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Atheism and Sacred Music

October 19, 2010

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?

Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Mormon Tabernacle Choir

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.)

12 Comments leave one →
  1. godlesspaladin permalink
    October 19, 2010 11:30 pm

    Atheist hymns and music is anything that’s not religious music, so we’ve got quite a large selection. :p But in all seriousness, no, you don’t need to abandon anything just because it was created for a religious purpose or by a religious person. Especially don’t burn any of your albums. Burning art, religious or not, (in my view) is really disgusting. Any atheist who says you need to stop enjoying something beautiful, simply because it’s religious in nature, obviously has issues. Personally, I love cathedrals. Whenever I’m in Europe and I have the opportunity to go see one, I go. I find them fascinating and beautiful. The fact that they’re religious structures and I’m an atheist doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of their beauty.

  2. October 20, 2010 11:34 am

    Just listen to nerdy atheisty rap!

  3. October 20, 2010 4:32 pm

    As usual, you’re not alone! I’ve been thinking about that lately since I’m considering joining a new choir. We might sing songs with religious messages, and I decided fairly easily that I didn’t care one way or the other. I love music of all different backgrounds and genres. Religious music is not excluded from my tastes just because I’m an atheist.

    I’ve kept some of my Christian music around because I just love it too much to delete it. Some examples are gospel music by Kirk Franklin, bands like Relient K and Five Iron Frenzy, and other music that still gets me dancing. I’ve also kept the old songs I used to sing in my choirs because singing them gives me joy no matter what the lyrics.

    Music as art and entertainment is so much more than just lyrics or religious intention. Beauty transcends.

    As for other media, I wrote a blog post about getting rid of my favorite Christian Books. That was a very difficult topic for me, since I have emotionally connected with many titles that no longer speak to my beliefs or understanding.

    Basically, my thoughts are these: Love whatever you want to love. Enjoy the music/books that give you joy. If you want to separate yourself from your past to help you move forward, that’s fine too. I only caution against making rash decisions and running away from things you love because of some assumption that we need to only like things that agree strictly with our philosophies.

    • October 20, 2010 9:39 pm

      Hey GG. You look really nice today.

      I still support Jeff The Girl’s ministry (the sax player of Five Iron Frenzy). No one knows this but you guys. But it’s not very much, and I just never bothered to stop the automatic deduction from my checking account. I also kinda don’t want to explain to a hero from my youth that I don’t believe in her cause anymore…

      And I still occasionally listen to FIF or Waterdeep, and even sometimes the Newsboys. Sometimes. Sometimes I also burst into hymn, but mainly to annoy people. It works.

      • October 20, 2010 9:54 pm

        I still listen to Rich Mullins and Derek Webb a tiny little bit, but that is about it for “CCM”.

        • October 20, 2010 10:01 pm

          I kinda miss The Jesus Record. The demo disc, not the overproduced disc.

        • October 20, 2010 11:13 pm

          I all but threw away The Jesus Record soon as I listened to it, but The Jesus Demos stayed in my CD player for QUITE a long while.

          If only Rich hadn’t found Jesus, maybe I wouldn’t have this dilemma.

    • October 20, 2010 10:03 pm

      Thanks for the link, GG, I’ll go read that! Most of the Christian books I own I’ll have no trouble getting rid of–except maybe the Left Behind series since they are my favoritest books ev4r!!!

  4. Fidgeteer permalink
    August 18, 2011 5:15 am

    You needn’t conflate aesthetic interests with spiritual convictions. Walter Pater was an agnostic all his life but continued to go to mass for “the beauty of the ritual.” Atheists and agnostics all over the world listen to, analyze and surrender themselves to the music of J.S. Bach, Josquin, Tallis, Ockeghem and other sacred composers too numerous to name. They can also be fans of novels with Christian themes and medieval paintings of the stations of the cross. Post-spiritual convictions and personal aesthetics are two different things.

    We should not model ourselves after Stalin and Lenin, and forbid the exploration of certain topics and modes of art to our most inspired artists and critics. Shostakovich was a non-believer all of his life, but that didn’t stop him from falling in love with the music of Hindemith and Mahler.

    If you truly disbelieve in god, then you needn’t worry about the influence of those who believe. Nor are you violating your principles if you enjoy (and admit to enjoying) sacred music — if anything, you’re affirming them by being specific and insightful rather than literal and myopic.

  5. Fidgeteer permalink
    August 18, 2011 5:29 am

    That sounded a bit dry because I’m currently at work, but the meaning isn’t dry at all:

    Aesthetics and beliefs should be as separate as politics and religion. Feel free to enjoy sacred works of art whenever you like, providing they’re well made and give you pleasure.

    Appreciating an argument with which you disagree isn’t the mark of inconsistency, it’s a safeguard against hypocrisy. It’s a way of showing the same tolerance toward reasonable religious people which we expect from them. Bertrand Russell, too, liked liturgical music.

    • August 23, 2011 4:08 am

      The plus side is that I’m even more free to criticize some of the crappier varieties of christian music in the world. :D (Because I was so hesitant to criticize bad religious music in the past. </sarcasm>)


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