Sunday, December 4, 2016

John Lennon's "Imagine" to an #AtheistEar

The Beatles were part of my parents' teen aged years, and they had an odd place in our record collection. We owned the early records - the ones that came before the "bigger than Jesus" remark. My favorite was the perplexingly psychedelic Rubber Soul, and while mom didn't mind me listening to them, if grandma heard it, we would somehow end up talking about how awful "hippies" were later that same day.

Culture warriors in the 1980's didn't know quite how to deal with John Lennon's continuing influence on their youth. I picked up on the fact that he made some of the older men in my church angry, but the picture they painted of the drug-addled, hippy-dippy revolutionary never seemed as compelling as the impression that I got from his songs; or at least from the songs I was able to hear. No radio station in Arizona would play "Mother" or "Woman Is the Nigger of the World," but songs like "Give Peace a Chance" and "Love" not only sounded like something Jesus might sing, but on rare occasions got played by visiting musicians or guest choir directors.

Not that those musicians or guests were invited back...

Strangely, there was one song that seemed to divide people more than any other. It was simple, catchy, beautiful, and threatening all at once. We couldn't accept its anti-religious message, but we couldn't ignore it, either. See if you can figure out why:


(Lyrics available here.)

Clearly, no one can deny what Lennon is saying about religion. The first line denies heaven, and that recurring idea of people "living for today" is exactly the opposite of what my church was teaching. In fact, my church repeatedly and forcefully blamed the problems of the world on people who were living for today, and not keeping God and heaven in their sights. And they could point at Lennon himself as the worst of that kind of person: the junkie rock star who did such bizarre things, kept such bizarre company, and spoke out against our traditional values.

"Living for today" was a phrase that I was taught to read a certain way. The hermeneutic in our white evangelical Christian tribe required us to read that phrase as a code for people who had thrown away their morality and followed the false god of doing whatever feels good. Pastors quoted Aliester Crowley - "Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law" - and denounced something they called "moral relativism."

In our church, we did not allow for the possibility that there was anything more to John Lennon or his type of people. And it seemed very important to everyone trying to teach me how to be a Christian that I never look at the phrase "living for today" as anything but another way of describing nihilism and spiritual death. Being a child, of course I accepted what they tried to teach me.

But then there's that third verse:

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

That was also a common theme in the Bible. Jesus said that repeatedly. He excoriated the rich, and all of us in the Christian faith were supposedly trying to build a brotherhood as Jesus commanded. That was compelling to me - that, and the notion that if I did set aside the fevered warnings of my elders, and stopped trying so hard to pin all of the world's problems on other people, maybe we could find a way to get along.

Everyone who has walked away from their religion has had to struggle with figuring out what to throw away, and what to keep. The most persistent idea, pounded into me from my earliest days, was that walking away from God meant giving up my morality. This notion that the only way for me to live if I wasn't a Christian any more was to wallow in hedonism - that turned out to be ridiculous. And I figured that out thanks to John Lennon.

As hard as religions of any type try to convince you that without them, you are nothing but an animal, the truth is that you not only are an animal, but you are an animal with a gift. You have the ability to reason; to see the world around you, to comprehend cause and effect, to predict outcomes. You have the ability to not only plan a way to attack the next guy over and take his stuff, but also to figure out that it isn't necessary to attack him when you can cooperate and share the benefits of working together. The choice is yours whether you're a person of faith or not.

In my case, I figured out that even after I stopped Being A Christian, I hadn't really changed all that much. There were things that I wanted to do that would have been considered "evil" and forbidden by my faith, but they were things that I had wanted to do when I was still a believer. I found that the important thing was not keeping my imaginary soul clean and pure, but had more to do with thinking about the consequences of my actions. Choosing to do or not do things according to whether they impacted others without their consent, and according to whatever choice would have the best outcome, turned out to be a pretty good way to make choices.

