PaintingPaleontologyReligionVisual Art

Creating Atheist Fine Art

Hey, I’m Glendon Mellow, a fine artist & illustrator, and I blog about art, evolution, copyright and atheism at The Flying Trilobite and you can see my portfolio here. This is my first post on Mad Art Lab, and thanks to Amy for the invitation and to Brian for feedback!

Fed up with the discussions for accommodating religious beliefs at the expense of science, I made a tweet into a painting. Tweet: “I’m thinking scientific accommodation of religion is akin to letting someone take your King’s Rook off the board because you’re winning.”

When I created this a couple of years ago, I held a contest to see who could guess all the sciences depicted in the metaphorical chess board.

Western Fine Art history illustrates the domination of religion on culture. As some of us in the 21st Century embrace atheism and a host of secular and progressive values, this will be increasingly reflected in fine art as well. But how do we make it?  How do we make artwork embracing secularism, or even plucky spunky ‘New Atheism’?

“If history had worked out differently, and Michelangelo had been commissioned to paint a ceiling for a giant Museum of Science, mightn’t he have produced something at least as inspirational as as the Sistine Chapel? How sad that we shall never hear Beethoven’s Mesozoic Symphony, or Mozart’s opera The Expanding Universe.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p 86-87)

We can create this art movement now if we wish -there are plenty of amazing atheist and skeptic artists out there, and finding each other is easier than ever. Sometimes Inspiration strikes and sometimes it’s carefully constructed and nurtured. Though much of my artwork contains little in the way of direct atheist activism, my belief is that we need a myriad of voices in atheism to bring it to the mainstream and to guard against religious excesses. Personally I admire the forthrightness and vocal nature of the Gnu Atheists – Benson, Myers, Coyne, Christina, Blackford and McCreight, for example- who call abuse abuse and tend to engage specific examples instead of philosophical discussions of tone. Martian giraffes notwithstanding, these writers don’t typically engage in painting and drawing.

When something happens that causes me to feel outraged at behaviour by religious individuals or institutions, I want to address it, I want to use any talent I can bring to bear to critique it and shed light on it. I want to throw my support to the other side. Yet painting an image that effectively does what these writers do is something that eludes me most of the time. Most of the work I do is heavy on metaphor – perhaps the direct and specific nature of these atheist writers I admire doesn’t lend itself as easily to a metaphorical image?

Political cartoons do – and they can do so powerfully. But as an oil painterly fine artsy creator how do I move the nature of a political cartoon into the metaphorical image of a painting?

Here’s another attempt of mine.

Haldane’s Precambrian Puzzle
Configuration A –

Configuration B –

Biologist J.B.S. Haldane, so the story goes, answered that the fossil record of evolution could be falsified by, “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian”.  Above, I’ve painted a skeletal rabbit on 9 pieces of shale that can be rearranged to show a group of trilobite fossils. I tried to avoid the punchline criticism of the particular belief. Does it work?  Or is it just about science?

What’s your favourite piece of fine art or artist that supports an atheistic worldview?


Glendon Mellow - Art in Awe of Science Glendon was born under a cabbage leaf in the summer of 1974 covered in stork feathers and placenta. He works as a fine artist and illustrator, ranging from fine art commissions to tattoo design to museum display. Illustrations and writing have appeared in Earth magazine, Secular Nation and Scientific American's Guest Blog, and books including Geology in Art and The Open Laboratory. Sometimes instead of painting, he opens his mouth to speak about art + science in places like the Center for Inquiry Ontario and ScienceOnline in North Carolina. Glendon has received a Bachelor of Fine Arts Honours degree from York University in Toronto, Canada and is bloody pretentious about it. Glendon shares his art process at his blog The Flying Trilobite, and tweets at @flyingtrilobite.

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  1. Welcome, Mellow! Such a big topic, so much to say. Can we all just get a beer some time and hash it out?

    Breughel, while he certainly painted religious stuff, always made humanity and the details of every day life front and center. Like his Icarus, with the myth only represented far off and on the side: what’s really important are the peasants. (About as atheistic as you could get at the time.)

