There was a time when all of Rock and Roll was considered “Godless.”
AHA’s Staff Picks
These are the staff picks from the American Humanist Association.
- “Saved” by Shelley Segal 
- “Belief (live)” by John Mayer 
- “Science is Real” by They Might Be Giants 
- “What If No One’s Watching” by Ani Difranco 
- “Squared” by Greydon Square 
- “Dear God” by XTC 
- “The Good Book (live)” by Tim Minchin 
- “Epiphany” by Bad Religion 
- “What You Are (Acoustic)” by Dave Matthews Band 
- “Imagine” by John Lennon 
- “Into My Arms” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 
- “Born Secular” by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins 
- “Darwin’s Acid (Rap Guide to Evolution)” by Baba Brinkman 
- “Creation Science 101″ by Roy Zimmerman 
- “Hard Believer” by First Aid Kit 
- “Rise Up! Rise Up!” by Cursive 
- “Smile” by Vitamin C feature Lady Saw
- “Supertheory of Supereverything” by Gogol Bordello 
- “Faithless” by Rush 
- “Spreading the Disease” by Queensryche 
- “Moral Majority” by Dead Kennedys 
- “I Never Asked to be God” by Speed Orange
- “Operation Spirit” by Live 
- “Theme from ‘Letting Go of God’” by Jill Sobule 
- “It Ain’t Necessarily So” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong 
- “All American Prophet” from The Book of Morman (the Musical) 
- Bad Religion live at the Reason Rally 
But there’s a lot more great stuff out there. Here are a couple articles that might turn you on to a few new musical artists.
Ten Great Atheist Rock Songs
1. “Imagine” by John Lennon: This playlist couldn’t start with any other song. Perhaps one of the most iconic musicians of all time called for us to “Imagine there’s no Heaven /It’s easy if you try /No hell below us /Above us only sky /Imagine all the people /Living for today.” If that isn’t the most humanistic mantra, to do good without supernatural repercussions or rewards, I don’t know what is.
2. “White Wine in the Sun”by Tim Minchin: This sentimental tune may be about the joys of Christmas, but Minchin waxes sentimental about the holiday not for its religious meaning, but rather for the forum it provides for enjoying family, togetherness, and relaxation. Notable lyrics include “I am hardly religious/I’d rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu, to be honest” and “And yes I have all of the usual objections/To the miseducation of children who, in tax-exempt institutions/Are taught to externalize blame/And to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right and wrong.” Warning: the full set of lyrics is tear-wrenching, particularly if you’re a recent transplant to somewhere far away from your family.
3. “Dear God”by XTC: More on the atheist end of the spectrum is this song about the evil in the world done in the name of God. The lyrics address “God” directly, accusatory of disease, misfortune, and war. However, a close listen to lyrics such as “Did you make Mankind after we made you?” and “The hurt I see helps to compound that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is just somebody’s unholy hoax” pretty clearly assign humanity the responsibility of proliferating hardship in the name of God.
4. “Operation Spirit” by Live: For a “grunge-esque” band from the 90’s, Live still manages to be relevant today, even if their sound is vintage to our ears in 2011. Timeless lyrics like “He could have been telling me about my higher self/But he only lives inside my prayer/So what he was may have been beautiful/But the pain is right now/And right here” referring to Jesus echoes the disillusionment many people have with a higher purpose.
5. “I Am Mine”by Pearl Jam: I knew I liked the message of this song before I knew what humanism was or that I was a humanist. One of my all-time favorite bands, Pearl Jam has managed to stick with me, with Eddie Vedder wailing gems like “I know I was born and I know that I’ll die/The in between is mine/I am mine.” This speaks volumes to the listener about having control and autonomy over one’s own life and valuing every minute spent in the only life we have.
6. “Only the Good Die Young”by Billy Joel: Filled with religious metaphors, this song pretty staunchly reiterates that religious beliefs prevent one from truly living life to the full extent and the “good” (read: Christian) “die” (read: dedicate themselves to something beyond life itself) young. But “They showed you a statue, told you to pray/They built you a temple and locked you away/Aw, but they never told you the price that you pay/For things that you might have done” and (one of my favorite lines of all time) “They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait/Some say it’s better but I say it ain’t/I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/the sinners are much more fun” seem to support that interpretation pretty strongly.
7. “Belief”by John Mayer: This song is another protest against what the establishment of a belief (presumably in the supernatural) can contribute to humanity. Essentially, in the words of Mayer, belief is “What puts a hundred thousand children in the sand” and “What puts the folded flag inside his mother’s hand.” Regardless of what one believes in, strict adherence to dogma will weigh you down with “the heaviest sword.
