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Atheists and artists

You can be an atheist and be an artist—there is no contradiction. It is often said that this is not possible, or, perhaps, that even if you profess atheism, as an artist, you secretly believe in God or “something like” God. This is not so. You can master any technique you wish without belief in a deity—and you can excel at it, Pablo Neruda and Philip Larkin prove this is so.

The reason people say that you have to be a believer to be an artist is that it is a way to manipulate people. Believe in God—or no beautiful art. Well, if you put it like that…It never works because people resist manipulation and, anyway, it isn’t true.

Now, I don’t dispute that to be religious might be helpful—might make for sweet art, not bitter art; and you can see that in the relation between Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin, two poets who knew each other—the former held shamanistic views, thought magic was real; the latter was a complete atheist and thought Hughes was pathetic and deluded for his beliefs. Hughes experienced more grief in his life than Larkin, yet Larkin is always bitter and bleak whereas Hughes is not.

As an aside, it is difficult to know how I can assess a person’s internal state to determine that they *really* believe in God (or an entity like God—whatever that may be). Close examination, I am sure, could reveal if they lie—yet you would have to subject every atheist-artist to the same treatment, an insurmountable task. Even then, at most I could say that they lied when they said that they were atheists, not that they affirmed, internally, a God or God-like entity—even if I can demonstrate that a person lies, I cannot say for sure what their actual belief is. From the atheist-artists I have seen speak, I have no reason to believe that they lie when they say they are atheists.

So religion might leaven art but it is not integral to it—at least, not as we understand it now; at one time, the two were synonymous insofar as particular artistic techniques were used to achieve religious results—yet that has not been true for some time. The way this question is tackled today, to manipulate people—believe in God, or no “Y”—misses the point. Religion has its own autonomous existence—you can sacralise anything, you can bless a computer before you start to program it, if you really want; it might be easier to sacralise a painting than a nuclear submarine, but if you’re really religious God is present everywhere.

Really, the “art requires God argument” is a holdover from that Victorian contention that “art will replace religion”; the people who put this forward think art itself is a religion—or some close-enough metaphorical alternative; and so God and art become synonymous in their minds—and yet it’s not so, just like you can drive a tractor or build a wall perfectly well without a belief in God. In other words, art and religion are related—yet religion has an autonomous existence, to reduce it to art does it down because the argument that atheists cannot produce art is false in a self-evident way.


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