Sunday, December 25, 2016

Handel's Messiah to an #AtheistEar

Merry Christmas!

Yeah, I know, an atheist isn't supposed to say that. (Whose rule is that, again?) But my choral group performed the chorus "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" from Handel's Messiah this year, and since my regular post this week fell on Christmas, I thought I'd talk about that piece. As an artist, there isn't a more eloquent way to express what it means to me than to play it:

Hands down, this is one of my favorite pieces of music, and always has been. And here, it is performed here by one of the premier groups in the world. But, of course, I'm a non-believer (thus the idea behind the #AtheistEar series) and I approach a piece like this differently than a believer would.

Lyrics are available here...but they're basically Isaiah 9:6:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

The tradition I was raised in taught that this verse is a prophecy from the prophet Isaiah, who lived about 800 years before the time of Jesus. Handel includes it in his Christmas oratorio because many Christian traditions hold that this prophecy referred to the birth of Jesus, and while that is certainly not how the Jewish people read that passage, it was considered to be a major argument legitimizing Christianity as a sect of Judaism in its earliest days.

Not being a person who believes in the existence of the supernatural, of course I don't accept the Divinity of this story as Gospel (get it?), but the evidence seems to indicate* that there was actually a human being at the center of the Christmas story. Who he was, when he was born, and what his name was are up for debate; who wrote the stories and sermons attributed to him may be an open question; but at the very least, it's safe to say that a small group with a dynamic leader did teach some pretty radical ideas in that corner of the Roman Empire about 2,000 years ago.

I've written recently about the darker, more gruesome side of the Gospel story (see "There Is Power In the Blood"), but for the sake of the Handel piece, I'm only going to focus on the uplifting side today.  From a secular humanist point of view, the core teachings attributed to Jesus Christ are pretty important ideas.

After all, he is supposed to have said "Love your neighbor as yourself," which is the essence of the Golden Rule. And his answer to the follow-up question, "But who is my neighbor?" is an undeniably important foundation of a peaceful society. (You might Imagine a more modern artist singing songs about that ideal, too!)

While Christians certainly don't own the original copyright on the idea of universal brotherhood, their influence on Western civilization had a lot to do with the way they championed the idea of using love and forgiveness as the central driving force of human life instead of power and wealth.

It is my opinion that Christians are at their best when they remember the ideals that they share with humanists and progressive or liberal elements of other faiths, and fight to protect the weak against the wealthy and powerful - as Jesus commanded them to do. Of course, I'd be happier if they did that because it is the rational and moral thing to do without the weight of a commandment from a divine character in their mythology... but these days, I think the side of decency needs all the allies it can get, regardless of why they're on that side.
 Remember, from where I sit, the entire Christmas story is pure mythology. Aside from the existence of Jesus, there is no reason to believe that any of the accounts given in the Bible are accurate or factual. I know the fact that I see it that way is offensive to some, and I don't say it to be mean-spirited. But I mention it because being fiction doesn't take away from the relevant parts of the story. Dickens only wrote fiction, so there was no actual Ebenezer Scrooge - yet the transformation of Scrooge is still something that I find inspiring. Dr. Who is wildly fictional, but I still take a great deal of joy in the humanist ideals expressed through those stories.

Keep that in mind when I tell you that I enjoy singing a piece like this chorus from Handel's Messiah. I may not believe the same literal story you do, but I believe in the same goal. And I recognize that your intention when you celebrate is to glorify the person who you see as the source of the moral fabric that binds us together, whether I see him that way or not.

For all the pain and terror that can be pinned on Christianity in the course of Western history, Christmas is a festival that tries to focus on that message of love and hope. When Christians stay true to that message, they are at their best, and in our divided, diverse, and often combative world, it's important for all of us to be reminded of that.

* I recommend starting with Bart Ehrman's 2012 book "Did Jesus Exist?" for as neutral an assessment of the historical evidence as you are likely to find.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Paul Simon's "Proof" to an #AtheistEar

In 1990, I was caught in the grip of Paul Simon's incredible 1986 Graceland album. I wore out more than one copy of that cassette in the tape deck of my ancient Datsun while commuting to school. Then in 1991, Simon followed that album up with another.

