Two serious problems for any atheist are the existence of morality and the existence of beauty. While one can deny that there is an absolute moral standard, it is impossible to deny that moral standards exist. This has caused many atheists to attempt explanations for how naturalistic evolution could have produced the impulse for morality. Beauty is a similar stumbling block for the thoughtful atheist. The easiest way to ignore beauty is to point to the fact that people have differing views on what is beautiful. This mindset has influenced artists such as Michael Duchamp. His piece Fountain was an attempt to prove that even a urinal could be art if placed in a gallery. Likewise a man may think his wife the most beautiful woman in the world, but so does the man next door. Add to this the split between high and low brow art and beauty begins to look like a matter of perspective. There is a deep discussion to be had about whether beauty has absolute or relative standards; here is not the place. Rather it is important to see that the atheist is unable to explain the human desire for beauty.
People travel long distances just to stare over the edge of the Grand Canyon or look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. They spend time and money creating and buying art. Humanity’s desire for beauty is similar to our desire for the spiritual. Both cause us to go on pilgrimages and expend precious time and money. Explaining what drives us to seek beauty is not easy to understand, even for those who study aesthetics, but it tends to confound explanation by atheistic evolution.
Beauty contributes little to survival or procreation. People need not spend time dying reeds and weaving them into patterns when a monochromatic utilitarian design would be more efficient. The most beautiful woman is not necessarily the most efficient child-bearer. The country that sits painting pictures, writing stories, and making music is the one that will be annihilated by the country whose people spend all their time training for war. Art is not what one would expect in a purely materialistic world.
Intriguingly we find beauty around us in nature. We need not be able to see the range of colors and textures that we do. If we had the eyes to see it the beauty around us would be maddening. It is absolutely reckless to spread it so broadly. The feelings that the sight of beauty causes for an atheist are a difficulty for him or her. Here Freud’s explanations were brilliant, tying these and our religious desires to sensual experience in early childhood. Seeing a painting of a beautiful tree produces preconditioned responses from the awaking of subconscious memories formed in an earlier stage of developmental. However, if one follows this to a logical end then the result is quiet morbid.
Beauty becomes an illusion, but so does love. Romantic love becomes the mask for loveless sexual desire and parental love a mechanism to increase the chance of survival of the next generation. Attempt to live this out consistently and you will find the world to be a cold bleak place.
I would far rather believe that beauty actually exists, even it to do so would be insanity (See the argument with the Green Lady in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair). However, I believe that it is not insanity to believe that beauty exist and that a belief in beauty is actually good for sanity. Though brilliant, Freud theories are fundamentally flawed.
The existence of beauty then presents the same problem as morality: where does it come? By far the best explanation I believe is that something or someone on the outside was needed to reach in and plant the notion of beauty in the human brain. Likewise beauty in the natural world strongly suggests, though doesn’t prove, that beauty was purposefully hardwired into the natural laws of this universe.
All this suggest one of the purposes of beauty. Beauty points to something beyond itself. While his religious convictions were still strong Van Gogh wrote, “To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another, in a picture.” Plato, without the light of Christ, may have also been groping towards this with his conception of the ideal Forms. Christians can assert that God is the ideal standard of beauty and all things are beautiful in so far as they reflect him. Beauty, wherever it is found, is a mirror which reflects God’s light to us.