Monday, 11 July 2011

Chris Port Blog #299. An Atheist Call To Art

© Chris Port, 11th July 2011

I've recently been involved in discussions on how to promote the causes of atheism and secularism. There is no shortage of academic ammunition. The scientific and rational arguments against religious fundamentalism have won every battle.Yet the war drags on.

Why hasn't atheism landed a knockout blow? Because the other side hasn't shown up. Atheists end up punching empty air because religious fundamentalists aren't even fighting in the same boxing ring. They don't engage in rational debate. They proselytize on the basis of emotion rather than reason. This is what makes them so dangerous, because atheists usually walk away from emotional debate as being 'beneath them'. This is just ceding the seed ground. Atheism needs to fight religious fundamentalism on its home turf - the emotions.

To this end, we've been looking at ways of popularizing atheism. At the moment, atheists sometimes come across as being against other people's happiness because it's based on a delusion. Probably so, but this can make atheism seem negative and uncaring - an intellectual killjoy.

I recently suggested that the arts are a natural forum in which to broaden atheism's appeal. Rather than arrogant academics laboriously explaining why laymen's beliefs are wrong, atheism needs to develop a more positive belief system of its own. Religion has centuries of experience at converting people. I believe that the arts can fill religion's shoes.

If any of this interests you, I would be grateful if you could let me know of any particular works of art that have had a profound effect on you.

  • Perhaps a piece of music moved you to tears or a state of sublime serenity?

  • Perhaps a dance or painting expressed a mood or moment beyond words?

  • Perhaps a poem found perfect words for something you immediately recognized but thought inexpressible?

  • Perhaps a film or play was so powerful, so thought-provoking or emotionally exhausting, that you left that darkened room a transformed human being?

These are all natural states of epiphany which many people experience directly for themselves. They are as profound as the supernatural episodes which they are asked to take on good faith in various religious texts. They also have the added advantage of being real.

Please let me know what art has done for you.

*             *             *             *             *             *             *

[Here is the text of my commentary on the atheism and populism debate].

For those who wish to sway the plebeians, I think that there's a cautionary lesson to be learned from Mark Antony's speech to the mob in Julius Caesar...

The plebs nod politely when the honourable Brutus appeals to their sense of reason. But after only a few minutes of Marc Antony's manipulative appeal to their emotions, they're off to firebrand the conspirators out of town.

The awful truth that Shakespeare (and others, like Jim Morrison) picked up on is that the masses are a 'monster of energy' rather than angels of the intellect. Since demagogy would probably go against every rational bone in your body, the real question is how to make the intellect appeal to the emotions?

Science is wonderful. But unfortunately, to most neophytes, much of it is arcane and dull. The notable exceptions are 'celebrity' scientists enthusing about cosmology - and this should give you a heavy hint.

The 'simple' message is actually a message of 'awestruck wonder' at the complexity of the universe (which is very similar in feeling to the 'hit' that apprehension of God gives religious opium addicts). For me, the natural simple message that atheists are looking for is somewhere between science and art.

I have yet to meet another human being who isn't interested in art (although many have quite appalling tastes, but ho hum, Rome wasn't built in a day...) I would argue that art is what keeps most people sane. Even corporate reptiles like to chill out in the evening with a bit of music, or a fantasy film. If you want to steal religion's 'awe', I would look at ways of linking science with art.

The reason most people cling on to God is because they find the concept comforting, beautiful and meaningful. Hey? Guess what? Art does that. I would work on making art the new religion (with celebrity scientists in place of 'priests').

"Meaning is in art and aesthetics, not in unquestioning dogma."

"Don't worry about ‘reality’. You can never know it. I’m not sure if it even exists in any meaningful sense. Just know which game you’re playing. And learn the rules for that game. It’s the trick to a happy life..."


  1. Response from a good Devil's Advocate friend at we really want a church of aethiesm full of full of psalms dedicated to worshipping the joy of science, and stain glass windows with pictures of the four horsemen?

