Sunday, August 28, 2016

Extreme's "There Is No God" to the #AtheistEar

When people claim there are no atheist anthems - as Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers did in our inaugural post - a quick Google search for a counterexample might lead one to this song... and fool you into thinking that you had found one.

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.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

"How Great Thou Art" to an #AtheistEar

If ever there were a quintessential Hymn of Praise, this is it. Despite the countless doctrinal disagreements between the thousands of sects and denominations of Christianity, this song holds an appeal that they can all embrace - and every church I've visited has had it in their hymnal.

The original poem goes back to Swedish poet Carl Gustav Boberg, who wrote nine verses in 1885. It was translated into German in 1907, and countless times since then. The tune evolved to the version we recognize today by the time of its 1894 publication. Here's a version I remember seeing on TV when I was growing up:

(Lyrics for this version available here.)

Most versions, regardless of style, begin with a humble approach, quietly building through the first verse:
Hubble Deep Field - from Wikipedia

Oh, Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy art throughout the universe displayed.

I admit that even as a jaded non-believing adult, I still find this very stirring. I don't believe there is a supernatural being running the cosmos, and I don't believe in the mystical notion of a soul - but allowing for the poetic framing device attributing all of this universal awe to an omnipotent being, a powerful rendering of this verse can still stir my sense of wonder and evoke all of the beauty and majesty of the worlds that we see - worlds that we are still discovering.

Since this poem was first composed, we have discovered that the stars Boberg wrote about were just the beginning. Edwin Hubble, who helped prove that the "nebulae" his telescopes revealed were actually galaxies outside of the Milky Way, was born just four years after the poem was published. We've learned so much in the century since, just from looking up with better and better eyes; and we've even begun to visit more and more of the "worlds" in our own neighborhood.

We keep learning new things all the time, and finding new ways to explore deeper, further out, and farther back. No single person can fully comprehend or appreciate our universe - that's what this song is about. Containing that feeling from that moment of being overwhelmed, and seeking a way to label all of this amazement.
Then sings my soul my Saviour God to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art.
To me, growing up, a performance of this song was always one of the purest and most universal expressions of that feeling. Even now, when I don't believe that any kind of supernatural being is out there, supposedly designing and controlling everything we see, I can appreciate the basic human need to praise something; to signify how impressed we are with something outside of ourselves.

Another inspiring omnipotent being
I don't believe actually exists
Of course, I also find it frustrating that people can't easily express that sense of wonder without tying it to their mythology. It's not just Christianity that does this; Islam, Judaism, all of the poly- and pan-theist faiths to one degree or another rely on an that sentiment for their existence. "If you feel that sense of wonder," they seem to argue, "that is proof of God (or gods)!"

I understand why they feel compelled to do that. It has never been easy for people to separate what they believe from reality. For many, the overwhelming feeling that I call a sense of wonder can be terrifying if there is no god there to protect them from it. They remind me of my grandmother the first time she took me to the Grand Canyon, and I rushed to the side to look down. Majesty and colossal beauty come with a certain amount of danger.

And that's how I relate to this song, now. I see it as a way for people to approach the vast, dark, amazing universe with a shield (if they need it), and express their amazement. There are many other, lesser known verses in this poem, but the best of them only serve as an excuse to return to the climactic moment of wonder.

There is certainly much to dissect, theologically, in those other verses. Some of them use the coming of Christ as a signifier of cleansing judgement; others look forward to escaping the pain and drudgery of daily life. We'll look at those ideas in other songs another day. All of them return us to the same place. But now that I don't feel saddled by the guilt that I was told to feel as a child, I can gloss past those verses if I want to. Today, I want to.

Today, I'd rather look up and marvel.

(The photo above contains a quote and image from Doctor Who, as played by Matt Smith; "The Universe is big, it's vast and complicated, and ridiculous and sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen and we call them miracles.")

Update: I meant to include a couple of links to some people who regularly inspire my desire to marvel: Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy (on Slate), and Ethan Siegel of Starts With A Bang (on Medium, and other places).

Be careful - they're like a gateway drug to other astronomical coolness.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

New Feature: How Songs Strike My #AtheistEar

This poor, neglected blog has been very quiet for too long. Lately, I've only been moved to post here when something was bothering me, or when I needed to advertise something (like my book!), but I know you all deserve better than that. I keep trying to think of things I can do here that I want to do, so it doesn't become a chore, but also think of something that hasn't been done to death.

Then I heard this song by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers today:

...and that inspired me. (Lyrics are here, if you'd like to see them.)

I found it interesting for two reasons:
Hi, Flea!

First, I am an atheist, and I know that the premise of the song is not true. It's as not true as other common beliefs about atheists - that we're always angry, that we're nihilists, that we have no sense of wonder or appreciation for the world around us.

Second, a brilliant satirist like Steve Martin knows all of these things, too, and it's not too hard to dig into the lyrics and prove that.

Listening to (and laughing at) this song made me think of all of the other songs that have meant something to me over the years. There are "songs of faith" that either sound better to me now that I'm older, or that sound empty and awful now that I'm not a believer; there are "the blues" and "rock and roll" songs that console or inspire me; and there are songs that make me angry or trouble me.

Intellectual property rights aside, nobody owns these songs. The songs that get name-checked by the Steep Canyon Rangers don't only belong to one group. The way this song almost assigns the songs to different sects is funny to me, not just because of the casual way it caricatures each sect, but also because my Southern Baptist church sang so many of them when I was a kid. We loved Rock of Ages (not the Def Leppard one) and He Is Risen, and several of the other songs listed off as belonging to Pentecostals or Lutherans.

The thing that allowed us as Southern Baptists to appreciate songs that came out of rival Christian sects is called a Hermeneutic - "the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts." In other words, it doesn't just matter what the people who wrote the words thought they were saying; you have the ability to think and apply what you know to the words and decide how to appreciate them.

So what I'd like to start doing is share songs with you that highlight my own hermeneutic. If you've read my blog or my book, or follow me on Twitter, you probably have an inkling of how I look at the world. Because I say that I'm an atheist, you probably have some idea that you know how I view things - maybe you even equate atheism with "godless existentialism" as Steve Martin does in his song.

But if you follow along, listen to the words through my ears, and (this is important) ask me some questions, maybe you'll find out what I really think.

And maybe that will help you understand yourself a little better, too.

(Special thanks to Fred Clark, aka The Slacktivist, for everything he writes, but particularly for teaching me the word hermeneutic.)