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We live in a world confined to the limits of our observation.

Our origin is unspecified,
our universe is hauntingly expansive, and the significance of our existence is untold.
Human life is defined by the efforts to refine our optics and shrink the expanse of the
unknown. We are observers stranded at sea, guided by imperfect instruments and
abrasive speculation. The evolution of progress is demarcated by the steady
encroachment of these impossibilities. But at the very beginning, when humans began
clustering around water ports and growing wheat and letting fruits and grains ferment, we
also began looking for ways to expand the boundaries of our observation.

Early humans made sense of these impossibilities by observing their immediate
surroundings. They took note of the animals whose flesh they relied on for nourishment
and protection, water that soaked the mechanisms of life, and the Sun that warmed their
known earth. They looked to these cradles of life for answers. Drawn during the
prehistoric age, the paintings of the Chauvet cave in France depict rhinos and lions in
fantastic detail. Many millennia later, a Spanish painter named Pablo Picasso would gaze
upon these painted figures, stencils, and outlines and question the existence of any artistic
progress made since their creation. Paintings of a similar date in other parts of the world
depict deer hunts with limbs and spears alike flailing. Archaeologists do not know if
these are triumphant summaries of a successful hunt, or rather wishful prophecies of a
hunt yet to take place. In Indonesia, geochemists have dated cave stencils to be almost
40,000 year old. The enduring lust for longevity seeps through the cave walls, as
hundreds of hands outlined in red reach for immortality out from the glistening limestone.

Later on, as civilization emerged from the Tigris and Euphrates and understanding of the
world advanced, so did the means used to express these explanations. The canvas shifted
from cave walls to malleable clay, and sculptors made pieces of incredible detail and
beauty through the use of precious metals. As the complexity of civilization advanced, so
did the questions humans sought to answer. Observation, and the expanded knowledge of
the limits of their observation, gave root to more complex explanations for the world. In
this period there is a distinct transfer of religious imagery from predators and prey to
humanoid deities.

Cave paintings, clay figurines, Byzantine painting, Roman architecture, hymnals, dances,
and music, can of course all be understood as art. Given these examples, art can be
defined as the manifestation of the human urge to visualize. Prayer, myth, ritual, turning
to the heavens are all facets of religion. Given these examples, religion can be defined as
a manifestation of the human urge to explain. The confluence of these two incredibly
human urges, to visualize the imagination and explain the unknown, is religious art. Art
without religion would be undeveloped and religion without art would lack
comprehension. But human life without either one is illogical and unexplained
(expressiveless). There is significantly less understanding of early human culture without
the cave paintings of Lascaux, and there is a much looser understanding of modern
Christianity without the paintings of the Renaissance. Religion and art, and religious art,
are the most effective ways to prescribe meaning to human life. By harnessing the
necessity for human nature to visualize and explain, religious art has the extraordinary
power to unite, divide, and mobilize.
I spent the first two weeks of last summer surrounded by some of these ancient images I’
crunched into awkward positions reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind in the
back of an Israeli tour bus. As we snaked up ancient hills passing impossibly old ruins, I
read about the moral foundations of humans. The blank and quasi-theocratic government
provided a perfect background to the Haidt’s conceptions of hive mentality, religion, and
social identity. Haidt argues that humans are socially literate, outwardly animals that are
well equipped group organizers. We crave community and congregation, and we wrap
ourselves in the flag of our group’s moral codes and foundations.

We take this commitment to groupyness seriously. Humans come equipped with moral
taste buds that are acutely aware of threats to the group. If one of our taste buds is
triggered, we go on the defensive lashing out at the transgressor that threatens the
sensibilities of our group. This moment is called the hive switch. The identification is
called social identity. Both dictate, under the fodder of modern interaction, the extreme
reactionary nature of everyone from politicians to Protestants.

In the ling lines of