Why aren’t religious people as creative as unbelievers?

Connor Wood


I grew up in a very creative, artistic family. My mother was a former fashion illustrator and model, while my stepfather was a handy musician who kept our house full of dulcimers, guitars, and wooden Irish drums. All the kids became musicians. In my adolescence, though, I grew frustrated by the fact that many other families seemed far less artistic and excited than us, but way more stable and collected. Why couldn’t we have both at the same time? Part of the answer, I think, has to do with religion. Being religious is correlated with personal happiness and satisfaction with relationships – but anti-correlated with openness to new experience and, by implication, creativity. Is it possible to somehow get the best of both worlds?

Creativity is a dangerous and wonderful thing. But it’s not always compatible with religion, or stability. Let me explain why. First, imagine a fashionable young woman walking down the street. Say, a descendent of Ernest Hemingway. She’s cool, right? And she’s creative. The amount of energy and thought she’s put into her appearance is impressive, and it’s paid off – she doesn’t just look good; she looks fascinating.

Importantly, her crackling, cutting-edge, creative “cool” is characterized by newness – you can’t wear the same clothes* as last year and call yourself creative.

Now, imagine that same young woman in front of a church congregation, leading a worship service. Would she look as fashionable? Would her appearance have the same “edge” to it, the same keen savvy? Almost certainly, the answer is no. She would be dressed more conservatively. The same goes for the rest of the congregation – church attire is often respectable, but rarely creative. (There are exceptions: Protestant woman can sometimes wear shockingly ornate hats.)

This isn’t just my subjective opinion, either. Take a look at this quote from a fascinating study on creativity and conservatism, which anonymously judged subjects’ photo essays and drawings. The authors found that more conservative people “had fewer creative accomplishments and devised photo essays and drawings judged as less creative.” They also discovered that

among conservatives, religiosity was a common theme. Religiosity was expressed in photos and comments about preparing for the ministry, inspirational quotes, photos of the Bible, a photo of participant and her young daughter dressed for church, and references to family values.…Just one conservative participant made reference to creativity (i.e., poetry).

Compare this with the study’s more liberal subjects, who were generally less religious, but more creative:

Four made reference to boundary-crossing …including two who depicted use of illegal drugs, one woman showing herself dating a man of a different race, and another student with his car “parking over the line,” taken to portray his disdain for rules.

But why is this? Why shouldn’t religious people also be creative people? Why can’t church be a place to express outrageous individuality, to be artistic? Why do we have to give up the stability to get creativity?

Research tells us that religions are, in many ways, tools for uniting individuals into collectives. They use rhythmic motion during rituals to synch up people’s bodies, making them more trusting of and willing to sacrifice for one another. They use peer pressure and in-group reputation to ensure that people stay in line. And they’re replete with myths, symbols, gods, and stories that inspire people to act in accordance with the group’s norms and act cooperatively. Like it or not, religion is social glue.

And this isn’t a bad thing. Without the ritual and social tools religion offers, it would be much more difficult to unite people into the small-scale, personal groups that conservative philosopher Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” of society. And in the absence of such groups, social fabric starts to degrade pretty quickly – as the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has spent the past decade and a half politely trying to tell us.

Now, I’m just an amateur compared to Putnam, but I’m publicly stating here that he’s right.†

Gallup Religion & Happiness

Image source: Gallup.

The data are clear: religious people are happier with their relationships, more likely to be married (which itself seems to make people happier), more likely to have children, more satisfied with life, more generous with charities (including secular ones), and less likely to get depressed or attempt suicide than secular folks. In other words, they’re more stable.

But here’s the thing: fulfilling all of a religion’s requirements, from attending its services or learning its rituals to organizing the Saturday potluck, takes energy. Like, a lot of it. And the more energy you put into the everyday minutiae of group life, the less energy you have to explore new horizons.

Even more importantly, group life demands shared systems of meaning. It’s like language, which only works when people agree on the meanings of words. If “watermelon” means “large, juicy fruit with irritating seeds” to me, but “a small species of hairless vole” to you, we are going to run into some very interesting problems when planning our picnic. Communication, in other words, depends on everyone seeing things in mostly the same, established ways. But creativity is about seeing things in new ways – inventing new meanings and unfamiliar symbols. This may explain the findings of Open University of Israel researcher Sonia Roccas, who recently determined that religious people

attribute relatively high importance to values expressing motivation to avoid uncertainty and change…and relatively low importance to values expressing motivations to follow one’s hedonistic desires, or to be independent in thought and action.

So it seems that creativity and group life are a zero-sum game: in order to get more of the one, you have to give up some of the other. The more invested in religious life you are, the more you’re going to care about preserving common symbols everyone can agree on, and the more of your brainpower is going to be poured into into learning and following important social rules. Conversely, the less invested in a religious group you are, the less motivated you’ll be to attend to the endless minutiae of social interactions and ritual, and the less reason you’ll see to stick with old systems of established meanings. You’ll be free to creatively invent new uses for old symbols, new ways of expressing yourself. You’ll be free to be creative.

