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Why Aren’t Religious People More Creative?

Far too many of us accept the false dichotomy between religion and creativity.
Peter fishes Jesus cropped

Connor Wood poses the question in a provocative post. He says studies show that religious believers are less creative than unbelievers — and tries to explain why. In his own childhood, his family was intensely creative, but not nearly as stable as other families. The difference? Religion. Excerpt:

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.

Wood goes on to say — and this is a point that deserves special attention — that group life depends on people sharing the same systems of meaning. Creativity is about seeing new things, or the old things in new ways. The creative mind approaches the world in a different way than the religious mind. Wood:

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.

You’re probably tired of hearing it, but I’m still trying to mentally work through a lot of the seemingly irresolvable conflict between my late sister and me — and this post by Connor Wood is illuminating. She was not interested in creativity, but in doing the things that promoted social solidarity. And she had a special disdain for people who questioned the things that made for social solidarity, and shared meaning. (This was the family system we grew up in.) Her brother, on the other hand, is the opposite. His particular problem is that even when he recognizes the need for communal rituals, practices, and shared meaning, he can’t quit analyzing it and questioning it. Even if he ultimately affirms it, his mind is geared toward questioning.

This is why Ruthie, the nurturing one, felt wholly at home in the world and I, the creative one, do not. This is why Ruthie, the rock-solid one, never thought about this stuff in her actual life, but her brother, the high-strung one, can’t stop thinking about it after her death.

Anyway, I agree completely with Wood here:

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.

Of course Wood is generalizing in this post. There are creative people who are religious, and lacking religion is no guarantee that you’ll be creative. He’s describing broad trends, and I think he’s right, on the whole. But this is a time-bound phenomenon; nobody can examine the history of Western art and conclude that religion and creativity are strangers to each other.

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. The core beliefs weren’t under constant assault by radical questioning, coming from all angles. Secular modernity, especially in this century, changed all that. Now the religious believer has to devote much of his energy simply to holding ground — I’m talking about within his own mind — that in ages past was not contested. It is emotionally and psychologically exhausting. Religious individuals and communities may be working so hard to hold on to what they have that they see questioning in any sense as a threat to internal and external cohesion, and thus suppress creatives within their community. And, to be fair, it may be true that for people committed to objective metaphysical and religious truth, a time of great cultural flux is not the time to embrace creative experimentation.

What’s more, the broader culture teaches creatives to view religion and a religious mode of thinking with suspicion. We live in a time and a place in which people with creative gifts are enveloped by an ethos of expressive individualism, a way of seeing the world that rejects accepting the disciplines of religion and tradition, and poses them as threats to creativity — which, for the artist, means a threat to his sense of self. The fact that accepting the limits of certain moral and artistic conventions can actually promote creativity by compelling the artist to innovate within established limits is not well accepted. It is a paradoxical truth that imposing restrictions on the free ranging of the creative mind may compel that mind to do its best work. But some creative types only see limits not as rudders, but as anchors. Unfortunately, some religious traditions, suspicious and disdainful of art, buy into this false dichotomy between religion and creativity from the other side.

There is no inherent reason why a religious person cannot be creative, and a creative person cannot be religious. The arts journal Image, for example, bridges this gap. From the magazine’s statement of purpose:

One of the legacies of the modern era has been the secularization of culture. For much of the twentieth century, the belief that God is dead, or at least inaccessible, has stripped a great deal of religious vision and wisdom from the modern imagination. Most of our leading critics and thinkers have been skeptical of, or indifferent to, artistic expressions of religious faith.

A culture is governed by its reigning myths. However, in the latter days of the twentieth century, there is an uneasy sense that materialism cannot sustain or nourish our common life. Thankfully, religion and art have always shared the capacity to help us to renew our awareness of the ultimate questions: who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.

Understandably, religion and art also need each other. When we lack the kind of stimulus which only the imagination can provide, we make it more difficult to live the life of faith. And art, when it sees no creation to celebrate, and no soul in need of nurturing, loses its respect for truth.

Far too many of us accept the false dichotomy between religion and creativity because the deep currents of culture make the two modes of being and responding to the world antagonistic in ways that was not true — or rather, not true to this degree — as in the past.