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How Modern Art Led Me to God

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Modern Art

There was a recent controversy in Tacoma, Washington because the Tacoma Art Museum considered showing the work of an artist named David Wojnarowicz. Specifically, they wanted to show a video montage he put together that was pulled by the Smithsonian because it was too offensive. The Tacoma museum’s curator responded to critics by saying, “For someone to come and have to confront this image, it’s not going to be easy but art’s not easy.”

Curious about what this non-easy art might involve, I did some searches and found a clip of the video on Youtube (it’s called Fire in My Belly by David Wojnarowicz if you’re interested, though I don’t recommend viewing it). It features images of ants crawling on a crucifix juxtaposed with flickering shots of a young man doing something pornographic.

Oddly, it was this kind of thing that helped lead me to God.

Shortly after I got married, my husband suggested that we check out an international modern art festival that had come to town. At one exhibit we walked into a large room where stylishly-dressed people wandered around rows of metal boxes, nodding and making approving comments. Were we in the wrong place? Had the organizers not had a chance to set the art out on the boxes yet? As it turned out, the metal boxes were the art.

As we walked through the other exhibits, I was amazed at what was considered art: a light bulb, a paper with some holes in it, even an entire building with some spray painting on the side. A favorite approach seemed to be to take something that traditionally symbolized purity and hope (e.g. a sacred religious object) and juxtapose it with something considered dirty and bad (e.g. excrement).

“It’s beautiful,” someone commented at one such exhibit. I recoiled at the statement. If someone wanted to say that this art was thought-provoking or interesting, I could have barely seen where they were coming from. But beautiful? No.

My husband teased me by joking, “Hey, one man’s Sistine Chapel is another man’s metal box!”

“Umm, no,” I mumbled.

At the time I was an atheist, and my husband responded with an interesting question. As we walked back through the rows of metal boxes, he said: “Are you sure that you can defend that statement from a purely atheistic perspective?”

Without thinking about it, I blurted out, “If not, then I denounce atheism. Because I know more than I know anything else that those boxes aren’t as beautiful as the Sistine Chapel.”

I meant it as a half-joke. I’d been an atheist art critic for all of thirty minutes, so I hadn’t exactly fleshed out my thesis, though I assumed that there must be a way to defend my point of view without appealing to anything supernatural. But as I thought about it in the days and weeks that followed, I found that it wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined it would be.

To make the case—from a pure atheist-materialist perspective—that that box was not as beautiful as, say, a Monet, I could say that the creation of great classical art requires more skill than other types of art, and that we get the concept of objective beauty by recognizing the work of the most skilled members of our tribes. But that argument was flimsy. After all, maybe I had no idea what was involved with putting together an aluminum box.

I went over similar lines of reasoning, considering the human animal’s evolved desires and the way we react to stimuli, but each time I came up short. Even if I had been able to demonstrate conclusively that humans do have an evolved tendency to register the chemical reactions that indicate “beauty” with some types of art more than others, I couldn’t get around the fact that there was no objective rule that would apply to each individual. Someone could walk into the Sistine Chapel and announce that he thought it was ugly. Everything within me screamed that that person would be wrong, and not just because I thought so, but because he was not recognizing an objective beauty that existed regardless of any person’s opinion. But I couldn’t get there while adhering to atheistic principles. All I could do was point to trends about what people tend to do, which proves nothing objectively.

What I sensed in my soul is that there is indeed a scale of objective beauty. Some works of art are more beautiful than others; therefore, there must be some ultimate source of beauty that the more beautiful works are more like than the less beautiful ones. (To borrow an analogy from G.K. Chesterton, if someone says one city is more like New York than another, that analogy only works if a specific place called New York actually exists.) Yet in order to supersede human opinion, this objective source of beauty couldn’t originate in the human brain, could it?

This line of thinking disturbed me. My flippant comment that I would denounce atheism before I said that a metal box is as beautiful as the Sistine Chapel turned out to have more weight than I’d expected. Because in order to defend my position that an objective scale of beauty did exist, I had to appeal to something for which there was no strict scientific evidence, something beyond the material world.

And that’s why I always see a silver lining when controversies like the one in Tacoma come up. Because it makes people wonder: “What is true art? What is true beauty?” And, as I know, when you start asking those questions, you’ve taken the first step down a path that leads to the living Source of all that is beautiful.
Originally posted at National Catholic Register. Used with permission.
(Image credit: All Art News)

Jennifer Fulwiler

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Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She's a contributor to the books The Church and New Media (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011) and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion (Servant, 2011), and is writing a book based on her personal blog. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their six young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. Follow Jennifer on her blog, ConversionDiary.com, or on Twitter at @conversiondiary.

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  • Gray

    The living source of the appreciation of beauty is the evolved human brain.
    Of course theists will argue that evolution of the human brain was the work of God, and no surprise atheists will argue that God is not needed for this to have occurred.


    • Mike

      If God didn't create matter with these properties with the "potential" to via the workings of physics and chemistry's laws to arrange itself into a being called Gray and "mike" if there was no agent what or who did it? or do you believe that "it" "just is" a grande cycle of creation and re-creation, destruction followed creation and on and on and on with no "ultimate" purpose?

      • Damon

        Why do you believe the process of evolution requires a mind to guide it?

        • Loreen Lee

          Hopefully, we will as humans, have the capacity in the future to do such a thing according to an acceptable criteria of good judgment.

          • Damon

            We have had the capability to guide the process of human evolution through eugenics for more than a century. I hope that's not what you're referring to...

          • Loreen Lee

            Not specifically, but yes, it is one of the factors within the current global situation which I 'pay attention to' even if only as a possibility., and a repetition or even exacerbation of historical events. There are possibly, despite objections from EN, dangers within any world view, ideology, or dogma, including Darwinism. I also believe there is still great potential for further development even of Aristotle's virtue ethics, although I also hold that various ethical systems can be regarded as having a place and function within society. You can't for instance run a welfare system based on Aristotle's ethics. It seems often to be the case of good cop, bad cop! The difficulty is in discerning the differences.

          • Damon

            I don't quite follow. Are you saying that eugenics might be a good idea if we could only agree on an ethical system under which it would operate?

          • Loreen Lee

            I am not a scientist. I merely have to, in the sense of the acceptance of 'reality', acknowledge the direction in which the world is moving. I contribute money, and I don't have much of that, to the Catholic Church for the primary reason that I feel their input into the current debates is essential.

          • Damon

            I merely have to... acknowledge the direction in which the world is moving

            Is the word really moving toward eugenics? Maybe it was a century ago, but today? The concept seems too closely associated to racism and nativism to be anything but a fringe movement.

            I contribute money... to the Catholic Church for the primary reason that I feel their input into the current debates is essential.

            Input on what, exactly?

          • Loreen Lee

            To answer your last question first; (it's not quite eugenics) but debates on euthanasia and abortion for instance. Eugenics I believe includes such issues as stem cell research and what is it called 'cloning'. Those issues I understand are being debated.

            I'm glad I detect optimism in your responses. As far as where the world is moving, especially in the West, is there an argument against the proposition that science and forms of non-belief are becoming more common. It is possible that movements today that are considered to be on the fringe, may not be so, even within a short span of time, say a decade. Don't know about the relationship to racism and nativism, but these definitely remain issues. (Number of blacks in America incarcerated, just as an example). And although the definition of feminism has changed much since the 60', (my generation) such issues also can involve contests between church and state, religion and science. I merely keep with the advice of Habermas, and attempt to remain 'between' the two, within a 'philosophical context' as I believe that Catholicism, for instance, has not completely incorporated the dichotomies that exist within the modern world into a viable 'gospel' of 'transcendence'. (Pardon my vagueness. I am merely attempting to 'understand' the world I live in, without 'prejudice'. and I find that 'very difficult'.).

          • William Davis

            Social darwinism is alive and well. Reproduction is typically limited by economic status, though certain welfare programs artificially increase reproduction by providing financial incentive for more children. I'm not speaking to the morality of any of this, but in the end, nature will find a way. We might be able to change the rules of the selection process, but the selection process will occur. Personally one of my biggest concerns for the future involves population and resources. If resources start getting scarce, we start killing each other. Always have, always will. Solving our energy problems (specifically petroleum dependence) is much more pressing than global warming. Our meddling in the middle east has been over maintaining oil supplies (and keeping oil producing countries using our currency instead of someone else's). Heck we trained Osama bin Laden to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Regan's plan worked there, but 9/11 was definitely an unintended consequence...

          • Damon

            I don't quite follow. Are you saying that eugenics might be a good idea if we could only agree on an ethical system under which it would operate?

        • Mike

          Not the process that is being guided by the laws of physics set down by some agent some intelligence at the start of the universe and by what seems to be per dawkins et al evolution's preference for "survival" of our genes.

          Seems to me that if the universe exists for no purpose then we are a strange accident or that if it exists for some other purpose than us then we are again some strange accident - in both cases what we see as beauty or morality is probably a highly sophisticated illusion a put on by our genes but nothing more.

          • Damon

            ... what seems to be per dawkins et al evolution's preference for "survival" of our genes.

            Evolution doesn't have a "preference" for survival, not in any intentional way. I'm not sure if this is just a semantic error or if you are imagining evolution as an intentional guiding force that selects genes on the basis of how well they adapt an organism for survival, because if so that's not how evolution works.

            Evolution is simply cause and effect. The effect of a gene mutation must in turn cause copies of that gene to become more frequent in the next generation. Rabbit genes which construct rabbits that are faster than foxes are naturally more common in the next generation of rabbits. Hence the phrase "natural selection".

            The point is there is no Evolution Force which reaches in from the outside. There's nothing which decides that some genes are helpful to survival and should, therefore, increase in frequency. It's just natural cause and effect.

          • Mike

            I agree. Maybe it's better to drop the word "evolution" then bc it seems to create category errors. Here's what i mean: i don't mean that there is this "thing" called "evolution" which "decides" this gene shall be reproduced and this one shall not; "evolution" is simply the term we apply to a succession of physical events which go from simple to complex, from whatever, fish to human beings (leaving out the q of the rational soul for minute). Natural selection is just nature "selecting" those genes via random variation and off spring which make the new animal more likely to survive/adapt.

            This "natural" "rule" or "effect" which is what we see and experience and can indeed confirm is itself "pointed" towards greater and greater, and greater adaptability and complexity.

            What i am saying is: why does "nature" seem to "prefer" survival IN the FIRST place? If someone answer it does NOT then i say that what logically flows from that is: there is no morality no beauty just pitiless indifference at bottom - as atheists say.

          • Damon

            why does "nature" seem to "prefer" survival IN the FIRST place?

            Probably because human beings have evolved the habit of attributing distinctly human characteristics to nonhuman processes.

            there is no morality no beauty just pitiless indifference at bottom

            If by "at bottom" you mean, objectively, then yes I agree with you. I have yet to be convinced that our subjective experiences of beauty and goodness correspond with an objective standard of beauty or goodness.

          • Mike

            i think you're begging the q as they say or applying circular reasoning saying that evolution is why think evolution prefers survival when that's precisely what's at issue: does evolution seem to "reward" some things over others and i think it is plainly obvious that "nature" does seem to as all evol. biologists say it does when adaptation causes some animals to die and others to "thrive". Now, whether the Mechanism is "random" is not the issue but the effect seems pretty clear: you and me! a complex brain etc. etc. Nature all by itself seems to be driving at some higher and higher complexity.

            Yes i mean objective and i agree. If i were an atheist i would see no evidence for objective goodness i would see all of it as culturally/biologically determined and would conclude that tough luck that's just the way it is.

            But as i see even from brute natural selection alone, the universe/nature seems to "reward" offspring but most importantly it seems to have a telos, a directedness.

          • Damon

            I don't disagree that evolution seems to reward traits that are adaptive. But the reason it seems to do this is because as creatures who evolved in a social context, we human beings adapted the ability to make predictions about other human beings through empathic inference.

            Unfortunately it is a common mistake to predict the behavior or intentions of non-human agents using the same adaptive ability, which is why it seems that evolution, which is simply natural cause and effect, is somehow guiding all of life to some overarching goal. You infer this by putting yourself in evolution's shoes, "If it were me, I'd have a goal in mind." But evolution isn't you, evolution is a mindless, unintelligent process of natural cause and effect.

            The cause and effect part is really key. Evolution does not cause some animals to die and others to thrive. Some genes are non-adaptive, and so naturally they are less frequent in the next generation. Some gene mutations are adaptive, and so naturally they are more frequent in the next generation. There's no intentional agent here, there's no purpose to it at all. The results are exactly what you'd expect them to be once you have all the information.

          • Mike

            "there's no purpose to it at all."

            I think this is why atheism can not account for good evil or morality or any value at all i think but some atheist disagree which is peculiar to me.

            Anyway i don't think that "evolution" the processes themselves the mechanism has any direction at all. What i am saying is that natural processes including the laws of physics etc. and biology in general not evolution but in general all of life proceeds according to the propagation of 'life'. this is what biology studies the bios life, matter that is "alive" ie has a "soul". So whether there is particular "guidance" of course not except that overall the mechanism selects for adaptability.

            Why does the mechanism select for adaptability in the first place?

            The why q is a religious q that i think can not in principle be even almost addressed by natural science itself. The why life at all and why life again and again and again to me points to, it's a sign that either "the universe" or "creation" is proceeding somewhere is directed towards something.

            BTW i think the ID movement is fine as a philosophy of science but is not natural science and should stay out of the science classroom.

          • Damon

            I think this is why atheism can not account for good evil or morality or any value at all i think but some atheist disagree which is peculiar to me.

            You won't hear any argument from me.

            Why does the mechanism select for adaptability in the first place?