Today, I'm drawn to the simply expression of humanist hope in this song. I try to explain to people who react to it the way my grandparents and church elders did that it isn't an attack on them or their faith. It isn't a hymn to Communism. It's an expression of the Golden Rule - an invitation to think about the world from someone else's point of view. There are those who find that threatening; but that doesn't make it a threat.

If it is a challenge, it is a challenge to actually be the peaceful and noble people you claim your faith compels you to be. Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone did that?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" to my #AtheistEar

One of the first pieces of music I remember falling in love with also happened to appear in our Baptist Hymnal. And it happens to be a very appropriate Thanksgiving holiday sort of song.

The "Ode to Joy," or the Chorale from the Fourth movement of Beethoven's 9th symphony. My mom had a record with excerpts of great classical works that featured a 4 or 5-minute selection of just the chorus singing that main theme, but one of the first pieces of music I remember buying for myself was a cassette of the full symphony. Today, it is the anthem of the European Union.*

If you have not had the pleasure, here is Leonard Bernstein conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Staatsoper, Vienna, in 1979:

 

 If you prefer to skip to the singin' here's where it starts!

 (Lyrics are available here - that's the original German and a quality translation from the Schiller Institute; it's a PDF, though. Lyrics by Henry Van Dyke - which appeared in my Hymnal - are available here.)

 Not being a German speaker when I was a boy, all I knew about this song at first was that it was a hymn of praise to God. You may have heard this verse at some point:

Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before thee,
Opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day! 

 That's very pretty, and I know I sang those words with gusto on the rare occasions our music director picked this song. For all I knew, when I listened to the passionate, loud, and joyful German version on my mom's record, they were singing the same thing.

As you'll see in a moment, they weren't. Where the Van Dyke verse sings flowery couplets to a God being praised, the words by Friedrich Schiller take a subtly different approach - one with a decidedly Deist flavor:

Joy, thou beauteous godly lightning,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire drunken we are ent’ring
Heavenly, thy holy home!
Thy enchantments bind together,
What did custom stern divide,
Every man becomes a brother,
Where thy gentle wings abide. 

 and

Joy is drunk by every being
From kind nature’s flowing breasts,
Every evil, every good thing
For her rosy footprint quests.
Gave she us both vines and kisses,
In the face of death a friend,
To the worm were given blisses
And the Cherubs God attend. 

 Notice that instead of singing specifically to the Christian God, these verses are directed to the embodiment of Joy. Where God is mentioned, He is certainly being praised, but throughout, the Creator is referred to in a less Christian way:

 Be embrac’d, ye millions yonder!
Take this kiss throughout the world!
Brothers—o’er the stars unfurl’d
Must reside a loving Father 

 and

He who in the great ring dwelleth,
Homage pays to sympathy!
To the stars above leads she,
Where on high the Unknown reigneth 

This way of speaking about the "Unknown" reigning "on high" is not unheard of in the Christian tradition, but it is central to the thinking of Age of Enlightenment figures who thought of themselves as "natural philosophers," and who we now recognize as the early scientists. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and before them, John Locke and Voltaire, were all prominent Deist writers, who looked at science - or natural philosophy - as the way to discovering this Creator.

Today, atheists try to claim many of these thinkers, but while those people certainly were no great fans of churches, they still saw room in the vast mysteries of the unknown for a Creator. Some of them were more skeptical of His Divine Existence, but most of them took the approach that humans couldn't possibly understand a being that could set all of nature in motion, and determined that the only divinity lay in divining and defining the laws of the universe. By unveiling the mysteries wherever they could, their experiments and their scientific methods slowly pushed that veil back; and wherever they found materialistic explanations for previously mysterious phenomena, supernatural or Divine explanations were no longer satisfactory or necessary.

This is why today we call him the God of the Gaps.

Personally, knowing the original poem that Beethoven set to music makes me feel closer to him than the flowery and conflicted words that were passed off in our hymnal. I have no reason to believe that Beethoven himself was a Deist, but he certainly belonged to the Age of Enlightenment, and the story of how he composed this piece despite losing his hearing and battling mental illness is a testament to a mind that remained relentlessly rational.

