Anytime someone uses one of my songs for anything – a ceremony or a sacred moment – that, to me, is a high honor. I’m proud of the song at that point because I’m trying to write something for humans – whichever humans want to get on board and put this in their soundtrack to their soul’s development or spiritual lives.
April 16th was Ask an Atheist Day, a biannual event started by the Secular Student Alliance to encourage people, especially people of faith, to approach us nonbelievers and ask questions about the secular life. It’s a great way to spark some interesting discussions, although if your social media feed is sufficiently pruned of theists you might just end up with dozens of your fellow heathens asking you about woodchucks.
On this years post (I got mine up a day late,) our own Mary asked a great one that provides today’s Monday Music.
Do you have a favorite spiritual song? And if so, what is it? (Mine is Spirit in the Sky)
It’s a great question Mary. As Steve Martin and Steep Canyon Rangers sing, Atheists Don’t Got No Songs, but we do still like to sing. And there are a lot of great songs (and other kinds of art,) that are explicitly, deeply spiritual.
I’ve even seen this turned into a “gotcha” question from believers who think the fact that an atheist or agnostic likes a song with religious theme is some sort of crack in our armor. I mean, if we hate God so much why do we love the Doobie Brothers?
There are two big problems with that notion. First, believers have a big head start on us. For thousands of years religion has dominated every facet of human culture. In the Christian world it’s only been a scant couple of centuries or so that any culture outside of the church has even been conceivable. All music was Church Music. And most musicians were Christians. The idea that Christians could make art that wasn’t about Jesus was a radical notion. So a lot of the history of music grows out of choral symphonies, gospel choirs and funeral dirges. And almost everybody has been a believer until pretty recently as well.
Secondly, musicians themselves have almost never treated the music that way. That first song? American Singer-Songwriter Norman Greenbaum, was raised an Orthodox Jew and is still observant to this day. Here’s how he explains the songs origin.
Norman Greenbaum: If you ask me what I based “Spirit In The Sky” on … what did we grow up watching? Westerns! These mean and nasty varmints get shot and they wanted to die with their boots on. So to me that was spiritual, they wanted to die with their boots on.
Ray Shasho: So that was the trigger that got you to write the song?
Norman Greenbaum: Yes. The song itself was simple, when you’re writing a song you keep it simple of course. It wasn’t like a Christian song of praise it was just a simple song. I had to use Christianity because I had to use something. But more important it wasn’t the Jesus part, it was the spirit in the sky. Funny enough … I wanted to die with my boots on.
As far as I’m concerned that’s humanism at work right there. One of the cornerstones of my humanist practice is the understanding that all of these ideas, all of these notions and wishes about God, love, heartbreak, grief and sacrifice. We came up with them. I may not believe in a God who forgives our sins, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the desperate cry for redemption in Amazing Grace. Because that hunger for grace… that’s a a human need. One people of every faith or none at all have been fulfilling with music since we first banged two rocks together with tempo. The fact of the matter is that a lot of sacred music is just damn good music. Silent Night is a gorgeous song and would be if I had never even heard of Baby Jesus.
So out with it Grounded Parents… What is your favorite “spiritual” song, drop us a link in the comments. Mine is this tune from Cincinnati’s own Over the Rhine…
Featured Image: Memphis Mural, How Sweet The Sound, Photo by Steve Snodgrass on Flicker, shared with a Creative Commons License. Mural by Edwin McSwine