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?