Rhythm of the Saints was a clear attempt to build on Graceland by bringing together an eclectic group of musicians from around the world. Where Graceland had famously (and infamously) defied the international boycott on South Africa by featuring South African artists, Rhythm went to South America and the Caribbean to find inspiration. Simon also attempted to recreate the magic of Graceland's breakout hit video for You Can Call Me Al by recruiting his Saturday Night Live buddies, Chevy Chase and Steve Martin, to appear in his new videos.

Critically and commercially, the new album didn't quite reach the heights of Graceland, but I fell in love with it - and when it comes to songs that might work as "atheist anthems," this one seems to be a contender:


 (Lyrics are available here.)

Typical of Paul Simon lyrics, you could interpret the verses in many ways - but the chorus seems pretty clear to me.

Some people gonna call you up
Tell you something that you already know
Sane people go crazy on you
Say, "No man, that's not
The deal we made
I got to, I got to, I got to"
Faith is an island in the setting sun
But proof, yes
Proof is the bottom line for everyone

When I really began to own my atheism a few years ago, I really felt like one of the participants in the conversation from that chorus. Sometimes, when people would realize that I no longer believed in the God we used to share, their shock would cause them to "go crazy on me" and withdraw. Sometimes, I am sure, they felt as those I was the one who had gone crazy. "That's not the deal we made...I got to, I got to...." In some cases, I have been able to talk to them and rebuild some sense of normal; with others, I haven't.

Even with those folks who have been okay with my non-belief, there is a certain delicacy required when speaking of matters of faith. As a rule, people don't consciously choose to delude themselves. The things that they believe tend to be a fundamental part of who they are and how they deal with the rest of the world. Sometimes the things that people believe - the things they put their faith in - seem trivial to me, but more often, their faith is how they deal with harsher realities.

I struggle when the things that people have chosen to believe are not only wrong, but also harmful. On occasion, the "harm" done by believing things that are not true is hard to explain. (If you visit What's the Harm? there are some tools for doing so.) Most of the time, I try to take a "live and let live" approach, but participating in society means talking to other people, and that is an activity that almost always leads to disagreement.

When that happens, I find it useful to understand the standards of logic and the burden of proof.

I'm sure there are times when I get caught up in the emotional baggage of an argument, but I try to stay open-minded enough to be persuaded by evidence. I hope you don't mind if I check that evidence before I change my mind, though - because proof, yeah... proof is the bottom line for everyone.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Faith of Our Fathers to an #AtheistEar

Here's a little holiday gem from crooner Bing Crosby, off his hit White Christmas collection, Merry Christmas. See if you can guess what I want to say about it while you listen!

(Lyrics are available here.)

Call me old fashioned, but if a number one hit holiday album can't reference death (4 times) and imprisonment (twice), then it just doesn't feel festive.

But seriously, this was a hymn we would occasionally pull out - usually around Father's Day - and plod through lugubriously in order to honor the fathers in the congregation. I was actually surprised to find it on a Christmas album, because it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the birth of Christ. Then again, this was recorded in an era when doctors said smoking was good for you, so there's that.

The lesson I took away from this song when I was a kid was probably not the lesson intended by the "fathers" of the church. (Which faith? Depends on which fathers...) As we gloomily intoned verses about our fathers chained in prisons dark, we were living in the salad days of Reagan's "shining city on a hill," waking up from the Baby Boom years. For all of the references to "dungeon, fire, and sword," it occurred to me that this song didn't really apply to my family:

Our fathers, chained in prisons dark,
Were still in heart and conscience free
How sweet would be their children's fate
If they, like them, could die for thee
Millenials probably recognize that notion - "you kids don't know how good ya got it, do ya?" But since my father hadn't suffered any of the things in the song, the message clearly wasn't directed at me. If anything, these words seemed to be directed at my father - "look at the sacrifices of those who came before," it sang. Not that I don't appreciate my father, but the most gruesome ordeal he had to put up with was me. That hardly fits the sentiment of the song.

I could almost see my grandfather, who had served in World War II, shaking his head at the relatively painless brush with Army life my dad had endured and putting that generational guilt trip on him. Of course, I've since learned that both of my grandfathers had relatively safe tours in their war, compared to what their Civil War grandfathers endured - so maybe this song was meant to put the guilt trip on them by their fathers... and so on, back to a time when Christians actually were persecuted for their faith. (Which raises the uncomfortable point that the worst persecutors of Christians on this continent were other Christians.)

