The “Religion vs. Creativity” Debate Rages On

Connor Wood

CreativityLast week, columnist and blogger Rod Dreher at the paleoconservative magazine The American Conservative got wind of my Patheos post claiming that religion and creativity are anti-correlated. His take on the idea, and the blog post that resulted, kicked off a very spirited debate among commenters. Many of the ideas were similar to the critiques my original article received: there have been plenty of religious artists throughout history; the creativity/religion dichotomy is a product of modern secular culture (Dreher’s position); the whole claim hangs on a mistaken definition of creativity. And of course, many readers agreed with the original thesis, expressing that they recognized their own struggles to meld creativity and meaning in their lives. I’d tried to respond to some of these critiques previously, in a follow-up post to the original, and Dreher kindly also devoted another post of his to my follow-up. (Update: Andrew Sullivan at The Dish also just weighed in.) The conversation was fascinating, and I encourage you to check it out. But are religion and culture really the enemies of creativity?

The American Conservative is a venue for ideas about traditionalism, Burkean political philosophy, and Wendell Berry-style advocacy of small communities and religious continuity. The magazine was formed as a conservative voice of opposition to the Iraq War during the second Bush presidency. Its readers and contributors tend to feel a healthy disrespect for the individualism, consumerism, and the supposed nihilism of modern society, and there’s something of a misty nostalgia for previous, bygone eras in which everyone agreed on the basic propositions of life: who the creator of the universe was, what humankind’s ultimate destiny might be, and so forth. Modernity, with its cacophony of diverse opinions, offers no basic metaphysical agreements, and so the culture is fractured. As you might expect, then, quite a few of Dreher’s readers argued that the religion/creativity divide is the product of the mistaken assumptions of modernity. For example, commenter Franklin Evans claims that

There is a mistake underlying Wood’s assertions. We can speculate (not having been there) that the Apollonian-Dionysian divide was in fact a dynamic tension, not one of conflict as in a tug-o’-war. They were co-existent, and “fed” off each other in important ways. Homer and the dramatists showed this dynamism in their storytelling. My favorite examples come from Eurypides…

And Dreher says something similar in his initial post on the subject:

The extent to which creativity and the religious sense diverge, and find themselves in opposition, is a function of the secular age, in Charles Taylor’s meaning (= a time and place in which people generally understand that religion is experienced by most people not as an objective reality, but a subjective choice). In past centuries, even creative people pretty much shared the wider society’s metaphysical and religious assumptions. …Secular modernity, especially in this century, changed all that.

Dreher and many commenters believe that a shared web of religious and cosmological beliefs within a society can actually shape, channel, and inform creativity rather than stamping it out. Dreher writes in another post, inspired by the same topic:

It seems to me that good storytelling comes out of a culture that has an implicit sense of order, both visible and invisible, against which characters can clash. Drama emerges from this.

In many ways, I am actually inclined to agree with these interpretations. I do think the extreme polarization between creative expression and religious or communal solidarity – that is, stability – is unhealthy. In fact, a painful awareness of just how unhealthy that divide can be drove me to write the original essay. But I’m also not sure that the past was some sort of Golden Era in which creativity and religiosity bled seamlessly into one another, and religious creed inspired and fed creative passion rather than suppressing it. It seems likely to me that societies in all places and times have likely featured a spread of personalities, with some people preferring order and stability, and some people craving novelty and stimulation. These two basic orientations are described in today’s psychological literature as the personality traits of conscientiousness and openness to experience, respectively. Even in ancient Greece, with its integrated worldview, some people probably felt more comfortable nestled in the bosom of culture and routine, while others felt called to explore new horizons. There may have been less tension between these two types back then, but there was almost certainly a difference.

Keep in mind that nearly all the psychological research on personality has been done since the mid-20th century, and the vast majority of it has focused on Americans and Europeans. So I’m taking a bit of a risk by claiming that two personality types are universals across time and geography. However, ethologists – scientists who study animal behavior – have long agreed that individual animals within species vary according to how shy or bold they are, or how willing they are to investigate novel phenomena and take risks. This is a fairly stable distinction, found in animals as diverse as guppies, wolves, and geese. Some individuals are just born more risk-averse, and less stimulation-seeking, than others. I don’t see any reason to think this same distinction does not also apply to humans – since we are, last time I checked, animals, part of the fabric of the biological world.

So it seems very likely (to me, anyway) that even in the most integrated, holistic community, where everyone shares the same basic cosmological assumptions, some people are going to be more willing to rock the boat and generate new ideas than others. This was true in ancient Greece, medieval Europe, and modern America. Maybe the most important difference is that, in the more traditional, intact cultures, the novelty-seeking folks and creative types are better able stay integrated with the society even as they strike out for new intellectual and artistic territory. In a large-scale, cosmopolitan culture like our own, novelty-seekers don’t necessarily have an intact web of culture to keep them engaged, and so they’re in danger of drifting into real social isolation. Severed from the webbing of culture, they may be more likely to fall victim to the kinds of self-destructive behavior that tightly-knit communities tend to work against: alcoholism, drug abuse, reading Charles Bukowski, and so forth.

