Religion and the Arts

This past weekend, I watched a short segment on CBS about a young trumpet player from Afghanistan who now attends music school in the United States, thanks to the efforts of a professional symphonic trumpet player who mentored him and spurred fundraising efforts that allowed the young man to get to the U.S. What amazed me was that, according to the story, and to the young man, playing trumpet in Afghanistan is viewed as anti-religious and that even carrying the trumpet openly would have been dangerous to his life.

Now, for decades there have been news stories and reports about how various religious leaders, largely fundamentalist Islamic types, decry and frown upon the licentiousness of Western popular music, and frankly, some Western popular music is licentious, but how is wanting to be a symphonic trumpet player anti-religious?

All this raises in my mind the issue about how many “fundamentalist” or evangelical religions approach the arts. Some Christian denominations decry dancing, and one popular evangelical Southern Baptist preacher, years ago, declared that “a dancing foot and a praying knee don’t grow on the same leg.” Certainly, most of the books that have been banned or found objectionable have been singled out for “religious” reasons. Certainly, within the “Christian” world, at times, certain paintings and sculptures, if not entire schools of art, have been found objectionable.

Yet I have to ask why any religion should want and be able to forbid activities that are not physically dangerous? Dancing certainly doesn’t disrespect a deity, and is actually considered worship in some faiths, nor does playing a trumpet or any other instrument convey theological disrespect. Bad dancing and bad playing are certainly painful to eyes and ears, but why should any deity even care?

That fact is that religious doctrines reflect an attempt to unify believers in a common doctrine while gaining power for the leaders of that doctrine. And for some religions, free expression, particularly in the arts, is considered as a threat to either the doctrine or that power, if not both. And that’s not only a shame, but a good reason to question a faith that insists on such prohibitions.

7 thoughts on “Religion and the Arts”

  1. darcherd says:

    To quote Robert Heinlein: Sin consists of hurting other people unnecessarily. Everything else is invented nonsense.

  2. JakeB says:

    Not only that, but forbidding things that people like to do — so that they will do them anyways, and then can be threatened or punished — is a good way of consolidating power.

    The one that always struck me was Christian sects that forbid alcohol. If wine was good enough for Jesus it’s certainly good enough for me.

  3. corwin says:

    The Bible actually encourages dancing, playing a musical instrument(especially the trumpet), and does not forbid alcohol except for a priest on duty, the same way a policeman on duty can’t drink either. Unfortunately, too many self-serving people have twisted and corrupted this book till at times it is almost unrecognizable.

  4. Shehreyar Khan says:

    There’s also the cultural element to consider here; this individual may have been Pushtun, and many Pushtun tribes frown upon music and dancing, although we have a rich musical culture. The censorship of music and dance in recent years has mostly been due to fundamentalist religious attitudes within these tribes, and this has becomes part of the modern Pashtunwali (Pushtun code of conduct).

    I remember as a child, we had circus-like groups that would travel from village to village playing music at weddings and other gatherings, but I haven’t seen anything like it for years outside of urban centers. Within rural areas, the practice has been almost entirely abolished.

  5. Frank says:

    How much, if any, control over the secular world should religion and/or those who profess to be acting based on their “religion” have?

    This being the most slippery of all slopes, the answer is as difficult as it is important. My urge is to say “none.” Finished, no leakage, no muss, no fuss…nada, zilch. I think that is the purest, most correct answer, and, now I’ll try to argue against it: we all want a world that we can live in without sacrificing our “morals,” our sense of right and wrong. And, to a larger or lesser extent, isn’t it true that our moral code derive from our religion?Now, I can fudge that by saying “I’m SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious),” but, from a long term view, religion is probably the birthplace of the moral views, even if I may rebel against the formality, now.

    And, the slope becomes more steep and slippery if you deal with the “God is on my side” factor. That is, if you truly believe in a religion, and that religion commands you that a certain act, or lack of act, is what God wants…how can there be any question that the act, or lack of act, is the right and most worthy thing to do? No matter if it kills or tortures people, no matter how many, or if it more benevolently just subjugates folks into following some moral code they neither believe in nor understand…so what? It’s the right thing to do because God, who is all powerful, all seeing, perfect in every way…says so. Therefore, any direction must be followed, no matter of consequences.

    How can we deal with this philosophically? Practically? I have only one suggestion: the control of the secular world is left to the secular world, the religious to the religious (render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s ???). This leaves the connection via the motivation for what our secular selves might want/not want, but, hopefully it requires a more rigorous argument to convince the rest of the secular world than simply “because it says so in the bible/Koran/Torah/whatever.”

    If I were religious, I’d probably say the same case could be made that simply saying “because it’s constitutional” isn’t sufficient…but that’s an argument for another blog entry.

  6. TOM says:

    First: playing a musical instrument, especially playing it well, gives one a “high” or feeling of “pleasure” and for a lot of religions that feeling is considered sinful.
    Second: I would argue that ” … And, to a larger or lesser extent, isn’t it true that our moral code derive from our religion? .. ” is only true in so far as religion is a branch (an extreme branch of) philosophy.
    Third: none of my statements make any real difference to the arguments. Just helps me keep the perspective I choose.

    1. Frank says:

      I either agree with your #2, or would like to agree with your #2. The reason why I brought it out that way is that, from an historical perspective, like it or not, for most of humanity’s history religion was where the masses were spoon-fed their morals and their philosophy. There was usually an intellectual elite that did some amazing stuff, and I would like to think that all “my” background and sense of right and wrong came directly from Aristotle, Socrates and (maybe) Hume…but, I gotta say…I think there may have been a few common folk involved.

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