Creative Writing and Atheism

Quick: Name a religious piece of art!

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Good. Now: What’s your favorite poem about atheism? Painting…? Creative non-fiction piece…?

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Hard, isn’t it?

Now, there is an attempt to remedy the lack of literary/artsy works in the atheist world: The Eloquent Atheist.

It’s an e-zine that:

…hopes to provide an outlet to nontheists who would like to publish creative, thoughtful, expressive writing (no rants), and writing that focuses on “reclaiming” the lives and works of nontheists, which have often been neglected in (or deliberately excised from) mainstream accounts of history.

Submissions can be made here. The requirements for submissions are also on that page.

The magazine was started by Marilyn Westfall (a board member of the American Humanist Association) and fellow atheist Michael W. Jones.

Why did they start this up? Marilyn says this:

… to fill a niche, serving as an outlet for creative writing by nontheists of all stripes. There are few venues that publish poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction, by atheists, humanists, and freethinkers; we hope to remedy that, with this zine.

It’s a lofty, but much needed, goal. So submit something worth reading and check out the site!


[tags]atheist, atheism, writer, essay, published[/tags]

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike C

    Great idea! I can’t wait to see what is produced.

    You may be interested to know that this lack of atheist “art” is part of what got C.S. Lewis back on the road from atheism to theism. He started noticing that all the literature, poetry and art that he loved came from people of faith, and that works by his fellow atheists didn’t do much for him. Perhaps if this effort had started 80 years ago he might not have felt that way.

  • http://www.myspace.com/timandjeffrey Tim D.

    This is a song I wrote for my band; it criticizes the hostility of religious fanatics (irony, I know), as well as the hypocrisy of televangelist corporations. It’s called “1-800-God.”

    We said to fight with love, and some of that was true
    It won’t apply to us, but we can apply it to you
    From hateful sermons festering with ignorance and bliss
    You’ll want to stick around, my friend, you’ll want to stay for this
    See, here at home we’re making preparations for a war
    So give us all you’ve got then give us just a little more

    Call the number at the bottom of your screen
    Give us all your money, don’t you tell us where it’s been
    Give it to the lawyers and give it to the judge
    Now that you’re one of us, you’ll get thanks from high above
    Trust your holy mechanic, he knows what’s best for you
    Now that you’re with us, we’ll see it through for you

    1-800-God, please stay on the line
    You’ll find that your experience will simply be divine
    Suspend the writ of “please don’t kill,” it won’t apply to you
    The heavens smile upon you from the cockpit of a U2

    You don’t have to understand why….
    All you neeed to know is the unbelievers have to die.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    Eh, I’m never sure about things like this. I don’t particularly like thinking of atheism as a all-around genre: grouping human experience under the banner of explicitly not being religious, as opposed to being specifically this or that art style, or concern, or issue.

    I guess I feel like my goal is not to be reactively defined by theism (either of it or against it), but to escape it, especially not in the realm of human expression.

  • http://for-immediate-release.blogspot.com triage

    I’m not really sure about this idea…. it’s hardly necessary and takes the bait by responding to silly arguments formulated by superstitious and fearful idiots.

    Name me one great symphony produced by the anti-slavery movement? Name me one great work of fiction resulting from the women’s suffrage movement? Certainly we could expect a great many works to have spawned from the virulent anti-zeus movement of the early christian era (har har) …

    I could, however, list for you thousands (perhaps the majority in existence) of great symphonies, masterpieces of literature, musical ideas, paintings, poems that had no religious inspiration or undertones whatsoever, but were rather more appropriately reflective of the progress of the human race, and our evolution from our humble and simple beginnings to the creative, beautiful and complex endings that resulted in their creation.

    religious people can only claim to have the small minority of works produced with a spiritual inspiration of purpose. which is more than fine with me; we get everything else.

  • Jen

    I am not entirely sure I agree with the concept, because
    1. Most of the art that relates to God was done in a different time, when religion was much less personal (in general) and much more societal. The churches in Europe are filled with fantastic art- but had most of those men (and women who instead had to make babies and die of it at 18) been born today, I am not sure most of the art would be religious in the least.

    2. Some artists are or were atheists- my favorite playwrite, Arthur Miller, was apparently one. I wouldn’t catagorize “Death of a Salesman” as atheistic (and there’s a whole debate about the Lomans as Jews or not) so would his works count?

    3. Art about a God makes sense, but I am not sure what art about the lack of a belief in a god means, exactly.

    All that said, I am still interested in seeing what pops up on the site.