            You don't seem to have grasped the "natural" part of natural selection. Random genetic mutations occur in reproduction. These mutations are not intended to aid survival or anything else, they are completely random. Over a long enough period of time and over a large enough population, one of the random mutated genes exhibit a characteristic that aids the creature in survival. In the rabbit example, the effect of the mutated gene is that the rabbit is better able to outrun foxes. Naturally this gene will be more frequent in the rabbit carrying the original gene was able to better escape its predators, survive, and reproduce. The "mechanism" that selects for adaptability is the simple fact that the rabbit is better at outrunning foxes than other rabbits. Why? Because the rabbit won the genetic lottery, so to speak.

          • Mike

            "aids the creature in survival"

            see you said it yourself...that's my point not that the mutations are random but that nature itself operates according to something like "winning the lottery" as you say...so my q becomes why does "winning the lottery" sort of matter in the first place and secondly why does "winning" mean going from lower life to higher? why is there greater and greater complexity?

            My answer is that the "parameters" of the "game, the lotto of life" are set such that high life is inevitable. the way that game progresses is based on physics, chemistry, behavior etc. but the parameters "baked in" are clear: life and higher forms of life.

          • Gen Li

            You get a bigger jaw in fish when a gene mutates that also makes them blind. This is why cave fish are blind. However, when that gene mutates in fish that aren't in a cave, you get a dead fish that doesn't reproduce. An appreciation for beauty is something that must require many genes, cooperating together, and the result of these genes are a MASSIVE mis-allocation of resources away from practical things from things that serve no purpose and actually hurt us, if beauty itself has no value. Heck, Domitian bankrupted Rome in his quest for beautiful marble cities and bears a big hunk of responsibility for the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and he is just one of many, many examples. From a survival point of view, an appreciation for beauty in nature, in human creations, in jewelry, in buildings, in furnishing, etc. (rather than a mere ability to detect health in other humans and prey and to detect fertility in mates) is a really bad maladaption. It's a mistake that evolutionary pressure would have corrected long, long ago if it had arisen from evolution--just like you won't find any blind fish outside of caves. It sucks time, resources, attention, everything away from survival and reproduction. In a materialist world, beauty is a destructive delusion that should be pierced if the species is to survive. But in a materialist world, there is no value in the survival of any species. There is no inherent value in any one particular arrangement of atoms more than any other. The very act of wanting to argue about the state of nature or to come up with an argument for the evolutionary value of a standard of beauty is desperately delusional in the worst sort of way. You're devoting yourself to the one thing that might even be even MORE meaningless than anything else.

            And yet you are here, arguing. Why? Why can't you admit that some things are real, some things are not, and it doesn't matter because nothing can matter in your world? If "survival of the species" is the closest thing to meaning that an organism can have, why is it that realizing this dramatically decreases your reproductive potential, making you unfit for even fulfilling that role?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            which is simply natural cause and effect

            But natural cause and effect is always pointed toward some end. Otherwise, pelicans could give birth to peccaries. X cannot cause Y "always or for the most part" unless there is something in X that "points toward" Y. The mistake is in thinking that this is necessarily a consciously intentional agent.

          • Damon

            If pelicans could give birth to peccaries over the course of one generation, it would outright falsify the Darwinian model of natural selection. There are physical limits to what is possible. To make the leap that this means there is something in the genes themselves that points toward an overarching purpose appears to be an unsupported assumption.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            If pelicans could give birth to peccaries over the course of one generation, it would outright falsify the Darwinian model of natural selection.

            It would do a heck of a lot more than that. It would falsify Mendelian genetics, too, and it would throw a big fat monkey wrench into causation.

            To make the leap that this means there is something in the genes themselves that points toward an overarching purpose appears to be an unsupported assumption.

            Speaking generically, what is "in the genes" points to the construction of certain proteins, expressed under the particular epigenetic factors in play.

            I'm not sure what you mean by "overarching purpose."

            Natural τελος only means that causes point toward their effects. This cause leads to that effect. (Or suite of effects, and allowing for multiple causes.) That is, A causes B, C, or D, rather than E, F, G, or nothing at all. If not, there could be no scientific laws at all, since there would be no grounding for the same cause to entail the same effect under the same conditions.

            There are three kinds of τελος.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Probably because human beings have evolved the habit of attributing distinctly human characteristics to nonhuman processes.

            Which gene(s) would that be?

          • Damon

            I do not think anyone knows the answer to that question. I think it is likely that this habit of anthropomorphism evolved because, as the saying goes, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Human brains are also biology, so I would expect nothing about our thinking to make sense except in the light of evolution.

            Really, though, the sentence can just be restated "Probably because human beings have a habit of attributing distinctly human characteristics to nonhuman processes" and the point still stands.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Exactly. Some folks have a habit of attributing evolutionary just-so stories to nonhuman processes.

            "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

            That's a metaphysical stance, not a fact. I happen to believe it is largely true, but I balk at "nothing" (which is perhaps too much) and "making sense" (which is too vague), or ascribing the power to explain anything and everything just by the incantation of the magic word.

          • Gray

            not sure if this is just a semantic error or if you are imagining evolution as an intentional guiding force

            Of course he does....you don't know Mike yet?

          • Mike

            not "evolution" which is not a thing in the first place but "nature" seems calibrated towards survival..this is bio 101.

          • Damon

            You seem to forget that this "nature" you refer to has rendered 97% of all species that ever existed extinct.

          • Mike

            no i haven't forgotten that...don't forget that all of life 100% will end up dead when the sun burns out or whatever.

            I am not drawing conclusions about whether the creator of natural biology did a "good" thing or "bad" thing when it setup the world...that's a separate question.

            All i am saying is that whatever mechanism is at work it is pointed towards greater and greater complexity and life.

          • Damon

            All i am saying is that whatever mechanism is at work it is pointed towards greater and greater complexity and life.

            No, you miss the point. Whatever mechanism is at work, if it is pointed towards anything, is pointed towards greater and greater death.

          • Mike

            I don't think that's right bc if it were there would be no human beings only bugs or lower animals - again don't mistake the mechanism for the effect or intent. Clearly we've "evolved" from lower animals to higher so that's not i think in dispute.

          • Mike

            maybe you think it is indifferent bc you confuse free will with indifference?

          • AnthonyU

            where does new genetic information come from that enables simple celled creatures to "evolve" into more complex creatures?

        • AnthonyU

          what do you mean by mind, and how do you know "mind"exists? Can you scientifically prove that minds exist?

        • Abu Zahrah

          Because it is exact to the point of predictability. However, while such exactness occurs within the human and around the human, the human himself with all of his intelligence, still lacks exactness and is the most unpredictable member of the universe. This must force us to ask, how is it possible that the human, thee most advanced intelligence in creation can know how and why in science, yet he can't produce any of what he manipulate from it.

          Bluntly put, if you take the most learned scientist and or atheist and place him naked in an empty laboratory, he can produce absolutely nothing except waste. Yet this perfect creation is nothing of a reflection of that. Which proves that there is some greater beyond matter and it is endowed with intelligence and will far beyond that of any human.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      A lot of supposition in this video.

      Also, I would like to have heard how and why color, symmetry, harmony, and other qualities relate to beauty.

      It is not just "skilled performance" that create beauty, since some atonal piano pieces take as much skill as a Beethoven sonata to play, yet are ultimately nothing but noise.

      • Loreen Lee

        In Neitzsche: Thus Spake Zarathustra. (a paraphrase) 'They thought he was mad because they could not hear the music'....or something.....What is beauty? What is art? There is a good comment regarding this by Nichol I believe. Art can indeed be very difficult, especially until you can develop the capacity to 'understand' the beauty. I can't understand quantum physics, and it took me many years getting my degree in music before I could appreciate twelve tone, 'dissonance'.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          I have a degree in music, too, but I have never appreciated atonal music.

          My opinion is that twelve-tone music and much of modern art can only be "appreciated" if you have some kind of theory that tells you it is valuable.

          On the other hand, things that are naturally beautiful don't need a theory to be appreciated. You just do (even though the appreciation might need to be cultivated).

          • David Nickol

            You just do (even though the appreciation might need to be cultivated).

            I think that sentence is self-contradictory. I think perhaps the vast majority of people have no use for most operatic music or classical music. When I came to New York, I had close to zero experience with classical music, opera, or ballet. If I had not been dragged kicking and screaming to many a performance during my first few years here, I doubt that I would appreciate as much as I do today.

          • Loreen Lee

            Well Kant limited his aesthetics to the natural world. It was upon this basis that the arts criticism 'took off' later.. The important thing about music is, I believe, its relationship to mathematics. This is the art, for what I can see in it.. Thus, perhaps I am allowed to have little 'empathy' with popular music for instance, and only like some forms of jazz. (not the 'busy' kind). But atonal music has a mathematical justification. It was seeing this 'truth' that allowed me to 'accept/appreciate it'. As far as the sound goes, though, I prefer Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, up until his later period when the music becomes too difficult for me to play. So I didn't even try to cope with the Romantics, and later developments. I 'haven't the 'talent''. And after I got my degree, and learned there were already too many teachers teaching, I have learned to understand that that best sound is silence.!!

          • Gen Li

            There's no evidence that early vocal music as sung by a hearth had any rhythm at all as we know it. If you listen to even the Appalachian recordings of the Childe Ballads, you learn that they had no meter--tones, yes, but these are NOT mathematically inevitable arrangements and are actually "out of tune" with one another in a way called tempering specifically to create more flexibility. The "mathematical" music of today is a culmination of processes that really took a long time to develop and would be inappropriate to assign to a culture even 1500 years ago.

            Mongolian throat singing is more typical of music of the rest of the world throughout history in terms of its tonality and lack of meter.

            The highly rhythmical music of percussion instruments are related to DANCE more than anything else and in many places emerged entirely separately from vocal or melodic music.

            It's also particularly stupid to announce that mathematics is why people like music when our very staid common meters are not even the norm for rhythmical music around the world. What's symmetrical about 5/4 music, interspersed with 4/4 and 3/4? Absolutely nothing! It's absurd to say so, and I invite you to go AWAY from the sphere of Italian and German influence and pontificate about such silly things. Western music theory creates guides and rules for a certain TYPE of music, but it has little to do with all the music of the world throughout history, or even with Western music before about 1200.

            People who declare that music is loved because it's mathematical are entirely unable to cope with why people DO NOT LIKE the modern music that's composed based on highly mathematical conceits. They prefer the "hack" Philip Glass who is capable of making a pretty tune to any number of cerebral and highly honored academics who do really sophisticated and complicated mathematical things with music but produce something about as appealing as a dog fart.

            Oceans, waterfalls, and mountains are images of pure chaos visually, with nothing mathematical about them at all. Clouds with sunset staining the horizon a thousand colors appeals not one bit to any human interest in order or symmetry.

          • William Davis

            I'm not into some of these weird types of music myself.

      • William Davis

        Music is highly mathematical. This is a short video discussing it. The mathematics behind breaking an audio signal down is very complex (the class average in my class on signal analysis via fourier series and transform was a 56, I scratched out a B+ by some miracle) but his is a good summary


        • Kevin Aldrich

          I would not say that music is mathematical but that there is a natural order in sound that can be shown in numbers.

          • William Davis

            This is a philosophical belief fueled by my knowledge of math, science, and engineering, but I'm convinced math is more than that. I simply works too well. Consider the fact that we can use math to produce the exact sound of a variety of instruments. My keyboard is evidence that music IS math every time I play it. I'm a software engineer, and we can't program a computer to do anything but logic and math. It is getting to where we can do almost anything with logic and math, even see and hear (self-driving cars, voice recognizing phones). Here is an interesting read on the subject if you have time:


          • MattyTheD

            "It is getting to where we can do almost anything with logic and math".
            I assume you mean anything *mechanical*. If so, that's a much smaller, and not terribly important, subset of all things that are done.

          • William Davis

            We are having this conversation via a computer, almost all communications take place with only math and logic. It's been a long time since a computer could easily beat a champion chess player with just math and logic. We now have self-driving cars that only use math and logic. All database engines (in everything from medicine to law) now only use math and logic. I engineer systems that control buildings, so we not only keep you comfortable, but also maintain C02 levels and control lights with math and logic. All medicine is based on math and logic with some creativity mixed in. MRI's and all modern imaging equipment is based on math and logic...I could go on forever. I think you have no idea.

          • MattyTheD

            Again, those are all mechanical activities. I'm not saying they don't matter. I'm saying that there are huge swaths of human activities that may not be purely mechanical in origin. For example, human decisions of will, morality, purpose, creativity or identity. I see no evidence that those human traits can be self-generated by math and logic. Humans can certainly create algorithms that attempt to *imitate* those traits, like, say, music composing software. But I see no evidence that algorithms can self-generate those human traits.

          • William Davis

            But I see no evidence that algorithms can self-generate those human traits.

            I agree, things like this will create artificial intelligence (this is something we need to be careful with)


            Here's their website:


            Here's an article on another company that google just bought. It's AI is demonstrating intentionality and has taught itself (this is not a program, it is true narrow AI) to play atari games and win.


          • William Davis
      • Gray

        You obviously don't understand the video. You are free to research and critique where you feel it went off the rails....and free to make reference and links to those particular parts with which you disagree. I am sure the author did not intend it to address Beethoven or music in all it's entirety and complexity.

    • Phil

      Hey Gray,

      I think the hardest point you are going to have to defend is that there is such a thing as beauty in an atheistic-materialistic worldview. You can argue that certain things cause some people to have certain feelings, while other things cause other people to have certain feelings.

      But to say that something is actually "beautiful" would not be possible. The most you would be able to say is "this arrangement of matter causes me to have 'beautiful' feelings". To which another person would respond--that's nice.

      • MattyTheD

        "To which another person would respond--that's nice."
        Or worse. The proper response to an opinion generated *only* by meaningless neurological firings might be "who cares?" Who cares that a neurological machine (you or me) thinks something is beautiful? It's just an arrangement of neurological outputs. Who cares that a neurological machine thinks, say, killing is unjust? Similarly, why should we care about the philosophical arguments of anyone - including philosophical materialists if it's just a mechanical output?

