Written by Claudia Martin 

What do art and religion have in common? They both are creations of the unique human brain, a brain that can use the power of imagination to conceive of a past and a future, a brain able to invent multiple fantasy realities to supplement factual reality when reality eludes understanding or explanations. A brain, furthermore, that according to recent neurological research operates 90% on the subconscious level. Human value systems have their roots in our emotional brain centers; both art and religion are deeply tied in with the emotional centers of the human brain stem in their quest to find and express emotionally satisfactory explanations for human existence in this universe.

Both religion and art require physical and intellectual human skills for their creation. They give human life purpose and beauty beyond sheer survival. Other animals can employ considerable craftsmanship in building their nests, in their musical calls, in their mating dances, but these have strictly survival value, even if we humans can perceive artful beauty in them. Human art and religion go far beyond immediate survival purposes. Still, they also work towards the goal of species survival by strengthening the social bond between humans and by engendering positive emotions of joy, hope and empathy. They can lend the comfort of imagined certainty and order in an environment of uncertainties.

    All human societies have blended artistic expression with the practice of their religions.  In the ancient Egyptian language, the hieroglyphic word for “art” also served as the word for  “religion,” in one inseparable concept. Religion frees art from mere every day purposes, such as decorating utensils, clothing, weapons or housing.  From the rocks of Easter Island and Stonehenge to pyramids, temples and cathedrals, religious art is mankind’s sacred heritage, witnessing our common humanity.


The terms “art” and “religion” call for careful definition.

    Art creates factual realities outside of the creations of the rest of nature by means of human thoughts and hands. Art shares this power of creation with applied science and technology. It does exist in space and time, be it through durable objects like paintings, sculptures, architecture and printed writings, or through temporary happenings like music, dance, theater, storytelling and rituals. Art is a reflection of our humanity, not necessarily a mirror image, but one reshaped by emotions. Individual imagination and cultural traditions act like a light ray which is bent by entering a new medium, like water. In contrast to technology, art is not bound by practical purposes, but transcends them—although it can also enhance the practical. Art represents filtered and condensed humanity and thus can touch all humans. To be of lasting value, however, its creations need communal understanding and support.

Religions attempt to understand the universe and its forces. They are attempts to form a relationship (in Latin, religio means obligation, bond, reverence) with the world around us beyond our limited factual understanding. Where knowledge ends, belief begins. Since the perimeter of factual knowledge has steadily increased during human history, religious concepts and practices had to change accordingly. Still, they seem to be often lagging behind, bound by unchangeable dogmas, scriptures and traditions; for instance, it took until 1860 for the Catholic Church to acknowledge officially that the planets revolve around the sun. Religion is also an attempt to influence and change natural events in our favor by supernatural means. (Science and technology also attempt to change natural conditions in our favor, but by rational and experiential means.)

    One of the earliest divisions of human labor was the establishment of a caste of priests and priestesses, of shamans, holy seers, medicine men, who were physically supported by the labor of others. They were given the task of communing with the forces of nature and “spirits” in the shape of personalized animal- and human-like gods and goddesses. From our contemporary perspective, these shamans, seers and prophets often seem to have been afflicted with mental illnesses, schizophrenia, epilepsy and hallucinations, but they also had time to study astronomy and medicine and to carry out some kinds of factual scientific inquiries. Knowledge provided them with power. They also gained insight into human nature and how to promote socially fortuitous behavior through sacred “commandments”. They controlled the actions of people by invoking supernatural powers and fears with their rituals and writings. Arguably, the three main functions of the human phenomenon called religion are the following:

  1. The establishment and enforcement of rules for social behavior as divine commandments.
  2. An attempt to increase and preserve factual knowledge and skills through the efforts of religious leaders and groups—for instance, orders of monks.
  3. An attempt to answer questions that are, at the time, empirically unanswerable, through supernatural explanations, which are the product of human imagination and inspiration.  Instilling the psychological comfort that belief can provide is a survival tool, an irrational means to a rational end. The knowledge and fear of individual death and the will to live may be the strongest motivations for humans to lean towards supernatural promises

    Religions have mainly abandoned their ancient role of searching for the truth about the natural world and human health. Modern science, using the scientific method of repeatable experiments instead of revelations, unencumbered by ancient myths and dogmas, can do that much better. The insights of neuroscience and genetics can often understand human fallibilities better than the old religious concept of original sin. Religious concepts of truth are largely confined to a particular belief system, while scientific insights are globally tested and recognized. Science, unlike many religions, is also willing to correct mistaken concepts in the light of new information. It may also be, however, that science and religions simply talk different languages.