So in some ways I agree with Dreher’s take on the question, and in another way I think he and many commenters underestimate the extent to which a tension between newness and tradition, between creative expression and social fabric, is probably universal. At the same time, I think it would be awesome to live in a world where these two poles could be, as Franklin Evans puts it, in “dynamic tension” rather in in out-and-out war.

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  • autolukos

    I certainly agree that the particular observed relationship between religiosity and creativity in modern western cultures is probably a specific product of the specific situation. I also agree with your argument that novelty-seeking is probably an area in which people have always varied, with variation expressed in different ways. I am extremely skeptical of most of the rest of your argument, though.
    In previous installments, you noted that historical examples of religious creativity frequently come from ascetics, a group not exactly noted for avoiding self-destructive behavior. Further, I would expect religious novelty-seeking to be broadly correlated with joining new religious movements. Both of these are problems for the argument that “traditional, intact cultures” keep creative people more engaged and protect them from self-destructive behavior. In the first case, the point of asceticism is to engage in self-destruction in the pursuit of some other goal; in the second, in addition to the strong possibility that such a group included ascetic or otherwise self-destructive practices, religious novelty was far more likely to meet violent opposition in the past than in the present.
    There is, of course, significant historical variation in how unorthodox religious groups and practices were regarded by authorities and societies at large; I want to avoid overgeneralizing. Still, I think there is a strong case to be made that most traditional societies were far more dangerous places for novelty-seekers than is modern society, particularly insofar as they sought out novel religious ideas and practices.

  • connorwood


    Thanks for reading. I think the fact that most creative religious persons throughout history were ascetics actually supports my argument. I’d expect that mystics and ascetics largely ARE drawn from the pool of people who are more open to experience – people who, in secular setting, often turn into bohemians, artists, rebels, and so on.

    In a more religiously intact world, such as medieval Europe, those personality types have more opportunity to exercise their craving for novel experiences while simultaneously staying engaged with the dominant culture. You could be a weirdo and still be a Christian.

    As far as novelty-seeking and joining new religious movements, first there need to be new religious movements to join. You’re essentially talking about how it works in a cosmopolitan society on its way to secularism. Throughout most of the European or Muslim Middle Ages, the dominant religions were so dominant that creative, novelty-seeking types didn’t have any new religious movements to join.

    As far as the danger of novelty-seeking, I’m inclined to agree with you that more traditional societies were sometimes more dangerous physically for nonconformists than today’s society. I think modern America is probably one of the safest societies in history in which to be a nonconformist. However, this safety has been purchased at the price of relative social disorder, since admiration for nonconformity has inspired us to abandon older, often religious, ways of organizing our relationships and society. I believe there’s a real tension here, and we have to pay a price no matter which pole – stability or nonconformity/creativity – we choose to value. This tension is at the root of the entire chain of essays.

  • autolukos

    Thanks for writing!

    I think your definition of “dominant culture” is way too broad in the first two paragraphs. “You could be a weirdo and still be a Christian” doesn’t address the relevant dimensions of religious novelty in medieval Europe, and it doesn’t even begin to address the particular monastic emphasis on rejecting the world. To a certain extent, you could argue that the rejection of the world was entirely rhetorical and that monastic communities remained tied to secular social structures, but I don’t think you can sustain this argument in all cases without producing a definition of engagement that would undermine your contrast with the modern world. There really were people who successfully cut themselves off from social ties, though there also were people whose weirdness secured a particular place in society (think Peter Brown’s Holy Men).

    I also still think asceticism cuts strongly against the “saving from self destruction” component of your argument for traditional social ties; a society which celebrates the weird who head into the desert and starve themselves seems to me to be doing the exact opposite of saving them from self-destructive behavior.

    In the third paragraph, I can only address the particular case of medieval Europe. For that case, you are simply wrong. There were frequent movements of monastic reform, generally involving some aspiration to renew the emphasis on rejecting the world’s values. In the 11th century and later, novel lay spiritual movements began to appear (or simply become visible in our sources), generally meeting with wary reception from authorities and sometimes being suppressed. Somewhat later, mendicants were the new thing. The facts that medieval movements didn’t produce new churches until the Reformation and that many of these movements were absorbed by the Church or died out on their own rather than being suppressed does not mean that they lacked novelty or that their members always remained well-integrated in society.

    I must say that I have enjoyed the series, while also remaining skeptical of the importance of the general stability/creativity spectrum to contemporary religious decline, at least insofar as you see increasing celebration of creativity/nonconformity as a causal factor in that decline.

  • connorwood

    Good points. I’m going to defer to your knowledge of medieval European religious movements – I stand corrected on that account.