8. “The Stars are Projectors” by Modest Mouse: A band well-known for their often heartbreaking evaluations of the human condition, Modest Mouse sets this song at the moment right before death, with a reminder that our lives are mere specks in the universe. They lament that “everyone wants a double feature” (presumably an afterlife?), and end with some of the most humanistic words that I’ve heard sung by a popular band: “God is a woman and the woman is /An animal that animal’s man, and that’s you/Was there a need for creation? /That was hidden in a math equation /And that’s this?/Where do circles begin?”
9. “What You Are”by Dave Matthews Band: One of the ultimate jam-bands, DMB put forth this song about the importance of individualism, leading a fulfilling life, and personal growth. Challenging listeners to “Live life say why/Don’t you know if you live life/Then you become what you are,” Matthews candidly discuss individual development and adds that religious beliefs won’t fulfill the desire for self-actualization: “Hoping to God on high/Is like clinging to straws/While drowning.”
10. “Best God in Show” by NOFX: Frontman “Fat Mike” Burkett is one of the most outspoken atheist musicians of the last 20 years. “Best God in Show” is a punk rant covering just about every aspect of the Religious Right that there is. From proselytizing, to denying science, creationism, and voluntary ceding of free will, the entirety of the lyrics are post-worthy here. A sample: “I find it’s getting painful to put up/With grown adults who actually believe/In Unicorns and Creation, and god always takes their side.”
Atheists Do Got Songs
By Brian Magee
Even though music with a specific atheist/skeptic message can be tough to find by using standard music categories, there is plenty of it out there in every genre you can imagine. The songs listed below represent a small fraction of what’s available—they are not meant to be taken as being better or worse than the incredible list of additional music not included. (Some of these songs have adult language.)
Many acoustic artists find inspiration in proclaiming atheist themes in music. They include “What If No One’s Watching” from Ani DiFranco; the comedic, story-telling Roy Zimmerman with songs like “Creation Science 101” and “Defenders of Marriage”; Holly Near says “I Ain’t Afraid” of anyone’s god; Shelley Segal, who performed at the AHA’s 2012 annual conference in New Orleans, tells us she doesn’t need to be “Saved”; being a nonbeliever, Cynthia Carle lives a different “Sunday in Reality”; Jenny Lewis teamed up with The Watson Twins to tell us we’re “Born Secular”; Eddie Scott says it’s a drag to be “The Skeptic in the Room”; the Gypsy punk bank Gogol Bordello says they don’t trust disciples in “Supertheory of Supereverything”; and John Lennon’s “Imagine” has become a timeless classic.
Jill Sobule used her beautiful voice and musical skill to write and perform the theme song to Julia Sweeney’s “Letting God of God”; two Swedish sisters known as First Aid Kit harmonize beautifully in “Hard Believer”; Jim Corbett proudly declares “I Am a Humanist”; Roy Bailey’s lullaby tells children they can achieve wonderful things with “Everything Possible”; it’s preferable to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” according to Monty Python; Randy Newman sings a nonbeliever’s “God’s Song”; and Tim Minchin has become s an atheist icon with songs like “Confessions” and “White Wine in the Sun.”
For those who like hard rock/metal, your choices include Motörhead, with tunes like “I Don’t Believe A Word” and “No Voices in the Sky”; A Perfect Circle’s “Judith”; NOFX with “Best God In Show,” “Blasphemy,” and “Leaving Jesusland”; Words Such as Burn with “Flow,” Nevermore with “Believe in Nothing”; Bad Religion’s “Epiphany” is just one of their many offerings; “The Bible is Bullshit” by Corporate Avenger is not specifically atheistic but is certainly not happy with religion; Marilyn Manson says he’s “not a slave to a God that doesn’t exist” in “The Fight Song”; Australia’s Kisschasy produced a CD in 2007 titled Hymns for the Nonbeliever where they told us “My Bible is a Scrapbook”; and (at least) three songs titled “Godless” from The Garden of Delight, U.P.O., and the The Dandy Warhols.
For more alternative tunes, Steely Dan offers up “Godwacker”; Everclear gets to the point with “Why I Don’t Believe in God”; “Losing My Religion” is now a classic from R.E.M.; “Rise Up! Rise Up!” by Cursive questions divinity; Modest Mouse’s relevant offerings include “Third Planet”; “Spreading the Disease” is how Queensryche sees religion; the ‘80s Icelandic band the Sugarcubes had little good to say about “Deus”; it’s subtle, but offerings from The Flamming Lips like “Do You Realize” are usually seen as nontheistic; and “Hayling” by FC Kahuna advises us to “just be glad to be here”; and “I Never Asked to be God” says Speed Orange.
