Friday, August 1, 2014

Atheist Melodies

Music can be inspired by many things,
including and especially the belief in a supreme being, a deity, a god or even gods of the mythological type.Throughout history, music has been largely the domain of the devout. The most highly praised and respected musicians were those who were the true believers, the ones who wrote the hymns, the requiems, symphonies commissioned by the aristocracy or the church, the impassioned and operatic pleas to the Lord, for forgiveness, for salvation and for the care of the everlasting soul. However, not all great music is the domain of the most religious members of society. And just because music isn't pious and devout doesn't necessarily mean that these musicians have taken up with the other guy.... the Devil.
   So it comes to this. Very Us Mumblings has published blog-entries of the Divinely-inspired musicians. We've found heaven in music that many didn't know was there. We've also written about those musicians that were believed to have made a pact with the devil and now, we dare to take on that other group... those disbelievers. The ones who dare to question, not only the divine but those that are faithful and the belief in a higher power that may or may not exist, but cannot be proven.
   Well, in this blog entry, we will attempt to address some of those questions of faith, while at the same listening to some music inspired by those same questions. And even though Steve Martin laments that Athiests don't have no songs, we think that, if you look, you'll find they have quite a few...


How Does God Choose Whom To Save?
One of the many things that cause a person to question the existence of a supreme deity is the idea of how God chooses who will live and who will die. This is, of course, assuming that the stories of miracles in the Bible are accurate and that certain people rose from the dead, parted the red sea, loaded a bunch of animals onto an ark, and as such were saved, while others were not.
   Even if these ancient stories were proven 100% true, it's quite easy to think that those who weren't saved simply weren't lucky enough. It's quite possible that they were not guilty of some sin, or that it wasn't necessary for them to face the wrath of God. More likely, there really was no supreme being playing a role, and those people who were left behind could have been sinners or saints, but they were simply people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Needless to say, as a subject for a song, disaster and death works well, and both the religious and the not-so religious have used this theme time and time again.
   But in this modern world, very few people experience 'miracles' and 'salvation', while death, pain and disaster seems to strike more and more often, whether in the form of famine, flood, drought, war and even disease. A person has to wonder, if there is a God, what kind of person he might be to simply allow all of this terror and death to continue. More likely, however, one comes to the conclusion that there is no one 'up there' watching over this whole mess, and these events seem random because they probably are.
    In all likelihood, however, wars are started by the over-reach of greedy human beings in the exalted position to command armies, not by direct order of the divine. Unusual Pestilence and drought are more often caused by human beings misusing both land and livestock in either agriculture practices or in extraction of resources. Even massive changes in climate and regional livability are also more likely caused by human beings, not by God. So rather than wonder how God decides whom to save and whom should suffer, perhaps we should simply admit that we don't know, because there is no God making such grim decisions, and many of these terrible fates are usually brought about by human misdirection and machinations rather than the work of an omnipotent overseer.


God is Man-Made
So if there is no God watching us from above, deciding who should live and die and what goes where and how stuff works, then how did this 'God' person command so much attention for thousands of years?
  Well, generally speaking, we made him up. Most philosophers throughout the so-called age of enlightenment have generally figured that this God person was invented by Human Beings. The original purpose of monotheism (the belief in one God) was probably to unite people under one big religious 'umbrella' and establish some sort of universal rules, a shared belief-system, a groundwork for law and order and civil society, but later this whole religion thing became a way for people to connect with each other, organize and share knowledge,experiences, skills and even wealth, and most especially; to offer aid and reprieve to those who'd experienced some sort of trauma or death of a loved one, or other tragic events or circumstance. In this way, religion offered solace where none before existed.
   The Church also offered hope to masses of people that could or would not be helped by the usual folks in charge, such as militaries, aristocracies and other plutocrats. For hundreds of years, if a person wanted to be educated (including music lessons), needed a sanctuary from attackers or bullies, or simply needed a hot meal to get them through the day, they had to go to church to get it. In modern times, with the help of democracy, governments and social safety-net systems have taken over services that the Church used to provide, leaving one to wonder what purpose the church serves in modern society.
 While at one time, the church used to be the centre of the community, today, most people feel that that's a little bit too much power for an un-elected group of people to have. And many of the organized religions, both in the past and today, have become far too large, too heirarchical in structure, too strict in their doctrine and too financially motivated in their message. Some seem always geared to the purpose of increasing their congregation and influence with seemingly no accountability as to what end they are hoping to achieve, other than the usual vague purpose of 'spreading the gospel' or 'doing the good work of the lord.'
    All of these problems of course, lead a person to wonder if organized religion is an idea whose time has passed. It's said that fewer and fewer people are attending such institutional congregations with each passing year. There is no doubt that people around the world are becoming less and less religious as time goes by.


