What is Aesthetics?:
Aesthetics is the study of beauty and taste, whether in the form of the comic, the tragic, or the sublime. The word derives from the Greek aisthetikos, meaning "of sense perception." Aesthetics has traditionally been part of philosophical pursuits like epistemology or ethics, but it started to come into its own and become a more independent pursuit under Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who saw aesthetics as a unitary and self-sufficient type of human experience. Because of art's historical role in the transmission of religion and religious beliefs, atheists should have something to say on this topic.
Why Should Atheists Care About Aesthetics?:
Aesthetics almost never comes up in atheists' discussions about religion, but perhaps it should. First, religious and theistic ideas may be more often communicated in various forms of art (including film, books, and games) than in formal arguments. Atheistic critiques of religion cannot justifiably ignore how this functions and what impact it all has on people's religious beliefs. Second, atheists themselves can do the same: communicate criticism of religion, religious beliefs, and theism through works of art and images. This almost never happens, though there is little to no "atheist art."
Aesthetics and Art:
Aesthetics is a concept not easily broken down into simpler ideas, making it difficult to explain. When we speak of something that creates an aesthetic experience, we are usually talking about some form of art; yet the mere fact that we are discussing a work of art does not guarantee that we are also discussing aesthetics the two are not equivalent. Not all works of art necessarily create an aesthetic experience, for example when we look at a painting to determine how much we can sell it for.
Aesthetics and Aesthetic Experience:
Whatever the actual object in question, those studying aesthetics seek to understand why some things arouse positive reactions whereas others arouse negative ones. Why are we drawn to certain objects and repelled by others? The very question of how and why aesthetic experiences are created is itself also a subject of aesthetics. In this manner, the field of aesthetics begins to cross into the Philosophy of Mind because it touches on how and why aspects of our brain and consciousness operate. Some religious theists argue, for example, that concepts like beauty cannot exist in a materialistic universe with no gods.
Basic Questions in Aesthetics:
What can life be like?
What is beautiful?
Why do we find certain things beautiful?
Important Texts in Aesthetics:
Rhetoric and Poetics, by Aristotle
Critique of Judgment, by Immanuel Kant
"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," by Walter Benjamin
Aesthetics, Philosophy, Politics, and Atheism:
Aesthetics leads us to a variety of issues involving politics, morality, and more. For example, some have argued that an important component of the aesthetic experience is the desire for political action thus, "good" art is that which gets us to try and improve society. At the same time, some critics argue that there is "bad" art which serves to subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) reinforce the status quo and create an "ideology" which helps keep certain groups of people not only out of power, but even from seeking it in the first place.
Many Christians today argue that a great deal of popular art in modern culture is subversive when it comes to their religious beliefs and values. They claim that a significant percentage of the production of America's "culture industry" is ultimately anti-Christian in effect, if not also in nature and intent. At the same time, irreligious atheists can point to the fact that there are few if any positive depictions of atheists in American art and culture. More often than not, atheist figures tend to be sad, lonely, and cynical.
With regards to morality, it has been argued that certain images or ideas are inherently immoral and hence do not create a valid aesthetic experience. Anything with a strong sexual content is often included in such a category, but many political leaders have also included in it material which does not encourage people to follow the dictates of the state. Conservative Christians frequently make complaints like this, arguing that American culture today contributes to young people's refusal to stick with the traditions and beliefs of their parents. Atheists have mixed reactions to all of this, though many welcome art and culture which causes people to reevaluate what they have been taught and consider alternative ways of living.
Interestingly, the very answer to the question of whether or not some particular work of art should be permitted will often depend upon how one approaches it from a political, ethical, religious or aesthetic perspective. Our responses become determined by how we frame the question in the first place, an issue involving the Philosophy of Language. Explicitly atheistic perspectives on the nature of art are, however, sorely lacking except in Marxist and communist contexts.