…And to be lonely.

Without the robust rules, symbols, and rituals of religious or other traditional life, relationships become more fissile, people rely on each other less, and life can be lonesome and difficult. It’s a real price that creative people can pay for cutting themselves free from the web of culture.

This was certainly true for us. My family, creative as they were, were always outsiders. Other families went to church, gathered in loud jolly groups to watch the Super Bowl, had festive barbecues. Looking down on them as boring and unimaginative, our family played music, learned how to draw, saw things differently. And without the web of relationships around us, we suffered. Our lives were not easy.

As an adult, now, I don’t want to live without the strong web of relationships that makes life worthwhile. But I also love channeling the muse: grabbing my guitar and playing music that doesn’t suck, or writing a poem that, you know, isn’t filled with clichés and banalities. I can’t abide the lyrics to most Christian rock, which often seems as if it were written by people who have memorized only the rudimentary 1,000-word vocabulary of Basic English (plus a few religious terms, such as “glory,” thrown in).

So bland art just doesn’t do it for me. But neither does the blasted, lonely life of a countercultural rebel who despises religion and tradition. I want both real meaning and real creativity. And I think our society could use both, too. The split between creative fecundity and relational wisdom mirrors the pernicious divide between progressives and traditionalists, and between science and religion, that makes it so hard for people in our culture to agree on anything. Studying religion, I’ve learned some of the mechanics of why creativity and stability are so hard to fit into the same boat. Now it’s time to learn how to build a more accommodating boat.


*  Yes, there are all kinds of better, more specific names for the various accoutrements and items modish people wear than “clothes.” I know almost none of them.

† It is pretty fun to say that you “publicly state” something. It makes you feel suddenly important. I recommend it.

  • catdog

    Having thought about this very conundrum often during my religious upbringing, MFA studies as well as a creative and spiritual adulthood, I thank you for actually writing publicly about it. You are correct, something must be done to accommodate both.

  • Vanessa

    It’s crazy really – we have all been imbibed with the “divine creative spark” from our wildly creative God! Why aren’t we more creative, more tapped into that amazing creativity that He has shown, from when He first made the earth to the way He intervenes in our lives today?
    (PS I run a handmade art business, and have a very real faith in Jesus – but I don’t consider myself “religious” per se. Maybe that’s why I find church so hard?!)

  • Roger Metcalf

    “But neither does the blasted, lonely life of a countercultural rebel who despises religion and tradition.” A creative, non-believing life does not require that at it take on the character of being “blasted,” and it certainly does not have to be “lonely.” There is, undoubtedly, at times a solitary nature to the creative process—it goes with the territory—it is something of a sacrifice on one hand, but there are unique, positive benefits to it as well on the other. Feel free to characterize the lives of other people any way you like—but in this case it isn’t the least bit useful nor is it insightful. If anything, it’s an intellectual cop out. I’m further dubious of any such happiness-index as it relates to religiosity. There are no doubt psychological pleasantries one may experience from religion and tradition, but especially amongst those with the strongest religious views, I’d wager a guess that their answers are far less based on the inter-human nature of their relationships, and are instead motivated by the way they think they should answer the question.

  • connorwood

    Roger, I don’t say anywhere that a creative life HAS to be lonely. And nor do I say that there aren’t “unique, positive benefits to” a creative life. In fact, that’s the whole reason I wrote the post – I would never want to give up the art I do, because the benefits ARE extraordinary. This post is about the fact that religious people often get certain benefits that are more difficult to get for others, and how frustrating that is for people who want both. And the data are pretty clear that practicing religious people have more stable lives, on average.

    It’s important to note that a lot of the benefits I cite above come from practice (actually showing up to temple, mosque, church, etc.) rather than just claiming “I’m religious.” A good example is the fact that people who say they’re Christians get divorced just as often as everyone else. But when you look at actual rates of attendance, people who go to church more get divorced less. (http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2011-03-14-divorce-christians_N.htm)

    Now, of course you can argue that marriage isn’t necessarily a valuable thing. But marriage without divorce is – especially for children – at least a STABLE thing. And the distinction between stability and instability is what I’m focusing on here.

  • B. T. Newberg

    If creativity is equated with novelty and transgressing boundaries, then this article makes sense. But isn’t there also a kind of creativity that perfects the aesthetic sense within the limits of genre or tradition? I think religious people are particularly good at this, and that talent gets short shrift here. Even as an atheist and artist myself, I can admit that even the greatest modern art doesn’t hold a candle to the Sistine Chapel or a Zen master’s landscape painting.

  • Joseph M

    One of the places that the “creative” and “religious” overlap is in those for whom religion and spirituality is the medium not just the context of their creativity. These are the people that create new religions, The Jesuses and Pauls ,the Mohameds and Moseses, Buddahs, Smiths, and Hubbards.