 There is no Afterlife
    No matter what you've done musically, John Lee Hooker probably thought of it first. And if he didn't think of it, it probably wasn't that good of an idea.  It's mind-boggling how much of modern music can be traced back to the great blues players and the question of the Afterlife is no exception. This son of a baptist-preacher was one of the first rock/blues musicians to suggest that the afterlife didn't exist and he did it more than a decade before any ex-beatle 'imagined' it, and long before such supposed anti-religious punk, metal or alternative bands of more modern times.
    This, of course, is all the more interesting considering one of John Lee's colleagues is reputed to have sold his soul to Satan at the Crossroads. It is profoundly appropriate that one of the greatest blues players, who lived to the venerable age of 82, should have a differing opinion on where he's gone after he passed on.
   Way back in 1959 (and there may be a performance of this song recorded even earlier) John Lee Hooker wrote and performed the song Burnin' Hell, and sang simply "Ain't no Heaven, ain't no Burnin' Hell" suggesting that you can pray all you want, but there's no heaven waiting for you, and even if you have a soul, no one will ever know where it's gone. Logically, observationally, and scientifically, John Lee Hooker is correct. Praying is not likely to ensure our dearly departed have gone to a better place. The church, religion, the prayer and the ceremony and circumstance of funerals are rituals that more likely lend some sort of peace of mind to the living survivors, rather than the deceased. This is a fate that most people simply do not want to face or accept; that we have only one life and it is entirely unique and precious. There is no existence beyond this life. And it doesn't matter whether you're a sinner or devout christian; death is final and absolute.


Okay, so... WTF is Atheism? No, really....
  At this point, after all this talk of atheism, you the reader might be wondering where we're going with this blog. Well, here comes the part where we say: 'Wait a minute!' (Having criticized religion in a previous blog entry, we really don't see why we can't apply the same sort of motif to this one).
   In trying to understand atheists, those of us who are at least somewhat religious have to wonder and ask the questions: How does a person identify him or herself as an Atheist? Is it just enough to be a critic and to say that you don't believe? To be cynical and to point out the flaws in the beliefs of others? Is it enough to be reductionist, skeptical, to dismiss perceived miracles? Does an atheist bow down only to the rule of science or Darwin or philosophical superiority of thought? Is it necessary to adopt the ideas of a philosophical author like Nietzsche or Sartre? Is it okay to be a critic and nothing more, or is it just a matter of being dispassionate about your soul or spirit or sentience? Is it enough to define ourselves by what we're not? Are atheists fully realized for claiming they believe in nothing or should we expect them to offer up some philosophy of their own, like an Atheist Bible? So what is Atheism...really? What does that mean beyond the simple denial of the existence of God or gods? So far, there are no legitimate universal answers to these questions, and atheists differ greatly from person to person, which leads us to believe that perhaps Atheism is, in fact, defined by their antithesis: the religious. Or perhaps the dictionary definition is all there is to it. If believing in nothing is all it takes, then a dog may also an atheist, although some dogs might believe in karma, hoping their good deeds will earn them food and love.
   And how come the vast majority of Atheists in North America, Europe and even Australia still want to celebrate Christmas every year? They like Christmas Carols and songs by well-known gospel singers like Aretha Franklin and Al Green. They even like Christmas-y tunes by Punk bands, and even the holiest of holy: Ave Maria by Schubert, which is basically a prayer, written in Latin and set to music. Are atheists really just a bunch of hypocrites that enjoy the parties and the music but refuse the words of Jesus and the faith because they're just too narcissistic and too egotistical to kneel and pray to a being that may or may not be their creator? Is a few tasty Christmas chocolates all it takes to make atheists dispel their assertions and adopt the rituals and music and messages that they think are so quaint or misdirected or simply fictional? And perhaps all this reductionism and criticism of religion is really just an excuse by atheists to be judgemental; to feel superior, to point at those religious people and say "ha ha ha I know better than you because I deconstructed your beliefs and subsequently tore the christian world a new one while I was on an internet forum talking to other cynical, skeptical people just like myself!" But, of course, not every Atheist is such a person, driven by cynicism and skepticism.

     The truth is, atheists and agnostics can be as understanding, honest and loving to their fellow-man and woman as any decent and faithful Christian is supposedly taught by Jesus to be. Historically, while atheism is not known for great music, it is also not known for engendering violence among mankind, while religion definitely is. More specifically, violence is perpetuated by the co-opting or coercion of the faithful towards the wars to establish a religious rule or a supposedly more righteous government in some land where it didn't exist previously or perhaps doesn't belong. Even today, religion spawns and spurs war and violence among mankind, often while Atheists attempt to expose the most dangerous flaws, especially in the largest hierarchically organized religions.
      True Atheists, then, are not just looking to dismiss the faith of the other person, but are questioning with the purpose of looking for the greater good, a collective meaning and connection and integrity in their own lives and in their own way. (Of course, they haven't written that down anywhere, so it isn't exactly mandatory like a rule or 'commandment' or anything) And there's no reason why Atheists can't have a spirituality of a different kind: we are all part of the same race, all part of this planet, and all part of a greater system that exists in this universe that is beyond our individual understanding. We are made from stardust; billion-year-old carbon as both scientists and musicians, both religious and atheist, have said quite profoundly and proudly for years. We can make a symphony or cacophony together or we can simply give each other our space.

P.S: The question of evolution has been deliberately left out of this blog entry. In global terms, there is only certain places in the United States where there is a significant population that still disputes the science of evolution for religious reasons. Since Very Us Mumblings is not based in the U.S. we have no desire or inclination to take up the debate of 'intelligent design'. The simple truth is that the largest organized religions representing the greatest number of people around the world do not dispute the validity of Charles Darwin's scientific theories and the evidence that supports evolution.
If all that has been said and sung on this blog seems a fair criticism, then even if you don't agree, you might consider sharing with your facebook friends and thanks for your support!
P.P.S: Thanks to frequent reader, friend and music-enthusiast Gabor Dobi for inspiring this blog entry. Gabor and his friends and colleagues work at folkbeats.hu folk, traditional Hungarian and world music, dance and culture.