Singing Classical Music and Being a Hardass Atheist

 and also rambling about waah me and my feelings about

Principles vs Relationships

(all while using too many parentheses (like this))

I am an atheist.  The hardass kind.  I believe not only that no deities or other supernatural entities exist, but also that behaving as if the non-existent really exists (the practice of religion being one example), causes significant harm both to believers and also the world at large*.  

I also love to sing.  And a lot of beautiful vocal, and especially choral, music is religious in nature.  It’s a bit of a conundrum.  I’ve rationalized my way through some, but not all, of it.  I’m quite comfortable singing religious music where the purpose is clearly just artistic.  I’ll happily sing all the old Christian carols, because let’s face it, they beat the hell out of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  I’m very glad it hasn’t happened, but if somebody important to me died and wanted me to sing a religious song at their religious funeral, I’d do it – as long as they didn’t want (don’t click, it’s both disturbing and an earworm)  Our God is an Awesome God Or if somebody important to me got married and wanted me to sing a religious song at their religious wedding, I would, as long as they didn’t want Our God is an Awesome God or something loaded with husband:wife::Jesus:church fuckery. 

I can make these kinds of hypothetical decisions as a soloist because my singing will always be strictly for pleasure, even if it’s one of those pleasures that sometimes makes me want to scream and tear my hair out when the going gets rough.  I have absolutely zero interest in monetizing it and anyway I don’t expect to ever get good enough (let alone connected enough) that I would be asked to perform except at student recitals or for people with whom I already have a close personal relationship.  

It’s harder to figure out where to draw the line as a member of a choir.  My choir, which I love, is a secular choir but is occasionally invited to sing at church services.  I’ve only felt mildly uncomfortable about it so far, because our participation has generally felt like an add-on, a special treat, but not really involved in the delivery of the worship service itself, if that makes any sense.  (Kindof how singing at a hospital isn’t delivering healthcare.)  They invite us, we sing whatever we have that’s vaguely spiritual or at least uplifting, regardless what the service is going to be about, and they feed us cookies after and tell us how great we are and how much they enjoyed us.  As a beginner choir, it’s a great chance to get up in front of a supportive audience.

The trouble (if you want to call it that) is, even though we’re still technically a beginner choir – we take anybody, no auditions, and we specifically welcome people who believe they can’t sing – we sound pretty good (I’ll write the paean to our director in another entry).  And the women’s section has been invited to participate in the service for the Feast of the Annunciation in our city’s big, old Anglican cathedral.  It’s going to be a beautiful service.  The music we’re singing – all about Mary, from Gregorian chant to present-day – is gorgeous.  The acoustics in there make anybody sound good.  And the use of all women’s voices strikes me as a fitting artistic choice.

BUT, here’s where the trouble is for me: we are very much leading the congregation in worship.  We’re processing in behind the Bishop, and almost everything except the homily, and the benediction at the end, is us.  I’m not sure if the Bible readings were selected to match our songs or the other way around, but we are definitely part of the complete whole.  And that means that I’m not just appearing to passively condone, but actually actively participating in, something that I feel makes the world a worse place, not better.

Not that this is Westboro Baptist or anything.  As churches go, I would say this is the least-worst kind.  Their clergy is all women; they’re explicitly queer-friendly; they’re actively involved in helping the many homeless and poor people in their neighborhood, and don’t extort conversions to be able to get their help.  But they’re still carrying on as if a fairy tale were actual reality, which is deeply offensive to me.  (Theres’ a whole rant there that I should get to sometime).  If I were a 100% principled person, I wouldn’t be going, and I’d make sure everybody knew why. 

Of course, real life is way more complicated than that.  There are a few high notes (not that high)  in our pieces that only I and one or two others can hit and sound good.  And I’m the old hand the brand-new sopranos seem to count on to know the music and keep them on track if they get lost.  I sang participated in all our Christmas concerts even though I had laryngitis so bad I could only honk like a goose, because our director said they needed me there for moral support.  I don’t want to let my section down.  I also want to maintain my good relationship with the director, because she’s also my voice teacher, one of the best in town, and very hard to get lesson time with, and I don’t want to jeopardize that, plus I just really really like her. 

