(With apologies to William Blake, this is a post I’m writing specifically to submit to this Humanist Symposium thingie for bloggers I just learned about—the next one will be hosted April 4th by Letters from a Broad, a blog whose author is also a novelist.)
Given the phase of music enthusiasm I’ve been going through lately, I thought I’d link to and discuss a few songs I like that deal with the experience of being an unbeliever in a believing world:
- The Virginian, by Neko Case
- One Man’s Shame, by William Elliott Whitmore
- Mercy Seat, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
First Song: The Virginian, by Neko Case
When I was young, I knew a girl
Who wouldn’t love God as a test
Or gamble with her happiness
And so led astray
So she did turn
Her father would say,
‘You’re only a guest of the master’
But passion was her Sunday best
And she fell away
She fell away
She fell away
She fell away from the side of the Lord
And she was free to do what she wanted
With clouds of her own
Na na na na
When she grew up, she fell in love
She thought it was all that she wanted
She knew how it felt to be haunted
And he ran away
Picked herself up
And said through her tears
Don’t waste anymore of your time
You’ll spend it all standing in line
They’ll turn you away
Oh but superstition
And your heart’s permission
‘Cause you’re good enough, good enough, good enough
To make it alone
Then when she died
She didn’t ask God
To take her back into his graces
She’d taken on to many shapes
And too many were strange
And as they lay her in to the ground
Her spirits, they all flew all away
The sun shone so bright on that day
You thought it was spring
One of the many interesting things about this song is the connection it draws between the spiritual and the romantic. It seems to me that in many cases, part of what draws people to religion is a longing for intimacy. The relationship with God is a love-relationship—no one knows you so intimately and loves you so unconditionally as God. Psychologists and occasionally philosophers talk about romantic love as an impulse to submit one’s will to another, to have the self subsumed in another self, to have the borders between self and other fall and merge into one another—it’s a means of transcending one’s solitary, solipsistic existence. At the same time, it’s a flight from freedom and independence, from the necessity of having to choose for yourself and take sole responsibility for your existence.
Of course, the trouble with God as a substitute for human intimacy is that God seems to have intimacy issues. He tends to resemble a guy (or girl) who’s just not that into you. He never calls, doesn’t send a card on your birthday … and when was the last time you had a two-way conversation with Him? If He does appear to communicate, it’s always indirectly, by way of other people, sort of like when one of the Sex and the City girls is dating a rich business mogul who has his secretary send flowers instead of calling.
The girl in the song sees that human passion and intimacy are what she really wants. She’s not going to gamble with her happiness by waiting around for God to call; instead she leaves Him and moves on to fall in love with a real person. But then she realizes human love isn’t dependable either—ultimately she learns not to flee freedom either through God or through romance. The moral of the story for freethinkers is that leaving dogmatism behind may not necessarily open up new doors to happiness. It’s something that ultimately has to be done out of integrity and honesty and love for these things in themselves, rather than with the expectation that greater happiness will result. If a person can manage that, they’ll have no regrets even if they turn out to have been wrong on Judgment Day.
Second Song: One Man’s Shame, by William Elliott Whitmore
Don’t alter my altar
don’t desecrate my shrine
My church is the water
and my home is underneath the shady pines
Don’t underestimate the spine in a poor man’s back
when it’s against the wall and his future’s black
One man’s story is another man’s shame
I ain’t bound for glory, I’m bound for flames
Take to the woods boy, and cover up your tracks
Go away child and don’t look back
Sad is the lullaby from a mother’s heart and soul
when she knows her child has strayed from the fold
The parish will perish
by death’s cruel hand
and finish the job that fate began
All that static in the attic,
that’s just an old drunk ghost
His chains are rattlin’ but his end is close
Ain’t no hell below and ain’t no heaven above
I came for the drinks but I stayed for the love
Here the unbeliever is prepared to defend his own concepts of altar, shrine, church, and home, and warns others not to underestimate his strength—he’ll stand up for himself; he’s a poor man with nothing to lose. He realizes and accepts that what to him is simply his story will be viewed as a shame to others; they’ll see him as someone who’s strayed from the fold and is bound for the flames of hell. But his advice to anyone in doubt is to leave and not look back. (Presumably, to leave dogmatism behind, that is.) Ultimately, the “ghost” of religion rattling in the “attic” (our subconscious? the collective unconscious?) will be fade away … And there’ll still be drinks and love.
I just like the attitude of defiance in this song, the stance of embracing your own story even if it looks like shame to others.
Third Song: Mercy Seat, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds*
They are long, so I’ll just put the refrain—you can see all the song’s lyrics here.
And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth.
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die.
This is a ballad about a man condemned to death. (Incidentally, Johnny Cash does a great cover of it also.) Again we have the attitude of defiance, and to me there’s also something very Socratic about it. The narrator is willing to accept responsibility for his own existence and choices, even if that means death. And whatever he may have done, he’s kept his integrity and told the truth. Like the girl in the first song, he doesn’t fear death or a Day of Judgment; both narrators have made their choices and will stand by them, come what may.
The religious believer is ideologically equipped to deal with death—she has comforting concepts like an afterlife and the promise of seeing loved ones again in the hereafter. To some, giving up these consolations and accepting the reality and finality of death may be one of the most difficult aspects of leaving religion behind. And even for the determined unbeliever, there’s a lingering uncertainty about what really happens at death. (Consider the strange story of atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer’s near-death experience.) In The Apology, Socrates says death is likely one of two things: either a state of unconsciousness comparable to a pleasant sleep, or a chance to continue doing exactly what he’s done all his life:
Above all, I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too! What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions! For in that world they do not put a man to death for this; certainly not.
I think of this as meaning that if my consciousness goes on, I’ll still be myself, with all my curiosity and wonder about people and things around me. I’ll continue to regard my actions and decisions as I do now: as those of a fallible person who tried to be decent, live a good life, and not hurt others. Yes, a God might emerge out of the clouds in a burst of bright light and condemn me to eternal punishment, but there’s no guarantee that couldn’t happen to me here in this life, too, five minutes from now. Such a judgmental, dictatorial, punitive God would be no less a bully there than here, and I’d be no more inclined to obey Him and follow His orders.
So while I won’t exactly say bring on the Mercy Seat and the hemlock, or that death isn’t scary, fear of divine judgment is not one of the things that makes it scary and potentially painful, and that’s one of the lessons of these songs.
I’d love to hear what others’ favorite songs are.
*Thanks to my friend Denise for making me think of this song last week in commenting on the other Nick Cave song in my last post.