    * * * * * * *

    My response: No. We want art galleries and cinemas, concert halls and crèches, dance halls and lecture halls, parks and theatres. These are the natural churches of atheism. Unlike the aisles of yet another Tesco's which is the church of corporate profits.

    Congregations used to sing hymns to the glory of God. Then they sang anthems to the glory of nationhood. Now they Gaga on about how "We are all born superstars" and "I'm just a holy fool, oh baby it's so cruel". Orwell's Prole Song is probably next...

    "It was only a 'opeless fancy,
    It passed like an Ipril dye,
    But a look an' a word an' the dreams they stirred,
    They 'ave stolen my 'eart awye!"

    I think songwriting is long overdue for another revolution.

    When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, he was inviting a debate about Catholic doctrine, particularly the power of the Pope and the selling of indulgences (forgiveness for money). One of the tenets of Protestantism is the "priesthood of all believers". In a sense, Atheists are the New Protestants, inviting debate about religious doctrines in general, the power of fundamentalists and the legalized indulgence of fear and credulity.

    The Bible is an anthology of stories. Literature would be a dull art if it only had one book. I see no reason why a new "priesthood of all sceptics" shouldn't be writing thousands of new bibles. None of these should be taken as 'gospel'. They should be taken as ideas for debate - ideas about human beings, by human beings, for human beings.

    Celebrity scientists are 'priests' only in the sense that they have specialist knowledge and insight. When Brian Cox enthuses about the wonder of the universe, millions are spellbound by his special-effects enhanced sermons. They are not anaesthetized though. Unlike the priests of old, scientists do not ask us to take their word for it. They ask us to go away and find out for ourselves, to come back and challenge old ideas with new ones.

    Just as Martin Luther challenged the authority of the clergy using scripture, ALL authority should now be challenged using science and reason. If laws and practices are founded on unscientific beliefs, this is intolerable and they must go. The sneering objections of bourgeois curtain-twitchers should be seen for what they are - ideological protectionism. If people are irrational, then they have nothing of value to contribute to the debate.If they continue to malignly influence political decisions through narrow-minded prejudice posing as traditionalism, we may even need to consider disenfranchising them on the grounds that they are mentally incompetent, an electorally registered danger to themselves and others.

    That's probably enough of a New Lutheran rant for now. Actually, I quite fancy the idea of a stained glass window depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In Tesco's. It would give the silent shoppers something to meditate about as they wheel their consumer souls around the aisles ;)

  2. Feedback from post on another Facebook site (The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Official) at​ref=home#!/permalink.php?s​tory_fbid=242310439129457&​id=8798180154&notif_t=shar​e_comment)

    Respondent: In that case, the arts need to be less self-important wankers pronouncing their aesthetic superiority while fawning over random splotches of paint better rendered by a 5 year old (for one example)

    All of Academia should not be ashamed of the hard work that made them elites in their realms of knowledge... but all are equally guilty of being unapproachable to lay-people.

    * * * * * * *

    My response: Specific examples would be useful, although not conclusive.

    Who constitutes 'the arts'? Why do you attach such importance (and bile) to art works that don't impress you?

    Do you have any positive experiences of art? If so, what are they?

    Do you think that ALL art should be convenient and immediately comprehensible? Or do you think that great art should challenge us to think and feel deeply?

    I would argue that great art demands the audience do some of the hard work. Great art is approachable when you meet it half way. The real question is, do you want to?

    How much do you know about your own aesthetics? Do you simply "know what I like and like what I know"? What are your criteria for judging a work of art as 'good' or 'bad', 'interesting' or 'boring', 'profound' or 'pretentious', 'talented' or a 'con trick'?

    In general, would you say that you are an objectivist, a subjectivist, or a relativist?

    If you would like to do a little background reading, there's a reasonably concise summary of these aesthetic approaches (and their more sophisticated variations) in my dissertation, Humour in the Holocaust [CHAPTER 1: Introduction. (What are laughter, comedy and humour?) - Aesthetic judgments - about half way down].

