Introduction to Atheist Narratives, Books, and Films 

There is not an atheist aesthetic, and many non-believers who love the arts think this is a very good thing.  Atheists are thinkers who refuse to be confined to any dogmatism, including artistic theory that is doctrinaire.  Art flourishes best in times when philosophic thinking is speculative, when religious strictures are questioned, and when economic conditions are secure.  Such optimum circumstances were the state of affairs in 5th Century Greece, Renaissance Florence, the T’ang Dynasty in China, England in the century after the Armada, and 17th Century Holland.[1] 

In the present day there are many great writers, artists, architects, film directors, composers, dancers and children’s book authors who are atheists.  Their works do not need to display an outspoken atheism.  Many free thinking, creative artists exhibit their doubt in other, subtler ways.  Their rebellion or indifference is displayed in myriad styles, such as subverting the “rules” of the genre they are working in.  Other strategies employed may be depicting how some of the characters have been made unhappy or have been ruined by moralistic hypocrites, religious believers and/or outworn and nonsensical cultural practices. Literary authors and playwrights may depict charismatic characters who express doubt and freethought in a convincing and attractive manner.

Music may adopt a broad base that refuses to be confined to one style, as in the present day, when classical music blends with jazz, country with folk, and much musical style is informed by world music. Rap, metal and other styles express discontent with societal values; and there is a great deal of music with irreligious lyrics that listeners can hear in a variety of venues, including the internet. Inner emotions may be expressed by an artist such as Mark Rothko, who was devoted to color, form and space.  Rothko attempted to transcend the political and cultural symbols of his time.  The sculptures of Giacometti, very small, very slender men, are a commentary on the meaningless of contemporary life. Each man appears nearly vanished, angst ridden and with an attenuated sense of self.  Architects, such as Frank Gehry, have broken free of the rigidity of the International Style.  Their buildings exhibit sweeping roofs, exaggerated curves and exude a sense of naturalness.  Modern dance has rejected many of the rigid rules of classical ballet, and focuses on inner expression, which includes doubt and rebellion. There is a crossover of styles in the dance arts as well as of music.  Writers, playwrights and poets have experimented with fracturing narrative, time, and space in their work, attempting to spur their readers and viewers to make an effort to understand writing through effort, rather than being spoon fed by cultural bias.  Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is a classic example of a godless work.  Such techniques can cause readers and viewers to question certain cultural assumptions, including religious belief. 

In Serious Art (1991) John Passmore writes about three distinct artistic genres.  There is art for entertainment alone, and there is telic art that has a purpose, whether political, religious, or social, and tries to send a message through the art work that will convince or educate the reader or viewer.  Then there is the highest form of art, serious art, that Passmore maintains tries to be independent of the other two strands. He admits that there is often not a clear distinction between such divisions.  The religious painting or poem may come to express secular values, for instance.[2] The official building, meant to glorify a state dictatorship, may become a hymn to the secular spirit of man.  Comedy, such as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp films, may subvert the admiration audiences feel for the powerful and reinforce humanist values.  Dictatorships and theocratic tyrannies frequently value both entertainment art, and telic art.  They are fond of the first, because it provides what they hope is distraction from the reality of the citizens’ plight, and they reward telic art when it reinforces the assumptions of their regime.  Bertolt Brecht, the atheist Communist playwright, is an excellent example of the author rising above his political alignment with the Communist Party to write some of the best, serious plays of the 20th Century. Brecht ostensibly followed the party line in his dramas, but the party leaders were always uneasy and suspicious of him because of his unorthodox thinking.  Brecht’s work is an exemplar of the drifting of the three artistic divisions into one another.  What play lover can forget Brecht’s superb Mother Courage? (1939) Brecht wanted to draw audiences away from identification with the actors and acting.  He attempted to make the audience think, without bourgeois emotion, about the ideas expressed on the stage.  He went to the extent of trying to distance, or alienate the audience by various techniques, including dissonant music.  We are supposed to criticize Mother Courage for her greed, but instead we begin to admire her courage and indomitability.  When the deaf and dumb girl, Katrina, goes on a rooftop to bang a drum in order to successfully warn a city about an advancing army, we are thrilled with her self- sacrifice and bravery.  When the soldiers shoot her down, the audience is overtaken with grief. There is no doubt that Brecht’s play has moved from entertainment and didactic purpose to serious, or high art.  In fact, Mother Courage becomes all three categories, transcending the purpose of its creator and what the dogmatic politicians demanded of it.