Even at that age, though, this idea started to smell at bit off. For one thing, even though the American Revolution was painted as a war fought for freedom - particularly freedom from the state religion of England - that wasn't really the point of that war. If anything, you could make more of a case that the Revolution set the stage for our secular Constitution, which is something we quarrel about to this day.

The one takeaway from this song that I really could get behind, then as now, was this verse:

Faith of our fathers, we will love
Both friend and foe in all our strife;
And preach Thee, too, as love knows how
By kindly words and virtuous life.

This idea gets a bit broken up by the rhyme scheme, but I read it as a statement of what the "faith of our fathers" is supposed to be, and I actually quite like it. If I may take the liberty of restating that verse:

"We will love both friend and foe as we all struggle along, and demonstrate our values 'as love knows how' - through being kind and true to our principles."

Call me a sucker for festive holiday tunes, but that speaks to this secular humanist. I won't be pulling this one out to sing around the tree, but at least with that interpretation, I can live with it.

But you can keep the guilt trips and the torture for another holiday.

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. 


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 


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 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's everlasting
There's nothing wrong with praying?
It's what she's asking


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 (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 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.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Michael Jackson's "Thriller" to my #AtheistEar

(Apologies for the mix-up in posting earlier; and apologies if you didn't see this one coming, but...)

Those who have read my book know my personal connection to this song, and the violent act it drove me to commit. Here is the full 13:47 minute experience for those of you who may have missed it:

(Lyrics are available here - but, wow, they're silly.)

And if you'll promise to go read the much improved version in the book, I'll share this excerpt from the original blog post recounting the 6th grade field trip in which this song was my downfall:

One of the girls in my class was the daughter of an extremely wealthy construction mogul in the area, and he sponsored a field trip to his house for our class, complete with a fleet of limousines for the students. Looking back, this makes no sense; I have no idea what the educational value was in tramping about on his huge estate looking at his antique car collection and his enormous pool. But, there we were, and on the way back to the school, someone discovered the radio.
There were several of us in the car: my friends Robert and Scott, and the class bully, Todd. Upon discovering the controls for the radio, they promptly tuned in a Top 40 station. I protested... arguments flew... and I accused them all of loving Satan. This may be where the break-down in civility occurred.
Somehow I ended up pinned to the back seat by Scott, while Robert cranked the volume. "I love this song," he crowed. It was "Thriller". You have to understand that in my mind "Thriller" represented everything that was wrong with our society at that time. It was about zombies (the undead, a tool of Satan), it encouraged dancing (think "Church Lady"), and worst of all: Michael Jackson was a Jehovah's Witness!!!
Yeah, lame. But I was so mad that I leaned up and bit a chunk out of Scott's sternum.
In retrospect, it was extremely stupid, and for so many reasons. But until it happened, I didn't realize what a completely unreasoning dogmatic prick I was growing into. Receiving four swats from the principal of the school (I pleaded with him that I was defending the faith while he tried valiantly not to laugh at me) was a wake-up call.

That wake up call I referred to was the beginning of many years of growing realization that the people who were filling my head with their religious dogma, trying to keep me on the so-called straight and narrow, didn't really believe all of the things they told me.

Sure, they said I should gird my loins with the Sword of Righteousness... but if you actually try to cut anyone with a sword, you will be the one who is wrong. If I follow through and violently defend what I have been told is a core tenet of my faith, I will be in the wrong.

Think about the implications of this, not just for a confused middle school kid who thinks he's standing up for his beliefs in a silly scuffle, but for people who do much more serious things in the name of their faith. People like Eric Rudolph, or Shelley Shannon and Scott Roeder - people motivated to commit infamously violent acts, which church communities like mine frantically denounced after they occurred. I see those people following what they see as the logical, defensible action demanded by what they believe is right.

I can't blame their church for their choices, any more than I can blame my church for the bite on my friend Scott's chest - but I also didn't arrive in that limo on that day fresh out of the ether, with no influences and no teaching.

The lesson I eventually derived from this experience was that I couldn't trust people who tried to tell me that without their message of "peace" I would have no moral compass. I couldn't rely on the Bible as a rule book, because that's not what it is. I learned to listen to my own conscience, and eventually tested my own moral code, keeping only the parts which were sound.