    Scientific understanding requires some detailed knowledge of scientific terminology and methodology. Otherwise, we are vulnerable to false explanations peddled by religious snake-oil sellers.

    Artistic judgments also require some detailed knowledge of artistic terminology and methodology. Otherwise we are merely judging by immediate gratification. This leaves us vulnerable to manipulation by crass commercialism and the sugary formulas of lowest common denominators.

    You don't have to be an academic expert to appreciate good art, any more than you need degrees in maths and physics to grasp the essence of relativity. Academic pontification does sometimes disappear up its own posterior, but this is not a good reason for not reading books.

    One final question to ponder. Have you ever changed your mind about a work of art? For example, have you ever thought a film boring, pretentious and obtuse, then seen it through wondrous new eyes? I have. The first few times I watched Kubrick's 2001 I fell asleep, thinking it was agonizingly slow auteur onanism.

    Then I grew up a bit. The fourth time I watched it, it was like watching a moving painting of human evolution. I was literally awe-struck. How the hell did I miss all that? How the hell did I dismiss a work of genius as boring and sleep through some of the greatest ideas of humanity?

    The fault was mine, not the film's. It was a humbling experience. Have you ever been humbled by a profound change of opinion? Or have you always been right?

  3. Discussion threads:

    Christopher Hitchens​hristopherhitchens/posts/1​83531395039656

    Chris Port​artyGull/posts/23662808969​1333

    National Atheist Party​ational.Atheist.Party/post​s/188591381199859

    The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Official)​ermalink.php?story_fbid=24​2310439129457&id=879818015​4

    Sam Harris​ermalink.php?story_fbid=14​5612495517054&id=224571710​14

  4. With reference to another discussion thread on a possible 'Golden Rule' for atheists...

    I've been brooding over what my 'Golden Guideline' might be (as you may have guessed, I'm suspicious of rules - especially golden ones).

    In essence, science is reductionism and art is expansionism. Science reduces everything to data. Art expands everything into meanings.

    The problem with science is that, on its own, it loses touch with meanings.

    The problem with art is that, on its own, it loses touch with reality.

    Most people are neither scientists nor artists. They want certainty and security in which to raise families, but they also need escapism and fantasy to preserve their individuality and save their sanity.

    “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” ~ Shirley Jackson, ‘The Haunting of Hill House’

    Therefore, any popular 'guidelines' need to incorporate both scientific AND aesthetic principles. (Art also has the useful side effect of gently nudging religion out of the picture. It essentially fulfils the same emotional function as 'God' in the form of a conscious delusion - the willing suspension of DISbelief to enjoy a fantasy, rather than the erroneous belief that an imaginary character actually exists outside of people's minds).

    So, as an aphorism: "The Golden Rule is the Golden Mean." Aristotle got a lot wrong (scientifically) but he was spot on about human happiness (and tragedy).

    Those of a logical disposition should be wary of reducing the wonders of creation to facts. Facts have no meaning, and human beings are not human beings unless they can find meanings. They should seek to cultivate their aesthetic 'souls'.

    Those who have an artistic nature should be wary of living in the clouds all the time. Fantasy keeps the mind sane, but it doesn't feed the body or pay the bills (unless you're lucky enough to get other people paying to watch your fantasies - see Hollywood's 'Dream Machine'). A good artist sees the 'real world' as useful material for fantasies. For this reason, they keep a close watch on reality (while not believing a word of it - artists are the ultimate sceptics sometimes).

    "Neither a reductionist nor an expansionist be, but both". We live in the 'Goldilocks Zone' in more senses than one...

