The Beauty of Art

A really interesting and thought provoking conversation between the Four Horsemen. You can see Christopher candidly talking about a bit of it (1:09:00, 1:15:10, 1:30:58 ) here. Larry Taunton’s biography on Christopher Hitchens also sheds light on some of his comments in this discussion, and why he seems to sit apart at times from the others in his opinions. Anyway, here is a bit of a transcript starting sometime before 1:28:00 I think:

Sam Harris: There is this domain of the sacred that is not easily captured by science, and scientific discourse has really seeded it to religious discourse.

Dennet suggests art, but Harris counters: I would argue that it’s not fully captured by art. You can’t go into a museum and see compassion in its purest form. And I think there is something about the way we, as atheists, merely dismiss the bogus claims of religious people that convinces religious people that there is something we are missing. And I think we have to be sensitive to this.

Talking about the beauty of religious art Sam Harris says that it’s just the way things were; that all artists and their patrons were religious, so it was therefore all religious.

Hitchens: I can’t hear myself say “If only he [Michaelangelo] had a secular patron he would have done just as good work”.

Dawkins “that Michealangelo, if he was commissioned to do the ceiling of a museum of science, would not have come up with something quite as wonderful?”

Hitchens “In some way, I am reluctant to affirm that, yes.”

Dawkins “I find it very, very easy to believe that”.

Hitchens “that could be a difference between us”.

Hitchens “with devotional poetry I find it very hard to believe that it is fake. Or done for a patron…My favourite devotional poem is Philip Larkin’s the church goer… I wouldn’t trust anyone who felt any more or any less than Larkin does when he goes through a wayside Gothic church in the English countryside. He felt, I dare not say believed …,he is an atheist, …. there is something serious about this, and something written into the human personality as well as the landscape… ([about Dunn’s poetry] There is an X factor involved that I am quite happy to assume will persist and will need to be confronted (me-I think that is what he said)?

I think we are about here now 1:30:00.

Here is the poem btw


Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new –
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

That poem seems to me to be someone standing at a place he somehow knows means something, yet he can’t put his finger on it. He knows its deep significance, but the memory of what it is is lost to him. It’s just cold stone and empty pews. But still he keeps returning. Standing there, hoping for the penny to drop. Is it just a place for marriages and deaths? Surely there is nothing of worth here, yet he is drawn back there. I think this poem describes Hitchen to a T. He as much says so.

“I wouldn’t trust anyone who felt any more or any less than Larkin”

Harris: “I think there is place for the sacred in our lives, but under some construal that does not presuppose any (expletive deleted). There is a usefulness for seeking profundity as a matter of our attention. And our neglect of this area as atheists at times makes even our craziest opponents seem wiser than we are”.

Dawkins “I would like to see churches empty but I would not like to see ignorance of the Bible because you cannot understand literature without knowing the Bible, you can’t understand art, you can’t understand music, there are all sorts of things you can’t understand for historical reasons. But those historical reasons you can’t wipe out. So even if you can’t go to church to pray, you need to understand what it meant to people to pray. And why they did it. And what these verses in the Bible mean.”

Sam “Is that all that is in it, a historical perspective?”

Dawkins “you could lose yourself in it, just as you could lose yourself in a work of fiction without actually believing that the characters are real”.

Dennet : “Can’t you imagine a church where you have rituals and loyalty and songs but no irrationality?”

Dawkins “Oh, yes, where you have the music and poetry and go to those places for funerals and weddings and beautiful poetry and music group solidarity.”

Hitchens is arguing that a secular world view should welcome the persistence of faith which he defines, upon being pressed, as “Something like the belief that there must be more than we can know”. Which they all heartily agree with. But Hitchens is saying or at least thinking and exploring more than they imagine I think. “if we could find a way of forcing the distinction between the numinous and the superstitious we would be doing something culturally quite important”.

He means, I think, that there is a lot about religion that he finds repellent. Stupid. But that there is something there that is substantive and true. Again, he is like the man standing in the church seeing nothing, yet knowing there is something there.

Dawkins “You can read fiction and be totally moved to tears, but you don’t have to believe that it actually happened”.

Me – but you must, at some level, believe that it is touching and expressing something real. Anyway, I found the whole conversation very interesting in all sorts of ways.

Here are some of my thoughts on beauty.



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