It would be too easy to claim that learning this is what made me an atheist - but that's not actually true. If anything, it made me a Baptist in the tradition of Roger Williams (you know, the guy so opposed to organized religion that as soon as he founded the First Baptist Church*, he left it because his conscience wouldn't let him stay in an organized religion). Biting Scott because of a Michael Jackson song forced me to re-examine my conscience, and put that in the center of my moral code.

Of course, following my conscience meant always being honest with myself, and following evidence instead of wishful thinking, no matter how uncomfortable it made me or those who cared about me. That's why I eventually had to admit to being an atheist. But the way I see it, my intentions are the same as the people who unwittingly set me on the the path that lead to violence. They didn't intend that, and I learned the lesson.

In the end, we all have to struggle to find our way, keep our head, and do the right thing. As the song says:
'Cause it's a thriller, thriller night
And no one's gonna save you from the beast about to strike
You know it's thriller, thriller night
You're fighting for your life inside a, killer, thriller tonight, yeah

*Fun fact: I'm descended from one of the original members of that church. See my post on Mightier Acorns about him!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Satanic Panic to my #AtheistEar

I really wanted to show you something that would convey to you just how bad we evangelical Christians thought things were in the 1980s when it came to the occult. I remember the figures on our local Family Life Radio station excoriating the popular trends of horror films and heavy metal music, and I remember hearing parodies and take-downs that I thought (at the time) were really sticking it to those heathens.

But for today's post, this is the best I could find:

(Lyrics are... probably available somewhere. I'll let you Google this one if you really want to.)

I'm truly sorry for that, but it was honestly the best video I could find to represent what I wanted to talk about today. And by "best," I mean that it's almost listenable.

That was Carman, one of those artists I thought was pretty cool and entertaining in the mid-1980s. He apparently went on to re-imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a wild west showdown. He made several videos like this in the early 1990s, and they tend to be longer and less entertaining. I guess a career is a career.

But I remember there were a lot of smaller-time artists out there doing similar things at the time. I can't remember their names, and clearly, they aren't easy to find on YouTube. But what I wanted to talk about was the way they went so over the top in portraying their Enemy.

There is no denying that a lot of the things that rural Christian communities like mine saw coming out of pop culture in the late-1970s and early-1980s were terrifying. John Carpenter's Halloween, the Exorcist, and the slasher movies they inspired; Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and the increasingly cacophonous and increasingly depraved bands they inspired seemed to confirm that demons and Dark Powers had taken over our land, and were intent on convincing kids (like me!) to ignore their upbringing and sin, sin, sin.

Unfortunately for their message, the people behind the Satanic Panic went too far in building up the Enemy. What do I mean by that?

First, a lot of the panic was based on lies. A man named Mike Warnke was one of the more famous, but there were several people who made a living touring the country and telling stories of their lives as "high priests" in Satanic cults. They described awful rituals, murders, baby-killing, and rapes occurring, and then spoke about how Jesus had saved them, and told them to spread the word. Spoiler alert, Mike Warnke, and those like him, turned out to be frauds.

But not only were these people lying about things that Christians find scary, the truth is that those scary things - like demons and the Devil, and Hell - don't actually exist. I don't just say that as an atheist who does not believe in the supernatural - I also say that as a former Christian who is quite familiar with the Bible. The very concept of Hell, as these people teach it, is not Biblical.

As the Slacktivist said a few years ago, after controversy flared up over a book by Rob Bell:
"Dante teaches this. Jack Chick teaches this. Iron Maiden and countless B movies teach this. But the Bible does not. The doctrine of Hell can be, with only partial success, taken from Dante and Chick and Iron Maiden and grafted onto the Bible. But it cannot be derived from the Bible...
"The Hebrew scriptures offer no support for Team Hell. None. The pages of the Old Testament mention “sheol,” or “the grave,” but not Hell...The gospel as Paul preached it, as he described it in his epistles, does not include the doctrine of Hell."  (from Team Hell gets loud)
The point is that none of these supernatural beings exist, either in reality, or in the scriptures that those perpetuating the Satanic Panic claim to follow.

