Atheism and Music

Anthony G Pickham

The plea for help in the December 2001 journal has prompted the completion of an article that I have intended to write for the last few years, but finding the time is always difficult.

I am a 36 year old Chartered Accountant from Wollongong NSW (and we’re not all boring number crunchers thank-you very much). I’ve decided to share my thoughts and some examples of musicians that combine two things that I am most passionate about, Music and Atheism.

I will make my apologies now because the music that I prefer to listen to does not include much in the way of Top 40 production house ‘music’, the term ‘vapid pop’ springs to mind. To be frank, this does not have a great deal of artistic inspiration, passion for the music or for their topic. I require music to have something to say, some social or political comment.

A lot of the songs that I will quote from will be predominantly of the punk persuasion (using a very broad definition). Please note that late 70’s punk was not all just noise. Punk is generally just good rock & roll played badly by kids with little talent, a lot of attitude and a love of the music. Few people realise that punk has a lot to say, particularly in the area of social and political comment.

Although not surprising to some, there are a number of Artists who do not fear public knowledge of their anti-religious and in some cases atheist status. In fact over recent years there has been a marked increase in the number of works that contain such comment and, where in the past such comment was veiled much is now made blatantly obvious.

I am finding this extremely pleasing. Many musicians are advocating rational thought where religion is concerned, and in a number of instances are promoting an atheistic point of view, which in the past was a certain form of musical suicide. There are many current musicians who are using music, one of the most powerful formats available and one which is highly influential of today’s youth, to put forward the significant message of non-religious and atheist points of view. Some musicians employ subtlety, others use it as if it were a bludgeon, but whatever the delivery, the message is being made.

Although music is not solely responsible for the increased level of atheism in today’s society it must certainly be considered a major contributory factor.

I am now going to quote some poetry at you, to paraphrase the late and great Douglas Adams, or rather some prose extracted from the lyrics of a selection of my, as I look at it now, rather substantial collection of CDs and records.

Remember “Ain’t Necessarily So”? Originally penned by GEORGE & IRA GERSHWIN. The song was banned by all radio stations across the US and UK shortly after its release. It did not actually question the existence of a god but queried the appropriateness of taking a literal interpretation of the bible, effectively an attack on Creation ‘Scientists’.
‘….
It ain’t necessarily so
It ain’t necessarily so
The things that you’re liable
To read in the Bible
It ain’t necessarily so

David was small but oh my
David was small but oh my
He shot Goliath
Who lay down and dieth
Little David was small but oh my

Jonah he lived in a whale
Jonah he lived in a whale
He made his home in that fishes abdomen
Jonah he lived in a whale

Moses was found on a stream
Moses was found on a stream
Floated on water old Pharaoh’s daughter
Fished him she says from that stream

It ain’t necessarily so
It ain’t necessarily so
They tell all your children
The Devil he’s a villain
It ain’t necessarily so

….’
If it were not for the huge body of other work by George and Ira, this would have spelled the end of their careers. It would have ended the career of most other musicians, particularly in today’s business climate where opportunities do not occur that often, and may not happen at all for the majority of musicians.

THE THE, known for the hard hitting content of many of their eighties releases, particularly in relation to the AIDS epidemic and War, have written a few tracks questioning the value of religion and pointing out the hypocrisy of certain religions, although they do not reject the concept of a god.

Of particular interest are “Good Morning Beautiful” and “Armageddon Days are Here (again)” from the “Mind Bomb” album of 1989. Both deal with the Christian and Moslem fixation with killing each other in the name of love and religion. The lyrics of these two tracks follow.

‘Satellite, oh, satellite
Who sits upon our skies
How deep do you see when you spy into our lives?

I KNOW! That GOD lives in everybody’s souls
& the only devil in your world
Lives in the human… heart!

So now ask yourself
What is human? & what is truth?
Ask yourself
Whose voice it is. That whispers unto you?
From the cellars of your homes
From the tops of your city roofs…
Ask yourself
Whose voice it is. That whispers unto you?

WHO IS IT?
That turns your blood into spirit
and your spirit into blood?

WHO IS IT?
That can reach down from above
& set your souls ablaze…WITH LOVE!
Or fill you with the insanity of violence
& its brother…LUST!

