The Curmudgeon: Searching for an Atheist Hymn

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A column questioning the assumptions of popular music

The recent memorials and tributes for Whitney Houston reminded us once again what a huge influence religious song has had on Anglo-American pop music. Though she seldom sang explicitly sacred material, she was the daughter of a gospel singer (Cissy Houston) and learned to sing in Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church. Nearly every note Whitney recorded reflected the cadences, phrasing and improvisatory flight of those childhood Sundays—to the extent that when she sang about loving “you” or loving “him,” it wasn’t always clear if she were addressing a boy friend or a deity. Subtract the gospel portion of her music, and there’s very little left.

Almost all African-American singing music (as opposed to instrumental jazz or hip-hop) is similarly rooted in the Christian church, as is most hillbilly music, whether string-band or honky-tonk. Rockers from U2 to Bruce Cockburn have worn their Christian faith on their sleeves. But what about the world’s other religions? Why has their influence on pop music been so negligible compared to Christianity’s? Why has Jewish music rarely escaped the Klezmer ghetto? Why did a Jewish songwriter like Irving Berlin have to title his catchy holiday song “White Christmas”? Why has Islamic music barely been heard in Anglo-American music except as a flavoring in avant-garde jazz and British dance music?

Strangely enough, India’s religions have fared better in English-language music than either Judaism or Islam, thanks to such ardent supporters as The Beatles, The Beach Boys and John McLaughlin. But what of atheists and agnostics? Why are the beliefs of the Western world’s fastest growing spiritual category so rarely reflected in that world’s popular music?

These questions are sparked by the recent release of Todd Snider’s impressive new album, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, which I wrote about last week, and by the “Reason Rally,” a demonstration by atheists, agnostics and other secularists on the National Mall in Washington this Saturday. Speakers at the rally will include the punk-rock band Bad Religion, author Richard Dawkins, musician/comic Tim Minchin and Mythbusters TV host Adam Savage.

Me? I’m an atheist who loves gospel music. I love crossover artists such as Houston and Sam Cooke. I love bluegrass hymns by the likes of Ralph Stanley and Doyle Lawson. I love Sacred Steel acts such as Robert Randolph and the Campbell Brothers. I love hardcore gospel from the likes of the Swan Silvertones and Rev. F.C. Barnes. I even like Christian-rockers such as Phil Keaggy and Russ Taff. I’ve written about all these artists with enthusiasm and admiration.

When someone asks how an atheist can enjoy such music without believing in God, I always reply, “For the same reason I can enjoy Shakespeare without believing in the Divine Right of Kings or I can enjoy Tolkien without believing in wizards.” All arguments to the contrary, gospel songs are created and performed by human beings, and I’m a devout believer in human beings.

Moreover, in a pop culture where so much music is motivated by nothing more than getting laid or getting paid, listening to gospel musicians struggle with the weightiest issues of human nature provides a welcome contrast—even if one can’t always accept their conclusions. And to my atheist friends who shake their heads at such a fascination with religious music, I can only respond, “Are your beliefs so fragile and insecure that you can’t risk exposure to some of the world’s greatest music?”

Nonetheless I hunger for music that will reflect my own deepest values. But when I read through the many long lists of “Atheist Songs” on the Internet, I find that very few of those titles are actually about atheism itself. Many of them don’t even question the existence of God; they merely point out the many failings of his churches, which is not the same thing at all. Some of them deny God but accept Satan—or angels or goddesses or reincarnation or whatever, an obvious contradiction of the standard atheist position that no supernatural phenomena exist. Even the handful of songs that adhere to this consistent position are usually more interested in disproving the theist ideology than in exploring what atheism might mean in leading a productive, moral life.

Snider, for example, explores his own agnosticism on just two of the album’s 10 songs. On his funny retelling of human civilization, “In the Beginning,” he suggests that the emergence of religion might have had more to do with the rich fending off the poor than any divine revelation. On “Too Soon To Tell,” he directs his song heavenward and asks, “If you’re so god almighty, well then what’s with all this mystery?” And yet when I asked him in our interview why he calls himself an agnostic rather than an atheist, he said, “Because I’m open to the possibility of God. I have friends who are atheists, and I’m open to that too. I don’t know if I have a horse in this race yet. I’m not afraid to not know, and I’m not going to get swept in either one.”

Snider is not the only one hedging his bets. Elvis Costello may poke fun at a deity who drinks budget colas and listens to Andrew Lloyd Webber on “God’s Comic,” but he doesn’t question his target’s existence. Cake’s John McCrea may poke fun at televangelists on “Comfort Eagle,” but he leaves open the question if there’s a God who’s being ill-served by his spokesmen. On “Intervention,” Arcade Fire attacks organized religion with even more caustic comments but leaves God’s existence out of the discussion.