Iris Murdoch, the novelist/philosopher, said that “art was a great hall of reflection, where we can all meet and everything under the sun can be examined and considered.  For this reason, it is attacked and feared by dictators and by authoritarian moralists.”[3]  Plato, St. Augustine, the Catholic Church, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Islam, are just a few of the authoritarian thinkers and regimes who have either tried to control the arts, or banish them altogether.  The Catholic Church was the most successful in its attempts to control art, as it was the primary patron during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  Nazi Germany is a horrible example of a dictatorship attempting to force art to the telic purpose of glorifying its mythology and philosophy.  The Soviet Union is another.  After a brief flowering of abstraction and modernism, the Soviet regime closed down the creativity and demanded the arts glorify the goals of its party.  The result in both cases was that their official art became banal and hackneyed.  When art begins to serve religion or the state, it contributes to the ossification of the regime it purports to serve.  A meaningful and serious art is greatly valued by freethinkers who hold culture dear.  Since non- believers have rejected the illusory meaning provided by religious belief, we must seek to have our positive, rational and life loving values reinforced from other sources.  The arts are a continuous wellspring, affirming value and meaning in freethinkers’ lives. 

Art criticism is appreciated by art lovers for the enhancement it provides for the understanding and complexity of the arts.  But, it too, may ossify and attempt to fit creativity into a Procrustean bed. Frederick Crews states that the three most influential critical approaches, Freudianism, Marxism, and Deconstruction, combined comprehensive understanding of art and the human condition. Atheists will be interested in the fact that all three were atheist-oriented critiques, although some of Deconstruction’s anti-realist approaches left a small opening for religion. “Freudianism provides an explanatory apparatus for individual identity and family relations, Marxism for social history and Deconstruction for the cosmic nature of things.  Together they cover the whole field of human experience, and each also promises to provide a key to deep forces that have been repressed and disguised, for the sake of psychic economy, class interest, or rational order.”[4]  The three styles of criticism gradually became stale and rigid, and with the arrival of new thinking and new critics, passed into a twilight of irrelevance.  The arts, however, did not become extraneous, but continue to engross, educate and fascinate their enthusiasts.  Among those enthusiasts are a considerable share of atheists and freethinkers, who find their values and independence mirrored in many books, stage productions, poetry, film, and painting. 

Now a new critical theory has come along, which shares many of the flaws of a similar formulation in the field of psychology. (See Atheist Psychologies – Evolutionary Psychology.) A few of the best known critical theorists are Joseph Carroll in literature, and Ellen Dissanayake and Dennis Dutton in art.  The theory of evolutionary art, in general, maintains that the arts are grounded in a universal human nature, and that it is an evolutionary account, a Darwinian aesthetics, that can explain the origins and significance of the arts. Each previous school of criticism has made the claim of being able to explain art’s origins and importance to people.  Yet the criteria and evaluating methods for what makes art “serious” has remained very much the same with each reigning school.

Most non -believers embrace Darwinian evolutionary theory. But it is important to understand the distinction between genuine evolutionary science, and the low- salient social evolutionary theories that have sprung up in the social sciences and the humanities. Evolutionary art critics maintain that our tastes emerged in the Pleistocene era, 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago.  They believe arts speak to a universal human nature.  These critics differ from the opinions of other scientists who believe art is a by-product of our very complex brains and should be excluded from the list of adaptations of natural selection.  See Anthropology for a discussion concerning the co-editor of The Literary Animal (2005,) David Sloan Wilson, and his connection to the Templeton Foundation. There are also some interesting comments about the Templeton Foundation.)

Dennis Dutton, in his well-reviewed volume, The Art Instinct (2008) claims that art has two very important functions. One function is that art is a low-cost, low-risk surrogate experience.  We can encounter different environments vicariously and navigate them.  But the second and most important aspect of the arts is that displaying skill in them shows that the person possessing the ability is excellent mate potential. Dutton claims that one of the most important reasons we become angry when we discover that we were fooled by a technically perfect copy of an original art work is that the forger is pretending to be an original artist and excellent mate.  He believes our tastes have not evolved significantly since Stone Age times when such artistic abilities were valued for their mating promise. What pleases us today, the proponents of evolutionary art maintain, does so because it had an adaptive survival value in the Stone Age.  An example might be that if story telling had an adaptive value, that value would extend to our own time and explain the pleasure we get from any of our fictions.