WHO IS IT?
Whose words have been twisted
beyond recognition
In order to build…your planet Earth’s religions…

WHO IS IT?
Who could make your little armies on the left
& your little armies on the right
Light up your skies…tonight….TONIGHT!!

NOW! Some of you may live
& some of you will DIE!
But, remember!!
That nothing in your world can kill you inside
For HE is thinking of you
In your great cities of GREAT solitude…

Oh children, you’ve still got a lot to fuckin’ learn!
The only path to heaven…is via Hell!

Good morning beautiful. Good morning beautiful.
GOOD MORNING BEAUTIFUL.GOODBYE WORLD…’

And,

‘They’re 5 miles high as the crow flies,
leavin’ vapour trails against a blood red sky
Movin’ in from the East, towards the West,
With Balaclava helmets over their heads…YES!

But if you think that Jesus Christ is coming
Honey, YOU’VE GOT another thing coming
If he ever finds out who’s hi-jacked his name
He’ll cut out his heart, & turn in his grave

ISLAM is rising
The Christians mobilising
The world is on its elbows & knees
It’s forgotten the message & worships the creeds

“It’s War”…she cried…It’s War”…she cried…
“THIS IS WAR!!”
Drop your possessions, all you simple folk
You will fight them on the beaches…
in your underclothes
You will thank the good Lord…
for raising the Union Jack
You’ll watch the ships sail out of the harbour,
& the bodies come floating back
Watch the ships sail out of the harbour,
& the bodies come floating back

If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
He’d be gunned down cold by the CIA
Oh, the lights that now burn brightest
behind stained glass
Will cast the darkest shadows upon the human heart
But GOD didn’t build himself that throne
GOD doesn’t live in Israel or Rome
GOD doesn’t belong to the ‘yankee dollar’
GOD doesn’t plant the bombs for Hezbollah
And GOD won’t send us down to Allah to burn
No, GOD will remind us of what we already know
That the human race is about to reap what it’s sown

The world is on its elbows & knees
It’s forgotten the message & worships the creeds
Armageddon Days are here…Again.’

Their track “the Violence of Truth” follows the same vein of thought.

As noted in your ‘Plea for Help?…’ the song “Losing My Religion” by US band REM is one such example. This track did receive a moderate level of success worldwide, which is generally a bit of a surprise as the ‘Top 40’ market does not seem to want to think as they listen to their music.
‘….
That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep a view
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough
….’
An obscure group, to some not of the punk persuasion, from the early eighties was BAUHAUS. Bauhaus threw in a good measure of tongue in cheek humour as well. Their track “God in an Alcove” (1978) considers the relegation of the concept of a god to a back room where it is unwanted and forgotten.

‘Don’t perceive his empty pleasure
That redundant effigy.’

Bauhaus’ lead singer, PETER MURPHY, continued the theme in his subsequent solo career. “Socrates the Python” includes the gem,

‘But it isn’t God the Father, Son or Holy One
But the key to your age
Get it together, and listen
With all the books on the shelf
All the Wisdom’

GARY NUMAN, of “Cars” fame in the late 70’s and early 80’s, made several veiled references to his atheism in songs throughout the eighties and into the nineties. He has been cited by many of today’s top musicians as one of the strongest influences on their artistic development. Gary weathered a storm of criticism over his 1994 album “Sacrifice”. He was condemned for the subtle anti-religious sentiment of a number of tracks on the album. The track “A Question of Faith” considers,

‘When children kill children
Don’t it make them wonder?
Don’t it make them question their faith?’

Other tracks on the album are vague in their references to say the least. In response to the criticism, however, Gary penned his next album, 1998’s “Exile” in which he simply dropped the subtlety. Many of the tracks on the record contain anti-religious comment but I think that the most dramatic of these are “The Angel Wars”,

‘I won’t pray here
Or bow my head
I won’t praise your name
I won’t kneel down

I won’t pray to you
On this side of sane (Oh Lord)
I won’t pray to you
On this side of Hell (Father)
I won’t pray to you
On this side of Heaven Again

I don’t need faith
Forgiveness of sin
I don’t need saving
I don’t need lies

I don’t believe
In the Angel Wars (Oh Lord)
I don’t believe
In the virgin birth (Father)
I don’t believe
In the cross on the hill (Jesus)
I don’t believe
In the kindness of God to Man

I’ll drive a stake
Through the black of your heart (Oh Lord)
I’ll pull down your temples
And burn every word (Father)
I’ll kill all the Angels
That show me ‘The Light” (Jesus)
I’ll drift into darkness
And tear out the soul of God’

and “Innocence Bleeding”,

‘Do you believe in Heaven?
That man’s soul is eternal?
Our prayers are always answered?
And miracles can happen?

