Hence in Christianity, as in most religions, the actions and objects associated with worship are as beautifully crafted as possible, their beauty having the power to draw believers into the presence of the holy. Islam excludes the use of images, however, as did early radical Protestantism, finding them distractions rather than inducements. Contrast, for example, the severe elegance of Islam’s Dome of the Rock mosque, or a clear-windowed New England Puritan church with the sculptured figures on the facade of the Roman Catholic cathedral at Chartres, or the ballet of icons and censors at a Russian Orthodox Eucharist.
Thomas Aquinas uses the beauty people see in the world around them, their sense of how things fit together, as a proof for the existence of God.
Because they act together so as to attain the best result, they must be directed by a purposive being, as the arrow is directed by the archer. The ultimate source of such purposiveness is God. In the eighteenth century, William Paley (1743–1805) revived Aquinas’s “argument from design,” adapting it to the natural order described by Newtonian science.
The well-ordered mechanistic intricacy of the world results from laws that cannot be fortuitous: the precision of a watch entails a watchmaker; the precision of the universe entails a God. People were no longer brought into God’s presence through beauty, but from the beauty of nature at least it could be inferred that there must be a God who had created it.
The tendency since the rise of modern science, however, is to claim that non-sensible principles such as Beauty, although still timeless and necessary, are no longer understood as supernatural: they are the laws of nature. The Enlightenment philosophe Denis Diderot (1713–1784), for instance, defines beauty as the relations things possess by virtue of which we are able to understand nature in its genuine objectivity. Classicism in the arts is the claim that the timeless laws manifest in nature imply that there are rules derivable from those laws that apply to each artistic genre and that only if those rules are respected will the artist’s work be beautiful. Similarly, scientists often argue that a machine works beautifully if it has been well designed, if its parts operate so that it fulfills its function smoothly and efficiently. The laws governing what works beautifully are themselves beautiful, and therefore laws that lack beauty are not likely to be adequate descriptions of what works. In this sense, a criterion of simplicity is often included in the conditions by which to assess a scientific hypothesis. For many purposes, Ptolemy’s (90–168 C.E.) astronomy may be descriptively and predictively accurate, but its array of circles and epicycles are unnecessarily complicated and mathematically awkward compared to Johannes Kepler’s (1571–1630) elegant ellipses. As William of Ockham (c. 1280–c. 1349) insisted, one should not multiply theoretical entities beyond necessity.