Secular Humanism And Related Philosophy

The Argument from Inspiration


The argument from inspiration has been inappropriately described as evidence for God by many apologetics. Some that recognize this fallacy nevertheless hold onto this argument as a non-sequitor, evidence for the usefulness, rather than truthfulness of religious beliefs. The argument, in its more pretentious form can be stated as follows: 

“Artistic inspiration is unique to humans and cannot be explained without the existence of a benevolent deity” 

And as a non-sequitor: 

“Religion, or belief in God, whether true or not, is a vital source of artistic inspiration for human beings” 

The first version of the argument is promoted mainly by creationists. It can be neatly rebutted by an evolutionary explanation of the origins of artistry, something which many authors have done quite successfully. What this article intends exploring is the second issue. Many authors and speakers have attempted this as well, but I feel that much more could be said on the topic, hence my decision to compile this discourse. 

At first glance

In music, art, drama and literature, there can be know question of the volume of produce that is of a religious nature. JS Bach wrote over 600 cantatas for the church by which he was employed, and we can find such proliferations in all the artistic spheres. It is also unnecessary to ask whether any of these artistic endeavors where of quality. Handel’s Messiah remains one of the most popular oratorio of all time. Mozart’s Ave Verum is an “inspired” work of singular beauty. Few would question the mastery of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper or the beauty of the religious etchings adorning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is also claimed to be of significance that many of these artists where themselves Christian, the suggested implication being that there skills were a gift from heaven. In this way religion lays claim to be the source of inspiration of much art that is not religious in nature. The mere fact that a composer, painter or writer was religious supposedly means that even his secular work were imbued with a divine sparkle. At a music concert I once heard the remark that “Beethoven represents the pinnacle of human artistic achievement, but in Mozart we see the light of heaven”. Although baseless, the remark was quite revealing, showing that divine inspiration is a superlative awarded on largely arbitrary criterion. The particular balance, elegance and beauty of Mozart’s music is certainly unique, but it seems strange that Mozart’s somewhat lapsed catholic faith met the standard for heaven’s favor over a variety of (surely?) more suitable candidates. 

A closer look

The issue can now be more tidily framed as two questions. Firstly, would the artistic heritage of the human race be impoverished if explicitly religious art had not been created? Secondly, does secular art owe any of its beauty to inspiration from heaven? The second question, as you might have spotted, can be extended to religious art as well. Art that is explicitly religious does not necessarily draw all its inspiration from religious sources. And here it is perhaps appropriate to clear up what exactly one can mean by “inspiration”. 

Without appealing to the unfailing standards of Oxford, we can highlight two separate meanings of the word “inspiration” that are relevant to this discussion. Inspiration can simply mean one thing that is the cause of another, in an entirely pragmatic sense. For example, Bach was inspired to write music for the church as he was being paid. He was inspired by his need to make a living. In the context of this definition, there is know doubt that much art has been “inspired” by religion. But another, perhaps more important understanding of inspiration is that which gives rise to the artistic and creative ideas which can be translated by the mind of the artist into something of beauty and value. We will explore these issues using chiefly examples from the sphere of music and the Christian faith, as this is where my greatest knowledge lies. 

The short answer to the first question is yes. Without the Sistine Chapel, without the Dome of the Rock, without the Creation oratorio and a multitude of other “religious” art works we would lose much that is beautiful. However, to assume that this gap would not have been filled by more secular productions is fallacious. The evidence quite clearly points to the contrary. The pragmatic motivation of the artist to express himself using religious art is easily understood when we consider the important goal of making a living. The church and other religious institutions have for a long time enjoyed spectacular wealth, which was in the past used to a great extent for the sponsorship of artists. Of course, this gift was not without conditions. We have the church to thank that JS Bach could make a living solely as a composer and teacher. But it is also owing to them that a large part of his output was utilitarian church music that is seldom performed and not deemed to be of particular musical value. His most famous works, are in fact his secular pieces. The Italian Concerto, Preludes and Fugues and Goldberg variations remain the foundations of a baroque pianists repertoire.  

