Segment 16 – Atheist Choral Music

“We are One” may look like a Buddhist idea, but it’s also proudly proclaimed by an atheist classical composer named Kenley Kristofferson. Hear us chat about him and atheist choral music more generally:

The two tracks were ‘Cosmos‘ (Movement 3) and ‘We Are Stars‘. [We also played Steve Martin’s hilarious track ‘Atheists Don’t Have No Songs‘ before we began.]

So all this began in recent years, with atheists gathering on online forums and finding that a large number of them enjoyed listening and singing choral music. But as the Melbourne Atheists have said, “If you want to sing in a choir, but don’t like religious songs, what choice do you have? Not much.” Some choral atheists would even join church choirs, just looking for opportunities to sing, belting out Handel’s Messiah without believing a word of it. For many this involved a bit of an internal struggle. They loved the music, but disagreed with the content. Especially being asked to sing in church, even leading the congregation, put many in difficult and uncomfortable situations.

Some manage to rationalise their way out of any discomfort, for example by reimagining the specific religious tales into general commentary on human experience – the Jesus story is not about salvation for these choral atheists, but about noble self-sacrifice. One evangelical commentator online claims that such choral atheists are among the most ‘hardened’ to the gospel out there.

Another way to avoid the internal conflict is to adapt the traditional hymns to express ‘atheist’ messages instead. It is here that we see a bit of the angry anti-theism that has unfortunately come to be equated with atheism in the last ten years. The Melbourne Atheist Choir had small contingents singing in the foyer at the 2010 and 2012 Global Atheist Conventions in Melbourne, with lyrics such as, “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, / All things live and natural, evolution made them all.”

But tongue-in-cheek parody isn’t enough for some people. There is a general push in the atheist movement towards positive values, with less of an emphasis on the negative, anti-religion stuff. Thus some choristers want to be able to express these deeply-held positive principles and values through music. They want to be overwhelmed by emotion when they sing, to imbue their performances with the passion that religious singers can. Enter composers like Kenley Kristofferson. He writes choral pieces that engage emotions that can be hard to find in the rationalist atheist worldview: awe and wonder.

But of course, these emotions aren’t that hard to generate. The more we learn about the natural world – from the minuscule depths of microbiology, to the simple grandeur of a mountain range, to the inconceivable vastness of the universe – the easier it is to be humbled and utterly compelled by the beauty of the world around us. A quote from atheist astronomer Lawrence Krauss gets us closer to this sense of the numinous:

The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution – weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.

Krauss is drawing here on the imagery of Carl Sagan (1934-96), who is also the primary inspiration for Kenley Kristofferson’s music. Sagan – astronomer and science populariser, famous for works such as Cosmos and The Pale Blue Dot – had a knack for reworking the language of science in such a way that it could inspire beauty and awe. One such quote was, “We are star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” He even went so far as to suggest that “a religion … that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

Kristofferson writes, “Carl Sagan has taught me how beautiful science and the universe can be, and that understanding something enriches the experience, but doesn’t take away from the mystery that draws us to the big questions of life.” He transforms those feelings of reverence and mystery into quite inspirational choral arrangements, which are based on quotes from Sagan, such as “the cosmos is also within us” and “somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

Next week we go in the opposite direction entirely: from atheist to Christian, and from choral to 8-bit chiptune. It’s going to be epic.