In “Future tense, IX: Out of the wilderness” (The New Criterion, May 2012)
Charles Murray muses on whether practical atheism dampens creativity:
If life is purposeless, no one kind of project is intrinsically more important than any other kind. Take, for example, an extraordinarily talented screenwriter who is an atheist and a cynic. When asked if he has a purpose in life, he says, “Sure, to make as much money as I can,” and he means it. The choice of content in his screenplays is driven by their commercial potential. His screenplays are brilliantly written, but it is a coincidence if they deal with great themes of the human condition. His treatment of those great themes, even when he happens to touch on them, is not driven by a passion to illuminate, but to exploit. If instead he has a strong sense of “This is what I was put on earth to do,” the choice of content will matter, because he has a strong sense that what he does is meaningful. To believe life has a purpose carries with it a predisposition to put one’s talents in the service of the highest expression of one’s vocation.
Thinking ahead to the rest of the twenty-first century, the problem is that the artistic elites have been conspicuously nihilist for the last century, and the rest of the culture has recently been following along. The most direct cause of a belief that one’s life has a purpose—belief in a personal God who wants you to use your gifts to the fullest—has been declining rapidly throughout society, and the plunge has steepened since the early 1990s. The rejection of traditional religion is especially conspicuous among intellectual and artistic elites.
He’s doubtless right. We’ve all met people like that. They produce sharp comebacks that deflate everything, and don’t mean anything in the long run. And among the less well off consumers of these products, it means lack of a perspective beyond paying the rent, ordering takeout, and what’s on the tube tonight. That’s fatal to art by nature because neither does thre the artist strive for more nor would the audience appreciate it.
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