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Atheism Down?

Bryan Appleyard's Religion Rising, Atheism Sinking
Atheism Down?

By Drew Trotter


Bryan Appleyard begins this essay on the place of religion in art by referring to the recent publication by Marilynne Robinson of the third in her Gilead trilogy, Lila. He hypothesizes that this deep exploration of the lives of three people in rural Iowa has left the typical British reader profoundly puzzled. Why?

Appleyard argues that “The answer will seem to some British readers wildly exotic, because what is going on here is religion.” And the reason for that? As he puts it, “Many, probably most, British people — artists, writers and audiences — will find this exotic because, to them, religion has been embarrassed out of existence.”

No one in the West is surprised to hear this. Since the latter half of the nineteenth century, belief—and its expression, religion—has rarely had serious standing in the halls of power in the twin institutions of education and the arts.

But Appleyard argues that “This embarrassment at — even outright loathing of — religious art is, historically, bizarre.” After briefly opining that the most important force in western art has been religion, he shows how in recent times, it has been eschewed as a subject for art. Under the influence of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and other popular atheistic writers, religion has been increasingly intolerantly subjected to the garbage can.

But things are changing, says Appleyard. He discusses Mark Wallinger’s contribution to the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, a sculpture entitled “Ecce Homo”, portraying Christ, bound and almost naked. He calls it a “startling and honestly religious statement” and “the best of the attempts to honor the plinth’s location” in the center of London, visible to the myriad of passersby in that most cosmopolitan of cities.

Moving through video art and poetry, Appleyard enters into conversation with Christian poet Michael Symmons Roberts who gives several reasons for the difficulty poets find dealing with religious themes today. First, the lack of simple knowledge of the Christian faith particularly, renders words like “wood” or “water”, which in an earlier day would almost always have conjured references to the Crucifixion or baptism, respectively, meaningless for the poet’s use. Secondly, the romanticism of the modern age in which the artist is conceived as being a “free” and “individual” voice, unfettered to any tradition or community, if they are doing art well, has fostered a deep intolerance of any who try to speak from within a tradition, bucking the prevailing zeitgeist.

But these difficulties have not kept a number of Christian artists from their work of interpreting the world as they see it, and the impact of those artists is beginning to be felt, especially as the weakness of the arguments of the so-called “New Atheists” fades into obscurity. Appleyard records the words of John Gray, a famous British atheist and writer, who, after talking with a number of Anglican priests who shared their doubts openly and honestly, said, tongue-in-cheek, “Religion is the last repository of doubt in the modern world.” Minimal, or even negative, as this may sound, it points out something that religious artists can say that others often cannot: that we live in a broken, difficult world where answers are not simply come by and art is not always gloriously uplifting. Roberts himself shows this in his latest collection of poems called Drysalter, a set of 150 poems, each of which is “an attempt to write a pure praise poem that fails.” It is not lost on the astute reader that the Biblical Psalter contains 150 praise poems.

The relationship between art, praise, seeing the world—all this is worth exploring in a discussion of this ragged, but intriguing article. I recommend it highly for that purpose.


The article, originally published in the Sunday Times of London, can be found here online.


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