And even if I do talk to the director about my discomfort, there are bigger reasons things are unlikely to change in the future.  Namely, that a member of our choir who volunteers extensively on the non-music end of things to the point that she’s indispensable, is a priest at the Big Cathedral.  One of the indispensable things she does is make sure we can get times at the Big Cathedral for our secular performances.  You can kindof look at this performance like the Big Cathedral wanting a favour in return – except that, as long as you’re comfortable practicing or appearing to practice Christianity, it looks more like the Big Cathedral is doing something extra-nice for us.  And in fact that’s probably more their motive; they’re really, really nice people, especially Indispensable Volunteer. 

So yeah, I guess I’m going this time.  I’ll see if the euphoria of performing outweighs the moral qualms.  If it doesn’t, and if there’s a next time, I might have to arrange to be out of town or something.  Apparently I’m not such a hardass afterall.


*I am a hardass about freedom.  I don’t believe in restricting religious practice except in the most extreme cases, like child or spousal abuse or fomenting sectarian violence.  Things that are (or should be) illegal anyway.


About The Intransigent One

Sometimes I like to post pictures of my cat or my garden or my sewing or other stuff I made or did. Other times I like to rant.
This entry was posted in Atheist/Skeptical, Me! Me! Me!, Music, The Politics of the Personal and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Singing Classical Music and Being a Hardass Atheist

  1. Tuck Langland says:

    Singing a performance seems to me rather like acting in a play. You set aside personal beliefs and portray the character, even if the character is a Nazi prison guard, with lines like “All Jews are vermin and must be exterminated.” Of course none of us remotely believes such a thing, but would we not be be willing to say that, in the context of a drama on stage (presumably where the Nazi guard gets it in the end!)? Do not fine actors who are family men sometimes portray pedophiles, yet go home and adore their children? So it is with music, I believe. I have been a choral singer for over 50 years, and the bulk of what we sing is religious, even if we can hide behind the anonymity of Latin. I am sure that is because the church paid for choral music and pretty much no one else did. But the question remains, is there no other choral music to sing?

    Yes, there is. Schubert and Brahms, for just two, wrote quite a number of secular songs, about love and such (Leibesleider Waltzes and so on). The great Sea Symphony of Vaughn Williams is a major secular work. And of course there are loads of opera choruses to sing, which provide a hugely rich field of musical expression. Why our choral conductors don’t choose more of these is beyond me.

    One other thing: I was accused, in a discussion of religion, of being intolerant. However, when I asked the accuser if she could sing a choral piece in which the text stated there is no God, she said no, she couldn’t. Why, then, I asked, am I intolerant when I routinely sing texts that state there is a god? She had no answer.

    So I suggest conductors search a whole lot deeper to find wonderful secular music, not to replace religious music because there’s too much wonderful stuff to toss out, but to leaven the fare a bit. Of course I believe the reason is that most choral directors are religious people, and religion, and in particular their religion, marinates everything they choose. An atheistic (or Buddhist) choral director might choose rather differently.


  2. Wow, thanks for reading and having something to say! (yay comments!)

    Since I wrote that post, I’ve pretty much arrived at the position you espouse. Mainly because I’ve fallen in love with the music of Wagner, and if I feel I can sing that without supporting his politics, surely I can sing religious choral works without supporting religion. But there’s still no way in hell I’m going to sing Our God is an Awesome God.

  3. Pingback: Segment 16 – Atheist Choral Music | RAD RELIGION

  4. daniel says:

    i think there’s a possibility that while music may be attached to a text written for a specific purpose, the music itself is an expression of emotions that are far deeper than the specific text they are attached to. thus every performer and listener can find something to relate to in listening to lithurgical music even as atheists. had this not been the case, you would’nt have so many composers throughout history trying to create their own musical versions of ideas, that although religious in context, are human in essence. atheist sjould avoid denying the history of art because it’s not atheistic in all cases. doing so would be similar to the denial of art that took place in the dark days of religious persecution. art is for the human soul to find a place in, with or without a church.