  • http://www.eloquentatheist.com Michael W. Jones

    Thanks so much for the post and the link. We truly appreciate the help in getting the word out that we have opened our doors. We have a number of excellent authors that are working on pieces for us. We received three submissions yesterday that are being massaged by the authors and will be posted tonight or tomorrow.

    We are closing in on 200 unique hits for today, which is just our fourth or fifth day in business. This post on the Friendly Atheist site will do us a lot of good all by itself. I see the things that we publish as helping to improve the understanding of who we are as a group, in a fairly non-confrontational manner. I don’t see that it can do anything but good.

    As you are well aware, Friendly is much better that not. Thanks again!

    Michael

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    Name me one great symphony produced by the anti-slavery movement? Name me one great work of fiction resulting from the women’s suffrage movement? Certainly we could expect a great many works to have spawned from the virulent anti-zeus movement of the early christian era (har har) …

    These are good points. I tend to see atheism is merely a category, rather than a thing in an of itself. There is also a movement to spread awareness of atheists. But it is not well served by acting like it only cares about highlighting things that reference atheism specifically. The whole point is that we are human beings like everyone else: we are not only not defined by our lack of religion, but this may even be the most minor non=aspect of our lives. It’s only religious people that insist that it’s a big deal to be an atheist (and it’s only them that make it a big deal to have to deal with those that cannot accept atheism)..

  • http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~ludtke/prof/index.htm cautious

    For some reason this seems like it misses the point. Religious art is common because people who are religious put a lot of mental activity into thinking about their personal preference of the divine.

    Brights…well, as a bright, I don’t put a lot of mental activity into thinking about things that I don’t think exist. So, any artistry I attempt is probably not going to be about atheism.

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  • Miko

    In the television genre, I’d say Star Trek, StarGate, the Simpsons, and Futurama. In literature, we’ve got the Lord of the Rings, Paradise Lost, and the Catcher in the Rye. Interestingly enough, I’ve heard every one of them described as some variant of “deeply Christian” by at least some people. The beauty of our ideas is how subtly we can portray them (and that they do overlap with religious ideas to such an extent that religious author’s can unconsciously write them; or be “of the Devil’s party without knowing it” as Blake said of Milton).

    And let’s not dismiss Arthur Miller. I think a case could be made for Death of a Salesman, but a much stronger case could be made for, say, the Crucible. While we’re on the subject of plays, Tartuffe is arguably ours, as is most of the canon of Moliere. And there’s also a case for Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead or Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

    Just because every other sentence isn’t someone stating “you know what, there isn’t a god” doesn’t really mean it isn’t promoting an atheistic outlook.

    Creative non-fiction piece…?

    Non-fiction? So, are we counting Dawkins, Sagan, and textbooks on formal logic?

  • monkeymind

    Atheists could use John Cage’s 4′ 33” as their official hymn.

  • Vincent

    How can you say Lord of the Rings is not religious? Have you not read it? It is full of gods and angels and such.

    I like this Gershwin piece:
    It Ain’t Necessarily So

    It ain’t necessarily so, (repeat)
    De t’ings dat yo’ li’ble
    To read in de Bible,
    It ain’t necessarily so.

    Li’l David was small, but oh my! (rpt)
    He fought big Goliath
    Who lay down an’ dieth!
    Li’l David was small, but oh my!

    Oh, Jonah, he lived in de whale, (rpt)
    Fo’ he made his home in
    Dat fish’s abdomen.
    Oh, Jonah, he lived in de whale.

    Li’l Moses was found in a stream, (rpt)
    He floated on water
    Till Ole Pharaoh’s daughter
    She fished him, she says, from that stream.

    It ain’t necessarily so, (rpt)
    Dey tell all you chillun
    De debble’s a villun,
    But ’tain’t necessarily so.

    To get into Hebben don’ snap for a sebben!
    Live clean! Don’ have no fault.
    Oh, I takes dat gospel
    Whenever it’s poss’ble,
    But wid a grain of salt.

    Methus’lah lived nine hundred years,
    But who calls dat livin’
    When no gal’ll give in
    To no man what’s nine hundred years?

    I’m preachin’ dis sermon to show,
    It ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa,
    ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa,
    Ain’t necessarily so.

    Or Yip Harburg’s “Ain’ it de Truth” (can’t find the lyrics)

    Life is short, short, brother!
    Ain’ it de truth?
    An’ dere is no other
    Ain’ it de truth?
    You gotta rock that rainbow while you still got your youth
    Oh! Ain’ it de solid truth?

    And I’m rather fond of Monet’s lilly pads.