    • MattyTheD

      Gray, your comment subtly changes the subject. She is exploring the question of a "source of beauty", while you are addressing the "source of the APPRECIATION of beauty". No serious theist denies that the *appreciation* of beauty is experienced in the brain. What she's positing is much more important - ie does our experience of hierarchies of beauty (Sistine Chapel vs. Ant porno) imply a supreme beauty which exists objectively? You've essentially responded with, "we think with our brains, which evolved". Yes, we all know that.

    • Guest

      Great argument Gray. Except for it being stupid.

    • Gen Li

      It's extremely goofy for people to assume that the "venus figurines" were "figures of beauty" to the people who made them and not totems for deliverance through childbirth or for ample milk or for some other sort of thing. People like to imagine these figurines are something no primitive culture ever made because the people can't speak for themselves. Much less silly is to listen to what people from cultures that are very primitive have to say about the things that they make. These are fetishes, not works of art, if those people are anything like people in recorded history.

      No, there is no reason to appreciate beauty in the abstract in materialist world. To stand and admire the majesty of a mountain is to distract oneself from getting food and shelter or noticing a bear. To spend money on frescoes is to pull that many people out of employment as farmers or weavers or something productive. An aesthetic appreciation is something uniquely human and also entirely unsuited to survival--counterproductive to it, in fact. There is no relationship between a beautiful meadow and a sexy, virile man (or a nubile woman). None at all. Anything that is not a strictly sexual attraction and the recognition of health or disease is a distraction and a liability. From a materialist point of view, it causes misspent resources and should cause a people to die out quickly or to evolve away from it. Anything other than the admiration for the healthy and functional cannot come into existence under an evolutionary regime or remain in existence under evolutionary pressure.

  • Doug Shaver

    Because in order to defend my position that an objective scale of beauty did exist, I had to appeal to something for which there was no strict scientific evidence, something beyond the material world.

    The position that an objective scale of beauty exists is not one I wish to defend. I see no reason to think it must be true.

    • MattyTheD

      "I see no reason to think it must be true."

      Doug, why is "must be true" your standard here? Do you only believe positions which must necessarily, from materialist causality, be true? I bet you don't. For example, from a materialist standpoint, is it *necessarily* true that Doug Shaver should not be robbed? No. But you believe it. Why? Because, in fact, you believe in a vast array of truths that are not provable via materialist assumptions. The author of this article is suggesting another non-provable truth that is worth considering.

    • Gen Li

      It absolutely must be true if you are an actual atheist. If you can't (or won't) defend it, you are not an atheist. You're something else.

  • Well I have seen a lot of modern, and ancient and a lot of Catholic Art. I have enjoyed a lot of it, but it has never generated any kind of enigma as to where human experiences of beauty and disgust come from.

    I don't think there is anything like objective beauty. Beauty is what people find beautiful and obviously we don't all share the same experience.

    • Loreen Lee

      I felt much 'shame' during the process of overcoming PTSD. In contrast to this 'cognitive/feeling' of mine, I witnessed many forms of disgust directed towards my behavior. I learned from this experience that both of these 'feelings' are related intricately,; the difference being mainly whether the cognition is directed towards oneself or an other, even in cases where the reflective consciousness regards the self as an other. I should like to understand any possible projection towards the universalizing power of the concept of God, within this context. This would include the recognition that such a concept is a universal which remains opaque within the capacity of my understanding, as per Kant's outline of the limitations of our powers of judgment.and ability to form and consider 'universals'. (Want to understand the difference between Aristotle and Plato in this regard, and also why, my belief, the Church does not completely condone Plato' treatment of universals. More work to do if I ever get there.)

  • Damon

    I wonder if Ms. Fulwiler is familiar with the mind projection fallacy?


  • Damon

    Suppose I personally found the metal boxes that Jennifer refers to to be more beautiful than the Sistine Chapel. Would this opinion of mine be irrational? How so?

    • William Davis

      Someone who lived in the Sistine Chapel their whole life and had never seen a metal box would probably find the metal box more beautiful. Many people forget how important novelty is to beauty. Something you see every day tends to lose its beauty over time.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Because they are mere examples of the sterility of much of post-modern expression. A metal box may possess beauty to the degree that it perfects boxiness: its sides are straight, its angles are right, and so on. And likewise for its metallicity. One may even admire the craft of the artisan for prying loose from the commissioners the tax money to fund the endeavor. But that is pretty much it. As an example of the metal smith's art it does not measure up to say a steam locomotive.

      Said sterility is exemplified by the (in)famous Armory Show of 1913. In the fifty years from 1863 to 1913, art was overturned in the movement from the objectivism of the Renaissance on to the subjectivism of the waning of the Modern Ages. But revolution and defiance became standard, and in the fifty years from 1913 to 1963, very little had changed. There was little in (post!) modern art to develop, expand, or elaborate. At the 50th Anniversary Armory Show, the philistines were all inside the Armory!
      "Modern" art is a misnomer, since the art of the Modern Ages from the Renaissance on was representational. This required a greater mastery of craft in that the details are more demanding. The consonance with the Age of Science is obvious. (Consider Durer's A Young Hare, which considers its subject with the objectivity and detail of science.)

      Picasso's Guernica also tries to capture something of reality: but notice now that you already have to know what the painting is about to experience its effect.

      This was a consequence of the efforts by artists to be accepted by the intellectuals, and even by Picasso's time these had largely turned away from the "cult of reason, progress, and science." One of the markers of the intellectual is the desire to be marked off from the common folk, so artists changed from capturing beauty (we do not say "prettiness"!) to shocking the sensibilities of those who were funding them. So they will take a snapshot of a crucifix in a jar of urine because their artistic imagination is so impoverished that they can conjure up no other image with which to mock the cross than tired scatalogical cliches.

      “Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at
      something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being
      shocked. . . . It may mean that your grandmother was an extremely lively
      and vital animal; and that you are a paralytic.”
      -- G.K. Chesterton, “On Dialect and Decency”

    • MattyTheD

      I don't think your question follows her argument. She's not claiming that you are rationally mandated to find the Sistine Chapel more beautiful than boxes. She's exploring the implications of her own experience of beauty (which happens to match the experience of many other people as well). To her, the experiences of extremely different levels of beauty are so undeniable that they suggest the possibility of an ultimate objective beauty. One that transcends personal subjectivity. But, since you brought it up, do you find boxes more beautiful than the Sistine Chapel? If not, why?

    • Gen Li

      You're lying, and we all know it. That's why sane people roll their eyes at people declaring that a golden toilet is serious art. If you REALLY did believe it, then you'd be confused about enough things that we could take you away gently where you wouldn't hurt yourself.

  • Catholic Art had a role in making me an atheist activist. It was during theatre school when we were assigned the mystery play "Abraham and Isaac". It is a story about how a man is told to kill his son and decides to do it, the child accepts it and asks his Father to get on with it:

    A, my own dear father, wherefore?
    We shall speak together here but a while.
    And sithen that I must needs be dead, since
    Yet, my dear father, to you I pray
    Smite but few strokes at my head,
    And make an end as soon as ye may,
    And tarry not too long

    I struggled to find any moral in this story which seemed to be about obeying God without question, even if this entails killing your children. And not just like your love-child with a slave, but a favorite child from one of your wives. I could not believe that this story was actually in the Bible. My impression about Christianity was that it was a religion of love, love thy neighbour, love thy enemy. I was sure that this story was invented by medieval folk who seemed to be pretty bloodthirsty, who had other ideas of entertainment, like watching a bear getting ripped apart by dogs. Then I read the Bible. It was pretty much accurate, and only a slice of the bloodbath that is the Old Testament. This was one of my experiences that made me seriously question whether this religion and religion in general was a good thing.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Most human beings for most of human history have and had no problem imagining that God or a god would demand human sacrifice. Abraham certainly did not. The Aztecs and Incas didn't either.

      In your objection to the story of the binding of Isaac you might not be considering two things.

      First, even in the OT story God does not require this sacrifice of Abraham. In fact, no where in the OT does God demand anyone sacrifice his child or anyone else's.

      Second, the Church reads individual books of the Bible in light of the whole Bible and the whole faith, and in a progressive manner in which what comes later sheds light on what comes earlier, and everything in the light of Christ.

      > "I struggled to find any moral in this story which seemed to be about obeying God without question, even if this entails killing your children."

      Maybe the moral is, "You think God is asking you to obey without question, even if this entails killing your child, but you are wrong. God wants you to love your family, your neighbor, even your enemy. So, reform your thinking."

      • David Nickol

        If I were convinced that God spoke to me directly, and "God" told me to kill an innocent person to prove how obedient I was, I certainly hope I would conclude that the voice I heard was not God.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Yes. Unless you were mentally ill.

          • Loreen Lee

            Kierkegaard discusses Abraham in his Fear and Trembling, and makes the point that if he was to do such a thing, he would be considered insane. The point he is attempting to make is that faith rests on paradox, that is it is 'beyond reason', in the same way that Kant illustrated this phenomena, or limits of pure reason, in his example of the four antinomies, and the inability to prove or disprove such metaphysical structures as the 'concept of God'.

          • Gen Li

            Kierkegaard is an idiot, then, who has no idea of human history at that point. Killing people for a god was entirely normal. The more powerful the god, the more blood it could demand. He should have known of the Greek human sacrifices at funerals and the sacrifice of Iphigenia. ALL other gods could ask for human sacrifice at will and actually get it. Were ALL the Phoneticians insane? The Aztecs? Or was God teaching that they worshiped corrupt and evil gods?

            Typical sloppy German logic. Obsess about the anthill and miss the mountain.

        • MattyTheD

          David, it seems you have found the interpretive key to that story that millions upon millions of Christians and Jews -- saints, theologians, believers -- all somehow missed. If we had all only asked you first!

          • Alexandra

            Matty, I think you are a great contributor here- but I would reconsider this response. It seems to lack charity. (See Brandon's commenting guidelines.)

          • William Davis

            Lol, your condescending attitude is completely misplaced. I have yet to see you add anything useful or intelligent to the discussion. Your comment about math and logic shows how incredibly naive you are about how the world actually works.

        • Gen Li

          Because Abraham was told not to sacrifice Isaac at the end, so the Jewish people didn't practice human sacrifice like their neighbors did. If not for Abraham being so clearly instructed in the real nature of sacrifice that he wanted, it would not seem to be against the nature of God. It certainly wasn't against the nature of many, many gods (non-human beings worshipped by pagans throughout history). The Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Chinese all practiced institutionalized forms of human sacrifice during their history. The gladiatorial games were based on human sacrifice during funeral rites. The ancient Celts and Germans all sacrificed humans to their gods pretty regularly. The Incas were pretty enthusiastic about it. The Hindus still practiced institutionalized human sacrifice when the Brits took over. The Phoenicians and the Aztecs were just about crazy for human sacrifice.

          In ALL of these religions, it would be perfectly reasonable for a god to ask for human sacrifice. Abraham didn't know God well, so it might have been hard for him to hear, but it was entirely normal within his milieu for a god to demand a man's son. But God stopped him and taught him explicitly that this was NOT the sacrifice that he was to do, and no one could use the argument that the Israelites just needed to love their God enough to kill people for them like everyone else did.

          Because of all these things, you think that having people fight to death for fun is terrible, not something totally acceptable (as 99.9% of cultures of the past would see it as). Because of God stopping Abraham, the Judeo-Christian world powerfully rejects human sacrifice.

          This teaching came from somewhere. It's the exception, not the rule. And it came from the very thing you decided not to understand.

      • William Davis

        Genesis 22

        After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

        What's worse, Abraham lied to Isaac to get him to go. God's response when Abraham was about to kill Isaac also indicates that God did not know ahead of time what Abraham would do. This story is morally repugnant, I don't see how it is defensible, but that is just my opinion.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Maybe Abraham should have done what he did when God said he would destroy Sodom: Argue with him not to.

      • Genesis 22

        "Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
        “Here I am,” he replied.
        Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

        I think it is pretty difficult to interpret that as God not requiring Abraham to take his son and sacrifice him. If the moral you propose were the intent, one would expect Abraham to decline to kill his son and God responding "well done". But that is not what happens. The story is clearly one in which God is testing how far will Abraham go in obeying the Lord, once it is clear that he will go as far as killing the child he loves, only then is he told he doesn't really need to do it. Even this may be a twist ending that was added later. I have time for the argument that it was in fact amended to have Isaac survive, whereas an earlier version might have had him being killed.


        • Kevin Aldrich

          Aren't you just interpreting this story with a modern sensibility and isolated from everything else in the Scriptures and the Christian faith?

          Would this make you an agnostic who interprets the Bible like a Protestant fundamentalist?

          The danger might be that one could make it a proof text for a reestablished conclusion, namely an interpretation that proves Christianity should be rejected.

          • I am interpreting it from a literary point of view. A plain language reading of it. I am trying to uncover what the author intended when he wrote it. (Authors and editors really, we have both Elohist and Yawhist sources represented here.)

            I don't see the point in using texts and theology developed hundreds of years later. You can and I understand you have to based on your theology and religious tradition. I have yet to be convinced to accept that theology or tradition.

            But hang on, you said 'God does not require this sacrifice of Abraham. In fact, no where in the OT does God demand anyone sacrifice his child or anyone else's." does not Genesis 22 directly contradict this? Or do you think telling someone to do something is not requiring it of them? At least until the angel stayed Abraham's hand it was required?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I mean "demand" or "require" in the sense that it has to be done.

            Interestingly, according to one Jewish scholar, the standard Jewish reading of the binding of Isaac is that it is a "thought experiment," a mere "hypothetical" situation to test Abraham that God would never carry out because it was directly contrary to his nature.


          • Gen Li

            Kevin, that's some moronic modern rabbinism there, with nothing at all behind it.