  5. AC says:

    It sounds like you’re ready for – a mix of christian music with new atheist texts.

  6. Marius oelschig says:

    I have been singing since pa fell off the bus.
    I have been singing in adult mixed choirs for 6 years now.
    I too have experienced that nauseating feeling when you’ve been invited to sing in a church as part of a service and all you want to do is throttle the minister and slap the congregation for being so damn naïve. I was quite comfortable with the argument stated above i.e. singing is like acting and you needn’t actually be a Nazi or a paedophile or a mass murderer to be able to portray one successfully. Our choir is currently working on the repertoire for the annual Christmas concert. During rehearsal last week it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks… How would I feel about portraying the role of a psycho killer to an audience of psycho killers? Imagine being asked to portray Hitler in a play put on for the local Neo-Nazi Embroidery Club. To my horror I suddenly felt like the world’s biggest hypocrit. Our conductor is religious. Most of our members are staunchly religious. Our audiences are mostly religious and 100% culturally Christian.

    What do I do? How can I continue singing if I am perpetuating a lie? After all, we’re not performing a Christmas repertoire as a part of some cross cultural showcase or art festival. No, this is the real deal. Each part of the story is laid out in music. From the annunciation to the shepherds to the birth and the whole “word made flesh” thing. It’s unbearable. I’m also a bit of a “go to guy” in our choir and have a few important roles to fulfil other than being a kick ass 2nd bass. But what now? How do I tell the conductor that I find it morally reprehensible to perpetuate the lie? Especially since the audience will be Christmas’ answer to the SS and we’ll be delivering our version of “Once in royal Hitler’s city” in eight part harmony to them all?

    This is my dilemma. What to do? What to do?

  7. Account user says:

    Atheism and Spirituality are attitudes–neither expresses absolute knowledge.
    The Spiritual person has the attitude that he/she can’t comprehend existence without there being a Prime Supreme Being. An Atheistic person has no problem comprehending existence without there being a Prime Spiritual Being. Where he/she gets that knowledge is anybody’s guess.
    When I was 10 years old and knew everything,I was an Atheist
    Again—the two cases are ATTITUDES—and do not express any knowledge of the issue..

  8. bodycrimes says:

    Interesting dilemma. I guess another way to look at it is that the fairy tale brigade are kindly giving you an opportunity to practice in front of them.

  9. I was going to say wow, a singer, an atheist and veg recipes. And then I looked at the name again, the radfem, remembered the fish and suspect we met in a previous life over on the radfem forum (s). If memory services correctly (difficult with my years) I think your blog was on hold at the time and I offered to help about something or other, but you were busy doing other things. Looking after the fish maybe?

    Anyway, all that is irrelevant. Religious music is an interesting one. But would you extend the dilemma further and lump art and architecture into the same category? I would not throw away Verdi’s Requiem (which I’ve sung) or Handel’s Messiah (which I’ve sung) for the world. The main reason I would go to church was to sing. Hypocritical? I don’t know. I saw it as more of a pantomime with nice music. I wouldn’t beat yourself up about it.

    Interestingly this last week or so I’ve been reading both theist and atheist blogs, due to an on-going controversy about a blog solely devoted opposing gay marriage. I need to leave it alone though. It is worse than Farmville.

    On the practical point, I do agree that a strong soprano voice is very helpful for others. It’s almost like you can lean into them, and it helps to develop the less experienced voice, so I think that is an important aspect to take into consideration.

    Oh, and crocs, which is how I found your blog. Yes, you were right, that’s what they were. Ugly as sin/virtue no less.

    Should you approve this, because you probably have a comment mod policy in place, at least for first comments, I’ll send you the link to my last post on religion, it’s not on my primary blog so you won’t find it from my avatar. Although my other blogs are on there but most people don’t manage to work that one out.

    • Hi, it’s quite possible you remember me from the days of the radfem forums, but unfortunately your name isn’t ringing any bells. Happy to see you, regardless!