So why were evangelical Christians like me motivated to buy into the lurid stories we were being told? Why did we want to believe those stories were true? For the answer to that, I'll refer you to another incredible Slacktivist essay, this one about the Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition. (Spoiler: it comes from a deep need to feel superior to others that becomes more important that combating actual evil.)

At the end of the day, it's important to remember that the vast majority of Christians want to help make the world better. They see the problems that come from drug use, alcoholism, poverty, and crime, and they want to share what they think is a simple solution. If only solving real problems were as easy as shooting a demon with a magic pistol.

But, since you put up with that Carman video, I thought I'd share this gem: it's Steve Taylor's  live performance from 1984 of his song criticizing Bob Jones University and its racist policies. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" to my #AtheistEar

Back when I was an evangelical kid growing up in the 1980s, there was a general reaction among evangelicals against modern rock music - in particular "heavy metal," and bands that played up their anti-establishment, anti-Christian identities. After the drug- and sex-fueled hedonism of the 1970s, and bitter losses in the culture wars, our evangelical communities considered the descent into chaos to be self-evident.

But they believed they did have ample evidence.

Ozzy Osbourne's 1980 solo record, The Blizzard of Ozz, was an easy target for those looking to find evil in the culture of rock. Give a listen to his hit Crazy Train, and see how many elements of evil you can spot in it:

(Lyrics are available here.)

Since we didn't have music video culture quite yet, the only visual we would have had to go by would have been the album cover, seen above. Ozzy, holding a crucifix, and surrounded by smoke, a skull, and crawling towards the camera. We had all heard about his antics as a member of Black Sabbath - an evil sounding band if ever there was one - and about his gruesome adventures on stage. (Like much of the stuff we were told during the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s, we would have done well to have had Snopes to clear up those rumors!)

And since Ozzy is notorious for being incomprehensible, we can probably forgive the upright fathers of the elder councils for not looking too deeply into the words of his songs - just listen to the evil on display in the music. The menacing bass; the creepy guitar glissando at the beginning; and the wailing vocals - those can't be wholesome!

Then there is the prominent bit of understandable vocal from the second verse:

I've listened to preachers
I've listened to fools
I've watched all the dropouts
Who make their own rules

That first couplet sounds insulting enough, perhaps we can render a verdict. Of course, if one approached the lyrics without the baggage of Ozzy and the motivated reasoning required to interpret this song as "evil," one could quite reasonably arrive at a different conclusion.

But that's how it goes
Millions of people
Living as foes
It's not too late
To learn how to love
And forget how to hate

A deep analysis is not required to see that this song has little or nothing to do with the supernatural, or with Satan, or any of the things typically associated with heavy metal tropes. It's really an anti-war song inspired by the growing realization that human being were pointing enough atomic weaponry at each other to destroy the planet several times over.

And while I know better - having lived through this period - it should be easy to connect the plea for sanity and peace in Crazy Train to the same sentiment that many of us who were being told to fear this music felt. Instead, we chose to pretend that Ozzy was celebrating insanity and exhorting us to go off the rails.

We have seen that same cycle play out several times, now. The shock rock of the 1980s gave way to punk, and saw a resurgence in the 1990s with bands like Marilyn Manson. There is always someone out there hoping to provoke a backlash, and ride to success on the Streisand Effect. And there is always someone out there looking for a reason to be afraid of them.

It usually pays to look at what they're saying before you judge them, rather than how they are saying it.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"There Is Power In the Blood" to my #AtheistEar

Like "I'll Fly Away," this is one of those rollicking favorites I remember from revivals in my youth.

I settled on this version by Dolly Parton, because I've always liked her as a performer, and she really captures the spirited delivery of this song.

(Lyrics are available here.)

When I went looking for an example of this song, I listened to a few other versions, but couldn't find one where the bass crams the word "power" into the chorus in a hyperactive flourish. Just imagine someone under the mix singing "There is power-power-power-power-power-power-power-power wonder working power..." and you'll see what I mean. It was that kind of boisterous interpretation that fueled my enjoyment of revivals.

But when we talk about songs that have lost their appeal since losing my religion, there are few that can rival this one for sheer tone-deafness and creepiness in its disregard for anyone who is not a lifelong evangelical Christian.

