For some time, I had been aware that my reporting on religion and art was hopelessly missing an entire, very relevant perspective—that of the atheist. If religious art is worth contemplating in any serious manner, atheists must figure into the larger picture. Would they insist on sacking the canon and revising it to separate church and art? Or would they look upon it with patronizing aloofness, like a kindergarten teacher admiring students’ work? On my way to work one day, listening to Reginald V. Finley Sr.’s podcast “The Infidel Guy,” I heard Finley interview another atheist, Kenneth Humphreys, and I decided to contact both to ask them how they felt about religious art. Their responses are surprising, but upon further reflection, they make a lot of sense.
Finley readily admires religious art, some of which he calls “quite beautiful.” But he is repulsed by the “symbol of death”—the crucifix. “How would we feel today if I wore a miniature bust of JFK around my neck with two bullet holes in his head?” he asked. “People would call me crazy, nuts, sick and deranged. Yet many Christians do this on a daily basis.”
Finley is not the only atheist who can stomach religious works. “For me they speak for the age of their execution; they are historical documents. Even a lie says a truth about the liar,” said Kenneth Humphreys, of the website JesusNeverExisted.com. “I don’t find much religious art joyful or aesthetically pleasing, but it certainly doesn’t cause me discomfort.”
But even if atheists say they can separate religion and art, many question whether that is really possible. “Art has a way of slipping past our rational defenses and forces us to acknowledge what we might wish to deny,” said Joe Carter, who edits EvangelicalOutpost.com. “Religious art, for example, can evoke a sense of worship. Atheists aren’t immune to this effect—they just can’t explain why they feel a need to worship something that they claim doesn’t exist.” Hugh J. McNichol, who blogs on Catholic culture at In Principio erat Verbum, added, “I don’t think it is possible to travel in any vein of life without some direction of faith, theological or humanistic.”
Others debate whether atheists can capably create religious art. Painter and critic Richard McBee says they cannot, though he believes the artist’s faith is only part of what generates religious art. “Perhaps more important is the urgency and dynamic of the religious ideas,” he said. “If they are stale hand-me-downs that don’t generate religious passion then the chance to make art from those ideas is close to nil. Witness much orthodox art that claims to be religious. All you get are hollow conventions.”
Ori Soltes, professorial lecturer at Georgetown University and author of Our Sacred Signs: How Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Art Draw From the Same Source, agreed. “I would imagine that most makers of religious art are religious at some level, otherwise I find it difficult to imagine that their work will ring true,” he said, adding that icon painters underwent spiritual training before they were allowed to pick up a paint brush.
Understandably, many atheists reject Carter’s and McNichol’s views that religion necessarily impacts them. “People like to define things their way,” says Edwin Kagin, national legal director of American Atheists, Inc. Kagin, who has heard people affiliate atheism with just about anything connected to nature, added, “Atheism is not a religion. Wellness is not an illness.”
Though Kagin maintains “there is no such thing as ‘atheist culture,’” he admits some of history’s finest art is religious, though he views art not as religious and truthful, but as mythology and fantasy, like his personal favorite, The Chronicles of Narnia. “Any art that is self-consciously anything is bad,” he said, explaining that religious artists often “perpetuate falsehood,” like depicting Jesus crucified with his hands nailed to the cross. “He would have fallen off,” Kagin said.
Kagin’s view that “quality is in the object” rather than in the artist’s or viewer’s perspective is common amongst critics, who often refer to the “intentional fallacy.”
According to curator and critic Dominique Nahas, viewers can allow the content (like love between mother and child) to sway them rather than the subject. “A secularist who has matured and has been able to leapfrog over conventional meanings of conventionalized iconography will no longer perhaps be swayed or dismayed by the ‘close’ appearances and their references to sanctioned orders of sacral thought,” he said.
The experiential difference between perceiving secular and religious art might be about more than content-subject, according to Soltes and McBee. “The way I appreciate a Fra Angelico Annunciation is most likely different from how a believing Catholic does,” said Soltes. “Conversely, there are plenty of believers and atheists alike who don’t or can’t appreciate art, religious or otherwise.”
McBee believes atheists should be able to appreciate religious art better than believers, since they do not necessarily seek confirmation of existing beliefs, but they also must do their research. “Obviously they have to know the narrative context of the art,” he said, “but once that is assured it would seem that they should be able to be more critical and analytical of what the art is trying to say.”
Whether art is of this world or engaged in divine work, atheists and believers actually share a lot of common ground. Perhaps they disagree about art’s role, but both seem attracted to the aspect of the work that transcends its materials. Some view that as spiritual and others as natural, but either way it ultimately manages to defy words.