    As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints, or “Mormon”, I see this tension woven in to the structure of my faith.
    Joseph Smith was as wildly and transgresivly creative a person as ever lived. one of our fundamental doctrines is that “..God will yet reveal many great and important things”(Articles of Faith 9). We teach that Eve and Adam eating the fruit of Knowledge was both GOOD and necessary, even if it was technically a transgression of the Law.

    Even so we have struggled since the begining with absorbing new things. To quote Brother Joseph:

    “There has been a great difficulty in getting anything into the heads of this generation. It has been like splitting hemlock knots with a corn-dodger [a piece of corn bread] for a wedge, and a pumpkin for a beetle [a wooden mallet]. Even the Saints are slow to understand.

    “I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions: they cannot stand the fire at all. How many will be able to abide a celestial law, and go through and receive their exaltation, I am unable to say, as many are called, but few are chosen [see D&C 121:40].”

    We need both the explorers and the settlers in our community so that when the wanderers and explorers come home bearing the treasures of their expeditions they have a safe place to rest and recover for the next journey.

  • connorwood

    I couldn’t agree more, Joseph. My basic M.O. is always to assume that both progressive-minded (creative, rule-breaking) and traditionalist-minded (conservative, rule-following) people are absolutely, and equally, necessary for things to work. And I appreciate your example from Mormon scripture – it’s a good illustration of how religious genius can be just as transgressive and radical as secular creativity. My next post will be a follow-up to this one, and will focus on examples of profound religious creativity – the writings of Augustine, for example. I may use this example!

  • connorwood

    I’d agree with you there, B.T. Another example: some of the most creative and insightful psychology I’ve ever read was written by the early Christian desert fathers and by the early Buddhist Pali writers. I do think there is a natural place for creativity in religion, but what I think is the important difference is that – usually – the people who produce profound works of religious creativity are not involved in everyday, family-and-community life. Michelangelo never married or raised children, for example. A lot of the stability-vs-creativity dynamic I’m pointing out in this piece has to do with how immersed a person is in the everyday project of caring for a family. (This is the model I’m working with right now, anyway.) Thanks for reading!

  • http://shadsie.deviantart.com/ Shadsie

    I believe it was Madeline L’ Engle who has been quoted as saying “Bad art is bad theology.” – She was a young adult/fantasy book writer who wrote some very bizarre and sciencey-stuff, by the way, while, at the same time, being a Christian.

    I don’t often post any kind of commentary here, but I saw this on the front page and wondered if it was going to make me as pissed-off as a previous article on this blog about videogames did. (I felt that one to be insulting to my atheist friends). This one I feel insulting to ME.

    According to you – if your opinion was a formula, I should be an atheist. I’m a loner, a bit unstable and have more creativity than I know what to do with, yet somehow, I remain theistic and even mildly Christian-flavored. Anything but conservative at present, but I had a stint in that, briefly… yet I like writing bizarre fantasy novels (yet to get anyone to pay attention enough to my query letters to actually be published) and I like painting animal skulls. Yep. Seriously. I make art out of animal skulls. This is about as far off the creative-liberal-deep-end as you can get.

    Yet, I IMAGINE things that make atheists I come in contact with online scream at me that I’m *too* imaginative, that I must *fit my imagination and creativity into their pre-defined approval corners.* Imagining worlds populated by dragons? A-Okay. Imagining that there may be a higher power out there (or within) in our mysterious universe or that maybe I’ll see something cool when I die – NOT okay!

    And I reject that sentiment as hard as I do the sentiment by overly-authoritarian religious people that “fantasy is demonic.” Screw you both!

    In other words, I kind of think you’re full of shit here. At the same time, I can also see your point… I just think you need to think about it harder and word it better. *Belief* and *faith* alone do not kill a creative soul. In my experience, at least it’s dogma and authoritarianism. Churches tend to be conformist, which is why, even while I *maintain a bit of faith* I am functionally one of the “Nones.” There are people within various religious circles, particularly the “fundamentalist” types who seem to actively fear imagination (or, more accurately, seem to apply their own paranoid imaginations to fight mainstream imagination). I don’t know if you ever visit Slacktivist much, but that blog is fond of pointing out what seems to be a giant self-righteous conservative / religious right-wing LARP whereby people who don’t do gaming and who wouldn’t be caught dead in costume at an anime convention nonetheless like to play games of black and white morality where they are heroes fighting monsters.

    I think religious people can be plenty creative, it’s just unfortunate that some of the very creative people within given faiths will give their imaginative powers over to dogmatic structures and weird social LARPS rather than do what, say, J.R.R. Tolkien did with his creative bones.

