When Humanists Embrace the Arts

James Herrick

The definition of a secular humanist as one whose foundations for living are reason and science can conjure visions of cold, emotionless intellectuals incapable of responding to art, much less creating it. But humanists are human, after all, and can lay as much claim to the creative sphere as their birthright as anyone else.

Art, the ultimate expression of creativity, touches all our lives. But, for humanists, it does even more. The very things that art accomplishes, when done well, are of extreme importance to humanists.


“A book should be an ice axe to break the frozen sea within us.” Kafka let drop this aphorism in his notebooks. It is revealing, not just for Kafka, but for the whole of literature, indeed, perhaps for all art.

I take it from Kafka’s words that art is not comfortable nor comforting. “I tell you naught for your comfort,” said Chesterton. The phrase is not appropriate for his own rather comfortable writing, but could be put above the door of a library of world literature. Art can delve deeply into our personal psyches and into the psyche of society (if you can accept such a metaphor). That is one of its functions that humanists, who prefer a questioning, questing approach to life, value.

This is not utilitarian in the normal use of the word: art is not just a tool of the schoolroom of life. Its value and importance cannot be determined by the felicific calculus, for you cannot calculate the searing insight which comes from, say, Primo Levi’s account of his life in a concentration camp, If This Is a Man (1958). Kafka’s ice axe is my first marker in explaining the importance of art to a humanist.


The second marker is that much art either creates or pertains to a sense of communality. Even in reading a book in solitude one is joining with the legion of other readers who have or will read it, and with whom one may discuss it. Humanists believe in the civic virtues and the communality of human beings. There is delight in art that links us together with joint—and sometimes elevating—experiences.

The theatrical arts may have their origins in religious ritual in ancient Greece, but they essentially concern human beings as individuals or groups in the face of a vast unknown universe. D. H. Lawrence, in his 1920 book Mornings in Mexico, describes the dance of the sprouting corn of the aboriginal Indians. He describes how “the mystery of germination, not procreation, but putting forth resurrection, life springing within the seed, is accomplished. The sky has its fire, its waters, its stars, its wandering electricity, its winds, its fingers of cold.” Lawrence comments that, when the cycle is complete, the corn becomes bread and is eaten “man recovers all he once set forth and partakes again of the energies he called to the corn, from out of the wide universe.” While we reject a religious interpretation of such a proto-artistic event, we can experience the power of the symbols expressed. It is to give us a sense of “the wide universe” that art exists.

Art in society is not just the frosting on the top of the cake, it is an essential ingredient—the currants or the nuts. It goes to the depths of the citizen and to the heart of a culture. When art is stifled—as it was in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia—the art and the society become distorted. Of course, art can act as a focus for dissidence ( a point to which I shall return). But essentially any society without art would be a barren society. A country in which art is not supported is an impoverished society.


I write as someone who sings regularly in a local choir. With the experience of singing Verdi’s Requiem or Handel’s Messiah, I certainly partake of that communal experience I have described. Much of the music we sing is religious, but this does not worry me in the least. Apart from the fact that many of the composers who wrote religious works had no orthodox religious belief themselves (for example, Verdi), Iam happy to partake in what I see as myth and allegory.

I find it somewhat curious that two major works that are crucial to me are profoundly religious: Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The “Passion” partakes of all the human emotions in recounting what I see as a mythical tale; I can relate to the anguish, the sorrow, the drama of Bach’s masterpiece. With the Four Quartets, I find I can relate even to the mystical aspects: while not accepting that those intense moments relate to a deity, I can accept that such lasting, deep human moments exist. Is there such a thing as humanist mysticism?

The notion may be related to an awareness of “otherness” of that which is not ourselves or even those people and things familiar to us. In reading about other people, or viewing portraits, we gain by an imaginative sympathy a glimpse of that which is not ourselves. Our solipsistic natures make it difficult for us to do this. The arts can enlarge and enrich our knowledge of the diversity of humanity, of the human world. They can enable us to cross boundaries of nation, of race, of time.

In this function, the arts can perhaps be best used to create a climate for a global ethic and even to acquire what Thomas Mann called “universal sympathy.” In Confessions of Felix Krull Confidence Man (1954), a naturalist is talking to the confidence trickster of the progress of humanity from its natural raw material to a self-conscious creature:

Being was not Well-Being, it was joy and labour, and all Being in space-time, all matter, partook if only in deepest sleep in this joy and labour, this perception that disposed Man, possessor of the most awakened consciousness, to universal sympathy.

This universal sympathy is a perhaps not common but nevertheless essential part of the value of art to the humanist.


A third aspect of art of interest to humanists is the way in which it can act as a focus against oppression and injustice. The plea of the novelist Ben Okri on behalf of the executed Nigerian Ken Saro-Wiwa is an example. When he argues that the status of writers are the barometers of a nation’s health, he is making an important point. Many writers have acted in this way, from Solzhenitsyn to Taslima Nasrin, from George Orwell to Wole Soyinka. However, I do not think it is primarily the task of an artist to be a polemicist.

