Greatest Benefit to Humanity: Art or Religion?

My money is on art. Despite the fairly critical role religion had in establishing the social contract (Mosaic law, yadda yaddita), art was already in service millennia before that creating value added trading worth and recording preverbal experience as well.

Throughout history, religion has had so many terrible and frequently violent side effects that it’s worth to mankind has been tainted in its transmission. The repression of women practiced by Catholicism and Islam alike render those two theological powerhouses adrift. The killing that has gone on forever since the very inception of gods and worship makes religion in general pretty suspect. That it has so often been used to subvert the will of the people is another matter altogether.

I fully comprehend arguments about the uplifting of man’s spirit and care for his putatively immortal soul. Please bring forth those points in proper order and establish them against the track record of art and it’s largely peaceful history during man’s reign. I see art as quite possibly one of the pinnacle achievements of human civilization. Science is neck-and-neck in terms of bang for the buck. The esthetic pleasures of art, be it music, sculpture, dance, cooking or literature do more to enhance, preserve and respect the human tradition than much I see in religion.

Definitely not religion, that’s for sure.

I always thought art (cathedrals etc.) was one of the things used to justify religion’s continued existance. If you take away the art, I can’t see religion as having much else to offer.


Testy, there are certain arguments to made in favor of religion’s having kept literacy alive in some respects. Copying of the written word was largely a religious industry for many centuries. However, to claim that art was one of the main thrusts of religious expression is a bit more dubious. Be certain that there were many artists (i.e., J.S. Bach) who wrote quantities of religiously inspired works. I find it funny to note how Bach was reviled for his “Passion of Saint Matthew,” seeing how the piece was regarded as some sort of “Jesus Christ Superstar” type musical during its time. The church’s mandate that art be subservient to their own ends rather limited the scope of art’s function in that role. The church’s enormous wealth (i.e., carrera white marble, etc.) gave it no small power to attract the Michelangelos and da Vincis of its time.

I would instead note how religious allegory has had such a profound effect on the content of art rather than support the notion that the church was a strong supporter of art in and of itself. Art was the graphic design of such latter days and the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling was like to a neon marquee touting the Catholic church’s power.

I say art. I can’t really justify it logically, though; art is just such a powerful form of communication.

And although you didn’t mention Option C, science had an equally great benefit to humanity, or at least to those of us fortunate enough to live in First World nations. I would hate to live in a society without vaccines, antibiotics, anaesthetics, indoor plumbing, long-distance communications, etc.

First off, I must apologize for not really addressing your OP and you are right that art certainly wasn’t the main thrust of religion. My response was based on other threads where great art was claimed as one of the benefits of religion. If I am forced to pick one or the other, I’d have to go with art being the most beneficial to humanity. Religion strikes me as, at best, a drain on resources if not actually detrimental to humanity.
Art has the same ability to inspire a person without much of the negativity often associated with religion.

Apologies again for not addressing the OP.


It’s ironic, and sad, that so many people still think religion is a basically uplifting institution, whereas it actually holds people down in so many ways. Religion did serve a purpose before there was any secular philosophy, but should have been replaced centuries ago.

Art, on the other hand, has the real power to transform people’s lives.

And obviously science; that one’s a no-brainer.

I would say religion, as much art stems from religion. Religion has given us a great many things-great works of art, literature, science, music, etc.

It has given us education, charity, recreation.

Now, I am much aware that religion as practiced is often used to abuse others. HOWEVER, in the ideal, it should do the exact opposite-it should uplift others, protect them and defend the rights of the oppressed.

Art has more power to transform people’s lives than religion? Highly doubtful. In fact, that’s one of the lamest things I’ve read today (granted it’s early and it won’t even be in the top 100 by the time I go to bed).

Religion has been much more influential in transforming people’s lives than art has. Religion has been the focal point for a lot of social change. Liberation theology, the abolition movement and many other social justice movements have been bolstered by religious support, often providing a place to meet and a focal point for organization. Even now, I’m aware of much more religious involvement in social justice NGOs than artists.

Has the reverse been true? Sure. It would be silly to deny it. But to say that art has had more of a role in transforming people’s lives than religion is just as silly.

Back to the OP, art has also been responsible for a lot of suffering. Books and pictures used for propaganda has done just as much damage as religion. But religion has also been the source and lifeline of a lot of the most inspirational works of art, I would have to say that religion has had more of a benefit to humanity than art.

I would say it would be hard to draw the line between the two. What shades of gray would it take to falsify certain statements on either side of the argument? Literature has no doubt caused much change, but how much literature has been influenced by religion?

I don’t think there can be an answer that is accurate.

As an addendum, I would say that even if Religion is looked upon in the most negative light, that it could still be said to have had a good benifit. If anything it has taught many people lessons they MIGHT not have learned otherwise.

I would say art. Why?

If you don’t believe in art, you aren’t persecuted,tortured, and forced to undergo an Inquisition. Art hasn’t had the power to control nations. Art hasn’t been used to supress native art. Art hasn’t led to conflicts that have stretched milennia. Art doesn’t have a leader.

Without art, the world would be a sad place. Without religion, we’d be free to be you and me.

I agree with Neurotik and Epimetheus. The vastness of the shades of grey here are overwhelming.

Without religion, Guttenberg has little motivation to create the printing press; Michelangelo has no reason to paint the Sistine Chapel; and Bach composes show tunes.

Without art, none of the above are of any quality.

