Hegel's lectures on aesthetics can provide useful stimulus and some intellectual support for aesthetic atheism. What I will have to say about Hegel is not intended to be a contribution to Hegel scholarship, nor do I intend here to produce something that is consistent with an overall Hegelian position. I just want to use him (and specifically "Chapter 1: The Range of Aesthetic Defined..." I will quote from Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, the Penguin edition, translated by Bosanquet, 1993) got inspiration.
Hegel is already in the right ball-park as far as aesthetic atheism is concerned insofar as he rejects traditional religious belief and replaces God with "the Absolute." One does not have to go so far as to believe in the Absolute as some entity that evolves through history to find Hegel useful here. The very idea that the physical world has a spiritual aspect manifested in art, religion, philosophy and science may be sufficient ("spiritual aspect" to be defined in a way that does not allow dualism or a separate spiritual realm or set of entities). Aesthetic atheism, unlike physicalist atheism of the sort we find in Dawkins, finds deep value in these great manifestations of the human spirit, even including religion. Like Hegel, the aesthetic atheist may find Rembrandt's The Night Watch thrilling because it manifests the spirit of the Dutch people and indeed Europe in general at a particular stage in history, as also Van Eyk's Ghent Altarpiece at another stage in history. So when Hegel says "In the origination, as in the contemplation, of its creations we appear to escape wholly from the fetters of rule and regularity" (7) we can see the point as similar to Kant's comment about the creation of new rules by the genius artist, except in this case the emphasis is on the freedom of the artist's imagination, or the "freedom of the productive and plastic energy" of the art itself. Hegel's reference to free art as expressing "cheerful vigorous reality" as opposed to mere abstract thought reminds me here of Nietzsche's comments on the healthy spirit. And Hegel's "Not only has art at command the whole wealth of natural forms in the brilliant variety of their appearance, but also the creative imagination has power to expatiate inexhaustively beyond their [the natural forms'] limit in products of its own" allows that the arts flesh out meaning in the world of ideas, including those provided by science.
In connection with this line of thinking, this passage is striking:
"Fine art is not real art till it is in this sense free [i.e. self-determined, as science is when it rises to the level of free search for the truth], and only achieves its highest task when it has taken its place in the same sphere with religion and philosophy, and has become simply a mode of revealing to consciousness and bringing to utterance the Divine Nature, the deepest interests of humanity, and the most comprehensive truths of the mind. It is in works of art that nations have deposited the profoundest intuitions and ideas of their hearts; and fine art is frequently the key....to the understanding of their wisdom and their religion."
The aesthetic atheist agrees, except that "the Divine Nature" is deleted or transformed into something more like "the deepest interests of humanity." Note that the very idea of the Divine Nature is identified in this paragraph with the way in which nations have profound intuitions. So we already have a way of putting this in atheistic or humanistic terms. Nor need we accept some sort of Platonistic view of nations as clearly separate and distinct, but rather we may talk about various possible units larger than the individual: civilizations, cultures, sub-cultures and sub-sub-cultures, all of which can participate in the process of self-expression Hegel describes in which individual self-expression becomes an expression of that larger-than-individual unit (perhaps even progressively so, through a series of larger units reaching to the species and genus). Nor need we go along with all of Hegel's absolutist talk of "highest," "only," "deepest" and "profoundest" to find inspiration in this idea that the spiritual aspect of Being is precisely in the world-as-we-experience-it, a physical world with a spiritual aspect.
Except that of course, the aesthetic atheist story is one that reverses Hegel's hierarchy, and the aesthetic becomes prominent in this case. So when Hegel says, "This is an attribute which art shares with religion and philosophy, only in this peculiar mode, that it represents even the highest ideas in sensuous forms, thereby bringing them nearer to the character of natural phenomena, to the sense, and to feeling" we take this to be the paradigm of the aesthetic and also of the religious, unlike Hegel. And when Hegel says "The world, into whose depths thought penetrates, is a supra-sensuous world, which is thus, to begin with, erected as a beyond over against immediate consciousness...." this is precisely what Kant rightly thought as going beyond the limits of reason and into illusion. At most, the suprasensuous realm can only be an abstract and empty idea that represents what Hegel then calls "the power which thus rescues itself from the here" of "actuality and finiteness of sense." There is nothing wrong with the rescue insofar as moving away from the sensuous and immediate is a necessary part of the dialectic of knowledge (going back and forth being required) but only with the thought that cognition cannot do this by escaping the sense world entirely: it can only seem as if doing so, and can only be useful insofar as this is a useful fiction. To have any real nature these ideas need to be fleshed out by imagination, which takes us back to sensuous immediacy. Contra Hegel, then, there is no reason to believe in an "infinite freedom of the reason that comprehends." (10) Rather than "breaking through to the idea," which Hegel thinks is the purpose of fine art, the products of fine art (and also religion and philosophy) break through to what Kant called "the aesthetic ideas" of which the idea in Hegel's sense is only the abstract and empty marker, at best. So when Hegel says, "...we must...bear in mind...that art is not, either in content or in form, the supreme and absolute mode of bringing the mind's genuine interests into consciousness" the aesthetic atheist replies: sure! and neither is anything else, least of all philosophy or religion.