The theory, that what we like is determined by the fact that we are genetically hard-wired to succeed and breed in a Stone Age environment, is not robust. We know very little about our Pleistocene ancestors, what they were like, how they lived, what sort of societies they had, and what their mating habits might have been.  Any hypothesis about the kinds of strategies they had to help them reproduce and then allowed their characteristics to move through the gene pool and survive today is highly speculative, according to Anthony Gottlieb.  Gottlieb believes Darwin would have been skeptical.  He maintains that Darwin’s forays into human psychology, when he began looking into the expression of emotion, looked back to our distant common ancestors prior to the Stone Age.[5] Furthermore, a layer of intermediate steps should be manifest when such a theory is examined, similar to the steps of the development of the eye in human evolutionary biology.  There does not seem to be proof or evidence of such intermediate steps to prove the evolutionary explanation of the arts.[6]  What proof is available for inspection? There is very little.  Gottlieb’s final point is very telling:  in the 1990’s, when evolutionary social theories became popular, evolution was reckoned to be an extremely slow process. It is now believed to be faster than thought in the 90’s and the wiring of our minds may be continuing to develop.[7]  Evolutionary art theory needs to move on from its attempt to find, as E.O.Wilson and other scientists hope, consilience between the arts and science.  It also needs to find a more complex focus than its rather monotonous fixation with the extension of Stone Age mentality surviving in modern works of art.[8]

Most disturbing to many atheist art enthusiasts is Dutton’s attack on modern art.  Although aware that a 1998 study done by Komar and Melamid, Painting by Numbers, was tongue in cheek, Dutton takes the tone that modern art was spurred by a blank slate view of culture which assumes the human mind can be taught to appreciate nearly anything. Surely there is room for both points of view, that of our evolutionary past influencing our behavior, but that culture, too, contributes substantial alterations to our behavior and practices. The Painting by Numbers volume discusses surveys the authors took in about 10 countries and what people preferred in a painting.  They liked an open vista, a body of water in it, with people and animals, and a mountain in the distance with a blue aura around it. They disliked abstraction. Dutton believes that the people are responding with ancient motives when they pick such ordinary objects to be shown in paintings.  Dutton is too sophisticated not to be aware that the book is a parody, but many freethinkers will find such points of view from art critics antithetical, as they desire to see a flourishing in all art forms, whether modern or traditional. 

Modernism came at a time in history when there was an explosion in the arts. With that explosion came the abandonment of many clichés, including theistic ideas that were outworn and banal.  Dutton criticizes such artifacts as the upside down urinal of Dada.  But are not strategies such as Dada’s the way art clichés are questioned, by criticism, by parody, and by creating new forms that challenge the old?  Is not questioning of power structures, religion, cultural sacred cows and hardened tradition a good thing?  Many of Dada’s artists were atheists and freethinkers.  Objections to modernism from some art theory critics were parochial in the past and are no less so now.  The Preface argues for an atmosphere of support and objective evaluation of all art practices, and for the flourishing of unconstrained artistic styles. 

Books such as Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy (2008) and John Passmore’s Serious Art are subtle and sophisticated when considering aesthetic theory.  Iris Murdoch states: “…a free art is an essential aspect of a free society as a degraded, lying art is the function of a tyrannical age.”[9]  John Passmore makes the observation that there is probably no society from which art is totally absent.[10] One cannot heIp assuming that it is important to us in more ways than can be encompassed by our current knowledge. Passmore cautions that we do well, in principle, to be suspicious of such words as ‘universal.’[11] There are many theistic, or authoritarian, assumptions barely concealed in such words. Making slaves of people was once considered human nature, as was the oppression of woman.  There comes with such universal assumptions a sense that nothing can be done about wrongs, that because they belong to human nature they are permanent.  Many people who now profess to find religion adaptive, seem to be saying, in a surreptitious manner, that nothing can be done to rid ourselves of it.  There are so many non-adaptive aspects to religion that one wonders why such theories are given serious consideration.  It is important to cherish and nourish freethinking in the arts as well as in science.  We have not banished slavery; but we have made it unacceptable.  We have not stopped the oppression of women, but we now view it as unconscionable. Slowly we are making changes for the better in the world.  We have not done away with religion as it is very rich and powerful, but there are now nearly 20% of people in the United States that list “none” as their religious affiliation. Those numbers are higher in Western Europe.  The arts must be allowed freedom to flourish, whether they spring from artists’ embrace of Buddhism, Jungianism, atheism, or any other philosophy.  Art practices cannot be confined to narrow views that seek to denigrate certain artistic and literary styles at the expense of other, equally expressive approaches.

