Image above: 'God', Digital Print, 2010
Disclaimer: This is non-academic speculation about religion and art's connection and how, presumably, art would not exist without religion. This speculation's primary basis is the information about humankind's evolution, as conceptualized by anthropologists and historians in the books referenced at the end of this post.
What comes up regularly in an art community or history books, especially as the following presumption is 'if we didn't have religion, we would not have all the glorious art and architecture.' As an atheist and opponent of religion in general, I cringe every time I hear this phrase.
Bear with me while I explain the logic behind my cringing.
My bias and stance on religion
I think religions' innate discriminatory ideologies are problematic. I say 'innate' because every religion known to man has a hierarchy that privileges some and places others at a disadvantage. In most major religions, women are prohibited from pursuing specific roles like priesthood. Most religions frown upon homosexuality. And to my knowledge, all religions are anti-woman's-choice.
By nature, all religions are self-righteous and indifferent or downright hostile to any expression of critical thought, and that I think is morally wrong. How else do you convince someone to have faith if you don't believe your way is the only way? Consequently, skepticism and criticism are not friends of religion.
However, I think religious freedom is a human right, and I respect that freedom and support that right. As long as one's beliefs do not infringe on someone else's rights, it is fine with me. Quite frankly, believe what you want; but do not make laws for other people or me based on your beliefs. Belief is too little to establish laws on or to say with certainty something is wrong or right. For example, I believe that heterosexual couples wanting to get married should ask at least twenty LGBTQ members for written permission first. Karma, if existed, would be a bitch.
The logic behind my cringing
Even though religion played an important role in explaining reality in the past, its existence now is unjustified with regard to decoding our life or place in the world. Religion also played a part in reinforcing rules and bringing people together, but we no longer need it to achieve order or comradery.
Many freethinkers believe that humankind cannot exist without religion because religion is an inherent part of being human. Many anthropologists and scientists believe religion was and is a part of every human society ever discovered, so they argue it has to be 'innate' in humans. But I disagree. Atheism has been growing steadily in the past years as more and more people reject faith worldwide, and this is proof enough that people don't need religion to live.
Do you think that the world as we know it would crumble if we had more atheists than religious people? I don't think so.
I am just speculating here, but I see the possibility of a world without religion. I will not claim that I am a hundred percent sure that it would be a much better world, but it would be for sure a less divided one, and that would be an excellent trajectory of humankind.
If you are a religious person, you probably believe that religion is the source of human morality, empathy, and altruism. Some argue that people became empathic precisely because they became religious first. Moreover, religious beliefs and dogmas reinforced socially healthy behaviours like altruism and outlawed antisocial behaviours, thus teaching early humans empathy and generosity and sustaining these positive behaviours to the present day.
And this brings me to this critical argument; since we can observe the evidence of empathy in the animal kingdom (Animals care for sick, bring them food and lick their wounds. They adopt orphaned young even though they have no blood connection to them, etc.), and can also observe the evidence of empathy and altruism in non-religious people (Non-believers volunteer in your local food bank and donate money to amnesty international), we can conclude that there is no apparent connection between being religious and being empathic or altruistic.
Moreover, since we can observe the evidence of compassion and altruism in the animal kingdom, we have to agree that benevolence and empathy preceded religious thought in humans. Unless we reject the evolution or claim that animals are or can be religious, this has to be the only logical conclusion.
And since we can observe the evidence of moral behaviour amongst non-believers, we can conclude that not believing in any deity doesn't make anyone an immoral, antisocial individual. Therefore, I argue that religion is not needed to develop morality nor to sustain it.
And this brings me to the most exciting part: was creativity born as a result of religiousness? Did early people create to get closer to God or gods? Do they now? I know I don't.
We cannot say with certainty what cavemen and cavewomen had in mind for their cave paintings. We can only speculate. But by going with the evolutionary logic of progress, we can conclude that humans invented the wheel before they invented pull carts.
Like empathy visible in the animal kingdom, primitive creativity can also be observed amongst several species. Many animals use crude tools, dance, or music to attract mates or build elaborate structures to show off their superior skills and dexterity to others. Why should we not think that human creativity started because of the same reasons; to attract mates or show off skills to other group members?
There is no reason to think that humans became religious before they made beads or cave paintings? Furthermore, creativity might not be connected to imagination a whole lot.
Imagination is forming new ideas, images, or concepts of external objects not present to the senses. Creativity expressed through dance, singing, sculpture, or finger painting does not need to involve one's intellect at all. Small kids, animals, and people with intellectual or mental disabilities are more than capable of engaging in the art-making process. If you google 'elephant painting,' you can see an example of an animal preoccupied with the creative process of applying paint to a canvas. Do you think there is a higher purpose there for the elephant to engage in that activity? Painting for an elephant god, perhaps?
Wouldn't it make sense to conclude that creativity predates spoken and written language and therefore predates religious thought?
According to 'Sapiens' by Yuval Harari, it was the imagination that gave rise to religion. From the evolutionary perspective, it was much easier to govern larger groups of people (more than a hundred) if they believed in the same ideology. And therefore orient them towards achieving the same goal, like building a temple. One could argue that people without a common purpose of pleasing the gods would never make the temple and therefore advance architecture. But amongst impressive temples, people also built advanced irrigation systems. They had no religious purpose but a practical one, and yet they managed to do that.
Moreover, imagination also gave rise to medical science in humans, yet we nowadays don't connect religion and medicine. Why? We know many cultures with shamans performing healing rituals, pleading with spirits for a speedy recovery of the wounded or sick people. Yet, we don't say we would not have penicillin if it weren't religious.
Do we attribute all art to godly influence because we cannot see it as having any other practical purpose?
What about arguments like the church as the most important patron and facilitator of art in Europe? What would we have without the church?
Great art is what makes cultures mark their existence in history books. The catholic church has been privileged and powerful for a long time, so why would it not elevate itself through the commission of art and, therefore, solidify its importance in history? Why wouldn't any religious institution use art to make its mark? This fact does not prove that art would not exist without religion.
In fact, by looking at all the art made by non-believers in the past and present, we can be sure that we would still have all the beautiful architecture and glorious art, made not for god but for the pleasure and love of creating.
But what would Sistine Chapel be, and what would be painted on its ceiling if we were not religious, you might ask? Oh, I do not know, maybe it would be a music hall, and perhaps an orgy or people engaged in a harvest would be painted on its ceiling. Plenty of secular subjects to go around.
Do you know what I reckon? It is not religion that has been pulling art forward but religion that has been piggybacking its existence on art's back this whole time. Art legitimized religion and gave it substance. Can you imagine religion without art, without architecture, iconography, storytelling or music? There wouldn't be religion without these things.
Now, can you imagine art without religion? You don't have to. There is plenty of secular art or art made by non-believers to prove my point.
So why has art been so tightly connected to religion all this time?
For that very reason, art can connect people and convey complex emotions otherwise inexpressible. Remember all these poems about death and all the songs about love and loss? Saying 'I love you' or 'I am hurting' doesn't do these feelings justice, but all that art fueled by these emotions does. Religions aspire to have that power over people's emotions, and for that, they have always used art.
Thanks for reading!
Send me a message if you'd like to share your mind or add a comment!
A few books that inspired that post: "The Bobobo and the Atheist" by Frans De Waal "Sapiens" by Yuval Harari
"The Third Chimpanzee" by Jared Diamond
"Sex at Dawn" by Christopher Ryan and Cecilda Jetha
"Europe" (First Part) by Norman Davies