    Then again, maybe I’m just stupid and shouldn’t be listened to. I mean, I’ve always been weird. Your family life sounds almost the opposite of mine… my family wasn’t churchgoing, but did more of the typical American passtimes while I was the lone creative weirdo – encouraged, but, still… I actually feel like my fiance’s hyper-creative family was the one I was meant to be born into instead of the one I was.

  • connorwood


    First, let me be the first to admit that reality rarely – no, never – perfectly matches our models of it, no matter how robust our data. So the fact that some people could be both religious(ish) AND highly creative is to be expected, statistically. This doesn’t mean we should throw away a model that seems to make pretty good sense of the data.

    Second, something you say in your quote makes me think you might have slightly misunderstood my point. You write:

    “*Belief* and *faith* alone do not kill a creative soul. In my experience, at least it’s dogma and authoritarianism. Churches tend to be conformist, which is why, even while I *maintain a bit of faith* I am functionally one of the “Nones.””

    I actually don’t say anywhere that “belief” or “faith” kill creativity. What I think tends to suppress the more radical kinds of creativity is religious practice, like going to church, singing in a choir, observing festivals or holy days, etc. Sheer belief on its own, severed from communal religious practice, won’t kill anybody’s creativity. In fact I’m not surprised at all that you pursue some unusual artistic outlets; people who are believers but who don’t participate in any community’s religious life are often pretty darn creative indeed.

    So, to sum up: It’s not religious BELIEF that sometimes stifles creativity. It’s practice – taking part in the established, ritual norms of a bounded community.

  • jdens

    A few disjointed thoughts that came up for me:

    The study you link to indicates that conservatives are less creative and that conservatives feature religiosity to a greater degree in their creative efforts. I don’t think that’s the same thing as saying religious people are less creative, even though there are certainly some overlaps. It seems natural for greater numbers of conservatives to be attracted to religion given its usefulness in maintaining tradition, but does religion create conservatives?

    It seems to me that there are far too many examples of artists who were/are religious to call them a mere exception–except in the sense that all artists are in some sense exceptional. One thing religions do is provide a wealth of archetypes and symbols with which to play (and sometimes subvert).

    Something else it seems worth considering is the degree to which a person’s religious practice permits or encourages questions. Conservatives (I think) would naturally be drawn more to those strains of religion which purport to have all the answers, but there absolutely are strains that are more comfortable with questions and with ambiguity. Likewise, to the extent that playfulness promotes creativity, does religion inherently discourage play (I can see how instilling a sense of the sacred could have that effect), or do certain kinds of religion do that more than others? Also, it’s not just play that’s important for creativity, but play that connects disparate elements. The rigidity of a religious culture would certainly affect to what extent that’s acceptable, and just how disparate those elements are allowed to be. I think that rigidity varies tremendously, and it would be interesting to study religious communities known for their creativity. (St Gregory’s of Nyssa in San Francisco comes to mind–it draws artists and it has become known for its innovative liturgies.)

    Finally, you mentioned language: “Even more importantly, group life demands shared systems of meaning. It’s like language, which only works when people agree on the meanings of words. If “watermelon” means “large, juicy fruit with irritating seeds” to me, but “a small species of hairless vole” to you, we are going to run into some very interesting problems when planning our picnic. Communication, in other words, depends on everyone seeing things in mostly the same, established ways. But creativity is about seeing things in new ways – inventing new meanings and unfamiliar symbols.”

    And yet people are endlessly creative with language–not only inventing new words, but putting words together in new ways, or assigning new meanings to old words or symbols. And I think creativity in any other context is similar. There has to be a certain commonality, a certain amount of shared understanding, in order for meaningful creativity to occur. Creativity doesn’t happen in a void. The “new” always has some relationship with the old. I think dynamic systems theory could have some useful input here. I have only studied it really in the context of language, but it highlights the importance of both conformity and the chaotic element in linguistic creativity. You need both. Without the chaotic, there is no creativity, no new-ness, no growth. Without the conformity, there’s no shared meaning, no continuity, no communication.

    So I guess I think what you’re asking for already exists, but how to increase it is a worthy question to try to answer.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    After comparing Hemingway to St. Therese de Lisieux, I have to say that I think you need to *really* expand your knowledge of the religious if you think creativity and religion are opposites.

    May I suggest instead of modern Christian pop rock, you start with Gregorian Chant?

  • Bill Cordts

    How do you account for the profusion of religious art and creativity during the Renaissance and early modern period? Isn’t it possible that the dynamics you point to here have more to do with our own historical and cultural epoch than “religion” in general?

  • connorwood

    Hi BIll,

    See my reply to B.T. Newberg – I think that a lot of the religious art that fits your description, from the theology of Augustine to Michelangelo’s David, was produced by religious ascetics: people who were not pouring most of their personal energy into maintaining a family and community. I don’t think it’s religion per se that stymies creativity, but instead embeddedness in a stable cultural routine. For many people, religion is what provides that routine.

  • connorwood

    Theodore, see my answers to B.T. Newberg and Bill Cordits on this thread.

