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.