I am interested in the connection between religious faith and aesthetics, especially in how aesthetic considerations can play a pragmatic role in people’s attraction to a religious lifestyle. C.S. Lewis wrote eloquently about this in his Surprised by Joy and in his short sermon The Weight of Glory, where he identifies the desire for aesthetic experience as a desire for God. Augustine (Confessions) makes this identification as well. “My sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in him but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error.”
For me the aesthetic dimension has always been a strong motivating reason for adopting a religious lifestyle: the beauty and power of the words of Scripture, the drama of the liturgy, organ music and polyphonic hymns. I am interested in natural theology, but I do not go to evensong because I am convinced by natural theological arguments. It would be interesting to do a survey “What motivates you to attend religious services?” my hunch is aesthetic reasons would figure high up in the list.
Nevertheless, much analytic philosophy of religion portrays faith as a primarily doxastic attitude, as consisting of assent to propositions such as “God exists”. I know not all PoR authors do this – for instance, Audi’s recent book Rationality and Religious Commitment (2011) paints a richer picture. But it seems to me that most PoR does not pay much attention to the aesthetic, non-doxastic dimension of religious faith. Which prompts me to ask: can aesthetic reasons be sufficient pragmatic reasons for adopting a religious lifestyle? Can they also be sufficient for adopting a doxastic form of religious faith (e.g., theism)?
I recently came across a paper by Howard Wettstein (1997) which explores the connections between awe, aesthetics and the religious lifestyle from a Jewish perspective. Wettstein makes the radical claim that one can have a religious lifestyle, which involves actions that nurture a sense of awe at the world, a sensibility to morality and an aesthetic sensibility, without believing that God exists. He argues that in Judaism one can be “in awe of God” without actually believing in God. Stump expressed skepticism about this suggestion, arguing that belief in God is a central element of Judaism. More modestly, it seems plausible that the aesthetic element of the Jewish religious lifestyle is greatly enhanced by doxastic faith: it will be a lot easier, and effective to maintain motivation to study the Talmud if one believes God exists than if one simply regards its study as a way to train one’s mind to have a particular sensibility about the world.
Similarly, it might be possible for an atheist to be moved by religious music such as Bach’s Matthew Passion, but it will be hard for her to have an aesthetic experience of the holy. Stump writes (in the same response paper to Wettstein):
“Consider, by way of comparison, Homer’s description of Apollo shooting plague-causing arrows at the helpless Greek army because Agamemnon has dishonored Apollo’s priest. The passage is poetically powerful; it catches one’s attention and remains in one’s memory. But it’s hard to imagine its stimulating religious awe in us or giving us a sense of the holy. And that’s precisely because we think that there is no supernatural being such as Apollo, that no deity causes diseases by shooting arrows into people, and that there are perfectly good naturalistic explanations of diseases which have nothing to do with Apollo’s seek- ing revenge for being dishonored.” (Stump, 1997, p. 285).
I’m not sure whether Wettstein is right in his claim that religious aesthetic sensibility is compatible with atheism. Rather, I find that in practice some people are making the following pragmatic consideration “I am greatly moved by the aesthetic dimension of religious life. I find that this aesthetic experience is greatly enhanced by adopting some of the appropriate doxastic attitudes (e.g., belief in God). Therefore, I will believe in God so as to more effectively live a religious lifestyle.” This is, what you may call, a pragmatic aesthetic argument. It does, like all pragmatic arguments, require that one regard belief in God as a live option, and that doxastic faith is under some degree of voluntary control.