The Need for Humanist Music: Can I Get an Amen?

By my senior year of high school in 2006, after years of reluctant attendance at a local protestant church, refraining from confirmation when confirmation classes left me unconvinced, and after my ex-Mormon boyfriend declared, to my initial dismay, that being an atheist was the only thing that made sense, I, too, finally admitted that I did not believe in a god.

But fast-forward to my life in 2012, and you might wonder, as a good secular humanist, where I went astray. A typical Sunday now brings me to at least three different church services, and you will be hard-pressed to find a day, Sunday or no, that does not begin and end with me knelt in prayer (or at least an attempt at it).

It was not the camaraderie of coffee hour, the satisfaction of service projects, the inspiration of sermons, or the guidance and existential comfort of scripture that revived my religious interest. Rather, my crisis of atheist faith was sparked by music.

When I joined the Harvard University Choir (“UChoir”) in my sophomore year of college, I had my first proper introduction to the world of sacred music. Any music could presumably be deemed “sacred,” but here I refer to the wealth of Christian choral and vocal-instrumental music that has sprouted over the centuries since the chant traditions of the middle ages.

I was an experienced musician when I joined UChoir, and I had already, for an upstate-NY villager, excelled considerably in clarinet, piano and vocal performance. But singing for the weekly Harvard Memorial Church services with UChoir was unlike anything I had done before. I will not explicate here the array of emotional, physical –and dare I say “spiritual”?– sensations that were produced in me by the motets of Palestrina and Gabrieli and choruses of Handel and Mozart. I think one afternoon of my sophomore fall is sufficiently illustrative, when, sweeping down the sidewalk from rehearsal in an exultant rush of fresh air and Hubert Parry’s “Blessed Pair of Sirens” echoing in my mind’s ear, I groped for words as I tried to explain myself to my mother on the phone: “I think this is what it must feel like to believe in God,” I ventured.

I was far from religious conversion, as the doctrines and narratives promulgated by my beloved church music still failed to convince my rational mind. But there was something about that music that I had failed to find in secular music. It humbled me, filled me with reverent respect for something I couldn’t identify. It filled me with a sometimes-serene and sometimes-exultant hope, not for eternal life, in which I could not believe, but for great life. Through the sublime polyphony of William Byrd and the tender, glorious melodies of Mendelssohn I felt connected to the world, to the depth of life beyond my own place and time in it.

For better or worse, the words seemed an inextricable part of the magic of the music. Mind experiments in which I substituted “God” with “love” or “forever” with “for life” — or, worse, replaced the text of a whole motet with secular material– added a cheapened, phony quality that I couldn’t shake.

So there I was left with the enormous canon of Western sacred music, much of which, if you’ll forgive my drama, seemed to make my life worth living; and, on the other hand science, rationalism, honest empiricism. As an evolutionary biologist as well as a musician, this tension was never far from my heart.

Could there be a resolution? I saw two primary possibilities:

1) Find a metaphorical or philosophically clever way to honestly believe in Christian theology
2) Find (or create) music that achieves the beauty and profundity of sacred music without talking about God or anything else scientifically dubious

Now, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t completely given up on the first option. But I certainly haven’t succeeded with it either. And since this is the Humanist Community Project, and, whatever else I might be, I am a humanist, I would like to focus on challenge #2.

I want meaning, I want morals, I want connection, I want beauty, I want truth. Those are five quintessentially humanist values, and I could go on. I see no reason why secular humanist texts can’t encompass such values. And where there is text, there can be music made with which to sing it!

So, where is all the great humanist music?

I do not wish to suggest that it is non-existent. But if you would argue that it is abundant, I would love to meet you.

My impression is that there is a dearth of quality humanist music. Granted, one might argue that all instrumental music is humanist, since violins can’t promote creation myths or preach about fire and brimstone. But truly great vocal repertoire (which, in a conversation for another day, I would argue has a unique and indispensable role in our lives), that explicitly articulates, without religion, ideas that are important to us as humans — ideas beyond romance, whining and satire — seems to be in grossly short supply.

Dispensing for now with the hypothesis that humanist music simply can’t have the same power as religious music, I would propose that so much of the best music in history has been religious because so much of the power and money to sponsor musical composition has belonged to churches. Secular music, which until recently was the domain of folk and popular artists, seldom deals with the big questions and values of a meaningful life.

I could continue speculating, but I would rather start a conversation. Singing can be an incredibly powerful activity for expression, inspiration, comfort and community-building. What humanistic music is already out there, and who is composing more of it?