      My position on performing religious music has softened since I wrote this post. I’ll perform anything anywhere, as long as I get to perform. (Still won’t do Our God is an Awesome God, mind you) Maybe if I didn’t have any outlet for singing other than church I’d go, but I’ve got plenty, so I don’t. My line in the sand now (after having made quite a bit of progress since the OP) is, there are a couple of high-ceremony churches in town that pay their choristers, but I’m not going to audition for those.

      • Different names for different places 😀 I think it must have been back then when you said you were going to refresh your blog but you didn’t spend much time on it. I read your croc comment, came across and never looked at the dates of the last posts 😀

        We all have to compromise. I’m debating whether or not to buy tickets for a concert in one of our cathedrals as I like the music, Faure’s requiem and something else. I do like religious music, it’s very good. I’m not sure about your line in the sand, why not take money from religion? 🙂

        • It’s not really about the money – I mean really, a different Bach motet every Sunday, just like the good old days in Leipzig? Who would need to be paid for that?

          What it’s really about is my unwillingness to appear to endorse, or appear to be be a member of a community of faith. And that’s the level of enticement I have to resist these days, Bach and money.

  10. violetwisp says:

    I’m not sure why I clicked follow. It was all looking good and then I see you haven’t posted since 2011??

  11. Scientific Songs of Praise says:

    We are rewriting loads of hymns as songs of science! Come check us out on Youtube 🙂

  12. Anglo-Choral Rationalist says:

    I share your anxiety. I am a male bass-baritone chorister in an excellent Anglican church choir, and have been for about 7 years now. My 13 year old daughter is a soprano. The music is excellent, and we both get to do the odd solo. We go on tours and have sung in some quite grand churches and cathedrals.
    I no longer believe in what we are singing about, or what is being said and preached in the services. At one cathedral service, quite a senior cleric read and gave a sermon on the Passover in Exodus 12, a text which manages to combine being historically unfounded with portraying god as a monster and lacking in omniscience (he needed the lambs’ blood to be daubed on doors to decide which babies to kill). At another service, our generally nice female vicar got the kids out to the front of the church and told them that the “evidence” for Jesus was the bible itself, etc. etc.

    One of my favourite 8 part motets is Gibbons “O Clap Your Hands”, whose beautiful polyphony is somewhat at odds with the words about heathens etc. from the psalm.

    So what to do? I love singing, the music itself is mostly great, and our musical director and organist are superb musicians. But we are very much ‘front of house’ and a major part of the weekly services. We process in and out, and troop forward to take communion before everyone else. I am occasionally required to do readings and intercessions,although I suppose I could quietly opt out of those. Being a true Brit, I don’t want to make a fuss or make some great dramatic gesture all about me (“I can no longer, in accordance with my conscience, perform this role..”). I could just keep singing and see it as equivalent to singing about Roman or Greek gods. I genuinely don’t want to upset the others or make them feel as if I regard them as being stupid and creduluous.
    I’ll let you know what I decide to do….

    • Thanks for sharing your experience!

    • Jacob R says:

      I have had similar thoughts. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what is going on in other people’s heads as you are singing Gibbons et al. If you’re singing one of Handel’s oratorios about old testament smiting and “thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel”, do you worry about what the audience are thinking? People attend services and concerts for all sorts of reasons. Religion has played a big role in the history of humanity and is still part of many people’s lives. Likewise music, and composers from Tallis to Tomkins composed for the church as that’s simply what composers did during those times. I don’t see any reason to avoid singing the evening canticles in beautiful buildings simply because a certain (small?!) proportion of the audience take the lyrics rather more literally than others. In fact in an Anglican Cathedral in these times I doubt many would have particularly different views on the old testament and psalms to those you have expressed above.

  13. Sue Parry says:

    I find I need to distinguish clearly between singing for performance (I do) and singing for worship (I don’t). When a member of my community chorus dies, his pastor asked if some of us would show up to the funeral and sing one of his favorite songs. We did. But the rest of the funeral was very evangelical Christian, and though I stayed in honor of my friend, I did not sing the hymns.

  14. Karen says:

    Hi, what are many atheists/feminists nasty people? I mean, how do they get to be so terrible?

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