Extreme put out their 1994 album Waiting For the Punchline when the Grunge movement was in full flower, and there is no doubt that this hurt them as far as album sales and publicity goes. Their previous album, III Sides to Every Story, had played around with the conflicts between War and Peace, and re-purposed slogans from both 60's peace movements and 90's era talk radio hawks to skewer the weaknesses of both sides. For my money, their genius at writing challenging songs that sound like they mean one thing while forcefully making the opposite point was undiminished when they made their 1994 record.
Punchline focuses heavily on religious themes, and calling out hypocrisy and criticizing the abuses and excesses of organized relition. But Extreme were never satisfied with making a straightforward statement. They prefer to mix multiple arguments up in their lyrics and let the listener come to their own conclusions - while playing coy with their own (often strong) opinions. The opening track of the album does exactly this with the notion that There Is No God.
(Full lyrics available here.)
On the surface, this song comes out fighting. It would be easy to take one listen and declare this to be an Atheist Hymn (giving the lie to Steve Martin's song from a couple of weeks ago).
The first verse is clearly attacking the kinds of charlatans who were making the news in the late 80's and 90's - people like Jim Bakker, who was convicted of mail fraud and other charges related to his televangelist ministries. People like Bakker had become an easy target, not just of the anti-religious, but also of churches like my own, which saw these sprawling, lavish "ministries" as something akin to the "money changers in the temple" who made Jesus so angry that he got a whip and drove them out. (See Matthew 21:11-13 for that story.)
So you're a self proclaimed messiah
or maybe a blasphemous liar
a clever hypnotic hoax
a hallowed heretic coax
who tells these stories so old
no, never the same twice told
speaking in distorted truths
i see that thomas wants some proof
did you come to heal the sick
with one more magician's trick
ye generation seeks a sign
while blind keeps leading the blind
If you stopped there, that could stand as a withering critique of religion in general. This verse probably sounds a lot like what you hear from atheists on the internet. But take note of one small detail before it gets away. Most of this song is framed in "you" statements: "You're a self proclaimed messiah" and "did YOU come to heal the sick..." But there is one line that stands out as an "I" statement: "I see that Thomas wants some proof."
That's important for two reasons. First, it signals very subtly that the listener and the singer aren't interpreting these words from the same point of view. The listener is primed to sympathize with one view ("there is no god") or the other ("who tells these stories so old...speaking in distorted truths"), but there is a third point of view here: that of the singer. (Remember, the band's previous album was divided into "III Sides" - Yours, Mine, and The Truth.)
He's putting a lot of ideas out there, but he hasn't actually taken a "side" yet. And while he is laying out the usual case against charlatans and false prophets - or at least fallible humans - he isn't necessarily owning those arguments. He's also distancing himself from the critique by referring to someone as "Thomas." If you're not familiar with your Bible, this is a clear reference to Doubting Thomas, the disciple of Jesus who refused to believe that the Messiah was back from the dead until he put his fingers in the nail holes and stuck his hand into the wound on his side. The gruesome point being that in the end, Jesus appeared to Thomas, let him touch him, and chided anyone else who insisted on that degree of proof as a fool.
(See John 20 for that story.)
To return to the song, the band goes on to establish in the chorus what seems to be a summation of the case against religion:
so you say there is no god
just a clever man's charade
a once upon a fairy tales fraud
has god made man or man made god
there is no god
Read superficially, this can be interpreted as an assertion that "there is no god" at the end of the verse. If you're a believer, you're probably past the point of caring or wanting to hear more at that point; but if you're a non-believer, you're primed to keep going. You might even be pumped and excited to see more "red meat" thrown out.
But settle down; because now that we've identified the singer hiding in the "I" statement, it becomes important to see that the whole chorus is a "you" statement. YOU say there is no god... and YOU follow that logic to its conclusion. But what does the singer really think?
The second verse seems to continue the scathing criticism, but halfway through, there is a slight twist. See if you spot it:
confused thy talk in parables
accused thou walk in parallels
a simple game of simon says
of this month's flavor sciences
today's fact, tomorrow's fiction
leave the rest to superstition
if knowledge comes from learning books
wisdom comes from discerning looks
a fool that says there is no god
don't feel for that sorry sod
who needs proof then he'll believe
i wonder if he's been deceived
there is no god
There, in the middle of what the average atheist might consider to be the crushing blow in the case against religion, the lyrics turn around on you. Pivoting on that line - wisdom comes from discerning looks - the singer delivers two couplets that seek to undo everything they have built up to this point. This verse begins by subtly shifting from describing the failings of religious hypocrisy to criticizing "this month's flavor sciences," and ending the song with the suggestion that requiring proof is foolish.
On its merits, this is a disappointing argument to make against atheism; particularly in the context of having flayed the disappointing failures of religion. The argument turns on the fact that science does not have "all of the answers" - a common criticism from religious apologists which fails to recognize "I don't know" as one of the most powerful answers that science has.
"I don't know, let's go find out," is what makes a scientific viewpoint so strong. That was the vital driving force behind the Age of Enlightenment, and the last two centuries of discovery and learning. Recognizing that we don't know everything is not foolish - it is the beginning of wisdom, and it is the reason that we take discerning looks. The flip side of that is that a person who thinks scientifically ought to be willing to change their mind if they discover new information or evidence that does a better job of describing reality.
That is what drives me to demand proof before accepting extraordinary claims. That is also what drove me to discard religion. I held out hope for many years, and looked for anyone making supernatural claims who could provide any evidence at all. Needless to say, what was offered was not sufficient. I suppose that puts me in the shoes of Doubting Thomas, as the singer criticized earlier.
But the mistake in those lines of the song lies in trying to shift the burden of proof onto the non-believer. It doesn't matter that the religious apologist has tried to distance themselves from "self-proclaimed messiahs" or "blasphemous liars," because in the end, they are still making the claim that there is a god, and what is missing from their argument is any reason to believe that there is. Instead of saying, "I don't know, let's go find out," they are saying, "I don't know for sure - but you don't either, therefore, I choose THIS - and you're a fool."
I shied away from open atheism for many years because I couldn't see past that agnostic predicament. Technically speaking, I might still be classified as "agnostic" because I admit that there is no way to prove the negative. But insisting that I'm a fool for not believing something that you can't even coherently articulate is not going to convince me that you know what you're talking about.
Looking at this song through that lens is rather disappointing. Still, twenty-plus years later, this band still rocks, and I appreciate the fact that they put together such a swaggering, sassy puzzle-box of a song. It makes me think, and it keeps me seeking... if only to someday find a real Atheist Anthem.