Other rock tunes include Rush’s “Faithless” from 2007 and their classic 1980 hit “Freewill”; “There Is No God” according to folk rocker Bonnie “Prince” Billy; Bryan Steeksma’s “Listen to Reason” got some traction after being used as the opening theme song for The Atheist Experience TV program.
Hip Hop artists are also expressing their feelings about being nonbelievers. Perhaps the most famous is Greydon Square, who has given us tunes like “Myth,” “The Dream (Atheist Rap)” and “Squared”; Baba Brinkman, who gave a TED talk, raps about evolution with tunes like “Sexual Selection” and “Darwin’s Acid”; and Reason Rally performer Tombstone Da Deadman sees religion as “Poison” and declares he won’t be “Controlled.”
They Might Be Giants has been making music for 30 years and in 2009 produced a science DVD for kids that included “I am a Paleontologist” and “Science is Real”; the band Quiet Company was recently featured in Humanist magazine for their repertoire of songs with humanist themes, including “Set Your Monster Free” and “The Confessor”; opera singer Markella Hatziano uses her phenomenal classical music talents to sing godless songs like “The Magic of Reality” and “The Odyssey (If I Were God).”
The songs listed above don’t even come close to covering everything but we should also mention ”In the Name of God” and “Love Is My Religion” by Ziggy Marley, reggae offerings loved by many; “No Answer (Atheist Song),” a musical story told with piano accompaniment by Richard Oakley; the punk/funk “Shallow Be They Name” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers; and satirist and pianist Tom Lehrer comically sings “The Vatican Rag.”
There is new music coming out all the time as well. A 2011 CD by Divided Heaven, the name of a solo project by singer-songwriter Jeff Berman, includes “Born-Again Non-Believer,” a smile-inducing, uplifting, and catchy acoustic tune that’s easy to love; Tonight We Strike,
a rock/punk/alternative band from New Jersey, sings “Inglorious” with meaning, wondering why war is seen as glorious. While the song is not explicitly nontheist, guitarist Donnie Switchblade (also known as Don Yonker) is a passionate atheist.
It could also be argued that any music without a specifically religious message could be considered atheistic—or at least secular. Songs like Paolo Nutini’s “New Shoes” and “Smile” from Vitamin C and Lady Saw would certainly fit in this regard, as would “Stay” from Lisa Loeb. A plethora of other love songs and instrumentals can certainly be seen as secular as well. The website SymphonyOfScience.com has done a wonderful job creating music videos that include the voices of famous scientists along with beautiful images.
Donnie Switchblade, Tonight We Strike guitarist and the band’s main lyricist, mentioned the idea of how to label godless music in an email to HNN. “Any non-religious music could rightly be called secular. Songs about ‘California Girls’ and ‘Love in an Elevator,’ while secular, don’t present the listener with ideas about freethought, our place in the universe or anything we find important. Humanists certainly describes our overarching ethos and we encourage people to think for themselves…,” he wrote, adding that listeners “…won’t find many lines in our songs where we purport to have answers or tell people what to think. We have a lot more questions in our songs than answers. We hope that simply asking questions about God and religion gets people to apply logic and reason to their religious beliefs and ultimately arrive at atheism.”
Donnie added that he would like to see a lot more atheist music being produced. Some songs by Propagandhi, The Subhumans, Dead Kennedys and NOFX, for example, are atheistic, he points out, but until more bands are open about their outlook, it makes it tougher for those who are. “We’d like to develop musical and personal relationships with other like-minded bands but have yet to find them,” Donnie wrote.” I think having songs about these topics also makes labels hesitant to seek us out.”
Berman says the name he’s chosen, Divided Heaven, has been a bit of a help—in some cases. “I enjoy the juxtaposition of branding myself with the word ‘heaven’ while not having any religious connection. It does throw folks off a bit when I am booking shows,” Berman wrote to HNN. “Certain promoters are attracted to me because they think I am religious, while certain promoters are turned off to me because they read my name and think I am religious.”
Despite some issues, Berman is openly atheist. “I consider my music to be atheist, just as I consider myself to be atheist,” he wrote.
So there are plenty of choices out there when it comes to nonbeliever music—even Steve Martin would have to agree—but it can take a little work to find it. However, it would be a wonderful catalyst for the artists who do put themselves out there if they could get some additional open support from fans in order for the industry to be more supportive of what’s being offered. Music fans can certainly play a key role in getting more of these artists recognized and, therefore, making all of them easier to find.
Brian Magee is the American Humanist Association’s communications associate.