  2. Thanks Matt! Really good point – how do you paint the absence of lofty gods and legends? Leave them out. Great example, that painting.

    Years ago in uni, I was studying “the mysterious centers of thought” in Symbolist art. I thought the best way to capture the center of thought was by using absence, as in Khnopff’s <a href=""The Abandoned Town.

    Heaven as an empty sky.

  3. I’d been wondering if I’d see Mr. Mellow around here…

    I always get my hackles up when I’m informed that it’s silly for me, as an atheist, to define myself by something I don’t believe in rather than what I do. Particularly since, non-believer though I am, I don’t spend much time at all thinking about the particular religious beliefs of theists. I discarded that piece of my worldview long ago as an unnecessary part, not as a gap that now needs filling.

    So for me, any art that celebrates science, or rational thought, or the Universe around us, is art that represents an atheistic worldview. It may not explicity refer to a lack of deities, but as I don’t define my atheism in that way, it still makes the right statement.

  4. Thanks Amy! You’ll get that puzzle if you can answer the following riddles…oh whoops, sorry the baby is calling me.

  5. Holy monkey, your artwork is excellent, quarksparrow! Are you familiar with SONSI?

    We should have coffee or something. I’m going to add you to the Science Artists Feed carried on

    I agree – I define myself as an atheist too. And these days modern scientific atheism, or gnu atheism or whatever you’d like to call it is more than simply a disbelief in gods. When I hear someone is an atheist, there’s a lot of cultural underpinnings I tentatively assume are there and have a good time finding out about.

  6. It’s true Quarksparrow. You seriously kick ass. That “give up now, monkey” drawing on your site is the greatest. And your Spirit drawing just gave me the sniffles…

  7. @Quarksparrow: Whoa! I didn’t even know you were an artist! Was your avatar always clickable? Great stuff!

  8. Welcome to the blog!
    I have been interested in a similar topic of trying to insert my love of science & the history of science into my paintings. I’ll post here when I finish the series I am about to embark on….& maybe twist someone’s arm into throwing them up on a post.

    I have to say as far as Atheistic paintings go; I like anything that represents the natural world. E.g. Albrecht Durer’s landscapes & animal watercolours, as they are some of the first examples of natural world paintings from the western world done in a time when all art was meant to give glory to god.

    And of course good old Leonardo, I can’t help but feel his work with cadavers & anatomy was a middle finger to the church. Oh also, Caravaggio not because I feel there was anything inherently atheistic about his paintings. In fact they were all religious but he was a shock artist of his time, painting with gruesome detail. I can’t help but feel it showed the fairy stories of the bible for being as nasty as they really were.

  9. I just remembered that there is an artist that fits somewhat into this vein you are interested in exploring.
    Walton Ford. Ford mimics the style of Audubon and other natural science illustrators. However his artwork is filled with metaphor and allegory that comments on colonialism, war, politics, etc.
    I saw a huge retrospective of his artwork a few years ago and it was astounding.

    Here is some of his artwork

  10. Thanks dpeabody! Agreed, nature and science artwork certainly aims to celebrate or explore the material world. My knee-jerk rection to you Caravaggio comment was to disagree, but upon reflection, you may have a good point. At first I was thinking the commissioned work he often undertook was so religious in nature it almost precludes him – but you know he did have a death warrant issued against him from one of the Pope John V. So not exactly reverent, no. 😉

    It’s an interesting question – religion was os much a fabric of the culture, like sexism that it’s hard to tease out how the artists felt about their surroundings. Certainly it was typical during the middle ages to the Baroque in Europe that most art was either Biblically-themed or about Greek or Roman myth.

  11. Brian – really interesting! I don’t recall ever having come across his work before. Thanks for those links. Stunning stuff, worth exploring in detail.

    Kind of surprised nobody has mentioned Serrano’s Piss Christ. Too directly criticising of religion? Does it provoke too much? (I mean, it certainly did recently). Does it have any value beyond grotesque beauty and free speech?

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