Save me

But don’t you wonder?
And don’t you think it’s strange?
The sacrifice of children?
Innocence bleeding
Do you believe in Heaven?
The Holy Ghost and Jesus?
In paradise and Angels?
That God is forgiving?

Save me

Reward the faithful?
He lies to you and deceives
A dark salvation comes
Innocence bleeding

Too dark to see pictures of Heaven
Too dark to find the Garden of Eden
Blinded by faith and stories of wonder
Divine mercy? Mercy lies bleeding

Save me’

other tracks include “Dominion Day”, “Dead Heaven” and “Prophesy”, the majority of tracks on the album consider the dark side of religion. Gary’s music has developed over the decades into a dark, brooding, contemplative style, admirably suited for the message he presents.

He is also acclaimed as one of the most influential musicians of his era. A double tribute album has been issued with numerous current musicians performing his songs.

Gary’s subsequent album, 2000’s “Pure”, again visits the theme. This album seems to be a much more personal account, and from the lyrics of the majority of tracks I get the feeling that some personal tragedy has befallen his family.

“Listen to My Voice” is indicative of the theme of this album.

‘Listen to my voice
And please try to understand
The one you call Messiah is a lie

You are not the plan
And you’re beginning to annoy
You are just a game and It has won

You will never see
The places promised by your faith
You will never know eternal peace

The God you love is gone
He lies broken by your shame
The thing that took His place already died

….’
“A Prayer for the Unborn”, a heart rending plea to a non-existent god.

‘So, I prayed
But you weren’t listening
Making miracles?

So, I begged
But you were far away
Saving souls perhaps?

So, I screamed
But she was very small
And you have worlds to mend

So, she died
And you were glorious
But you were somewhere else

If you are my shepherd
Then I’m lost and no-one can find me
If you are my saviour
Then I’m dead and no-one can help me
If you are my glory
Then I’m sick and no-one can cure me
If you light my darkness
Then I’m blind and no-one can see me

If you are my father
Then love lies abandoned and bleeding
If you are my comfort
Then nightmares are real and deceiving
If you are my answer
Then I must have asked the wrong question
I’d spit on your heaven
If I could find one to believe in’

One of the most well known of eighties US punk bands, and still going strong with their 2002 album release, are BAD RELIGION. As you may be able to tell from their name they are not a terribly religious lot, also writing extensively about many of the other social and political woes of the world.

My favourite tracks from their back catalogue include “The Answer”, “The Flat Earth Society”, “Fuck Armageddon…This Is Hell”, “Against The Grain”, “Faith Alone”, “Suffer”, “It’s a Long Way to the Promised Land”, “I Want To Conquer The World” and many more. From “Faith Alone”,

‘Heard a sermon from a creaky pulpit
with no-one in the nave
I paid a visit to the synagogue and
I left there feeling blame

No-one can tell me what to do
They have not the capacity to answer me
What the world needs now
is some answers to our problems
We can’t buy more time
because our tender isn’t valid
If your soul needs love
you can’t get consoled by pity
But it looks as though
Faith alone won’t sustain us much more

Watched the scientists throw up their hands
Conceding progress will resolve it all
Watched the manufacturers of Earth’s debris
ignore another Green-Peace call

No-one can tell me what to do
No-one had the ability to answer me
What the world needs now
is some accountability
We can’t buy more time
because time don’t accept our money
If your soul needs love
you can always have my pity
But it looks as though
Faith alone won’t sustain us no more’

MARILYN MANSON, that purveyor of all things evil if you believe the rantings of the US religious zealots, seems to me to be no more than a disenfranchised Christian who has taken a rather more aggressive stance on his point of view (make your own opinion).