Still, without the income from the church it is unlikely that he would have been able to compose even his secular works. But history shows us that the role played by the church is far from irreplaceable. Towards the end of the 18th century we saw the swift decline of the patronage system, and starting with Mozart composers adopted a more freelance approach. The composer Beethoven composed a wealth of music without any kind of support from the church. In modern times, artistic output has simply exploded, financed by the masses and catering to their specific needs. Some might question the quality of much of this output, but this inevitably requires adopting a bigoted attitude. There is, after all, no specific criteria by which the quality of artwork can be judged. Popular approval seems as good a measure as any, and on that basis art has never been more ubiquitous and successful then it is now. Art continues to thrive despite an enormous decrease in support from the church. It is impossible to accurately predicate what are artistic heritage would have been had religion and specifically the church never existed. What we can say, however, is that the evidence shows that there is no general reason to suppose that religious institutions are essential or irreplaceable artistic catalysts. 

Building on what I said about a “gift with conditions”, it is interesting when one considers the amount of art that was not produced, or restricted, by religious forces. The most ironic example is the Dante Symphony by the incredible Franz Liszt. Inspired by the work of the poet Dante Aligheri, it is a strikingly beautiful work that is also strikingly incomplete. The first movement is the “Inferno” and the second “Purgatorio”, which concludes with a Magnificat sung by a soprano boys choir. And then it ends, devoid of the usual “Paradiso” movement. Liszt took the advice of the insufferable Richard Wagner, who claimed that the paradise of heaven was too great for the human mind to conceive. And so it was out of religious reverence that something that could have been one of the gems of our artistic heritage has faded into relative obscurity. 

But there is much more that we can learn from this example. Wagner was, it seems, correct in pointing out that heaven is beyond human conception. (I suggest an attitude of skepticism when confronted with such statements; things that can truly not be understood are useless to define, as Wittgenstein so astutely noticed) Throughout history human beings have had no difficulty in describing in intense detail the evils of hell. The suffering of its inhabitants has been captured in (often pointedly erotic) art, music and literature. But fewer attempts are made to describe the wonders of heaven. The reasons for this are manifold.  

For a start, heaven is an impossible concept. Theodicy is the branch of theology that engages in the incomparably laborious task of explaining why we have pain and suffering in the world. The arguments contained within this obscure philosophy are complex, but an important one is the idea that a positive feeling is only positive by contrast. For example, when you are happy it is only meaningful because you know what it is like to feel sad. Similar laws are said to apply for all our emotions. If we accept this explanation, we must ask ourselves how we could possibly enjoy anything in heaven? If heaven is said to be devoid of all evil, how will we define our emotions by contrast? A second problem is that of how we should enjoy heaven if we are to live in the knowledge that many millions are suffering in hell. Either we are to be robbed of our minds and brainwashed into forgetting that hell exists (an unacceptable proposition for many, I suspect) or heaven is to be marred by eternal grief for those who didn’t make it. (Some have, of course, suggested that the suffering of others in hell is to be a source of entertainment for the inhabitants of those in heaven, but I refuse to acknowledge such a repugnant idea) Thirdly, most people do not feel excited by the few accounts we do have of heaven. In the Christian myth, at least, heaven is a profoundly strange place.  It appears that all that is to be done there is endless worship, something that is unlikely to remain fulfilling for eternity. Granted, some of the other religions have added a bit more colour. (Although, are even 72 virgins enough for an eternity?) A final problem with heaven is that, even if it is made to be perfect, we can learn from the Christian myth, at least, that God often struggles with this. What is going to prevent a second “fall?”. Or a second rebellion by angels? Another central argument in theodicy is that much evil springs from the free will of human beings. Are we to be robbed of our free will in heaven?  

The church has always recognized that extolling the beauty of heaven is unlikely to be a very effective motivation for living a life under God. Rather, they learnt to fully exploit and develop the fear of hell and eternal suffering within their congregations. It is for this reason that Liszt found little difficulty in composing the first two movements of his symphony. Dante’s poem is a grotesque work. It contains vivid descriptions of scenes as vile as Mohammad being tortured and disemboweled. Even today these images are used to inspire fear and obedience in the children of the religious. If this is the kind of inspiration we are being provided by religion, we can dispense of it without adieu. 

In a recent debate on the motion “The world would be better off without religion?”, one of the speakers for the motion, Richard Dawkins, made an eloquent rebuttal of the argument from inspiration. He highlighted the dispensability of the church as a facilitator for art, and then went on to state that we would never know, for example, what the roof of the museum of science would have looked like, as the money to fund such ambitious projects was in the hands of the church. I agree with him on most accounts but would like to suggest that although we cannot know exactly what are artistic heritage would have been like without religion, we can venture a guess. More or less the same, if history is to be any guide. Artists did not cease to create when the church stopped paying. Beethoven’s 9th symphony is no less beautiful for extolling, simply, joy, rather than some vague religious idea. The Mona Lisa is seen as Da Vinci’s greatest work, not The Last Supper. The art of today remains the clearest example, being overwhelmingly secular and nevertheless, highly successful. 