Even when you are raised from early childhood with stories that rely on the idea of a blood sacrifice being the way to set right one's moral and ethical failings, a song which revels in blood ought to be at least mildly disturbing. I'll be honest; as a kid, I found these lyrics to be downright gross. Even if you are completely comfortable with that concept of sacrifice, and you believe that a man (actually, an incarnate deity) was actually brutally tortured and murdered so that you could be allowed to "Fly Away" someday, you ought to recognize that singing about it is going to seem really bizarre to those who don't believe that and aren't comfortable with it. After all, "Blood" is in the title, and it sloshes through every verse.

Now, I'm not saying that if you are a believer, you don't have a right to enjoy a song like this. I'm just saying that it is jarring to realize that the same adults who freaked out over the on-stage antics of people like Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper during the great Satanist Panic of the 1980s were perfectly happy to teach this song of washing in blood to their children.

Being outside of the bubble makes the cognitive dissonance a lot easier to spot.

Also, since I was a Southern Baptist kid, I feel a particular discomfort with verses like this one, now that I know the history of my childhood faith:

Would you be whiter much whiter than snow
There's power in the blood power in the blood
Sin's stains are lost in its life giving flow
There's wonderful power in the blood

The Southern Baptist convention, as is distinct from the main body of Baptist churches, was formed in 1845 after a split over the issue of whether slave owners could serve as missionaries. As a rule, Baptists don't believe in orthodoxy - meaning that there is no central "authority" in a Baptist church. The conscience of the individual is considered to be paramount, and personal revelation is given more weight than in traditions where a leader or council of leaders decides for the followers how to interpret the Will of God. So, for there to have been a "split," there had to have been enough individuals involved whose consciences did not bother them when it came to the question of whether slavery was moral or not.

Throughout the post-Civil War era, and through the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, the churches in this Convention tried to thread a needle between avoiding overt racism and avoiding the appearance of siding with progressives in the culture wars. The argument could be made - and I have heard it made - that a verse like this one, equating whiteness with purity and redemption, is not a comment on race. This is not talking about race, but about sin; and yet, every kid I knew who noticed that verse thought the same thing I did. They thought the same thing you probably did - and the thing that you have been bracing yourself for since you read the verse two paragraphs ago.

But I'm not going to accuse fans of this song of racism. I don't believe that was the intent of the hymn's writer, or of the thousands of people who have loved the song over the past 117 years. I'm just going to point out that the discomfort you feel when a song you love is attacked for its subtext and associations with things that you don't even believe is something we have in common.

Because there are a number of songs which evangelicals frequently attack because of the way they interpret them. Songs which they consider to have evil messages, and which contain disturbing themes and imagery, have been a target for moralizing and for "non-believer shaming" if you will.

Since it's October, I'm going to talk about a few songs like that this month and explore their reputation, their imagery, and their messaging. As I talk about how I interpret them through my #AtheistEar, I want you to remember the outsiders' view of songs like "There Is Power In the Blood" and "I'll Fly Away." Think about them and about other songs that you think have a "good message," but which those outside your shared faith tradition might think are shocking, if not outright wrong. Or gross.

The important thing to keep in mind here is that we all find inspiration in different places. Sometimes, you have to accept that something you love will be horrible to someone else. Perhaps if you take the time to examine why, you might find that your core beliefs are closer than you think.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Nickel Creek's "Twenty-first of May" to my #AtheistEar

If last week was an example of a great song with disturbing overtones, this week's song takes a tongue in cheek look at those overtones.

Nickel Creek included this song poking a bit of fun at the followers Harold Camping, who believed that Jesus would return on May 21, 2011, on their 2014 album, A Dotted Line:

While it may seem a bit cruel - not to mention shooting fish in a barrel easy - to poke fun at people like the late Mr. Camping, it's worth remembering that there is such a thing as Being Wrong. 

Too many people throw dumb ideas around that are painfully, obviously, and predictably wrong; and yet, they somehow defend themselves from criticism by claiming that you can't prove them wrong. Their sincerely held beliefs trump all of the facts, evidence, and rational reasoning you might bring to bear. Sometimes they wrap themselves in "different ways of knowing" or cast doubt on your credibility, ignoring everything - even previous errors of their own - for the sake of insisting that they have some mystical foreknowledge that you don't have.