This lecture concludes with a quote from John Passmore that many atheists will find salient and inspiring.

“Comte was right when he said that art can weaken fixed moral convictions; the real point at issue is whether this is necessarily a bad thing. Art is frequently opposed to conventional Christian morals. We are going to maintain that nevertheless, such art can be morally educative- on courage, human affection, sympathetic understanding, freedom, generosity, tolerance, in opposition to bigotry, fanaticism, suspicion, avarice, jealousy, hypocrisy, and malice.”[12] Atheists will agree with Passmore’s intelligent observation on the utility and delight of the arts for humans.  Art will continue to resist theories that attempt to confine it to narrow definitions, and more gravely, will defy dictators, religion, false morality and limited cultural practices. It will continue to astound, amaze, infuriate and sustain us while we undertake the complicated task of being human.

Video of Lecture: Atheist Aesthetics

Lecture: Atheist Aesthetics

Video of Discussion: Atheist Aesthetics

Discussion: Atheist Aesthetics


1 Cooke, Bill. “The Arts and Unbelief.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 81.

2 Passmore, John. Serious Art. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1991. Chapter One, 1-17.

3 Murdoch, Iris. The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists. New York: Viking, 1990. 6.

4 Crews, Frederick. “Foreword from the Literary Side.” In Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, eds. The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2005. III.

5 Gottlieb, Anthony. “The Descent of Taste.” Web. New York Times. 29 January 2009. (NY Times)           

6 Gottlieb, “The Descent of Taste.”

7 Gottlieb, “Descent.”

8 Crews, III.

9 Murdoch, 85.

10 Passmore, 5.

11 Passmore, 5.

12 Passmore, 183.

Notable Books by Non-theists in 2011

Non-theists have reason to be encouraged this year, as we have five titles on the 2011 New York Times Notable Books of the Year List.

Steven Pinker.  The Better Angels of Our Nature. 2011.

Christopher Hitchens. Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens.  2011.  This collection is varied and has many essays not bearing on Religion, but Hitchens is an elegant essayist at all times and the book is worth reading.

Lisa Randall.  Knocking on Heaven’s Door. 2001.  Physics, Science, Scientific Inquiry.

Stephen Greenblatt. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. 2011.  How the Renaissance scholar Poggio rediscovered Lucretius’ Nature of Things.

Leopardi. Canti. Translated by Jonathan Galassi. 2010.  Leopardi was an adamant atheist and premier Italian poet.  This new translation by Galassi is far superior to earlier works.


Budd, Susan. Varieties of Unbelief. London: Heinemann, 1977.

Carroll, Joseph. Literary Darwinism: Literature and the Human Animal. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Cockshutt, A.O.J. The Unbelievers: English Agnostic Thought, 1840-1890. London: Collins, 1964.

Conrad, Peter. Modern Times, Modern Places. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Cooke, Bill. “The Arts and Unbelief.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 81-86.

Crews, Frederick. “Foreword from the Literary Side.” In Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson,eds. The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2005.

Dissanayake, Ellen. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. New York: Free Press, 1992.

Dutton, Dennis. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008.

Gay, Peter. Modernism: The Lure of Heresy. New York; London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008.

Gottlieb, Anthony. “The Descent of Taste.” Web. New York Times. 29 January 2009. (NY Times)  

Gottschall, Jonathan and David Sloan Wilson,eds. The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2005.

Komar and Melamid. Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art. CA: University of California Press, 1998.

Macy, Christopher, ed. The Arts in a Permissive Society. London: Pemberton, 1970.

Miller, J.Hillis. The Disappearance of God.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Murdoch, Iris. The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists. London: Chatto and Windus, 1977.

Passmore, John. Serious Art. LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court, 1991.

Wollf, Robert Lee. Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England. New York: Garland, 1977.