    Just as science has made dramatically greater progress in medicine than religion ever made, secular laws in democratic societies often do a better job of amending rules for social living when changing circumstances so demand, responding to new realities much more flexibly than religion can. Religion often needs to restrict knowledge or refuse to adjust its prohibitions in order to preserve dogma. Here too, however, religion’s claims to authority are not completely dismissible. Most major religions promote the “Golden Rule” of human behavior as appropriate to the social animals that we are.

The Intersections of Art and Religion
    Let us consider the roles that the various arts have played in world religions. “In the beginning was the Word”—storytelling is one of the basic artistic expressions of the human imagination, and all religions tell stories. Orally transmitted and written stories have been the backbone of religious beliefs for thousands of years. Storytelling invents various gods or goddesses in human, plant, or animal shape, relating them to human lives and natural events. The stories are often of great poetic beauty and metaphorical insights. They are works of art, to which the historical facts are incidental.

    The “word” often goes beyond its literal meaning. Sometimes, languages that are no longer in daily use and are only fragmentarily understood have become sacred, used in songs and scripts, like the beautiful Arabian scripts in mosques that cannot be read by all Muslims but have become a decorative art form. The Latin used in Catholic churches, like the Sanskrit of holy Hindu texts, was no longer spoken by the general population, but became a language of scholars and of sacred mystery in rituals and music. The sonorous sounds of Latin words have their own artistic beauty. The Russian Orthodox Church still uses an old Slavonic language for its chants and hymns, creating a beauty perceptible even to the uninitiated who do not know what the words signify.

Humans are visually oriented animals, gaining much of our information through the sense of vision, and an extension of storytelling is found in the visual arts, in murals, mosaics, paintings and sculpture. Once the cultural heritage of various religious groups became solidified through standardized visual expression of their stories, their forms were maintained with little change.  Consider the history of the depiction of the Buddha. At first, the Buddha was only indicated by his footsteps and a halo of light, since he had entered Nirvana and was no longer physically representable. But the believers demanded to see a person, so Buddhist art evolved into paintings and sculptures of a well-rounded, benevolent Buddha, either sitting in the lotus position, or standing, or lying on his deathbed.  Later on, jewels and gold leaf were added to huge statues to express the preciousness of the Buddha. He had been turned into a deity. Since a person obtaining enlightenment is supposed to be neither male nor female, the Buddha figures always combine male and well-rounded female elements.    As a contrast, consider the established image of Jesus in Christian churches. He is a tall, slender Caucasian with a long face and nose. No images ever show a pudgy, short, swarthy Jesus. In deathbed hallucinations, Christians will see such a Jesus figure, while Buddhists will see the image of a Buddha. These established images were created by artists.    Some religions, like Hinduism, depict their gods and goddesses as super-human—Shiva has many arms as a sign of his supernatural powers, and Krishna is always painted blue, in contrast to human skin color—but Hinduism also reveals a deep subconscious knowledge of our genetic animal heritage in its half-animal, half human gods: Ganesha bears the head of an elephant and Hanuman is a god in monkey form. Africans and Native Americans use intricately crafted masks in animal shape, animals that may be prey and predator. The abilities of animals are thus transferred symbolically to the ritual dancers. The Middle Eastern goddess of fertility, Cybele, has eight breasts. Even Islam, a religion wary of traces of paganism, has a myth of Muhammad riding to heaven on his half-human horse, (17th-century) Al Borck.    Christian churches are filled with human figures, only rarely animal ones. The Judeo-Christian religion emphasizes the belief that humans are essentially different from animals, often regarding animals as evil brutes. The figure of the devil has hooves, horns, and a tail. The snake and dragon are signs of evil, whereas other religions see these as benevolent. The only positive animal-human creatures are angels, human figures with all kinds of wings. Artists had a free-for all in inventing ever-new configurations for angel wings.