Their recent album, “Mechanical Animals” includes a few songs with irreverent lyrics, such as “Rock is Dead”, a major hit in many countries and used in a few movie soundtracks to boot, which states the following,

‘God is in the TV
1000 mothers are praying for it
We’re so full of hope and so full of s**t
Build a new God to medicate and to ape
Sell us ersatz dressed up and real fake’

and the track “Posthuman” which, in the much repeated chorus, advises today’s youth that,

‘God is just a statistic’

Marilyn Manson seem to have raised the ire of the moral majority in the US, however as far as I am concerned he has done nothing more than use a very theatrical stage presence and image as an adjunct to his music. Alice Cooper is now an ‘upstanding’ member of his hometown community, I understand, and a pretty good golfer to boot. It’s funny how the people who were going to destroy the fabric of society ended up being the foundation of that very society. I can’t wait to see what Marilyn is doing in 30 years time.

My favourite group of all time are a German band named EINSTURZENDE NEUBAUTEN, roughly translating as Collapsing New Buildings. More of an artistic collaboration of the members than a band, they produce music from an assortment of industrial junk, pipes, air conditioning duct, drills, hammers, etc and engineer this into extremely interesting music (the main reason that I like them, together with their use of poetry and languages, German, English, French, Japanese and Latin, to create their art).

The title track from their 1989 album “Haus Der Leuge” (House of Lies) is quite interesting. Here is the English translation

‘First Floor:
Here live the blind
Who believe what they see
And the deaf
Who believe what they hear
Bound and gagged to a kitchen stool
Sits a fool, who believes
In all he can feel
(His hands in his lap)

Second Floor:
Roll after roll
Length after length
In woodchip wallpaper
Lone tenants stand around
Observing the walls with frowns
Looking for printing and spelling mistakes
They couldn’t even decipher their own names

Up To The Next Floor!
Which, oh wonder! Never completed
Here are stored errors
Which belong to the firm
And with which they tile the floors
Upon these none may tread

Fourth Floor:
Here lives the architect
Immersed in his plan of
This building crammed with ideas
It stretches from funda- to firmament
And from its foundations to the firm

In The Ground Floor:
There are four doors
They lead directly out-of-doors
Or more precisely: To the corner-stone
He who wants to can wait there
The concrete’s coming at twelve
Corner-stone Lego
Thought passages are painted over
In head-height brown
Infamous or Catholic Purple
For better orientation

Top Floor:
Has some damage
In the rafters an old man sits
Dead Angels are strewn across the floor
(Their faces resemble his)
Between his knees he holds a gun
He aims it at his mouth
And into the skull
And out the skulls’ other side
Into the roofs’ apex
Drills that bullet

God has shot himself
Now a top floor can be renovated
God has shot himself
Now a top floor can be renovated
Lies, lies
A top floor can be renovated

Epilogue:
Lower Floor:
This is the cellar
Here’s where I live
Here it is dark
Dank and pleasant
This is a womb’

NINE INCH NAILS, also known as Trent Reznor, showed his colours in his 1994 album “The Downward Spiral” which includes the track “Heresy”. The song is a forceful statement of Reznor’s views on religion, set to loud, fast guitars and drums.

‘He sewed his eyes shut because he is afraid to see
He tries to tell me what I put inside of me
He’s got the answers to ease my curiosity
He dreamed up a god and called it Christianity

Your God is dead and no-one cares
If there is a hell I’ll see you there

He flexed his muscles to keep his flock of sheep in line
He made a virus that would kill off all the swine
His perfect kingdom of killing, suffering and pain
Demands devotion atrocities done in his name

Your God is dead and no-one cares
Drowning in his own hypocrisy
And if there is a hell I’ll see you there
Burning with your God in humility

Will you die for this?’

Whether or not we appreciate the musical styles in which the message of Atheism is presented, we should at least be pleased that modern musicians feel confident enough to present their personal views for today’s youth to consider, without the fear of recrimination or damage to their careers.

The world’s religions seem to do the majority of their recruiting from our youth, and generally at an age where those children are not yet mentally equipped to make an educated analysis of the issues involved.

We need to develop a society in which people consider the information that they are presented and make an informed, educated analysis of the facts, rather than to take the easy path of blind acceptance and submission.

Music is one of the most influential forces on a child’s development as they grow towards maturity. It is an influence on a youth as he/she learns to critically analyse information that they are presented in an attempt to form opinions that will see them into adulthood and beyond. Music can be used to raise questions about religion and to present the ideas of Atheism in a form that is most effective.