  • monkeymind

    How can you say Lord of the Rings is not religious?

    Or for that matter, Paradise Lost? I think Milton was a deeply pious writer, he just couldn’t help it that Satan turned out to be the most interesting character!:-)

  • http://www.myspace.com/timandjeffrey Tim D.

    3. Art about a God makes sense, but I am not sure what art about the lack of a belief in a god means, exactly.

    Well, for me, it’s not so much “about atheism” as it is influenced by atheism or an atheist viewpoint. If I were in charge, we wouldn’t bother with debate over whose religions are more valid, but the simple fact is that it is at times necessary, when religious factions try to hijack governments and start wars all over the world. As a result, I occasionally find themes of religion and/or politics creeping into my work.

    But even so, I think it would be a grievous mistake to simply ignore the religio-political issues of our time. It’s definitely a turning point of some kind or another; do we non-Christians (I’m talking about more than just atheists, mind you) just lay down and take it? Or do we fight for our rights and our good names?

    On a closing note; I also think art comes from individuals who are most passionate about a particular subject. So naturally, if atheism has touched your life in such a way as to make you feel particularly passionate about it, then you’re probably more likely to write a poem or a song or a play, or paint a picture, than someone who just doesn’t really care. Artists have always been “weirdos” throughout history; most regular joes aren’t going to be artists, so don’t expect to see a lot of blatantly atheistic works.

  • http://skeptigator.com Skeptigator

    Is this Anti-Theistic art or Atheistic art?

    I once drew a picture of a car, this is atheistic not anti-theistic, right?

    I once drew a picture of a car hitting Jesus, this is anti-theistic/religious and not atheistic, right?

    hmmm… I may be cynical but efforts to create some kind of cohesion out of a group of people who “don’t believe” something is always very difficult. Unless of course you can convince this group they are being actively persecuted.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    How can you say Lord of the Rings is not religious? Have you not read it? It is full of gods and angels and such.

    Yeah, but so are Marvel comic books.

  • Karen

    There is so much art and literature that either questions god’s existence or declares him dead that I don’t know where one would start trying to round it all up! Surely many or most of the great artists of the 20th century were agnostics or atheists. The French existentialists, Voltaire, Swift – we could go on and on.

    Perhaps one candidate for an “official” godless manifesto might be Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, which is urges us all to carpe diem – “seize the day” – because there is no second chance at life.
    An excerpt:

    …then worms shall try
    That long-preserved virginity,
    And your quaint honor turn to dust,
    And into ashes all my lust:
    The grave’s a fine and private place,
    But none, I think, do there embrace.

  • PrimateIR

    When I think of great religious art, I think of architecture. I think you are going to be hard pressed to build a Cathedral or a Pyramid or a Temple without slave labor – and I think that speaks well of Atheists in general.

    How can you say Lord of the Rings is not religious? Have you not read it? It is full of gods and angels and such.

    Every work of fantasy is now a religious work?! I think we need to establish what constitutes a religious work. To me that would be one that is clearly identified as promoting the ideas of an ORGANIZED religion.

    I don’t remember Jesus in any of the scenes…well maybe the “Eye, lidless and bathed in flame.”

  • Vincent

    Agreed.
    One would have to define what is meant by religious or atheistic in order to determine if a particular work of fiction fits either label.
    I would say to be atheist it must have no gods in it.

    But.
    Hemant’s original request was for a poem “about atheism” and for a “religious” piece of art.

    So art that communicates a message attributable to a religion: Carravagio’s “the Conversion of St. Paul”

    For a poem about life without belief in god, check out Yip Harburg’s book “Rhymes for the Irreverent.”
    Here’s an example:
    Life Is Liveable
    They who live on love and laughter
    Don’t mess around with the hereafter

  • Aj

    Lots of non-religious artwork, if that’s what you mean, more than religious. Really hard to write, paint, or talk about lack of a belief. Gotta talk about how absurd it is to believe. I’m not exactly going to write about my lack of belief in unicorns. I don’t know any art about faith or theism either. Sure, you can draw a God, but you can’t draw your belief in said God.

    I don’t see why there is even a term Atheist. The only reason why there is, is because of Theism, which inspires anti-theistic art, not Atheistic art. Art in the “Atheist world” is doing find, lots of non-religious art, lots by Atheists doing art, I don’t think it is or should be under the Atheist flag either. Seems like noting contruction workers as Atheists, and saying “that’s an Atheist road they’ve built”.

    Every work of fantasy is now a religious work?! I think we need to establish what constitutes a religious work. To me that would be one that is clearly identified as promoting the ideas of an ORGANIZED religion.

