Religion, guilt, and creativity

One feature of religion a lot of secular people do not understand is that, although religion can make one feel guilty at times, it also prevents one from feeling guilty about trivial matters. Secular people think that by avoiding religion they avoid feeling guilt, but often they end up overwhelmed by guilt, because they attribute to all their mundane earthly projects an inflated moral significance.

One of the best examples is creative or intellectual work. Or career advancement. If I publish a blog post that everyone hates, or if I fail to get a promotion, or one of my silly hypotheses turns out to be wildly wrong, I really don't care because none of these things matter too much for better or worse. I believe they constitute a meaningful and honorable calling, and my dedication to this calling I believe to be Good in the long-run, in a way that matters. But failure on any particular project causes me no shame, because it reflects no sin. Shortcomings on such earthly diversions simply never take a moral tone for me, because they are orthogonal to morality as I know it with the help of my religious tradition. For a good Christian, creative and intellectual work is beyond Good and Evil. But for people who don't believe in sin, for people who think they can simply free themselves from guilt by ignoring it, then a failed writing project or a career setback can feel like a moral failure. It can, and often does, produce feelings of shame, for instance.

If one of my personal intellectual efforts fails, I would never think to bring this to the confessional! Which means I would never experience compunction or shame about it. For the arrogant, modern, secular type who thinks himself too good for the confessional, some little practical shortcoming that hurts nobody can affect their body like a real sin would affect mine. Not only does secular guilt accumulate more heavily (given the frequency of practical shortcomings), but the secular person suffers from guilt far longer than the Catholic, for the secular person admits no mechanism of absolution. This is one of the least understood reasons why modern secular minds are sometimes unable to create, despite deep yearnings to create. And why — when they do create — it is often superficial, instrumental, and ephemeral. They conflate their earthly, mental creations with an eternal, ethical plane they neurotically deny and desire. Finding their finite abilities not up to the task, they decide never to begin, or sell themselves short.

3 comments on “Religion, guilt, and creativity”

  1. To imply that somehow secular artists are less prolific or less free to express themselves somehow is just flat-out a denial of a vast body of extraordinarily secular artistic work, much of which could not have been created due to superficial and arbitrary boundaries imposed by religion.

    Strange post, dude.

    1. Go inside a great cathedral then a museum of modern art. The pre-modern world produced the greatest artistic achievements, hands down. The 'vast body' of work produced in post-religious modernity overwhelmingly consists of commercial products; most of our creative effort goes to advertisements, so you have to include that in the set of works called "secular artistic work." About 21% of GDP was spent on the Gothic churches. So actually your historical sense of proportion is way off, my friend.

  2. As to the first two sentences of your response... to quote The Dude,"yea well, thats just like, your opinion, man." I prefer modern art. Moving on.

    Art in religion and art in advertising are shockingly similar in that they use the emotions evoked within humans by art to sell lies. Judging what is or isn't art based on GDP directed towards it seems to me, as an artist, shaky reasoning at best. It is also only natural that most artwork will be made in areas where there is money to pay artists to do so, but whether or not someone got paid to make it should have no bearing on its status as art or not-art.

    I'm particularly interested to know on what grounds you are basing your argument (in the original post) about secular artists being somehow more tormented by their failures than religious ones? Can you please elaborate on what kinds of observations or facts led you to have this opinion?

    Seems just like a bunch of biased arguments that would crumble if you took a couple steps outside of the church and looked around at the beautiful variation of creative styles that exist in the world!

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