  5. Response from a good Devil's Advocate friend at!/MartyGull/posts/236628089691333?notif_t=share_comment

    I'm 100% with you on the idea of art filling the void left by religion. I've been a proponent of this idea for a long time. In my opinion religion should be seen as art anyhow. I believe it is most rewarding (and least dangerous) when seen this light. People don't wage wars over the meaning of art, because we all know that there is no single meaning - interpretation counts for everything. Anything which is open to interpretation, yet claims to be truth is asking for trouble. (Unless of course you see it on the deeper level that subjectivity, pluralism etc are truth...which I don't think many fundamentalists do).

    Filling the 'left brain' void however, is entirely different to the arts being used to broaden aethiesms appeal, which feels more like religious style propaganda... Actually it feels quite cheapening of art to be used in this way.

  6. My response (Instalment 1 of 2): I totally agree with your first point.

    With regard to your second point, I sympathize with your apparent disdain but would ask you to dirty your hands here. There is a muddy historical context.

    For most of human history, the arts have been closely intertwined with religion. It could be argued that their primary function was to serve as religious propaganda by performing a ceremonial and commemorative role. It's only in the last few centuries that the arts have broken free (much like the sciences) and declared their independence.

    Although the arts are often regarded by traditionalists as being inherently 'subversive', this is a comparatively recent economic development. Until the advent of mass reproduction and distribution, the arts mostly survived under the protection of wealthy patrons. The quid pro quo was that they legitimized the status quo.

    [Extract from ‘On Directing’ http://martygull.blogspot.​com/2011/03/chris-port-blo​g-143-on-directing.html]

    “The Evolution of the Director (from hegemony to homogeny)

    One possible reason for the comparatively recent emergence of the director is that the director's role, or its ancestral equivalent, previously existed in the homogenous social function of theatre. From the religious Dionysian ritual of Ancient Greek drama to the cynical commentaries on social mores in Restoration comedy, theatre may have prodded the conscience of its audience with an accusatory finger, but it did not seek to challenge the existing social order of pre-nineteenth century European societies. In essence, the social function of theatre was to perpetuate the hegemony of the status quo by portraying the common belief systems of its patrons and audiences. However, the fragmentation of European societies into class systems, with an awareness of conflicting interests after the French and Industrial revolutions, destroyed any such single purpose. As the theatre's traditional patrons waned in influence, so a gap appeared between the social function of theatre and the social values of its audiences. This meant that the moral consensus of playwrights disappeared into a variety of (sometimes conflicting) artistic viewpoints, and so in performance there arose a need for the interpretation of playtexts.”

  7. My response (Instalment 2 of 2): I totally agree with your first point.

    Your main connection to the arts is through music. Music is arguably the purest of the art forms because it is the most abstract. Although it has prostituted itself just as much as the others in the service of propaganda (e.g. hymns, national anthems, incidental music, TV ads, commercial pop) music can seem less proseltyzing precisely because it doesn’t have to ‘say’ anything. I would argue that this is a self-delusion however. Even silence can speak volumes.

    Brecht argued (convincingly, I think) that ALL art is political. ‘For art to be “unpolitical” means only to ally itself with the “ruling” group’ (A Short Organum for the Theatre). Following on from this, I would argue that art is either FOR religion or AGAINST it, but neutrality is not an option.

    I’m not suggesting for one moment that the arts should now become the atheist equivalent of social realism, all happy Soviet tractor drivers ploughing through the complete works of Richard Dawkins, etc. Actually, I’m arguing something very different. Rather than seeing the arts as a tool of atheism, I see atheism as a tool of the arts. The atheists have won the intellectual arguments, only to find that the majority of agnostics don’t really care while the majority of religious believers don’t really understand. Atheism needs the arts to communicate its humanist philosophy on a more intuitive and emotional level. I am simply arguing that this humanist philosophy is now the natural home of the arts anyway.

    Put another way, while religion may have provided a sanctuary for the arts in the past, the rise of religious fundamentalism is threatening to put them back on the leash as a lap dog - a status symbol for retrograde ‘traditionalist’ values. I don’t see the atheists as social realists here. I see the religious fundamentalists as neo-nazis, burning heretical texts. If I was a liberal humanist writer in 1940s Europe, I would not hesitate to put my artistic services at the disposal of the Allied war effort for ‘propaganda’ purposes. Western civilization is under attack, My values are under attack. In this case, the atheist medium IS the message.

