Arguments for Atheism - Living without religion, with a clear conscience


The Argument | The Refutation

The Argument Back to Top

There are all sorts of astonishing works of art celebrating God or the gods (such as Chartres Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel, Raphael's Madonnas, the Bible, the Upanishads, Bach's B-Minor Mass, Haydn's Creation, etc), and there is an almost complete dearth of comparable works celebrating the absence of God or the gods. This suggests that religion is needed to inspire such great work, or at the very least that it is a lot better than atheism at inspiring these kinds of works.

The Refutation Back to Top

Atheists are as likely as the next person to visit museums and galleries, to relish the architecture of a great cathedral or to have an appreciation for all kinds of literature and music. Neither would they deny that much great art of the past (although, significantly, much less in recent years) has been motivated and inspired by religion.
All the sweetness of religion is conveyed to the world by the hands of storytellers and image-makers. Without their fictions the truths of religion would for the multitude be neither intelligible nor even apprehensible; and the prophets would prophesy and the teachers teach in vain.
- George Bernard Shaw (1921)

But it should be recognized too that much great art and music of the past was commissioned by the religious institutions of the day, which controlled the purse-strings of whole nations, and by individuals who felt themselves obliged to commission religious works by the social conventions of the period, whatever their own personal feeling might have been. The artists and musicians themselves were also to a large extent following the same social conventions, although this in no way diminishes their achievements.

The stories of the scriptures have always provided artists useful metaphors for aspect of the human condition and some interesting and well-known tales on which to base a painting or a poem, although many of these stories have existed since antiquity in secular forms or in different versions according to different religions. But so have the beauty and grandeur of nature and non-religious human stories of love, death and betrayal. Indeed, who has not been awed, exhilarated and moved to flights of fancy by the contemplation of the stars at night or the view from a mountaintop.

Religion hardly comes up at all in the works of Shakespeare, for example, who nevertheless was inspired to write some of the greatest literature of all time, and there is no shortage of first rank artists, musicians and writers of confirmed atheistic or agnostic convictions, as a quick perusal of the list of Famous Atheists confirms. Of course, the social stigma and, historically, even physical risk to life and limb has prevented many from broadcasting their true beliefs (or lack thereof), and the social and cultural inertia and the sheer power of the status quo throughout history cannot be overestimated.

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