        • Gen Li

          That's an intensely stupid argument. Isaac was the child of promise. No Isaac, no promise. And you would have seen the Israelites making human sacrifices like the Phoenicians/Philistines did.

          • No you would not. Rather few societies at that time performed human sacrifice. Consider the Romans sone years later, they abhorred human sacrifice.

          • Gen Li

            Incorrect. Romans abhorred only child sacrifice. They were perfectly happy with the gladiatorial games--not just the skilled fighters but also the mass slaughter of war captives for a religio-social institution. Though they'd dropped some of the trappings of the funeral human sacrifice that they'd started as, they still had that root and that reason for existence. Truly mass sacrifices of humans emerged infrequently and those cultures were obliterated pretty aggressively, but a low-scale level of background human sacrifice was extremely common in the ancient world, and human sacrifice during times of excessive stress more normal than not.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Duh? The Jews were the only people in that milieu who did not sacrifice their children to their gods. This was the story that drove that mandate home. Abram is a good member of the Syriac Civilization, ready to do the Moloch thingie, and then God himself intervenes to stop it. Even the Greeks sacrificed their children to secure fair winds for their corsairs, and the Roman paterfamilias retained life-and-death power over even his grown children. Tacitus remarked in his list of Jewish outrages the fact that they did not kill their children.

      The "bloodbath that is the Old Testament" is pretty much the bloodbath that is the ancient world.

      • William Davis

        Duh? The Jews were the only people in that milieu who did not sacrifice their children to their gods.

        Deuteronomy 21

        18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.

        Sure, the child had to be rebellious first, but the father was the judge and jury, the town just helped with the stoning. What you said is false, the only external evidence of anyone who sacrificed their children in the ancient times comes from the Phonecians and Carthage, and those were worshipers of Baal. The cult of Baal was indeed horrible. Jewish fathers certainly retained the right to kill their children, even sell them into slavery Exodus 21

        7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 8 If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter.

        I mean, sexual slavery? And you are defending this guys?

        Let's look at Tacitus:

        'Whatever their origin, these rites are sanctioned by their antiquity. Their other customs are perverted and abominable, and owe their prevalence to their depravity. All the most worthless rascals, renouncing their national cults, started showering them with offerings and tribute. This is one cause of Jewish prosperity. Another is that they are obstinately loyal to each other and always ready to show compassion, whereas they feel nothing but hatred and enmity for the rest of mankind. They separate themselves from others both in meals and in bed: although immoderate in sexual indulgence, they refrain from intercourse with foreign women: among themselves anything is allowed. They have introduced circumcision to distinguish themselves from other people. Those who are converted to their customs adopted the same practice, and the first lessons they learn are to despise the gods, to renounce their country, and to regard parents, children and brethren as worthless.

        However, they take steps to increase their numbers. They count it a crime to kill any of their later-born children, and they believe that the souls of those who die in battle or under execution are immortal. Thus they think much of having children and facing death. They prefer to bury and not burn their dead. In this, as in their concern for and belief in an underworld, they conform to Egyptian custom."

        Sounds like he is describing the Nazis doesn't it? The early Jews were quite like the Nazis in many ways, an absurdly racist people. I enjoy their stories (some of my favorite philosophers are Jews) but common, don't buy their propaganda about everyone around them being more evil than they were. It was identical to Nazi propaganda, one of history's great and sad ironies.

        Most of the child sacrifice happened in South America. I haven't found anything to support the idea that Greeks sacrificed their children, but they accurately accused the Carthaginians of it. Recall Carthage was a Phoenician city. There is absolutely NO evidence the Sumerian, Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians (who were more cruel than the Jews) Greeks, or Romans did this.

        I find Christian slander of these peoples annoying, we owe these civilization a great debt.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          Ever anxious to accuse the Jews of perfidy, eh?

          But the example you cited in your proof-texting was a legal proceeding, not child sacrifice or ritual killing. No one has claimed that there were no severe penalties for ANE gang-bangers, or that ancient and classical jurisprudence was not by later standards extremely cruel. The only claim was that the Jews alone in that milieu did not sacrifice children to the gods. Consider:

          Deut. 12: 29-31. When the Lord, your God, cuts down from before you the nations you are going in to dispossess, and you have dispossessed them and are settled in their land, ... Do not inquire regarding their gods, “How did these nations serve their gods, so I might do the same.” You shall not worship the Lord, your God, that way, because they offered to their gods every abomination that the Lord detests, even burning their sons and daughters to their gods.

          Deut. 18:10. Let there not be found among you anyone who causes their son or daughter to pass through the fire...

          Lev.18:21. You shall not offer any of your offspring for immolation to Molech, thus profaning the name of your God.

          Which are fairly clear in their condemnation.

          There are only two references to ritual slaying of children in the historical books of the Bible: a legendary account regarding the hero Jephtha (Judges 11:30-35) and an historical account of King Mannasah condemning him for the act (2 Kings 21: 2-6). The Jephtha story is an origin story for an annual women's festival in the region. It is the only mention of ritual slaying of one's child that is not wrapped in a condemnation.

          There is also a mention of child-sacrifice by the Moabites during a war with Israel (2 Kings 3:26-27), an act so terrible to the Israelis that they abandoned the siege.

          Jeremiah also mentions that people in the Valley of Ben-hinnom "have done what is evil" in God's eyes: "They go on building the high places of Topheth to sacrifice their sons and daughters by fire, something I never commanded or considered." (Jer. 7:30-31)
          There is absolutely NO evidence the Sumerian, Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians

          I wrote "in that milieu," namely the Syriac Civilization. Elsewhere, the sacrifices were primarily adult, for example the Greek and Gaulish couples killed and buried under the Forum Boarium. The Romans outlawed human sacrifice in 97 BC, but the gladiatorial games continued.

          You will note that the Roman paterfamilias also retained the power of life and death over his children, even when they were adults; but most especially for newborns. These were placed at the feet of the paterfamilias and if he did not take her up, the child was exposed to the elements. This was not a ritual slaying, so we might say that the Romans (and Greeks) were more cold-blooded about it.

          Examples of extispicy were most often of animal entrails, but on some occasions
          women and children were used. Even so, Dio Cassius mentions a case in which the emperor Didius Julianus sacrificed children to foresee the future. And Julian the Apostate eviscerated a women in the Temple of the Moon at Carra to forecast success in his Persian campaign. Both extispicies turned out wrong. The brass
          vases used to contain their viscera have been excavated by archeologists
          in the ruins of temples along with baby skulls.

          In Homer, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter before setting out for
          Troy; and Menelaus sacrificed two Egyptian boys to secure fair winds for
          his return.
          The early Jews were quite like the Nazis in many ways, an absurdly
          racist people. ... some of my favorite philosophers
          are Jews

          How very tolerant of you. But I am curious why you altered the text of Tacitus.
          I find Christian slander of these peoples annoying, we owe these civilization a great debt.

          We owe German civilization a great deal too. That doesn't mean everything they did was admirable by our standards.

          • William Davis

            a legendary account regarding the hero Jephtha (Judges 11:30-35) and an historical account of King Mannasah condemning him for the act (2 Kings 21: 2-6).

            It seems awfully convenient to call the sacrifice a legend, and the condemnation historical but I'll let it pass as long as you admit Homer's works were mythological, not historical. There is a lot of evidence that Israel had a real problem with human sacrifice, why else would it be condemned so often. Remember, El and Baal were friends. No wonder they became monotheistic after a while, it was better to deny Baal's existence altogether. It did seem to help solve the problem.

            Here's another case in 2 Kings that looks a heck of a lot like human sacrifice, chapter 23

            19 Moreover, Josiah removed all the shrines of the high places that were in the towns of Samaria, which kings of Israel had made, provoking the Lord to anger; he did to them just as he had done at Bethel.20 He slaughtered on the altars all the priests of the high places who were there, and burned human bones on them. Then he returned to Jerusalem.

            He did just kill them, he killed them on the altars, sounds like human sacrifice to me.

            I compare the Jews to the Nazis because of things like this:

            1 Samuel 15

            2 Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

            It wasn't enough to kill the people, they had to kill the animals too. Why? Because they occupied the Jewish "Fatherland"

            Look at this verse from Deuteronomy 7:

            6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

            There are plenty more where this came from of course.

            Back to human sacrifice, many forget that human sacrifice is at the very core of Christianity, the sacrifice of Jesus. Why did God need to kill his own completely innocent son? Because he was a bloodthirsty monster who demanded death for a supposed mistake Adam and Eve made (we've completely trashed original sin on SN, I haven't seen any supporters). I don't blame Paul for what he did, he was a brilliant opportunist who used the death of Jesus to stop the butchering of animals. It was a brilliant way to convince everyone that God's blood lust was satisfied. The entire thing, however hinges on the idea that God was, in fact, a blood thirsty monster.
            I agree that there is history in the Bible, but I don't trust anything that isn't externally verified. You can probably tell I will never be a Christian, and that is because I have a positive view of God, and the world we live in. I fail to see how that is a bad thing :)

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            It seems awfully convenient to call the sacrifice a legend, and the condemnation historical

            That's the consensus of the scholars. There was a festival that the young women conducted annually, so there had to be a story to explain where the festival came from. It's a familiar format evident in the legends of many peoples. (Remember, a legend is not a myth.) The Book of Judges is one poised delicately on the divide between the legends and the history. Some of what it relates is evidently historical. There really were Philistines, and they really did occupy the coast, penning the Israelite coalition in the hill country. But there is also evidence that the book was stitched together from multiple sources (some stories are told twice! one iirc three times!) that may reflect the diversity withing the coalition. It is very similar overall to the Irish Book of Invasions.

            King Manasseh was an historical figure, attested by Moabite sources as well as archeology. The Book of Kings is a digest form of the long-lost court chronicles of Israel and as such resembles the Irish Annals of the Four Masters. It's called "historical" for the excellent reason that it was historical, whereas the earlier tale was called "legendary" for the excellent reason that it was.

          • William Davis

            I believe you, you're usually right on these things, but it is awfully convenient ;) Someone should clue the fundamentalists in on this (if it were possible), they seemed to take it quite literally when I was growing up, and also celebrated Jephthah devotion to God for murdering his daughter. I always wonder why they thought God accepted the promise, and why God didn't stop Jephthah like he did Abraham. Perhaps this was Yahweh instead of El, or maybe not.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            The legends and folklore of many peoples have tales in which the hero makes a promise only to discover that fulfilling it entails tragic consequences. Cuchulain must fight and kill his BFF Ferdiad; Oedipus marries his mother. It is a very powerful trope. But societies at a certain level of development put great stress on keeping a promise regardless of the difficulty or of unexpected circumstances. Contrast this to the Late Modern trope which holds that promises are made to be broken at the least rationalization.

          • William Davis

            Not holding to promises is a very big problem in modern society, look at the divorce rate. I think failure to keep promises has a lot to do with lack of self control, in a strong sense, self control is about making promises to yourself (or God, depending on your point of view) and keeping it. A lot of lack of trust today is due to failure to keep promises. I trust no marketing or salesman because I assume (very often correctly) that they are going to make false or exaggerated promises they could care less about keeping. It just makes more sense to reject the entire enterprise of sales and marketing as untrustworthy, which is a bit sad. I only trust 3rd party ratings and advice. False promises and scams on the elderly seem very common today, I wish there was more we could do to stop that.
            In my mind, Jephthah broke a promise to his wife and daughter when he went through with the sacrifice. To me, having a child comes with an inherent and natural promise to do everything you can to protect them, even to your own detriment. Unless it would have endangered his children too greatly, it would have been better if Jephthah had offered himself in the stead of his daughter. He was the one who made the foolish promise to begin with, it was his mistake. Of course, the entire thing revolves around the odd view that God is somehow pleased by slaughter.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            There is nothing in the story that to indicate that God either demanded the sacrifice nor was pleased with it. It reads much older than the priestly tradition. It's told in a simple matter-of-fact manner, like most cultural-origin tales.

            The thing that fundamentalist-literalist readers never seem to get is that no text is self-explanatory. Even the US Constitution, which was intended to be self-explanatory, requires a Supreme Court to settle interpretations. So one question we might ask is: how did the rabbinical schools read the passage? How did it influence Jewish behavior? It might as well be a cautionary tale whose lesson is Don't Make Foolishly Worded Promises. (Augustine suggested that the loss of his daughter was Jephthah's punishment.) Or it might be a deliberately hyperbolic story of the terrible duty to keep your promises, no matter what. Or did the sacrifice mean that she was dedicated to the Lord though a life of celibacy -- hence, her bewailing of never to have children. The midrash has Jephthah punished by having his limbs fall off one by one, and the high priest (who could have dissolved the vow) lost his inspiration. Jephthah was almost universally condemned in both the midrash and in Christian writings ("demented father" and "malignant demon" were two descriptions of Jephthah). A minority among Jewish commentators held that the word used for "sacrifice" also could mean "dedicated" and did not always mean "burnt offering."

            So we know that neither religious tradition accepted the passage in the naive-literalist manner of Late Moderns.

            It is a mistake to read it through the sensibilities of a Christian or post-Christian world view.

          • William Davis

            For the record, I'm touchy on the subject because everyone I grew up with seemed to think everyone the Jews killed obviously had it coming to them. They thought everyone but the Jews was pure evil, and this simply isn't the case.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Life was not gentle among Bronze Age peoples. Check out the palette of Nar Mer in Egypt, Assyrian bas-reliefs, or tales of how the Nile flowed with blood when Semerkhet raised the hawk standard at Nekeb-Kekhen and re-took the Delta. One might say that we'd not be talking about the Hebrews at all had they not given as good as they got. It is a mistake to interpret ancient texts as if they had the options open the Late Modern Westerner.