Inspiration in the deeper sense

My burden of proof is not yet fulfilled. Having answered the first question, we can conclude that without religion, we would still have had a rich artistic legacy. History has shown that, although religion assumed this role, had institutions like the church not been in control of vast fortunes, artists of the past would have found commissions elsewhere, as their successors eventually did. What we still need to explore is the question of whether religion is a source of inspiration to artists insofar as it provides or in the past provided them with creative and artistic ideas. 

This is a more complex issue. It is probably true that some artists have found their deeper, artistic inspiration in the stories of their religious myth. (It is perhaps important to remember again that this has no bearing on the likelihood of their being any truth in these myths) One need only read the works of a variety of poets to see the enormous value they attribute to a supernatural being. But if we consider ourselves in comparison to those living centuries ago, it is obvious that we now have a far greater understanding of the natural world. As such, less is left to interpretation. For example, hundreds of years ago, an artist could construe a most romantic and baseless explanation for the exact nature of the stars. Having no reason to doubt his belief, he could adopt it unreservedly and draw from it as much inspiration as he would like. This is understandable for the age in which he lived. However, today we have a very clear idea of what the stars are. An artist will therefore find it rather more difficult to be inspired by any explanation of the stars other than the one that we have found through scientific enquiry. Of course one should be hesitant to apply this rule to strictly. It is true that some modern artist might conceive a work of great beauty based on the idea that the stars are lesions on the inside of a great black mouth that is swallowing the earth. But his works would then be fantasy, and rather devoid of insight in most cases. 

The value of religion and our holy books as explanations for any aspect of the natural world has greatly waned. Developments in science and our understanding of the universe have made it more and more difficult to have a coherent reason for believing in a supernatural power. This is not the place for that debate, but the evidence speaks for itself. The number of atheists in Europe is increasing at an alarming rate. And it is in this epicenter of western culture that artists are finding new sources of inspiration. Images of burning bushes pale  in comparison to the wonders of the universe that we are discovering more and more about each day. And so, although science has answered many questions and so limited the artists flight of fancy in some respects, it has more than compensated by the many new wonders that its has drawn to our attention. Many beautiful explanations have been construed for what the stars are. But could any of them be as fantastic as the truth? What could be more majestic than the image of the universe that we have formed, not through ancient texts or dogmas, but through advancements in science and technology? I suspect nothing at all. One of the most popular pieces of chamber music ever composed is the Trout Quintet by Franz Schubert. If Schubert could create something so beautiful from the inspiration of something as small as a fish, I suspect we will never run out of sources for inspiration. The natural world is sufficient in its glory to satisfy a number of rich lives. It seems obscure to suggest that it is only sufficient when we add stories of irresolvable obstetric complexity and pyromaniacal deities. 

I concede that in the past, aspects of our religious myths might indeed have contributed greatly to the inspiration of artists. But I feel it is also important to explore the extent of this contribution. There are various theories of what inspiration actually is, and how it works. It is a complex issue behind the scope of this discourse. Seldom will one, single object be the complete template for the artists creation. Inspiration is invariably multi-factorial. Even a religious work will have its artistic roots in all the life experiences of the artist. It must therefore sometimes occur that a work that is completely religious in nature may be creatively inspired by something entirely secular. I am willing to concede that the opposite may be true, though I suspect it is less likely. When we look at a Christian hymn such as the ever popular “How Great thou Art”, it is clear that Carl Boberg was more inspired by “the woods and forest glades” than by any story or image in the bible. The fact that he used the beauty of nature to describe God does not change the fact that it is nature, not religion, which he found truly inspiring.  

I reject claims that this occurred on a metaphysical level, that by some divine force the spirit of God poured ideas into the heads of artists. The burden of proof does not rest with me to disprove this. It is an extraordinary claim (not altogether uncommon, however, a literal interpretation of the bible requires it, see Amos 3:8) with absolutely no evidence and can be dispensed with until evidence is provided. What I concede to is that the stories of the virgin birth, the crucifixion and particularly (and revealingly) hell to name but a few examples have conjured in artists vivid images which they could then use to further their artistic expression. What I claim, however, is that we, in modern times,  with our greatly more developed understanding of the natural world no longer need to invoke the supernatural to explain, to understand, and to inspire.  