  • connorwood

    Thanks for reading, jdens. That’s a lot to reply to, but let me focus on the connection between religiosity and conservatism. For me, religiousness and social conservatism are nearly equivalent concepts. In fact, I define conservatism as something like “being close to the heart of a religious tradition.” The reason I do this is because the cultural traditions that have provided the forms and content for everyday life have all historically been religious – that is, connected to and rooted in a set of ritual practices and spiritual beliefs. What does it mean to be “Italian” in a historical context, for instance? Being Catholic is one of the most important answers to that question. If you are a socially conservative Russian, you are almost certainly Orthodox – because you are CONSERVING the culture that was there to be conserved. In Russia, that’s Orthodoxy. To be progressive or liberal means to detach yourself from those older religious traditions, and to enter a cosmopolitan sphere where people don’t rely on religious affiliation as much to identify themselves. This means that the decades-long statistical correlations between progressivism and secularism, or between social conservatism and religiousness, aren’t just indicators that religiousness and conservatism often just happen to be found in the same place, like water and seagulls. It means that religiousness and social conservatism are tautologically related: it doesn’t make sense to talk about social conservatism outside the context of religion.

    Note that I’m not talking here about economic conservatism, which in the US means support for laissez-faire capitalism. The historical name for this kind of economic stance is “liberalism” (go figure), and people’s affiliation with it depends a lot more on their social class and nationality than on their social or religious beliefs.

    Finally, I agree that you need both chaos and order, or continuity and rebellion. This is why I think both social traditionalists and progressives are necessary and should stop vilifying each other. But I also think that, historical counterexamples notwithstanding, there is something about choosing to be embedded in a traditionalist setting that both A:) limits your imaginative horizons, almost by definition, and B:) often works to stabilize your emotional and social life. These opposites (stability and rebellion) are both necessary, but they are opposites. Learning to integrate them within yourself is actually a much, much more difficult task than simply saying “Oh, they’re both good!,” and that’s what led me to write this post!

  • TheodoreSeeber

    This, is somewhat true. The needs of a conventional family outweigh the creative impulse to some extent.

    But perhaps, just perhaps, you need to research the concept of the “domestic church”. And the use of creativity to teach religious concepts to children.

    There is much to be said for working *within* the system too.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I would point out that most of Augustine’s works are about creating a community; though I’ll admit it took his common law wife leaving him and the death of his son to bring out his creativity. Nobody would have survived the siege of Hippo at all if it hadn’t been for his “Community building” choice to send people instead of books back to Rome in the boats.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    It also occurs to me that your methods of judging creativity may have some selection bias. Over the weekend, I went to a water park. The most shocking costume any woman there wore- in a area where several women were in string bikinis that left little to the imagination- was a young muslim American teenage girl- sitting in the middle of the waterpark in a short sleeved shirt, long jeans (I noticed the bottoms were wet, she couldn’t resist a wade) and hajib!

    Sometimes conservative is as edgy as liberal. Sometimes, liberal creativity is boring.

  • connorwood

    My understanding is that Augustine did the leaving. When his mother Monica engaged him to a Napoli socialite, he couldn’t exactly have a common woman hanging around with him.

    Your point about Augustine’s community-building efforts is well-taken. However, I’ll stand by my view that it was, paradoxically, his status as an ascetic religious elite and non-family man that have him the broad overview and openness to new insights that led him to give new shape to the Christian community. If he’d been mostly concerned with the day-in, day-out rituals of family and church life, it would have been a lot harder to be so creative.

  • Bill Cordts

    I’m sure your hypothesis plays out in many cases, since a measure of solitude is necessary for most kinds of artistic creativity.

    But I’m also sure there are numerous examples of Christian artists who do not fit into your model. I’d point to JS Bach, for one, who was a family man (married twice, lots of kids), worked as a church music director for decades, and was arguably the greatest composer of his age.

    Regarding Theodore’s comment: Augustine not only wrote about community, he also built a small quasi-monastic/academic community before he was ordained. Also, if we’re talking about theologians and preachers, there are innumerable examples of great creative figures who balanced their lives in community with the solitude necessary to write. This is a tension that most preachers have to navigate. But does a sermon count as “artistic”?

  • jdens

    So all the people that identify themselves as progressive or liberal Christians (for example)–are they not really liberal, or not really religious? And I’m not talking about economics either. From where I sit, I can see how what your saying makes sense in the kind of religious culture I grew up in, but not in the kind of religious culture I’ve chosen to participate in as an adult.

  • connorwood

    Bill, your points are all well-taken. Bach is a good counterexample to my model. I’ll be posting a follow-up soon, and I’ll tackle this question in it.