I applaud the work of artists like Quiet Company and the British Humanist Association Choir, and I encourage other humanist musicians to compose, talk to each other (and to me!) and exchange music and ideas. As humanists seek to build a new culture that is good, meaningful and beautiful without God, we need music — and literature, and art, and drama — to reflect and support that culture. So let’s get talking (and writing, and singing). What music have you found, or what music will you make, that speaks to your depths, that sings of what’s most important to you? As a humanist, or whoever you are, what role does music play in your life?

About Audrey Fernandez-Fraser

Audrey Fernandez-Fraser graduated from Harvard College in 2011 with a degree in Human Evolutionary Biology and a secondary field in Music. A classically-trained singer, composer, writer, and spiritual seeker, she spends her days making music, tutoring children, and exploring various religious and Humanistic philosophies and communities.

23 comments on “The Need for Humanist Music: Can I Get an Amen?

  1. Great post, Audrey. It’s funny—I came to religion almost the same way as you, that is, through art. I just came to the realization that all music, paintings, literature I had a deep love for were in some way inspired by religious belief, if not in support of it, then at least responding to it. Simultaneously I realized that I didn’t want to always be a skeptical, frowning onlooker on all that beauty, that deep and mysterious engagement with life, but wanted actually to participate in it, to be a part of that unusual and inspirational and complicated and problematic fray. And so I have.

  2. As a musician myself, I agree with almost everything you said, including the part where you wondered if the deepest musical moments must be like religious experience (which I think they probably are, with the added advantage of not having to believe wacky stuff).

    Any good music is a short cut to some of our deepest emotions. It connects us to others in a way that is more directly felt than described. It deepens our human experience and deepens our empathy. If that’s not humanist, what is?

    I’m sure you’ve heard Steve Martin’s “Atheists Ain’t Got No Songs” song. (Definitely worth a listen; see below.) One strange thing about it is, after saying we ain’t got no songs, he contradicts himself with, “Atheists just sing the blues,” and “Atheists have rock ‘n’ roll!” Blues and rock ‘n’ roll! Atheists FTW! We also jazz, most classical music (at least from the last few centuries) and lots of other good stuff, no matter the persuasion of the composers and performers. Let’s claim it! Not ours alone, but ours nonetheless.

    All that said, I like the idea of vocal music with an explicitly humanist message. I find Tim Minchin’s “White Wine In The Sun” to be an example, though the lyrics get to me much more than the music does. But I sure don’t think we humanists ought to restrict ourselves to explicitly humanist music when we hang out together.

    “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFWA1A9XFi8
    “White Wine In The Sun”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCNvZqpa-7Q
    Some of the implicitly humanist music I do:
    http://music.jondreyer.com

    • Thanks Jon. I love the music you sent me. Tim Minchin’s “White Whine in the Sun” gave me chills. I would love to hear more of that kind of music, with a good humanist message — but I also like your point that humanists shouldn’t restrict themselves to humanist music (my life would be so much worse if I did that).

  3. Fair comment. We do need more explicity humanist music. Here’s a start:

    Let The Mystery Be – Iris DeMent

    Darwin Song Project – Mark Erelli ‘Kingdom Come’

    Darwin Song Project ‘Earl of Darwin / Save a Place’ – Emily Smith

    Talking Heads – Heaven

    Van Halen – Best Of Both Worlds
    Well you don’t have to die and go the heaven
    Or hang aroud to be born again
    Just tune in to what this place has got to offer
    Cause we may never be here again.
    I want the best of both worlds
    A little heaven right here on earth.

    Amen to that!
    But don’t close yourself off from religious music. I still love a whole lot of religious folk songs. It’s part of our history, culture and tradition. So long as we don’t take them literally I have no problem singing them.

    • I’m loving the music recommendations! I still must say most of the atheist/humanist music I hear lacks the “spirit” of religious music I’ve encountered. But that’s not necessarily always true, or necessarily necessary. I really loved the folk song you linked to (“The Lord Will Make a Way”), there was something so precious about the hope in that song that seemed inextricable from the faith it expressed. Still, Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be” was wonderful, magical and comforting in a different way. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Making music — especially singing in a group — embodies humanist principles in such an absorbing, satisfying way. As an amateur choral singer, I love singing the great sacred repertoire, but I also feel that great secular works are too rare (or not well known enough). When one does come along, it’s so liberating to sing a text that I actually identify with on some level.

    I can think of a few pieces that approach a secular transcendence for me — at least they give me chills or make me teary whenever I sing them. These are not explicitly about how we don’t believe in gods, they’re simply about wondering, questioning, living.

    Randall Thompson’s setting of Robert Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star” is one. (Video with text: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNDrMifZqLU)

    I also like “Sure On This Shining Night” set by Barber. There is a nice setting by Morton Lauridsen too.

    If we can include stage music, “Make our Garden Grow” from Bernstein’s “Candide” is as good a humanist anthem as I could want. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XNd0BT3bHo)

    I hope to see more recommendations that I can bring to my community chorus!

