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?