            Ironically, the story of the great invasion of Canaan may be a patchwork. There is some evidence to suggest that the tribes in the coalition had disparate origins. For example, the passage that "Dan abided on his ships" and could not take possession of his allotted piece of Canaan raises the odd question of what a tribe that has just spent forty years crossing a desert was doing on ships. (One suggestion is that Dan was actually a Phillistine clan that had thrown in with the Hebrews, making their possession of coastal territory problematic. Hence, the migration.) (Also notice the trope of referring to an entire clan or tribe as if it were a single individual.) During the civil war, when Ephraim and the other East Bankers went against the West Bank tribes, they were identified by their mispronunciation of shibboleth as sibboleth. This is the same pronunciation difference between modern Hebrew and Arabic; so it may be that some of the tribes were arabs.

            There is no archeological evidence that the cities of Canaan were destroyed during a single time-frame, so the tribal legends of various distinct tribes that had happened at different times may have been welded imperfectly into a single narrative. The terrible massacres may never have happened.

            The why claim they did? Remember the 'hood they were living in. You had to come across as one tough hombre if you wanted to get by with the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians. So, look how tough we are; don't mess with us.

          • William Davis

            I personally think the Israel evolved out of Canaan. This is highly speculative, but goes along with what you just said. Whether or not they actually worshiped the same gods, they had the same names for the gods, and their language seemed to evolve out of out of Canaanite language. It wouldn't be surprising, however, that they killed off some competing states, this was pretty common back then. I just take issue with enshrining this as part of a religious text.

            One "problem" with natural moral law is that it is quite tribalistic. I mean the word kind comes from the same root as kin. No doubt evolution and natural selection played a powerful role in making us this way, and this is something that still shows up in powerful ways today, it truly is a built in part of human nature, for better or for worse. In my mind, the Jews had better internal morality, much like Tacitus claimed, but it only applied to the tribe. The Greek and Roman internal morality was noticeably worse, but they were open minded to other cultures, even they they obviously thought their own culture was better. The Greeks and Romans always did have a sort of love/hate relationship. Paul combined Jewish internal morality, Jesus's love and compassion, and Roman secularism to give us a religion superior to anything that existed at the time, Christianity. There are some hints in the gospels that Jesus may not have been completely on board with this, but you may be able to enlighten me here, take this passage (there is one for a Syrian Greek in Mark):

            21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

            Sure, he healed the woman and gave her the time a day, something many Jews would not have done, but that was only after she agreed her daughter was a dog (or little dog, I hardly see how that is better).

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            They did not enshrine it in a religious text. It only became a religious text much later when it was part of a bundle of scrolls fortuitously rescued from the flames of Jerusalem and was carried off to Babylon. There, it became a tool for maintaining Jewish identity amidst the Babylonians, something no other ethnically-cleansed people ever managed back in those days.

            Besides, you have to consider what it means for a story to be included in a religious text. It is not by any measure an endorsement.

      • William Davis

        The "bloodbath that is the Old Testament" is pretty much the bloodbath that is the ancient world.

        On the flipside you are definitely right about this. Everything was barbaric back then. This is a curiosity I've found interesting, apparently Baal and El were friends before the Israelites showed up in Canaan

        "In the Baal cycle, Ba'al Hadad is challenged by and defeats Yam, using two magical weapons (called "Driver" and "Chaser") made for him by Kothar-wa-Khasis. Afterward, with the help of Athirat and Anat, Ba'al persuades El to allow him a palace. El approves, and the palace is built by Kothar-wa-Khasis. After the palace is constructed, Ba'al gives forth a thunderous roar out of the palace window and challenges Mot. Mot enters through the window and swallows Ba'al, sending him to the Underworld. With no one to give rain, there is a terrible drought in Ba'al's absence. The other deities, especially El and Anat, are distraught that Ba'al has been taken to the Underworld. Anat goes to the Underworld, attacks Mot with a knife, grinds him up into pieces, and scatters him far and wide. With Mot defeated, Ba'al is able to return and refresh the Earth with rain.[18]"


        The connection between the Hebrew Bible and Ugarit is very strong. Not only is Elohim the name of the Canaanite gods, but El Elyon, the God of Abraham, is their top deity. What's more, the language of the tablets there has helped us translate the Hebrew Bible. I'm glad El came out victorious in the end, Baal turned into a terrible god (probably a precursor of Christian Satan)


        Ancient history is very interesting and obviously speculative, but there is enough evidence to be sure we can't take the Hebrew Bible seriously as a historical document. I think they did a good job retelling many ancient myths in Genesis, and overall I sympathize with Abraham a great deal.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          Ancient history is very interesting and obviously speculative

          Not as speculative as many Moderns suppose. There is a lot of interpretation required, interpolation of text, consideration of con-text, but interpretation is not mere speculation. For example, a passage in the Bible mentioning the face of a giant rising above the Mediterranean horizon may be a record of the smoke cloud of the Santorini explosion. Not everything in ancient and classical times was written down, and not all that was written down has survived "mice, flood, and fire." There are periods of Egyptian history, for example, that are virtually free of any documentation, not only quotidian records, but even monuments and other durable goods. In some cases, we must rely on a single text. Did Tiberius really take baths with naked children? Did Antony really plunder the great Library of Pergamum to restock his girl friend's library in Alexandria after it had been burned in the war with Julius Caesar? OTOH, there are some events that are quite well attested

          but there
          is enough evidence to be sure we can't take the Hebrew Bible seriously
          as a historical document.

          Sure we can. We just can't take all of it literally. For example, the battle with the Moabites mentioned previously is backed up by a Moabite inscription, naturally enough from a Moabite pov. Books of prophecy, collections of wedding songs and proverbs, collections of liturgical songs and of law books, etc. are not history books per se, but that does not mean that they cannot be taken seriously as historical documents: i.e., contain matter of interest to the historian regarding customs and practices.

          • William Davis

            I agree with all of this, but I don't trust history that doesn't cross reference. I personally find that the Exodus is historically possible (though I doubt it). The Egyptians never lost any battle, even when their victories continuously got closer and closer to home, instead of going the other way, lol. I still enjoy stories I don't trust to be historical.

    • MattyTheD

      It's an understandable reaction. But I have a question, why do you think billions of people, over thousands of years, drew such a different conclusion from that story than you drew?

    • Matthew Lord

      In my opinion I see that as a foreshadowing of the crucifixion..Abraham says God will provide the lamb and....Christ= lamb of god.

    • Gen Li

      The sacrifice of Isaac served multiple purposes.

      1) It established that the followers of Yahweh did not follow God with less strength and faith than the followers of the corrupted pagan beings. Other tribes would ESPECIALLY kill slaves. The first chosen line of Yahweh did not hold back his son because he trusted God to work for good--that whatever he did in faith following God's commands could not be evil. Killing a slave would be FAR more evil than killing his son. The person would be no more deserving of it, and the experience would be trivial for Abraham. This, on the other hand, would have been the end of the line and a seemingly broken promise from God.

      2) It was a polemic AGAINST human sacrifice for all future generations of Yahweh. It tells the people both what not to do and what to do. Abraham did not know God well. Your ideas of what God should and shouldn't do come from passages like these, even if they confused you. Because of this passage and teachings like this, you know that God WON'T tell you to kill your kids. This was crucially, critically necessary in the world that they lived in, where there was a lot of human sacrifice. Without the interrupted sacrifice of Isaac, there would have been a lot of sacrificial killings of people because the culture around them was steeped in it. You're going to remember the story of a sacrifice stopped. You can make excuses for why "And you shall choose a lamb without any spot, and never sacrifice a person" can be seen as not necessarily valid at this moment. And despite this teaching, there is another human sacrifice in the Bible. That time, hundreds of years later, a general declares that in gratitude for his victory, he'll sacrifice the first person he sees on return to the Israelite camp. God arranges that person to be his daughter to teach him how evil his heart was. And rather than putting himself in her place or begging forgiveness from God, the general compounds his crime by actually killing her. This was an evil thing, a defiance against God's order to make a "bigger" sacrifice than that which the law set up. The message apparently finally got through this time, because there are no more human sacrifices in the name of God--of all the abominations the Israelites are accused of by their prophets later, human sacrifice is never one of them, and they lived next to the Punic peoples, who were crazy for human sacrifice.

      3) It was a prefiguration of Christ--who is Abraham's final promised seed who is slain. Yet Yahweh is showing what he DOES NOT ask Abraham or any of the other Israelites to do. His mercy gives them another way than the way of the pagans--an animal offering for their sin. But he himself does not hold back what he saves Isaac and Abraham from. It is not only his Son but also himself--this sacrifice is made more ultimate by the understanding of the Trinity. As a mature adult, Christ could make the decision to allow himself to be killed, as he did.

      The fact that you understood none of this is pretty telling of your state of ignorance as a whole. This isn't some weird thing pulled out of the story. It's the main thrust of the event. You are taking one of the lessons the event was meant to teach (and did, with that single exception!) and then trying to use it to condemn the lesson in its teaching. That's completely backwards.

      • I disagree, i think killing a slave or an Isaac is just as immoral. Neither Isaac or the slave is deserving of being killed in this story. It's disturbing that you make such value judgments on human lives based on lineage and circumstances. On my morality all life is equal.

        The old testament is clear when it prohibits things. It does not prohibit human sacrifice. To the contrary, god orders one and Abraham obeys. God never says this is prohibited or wrong or that tomorrow he won't require human sacrifice.

        Even with this story human sacrifice continued worldwide for centuries. It is ridiculous to think this was how a god would try to stop it.

        Jeptha's sacrifice of his daughter is not denounced anywhere in the Bible. It would seem god accepted the offer to exchange a win for the killing of the daughter.

        Yaweh did ask Abraham to kill Isaac, then apparently changed his mind. It's easy to re-write the story as a prohibition on human sacrifice. E.g. it's Abraham's idea to sacrifice Isaac for some earthly desire, win a war or endba famine or something. But when he tries, the knife breaks, he uses a stone, it turns to dust, then the lamb appears, or better yet god says don't sacrifice anything to me, I'm infinite and perfect, and all that you would sacrifice is mine already, you are not the barbaric Carthaginians or Inca who's gods are transactional, etc.

        But that isn't the story. Just the telling of Abraham to kill his son is abusive, abhorrent, and entirely gratuitous.

        It's rather sad that some theists feel they need to justify this terrible story as perfectly good.

        • Gen Li

          I think you can only be being obtuse on purpose to misunderstand what I said. I did not say that it was not immoral to kill a slave. YOU said that it would be LESS immoral to kill a slave--you thought the story would have made God less cruel if Abraham had been told to kill a slave. That was your argument! And I disagreed with YOU. It would have been easier for Abraham to kill a slave and so the evil would have been equal but the emotional burden on Abraham lighter. To feel the weight of what he was setting himself up to do, Isaac, who was absolutely everything to him, was the only possible choice, because no one could have affected him more deeply than that.

          Once again you show your utter ignorance of the Bible.
          Human sacrifice is prohibited in MULTIPLE places. There is a death sentence for anyone who sacrifices their children twice in Leviticus and then they're forbidden again in Deuteronomy. (Child sacrifice was the form of human sacrifice practiced in that region.)

          In Deuteronomy 12, child sacrifice is listed as the number one reason why God had passed judgment on the nations he was sending the Israelites to crush: "29The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, 30and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” 31You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods."

          But according to you, it's okay? I said saying this wasn't SUFFICIENT, not that it didn't happen. It did. We still had Japhthah after the fact--one despite all the prohibitions and the example of Isaac to be made a further example of.

          In fact, this is the reason why Abraham doesn't immediately get the land that his descendants are promised. God foreknows that the people of Canaan will do this, but this is not yet a very popular practice that they were spreading around yet, and so they were not yet under the full weight judgment that would come. In Genesis, we read, "In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure." (That's only the generation of the patriarchs, not the full generations of descendants--there are no patriarchs between Joseph and Moses.)

          But I guess that you'd say that it's both bad to sacrifice people and also bad for God to punish people for spreading the practice of human sacrifice because it simply doesn't give you enough warm fuzzies.

          Human sacrifice was ended only by three means. Before Christ, it ended only by the violent destruction of one culture by another. After Christ, it was wiped out either through conversion, governmental pressure by a Christian-informed government, or by violent destruction. It was wiped out in China when the Shang were obliterated by the Zhou. It was almost entirely wiped out the Levant by the Israelites. It was wiped out in the Western Mediterranean by the Romans. And it was eventually wiped out everywhere by Christians. That's the cold and honest truth. The God of the Bible operates through both the free will of man and his own sovereignty. Since Christians ended human sacrifice as an institution in places as far apart as Mexico, Peru, Hawaii, West Africa, and India...it seems pretty ridiculous to say that they didn't. You could have made this argument a couple of thousand years ago. You can't make it now.

          In India, Hindu priests complained that is was their Hindu custom to burn widows, to which a British officer replied, "“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs." The human sacrifice of widows was ended by the British rule, along with many similar practices.

          And yes, this British custom all came only from the lesson of the sacrifice of Isaac, because the Celts and the Germans before they were Christianized were entirely comfortable with human sacrifice, and the Romans killed people for sport in their arenas, which was abolished (again) through the influence of the church.

          The fact that you're imagining this as the mercurial and cruel ploy of a god amused to see people squirm shows your idiocy and blindness. It was very rare for a culture to categorically reject human sacrifice. The Jews did BECAUSE OF THIS STORY. Because of the way it was written. This story ended human sacrifice around the world because it cultivated in people a horror of it when before it had been praised--the "wise" Greeks respected human sacrifice, even. And again, the story of Jephthah's evil vow was recorded (among countless small events that might have been recorded) to show how very necessary the story, in addition to the prohibitions (which were so easily ignored), actually was. There are many people who do bad things in the Bible who don't get editorially condemned by the writers. Lot's daughters aren't editorially condemned, nor is his drunkenness. Neither is Lamech. You're supposed to be morally competent enough to figure out that these people are being described doing bad things. But you clearly aren't. You think the story would have been morally better if Abraham had been told to kill a slave--because you entirely miss the point.