 In contrast, the last verse of the Van Dyke version seems to run counter to the original, and to itself: 

Mortals join the mighty chorus,
Which the morning stars began;
Father love is reigning ov'er us,
Brother love binds man to man.
Ever signing, march we onward,
Victors in the midst of strife;
Joyful music leads us sunward
In the triumph song of life. 

 That is stirring, but it seems to send a conflicted message. In one breath, we sing about brother love binding man to man, and in the next, we sing about Victors in joyful triumph. The implication is that even in harmony, there is inherent conflict - and the "good" is defined by the victor.

I much prefer the ending of the Schilling verses:

 Rescue from the tyrant’s fetters,
Mercy to the villain e’en,
Hope within the dying hours,
Pardon at the guillotine!
E’en the dead shall live in heaven!
Brothers, drink and all agree,
Every sin shall be forgiven,
Hell forever cease to be.
 A serene departing hour!
Pleasant sleep beneath the pall!
Brothers—gentle words for all
Doth the Judge of mortals utter!
There is still talk there of an afterlife, but instead of sorting souls into good and evil, and torturing one group forever, that afterlife is built out of pardons and making peace. As a humanist, that's a goal I can get behind, even if I don't literally believe in a soul or a supernatural afterlife. As people of faith, I would hope we could agree on that as some common ground.

I don't believe there is a Judge of mortals, but if there is, I hope he will take into account the fact that we materialists have done the best we can with the scant clues available to us. Either way, I expect to rest easily in my own afterlife - either singing Ode to Joy, or no longer existing at all.

*Beethoven's tune[1] (but not Schiller's words) was adopted as the Anthem of Europe by the Council of Europe in 1972, and subsequently the European Union.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

I'm Not Crying

A number of people in my social media feeds seem to be taking the attitude that people like me are crying over the recent election, and that we should "get over it" - they way they claim they did when Obama won. This premise is flawed on a couple of levels.

I am obviously among those people who are angry and outraged that Donald Trump is going to be President. Despite losing the popular vote, and despite demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of our Constitution or how a government should be run, he stands poised to be elected by the Electoral College on 19 December. I'd prefer not to see that happen.

I was angry that the only other choice burped up by our admittedly flawed two-party system was Hillary Clinton. As awful as I felt she was, though, Donald Trump has demonstrated that he shares all of her flaws, plus a few of his own which should have disqualified him from running for any office - let alone the highest elected office in the land.

I remember all too well how the people telling me to "get over it" behaved after Obama was elected. I will preemptively point out that if you tell me it's not fair to lump you in with the Tea Party demonstrators who burned and hung Obama in effigy at their protests, or who proudly pasted "Don't Re-Nig in 2012" bumper stickers on their trucks, then it's also not fair to lump me in with the anti-Trump protesters who are accused of rioting and property damage.

Of course, the elephant in the room is still the racist, white nationalist support for Donald Trump. Conservative and liberal politicians and their various supporters have been calling each other fascists for as long as I remember. We've even coined the term "Godwin's Law" to describe the phenomenon of throwing comparisons to Hitler around in Internet conversation.

Hydra - because they're totally not Nazis
But things are different now that Trump is appointing people like Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon to his administration. People try to describe Bannon as a "hard core conservative," but his ideas have nothing to do with American conservatism. American conservatives are actually economic liberals; they are constitutionalists (sometimes to a fault), and ought to be as virulently anti-fascist as I am.

Yet, former Breitbart writer, Ben Shapiro, appearing on Slate's The Gist podcast (interview starts at the 7:39 mark), described his former boss this way: "[Steve Bannon] doesn't like Constitutional Conservatism; he thinks that it's an obstacle in the way of building this...new Third wave movement...that is focused on heavy spending, even some redistribution inside the country..."