    In the meantime, I’d say that, yes, a sermon can be artistic and creative. And in regards to exceptions to the patterns I’ve pointed to, let me use a particularly nerdy analogy: In general, the most densely populated cities in the United States are in the Northeast. The further west you go, the more sprawling the cities tend to get (have you ever been to Los Angeles? Or Phoenix? I mean, sheesh). But San Francisco, which is as far west as you can get, is one of the most densely populated cities in North America. So is San Francisco an exception to the rule {Density of American Cities ∝ Longitude West of Greenwich}? Absolutely. Does it invalidate the rule or render it useless? Nope. You’re inevitably going to have counterexamples that go against your statistical trends. It would be a bad move to abandon your trust in those trends, and the models they inform, too quickly because of counterexamples. (If enough counterexamples turn up to threaten the validity of the trends themselves, then you need to consider abandoning the model. But I don’t think we’re at that point yet with the religion/creativity model.)

  • connorwood

    I’d say they’re religious liberals. This means that they’re usually not as deeply invested in the religious symbols of their culture, more open to outsiders, and have fewer and less strict requirements for belonging. Religious liberals are usually more universalist in their ethics and their religious outlooks (“My religion may be good for me, but Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus all have valid paths, too!”). There are real benefits of this approach to religion, but I’d still say that, yes, religious liberals are less attached – ritually, practically, socially, and intellectually – to the older, established norms of their traditional religion. In fact, that sort of what “religious liberal” means: to stay within a tradition, but to migrate out from its core. Near the periphery, you can take in influences from other cultures, take the symbols of the religion more metaphorically, and maybe extend kindnesses to people of other traditions. You make the sacrifice of no longer being nestled in a totalizing worldview that encourages powerful, lifelong social bonds. I wrote about this in relation to Buddhism a while ago on this blog, and that post might help explain my position: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2012/03/liberal-buddhism-at-the-boundaries/

    Also, I’d encourage you to check out our survey website, which we use to gather data to try to answer exactly the type of questions you bring up: http://ExploringMyReligion.org

    Thanks for reading!

  • Bill Cordts

    But there are other exceptions even to that example: Chicago, Detroit (still), Seattle — even LA is extremely dense (just not walkable). As with your article, the central point is strong, but the data are too complicated to make broad generalizations about it.

  • Bill Cordts

    Here’s a helpful chart for the weighted density of cities: http://blogs.crikey.com.au/theurbanist/2012/10/17/is-los-angeles-really-the-densest-city-in-the-us/

    I’m looking forward to the follow-up post by the way!

  • Bill Cordts

    It just occurred to me that the main issue with this post is its title! If the issue is creativity vs stability, it’s very solid. BUT, if it’s “religious people” vs “non-believers,” I don’t think it holds, (maybe it does in the 20th century, but certainly not over the course of history).

  • Samantha

    I appreciate the statistical and empirical observations here. My response here is mostly to add to the considerations, and my apologies in advance if I’ve repeated points already mentioned that I may have missed upon my first reading. Regardless of religion, and to agree with one of your points, there are many things in life that can occupy our time, wiping out extra time for creative exploration, such as raising families and working two jobs. Learning music as an adult would be nearly impossible if I worked and had children. I think it’s why many people explore creativity when they retire. Even George Bush Jr is painting now. Also, our hyper-competitive, global economy is relentless in driving the message that arts shouldn’t matter as much to a populous being trained and standardized to become a specialist cog; even though “the market” needs artists, musicians, and designers to appeal to our senses, to present things and thinginess, and to innovate. I believe it’s not a coincidence that a liberal creative streak can be held suspect and devalued, as it’s a psychological survival mechanism to adjust our values and biases to our own experience and resource limitations, combined with a natural defense toward the common pastime of habitually creative liberals bashing the culture of non-creative cogs. However, there are strong cultural elements at play too. If you grew up poor white Appalachian or Southern black for example, you likely grew up very religious, conservative, and with music. Perhaps the most conservative cultures could be considered indigenous tribes, but because they may not as much a part of the modern economy and education system yet, they often have a uniquely identifiable culture of art, design, and music. Other subcultures more ingrained in modernity may still grow up very religious, but without such cultural creativity omnipresent. It doesn’t help that many schools don’t have sufficient art and music programs. It’s, in a sense, a miracle (or outlier) that you grew up in a musical household. I was once read, roughly misquoting, that you don’t have to proselytize Buddhism because people will discover the path on their own when they are ready. It seems to me to be fairly consistent that once people have more time on their hands, it’s human nature to want to explore some kind of creative outlet, whether it’s knitting, carving wood, painting, or making music, etc.

  • connorwood

    Thanks for the comment, Samantha! I think you’re onto something with the musical creativity in southern Appalachian or black cultures (which do tend to be very religious). I’m working on a follow-up post where I’ll try to tackle these questions.