          Most cultures throughout history would have thought that the actual sacrifice of Isaac would have been entirely normal for a god. There is nothing more ridiculous than having moral quibbles at a polemic AGAINST it because you want to project a stunted teenager's impressions in the twentieth or twenty-first century on something that was understood perfectly well for millennia. But your reading has to be right because you FELT it. Good grief.

          • Ok, it seems we agree it is equally immoral to kill a slave or your own child, so we can dispense with comments like "killing a slave would be far more immoral".

            I think I quite clearly explained I considered them equal, and in my original comment I did not say killing a slave would be less evil. I'm sorry if you interpreted it that way.

            I agree that in the Bible Abraham loves Isaac more than Ishmail which is pretty unfortunate. Maybe he shouldn't have committed adultery and trusted that God would fulfill his promise of offspring with his aged wife.

            Thanks for those citations in which killing children in other nations is denounced. But that speaks of killing your own children, not human sacrifice. I would have thought it would be easy to just put it in one of the hundreds of commandments to "never kill, or beat a child, never engage in any sexual activity with a child" but maybe that's asking too much.

            According to me it's always bad to kill a child as a religious practice, and it's immoral for god to tell Abram to kill Isaac. Even if he was kidding.

            I'll defer to you on on the ending of human sacrifice. I'm not altogether sure it doesn't still happen. But like you say the Romans didn't do it and they didn't need the story of Abraham and Isaac to explain bit to them. It was already an abomination during the Punic wars.

            Oh goodness, bloodbath entertainment wasn't abolished by Christians. Public executions and torture were widely viewed. And bear bating. But this is an aside.

            No I don't see the Isaac story as God being amused to see people squirm. Rather it follows a pretty solid theme throughout many of the books in the OT, obedience to God's commands is the most important rule. The story is pretty obvious, the most valuable thing to Abraham is to have a male heir, lineage is extremely important. But God's orders are even more important. Whatever god says you must do irrespective bad or how abhorrent. Whether killing you child as Abraham was ordered to or killing the children of others as Saul was ordered. Strict adherence to divine commands is all that matters. Uzzah found out the hard way.

            I'm more inclined to think the Jews wrote this story because they'd given up, or abhorred human sacrifice, rather than the other way round. I'm open to the theory that an earlier version Isaac is in fact sacrificed.


            It certainly didn't end human sacrifice. The practice continued into this century.

            Yes I agree that even in the Bible god is unable to enforce this commands effectively and all kinds of immoral behaviour is not condemned, it is often celebrated.

            No I don't believe the story would be morally better if he'd been ordered to kill a slave. I think it would be better if say Abraham was going to sacrifice his son but god tells him not to, or as I said above, if Abraham refuses to do it and god explains thst that is the right response when someone tells you to kill your child.

            Your right when I encountered this story in university I was shocked it appeared in a Miracle play from the middle ages. I felt that. I felt it impossible to think Abraham was a good person when he agreed to kill his son. I was confident this was a bastardization of what the Bible said, as I couldn't believe such an abhorrent story was in the Bible. But it is. And I'm still pretty surprised that people try and defend it as in any way moral.

  • David Nickol

    Curious about what this non-easy art might involve, I did some searches and found a clip of the video on Youtube (it’s called Fire in My Belly by David Wojnarowicz if you’re interested, though I don’t recommend viewing it). It features images of ants crawling on a crucifix juxtaposed with flickering shots of a young man doing something pornographic.

    I don't think this is a fair or accurate description of the film. Just because certain images are in the same film does not mean they are juxtaposed. The scene with the ants and the crucifix begins at time 16:50 in the film. It is juxtaposed with a number of images (two halves of a loaf of bread being sewn together, a human mouth being sewn shut), and there is a clear break (around 18:00) between that sequence and the sequence of a man masturbating, which is juxtaposed with scenes of sides of beef at a slaughterhouse. (Also, I am not sure it is very accurate to say the film features images that appear for perhaps a total of 30 seconds.)

    Now, I am not a big fan of this kind of art, but there are two things I can say with a certain confidence. First, it was most emphatically not created to be beautiful. "Is it art?" and "Is it beautiful?" are two different questions, and some things that are beautiful are not art, while some things that are art are not beautiful. Second, it was not meant to be blasphemous. Here's an excerpt from an article in The New York Times.

    That “A Fire in My Belly” is about spirituality, and about AIDS, is beyond doubt. To those caught up in the crisis, the worst years of the epidemic were like an extended Day of the Dead, a time of skulls and candles, corruption with promise of resurrection. Wojnarowicz was profoundly angry at a government that barely acknowledged the epidemic and at political forces that he believed used AIDS, and the art created in response, to demonize homosexuals.

    He felt, with reason, mortally embattled, and the video is filled with symbols of vulnerability under attack: beggars, slaughtered animals, displaced bodies and the crucified Jesus. In Wojnarowicz’s nature symbolism — and this is confirmed in other works — ants were symbols of a human life mechanically driven by its own needs, heedless of anything else. Here they blindly swarm over an emblem of suffering and self-sacrifice.

    I am quite sure I remember that one of the techniques the evil characters in the C.S. Lewis novel That Hideous Strength use to corrupt and degrade others is to have them step on, spit on, or otherwise desecrate sacred symbols. If a movie were to be made of the novel, there could be scenes of someone being urged or forced to step on an image of Jesus on he crucifix. It might be shocking on film, but it would no more be blasphemous or irreverent as the same scenes in the book—unless, of course, the scenes were taken out of context by someone who didn't understand them.

    The basic question raised by Jennifer Fulwiler in the OP, thought pegged to events of about four years ago, is certainly worth discussing. But it probably is best to do so without trashing specific works of modern art that Bill Donohue of the Catholic League (who helped stir up opposition to the David Wojnarowicz film some years ago) and others with no sympathy for, or understanding of, contemporary art use to further their own ends without any desire to understand it. Sometimes (in fact, a lot of the time) art really isn't easy.

  • David Nickol

    To make the case—from a pure atheist-materialist perspective—that that box was not as beautiful as, say, a Monet . . . .

    While we do not know the identity of the art or the artist being referred to here, I think it is safe to say that it was not the intent of the artist to make boxes as beautiful as Monet paintings!

    The implication seems to be that there is some objective standard of beauty, and that all art objects can be ranked from most beautiful to least beautiful. I challenge anyone to do that with any reasonable section of art objects. Is Michelangelo's David more or less beautiful than Van Gogh's Irises? How about taking all the paintings of Monet and ranking them from most beautiful to least beautiful? Is Picasso's Guernica beautiful? And where do beautiful greeting cards fit in here?

    • William Davis

      There is another factor to beauty that people seem to forget about or take for granted, and that is exposure. I love music (it is definitely my favorite form of art, I even play the keyboard) but I've always had problems wearing my favorite music out. The more we are exposed to something beautiful, the less beautiful it becomes as we start to become acclimated to it. As a result, I have extremely broad tastes in music because I've worn so much of it out. I honestly find some very hard rock beautiful (Dream Theater is a great example, only hearing them live can truly do them justice) thought it a very different kind of beauty than Mozart.
      Novelty is an important part of the experience of beauty.

      • Loreen Lee

        Interesting. I agree with you on so many things, but not on your idea of novelty.. I had/have a strange way of playing piano. I concentrate on the specific note, attempting to bring out the 'essence'. (Interestingly Kierkegaard regarded music as the universalization of the sensual). This did not make me a possible candidate as a professional pianist, but as an exercise, or even a kind of meditative process, it was extremely interesting and even therapeutic. The idea is that there is always the possibility of 'finding something new', by going 'deeper into the source', i.e. sound in this case. Thus, meditation is key factor here.

        • William Davis

          I'd argue that paying attention music in a meditative state is novel compared to paying attention to music in a normal state. In meditation even something as boring as breath can be quite interesting. At my back I have the International Journal of Design. Novelty is a critical factor in marketing design


          Novelty is surely a completely subjective component to beauty, nothing is changed about Mozart by listening to it, I am the only thing that changes. The tolerance to and drive toward novelty is variable from person to person, and definitely varies with age. My drive toward novelty is on the high end of the spectrum.

          • Loreen Lee

            Complexity, emotion and trendiness, eh! Well, the guys that are making a case for the subjectivity of the beautiful, will certainly appreciate this. But what if other concepts were investigated? Like 'simplicity, intelligence, and the idea of the 'classical'. Maybe I can find some such study in order to promote these ideas as being essential to art!!! No wonder people disagree when it comes to aesthetics. The beauty is in the physical manifestation of the gender of the artist??? You have a very good I though and I behold your argument with great appreciation.....

      • Ignatius Reilly

        I honestly find some very hard rock beautiful (Dream Theater is a great example, only hearing them live can truly do them justice

        Metal is underrated.

    • Hipshot

      That is a great insight, David. Anyone who holds that there is an "objective standard of beauty" should be required to respond to your comment.

    • Gen Li

      If you insist on quantifying beauty for it to exist, then you're a very confused person. It is precisely because there are things that are not quantifiable but are nevertheless real that materialism can't be real. If you could take a measure to it, then you wouldn't need a non-materialist answer.

  • Michael Murray

    Even if I had been able to demonstrate conclusively that humans do have an evolved tendency to register the chemical reactions that indicate “beauty” with some types of art more than others, I couldn’t get around the fact that there was no objective rule that would apply to each individual. Someone could walk into the Sistine Chapel and announce that he thought it was ugly.

    Why on earth would that matter ?

    I would like to know what the boxes were though if anyone knows.

    • Loreen Lee

      I like to think that what motivates some of these Modern artists, since Picasso, is their desire to extend the capacity to appreciate beauty, even within what is 'normally' considered ugly. This particularly would be directed to having a neutrality with respect to such perceptions, which would place them within a higher intellectual assessment. This would somehow be akin perhaps to Nietzsche's 'beyond good and evil', perhaps.

      • Gray

        I like to think that what motivates some of these Modern artistsis their desire to extend the capacity to appreciate beauty,

        I appreciate what you say, but I think that the motivation and desire for most, is just to create because the desire to create is so innate to the character of those with a creative bent that they are driven to create, even though they cannot make a lucrative living by doing so. , and is not so much purpose driven ,not so much by desire to extend any capacity to appreciate beauty per se....although even pathos can have an element of beauty....but I think that for most artists today, their desire is to express themselves and to extend the capacity for all to experience the expression of truth in all of it's reality, beauty, as well as it's ugliness. and pathos. Now I am rambling. But I think any attempt to define the epitome of art as objective is definitely a faux pas.

  • Mike

    If there is no God/gods then beauty our perception of something as symmetrical or proportionate in some kind of pleasing way can only be explained as a fluke a kind of accident something that aids in our reproduction our ability to have more offspring than the next "tribe" - the only teleology in materialism and naturalism seems to be reproduction for reproduction's sake and if "beauty" seems to aid that, "good" if it doesn't, "bad" but either way "beauty" and "good" and "bad" are merely socially mediated/constructed concepts without any real material/natural connection to reality or actual existence - they are in a sense "imaginary".

    Seems to me that objective Beauty can not exist if God does not exist.

    • OverlappingMagisteria

      How does the existence of a god explain objective beauty?

      I ask because oftentimes I hear arguments in the form of "If there is no God, X cannot be explained. Therefore the explanation of X is God!" But then they never elaborate on how God explains X. It is possible that X cannot, or is not currently, explained by anything.

      • Loreen Lee

        God as a subjective, personal 'power', would possible have (even as a prototype) that ability of discernment that would be without bias, a detachment from pragmatic goals for instance, a Buddhist or Kantian sense of 'disinterested or loving detachment'. This would be another 'meaning' that could be applied to the term 'objective'. (What I hope to describe here is certainly not the God of the OT. !! But then perhaps those prophets didn't really understand 'Him/I/Her' that well!!. And the 'concept' I would suggest still needs to be worked on if we are ever to get to Neitzsche's 'beyond good and evil'. Oh! He was an atheist, wasn't he?

      • Mike

        it's not that "God" or gods need to exist but that some other "level" of reality imho has to exist in order for "beauty" or "morality" to be more than just some grande illusion - seems to me that a self contained system is self referential and therefore can not "escape" its own circular reasoning.

        If there is no other "level" of reality then our sense of beauty, morality, justice, love etc. are phantasms however if there is some other level then it seems to me that there is a chance that some of what we experience is real/responding to some "rule" some "archetypal" baseline or something.

        • OverlappingMagisteria

          Thanks. I think I understand what you are saying. Is it similar to how some people say that there is more to a painting than just the material gobs of paint and canvas? That there must be something beyond the physical, but that it has some other non-physical essence?

          I suppose I myself don't see it quite that way. Interacting with the physical world seems pretty "real" to me and I don't see the requirement for some other level or what this additional level adds. But we may have very different understandings of how to define beauty as well.

          Thanks again.

          • Mike

            I don't think that you need "another level" to "experience" "beauty" but i do think you need it to call something "Beautiful" and not just pleasing in some chemical in the brain way.

            To make a judgement any judgement presupposes some kind of standard and so if that standard is itself an illusion or doesn't really exist then there is no objectivity and nothing is good or evil or beautiful but if there is a standard then that standard imho MUST be "outside" the system or it can not judge it, it can not apply as then it just becomes circular and contrived again.

            In short i think that everything is subjective w/o another level of reality.

          • OverlappingMagisteria

            I see. That makes more sense. I suppose I am having trouble because, to me, beauty seems like such a subjective, not objective thing. So it's hard to grasp the requirements of objective beauty if I can't picture what it is.

            But I'm not sure I agree that you need another level of reality in order to have objective facts. It is objectively true that I am 6ft tall. I only need a physical ruler to show this.