    I don’t remember Jesus in any of the scenes…well maybe the “Eye, lidless and bathed in flame.”

    Yes, you’re right, it’s not even religiously themed. It’s influenced by many religions, but it’s not a religious work. I think the difference is whether the author is writing about religious ideas in the mind that he’s writing about reality. Terry Pratchett is an Atheist, and some of his books are religiously themed, but they’re not religious.

  • monkeymind

    If you think about it, the reason there are so many great works of religious art in the Western canon is because the patrons of art were religious, if not actually the Church itself. As soon as there was an audience (market) for other kinds of art, other kinds of art appeared.
    However, I think as soon as you put a qualifier on some form of art, like “atheist music” or whatever, you risk getting mediocre stuff that finds an audience just because of the theme. Think “Christian rock”. ‘Nuff said.

  • PrimateIR

    AJ said

    I think the difference is whether the author is writing about religious ideas in the mind that he’s writing about reality. Terry Pratchett is an Atheist, and some of his books are religiously themed, but they’re not religious.

    Exactly! Fantasy is a great literary tool…but then if you declare everything not religiously themed as Atheist the quantity becomes overwhelming. If atheist art is only the art that is about the experience of being atheist, then I don’t think you have enough. But maybe they will prove me wrong.

    monkeymind said:

    If you think about it, the reason there are so many great works of religious art in the Western canon is because the patrons of art were religious, if not actually the Church itself.

    Great point monkeymind. Follow the money.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Actually, I’d say that Terry Pratchett’s work is ‘atheist literature’ of a sort. I’ve found so many ideas in his books that have developed my atheistic worldview. Of course, some theists might find inspiration there, too, but that’s because it’s good artwork, and if you speak well of the human condition, naturally you will find many types of people who can learn from you.

  • Jen

    Miko, are you secretly a theatre geek too?

    Hmm, I recently saw The Crucible (having read it before, but not having seen it) and I thought it made a strong case against organized religion, but promoting (or at least approving of) individual faith. Doesn’t John have a long speach at the end about how he know’s he’s sinned, blah blah blah, but God loves him? I think it was the Crucible. At the very least, I know I was chilled by the ending- three people being hung, and one by one, their Lord’s Prayer being cut off as they died. It was chilling, though I didn’t walk out praising Jesus.

    Now that I am thinking about it, its true, there is lots of theatre that atheistic in nature (well, after the 1500s).

    Most theatre people I know (and I was a theatre major, so I knew a bunch) were atheists, or religious in a very distant way. There were a few who were really and truely into Jesus, but most would rather make art than worship, or…. almost considered their art to be a type of worship of the creative spirit.

  • Vincent

    Isn’t that funny.
    Most theater people I knew may not have been religious, but they sure were superstitious, which in my mind amounts to the same basic way of thinking.

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  • Miko

    How can you say Lord of the Rings is not religious? Have you not read it? It is full of gods and angels and such.

    (Technical stuff follows; ignore this paragraph if you don’t know your LotR.) There are some gods, but they come up more in the Silmarillion, etc. Then we have Gandalf, who’s Istari. And our main villain is Sauron, a Maia and henchman of the Ainu Melkor. So: we have our head god Illuvatar creating the Ainu, one of whom gets a Maia as a henchman, who becomes a villain who has one scene in which he actually appears. On the good guy’s side, we have an Istari who supposedly wields enormous power but almost never utilizes it. The gods are there (hypothetically), but they don’t seem to be doing much. Notice the conspicuous lack of prayer throughout the book. Note also that Tom Bombadil seems to get around these paranormal phenomena simply through being skeptical of their power. Similarly, a major theme of the Children of Hurin is the expectation that the Valar will return to solve everything, but them never returning. The overall message is one of self- and group-reliance; the gods may be there, but they certainly aren’t doing anything worthwhile as far as the Middle-earthers are concerned. And to answer your other question: yes, I’ve read it.

    Or for that matter, Paradise Lost? I think Milton was a deeply pious writer, he just couldn’t help it that Satan turned out to be the most interesting character!:-)

    I didn’t say it wasn’t religious; just that it’s atheistic as well. ;-) In any case, having Satan be the most interesting character is no guarantee of an atheistic outlook; compare it to Lewis’ Screwtape Letters.

    If you think about it, the reason there are so many great works of religious art in the Western canon is because the patrons of art were religious, if not actually the Church itself. As soon as there was an audience (market) for other kinds of art, other kinds of art appeared.