    • I second “Sure On this Shining Night”, although I prefer the Lauridsen myself. I’m making a list of recommendations and will post them soon :)

    • Thanks Theresa. Candide is a great example of powerful humanist music! Especially the finale. Maybe we need more humanist opera, as well as choral music.

      “it’s so liberating to sing a text that I actually identify with” — yes, that sums it up for me.

  5. Have you ever read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity? I just read it and he addresses some of your comments…the indescribable feelings from music, the need for morals & truth.

  6. I’d say the issue is that our society as a whole doesn’t value meaningful songs. There are plenty of meaningful songs that are made on a continual basis, but they are only known by the few fans of the artist that produced them. Of course from time to time you have wildly popular songs that I think fit your description (such as John Lennon’s “Imagine” or maybe Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”), but unfortunately the vast majority of them remain largely unknown to the general human population.

    I also think that you might want to expand your horizons and look in unexpected places. Perhaps there are some really meaningful hip-hop songs out there (not the variety that gets popular, of course). Immortal Technique is one such rapper that comes to my mind (here’s a random song): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bURgTLHryrg I’m not sure if you’ll feel the same spiritual power that you do from old religious music (especially seeing as how the music includes profanity and whatnot) but my point is that not all music nowadays is shallow.

    From my experience with music thus far, every genre that involves lyrics has artists that produce music that are very deep and will make you think. Unfortunately for our society as a whole, these artists all remain popular solely in the underground scene of that particular genre, while artists who sing “I’ve got a feeling, that tonight’s gonna be a good night” on repeat become worldwide celebrities. If you want to find depth and real thought in today’s music, you’re going to have to really search, but it is there.

    my $0.02!

    • “I’d say the issue is that our society as a whole doesn’t value meaningful songs.”

      “…while artists who sing “I’ve got a feeling, that tonight’s gonna be a good night” on repeat become worldwide celebrities.”

      What makes for meaningful music (or art, or conversation), and why doesn’t our society value it enough? This would make for a great discussion and/or blog post.

      Thanks for your $0.01 x 2

  7. Perhaps humanist music is lacking because the humanist movement, in general, is thin on the ground. I attribute this to the shortcomings of humanism i.e. individualistic, non-judgemental, global. But these qualities are no what the little-old tribal human brain is geared for. We are geared for small homogeneous local groups. This is the challenge for humanism. The shortage of music reflects the vague and uninspiring nature of humanist philosophy/culture in general. As Alain de Botton recently said “we have secularised badly”. So we have more than just music to work on. Music is born out of strong culture and communities. The lack of music is a symptom of a bigger problem. Cart before horse.

    • Yes! Hopefully the HCP will help us to solve the broader problems of humanist community (and lack thereof). But among the various issues (culture, community, moral values, community ethics, spirituality…) I think it’s hard to distinguish between carts and horses.

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  10. This is such a lovely site – like some of the other contributors, I play and sing music all the time, and especially love much of the ‘sacred’ repertoire. As you have commented, money and influence over the past 1000 or so years has been in the hands of the church, also, consider that before Darwin, there wasn’t really an intellectual alternative to God(s). Some smart people, David Hume for instance, realised that faith created more problems than it solved, but only modern science has started to answer the big questions, and hopefully composers will start to be inspired by our real marvellous universe instead of the fairy stories. 2 contributions to the music archive you’re starting to build here; Ewan McColl ‘the joy of living’ and Stanford’s ‘bluebird’ – both heart-stoppingly beautiful, full of wow factor & humanist to the core!

    http://youtu.be/sseyUtOvetA?t=4m47s

  11. Hi! Great post! I’m doing a talk on this very subject at the Brunel Institute of Composing (London, UK) on December 4th. I’m a choral composer and a passionate humanist and this subject is very close to my heart indeed. I’m looking forward to checking out some of the links in the comments on this thread as I too would really like to know what’s out there. So far, most of the secular choral music I’ve encountered has been relatively light and trivial. However, nothing moves me quite like Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Cloud Capped Towers’ from ‘Three Shakespeare Songs’ The way he sets the line ‘we are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep’ is just utterly amazing.

    And here’s a few of my own contributions to the ‘genre’:

    Here’s a song I wrote about the experience of grieving without religious faith: https://soundcloud.com/stefconner/strange-little-bird
    A song about the nonsense of the good/evil dichotomy: https://soundcloud.com/stefconner/the-turmoil-and-the-tenderness
    A setting of Wallace Stevens: https://soundcloud.com/stefconner/time-grows-upon-the-rock
    And a choral setting of an Old English poem about how beautiful (and dangerous) ice is: https://soundcloud.com/stefconner/is

    :)

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