    But I do think that in a Peter Bergerian or Durkheimian sense, European culture in the middle ages was still much more unified than ours is now, and abandonment of “secular” life in favor of monastic or ascetic striving did not entail so radical a break from the overarching worldview as becoming a countercultural rebel does today. The same basic symbols were accepted, understood, and used by creative, rebellious monastics and simple villagers alike – the cross, the resurrection, etc. Religious elites certainly had broader, more literate understanding of those symbols, but unless you can convince me otherwise it still seems to me as if the whole culture operated using a more or less universally accepted set of symbols and mythos. To be a rebel in such a context was to take a stance toward those symbols that was more radical, fervent, or unexpected. To be rebel in our time is to decouple oneself from the broader society’s symbol set altogether. I think there’s a big difference.

    And as far as the self-destruction bit, I think that a culture that channels extreme personalities into ascetic roles is probably better for such people than one which discards them. In fact, in a lot of societies extreme personalities are used as religious and social leaders and healers – it’s a cliché, but it’s true. I’m thinking, e.g,, of the Marathon Monks of Japan ( They undergo extreme ascetic training in order to later be accepted as ritual leaders of an expansive community. This seems a more sustainable way of channeling extreme personality types than does denying them any ritualized outlet and instead encouraging extreme experimentation with culture – as in the Beats, for instance.

    All of this argument, of course, depends on religious asceticism being one mode of expressing the same novelty-seeking personality type that, in secular culture, is often associated with the arts, sciences, and creative pursuits. This may not actually be how things are in real life. A question for future research!

  • autolukos

    “A question for future research!”

    What every academic loves to be able to say :)

  • Kristen inDallas

    “a tension between newness and tradition, between creative expression and social fabric, is probably universal. At the same time, I think it would be awesome to live in a world where these two poles could be, as Franklin Evans puts it, in “dynamic tension” rather in in out-and-out war.”

    I think that you may be (unintentionally) conflating newness and creative expression here which is leading you to see a problem. Yes there is conflict between newness and tradition. But the act of creation is not simply just making something new. Anyone can make something new, see:
    “uihagfraph Efhwierih”
    I produced that brand new phase by letting my fingers do whatever they feel like on the keyboard. (some people try to do the same thing with art and music). But the question that defines creativity, does it MEAN anything? Will it last? Creativity isn’t just about making some thing… it’s about giving life to a work. Something produced creatively should move peope, on its own, even when the origional creator isn’t there to explain it. The more people the work resonates with and the longer it remains relevant, the higher we tend to praise the artists’s creativity. In order to make something resonate with a culture you have to really understand that culture (even if the objective is to break with it). So the tension between good creative expression and social fabric is a dynamic one.

  • connorwood

    I agree generally that we’re talking about a dynamic rather than a zero-sum relationship. And our current culture recklessly conflates mere newness with genuine creativity. But at the same time, I don’t think newness and creativity are utterly independent concepts that just happened to have gotten thrown together at random. Check out the definition of creativity I cite in one of my previous posts on this topic (

    “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination.”

    This is a pretty standard English definition of the concept “creativity.” It’s tough for me not to see an inherent tension between creativity (as it’s defined) and tradition. You can disagree with this definition of creativity, but I think the common lexicon of English would tend to challenge you on that.

    And anecdotally, the annals of history support the claim that creativity depends on novel or unexpected departures from standard cultural patterns, even as they don’t break with those patterns completely. Augustine, for example, was supremely creative (in my opinion). His investigation of the concept of time was just staggeringly incisive. We remember him today as one of the greatest theologians of all time not because he merely repeated the standard fare of previous thinkers, but because he brought real novelty, insight, and depth to his subject matters – in other words, he was able to see beyond 4th-century Christian culture and take it to a new level. That’s creativity, and in an important way I think it does depend on refusing to contentedly rest on previous cultural achievement. (And I think Augustine also nicely meets all the excellent criteria you list by which to judge creative work – it certainly wasn’t just newness for the sake of newness!)

  • Joseph M

    Some what side was to the topic at hand there is a new study in the Journal for The Scientific Study of Religion “Spiritual But Not Religious? Beyond Binary Choices in the Study of Religion” That looks realy intersting (

    There is a nice plain English treatment here (

  • connorwood

    Thanks, Joseph. The author of the study you link to, Nancy Ammerman, is actually a professor of mine at Boston University! Last month a colleague wrote up her results at our more neutral, science-news blog, here:

    I think her results are fascinating, particularly for the way they show that people’s spiritual and religious self-identification says a lot more about their social location than it does about what they actually believe or practice. And for how it shows that people are very misinformed about each other!

  • Joseph M

    My wife is taking a class through coursera on social psychology and we just watched the lecture on the mismatch between reported attitudes and actual behavior.
    I think Dr. Ammerman’s results are probably related.

    Thanks for the link to the other write up.