          • Mike

            I know what you mean about objective beauty - i am not saying that the "relationship" between beauty and ugliness is exactly knowable like a physics law or math law or chemistry law ie the factor of correlation is not 1 but there does seem to be a scale and like i said the very idea of beauty seems to "point" to some "standard" even one in our own heads.

            Yes of course you are 6 feet tall but the "feet" in "6 feet" is arbitrary and not objective as you know. even meters are not as they are i think based on how long it takes light photons to travel a certain distance but i may be mistaken about that.

            BTW some ppl even say that objective reality does not exist but is somekind of mental perception or whatever.

          • OverlappingMagisteria

            Hmmm.. at first I thought we were both operating under different definitions of "beauty", but now I suspect that it is the word "objective" that we understand differently. When I say that something is "objective" I mean that it is true for all people and not a matter of opinion. The fact that I'm 6ft tall is objective because this fact is true for everyone - if you say that you think I'm 5ft tall, that is simply wrong. Yes, a foot is arbitrarily chosen, but if we agree on what a foot is, then we must agree that I am 6ft. Anything else is just wrong.

            So objective beauty, as I understand it, would mean that how beautiful a painting is does not depend on the observer, but is a fact. It could mean,for example, that the Mona Lisa is more beautiful than Starry Night, and if you say otherwise, you are simply wrong (much like calling me 5ft tall is wrong).

            I agree that beauty does have a scale - some things are more beautiful than others. But this scale is different for every observer in drasically different ways. This is what makes beauty subjective, not objective (at least, according to my usage of the words).

            PS: I assume that you refer to relativistic space dilation when you say "even meters are not as they are." That would only apply if the observers are travelling at drastically different speeds (on the order of the speed of light). And yes, some people say objective reality does not exist....all I'll say is I don't buy that.

          • Mike

            thx. i don't think that for something to be objective it has to be exactly the same for everyone as our perceptions can be more or less attuned to it but it does have to exist somehow apart from the observer and be "judged" by some standard of in this case "beauty" - so unless there is some standard it is just purely subjective - the standard has to "exist" in some other level of reality imho.

            Thx. for engaging,

    • Loreen Lee

      Perhaps 'God' is but one of the ways in which the 'universalizing' power of judgment develops, within a metaphysical context. Interesting though, that I do not remember the Buddhists talking very much about a 'sense' (feeling cognitive power) of beauty.

      • Mike

        funny you mention buddhism but it seems to me that new atheism seems to be morphing into a sort of buddhist metaphysics of reality as "just is" in some eternal cycle of rebirth with no purpose no intent just "Being" as emergent property of "matter" what ever that is.

        • Loreen Lee

          Yeah! and with the inclusion of the multi-verse theory, it's also gone back to ancient Hinduism. It is possible as per the examples of August Comte and Robespierre (I think) who attempted to make positivism a spiritual development that some cosmologist/scientist will attempt to develop another Pythagorean 'religion'!!! ????

    • Loreen Lee

      The imagination can be very under appreciated. Imagination is image. It is perception. It is how we perceive the world. Thus Kant had productive imagination, empirical reality, and reproductive imagination, which would include many diverse kinds. (I'll leave this to you). But amongst them is the ability to make generalizations. So essentially, it is because of our ability to be imaginative that the cognitive resource of the intellect developed. (I"m not really good at argument. Don't really believe it is the best form of communication. I prefer rhetoric actually. But I'll give you more details, if I still have to convince you!!! ) Imagination is the basis of 'judgment': i.e. our definition as homo-sapient!!!!

  • The interesting thing to me is not so much why the sistine chapel is more beautiful than the Grande Arche de la Défense, but that the Grande Arche is beautiful. I can tell the difference between good and bad modern art. I greatly appreciate the Darwinian explanation for beauty, mostly because this explanation doesn't explain beauty away. After all, the cognitive faculties that I use to do math and science and philosophy came about by the same blind natural process. This gives me some confidence that my aesthetic sense is ordered toward truth in the same way that my reason is ordered toward truth. That's strange.

    • Loreen Lee

      Actually, maybe it's not so 'strange' Paul. Kant's third book in his trilogy, The Power of Judgment, concerns an analysis of beauty, the sublime, and teleology.
      These he associates with what makes us 'human', the ability to place particulars within a universal context. This is done in relationship to beauty, through a subjective discernment, which assumes that everybody else will also share our taste on what is beautiful. The latent power of abstract thought shows through even on this level.
      It is also not surprising that the writer of this post felt that beauty 'led her to God'. Kant actually relates the 'vision' of the sublime with this association. Something that Mike at EN might be interested in, because he would like to find the Darwinian explanation for this 'human instinct'. Like with beauty, this is considered objective in the sense that there is a distancing, a seeming lack of bias, a neutrality in the assessment of beauty, and with the sublime, although we may be in great awe, we are also conscious of the intellectual ability that is indeed able to encompass the 'greatness' of such things as a view of the universe, or the force of a hurricane within an intelligent understanding..
      Beauty is thus seen, along with Truth and Goodness as the trilogy which may be compared to Holy Ghost, Son and Father, and within a philosophical context, pathos, logos, and ethos. All of these elements are considered to be metaphysical, but are congruent with the Darwinian naturalist explanation presented so well in another combox.
      The church would say that's also the reason for spending so much money on having beautiful cathedrals. !!! All the best.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Truth or knowledge is a true human good, like friendship, beauty, marriage, and life itself. These things really are good for everyone. Humans really do have a human nature. It is good for us to live according to it.

      • I agree completely.

        • Loreen Lee

          Yes. And according to Kant, it is first the sense of beauty/sublimity/teleology that identifies us as 'human'. The word 'sapient' as in homo sapiens is a direct derivative of the 'power of judgment'. I am become more naturalistic with respect to interpretation, etc. and thus 'feel' that this could be the result of a developmental process. That the ability to have a 'detachment' with regard to the external world, i.e. beauty, etc. could thus be explanatory of the development of such concepts as spirit, God, and the faculty to think beyond the physical, per se. How a reflective consciousness developed could perhaps be associated with this capacity to judge or have a sense of beauty; a capacity which is evident even in animal/animus/soul but which does not contain the many kinds that are analyzed by Kant in his critique, among them beauty in pleasure, beauty in the good. etc. etc.

          It would be good therefore to be able to develop this capacity for disinterested judgment to such an extent that we could see beauty in what is commonly considered to not have beauty. I hope this is what the moderns are aiming for. (And detachment or disinterest in this sense could possibly raise the 'intelligible' order within judgment, (shame vs. disgust for instance) even with respect to concepts of good and evil, so that the propensity for 'poor judgment' could possibly be reduced.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          You are not far from the Kingdom of Kevin.

          • I'm going to substitute that into all the parables. "The Kingdom of Kevin is like a merchant looking for fine pearls."

          • Gray

            You are not far from the Kingdom of Kevin.


  • Ignatius Reilly

    The OP thinks the Sistine Chapel is beautiful and believes that anyone who thinks differently from her is flat out wrong. (This seems rather dogmatic of her.) She finds that she cannot evidence* her theory, so instead of rejecting it, she is pushed towards believing in the Christian God, who is arguably not only logically impossible, but the whole vast, heartless, barren, and chaotic universe overflows with evidence of his non-existence.

    It would seem that the logical choice would be to amend her aesthetic theory, instead of believing in a God who made art objective. Claiming things are true because God made it that way is poor epistemology. It is rather worse to claim that God made things the way you want them to be. It is the path of dogmatism.

    *One could argue rather forcefully that while we do have subjective experiences of art, some art is better than other art. K=Macbeth is better than Hunger Games, for instance.

    • William Davis

      The idea that God must agree with me is bazaar, arrogant, and almost blasphemous.

      • Luke Cooper

        Psst! Bizarre, not bazaar :) I'll edit this out.

        • William Davis

          lol, thanks. I'll admit spelling was never my forte ;)

      • MattyTheD

        "The idea that God must agree with me is bizarre, arrogant, and almost blasphemous."
        True! Which is probably why the author never said that.

        • William Davis

          What I sensed in my soul is that there is indeed a scale of objective beauty. Some works of art are more beautiful than others; therefore, there must be some ultimate source of beauty that the more beautiful works are more like than the less beautiful ones. (To borrow an analogy from G.K. Chesterton, if someone says one city is more like New York than another, that analogy only works if a specific place called New York actually exists.) Yet in order to supersede human opinion, this objective source of beauty couldn’t originate in the human brain, could it?

          If your God is the source of objective beauty, it implies your sense of beauty must come from God. If it comes from God, it must be like God's, therefore God must have the same sense of beauty as I do. Christian's do this a lot without even realizing it. The only thing we can be sure God likes is natural beauty, especially stars and galaxies. If God hates the way the sistine chapel looks (which is entirely possible, how would we know?) then the reason she converted is a non-sense reason. I'm not saying she shouldn't have converted, I'm just saying her reason is absurd.

          • Papalinton

            Your earlier comment: "The idea that God must agree with me is bizarre, arrogant, and almost blasphemous." encapsulates the motivating principle, the very premise from which this OP by Fulwiler germinates; personal proclivity. It bears the exact same distinct and idiosyncratic quirk of the religious mind so aptly commented on by Anne Lamont, American novelist and non-fiction writer, "You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do."

            I suspect her reason for converting is more likely to be motivated by responding to her husband and family context rather than some acontextual modern art exhibition. Fulwiler says it was because of the exhibition but then people are known to spout all sorts of weird and wonderful things when they have a mind to, don't they?

            No need to make further comment on this somewhat jejune and pedestrian Opinion Piece.

          • MattyTheD

            "If it (my sense of beauty) comes from God, it must be like God's, therefore God must have the same sense of beauty as I do." No, that doesn't follow at all, nor does she say that. For example, I can believe "my sense of beauty *originates* from God" without believing "God has the same sense of beauty that I do." Just as I can say "The water in a lower river originates in the mountains" without saying "The water in the lower river is the same as in the mountains."

    • MattyTheD

      IR, I think you've fundamentally misrepresented her philosophical journey (to serve your ideology). Contrary to your claims, she was not dogmatically forcing her experience to fit into the Christian box. According to her own description, she was 1) honestly facing her true, lived experience, and 2) wrestling with the metaphysical implications of that experience, 3) adapting her beliefs to her true lived experience. Your post is far more ideologically dogmatic than hers.

      • Ignatius Reilly

        What exactly is my ideology? It seems like it would be a good thing for me to know. Please enlighten me.

        wrestling with the metaphysical implications of that experience

        Rather poorly. Claiming God made art objective is not a good theory of aesthetics. "Well, I'm right, because God said so" is not a good argument and it is a dangerous argument. It is the argument of (to use your word) ideologues.

        adapting her beliefs to her true lived experience

        Too bad her beliefs include the proposition that other peoples true lived experience is invalid artistically.

        • MattyTheD

          "What exactly is my ideology?" You're right. I misspoke. I should have said that you misrepresented her argument in a way that seems to support your argument.

          "I'm right because God said so" I don't see where she said anything like that.

          "Too bad her beliefs include the proposition that other peoples true lived experience is invalid artistically." I don't see where she said anything like that.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    What I sensed in my soul is that there is indeed a scale of objective beauty. Some works of art are more beautiful than others; therefore, there must be some ultimate source of beauty that the more beautiful works are more like than the less beautiful ones.

    This is a mere assertion. Where is the hard work of showing that there is a scale of beauty and that this hierarchy proves the existence of an ultimate beauty?

    • Gray

      What I >b>sensed in my soul is that there is indeed a scale of objective beauty.

      From your subjective experience/perspective, you determine that there mus be a scale of objective beauty? The soul rears it's head again;-)

      • Kevin Aldrich

        JF is not saying there must be a scale of beauty but that there is. I think she is right. Take any ten men and I think we could arrange them in an order of beauty. Or any ten sunsets and rank them in terms of beauty.

        I don't see why you brought up the idea of soul.

        • Damon

          I have no doubt you could do this subjectively, Kevin, but how would you propose to do this objectively?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            If you put Matt Damon and me side by side naked, 10 out of 10 women would pick Matt as more beautiful.

          • Damon

            And when I find a group of women that somehow, for whatever reason, find you more attractive than Matt Damon, are they objectively wrong because they disagree with the overwhelming majority?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Not wrong. Maybe just sight impaired. ;)

          • Damon

            Funny, but I'm serious. I have no doubt that if we scoured the globe we could find at least a handful of women with 20/20 vision that preferred your appearance to Matt Damon's. So what does this mean if your position is that Matt Damon is inherently more attractive than you are?

          • Loreen Lee

            So your picture and name are what? Are you the real Matt Damon, or do you merely have the need to be like him, and if so -why? - because of some 'lack'. ????

          • Damon

            No I'm "Mac Damon", IRL Damon MacDonald. The avatar is an inside joke.

          • Loreen Lee

            Oh the sharp blade, has such teeth dear, And he keeps them pearly white!!!! Cutting edge joke. You are certainly, at the very least, Mac the knife!!!!

          • Loreen Lee

            Just because I believe you are younger than me and missed the Bertold Brecht phase of the 60's 'rebellion'. Enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEllHMWkXEU P.S. It's great to be the rebel, just like Mac!!!

          • Damon

            Haha, thanks. I had to google "Mac the Knife" and the wikipedia entry made me wonder if your comment was actually an ingeniously clever insult:

            In Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, he [Macheath] is referred to as Mack the Knife, and is the subject of the song of the same name. Whilst his character plays roughly the same role as in the work it is derived from, Macheath is a much less romantic character here, described as a cuthroat, rapist and seducer of underage girls.

