Atheism and Sacred Music
It has recently been pointed that there are no atheist hymns. Being a musician in the western tradition, and someone so steeped in the culture of the church, one of my biggest struggles has been how to deal with this in light of my newfound freedom from God and religion.
Much of music history — at least, I should say, surviving music history, as the church was quite successful in eradicating much secular music in the early part of recorded music history — is strongly influenced by the church. Even more of my music history has been heavily influenced by the church (and in particular, the evangelical, Southern Baptist church). Where does this leave me, now that I am no longer a believer?
I love hymns, the good ones, the ones that have been around for over a century. (I’m not so much a fan of the gospel songs that arose in the late 19th/early 20th century or in the Southern Gospel tradition that sprang from that, or in the contemporary music tradition that I believe sprang from these traditions as well as the folksy traditions of the west-coast in the middle part of the last century and the whole Vatican II thing… I digress.) Maybe no so much, now, for their textual content (though I do still appreciate the poetry present in many of the old hymns) but simply because that is the music that I know the best. It is a part of me, a part of my musical heritage as well as being a part of the “music of my heart.”
What do I do now? Do I, as many who converted to Christianity over the past four or five decades did with their music from before their conversion did, abandon religious music altogether, “burning” it in the name of my newfound path? While I have abandoned much of the Christian music of my childhood (both literal childhood and the figurative childhood of belief) I don’t think that I could quite bring myself to abandon it all. And would this, then, mean also abandoning other works inspired by religion? Would I need to leave behind works such as Brahms’ famous Ein Deutsches Requiem, Mozart’s Requiem, or any of Bach‘s many wonderful cantatae or Passions? Would a work like Benjamin Britten‘s enormous War Requiem stand since it was composed by an atheist while a beautiful, emotionally moving work such as Arvo Pärt’s Passio domine nostri Jesu Christe secundum Joanem be out because the composer is a devout Eastern Orthodox believer?
Of course not! I have sung Catholic Requiems for many years without agreeing with their particular theology, and I have sung songs from other mythologies, as well! Many of the great operas are based on mythology (indeed, Mozart was one of the first to use libretti not based on mythology and the history of opera goes back almost 200 years before he started composing opera). Even when I was a believing Christian I had no problem performing or listening to these operas.
There is also the fact that many of the great composers in history, though they composed music using religious themes, did so only out of necessity. Either they were employed by the church, like me, and relied on it for income, or they had no other choice for reasons of politics. Many of them were actually atheists themselves (not all, but many).
So, I should still be able to enjoy the Bach Passions just as much as I can enjoy Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. I don’t believe in Rhein-maidens, the Nibelungen, or Wotan anymore than I believe in the Christian (or any) God, the Bible, or Jesus Christ yet I still enjoy hearing Wagner.
Have you had to deal with similar questions since leaving Christianity? What answers did you come to?
(Note: The composer names are linked to the Wikipedia articles on them while the works are linked to recordings on Amazon.)