Hemant always gets me thinking. Today he offered the question of whether atheists enjoy religious music.
I have wrestled with this question quite a bit, and not just because I’m an atheist, but because I’m a musician.
Classical music (or art music, as opposed to pop music) is very much rooted in Catholic and Christian dogma. While we know that written music traces all the way back to ancient Greeks, generally the history of western music starts with Pope Gregory the Great (though scholars are beginning to dispute whether Gregory himself is responsible for the monophonic chants named for him). Either way, the Church took control of the development of music and maintained it for quite some time. Even many forms of popular music derive from religious celebration (gospel, spirituals, hymns, heck even country music).
Certainly some of the greats who shaped music as we know it were able to do so with support from the Church (whichever church it may have been at the time). And, some of their greatest compositions were inspired by religion. Most music students can name the rites and prayers of a Catholic Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, etc.) because they’re essential for understanding a preponderance of classical music!
I need not bore you with a history of western music. My point is simply that I cannot be a classical musician and avoid interacting with religious music. Nor would I want to. For example, it’s fun to sing Handel’s Messiah! I think anyone should be able to appreciate the Hallelujah chorus regardless of hir worldview. It’s magnificent!
Nothing to me is more enjoyable than Gospel music. Participating in its performance is an utter delight. I love playing it, singing it, and listening to it. In fact, here is a recording of me at the piano accompanying the Ithaca College Chorus on October 8, 2006 under the direction of Janet Galván. The piece is “Let Everything That Hath Breath” by Jeffrey Ames:
I share all this to make two points:
1. Religious music does not have to be about belief at all. In fact, the idea of a God worth praising is incredibly beautiful from an artistic point of view.
2. Music and the effect that it has on us often feels like a “spiritual” experience because, by its nature, it embodies synchronicity, the natural social connections between human beings.
I would go as far as to say that music, as we know it today, is the single greatest byproduct of religion’s dominance over society throughout the past millennium. It makes sense that religion would try to commandeer such a powerful force. When we experience music, there is no difference between us. We are one with each other. We are tied to each other by this powerful emotional energy. Research on social intelligence refers to this as synchronicity. We might each make our own meaning from it, but we are experiencing it together. We are “on the same page” at a very intimate level of human understanding.
When I listen to Gospel music, the performers are communicating something profound. While I might think their belief in God is delusional, I can share in their love and conviction through the power of music. That love and conviction, though inspired by delusion, is quite real, and music gives us a kind of raw access to it.
Music is anything but spiritual; it is one of the most profound experiences we can have as humans. Consider how accessible music is: anyone can find joy in listening and appreciating music and anyone can find joy in making music. Quality is helpful for connecting with others (the double-meaning of harmony), but not essential.
I am reminded of a poem. It was written by an 8th-grader, set to music, and I had the joy of participating in its second performance when I was a freshman in high school. Listen to this beautiful piece of music and the message that it communicates. Here is “Music Unites the World” as performed by the ACDA Jr. High All Eastern Honors Choir at a conference held in Baltimore in 2000, directed by the amazing Judy Hansen:
I had the amazing privilege to revisit that song and perform it with the amazing students I taught during my senior student teaching. It definitely means a lot to me!
Anyways, I am not in any way ashamed of being an atheist who loves religious music. Music itself is not religious, and if anything, it’s our gateway to understanding what “faith” means to others. It is a venue for communicating on a very deep and emotional level, seeing inside each other’s hearts. As atheists, I hope we can embrace music as a mechanism for communicating our worldview. We are just as capable of finding joy in the experiences of life, and music might just be the way we can prove that to the world.