However, without more concrete examples, art doesn’t have much of an argument here.

It’s a null question. They are essentially the same thing: an emotional approach to expressing and understanding the world around us, consequences of abstract thought. Without art, there cannot be religion. Absent at least the human capability for religion (if not actual organized religion), there can be no art.

I think both are prequisites for science.

It’s no coincidence that so much of the great art of the world, from the sistine chapel to the poetry of the Quaran, are religious in nature. One person’s artist is another’s prophet. Yes, religion sometimes suprresses artistic expression, and art can make anti-religious statements, but that doesn’t mean taht they don’t spring from a common source.

And as for the argument taht art can’t kill, have you never heard of propaganda.

I think it’s a neat question, Zenster, and I like this response - particularly about them springing from a common source.

And art and religion share a tragic fate, as both are often used to achieve nefarious purposes. Artists being used by the Church was a lousy deal in its time; now they’re hired by corporations to spread illusions. Same thing. Put money and either art or organized religion together & the results aren’t good (except insofar as the rent gets paid).

The problem I have answering this question comes from my inability to answer another question: What is art?

Is the advertising jingle you hear on the radio art?

Is “Alias” art?

Is the Bible art?

While highly polarized, it is really hard to disagree with your statements, AmericanMaid. Others have properly pointed out the role of propaganda as a method whereby art has helped to mislead the population. Still, I think art is far less culpable than religion in the realm of propaganda.

Shall we include adept face painters as budding propagandists for their efforts at fiercely bedecking warriors going into battle? I will say that propaganda is historically much more recent than art in general. A simple measure of things is how often the church has suppressed art as opposed to art having suppressed religion. I need only refer you to the enormous amount of art that has been destroyed during upheavals and forced religious “conversion” of other cultures.

It would also be appreciated if the discussion were broken away from the familiar but extremely limited (however fertile) Western Judeo-Islamic-Christian hub and examined on a larger scale. Chinese painters were working in full perspective centuries before European artists obtained any sense of scale in their drawings. The imperial Chinese courts sourced some of the most stunning art ever produced. Hindu temples are covered with some of the most exquisite sculpting and expressive statuary in existence. Ankor Wat remains one of the largest man made monuments in the world. I am viewing this question on a fully historic basis, not just the past few centuries or even, millennia.

While Menocchio has made an important point about religion being the wellspring of so much literature and poetry, consider for one moment how Islam forbids any portrayal of the human form. Does the beautiful poetry in the Qur’an compensate for all of the lost Islamic sculptors of humaniform statues that have been sidetracked (or beheaded) from skill that might have surpassed Michelangelo?

I’m hoping we have some way of sorting the wheat from chaff as we sift further back in time. Art appeared long before religion manifested as the puissant institution that it is today. A prehistoric flint knapper saw more pleasing form in a well shaped arrow head. Perhaps that pleasure or esthetic was steered to some degree by the fact that a more symmetrically crafted point has better structural integrity. While that is difficult to say, state of the art (an important term) crafting was no small potatoes. That the human eye was quickly directed to unblemished fruits and prey is no mystery either. In times long past, consuming worm eaten produce and diseased animals could just as quickly bring about your own demise. Esthetics came into service long before many (now common) modes of artistic expression and certainly before the advent of religion.

I find that art has more faithfully served man throughout history than has religion. Yes, art has been subverted as well, but to a lesser degree than religion. The faith of people has too often been used for purposes of control and forcing them to do things against their will. Art has been cast in such a role much less frequently and has little power to do so on its own.

I have to side with Menocchio here, despite Zenster’s eloquence in his last post. I think art and religion can best be described as a form of expression, wherein humaniity seeks to understand and emulate the world as they see it, and understand and emulate what they don’t see. A bit complicated, but there it is.

Religion to me can be viewed as the art of the cosmos, that which we paint onto the canvas of our souls to provide us with an understanding of the universe. Of course, for someone who is deeply religious, this may not seem an acceptable definition, but maybe you can see it as God/Allah/Yahweh/Buddha/whatever’s brush.

Any other art, to my mind, is just an expression of another sort. Just my 2 cents.

There is a misunderstanding here.

Islam doesn’t forbid portraying humans. There are lots of portraits of humans in Islamic art.
Yet you wont find one of the Prophet where his face is visible.
This is to prevent that people would start worshipping the Prophet, who was only a human.

As for the question of the OP:

I don’t think one excludes the other. I think humanity has known art forms and religion since the very beginning and used art to express religious feelings.
When one looks at the oldest art produced by humans, many researchers think that there is probably some underlying or direct religious connection.

Many of the greatest Western composers were highly inspired by the Christian religion.
To name just two others then Bach:
Vivaldi, a priest.
And Händel. If you don’t feel the direct inspiration of the religion vibrating through The Messiah, I don’t know what there is to feel in it.

Since I’m a religious person I see art in all its forms as a gift of God to humanity. A gift of all times and all places.

And I don’t think “religion” surpresses art. It is the way some people looked and look at religion that does it.

Salaam. A

A great many hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens and public charities were founded in the name of religion, as were several of the country’s oldest and most revered universities. To say that religion has little to offer other than art is simply foolish.

I don’t understand how people are trying to quantify each of these subjects’ contributions. How does an Inquisition counteract the contributions of Mother Theresa or the teachings of Christ? How does propaganda negate Shakespeare? Simply, they can’t. Neither religion nor art can be described as zero-sum equations that are balanced on some altruistic ledger.