In rare cases the special plea rises to become a work of art—for instance with Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (1973) and Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man (1958). Two important writers today are Salman Rushdie and Seamus Heaney (the poet who in 1996 received the Nobel Prize for literature). They both speak of their experience of the process of literature in ways that are cogent for a humanist. Rushdie did not foresee the consequences of The Satanic Verses (1988). He has written of the experience:

Do I feel regret? Of course I do: regret that such offense has been taken against my work when it was not intended—when dispute was intended, dissent, and even, at times satire, and criticism of intolerance, and the like. but not the thing of which I’m most often accused, not “filth,” not “insult,” not “abuse.”

Please understand, however; I make no complaint. I am a writer. I do not accept my condition. I will strive to change it, but I inhabit it, I am trying to learn from it.

Heaney talks about the value of poetry in less social terms. According to him, it furthers the range of the mind’s and body’s pleasure and helps a reader to “know thyself.” In The Redress of Poetry (1995), he quotes Sydney’s famous Defence of Poetry, where he writes of “the forcibleness or Energia (as the Greeks called it) of the writer” and suggests that it is this original forcibleness, this clear water springing through the sand, “that makes poetry so valuable and guarantees its safe passage through the world of accusing ideologies and impugned ideals.”

Rushdie and Heaney in their distinct ways point to the imperatives of art. Art can also give voice and understanding to a whole variety of minority groups—and this is another value. E. M. Forster, who lived in a time that made it difficult for him to be totally true to himself as a homosexual, nevertheless wrote one of the first classic humane novels about homosexuality in Maurice. It was a pioneering work, even if he faltered in leaving it to be published posthumously.


I am often asked, as a humanist, how can you find any meaning for your life without God? Art does not give us meaning on a plate, but can help us in the search for meaning in our lives. It can enlarge our experience. It can also present patterns of existence that help us work out our own beliefs.

I have mentioned how T. S. Eliot affects me; in a contrasting way another poet (and novelist), Thomas Hardy, has played a part in my coming to terms with life. His bleak, pessimistic view of the universe seems to me accurate, but the prescience of nature that he depicts with such detail provides a source and balance with which to endure it. In his poem “The Darkling Thrush,” Hardy describes how in the darkness and bleakness and cold the bird’s song rises up as a voice of hope. An artist must be true to the truth and report the bleakness of life, but also he or she often has the power to enlighten and uplift.

I also find George Eliot’s novels rich with material that helps us forge our own sense of direction. To her, too, truth is essential. As a great novelist, who shocked Victorian England by her life and beliefs, she wrote, in her first full-length novel, Adam Bede:

So I am content to tell my simple story, without trying to make things seem better than they were; dreading nothing indeed, but falsity which, in spite of one’s best efforts, there is reason to dread. Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult. … Examine your words well and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings — much harder than to say something fine about them which is not the exact truth.

I do not mean to say that literature should be full of moral homilies. It is the diversity of people and ideas, the imaginative extension, the artistic and philosophical undercurrents that give us jigsaw pieces to sort out our own puzzlement.

For a humanist, art is not a substitute for religion. Aesthetics is not a branch of metaphysics. Nevertheless, art leads us into the very important non-rational aspect of being human. As a rationalist I do not believe in reason triumphant; reason is of inestimable value in many spheres, but there are other spheres. The emotional, the other, the mysterious touch humanists as all members of the human race. I hesitate to use the word spiritual, with which I am uneasy despite recognizing the area it covers. Heaney wrote, in a quite literal opening to a poem entitled “The Forge”: “All I know is the door into the dark.” The Enlightenment charge to know, change, and control everything had its place, but can no longer be seen as the whole story. The postmodern challenge to the humanist may be right in this. Heaney knows what’s beyond the door in the dark: it is the forger who beats real iron out. He is implying that the craft and the art that lie behind the door provide the creativity that keeps us going.


The final value of art, for the humanist and, indeed, everyone, is that it unleashes the power of the human imagination. The power of the imagination is as integral to the scientist, the teacher, and the politician as it is to the artist. Imagination, which can spiral to dizzy heights, needs steady-ing by reason and realism, integrity, and truth. It is the humanist’s commitment to truth as he or she sees it, that leads to a criticism of religion. It is no accident that the words carved in Conway Hall, the home of the South Place Ethical Society in London, are “To thine own self be true.” This is a key phrase for artists and those engaging with art.

Salman Rushdie uses an image from Saul Bellow to illuminate the task of an artist:

The central character of a Bellow novel hears a dog barking wildly. He imagines that the barking is the dog’s protest against the limit of dog experience. “For God’s sake,” the dog is saying, “open the universe a little more!” … I have the feeling that the dog’s rage, and its desire, is also mine, ours, everyone’s. “For God’s sake, open the universe a little more.”

I don’t know whether the phrase “For God’s sake” is an expletive or an invocation, but I do know that I hope that art will open the universe a little bit more.

James Herrick

Jim Herrick is editor of the U.K.’s Rationalist Press Association, the journal New Humanist, and the International Humanist News.

The definition of a secular humanist as one whose foundations for living are reason and science can conjure visions of cold, emotionless intellectuals incapable of responding to art, much less creating it. But humanists are human, after all, and can lay as much claim to the creative sphere as their birthright as anyone else. Art, …

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