Ritual and art

So now we’re talking about ritual, partly via what Julian said in that interview (‘And also you have rituals of gratitude. A religious person can say grace, they can pray. Now, you can try to create these little rituals in atheist settings if you like, but I tend to think they wouldn’t work.’) and partly via what JS said in that other interview (‘You have the thought that the rituals that go along with religious practice are desirable, and so on. However, there’s a lot of research that suggests that people get seduced by ritual…’). This is connected, it seems to me, with a post of Nigel Warburton’s the other day, which is also about something I ponder sometimes.

Many of the great works of visual art are religious. But when an atheist like me looks at, say Duccio’s painting in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery of the ‘miracle’ of Jesus healing a blindman, I do not believe in the literal truth of what is depicted (David Hume, for example gave excellent reasons for being sceptical about believing reports that such miracles have occurred).Nor do I believe that Jesus was the son of God (nor that there is such an entity as God). Does this mean that I can’t adequately appreciate this picture?

I think no, it doesn’t, although it may mean that you (and I) can’t appreciate it in exactly the same way that a thoroughgoing believer can. I brought up Rembrandt’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’ as another example. It seems to me it’s not necessary to believe Jesus came back from the dead to find that painting moving. One can think one’s way into it; one can imagine believing it; one can imagine being the disciples in the painting; one can imagine being a 17th century Dutch viewer of the painting; one can imagine that it is true, and what that would feel like; one can imagine half-believing and half-hoping, or all hoping. I don’t think we’re (always, necessarily) reduced to mere aestheticism in response to religious art.

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