The Symphony of Science is a musical project of John D Boswell, designed to deliver scientific knowledge and philosophy in musical form. The project owes its existence in large measure to the classic PBS Series Cosmos, by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steve Soter, as well as all the other featured figures and visuals.
Music Selections for a Humanist Funeral
One result of that discussion was a spinoff thread about what music a nontheist has available to them for a funeral or for times of mourning. Depending on how stringent ones standards are that their music not contain any references to heaven, Jesus, God, or angels, there aren’t a lot of choices left for songs that are still appropriate in both tone and content; at that point most sad songs tend to be about the end of romantic relationships (like the wonderful, almost-but-not-quite funeral appropriate, For The Good Times by Johnny Cash).
The most prominent pop music funeral songs are ones like In The Arms Of an Angel by Sarah McLaughlin (as seen on those animal rights commercials) and Tears In Heaven by Eric Clapton, which invite the listener to take solace in the idea that their loved one is in heaven which, alas, just isn’t a choice for us humanists.
Other songs that are not about God or heaven, but incorporate them in some way, can still strike a false cord during the stressful and emotionally heightened time following a loved one’s death. Examples of that include Fire and Rain, by James Taylor, which is a beautiful song about loss, which would qualify for this list were it not for the lyric “Won’t you look down upon me Jesus.” Or Seasons In The Sun, by Terry Jacks, which contains the lyric “Goodbye Papa, please pray for me.”
It is unfortunate that the band Kansas was actually very religious, but their song Dust In The Wind is a time honored end of life classic that doesn’t make any mention of religion, except insofar as it’s predicated on the “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” portion of the book of common prayer. Another popular funeral song that implies a religious connotation rather than overtly stating one is the Eva Cassidy version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Presumably what’s over the rainbow is heaven, although I suppose it’s possible that after we die we get transported to Oz and turned into flying monkeys.
The humanist funeral song conversation got started on our Facebook Page with the posting of a song called Stop All The Clocks by Nemo Shaw. The lyrics are from the W.H. Auden poem, Funeral Blues. It’s not bad, albeit sung in a slightly distracting Scottish accent, with what I thought was an unfortunate emphasis on the lyrics “juicy bone” and “He is dead.” The website very helpfully provides three different options in which the singer can either refer to the deceased as “he” “she” or “they.”
There’s also the Dennis Wilson song Thoughts Of You which is an astoundingly heartfelt song of loss from the now deceased former drummer of The Beach Boys, with nary an allusion to anything remotely religious. If my colleagues at the American Humanist Association should need to throw me an ad hoc funeral, this is the song I would like them to play.
When Paul Simon was asked to play a song at the ten year anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, he was originally scheduled to play Bridge Over Troubled Water, but changed at the last minute to The Sound Of Silence. Neither is explicitly about someone dying, but both are somber and moving songs loss and comfort, and therefore I think very appropriate.
In that same vein I would also suggest Across The Universe by The Beatles. It isn’t quite as sad, but that’s sort of nice, isn’t it? It’s also been covered a hundred times, so you’ll have no trouble finding a version that speaks to the tone you like best. The Fiona Apple version is very pretty, as is the version from the movie of the same name. The lyrics suggest to me that we’re all made of star-stuff and interconnected, without being theistic about it. Purists be warned though, it does contain the Sanskrit phrase “Jai guru deva om” which translates more or less to “glory to the shining remover of darkness.”
Johnny Cash did a wonderful cover of In My Life, by The Beatles, which is a perfect song in every way.
My favorite cinematic funeral scene ever is from Love Actually, in which a grieving husband adheres to his wife’s final wishes, and ends the ceremony “inevitably, and ever so cruelly… through the immortal genius of the Bay City Rollers.” But that isn’t something I would recommend unless specifically instructed to do so by the guest of honor.
Perhaps you would prefer an instrumental piece, such as the Funeral March for Rikard Nordraak by Edvard Grieg; Dead March from Saul‘ by Handel; or The Gray Havens from the Return of The King soundtrack.
My mother, an opera fan, recommends Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde (also available in instrumental), and Violetta’s Deathbed Aria from Verdi’s La Traviata. I’ll also suggest E lucevan le stelle from Tosca, and the Final Duet from La Boheme, both by Puccini. I don’t speak Italian or German though, so if they’re making any religious references I’m none the wiser.
The Broadway musical Les Miserables is filled with exquisite death scenes, but Fantine’s Death; A Little Fall Of Rain; and The Finale all come heavily laden with references to God. Empty Chairs at Empty Tables could be appropriate for a funeral under some fairly specific circumstances. The Letter from Billy Elliot would be beautiful performed live with personalized lyrics. So would It Don’t Make Sense from Parade.
Steve Major is the development associate for the American Humanist Association.