  8. Response from a good Devil's Advocate friend at!/MartyGull/posts/236628089691333?notif_t=share_comment

    Just noticed a mistake in my last post...I meant "right brain" ;) Just thought I'd mention that for any pedants reading...

    But back on point...assuming that all art is political where do agnostic artists fit into your proposal that neutrality on the view of religion is impossible within art? If somebody is unsure of their alligence how can their art be any more certain?

    Just to clarify, I pressume what you're referring to is the context in which the art is created/distributed, rather than the content of the work itself.

    An instrumental piece of music which paints nature through notes isn't political in itself, but the choice of harmony may be traditionalist or anti-tradionalist. This is arguably a statement of allegience, but only in the most abstract sense - it would be a fallacy to assume that anybody who enjoys classical harmonic form can't maintain progressive political views. I don't think choice of harmony automatically reflects a political allegience, although I'm not saying that it can't if the artist intends to.

    This leads me to the conclusion that if both the work itself and the creative process aren't political, then Brecht must be refering to the choice of distribution. If I create work and sell it then I am allying my work with capitalism. If I choose to distribute it via Creative Commons then I - and thus my work - advocates freedom of information, etc. In this sense yes, all art is political, but in this very general view of what constitutes a political statement, it is no more political than buying, selling or giving away anything (all of which IS political, but also embodies a fairly narrow scope of possible political statements that can be made).

    For this reason would interpret Brecht's statement as meaning that there is no avoiding making a political statement of some sort in whatever we do. I wouldn't take it further and say that every work of art inadvertantly makes statements about speciic things, such as being for or against religion.

    If you take the view that art inadvertantly projects specific view points on one subject, would you agree that it must take a view point on all? Religion is very specific. Could you argue that every work of art must also embody a veiw on women's rights as well? And if not, why not?

  9. My response: To the theist, everything is God. To the artist, everything is art. To the scientist, everything is science. To the Marxist, everything is political. To the capitalist, everything is money. To the politician, everything is power. To the philosopher, everything is philosophy. To the Wittgensteinian, everything is a language game. To me, they’re all games…

    Terry Eagleton called Wittgenstein the philosopher of poets and composers, playwrights and novelists…

    Don’t be misled by the term ‘games’ here. Games can be deadly serious. War is often played as a ‘game’…

    It’s possible to dabble in all of the games while playing our own game, but events often overtake us. In ‘A Man For All Seasons’, Sir Thomas More tries to stay out of politics. He tries to balance conscience with survival by keeping schtum about his thoughts on the king’s divorce. But his silence speaks volumes… Sometimes, other people’s games drag us in when we’d rather stay out.

    It doesn’t really matter whether an artist is agnostic or has nothing to say about religion. What matters is the bigger ‘game’ going on. I’ve just surfaced after ten years suffocating at the bottom of a profoundly anti-intellectual and anti-artistic education system. I’m genuinely horrified at how those in authority have abused their power to impose their own political ideologies on the arts.

    Schools are now heavily promoting the entertainments industry in the arts curriculum. This is inherently right-wing because it tends to favour an uncritical approach to ‘traditional’ values. Tapping into the current vogue for light entertainment and humiliation contests, schools are disastrously misappropriating an X-Factor/Apprentice approach to give them a spurious ‘relevance’. Most students are now taught a love of fame and money over love of the art form. Many develop inflated egos and delusions of grandeur.

    The entertainments industry has one of the highest unemployment rates of any profession. It is also notoriously brutal and corrupt with a glut of wasted talent. To exploit naïve young dreams for school publicity, then cynically throw them into shark-infested waters is morally disgusting and nothing to do with education.

