Further to the correspondence inspired by Ian Flintoff on Richard Dawkins, the notion that religious inspiration has contributed to the bulk of great art in the past (Letters, 16 August) needs more careful examination.
For a significant period of European history, including the pre-Christian Roman era, commercial success for an artist, and therefore survival of art works to the present day, entailed tacit or more often explicit conformity with social, political and especially religious norms, in societies where religious institutions formed a key part of the political power structures. It was the power of those institutions to employ artists and pay for their materials which “inspired” or prompted the production of art. It is noteworthy also that in societies where the religious institutions largely discouraged or refused to fund the production of figural art, such art flourished within the more limited secular market, although survival of its products has been significantly hampered by those same religious institutions.
Artists may or may not have been “inspired by religion”, but we will never know, except in those rare cases where they explicitly denied such inspiration and usually suffered the consequences. For the rest, we can only try to read implicit meaning from their work – a notoriously inaccurate form of analysis, rather akin to the belief system espoused by Flintoff himself and so coherently criticised by Dawkins and other rationalists.