Well, I've never been so sure
And I've never led no one astray
'Cept in the fall of '94
But Hallelujah, the 21st of May

They laughed while Noah built his boat
Then cried when came the rain
They mock me now but I will float on the 21st of May
They mock me now but I will float on the 21st of May

It's all harmless enough when they are just selling pamphlets and putting up billboards, but there are deeper, more insidious ways that people are wrong. They ignore evidence to cast doubt on the safety of vaccines, they ignore the body of science on global warming, and insist that economic austerity is necessary to "fix" our economy - all subjects on which the vast, overwhelming body of study contradicts them.

Still, people like me have a responsibility to remain civil. We can't force people to see reason; we can only explain it, sometimes repeatedly, and hope it sinks in. And yes, sometimes, we poke a bit too much fun at them, making them hunker down in their miserable wrongness and ignore us even harder.

Still, there remains the undeniable fact that the only appropriate response to ridiculous ideas is to ridicule them.

(If you haven't seen this, by the way, you owe yourself 20 minutes to see them perform four songs on their NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert - 21st of May is the 3rd song.)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"I'll Fly Away" to an #AtheistEar

I loved this song when I was a kid, mainly because the congregation was familiar enough with it that I could rip out whatever harmonies I wanted without worrying that I'd throw anyone off.

Here's a more "traditional" version featured in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

 And since I couldn't choose, here's the version by Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch from the official soundtrack:

(Lyrics for the Kossoy Sisters version)

(Lyrics for the Krauss & Welch version)

Even when I was a Bible-believing kid, I noticed the problem with these words, and asked about them. "Some glad morning, when this life is o'er... so, I should be looking forward to death? That seems creepy!"

But as you grow up, and look around, you can see that same tension in every faith. It seems to go along with the notion of an afterlife that is better than this world. Certain groups - I'm thinking of Calvinists, but I'm sure there are others - don't believe the afterlife holds anything but punishment, but most seem to hold out hope of something heavenly.

It's actually very interesting to me to find out what people think would be eternally rewarding. In my younger, more obnoxious days, I used to joke that if heaven didn't involve eternal beers & blowjobs, I wasn't interested. That was a useful shield for deflecting well-intended attempts to save my soul, but these days, I'm more inclined to let people describe their vision of heaven for me. You can learn a lot about their psychology that way.

And I am not saying that to be snarky. It's very important to watch for danger signs, when someone might be considering harming themselves. An obsession with the afterlife, combined with a loathing for the world we live in could be a sign that someone needs help.

One thing I do sometimes get snarky about is the assumption believers make, saying that because I don't believe in "anything" I don't have anything to live for. I find that offensive, because of course I have a lot to live for! Rather than not believing in ANYTHING, I simply don't believe in the supernatural. That means that the world and everything in it is all I get. I don't have an escapist fantasy to look forward to, so I seek to enjoy my life here.

As a matter of fact, that's what I'm doing this weekend: enjoying my son, and our scout friends on a camping/bike-hike! (That's why this post is a bit less analytic than the others.)

I still fondly treasure this song, but for me, it's the harmony, and the memories associated with it that I love. The words are just plain creepy.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy" to my #AtheistEar

I know what today is, and that's why I picked this song.

In 1989, I was just stepping out of my sheltered Southern Baptist upbringing and beginning to explore pop culture and pop radio. My girl friends were still listening almost exclusively to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack; the Beach Boys "Kokomo" was everywhere; and a song called "Veronica" by some odd Englishman named Elvis made such an impression on me that I was willing to leave my radio tuned to our local Top 40 station, which insisted on playing such awful fare as "Pour Some Sugar On Me" and "Sweet Child o' Mine," in hopes that I could hear it again.

Then out of nowhere, a relatively unknown a cappella genius released a joyful, silly ditty that conquered the world for a few weeks.

A video featuring Robin Williams and the brilliant Bill Irwin didn't hurt, either:

(Lyrics are here - but you probably know them note for note.)

By itself, this song probably wouldn't count as being religious in nature, but Bobby McFerrin has always been associated in my mind with faith. He made a few casual references to "the Good Book," in his music and in interviews; he composed and performed Psalm 23 on his 1990 album Medicine Music; and his most recent album, 2013's Spirityouall consisted of arrangements of spirituals and traditional Americana, as well as "original songs which explore Bobby’s everyday search for grace, wisdom, and freedom."