This isn't the only red flag. Here's a quick matchup of tips for identifying fascism along with a handy, illustrative link for each:

- Nationalism: (National Review) Nationalists for a Smaller America

- Disdain for human rights: (Washington Post) Trump's election threatens human rights around the world

- Identification of enemies of the state: (Snopes) Trump's Transition Team Reportedly Mulls 'Muslim Registry'

- Supremacy of the military: (Foreign Policy) Military Experts: Trump Defense Spending Plans Would Break the Budget

- Rampant sexism: (New Yorker) Donald Trump's Unconscious Unending Sexism

- Controlled mass media: (Business Insider) Trump reportedly explodes at media bigwigs in off-record meeting

- Obsession with national security: (NPR) Trump's Appointments Provide Insight Into National Security Strategy

- Religion and government are intertwined: (Religion News Service) Why the Christian right still supports Trump
and (Americans United) H.R. 2802, the deceptively named “First Amend­ment Defense Act” (FADA)

- Corporate power is protected: (Fortune) Donald Trump's New D.C. Hotel Could Be Popular With Foreign Diplomats: Report

- Labor power is suppressed: (The Atlantic) When America Was 'Great,' Taxes Were High, Unions Were Strong, and Government Was Big

- Disdain for intellectuals & the arts: (CNN) 'Hamilton' is Trump's dead cat

- Obsession with crime & punishment: (Marshall Project) Law and Order Trumps Reform
(also relevant: from Fortune) Netflix's '13th' Explores 'Modern Slavery' in Incendiary New Documentary

- Rampant cronyism & corruption: (New York Times) Donald Trump's Business Dealings Test a Constitutional Limit
and (Washington Post) Why Donald Trump’s family being in the White House is problematic, explained

If we were playing Fascism Bingo, I think I'd have a blackout card.

This is stuff that all of us, liberal or conservative, ought to be guarding against. If you're busy enjoying all of the "liberal tears" after this election, or ranting that people like me should "get over it," you might be missing the warning signs.

For my part, I'm not crying. I'm watching.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Tori Amos's "God" to an #AtheistEar

Tori Amos made a huge impression on me with her debut album Little Earthquakes in 1992. There were a lot of challenging ideas in her songs, and she often used the ideas and imagery from her religious upbringing to address topics like rape and depression in ways that were unheard of at the time - especially from a pretty pop piano player.

In the years since, Tori has earned a reputation for being more mystical and less grounded. She still addresses deep topics, and she can still be shocking, but as she and her fans have matured, her work has been more nuanced, and (to her critics) confused and un-directed. Some of this is no doubt due to the backlash she received from those who did not appreciate her attacking their points of view, and her attempting to be more inclusive and less divisive.

But among her most direct jabs at the God she grew up with is this song from her 1994 album, Under the Pink. Take a look at this candidate for Atheist Anthem:



(Lyrics available here.)

The bulk of the song is a repeated rebuke:

God, sometimes you just don't come through
God, sometimes you just don't come through, babe
Do you need a woman to look after you?
God, sometimes you just don't come through

The verses don't really add a whole lot to that, unless you project more meaning onto Amos's meandering lyric than I do:

Well, tell me you're crazy, maybe then I'll understand
(Come down and tell me what you mean now)
You got your nine, nine iron in the back seat just in case
(Inside, inside, what you doing?)
Well, heard you've gone south, well, babe, you love your new four wheel
(Hey, what do you know? What do you know?)
I got to find, find, find why you always go when the wind blows

Meandering or not, her point seems to be that the omnipotent God she was raised to revere doesn't seem to perform any better than random chance. Or, if he does exist, maybe he's busy playing golf in the Bible belt?

The satire here is more playful and less intense than her breakthrough hit, Crucify, which was really less about religion and more about breaking free of the baggage that we carry trying to please others. In neither case does she outright abandon the notion of God - that ineffable Being that permeates everything. Instead, she seems to reject only the interpretations and versions of God that are forced on people through organized religion. And that, my friends, is a very different thing.

