Religious Music

Most of my friends are aware that I consider myself to be an evangelical antitheist. This means, that like atheists, I don’t hold any belief in any deity. It also means, that unlike many atheists, I hold a positive belief that there aren’t any gods, that the belief in such things is harmful to our society and that these views should be shared with everyone willing to listen.

With that in mind, some of my friends and many acquaintances are surprised to learn that I really like religious music (mostly Christian actually). And I don’t mean only songs that are often played in secular crowds during the holidays like ‘White Christmas‘, or ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas‘. While I do really like both of those songs (and play them frequently on the piano in mid July even), I also really like many overtly religious pieces — Cantique Noël, Silent Night for Christmas themed examples. In fact, some of my favourite pieces of all time are Catholic masses like Mozart’s breathtaking Requiem, which still gives me goose bumps every time I hear it, or another incredible piece of music of his:

What I find annoying about this is that many Christians are confused as to why I would like this music. Some would even suggest that I’m some sort of hypocrite, and that because I’m an antitheist, I should not like this music at all. On face value, this is stupid — why would the fact that I’m rejecting metaphysics implied in the lyrics or theme of some music mean that I must also dislike the aesthetics of how they delivered it? I also like vampire movies and ghost stories, does this mean I’m a hypocrite for not believing in boogeymen and the occult as well?

I can still get the sentiment in the idea without having to submit to its religious views, while still appreciating the religious feelings and perspective of the composer. Like any other human, I can understand and feel the concept awe and wonder at the thought of the beauty in the universe and my utter insignificance in it all. These are not themes that are purely in the religious domain – in fact, many psychologists believe that religion is a child of the innate feelings of awe, reverence and wonder — it is these feelings that spawned religion and not vice-versa.

I also really love stories with the Christian ideal of forgiveness, redemption and salvation(*). From the Sandman character arch in Spiderman 3 (the only good thing about that movie), to Phil Connors’ acceptance of his flaws in Groundhog Day (with a fantastic juxtaposition with Larry the cameraman) to the double redemption and salvation theme in Saving Mr. Banks (Mr. Banks and P.L. Travers’ father, Travers Goff). This idea of redemption and salvation, which is ubiquitous in Western culture, is very a Christian perspective of human solidarity and sympathy. However, even if these ideas where more fully developed in and because of a religious context, the underlying sentiments and the feelings they trigger transcend religion — they are part of what it is to be human, and I don’t need to know about, let alone believe in Jesus and his followers to appreciate or understand it.

4 thoughts on “Religious Music

  1. “Do not underestimate the value of having been religious; discover all the reasons by virtue of which you have still had a genuine access to art. . . . Is it not on precisely this soil, which you sometimes find so displeasing, the soil of unclear thinking, that many of the most splendid fruits of more ancient cultures grew up? One must have loved religion and art like mother and nurse—otherwise one cannot grow wise. But one must be able to see beyond them, outgrow them; if one remains under their spell, one does not understand them.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, section 292

  2. Here are two quotes from Einstein’s The World as I See It ( that, I think, tie in with what you express here. I also think that what Einstein says about the religiousness of science also applies to art. For example, I think that to understand and genuinely feel the great works of J.S. Bach, one must understand that they were composed with that same sense of amazement.

    “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental
    emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who
    knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good
    as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery—even if
    mixed with fear— that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of
    something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest
    reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in
    their most elementary forms— it is this knowledge and this emotion that
    constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a
    deeply religious man.”

    “The Religiousness of Science

    You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without
    a peculiar religious feeling of his own. But it is different from the religion of the
    naive man. For the latter God is a being from whose care one hopes to benefit
    and whose punishment one fears; a sublimation of a feeling similar to that of a
    child for its father, a being to whom one stands to some extent in a personal
    relation, however deeply it may be tinged with awe.

    But the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future,
    to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing
    divine about morality, it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the
    form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals
    an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic
    thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This
    feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work, in so far as he succeeds in
    keeping himself from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question
    closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.”

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