    Without preserved religious art, particularly the funereal arts, we would know much less about life in ancient times. Since humans have a concept of a past and future, life after physical death has been in the foreground of religious wonderings. Tombs often are equipped with articles and depictions of every day human lives to help the deceased in an imagined afterlife. Just consider the magnificent Chinese clay warriors! The primary, long lasting edifices of religious architecture were tombs. These range from masonry-reinforced underground funereal chambers to the giant proportions of pyramids and of the stupas and pagodas of the Far East. These structures are artful witnesses to the tremendous life force in all creatures, which in humans creates visions of a life after death, sometimes benevolent, sometimes frightening.

    The “Houses of Gods,” monumental temples, shrines, and cathedrals, are another aspect of religious architecture. The practical purpose of sacred structures is to provide an inspiring meeting place for worshippers and an abode for priests and monks, but at the same time religious architecture is (with the possible exception of palaces for secular rulers) the greatest statement of communal effort beyond practical purposes. There, artistic imagination can flow freely. Religious buildings reach up into the sky, nearer to the gods, becoming the pride and triumph of people who themselves often live in ground level hovels. 

    With the visiting of ancient religious structures being a major object of tourism nowadays, societies understandably do their best to preserve or reconstruct such places of cultural heritage. For instance, the whole world contributed money to the re-creation of the great cathedral of Moscow, which Stalin had blown up to replace with a swimming pool. It was rebuilt according to its intricate, original plans within two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Egyptian temples of Abul Simbel were relocated with international effort when the Aswan Dam would have flooded them. Maybe even the giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban will someday be re-created by international effort.

    Iconoclasm, a destructive hatred of religious art, has recurred throughout the centuries whenever a reform movement led by fanatics attempts to remove anything visually appealing from a religion. It often does irreparable cultural damage by separating people from their traditions. Even in relatively civilized Switzerland, Calvin personally smashed stained glass windows and took the axe to organs. Some Protestant churches became barren of visual arts. But the emotional expression of religion nevertheless slipped through the Puritan barriers, by the means of music. Communal singing in the form of hymns in native languages developed into an art form. It culminated in cantatas and oratorios by great composers, again telling stories, this time through music.

    Music is the most prevalent religious art form besides the visual arts. Most religions employ the human voice, musical instruments, and some sort of rhythmic dancing. Before the creation of secular operas and symphonies, religious music was the most emotionally touching constituent of religious rituals. Physical movement of the human body is interwoven with the rhythmic elements of music. Dancing, foot stomping, hand clapping, swaying, are artistic elements of many rites. Even the American sect of the Shakers, who tried to deny all sensuality, found their emotional religious expression by physically shaking. In the courtyards of mosques in Turkey, one can see ordinary citizens twirling themselves around till they are dizzy with bliss. This practice has been developed into the art form of the Dervishes, who twirl singly or in pairs with their huge white skirts theatrically flaring in rhythm. Ceremonial body movements are also a way of storytelling by means of hand and foot gestures, as in Hindu and Hawaiian dances.

    In the future, as in the past, the importance of religions in human life will likely continue to have much to do with satisfying our emotional, sensual, and spiritual yearnings for awe and beauty, through the various arts.  Art has played this role in conjunction with religions since times immemorial. Religious art can continue to enhance human lives through emotional connectedness, even when scientific facts have replaced many an outdated religious heritage.   Art speaks a language understood by all humanity.  


Reprinted from The Torch Magazine, 
Spring 2014
Volume 87, Issue 3

Claudia Martin grew up in Munich, Germany. After Abitur (advanced German high school) she graduated from the Munich Interpreter School with a diploma as translator and interpreter in English/German. She also studied piano and voice at the Munich conservatory. She moved to the USA with her husband Hubert in l953.

For Further Reading

Brooks, David. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. NY: Random House, 2011.

Dennett, Daniel C. Breaking the Spell, Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. NY: Viking, 2006.

Kean, Sam. The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code. NY: Little, Brown, 2012.

Wilson, E. O. Consilience, the Unity of Knowledge. NY: Knopf, 1998.


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