Personally, I don't begrudge people their personal journey to find whatever it is they think they're looking for. I'm not going to mock Tori here for her leanings towards whatever spiritual  fulfillment she might have found. But when it came time for me to admit that the version of God I was raised to believe in didn't exist, I ultimately couldn't find anything else to replace it.

That was scary.

"My magic feather helps me fly...
not physics!"
This song helped ease that fear a bit, by making light of the damaging legendary being that I had been raised to fear. To some extent, that line - "why you always go when the wind blows" - helped me realize that the fear I felt was going to be there regardless of what I believed. Pretending that there was Something would not make the vast Nothing of the universe any less vast, or any less empty. I was using God the way Dumbo used his "magic feather" to fly; he didn't need it, because his ears could generate lift. But he needed something to give him the confidence to leap.

Once I realized that a "Magic Feather" was all the idea of God was to me - indeed, all it is to most people - I found that I was okay without it.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Battle Hymn of the Republic to an #AtheistEar

In honor of Veterans Day, I dug up a stirring little something about war and Grapes of Wrath. The Battle Hymn of the Republic was another favorite in our Baptist Hymnal, and having a number of Civil War veterans in my family tree, the song always felt personal to me.

Here's the Johnny Cash version, because... it's Johnny freakin' Cash:





(Lyrics are available here.)

You may have only heard it with these famous parody lyrics:

Glory, glory, hallelujah
My teacher hit me with a ruler
I hid behind her door with a loaded .44
And the teacher don't teach no more!

Well... that's wrong, but on at least some level, it's so very, very right. Because this song is all about claiming that God is on the side of the Union Army, and He is fixin' to smite whoever stands in opposition to it!

The real words to the hymn were written by Julia Ward Howe, a famous abolitionist and suffragette, and were published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862, and they do not skimp on imagery that would have been readily recognized by the soldiers in the battlefield of the day.

I have seen him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read his righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps;
His day is marching on.

What stands out to my Atheist Ear today is the almost complete lack of mention of the cause these men were fighting for. One would expect a morally compelling argument against slavery, or at least some indication of why this bellicose God is passing His "righteous sentence" in the text. But there is only one mention of the word "slave" in the song at all:

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is wisdom to the mighty, he is honor to the brave;
So the world shall be his footstool, and the soul of wrong his slave.
Our God is marching on.

That line doesn't even condemn the practice of slavery; if anything, it shows God making "the soul of wrong his slave" - a scene in which the Supreme Being is enslaving another. That disturbs me, because here we have the Armies of the Union and Confederacy squaring off over the largest issue that has ever divided this country - and still does today - and the abolitionist who wrote this song didn't feel moved to point out that slavery was the great moral wrong over which they were fighting? The Sin which God would have been punishing?

Oh, wait - there is a small mention here, in the verse before that - and you may recall hearing this line before: "As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." I guess that hints that the soldiers are fighting so they can free others, but it isn't any different than the language we use to describe the freedoms that our soldiers have died for in any of our wars. There is nothing specifically about the cause of setting the slaves free. I am left with an uneasy feeling that maybe I've been projecting my own feelings about slavery and human rights and dignity onto these words and the events they describe.

As I write this on the 11th of November, people are celebrating Veterans Day by thanking people like me for our service in their Facebook feeds and on Twitter, and they are doing so in the same week that our country elected someone who was openly supported by white supremacists, including the Ku Klux Klan. This is the tail end of a year in which the #BlackLivesMatter movement arose to protest the repeated killing of unarmed black men by police, and was roundly branded a "terrorist organization."

Just last year, nine members of a black Charleston, South Carolina, church congregation were shot by a white supremacist, but the outrage that swept the nation centered more on controversy over removing the Confederate flag from the State House than on the lives lost. The Confederate flag - the flag of the men who killed and died for the right to own other human beings as property - was still flown by the official government of a U.S. state over their state house in 2016.

Perhaps if our Union soldiers had been singing about the actual moral cause they were supposedly fighting for instead of singing about what a tough bastard their god was, the morality of that Union victory might have sunk in.

