

  4. Pingback: The Really Human Things

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