Other songwriters are not so ambivalent. On “Dear God,” XTC’s Andy Partridge writes a letter to the Supreme Being, asking why so many terrible things are done in his name. But the more Partridge thinks about it, the more he concludes that “Father, Son and Holy Ghost is just somebody’s unholy hoax.” “What if no one’s watching?” Ani DiFranco sings on “Imperfectly.” “What if when we’re dead, we’re just dead? What if it’s just us down here? What if god is just an idea someone put in your head?” At the end of “In the Name of God,” Ziggy Marley proclaims, “What divides us is an illusion made up by men in their confusion.” But no one is blunter than Robbie Fulks, who sums up his feelings on the issue with “God Isn’t Real,” an improbably perfect country waltz.

Greg Graffin, the lead singer and chief songwriter for Bad Religion, is also a part-time college teacher whose zoology PhD. dissertation was “Monism, Atheism and the Naturalist Worldview: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology.” In many of his songs, he combines a scientist’s insistence on empirical evidence with a punk-rocker’s fury at hypocrisy to attack not just organized religion but also the very notion of the supernatural, a “synthetic frippery,” he claims, invented by the “Flat Earth Society.” “I’m materialist, a full-blown realist, physical theorist,” he sings. “So don’t talk of hidden mysteries with me.”

But unlike a lot of atheist commentators—and unlike a lot of punk-rockers—Graffin is willing to move beyond attacking what’s wrong to propose an alternative vision. Bad Religion’s “Faith Alone,” for example, begins with a sneer at the sermons coming from churches and synagogues alike, but then pivots to suggest that rationality can provide the answers that faith can’t. On “Atheist Peace,” he goes even further, declaring that only by giving up religious fantasies can we solve the problems of war and our own discontents: “From the faith you release,” he bellows over the rampaging drums, “comes an atheist peace.”

On “God,” John Lennon seemed to be anticipating Graffin’s ideas. The ex-Beatle proposed that the deity is merely “a concept by which we measure our pain” and suggested that by waking up from “the dream” of that concept we could embrace reality, the ultimate source of meaning. On “Imagine,” his indelible anthem, he asks us to “imagine there’s no heaven,… no hell below us, above us only sky.” If enough people took this approach, he sings, they’d be living for today and each other.

The most powerful of all atheist singer-songwriters, however, is Randy Newman, one of the very best songwriters in any category. Newman has never been shy about his atheism, but neither has he been an evangelist for his beliefs. Herein lies the dilemma for the atheist artist; how do you advocate for your position without becoming as preachy and dull as your opponents? “I would never wave a flag for atheism,” Newman told me back in 2003, “but I can write something funny like ‘God’s Song.’”

In that number, he assumes the persona of God and sings over Hollywoodesque gospel music, “I take from you your children, and you say how blessed are we. You all must be crazy to put your faith in me. That’s why I love mankind.” On the album, Randy Newman’s Faust, Newman takes on the role of Satan and gives the Supreme Being role to James Taylor, who has the more appropriate voice. This gives Newman/Satan the chance to tell Taylor/God, “We’re a figment of their imagination, a beautiful dream, it is true, but a figment of their imagination.”

Newman has written a lot of funny songs, but he has also written the scariest song I’ve ever heard—much scarier than the apocalyptic cartoons whipped up by Black Sabbath, Metallica and Nine Inch Nails, scarier even than Lou Reed’s genuinely frightening songs such as “Heroin” and “Street Hassle.” It’s a song that Newman hasn’t played on stage in decades, because, he once told me, “It’s too hard to get the audience back afterward.” I’m referring to “Old Man,” a seemingly simple song about a grown son attending the death of his father.

In the song’s final verse, as the slow, elegant melody builds to a climax, you expect the son to comfort his dad in the latter’s final minutes. But instead the youngster quietly sings, as if slapping his father in the face, “Won’t be no God to comfort you; you taught me not to believe that lie. You don’t need anybody; nobody needs you. Don’t cry, old man, don’t cry. Everybody dies.”

Here Newman faces up to the side of atheism most adherents don’t want to talk about: the bleak vision of death as a final end with no afterlife and no reprieve. It’s a vision that limits atheism’s appeal and complicates the challenge of making music from its perspective. But the ruthlessness of the son’s words are scary precisely because we suspect they’re true—and a truth as shocking as that is the stuff of great art.

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