          • Loreen Lee

            He was actually regarded as a 'hero'. The women mentioned are all part of the Brecht Theater Company, including Brecht's wife Lotta Lenya. They were of course 'Berlin' communists, who began a new form of Theater, which 'explained to the audience' through posters, etc. what was being conveyed in the plays. I didn't mean it as an insult, but did think after posting it that you could interpret it that way. I don't think actually that Macheath IS Mack the Knife.(Just as you are not Damon!!! ) I have always taken the song as a 'satire'. The whole idea is in the 'playing of a character' or 'having a persona'.

          • Loreen Lee

            He leads the beggars - (communists?) and at the end finds his just reward. This song is the closing song, I believe. There's more on site if this is not enough. The most spectacular spectacle ever!!! http://www.threepennyopera.org/storySynopsis.php

          • Damon

            Thanks for the link, that Macheath sure sounds like an interesting character.

          • Loreen Lee

            I'm a little tired. Just saw American Sniper and want to report to my son who served in Afghanistan. But earlier I too did some reading/research on 'The Beggar's Opera. I did confirm that the song is sung by someone outside the context of the plot, but as a Preface, and thus does not directly refer to the character, but is an 'out of context' introduction which puts the story within a frame of reference.

            So I also learned that although from the perspective of the communists Macheath could be considered a hero, for general purposes he is referred to as an anti-hero. And the post does refer to it's 'insulting' tone, but again there is the duality common to satire, (in this case self-satire - the joke is on us sort of thing) and thus the insulting tone is placed within an interpretation of 'approval'.
            So I can't help myself. I remain an 'idiot savant', a role I played when doing theater/comedy in the sixties. The connections just come to me. In this case I associated a memory of this opera with first, your name Mac and second with the comment you made about your name being a joke. As back in the sixties, I had to check up on myself even, to understand the connection I was making. In any event, I hope I have introduced you to a remarkable piece of art, (even within the context that art can be difficult and not always beautiful) In this case the opera and songs have the status of being 'classic theater', and it is such an important work of art, that I find it is still in production even today. So Mac. That is no joke. But it is too, don't you think? Do you understand how the irony works? Like double entendre. What is art? What is beauty" can also be translated into What is comedy? What is tragedy.? And in a way I'm feeling that dilemna also with respect to the movie I just saw. Want to e-mail my son. Goodnight. And thanks for the conversation.

          • Loreen Lee

            Had to get up to tell you this. This opera was presented during the 30's. Hitler was in power, and already people, dissidents, including entertainers were already being rounded up and put in concentration camps. But not to worry. I am confident that your little joke/reason for identifying with Matt Damon is not nearly so complicated. But it is interesting how many perspectives one can have within an artistic presentation of the tragic-comic!!!! And P.S. I'm sure you are very handsome/beautiful!!!

    • Gray

      What I >b>sensed in my soul is that there is indeed a scale of objective beauty.

      From your subjective experience/perspective, you determine that there mus be a scale of objective beauty? The soul rears it's head again;-)

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    Mrs. Fulwiler's argument seems incomplete.

    She insists that objective beauty exists, but does little to demonstrate that it does. To me, beauty has always seemed to be a subjective opinion. The fact that some people's opinions are strongly held (for example, Mrs. Fulwiler's opinion on the Sistine Chapel) does not make them objective. Nor does a general consensous on people's opinion turn that opinion into objective fact.

    But even if we accept the existence of objective beauty, Mrs. Fulwiler has done little to show how this demonstrates the existence of God. Sure, it may be difficult, or even imposible to explain objective beauty, but in what way does God provide an explaination? Are we using God as just a catch-all explaination for anything? Mrs. Fulwiler made a breif appeal to a Platonic form of beauty (which could be one possible explanation for objective beauty), but gives no reason to conclude that this Platonic form is God. Is the Platonic form of beauty omniscient, personal, omnipotent? Is it even a person at all? Why assume that a Platonic form has attributes that merit calling it a god? These were unexplained.

    • William Davis

      It is also entirely possible that many things we find beautiful are repugnant to God. The idea that God would have the same sense of beauty that I do is not only bazaar but quite arrogant. While God may certainly exist, everyone tends to make God in their own image.

    • MattyTheD

      OM, I agree her argument is incomplete, and I would love to hear how the greatest minds have completed it. However, I think still think it offers something valuable. At the very least, she's pointing out that we all have experiences/perceptions that are so compelling, they suggest the possibility of a transcendent, objective source. Which, interestingly, is consistent with the Christian God. I'd think that philosophically curious folks -- ie truth seekers -- would *want* to explore these questions, if they truly are interested in finding truth. But, instead, it seems to me, the typical response from fundamentalist materialists is to demand that someone else do all the philosophical dot-connecting for them, until X (God) is demonstrated as a causal necessity. Which suggests to me that they're not actually interested in *seeking* the truth, but in having truth handed to them on platter.

      • William Davis

        If God exists, beauty is simply not a direct result from God, it is something indirect and changes dramatically from culture to culture. Learn about the neurology some. There are good arguments the existence of God (I believe in God, just not the God of Christianity) this is not one. Philosophers know this, and beauty has long been discussed in the world of philosophy. We are connecting dots because the dots lead to evolution and psychology.


        While there are objective things we can say about beauty, there is a large subjective component that is completely impossible to remove.

  • Gray

    “What is true art? What is true beauty?”

    The author seems to have determined art art should be beautiful according to her standards. Beauty by the ordinary definition of the word is not a prerequisite of a work of art. Even accidental art can often be considered beautiful, such as a photo of a few drops of spreading oil on a still pond can be beautiful, as can be the poignant image of mother on the street holding her dead child in a war torn country, as is the Pieta. And the list goes on Ad infinitum. Granted the Pieta is admired as much or more so by the average person, for the technical skill that went into it than for the intrinsic beauty of the image of the love of a suffering a mother for her dead child.

    • MattyTheD

      "The author seems to have determined that true art should be beautiful according to her standards."
      Not exactly. She's asserting that true beauty, if it exists, requires an objective source of beauty. And that if an objective source does *not* exists, than the idea of true beauty falls apart. Her point was not that she should be the curator of all art museums.

  • David Nickol

    How do we explain ugliness? I suppose one might argue that ugliness is the lack of beauty, but in my opinion, the lack of beauty would be something like "plainness"—neither beautiful nor ugly. So is there an objective standard of ugliness? And is it somehow determined by God? If beauty is somehow evidence for God's existence, then is ugliness evidence as well?

    • Kevin Aldrich

      If you think about the idea of privation, you can answer your own questions.

      • David Nickol

        No, I don't buy that evil is the absence of good or that ugliness is the absence of beauty. I find it odd that many Catholics on the one hand are rather desperate to convince people that evil exists, and on the other hand subscribe to the theory that evil is just the absence of good.

        • William Davis

          To me, some evil (a.k.a selfishness) is absolutely necessary. Without some selfishness, we'd let ourselves be bullied and potentially destroyed. The irony is that good requires evil in order to exist in a variety of ways, much like a positive charge cannot exist without a negative charge.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Why is self-defense evil?

          • William Davis

            To use your example, what if you person who killed your uncle was defending himself. In your world, the death of your uncle would still be evil, though a justified evil. The Greeks invented trial by jury because revenge killing was getting everyone killed. To the family who loses a loved one, self defense isn't much solace.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            This is cleared up by the distinction between physical and moral evil.

          • Loreen Lee

            Kant give you the list, but Kant differentiated at least a half dozen kinds of beauty, pleasure, moral, etc. etc. I should have paid more attention. Its the best of his books, and as usual very difficult to read. In any case, beauty is related to the ugly, which is related to pleasure and pain, which is related to good and evil. As I believe the physical is 'related' to the 'meta' physical.....what Aristotle said should only be 'studied' after the 'science had been done'!!!! Meta- after the physical......Of course we don't do that!!!

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Ugliness is the lack of something that should be there - like a face without a nose; or something that is there that should not be there but is - like a giant wart on a nose with three wirey hairs growing out of it.

          Why do you say "desperate"?

          You really can't see the connection between evil existing and evil as absence of good?

          A man beat my uncle to death. That is real evil.

          My uncle was alive which was good and now he is dead which is bad.

    • Loreen Lee

      Jut a possibility. Could 'ugliness' be 'what we do not want to identify with'? I know this is vague, but it relates to the distinction I have found between for instance shame and disgust, the same 'emotion' as related to a perception of either self and/or other. (I realize that one would not want to identify with either of these 'states of being').

  • David Nickol

    Suppose there is objective beauty as Jennifer Fulwiler seems to understand it. How do we settle differences of opinion about what is beautiful and what isn't? Do we go by a majority vote. How many people in the general population would hold up Monet's water lilies as a standard of beauty?

    • Loreen Lee

      Kant merely stated that we 'make the assumption' that others will regard in the same way what we consider 'beautiful'. I think of it as the initiation of the ability to conceive of universals. And Kant insists that we are not always able to do that, i.e. place a particular within the context of a universal. . Perhaps our conception of God is congruent with some such inability, and yet Kant insists it is dependent on a sense of judgment, whose primary instance is found within the sense of beauty. regarding particulars. (I just find this very interesting.)

    • OverlappingMagisteria

      A vote might give the objectively true answer, but it would not guarantee one. Imagine voting on the solution to a math problem: voting whether 5 + 3 = 8 would get a clear majority. But a more difficult problem might not. That doesn't mean that the difficult problem has no answer, but we might not trust that the majority vote is necessarily pointing to the right one.

      There would need to be some objective way to measure beauty. I suspect of one the problems is that the concept of beauty is very vaguely defined. What exactly is beauty? When I say something is beautiful, is that the same thing that you mean when you say beautiful? It's not like a quantity like "speed" which is very clearly defined and easy to measure. If we want to objectively measure beauty, then we first need a clear definition.

      • William Davis

        We are having some success when it comes to facial beauty


        The problem is that there are so many types of beauty. Obviously a metric for faces would have no bearing on Cathedrals and Mozart.

        • OverlappingMagisteria

          Interesting study. Though it still seems to based on the subjective opinions of judges. It's like saying "we have measured your face to be objectively similar in proportion to what most people find subjectively attractive."

          I suppose if we define beauty as "that which is deemed attractive by the largest number of people," then that is, in a way, an objective measure. But people's standards of beauty change throughout time. It's a yardstick that changes size.

    • MattyTheD

      DN, I don't think her point was about the process of how museums should be curated.

  • GCBill

    I don't think you need to appeal to evolution to undercut arguments for aesthetic objectivism. We take for granted just how much environmental homogeneity shapes our preferences. Aeon recently published a really good essay on this phenomenon as it pertains to learning music:

    "When people grow up in places where music is constructed out of different scales, they acquire similarly natural responses to quite different musical elements. Research I’ve done with Patrick Wong of Northwestern University in Illinois has demonstrated that people raised in households where they listen to music using different tonal systems (both Indian classical and Western classical music, for example) acquire a convincing kind of bi-musicality, without having played a note on a sitar or a violin. So strong is our proclivity for making sense of sound that mere listening is enough to build a deeply internalised mastery of the basic materials of whatever music surrounds us."

    Of course without training, we don't have conscious access to all the musical knowledge we've acquired over the years. Which means when we hear a piece that resonates with us, it just seems to do so naturally. We can't explain why it does, so of course we say that it just is beautiful. But we should really expect that reaction regardless of whether or not there is an objective standard of beauty. How, then, are we to make the inference from sudden, overpowering aesthetic experience to an objective standard?

    • William Davis

      Yeah, I don't think I'll ever get over my aversion to Mexican and Arabian music. Some of the the Japanese stuff I've heard isn't bad, Ryuichi Sakamoto in particular, but I think it is heavily influenced by western music. Gangum Style tells you were Korea is at, lol. Music over the world is very strange, I still can't figure out what the Germans see in David Hasselhoff...

  • cminca

    Art doesn't require "beauty" to be art. Art requires MEANING. (A hand outlined in a wall in Lascaux wasn't made because the artist wanted to proclaim the hand as beautiful. It was made because the artist wanted to proclaim his existence. His humanity.)

    Meaning--in art--does not require beauty. In fact, beauty in art is often times the exact opposite of meaning..

    Go on You Tube and look up Sister Wendy on "Piss Christ". There you might find an understanding to what would otherwise offend your delicate senses.

    To me, a Madonna made with elephant excrement by an African artist is connecting the life giving nature of elephant dung in Africa z(LITERALLY life giving) with the artist's statement of (to him( the spiritual necessity of the Madonna. Far from being offensive it is a regional glorification. (You probably cry at the Xmas hymn "little drummer boy" and the line "I have one gift to bring....." yet you cannot recognize the same gift without a Western sensibility.)

    There are holocaust memorials that are purposely disorienting and disturbing in order to represent a world, a reality, turned upside down. Are you going to claim that they are without artistic merit?

    On the side of your "objective beauty"--works by Boucher and Fragonard present a beautiful, and yet completely shallow, materialistic world devoid of any depth of meaning. On purpose. Those artists were painting for a shallow audience.

    Bouguereau is another artist who painted "pretty" pictures that are shallow and devoid of meaning. So obviously so that the artist was purposefully used as a metaphor (by Edith Wharton in Age of Innocence) for the shallow bad taste and nouveau riche crassness of Julius Beaufort. (It should be remembered that besides being an accomplished novelist Wharton also wrote books that were the standard for Interior Design, domestic architecture and gardening for decades after they were written)

    You are, of course, free to look at art and be offended by it's lack of "objective" beauty. That, however, says more about your ability to understand art than it does about the artist's talent.

    And those whom you claim are "the Source of all that is beautiful" are surely less subjective in their understanding of meaning of, and within, art.

  • Gray

    Art doesn't require "beauty" to be art. Art requires MEANING.

    Said 'meaning' could be simply be the fact that it was interesting or appealing to the artist or the viewer, and did not necessarily have any meaning in any profound sense of the word.

    • cminca

      "Said 'meaning' could be simply be the fact that it was interesting or appealing to the artist or the viewer..."

      Absolutely agree. Thank you for the clarifying addition.