music, atheism, bach

A Call For the Reclamation of Music

Steve Martin produced one of the first hymns for the atheist crowd in, well, probably ever, which he termed the “the entire atheist hymnal”. And its actually very good, not only because he’s a talented musician and an extremely gifted comedian — among the best ever by a reasonable IMDb peer review measurement -, but because a) there’s nothing to compare it to so the hymn remains both the best in music and the worst of its kind by definition internally and b) I have sung in a university choir and find the song ‘pleasing to the ear’ .

Martin sings the hymn with a quartet of male singers in the performance, which has, likely, become the first staple of the atheist hymnal genre — hopefully more to come — and goes against the expected stereotype from two angles. Angle one, those looking at the rather thin, tawdry, and rather small set of texts — simply Hume and Voltaire for starters — devoted to atheism as compared to those — such as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas — oozing with praise to the Heavens, and God the Almighty Father, and with tacit, nay explicit, statement of how “so absolutely huge” or simply big is the Theity reflect the musical world. Religion, or worship and communal rituals, dominates the historical, and so the present, landscape.

Take, for example, Herz Und Mund Und Tat Und Leben, or “Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life,” a beautiful piece of work by Johann Sebastian Bach and one of the more memorable pieces of music in the older Western canon, which brings mist to my eyes, sometimes. Or one closer to home, by Bach once more, played with a dead, reasonably famous, Canadian pianist named Glenn Gould and accompanied by another artist, a singer, named Russell Oberlin, it was entitled Bach Cantata 54. It is another moving piece with a sentiment for the transcendent; something outside and other, even infinitely mysterious — lovely piece. So angle one is the communal and social, and well-established, music is seen as religious. Many people coming to think of the ways in which the religious music is in congregations as, in some way, akin to these pieces of music.

Angle two, the music typically associated with irreligious individuals does not tend to associate with the communal or the social, but, rather, with the a-social, antisocial, or the deviant. There seems to me a negative valuation of some music, which then becomes associated with irreligiosity, even Satanism, including the rock n’ roll and head bangin’ band movements. Those two angles, of many, seem to influence the perception, and so the motivation, for the development of an irreligious genre of music, even hymns — until now.

About Scott Jacobsen

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Scott is the founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing

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One comment

  1. This is a strangely uninformed and uninformative piece. Why should there be transcendent art devoted to non-belief in the supernatural? Of itself, atheism is not that kind of theme to inspire much art.

    I must challenge the last point “the music typically associated with irreligious individuals does not tend to associate with the communal or the social, but, rather, with the a-social, antisocial, or the deviant”. What is that about? Is the music of Billy Bragg, Woody Guthrie, Kirsty MacColl, Ian Dury, Paul Weller, Goldfrapp, Chic, Jean-Michel Jarre et al in any way asocial? All are irreligious; all promote community (think of Jarre’s huge outdoor shows or Bragg’s calls to social justice) and better ways of living, while none has any faith that they have espoused. Popular musics of the last half century have expressed some of the deepest longings and emotions of the human heart, enabling otherwise-deprived people to know and feel that others share their pains, their hurts and their joys in ways that religiously-motivated art simply cannot, as it tends to lessen or ignore the everyday or the quotidian, which matter so much to us all.

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