    But I also don’t think creativity is just about having time on your hands. The type of creativity I’m talking about is all about innovation, and I really do think that different people have different levels of motivation to think in new ways about things. In our culture, and in most industrialized or even agriculturalized cultures worldwide, it seems that being religious is associated with a lower drive to seek out new experiences, and with a higher drive to conform to social norms. The phrase “conforming to social norms” has just a negative appeal to American ears that we forget that social norms actually serve a really important function – they put people on the same page about life’s most important issues, from marriage to death to how to trade fairly, so that more energy can be put into actually carrying out the project of life. So my basic premise is that you often sacrifice some raw creativity (openness to new ways of thinking) for the sake of social stability. In many cases, that sacrifice is worth it. Anyway, check back here soon!

  • Samantha

    Looking forward to the follow up!

  • Michael Garfield

    Agreed. A more accommodating boat. I’m inspired by the emergence of so many regional visionary art collectives and collaborative live painting teams…that’s a good place to start. Care to stay in touch about it? I’m happy to discuss.


  • Michael Garfield

    Also you might dig this:

  • Frank La Rocca

    “Being religious is correlated with personal happiness and satisfaction with relationships – but anti-correlated with openness to new experience and, by implication, creativity.”

    The premise of the article is flawed. What is meant by “new experience”?
    If it’s the transgressiveness of modernity, which denies the ability to know beauty, then the author is correct. But if it is the sense that B.T. Newberg describes in the first comment (“perfect[ing] the aesthetic sense with the limits of genre or tradition”) then the author is dead wrong. Only one questionable definition of “creativity” is supported by this essay.

  • Paul Hughes

    If you only give a vote to today, you *might* have something. I’ll go with GKC’s “Democracy of the Dead,” and say this article is 1) wrong if it asserts a religious person is less creative, and 2) mistaken if it asserts only religious folk are kept from creating by their group.

    ALL types in ANY group would be less likely (by definition) to deviate. Because, see, they’re in a group. So whether it’s high school students, Dodger fans, Green Party members, or Baptists, they’re probably going to toe the line a bit more than others.

  • http://www.davidgalalis.com/ David Galalis

    With the anchor of orthodoxy one is free to set out into the deep without fear of losing one’s self or community. See for example the work and life of the painter William Congdon.

  • connorwood

    >ALL types in ANY group would be less likely (by definition) to deviate. Because, see, they’re in a group. So whether it’s high school students, Dodger fans, Green Party members, or Baptists, they’re probably going to toe the line a bit more than others.

    I concur, and so I don’t see where we disagree. Religions are the most powerful group-creation tools out there. As far as I’m concerned, religion is essentially synonymous with culture – people who are embedded in a culture are likely to be “religious” (as we use the word today).

    And statistically, people who are “joiners” in the rest of their lives are more likely to also be religious. There’s an entire galaxy of literature on the relationship between personality type and religiosity/group belonging. This literature is what inspired the article.

  • Paul Hughes

    The problem might be the headline. Instead of simply casting the distinction between “groupies” and “non-joiners,” it can imply that “non-Christians are more creative than Christians” — which isn’t so.

    For our context, it’s not true because “non-Christians” join groups like anyone else — not least the many groupings of non-Christians.

  • connorwood

    Everyone joins groups, true. But some people are more “joiny” than others (I just made that word up), and this personality orientation carries across to many spheres of life. Non-religious people are also much LESS likely to join the PTA, the local basketball pickup league, the Elks Club, or the Neighborhood Watch. Robert Putnam has written extensively on this – check out Bowling Alone if you haven’t already.

    There seems to be a general personality axis that extends from “very joiny” on one end to “not joiny at all” on the other. In our culture, this axis tracks what we call “conservative” and “liberal” quite closely (guess which is which). Institutionally religious people tend to be joiny. Mystics are often not joiny. My fellow creative writing majors in undergrad were, like, the least joiny people on the planet. They also tended to be gleefully hostile to religion. Part of my argument in this piece came from the observations I’d made in my life about these things.

    To get a perspective on how this spectrum plays out in a non-Christian religion, check out this older post about liberalism and conservatism in Buddhism. I think the model it presents could help explain what I’m trying to say. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2012/03/liberal-buddhism-at-the-boundaries/

  • Notquite Archimedes

    I think religion plays an important role in promoting creativity. Specifically, the persecution of the Jews in Christian Europe led to a concentration of Jews in intellectual pursuits and as this persecution led to near genocide sent a mass exodus of Jewish scientists and mathematicians to the U.S., which gave the U.S. scientific and technical superiority for generations.

  • David Ernest Fisher

    I’m curious about some of the examples you consider to be “creative.” What is creative about “use of illegal drugs” or “parking a car over the line”? Genuine creativity has often been beneficial to multitudes of people. For example, Pasteur preventing epidemics by discovering germs, and Wilberforce and Lincoln freeing slaves in their respective countries. All of these were achieved by people following Christian principles. Or the creative accomplishment of designing a robotic device to explore Mars, in which a Christian grad of Wheaton College played a major role.
    These may not give the momentary thrill of stoning oneself with drugs or defying the authority who painted the lines. But isn’t the long-term satisfaction far greater?