McFerrin's spiritual character would have been important to me in 1989, because I was in the process of figuring out which secular pop culture phenomena were "acceptable" and which were not. I couldn't find anything particularly objectionable about Don't Worry Be Happy, even using the hyper-critical standards for judging pop culture I learned from my pastors and grandfather. I ended up buying Simple Pleasures and carried it around for years, playing it in my car or putting it on when I went to sleep.

Like most absurdly popular one-hit acts, Don't Worry Be Happy hit a saturation point, and became a joke for the hipper members of the cognoscenti. It became an easy punchline for late night hosts, and a cultural reference which, with an eyeroll, could show how sophisticated the speaker was. A lot of people "got over it" and McFerrin's career might have been declared "over" as well. Except that it wasn't. He kept making music, taking on interesting projects with jazz and classical greats, and he built a reputation among musicians as a true genius with a childlike sense of wonder to match his impressive vocal range and control.

As an adult, and as a young parent, I sometimes found it difficult to share music and stories from my childhood with my little children. Like I discussed last week, the hymns I grew up with seemed too wrapped up with ideas that I had not only rejected, but which seemed loaded with awful baggage. I didn't want my children to have their earliest memories tied to ideas that I felt I had outgrown and regretted.

I also had difficulty relating to the new choices welling up from the children's entertainment industry - I loathed Barney and the Wiggles, I was uneasy with the acid trip that was Teletubbies, and I struggled to find much depth in the songs that they were learning in school. I made my own "mixed tape" CDs for the car, and combined songs the kids liked with some of my own favorites - songs like Don't Worry Be Happy - which seemed to go over pretty well. We all survived our long car trips to and from our home base when we were stationed in the UK, at least.

The September 11 attacks on America affected my family deeply, though thankfully, indirectly (described in The Impact on My Faith). It was that period of my life, in the years after 9/11, that I really started thinking about the songs and tradition I had grown up in, and applying some critical thought to what I had been taught to believe from birth. As I did, many of the old hymns and songs I had loved growing up became problematic for me, because the things they say have been exposed as ugly and corrosive. But one of the earliest songs in my memory that had no baggage and still held up as an unabashed statement of joy in the face of adversity was... Don't Worry Be Happy.

I was somewhat embarrassed by this. I didn't want to be the guy telling 9/11 victims, "Hey, in every life we have some trouble... but when you worry, you make it double!" I didn't want to admit that my philosophical answer to It Is Well With My Soul has a music video featuring three clowns hopping around acting silly. But when things get dark, I have to admit that humming to-koo-koo, to-koo-koo and tapping out a rhythm on my sternum brings in a welcome bit of light.

When my son began to struggle in school, and we began to suspect that he was on the autism spectrum, we looked for ways to reach him and help him deal with the frustration and anger that was building up. He was too young to have a logical, rational discussion. We couldn't just talk him through his troubles. This was doubly difficult for me, because I try to confront problems rationally and head on, and because he had already formed a barrier against me - for some reason, he had decided to focus his rage on me, so I couldn't even get near him when he was in trouble.

We needed to draw him out of himself and make him care about something, so we got him a hermit crab. We knew he loved animals, and that he found it easier to relate to them than to people. Our hope was that if something depended on him, he would take care of it, and this would help him see his own worth and teach him to be responsible for something outside of himself.

He loved that crab. He named it Dedrick, and he kept Dedrick's terrarium spotlessly clean and well stocked with water and food. It wasn't a magic wand that suddenly made everything better, but he did start to make progress and he came out of the dark place he had been making for himself. He even grudgingly started sharing more time with me, proudly showing off the new shell he had picked out for his crab or talking about research he had done online.

I still couldn't relate to him the way I could to my other kids. He wasn't openly hostile any more, but he was still guarded. I sometimes felt like he would never let me in, and I would never be able to repair whatever was wrong. I felt like I had nothing to offer him. But one day, my wife came and got me. She excitedly took my hand, and indicated I should be quiet. She took me to where the boy and his crab were sitting in a sunny corner of the living room. Dedrick was exploring a freshly cleaned cage, and my son - the boy who didn't even like to talk around me - was singing.

He was singing Don't Worry Be Happy.