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The Confusion of the Beautiful with the Divine

Posted by on 10/11/2010

Some people say that beautiful things, including those in nature, must have been divinely inspired or ‘intelligently designed’ by their god. However, we evolved in a way that makes us find our children, aspects of nature, art, and music beautiful, in the same way that we evolved to find some members of our own species beautiful. We fall in love, mate, and protect our young and our mate, and all involved have a greater chance of survival. So we all have a feeling for beauty, and from ancient carvings, jewellery, and cave art, it appears that people have always had these feelings.

We also know that we are not the only creatures on our planet who see beauty since it plays an important role in the mating rituals of many birds and other animals. It’s a safe bet that many creatures that are ugly to our eyes see beauty in each other. It is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. We can therefore use the Occam’s Razor rule of thumb – and say that no divine inspiration appears to be necessary for beauty to exist, therefore there is little point in postulating it.

But what of the great and beautiful temples built in the name of one or another god? And what, some might say, about artists who believe they are or have been inspired by their god, and are producing works of true genius?

The answer is plain. Whilst it is true that people who feel they have been inspired by their god to build a monument to it can produce great and enduring buildings and art, others who have never heard of that god can create art just as beautiful. Personal interpretation of the creative impulse can lead even geniuses astray, and personal interpretation is a subjective thing. What we feel to be the case is often not even close to the truth of the matter.

The confusion of the beautiful with the divine is therefore a mistake of treating the subjectivity of our feelings with reality. It is the mistake of observing a beautiful and awe-inspiring scene and thinking that only God could have made it so beautiful. It is the mistake of arguing for the existence of a god on account of the beauty we see all around us. It is the mistake of seeing structure and beauty in both the microscopic and the macroscopic world and thinking there is intelligent design behind what is revealed to our eyes. It is the same mistake of believing in ‘divine inspiration’ that has littered human history with torture, murder, war and genocide. Encouraging belief in divine inspiration therefore, whilst it undoubtedly helps produce works of great beauty, brings with it far greater evils, and it is not until we can cast aside such magic notions and recognise our own human responsibility that the evils perpetrated in the names of gods will end. Religions encourage the belief in divine inspiration to help them perpetuate, and that’s a bad thing about religion.