  • connorwood

    In my follow-up to this article (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2013/07/religion-and-creativity-a-follow-up/#more-698), I use the examples Pablo Picasso versus Thomas Kinkade. Picasso broke artistic and popular norms, and is widely regarded as one of the most creative visual artists to ever live. Kinkade followed popular norms, designing his works specifically to cater to popular and religious American sensibilities. He made millions, but no critic has ever put him on a “most creative artists” list. It didn’t have to do with drugs (Kinkade himself was also an alcoholic); it just has to do with either A:) allowing the culture to dictate your choices, or B:) breaking free from culture’s demands.

    American culture today celebrates breaking free from culture and being an individual to such an extent that I thought it would be good to point out that we really lose something important by valorizing individualism, creative thinking, and newness at the expense of stability. That’s what these two articles were about.

  • JA

    I do not agree with this at all. I follow Jesus, no one else. I don’t fit in with any crowd as far as clothing goes. I have tattoos and my hair color changes monthly. My husband and I also have college degrees in Science, mine a BS in biology, his a PhD in biochemistry. We are pretty creative and we love Jesus, we go to church and have three kids. The idea that Christians have to fit in some small box is a lie. Jesus was the most unique man of his day…

  • http://www.disciullo.net Mark DiSciullo

    My family will have both. I am determine to not let this myth say that the two can’t exist. If you are raising children, you have to read Daniel Pink’s book “A Whole New Mind” If I’m not not providing my children both creativity and meaning (which could mean *gasp* religion), I feel I’m not properly preparing them for today’s world. We have musical instruments and drawing tools all within reach of any room. My six year old shoots videos, my four year old know how to use Photoshop. ..and all my kids are signed up for CCD, and we attend church every Sunday (that is if it isn’t a killer beach day) we encourage creativity, compassion, and catholicism. In this modern, secular world, they just might be the new “non-confirmists” that the artistic community needs!

  • http://tolkienista.wordpress.edu/ Madison McClendon


    Brueggemann’s discussion from 3-6 is worth noting. I think any plausible account of creativity and religion has to take account of the fact that religion has often been an overwhelming source of cultural productivity.

  • Charles Tryon

    I think you have to remember that there are exceptions to every rule! The statement here is not that religious people CANNOT be creative, but that the overwhelming pressure of religious belief and practice tends to push people into a more conservative mindset. There is WAY too much “following the rules” in most religious circles.

    Having said that, I consider myself both a follower of Christ, and an artist. However, I’m willing to bet that you’ve had to put up with a lot of curious, if not downright disproving looks from some of your fellow Christians, unless you are a part of a very unusual church. Most Christians (God bless their hearts), don’t really understand the arts, beyond “Christian” music, and maybe a little worship dance. If you’re going to practice visual arts, and you start pushing boundaries, you will likely find some of those Christian friends getting really uncomfortable, or maybe even just plain confused.

    Your sample size of two (even if they are perfectly valid data points) doesn’t set a valid trend… ;-)

  • Andrea Caccese

    Interesting subjects and interesting points. But does it have to do with
    religion? Is that the separation line? I am not a believer and I don’t
    support or defend any religious view, but I do think here that the line
    would be “stability” vs “uncertainty”. An atheist’s existential point of
    view, at least mine, is based on uncertainty per se, but these
    existential questions might not affect our daily routine at all times.
    On the other hand, our daily relationships do. Just to make a personal
    example, I make music, and If I look back at my own creative output, I
    feel that I produced my best work when my life was absolutely
    directionless. Religious people tend to have more stability in their
    life, but it’s not always the case. To keep to the music, the creative
    process I know best, think about Johnny Cash…a rather unstable guy
    throughout his life…still, really religious. Sure, his discography
    might be repetitive, but that’s in the perspective of a 50-years long
    career. Generally, I can’t say he was not a creative guy aha. I look at
    many openly Christian artists, some of them fundamentalists, and I am fascinated by their work,
    even if I don’t share their beliefs at all. Look at the early bluesmen
    like Son House, to even some contemporary christian bands like The
    Chariot, Pedro The Lion or Thrice. The common thread I can see is that
    all of these artists don’t live within that “average christian family”
    format. I think Stability is the source of the death of creativity,
    because as you said, you need to direct most of your energy into your
    lifestyle, your relationships, your job…food for thoughts!

  • daniel


    It will enlighten you, you seem like a smart person.

  • bob

    this is actually very untrue
    most celebs believe in god and theyre models, singers, actors, etc.
    religion really has nothing to do with it its a proffesion/hobby while religion is, well, religion.

  • EP

    Can I say, thankyou so much for this. As a liberal Christian I have struggled so much with my creativity and I’ve had so much trouble fitting into the church atmosphere, but a lot of happiness writing. Cheers!

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