1 Comment »

  1. First of all: well done to you, sir, for so eloquently verbalizing your thoughts on this most interesting of topics. I can relate to this matter on a personal level, as I am not only a self-admitted music addict, but also an unashamedly rabid fanatic of Neal Morse, an artist whose strong born-again Christian convictions dominate his current recorded output (at least in the lyrics department) – but I will leave that particular matter aside for the purposes of this post.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your notion that “divinely inspired” or Church-commissioned does not equal better music (or any art-form for that matter). My relatively limited knowledge of classical music prohibits me from elaborating too much, but reason and logic leads me to belief that Christian-themed compositions like the oft-praised pieces by Händel and Beethoven that were mentioned are still remembered centuries later not because they are particularly any better than lots of other works by their contemporaries, but because they were the ones who were regularly and properly staged. They had the benefit of rich backers like the Church and/or various emperors/kings spending a pretty penny on lavish performances of these works, while other pieces of equal greatness have been reduced to a mere footnote because they did not have the Church’s coffers to buy their place in the annals of history. Centuries later, the general public seem to only be aware of these composers, and because of the overt religious themes of many of their pieces, coupled with the high praise that gets heaped on them, some people (especially those citing the Argument from Inspiration) mistakenly deduce that they must have been divinely inspired by a supernatural being (usually the Judeo-Christian God) in order to produce something of such beauty.

    If we move to the modern era of music (of which I have considerably more knowledge), the Argument from Inspiration simply falls flat on its face – and in spectacular fashion, too. Due to progressing social dynamics, by the advent of the 20th century it had become more and more possible for the most popular music at any given moment to be secular in nature. Even as early as 1912, something like Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, “The Rite of Spring”, which depicts pagan rituals of a decidedly non-Christian nature, was allowed to be performed in respected concert halls (much to the chagrin of the moral majority of the time). I seriously doubt that this would have been possible in the 17th century. Stravinsky would probably have been burned at the stake and we would have been bereft of one of the most startlingly brilliant and musically challenging compositions ever created. While the late 1950’s still saw ludicrous bans placed on pop songs containing lyrics like “Come up to my place” or something similarly tame, by the mid 60’s the religious right’s influence had waned so much that John Lennon’s infamous statement about the Beatles being “bigger than Jesus” did very little to harm their career (ritual burnings of their albums by toothless rednecks notwithstanding). It certainly did not harm or diminish their artistry. Subsequent Beatles releases like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “Revolver” and “Abbey Road” are all universally praised as masterpieces of modern songcraft, and they were all recorded by a band whose views were not only secular, but even anti-Christian. In fact, it would be very hard to think of more than a handful of truly great albums made by overtly Christian artists – i.e. artists whose Christian beliefs are explicitly stated in their lyrics. There is, after all, no such thing as Christian music. There is only music with Christian lyrics. Legendary Irish singer/songwriter Van Morrison went through a religious phase in the late 1980’s, recording critically acclaimed albums with prominent Christian lyrics, although these albums come nowhere near the towering genius of his earlier secular work like “Astral Weeks”, “Moondance” or “Tupelo Honey”. Little Richard, who is most probably one of the few people who can rightfully lay claim to inventing rock and roll music, threw his diamond ring in the Sydney Harbour in 1957 in a well publicized retirement from the music scene in order to praise “Jeebus” (to quote the venerable Homer Simpson) and turn away from the “pure evil” that is rock music. Whether he recorded anything of a Christian nature after that I wouldn’t know. What I do know is that he is remembered for masterful slices of teenage angst and sexual frustration-set-to-music like “Lucille” and “Long Tall Sally”, and not anything that happened after that.

    The Popular Christian music scene these days is most definitely not producing much that has any substance or that strives to rise above anything more than musical mediocrity. For fear of offending anybody, I will not take this any further. But doesn’t it seem strange that the same God who supposedly provided the great classical composers of centuries ago with the divine isnpiration to produce such amazing bodies of work now suddenly seems to leave his modern-day musically-inclined disciples in the dust…

    Comment by Neil Miller — October 16, 2007 @ 9:17 pm

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