    Even more sinister is the creep of religious fundamentalism under the guise of faith schools and traditional values. As the ‘good harmless fun’ of entertainment is whipped up to hysterical levels, analytical subjects such as Film Studies are being quietly pushed out. I can’t tell you the devious games that management play to ‘prove’ that there isn’t a demand for these subjects. Having spoken off the record to students, there IS a demand. But this is diverted through sneaky ploys when students are given ‘advice’ on their subject choices.

    The underlying reason for these sneaky power games is political. Right-wing, narrow-minded traditionalists have infiltrated senior management, boards of governors, and local councils. They secretly view the intellectual side of the arts as politically biased and dangerously subversive. This may have been true in the 1970s and 1980s as the Marxists fought their last battles in the system, but it’s a damnable lie now. The arts are the epitome of even-handed analysis and criticism. It’s the right-wing who are the new dangerous subversives, hijacking the education system for political indoctrination.

    Religious fundamentalists have narrow artistic values. If their views gain credence, then their values will gain ascendancy. Ultimately, this will restrict artistic freedom of movement (through political indoctrination in schools, direct or indirect censorship in the workplace, and the constricting of the marketplace by corporate monopolies, etc.). Musically, you may have nothing to say about religion. But if you rise to prominence, religion will probably have something to say about your music…

  10. Comment on​oshwiniberg/posts/10150702​261515367

    D: A man called Von Clauswitz, once said "war is a continuation of politics by other means, and politics is a continuation of economics by other means"... for me art is... free of economics, because art should be done for the love of art, not the acquisition of money... so no, it can't be linked to politics in anyway shape or form...


    My response: There should also be world peace and universal love. Unfortunately, as Hume wryly observed, you can't get an 'ought' from an 'is'.

    Art is not separate from the world. The world is political. Therefore, art exists within politics - whether the artist agrees or not.

    Brecht's point is that apolitical artists unavoidably endorse the status quo. Their intentions are irrelevant. To avoid criticism is to implicitly endorse. In times of broad middle-ground consensus (which are now well and truly over) this isn't a problem. However, when the political and economic system enters a period of crisis, it becomes more contentious.

    I'm not pushing artists into making their art carry any political message. I'm simply pointing out an awkward truth. Artists can shrug their shoulders and say that it's not their problem. But I would argue that, sooner or later, it will be.

    “No man is an island entire of itself; every man
    is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
    if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
    is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
    well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
    own were; any man's death diminishes me,
    because I am involved in mankind.
    And therefore never send to know for whom
    the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
    (John Donne, Meditation XVII, 1624)

  11. Comment on​oshwiniberg/posts/10150702​261515367

    D: The world is not political, Humans are. Though I agree with most of what you said, I can't swallow the statement that all art exists within politics, because art has been around a hell of a lot longer


    My response: I was using the term 'world' to refer to human affairs rather than insentient matter. 'Politics' is the process by which human beings make collective decisions about public affairs (e.g. laws, property, taxation, utilities, etc.) All of these public affairs have a pervasive effect on our personal lives and shape our viewpoints (including our artistic and moral values).

    All human affairs are political (including our personal lives) because we live in society. With the exception of the odd hermit or castaway, nobody exists independently of other human beings. There is no 'opt out' from politics. For this reason, as the feminists observed in the 1970s, the personal is the political.

    Politics precedes art in the same way that existence precedes essence. Our ape ancestors were engaged in hierarchical intrigues long before they started daubing cave walls and banging tree trunks.

    The origins of ceremonies and rituals are shrouded in historical murk, but most seem to be connected with various rites of power (whether natural - as in the worship of environmental phenomena such as the sun or the moon or the seasons, commemorative - as in the funeral of an important person, or inaugural - as in the coronation of a new leader).

    Religion and art seem to have evolved out of these power rituals. For most of human history, art and religion have performed complimentary roles - the veneration of power. Only in the last few centuries have the arts broken away from their commemorative role and evolved their own power games.

    To reiterate, politics will always shape artistic forms and artistic viewpoints because art and artists are part of human affairs. All human affairs are political.