Then again, looking at the recent choices made by my countrymen, I suspect not.

I'm still proud that all of the family I have traced so far were on the side of the Union, but that pride is tempered by knowing that they probably weren't much different from their Southern neighbors when it came to the idea of living side by side with former slaves, or treating them with anything less than patronizing contempt. The takeaway for me is that I still need to do something to make up for what they failed to accomplish.

At the very least, we need some new lyrics.

Mine eyes have seen the shooting of my brothers in the streets
And my sisters won't be safe until they're seen as more than meat
They can't breathe, but dare they struggle they face permanent defeat
Yet they're still marching on.

There's no glory in oppression.
Won't we ever learn this lesson?
Our enemy is our division,
Stop fighting, get along.

 Too catchy? Probably too catchy.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Arrested Development's "Fishin' 4 Religion" to my #AtheistEar

My problems were correctable
In 1992, this band caught my head, heart, and ear with an album full of musical ideas that were not like anything else I had experienced before. Their radio hit, Tennessee, with its lyric "Although I am black and proud/problems got me pessimistic" even led to a seriously embarrassing moment when I was singing along at the top of my lungs in my car at a stoplight, and looked over to see a car full of young black men watching me sing... through the open windows of our two cars. (They looked... amused.)

But I can't blame Speech, DJ Headliner, or Baba Oje for my embarrassment; I have to own my flaws (check my hair from that time) and move on. But among the many gems I enjoyed on their number one album, 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of... was this interesting track:





(Lyrics are available here.)

Two big things stand out when I listen to this song today. The first is that reminder of what it felt like to be in that place of doubt as a young man:

So on the dock I sit in silence
staring at a sea that's full of violence
Scared to put my line in that water
'Cause it seems like there's no religion in there

One hallmark of growing up in an evangelical Christian church is their fondness for teaching the flaws of other faiths. I recall one year in particular in which our special Revival Week involved showing up each night for a sermon warning against the evils of a different "cult" - Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists, "Occult" and New Age (or paganism), Catholics (yes, that pissed off my catholic girlfriend), and two nights discussing the Mormons. The intent was to inoculate our flock against the temptations of falling for these false prophets and Anti-Christs. The effect seems to have been successful, with the small drawback of making me skeptical of Southern Baptists, as well.

My path to agnosticism was a reluctant one; I joked for a lot of years that I was a "di-agnostic," and if anyone asked what that was supposed to mean, I would say, "I don't know if there's a god or two out there, but I can tell you what's wrong with your religion!" It was a usefully tacky joke, because people who laughed were probably prepared to take my real doubts seriously, and people who were offended took themselves too seriously to be able to help me in any real way.

But hearing Speech rhyme about that feeling that there is something out there, but also feeling that the search for it is too daunting - I grokked that.

Eventually, of course, I figured out that some healthy skepticism and a materialist philosophy were the right approach for me to take. Whatever comfort others found in pretending that there was reason enough to believe in the supernatural was not there for me. While others fear the vast, empty universe, I find comfort and freedom in the idea that there is no omnipresent, omniscient Ego out there tallying up my mistakes and taking credit for my wins.

Today, I can confidently call myself an atheist, and talk about the other big thing that stands out in this old song:

The lady prays and prays and prays and prays
And prays and prays and prays and prays...it's everlasting
There's nothing wrong with praying?
It's what she's asking

and

What you pray for God will give
To be able to cope in this world we live
The word 'cope' and the word 'change'
Is directly opposite, not the same 
She should have been praying to change her woes
but pastor said "Pray to cope with those"

I agree wholeheartedly that the lady in this story is putting her energy in the wrong place, and I would agree with the idea Speech is aiming for: don't accept the unacceptable. But I would have to differ on the notion that prayer changes anything at all.