    And you have to look behind the name as well. In the 1400′s, there were quite a few continental masses that were actually based on pop songs of the period (often of a romantic or militaristic nature), often advertising that fact in the name of the mass until such masses were forbidden by the Council of Florence, after which time composers continued to write them but started called them “missa sine nomine” (“mass without a name”). Similarly, who would guess that Michaelangelo’s David was religious if it weren’t for the name? Artists are, unfortunately, pragmatists; they’ll do what they want but name it after what their employers want.

    Miko, are you secretly a theatre geek too?

    Oh, I dabble all over. It makes life so much more interesting.

    Hmm, I recently saw The Crucible (having read it before, but not having seen it) and I thought it made a strong case against organized religion, but promoting (or at least approving of) individual faith. Doesn’t John have a long speach at the end about how he know’s he’s sinned, blah blah blah, but God loves him? I think it was the Crucible. At the very least, I know I was chilled by the ending- three people being hung, and one by one, their Lord’s Prayer being cut off as they died. It was chilling, though I didn’t walk out praising Jesus.

    Yes, that’s correct. But we also get sentiments like “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” Since it’s really an allegory about oppression in general, it doesn’t reach any completely conclusive moral about faith. (The reciting of the Lord’s Prayer should also be understood in the context of the beliefs of the time, which stated that a witch could not recite it. While it’s potentially a final statement of faith, it’s at least equally a demonstration of the absurdity of the whole situation.)

    Most theater people I knew may not have been religious, but they sure were superstitious, which in my mind amounts to the same basic way of thinking.

    True. But I’ve always seen it as more of a cultural superstition, kind of like an in-joke rather than as a phenomenon arising from actual fears.

  • monkeymind

    Artists are, unfortunately, pragmatists; they’ll do what they want but name it after what their employers want.

    Totally. I didn’t mean that the patrons were completely calling the tune.

    Also it’s amazing how un-religious some of the earliest European vernacular literature is – Provencal romances, Parzifal, Tristan, and all the Arthurian stuff.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    I’m tempted to give you some names and examples but with the Osama-Jesus post today, forget it. Oh, ok. Who would have thought a bunch of atheists wouldn’t be familiar with Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura.

    Un, Tolkein was rather strongly Catholic. I don’t think you get to claim The Lord of the Rings for your own, much as I might want to let you have it.

  • Miko

    Un, Tolkein was rather strongly Catholic. I don’t think you get to claim The Lord of the Rings for your own, much as I might want to let you have it.

    I’m more interested in the content than the authorship. I’m not going to go into all the details now, but if you look at the history of Tolkien’s writing of LotR, you’ll see he actually struggled with this issue quite a bit: he ended up putting Iluvatar at the head of the gods in a weak attempt to recapture the idea of monotheism, but he really couldn’t tell the story he wanted to tell if the gods were having a strong influence on the peoples. It all stems from the fact that he saw LotR as a sort of English epic in the tradition of pre-Christian works such as Beowulf: you need a strong sense of the mythopoetic, but the gods themselves don’t really fit in to the framework.

    The idea that religious artists create religious art and that atheistic artists create atheistic art is a ridiculous oversimplification. I used to work as a composer and have done my fair share of arrangements/text-settings for weddings, etc., which means that I’ve written a large amount of religious music. Art is exclusively about conveying ideas inexpressible by other means; whether the artist holds that idea or not is irrelevant.

  • Miko

    Also it’s amazing how un-religious some of the earliest European vernacular literature is – Provencal romances, Parzifal, Tristan, and all the Arthurian stuff.

    Indeed it is. Although the Arthurian mythos especially has become entwined with Christianity (through the associated of Sangraal with the Holy Grail, knights constantly attending mass, etc.). However, I wouldn’t necessarily classify these as un-religious so much as they’re un-Christian. They hearken back to the idea of the mystery religion in which we learn spiritual truth through by retelling old stories in new forms, which is exactly what the Bible does through its retelling of the Moses myth through the character of Jesus (and if more Christians realized this, they’d have a much better religion IMO). The stories have such timeless wonder specifically because they’re so accommodating: an author can add a new element of interest and base an entire new version of the story on how that element interacts with the canon (for Arthur, the introduction of Christianity being the medieval example and feminism being a major modern example). Of course, this doesn’t jive exactly with the modern definition of religion.

  • d b valentine

    What about Christopher Marlowe? Anybody read The Jew of Malta?

  • Andy

    I’m surprised that no-one’s mentioned Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” yet. The last part of the the 3rd book is inspirational and blatantly atheistic.


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