Music for Humanists: Connecting with Art That Reflects Your Values

By Ellie Haylund

No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious & charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.

― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

How much does music orchestrate your life? Do you create it? Do you attentively listen to it to self-reflect and work through emotions? Is it your soundtrack to otherwise uninteresting tasks? Music plays a role in most people’s lives – an often significant one. The musician you listened to with your dad in the car as a child, the song playing as you walked down the aisle, the album that changed how you look at the world.

Heavy instrumentation with strained vocals can be cathartic. Powerful, emotional singing can give you goosebumps. A quick tempo emphasizing electronics over singing can instill joy and an ideal backdrop for dancing. And for some, the content and themes are of the utmost importance.

Christian music is ubiquitous. It has its own radio stations and takes many forms – traditional, contemporary, and even of the punk and metal persuasions. Many of us have seen videos from evangelical services with a rock band on stage celebrating their faith, complete with visceral crowd reactions, singalongs, and tears. But for nonreligious music fans, do we have some equivalent that highlights (or underscores) our lack of belief? Sure, it’s safe to say that most music is secular, but what about music that speaks specifically from an atheist, agnostic, or humanist perspective?

Last year, I began a series on our Instagram account called “Humanist Song of the Week” (follow us there if you don’t already!). I keep it broad – songs with themes surrounding leaving religion, grappling with the unknown as well as touching on humanist values like equal rights and climate change. It’s been quite an investigative journey and although a bit challenging, it’s been illuminating how much relevant music there is and how much people clearly want to create and to hear these stories.

Baby, baby, baby, you learn so fast
You seem to carry a special gift
Maybe you’ve been given to this world to make a difference
Such delusions we all struggle with
But the beautiful truth of it is
This is all we are, we simply exist
You’re not the chosen one, I’m not the chosen one
But we don’t need anyone
Let’s not choose anyone
“Opening the Hymnal / Babies” ― Cursive

Indie rock band Cursive’s 2006 album “Happy Hollow” explores religious fundamentalism in a suburban town. Across the 14 songs referred to as “hymns for the heathen,” there are mentions of the Big Bang, abortion, and homosexuality. It’s a concept album in that it has a central narrative woven throughout, making it compelling to listen to beginning to end. Its critical nature doesn’t make for easy listening, but instead delivers a complex and incisive story.

It’s time to put god away
I put god away
This is the end of faith
No more must I strive
To find my peace
To find my peace in a lie
“Faith/Void” ― Bill Callahan

Prolific singer-songwriter Bill Callahan’s song “Faith/Void” closes out his 2009 album “Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle.” The above quote is actually a departure from the poetic symbolism typically found in his music – no need to interpret what he’s telling us here. I admire artists who, in the face of stigma, put these thoughts and experiences out into the world.

Indeed, some songs that challenge the typical religious narrative do achieve mainstream success, with or without backlash. John Lennon’s “Imagine” is a sneakily subversive humanist anthem. “Dear God” by XTC criticizes a neglectful god. Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” was written out of frustration with the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church.

I’m often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of music in the world. As with books, it’s a bittersweet feeling that one will never be able to experience it all, regardless of voracious exploration and consumption. I don’t exclusively need music to depict my personal experiences and beliefs. But there is something remarkable about connecting with art that closely aligns with you. 

It may not give us a holy experience, but it can certainly help us feel that we’re not alone.

Share your song ideas for us to feature on Instagram in the comments below! And check out this Humanist Song of the Week Spotify Playlist.

Ellie Haylund is president of HumanistsMN.

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1 comments

    • Paul Heffron on March 7, 2024 at 3:49 pm
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    I was the keyboard player of our Freethought Band that played for 14 years for social events of our humanist and atheist community. I did some of the vocals and composed some of the songs and parodies we did. Jerry Rauser was our leader and played guitar. We did a CD of our music and gave away copies to our people. I still have five copies left. We had a project of promoting freethought and humanist music to groups in North America to promote their having music in their groups. We sent them all our CD at our expense. You can get the lowdown on our group and our project at FreethoughtMusic.com. You can hear some of our recordings there. Contact me if you want to learn more about this. Paul Heffron, paul-peg-heffron@comcost.net

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