There are things that cause changes, though - and if you think you need to change the world around you, there is an opportunity coming up in just a couple of days. It's like 1992 all over again - and either likely outcome of Tuesday's election will repeat history - we'll end up either with a President who used to live in the White House, or a President who ran a campaign on whitehouse.com (don't go to that site - if you don't get the joke, here's the Wikipedia article).

A lot of people I know assert that votes don't matter. I disagree, in principle, but even if you take a statistical approach, there are a few things that matter less. Prayers are in that small category. Pray, if you must - and if it makes you feel better, I certainly won't presume to tell you to stop. I'm a blogger; who am I to criticize you for pointlessly throwing words into the ether? 

But you need to go vote.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

"When the Saints Go Marching In" to my #AtheistEar

I have been wracking my brains all month, trying to think of the ultimate "Halloween hymn" to talk about today, and it hit me: for all that Halloween has been (literally) demonized by evangelical Christians, the actual Christian holiday - All Hallows' Day, or All Saints' Day - already has an almost universally recognized theme:





(Lyrics available here...as if you needed them!)

 This version is by two of the most New Orleans-ian of New Orleans artists: Dirty Dozen Brass Band with a guest appearance by Trombone Shorty. The video is a bit sea-sickness-inducing, but the audio isn't bad, and the band is phenomenal under any conditions.

As a kid, I picked up on unspoken levels of discomfort whenever this song was brought up in my rural, white, evangelical church or around my family. On one hand, this song expresses the same sentiment as "I'll Fly Away" does:

O when the saints go marching in,
O when the saints go marching in,
O Lord, I want to be in that number
when the saints go marching in.

As a Southern Baptist kid, I noticed that two lines of questions would lead to uncomfortable conversations: "What exactly are 'saints' supposed to be?" and "This song is so exciting; why don't we sing it more often?"

According to what I was taught by adults in my Southern Baptist church, "Saints" refers to anyone who has accepted Jesus as their savior. It's just a word for those who are Saved in the Baptist sense of the word. What I didn't learn until years later was that the catholic churches had developed their own mythology around the idea of "saints" which Baptists considered to be non-Biblical, and therefore, evil.

(As an atheist, whenever I run across the stories about these Catholic saints, I marvel at what horrible people they were, and at the way their horribleness was turned into mythology... but that's fodder for another series of posts.)

In high school, I began dating a girl who was Catholic, and I got to learn all over again from my church how Baptists are supposed to feel about Catholics - while at the same time I had my girlfriend as a resource for sorting out Baptist myth from Catholic reality. Baptists told me that Catholics prayed to dead people; my girlfriend explained about the Catholic concept of "intercessory prayer." Baptists told me that Catholic "saints" were not usually Saved, and therefore were actually un-redeemed and not truly Christian - which meant they were, in fact, following Satan. My girlfriend balked at that twisted logic coming from people who reject orthodoxy.

And yes, there were Bible verses about false prophets produced as "clobber texts" on both sides, which were meant to prove that one side or the other was Right(eous), but only served to confuse the issue. Looking back at all of this controversy as an atheist, I recognize that I was stuck in an impossible position between groups that were in violent disagreement over bullshit.

Each side believed they were right, and by maintaining their disagreement, they were making themselves part of a tradition that dated back to the First Century, and a schism that developed between the earliest Christians; a schism between those who believe in orthodoxy, and those who believe in personal revelation. In other words, it was the religious equivalent of arguing over the superiority of Star Wars vs. Star Trek - and no one wins an argument like that.

As to my other question - "Why don't we sing this exciting song more often?" - that turns out to have a very simple explanation that no one wants to admit out loud: Race.

The very similar song, "I'll Fly Away," was written by a man named Albert E. Brumley in 1929. It was one of those songs recorded by dozens of groups and performed frequently on the AM radio stations which grew up across the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. In contrast, "When the Saints..." was not credited to a composer; instead, it was included in our Baptist Hymnals as a Negro spiritual.

Of course, as written, there is nothing in the text of "When the Saints..." that is overtly controversial. "When the sun refuse to shine/I want to be in that number" and "When they crown Him Lord of all/I want to be in that number" are essentially the other two verses of the song. The implicit core desire expressed by the lyrics are a yearning to be included. I think that was the source of discomfort that no one wanted to discuss, because the origin of the Southern Baptists is rooted firmly in exclusion. They split from their Northern brothers before the Civil War in a disagreement over whether black pastors could be ordained as missionaries.

Growing up in a post-Civil Rights era version of the Southern Baptist church, I was surrounded by adults who had not yet figured out where their traditional beliefs fit in America's new political reality. And hearing "When the Saints Go Marching In" apparently reminded them, even if it was on a remote, subconscious level, that they belonged to a community built on excluding fellow saints... saints who wanted nothing more than to be included in that number.

By their nature, Baptists occupy an uncomfortable eschatology. (They try to believe literally in what the most allegorical of books says about the End of Times; so that leads to a lot of cognitive dissonance.) The core of their belief system is inherently prone to heresy, which they can't combat, because they consider personal revelation and conscience to be the basis of spiritual salvation. That means that their own core beliefs don't allow for an "authority" in the church to determine who is or is not a "real, true Christian." They do claim to follow the literal, inerrant text of the Bible, but as I pointed out above, that doesn't allow them to authoritatively resolve even the most central and basic arguments stemming back to the earliest Christian churches. And that means that they have no foundational, scriptural basis for excluding anyone who claims to have come to their faith through personal revelation.

In other words, anyone who says they are a saint, is a saint. That causes a problem for Baptists who don't want to count someone as a saint. Rather than deal with the discomfort of including people they have long worked to exclude, they have a history of projecting their discomfort on the music itself.

"When the Saints..." is a very deeply black song. Being a negro spiritual, it was forged in a community of oral history by people who were being deprived of inclusion in humanity itself. As simple as the text is, it speaks very powerfully of people who want a promise fulfilled - the promise that if they work hard and follow the rules, they will someday be free. It's morbid to consider now how many of them only had death to look forward to. And whether white evangelicals want to admit it or not, this song is a painful reminder of their historic role in maintaining the system that put those people into that forge.

Sadly, I've seen how the discomfort from that painful reminder gets transformed into a reason to continue to exclude. They don't want to be called racists... but they can't seem to square inclusion with the things they do and teach.

White evangelical culture has a long history of demonizing black culture - and pretending that this has nothing to do with race. Consider the example of Sketch Erickson, as the Slacktivist describes here. Then watch that Dirty Dozen/Trombone Shorty performance again, and connect the cultural dots. I think now that the awkward relationship my church family had with this particular song had a lot to do with where they drew their personal line between what is divine and what is not.

And demonizing is what Halloween is all about, isn't it?

This was always the most uncomfortable time of year for my church community. On one hand, you have the unavoidable historic fact that All Hallows' Eve is a Christian feast day... for the wrong kinds of Christians. On the other hand, you have the celebration of evil spirits being glorified in the secular culture, especially when it uses that historically black music.

As modern Americans, we weren't supposed to believe in evil spirits anymore, which always added to the confusion. (I'm still confused by the logic that Christians use that, "There are real witches ... real because they believe in magic, even though I don't, because magic isn't real.")

So our churches would attempt to reclaim the holiday by refusing to have Halloween celebrations, and instead have Harvest Night, or some similarly innocuous sounding alternative... which accidentally imitated the pagan festivals they were trying to distance themselves from in the first place.

As an atheist adult, I look at this holiday with a mix of amusement and pity. I feel bad for the people who work themselves into a frenzy over the "Satanic" nature of the holiday - which seems pointless, considering there is no Satan. And I feel some sense of schadenfreude that the people who are most worked up over the whole thing are battling demons of their own making.

But mostly, I feel like dwelling on the afterlife is a huge waste of time and energy - especially if we can't swallow our pride and address the schisms that we've created for ourselves out of all of these misinterpreted myths.