In 2010 actor and comedian Steve Martin performed his satirical “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” with the Steep Canyon Rangers at music festivals. It became a YouTube hit after audience members used their smart phones to capture the performances and became popular enough for late night host David Letterman to invite them to perform the hilarious tune.
Although the song is tongue-in-cheek, there does exist a real gap in the way music is categorized that can lend itself to the idea that there really are no songs for atheists. As Steve Martin noted, many music genres exist for “religious” music, including gospel, Christian, chants, devotional, and hymns, to name just a few, but there is no standard category of atheist music in regular use. Apple’s iTunes doesn’t have it. Neither does Amazon or Pandora. A music search can be done for the word atheist and some results can be found—if the word is in the title or description of a particular song or CD. However, not only would that leave out songs with descriptions that use other godless terms, that method of searching will also leave a lot behind due to inaccurate and incomplete information being searched.
Even though music with a specific atheist/skeptic message can be tough to find by using standard music categories, there is plenty of it out there in every genre you can imagine. The songs listed below represent a small fraction of what’s available—they are not meant to be taken as being better or worse than the incredible list of additional music not included. (Some of these songs have adult language.)
Many acoustic artists find inspiration in proclaiming atheist themes in music. They include “What If No One’s Watching” from Ani DiFranco; the comedic, story-telling Roy Zimmerman with songs like “Creation Science 101” and “Defenders of Marriage”; Holly Near says “I Ain’t Afraid” of anyone’s god; Shelley Segal, who performed at the AHA’s 2012 annual conference in New Orleans, tells us she doesn’t need to be “Saved”; being a nonbeliever, Cynthia Carle lives a different “Sunday in Reality”; Jenny Lewis teamed up with The Watson Twins to tell us we’re “Born Secular”; Eddie Scott says it’s a drag to be “The Skeptic in the Room”; the Gypsy punk bank Gogol Bordello says they don’t trust disciples in “Supertheory of Supereverything”; and John Lennon’s “Imagine” has become a timeless classic.
Jill Sobule used her beautiful voice and musical skill to write and perform the theme song to Julia Sweeney’s “Letting God of God”; two Swedish sisters known as First Aid Kit harmonize beautifully in “Hard Believer”; Jim Corbett proudly declares “I Am a Humanist”; Roy Bailey’s lullaby tells children they can achieve wonderful things with “Everything Possible”; it’s preferable to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” according to Monty Python; Randy Newman sings a nonbeliever’s “God’s Song”; and Tim Minchin has become s an atheist icon with songs like “Confessions” and “White Wine in the Sun.”
For those who like hard rock/metal, your choices include Motörhead, with tunes like “I Don’t Believe A Word” and “No Voices in the Sky”; A Perfect Circle’s “Judith”; NOFX with “Best God In Show,” “Blasphemy,” and “Leaving Jesusland”; Words Such as Burn with “Flow,” Nevermore with “Believe in Nothing”; Bad Religion’s “Epiphany” is just one of their many offerings; “The Bible is Bullshit” by Corporate Avenger is not specifically atheistic but is certainly not happy with religion; Marilyn Manson says he’s “not a slave to a God that doesn’t exist” in “The Fight Song”; Australia’s Kisschasy produced a CD in 2007 titled Hymns for the Nonbeliever where they told us “My Bible is a Scrapbook”; and (at least) three songs titled “Godless” from The Garden of Delight, U.P.O., and the The Dandy Warhols.
For more alternative tunes, Steely Dan offers up “Godwacker”; Everclear gets to the point with “Why I Don’t Believe in God”; “Losing My Religion” is now a classic from R.E.M.; “Rise Up! Rise Up!” by Cursive questions divinity; Modest Mouse’s relevant offerings include “Third Planet”; “Spreading the Disease” is how Queensryche sees religion; the ‘80s Icelandic band the Sugarcubes had little good to say about “Deus”; it’s subtle, but offerings from The Flamming Lips like “Do You Realize” are usually seen as nontheistic; and “Hayling” by FC Kahuna advises us to “just be glad to be here”; and “I Never Asked to be God” says Speed Orange.
Other rock tunes include Rush’s “Faithless” from 2007 and their classic 1980 hit “Freewill”; “There Is No God” according to folk rocker Bonnie “Prince” Billy; Bryan Steeksma’s “Listen to Reason” got some traction after being used as the opening theme song for The Atheist Experience TV program.
Hip Hop artists are also expressing their feelings about being nonbelievers. Perhaps the most famous is Greydon Square, who has given us tunes like “Myth,” “The Dream (Atheist Rap)” and “Squared”; Baba Brinkman, who gave a TED talk, raps about evolution with tunes like “Sexual Selection” and “Darwin’s Acid”; and Reason Rally performer Tombstone Da Deadman sees religion as “Poison” and declares he won’t be “Controlled.”
They Might Be Giants has been making music for 30 years and in 2009 produced a science DVD for kids that included “I am a Paleontologist” and “Science is Real”; the band Quiet Company was recently featured in Humanist magazine for their repertoire of songs with humanist themes, including “Set Your Monster Free” and “The Confessor”; opera singer Markella Hatziano uses her phenomenal classical music talents to sing godless songs like “The Magic of Reality” and “The Odyssey (If I Were God).”
The songs listed above don’t even come close to covering everything but we should also mention ”In the Name of God” and “Love Is My Religion” by Ziggy Marley, reggae offerings loved by many; “No Answer (Atheist Song),” a musical story told with piano accompaniment by Richard Oakley; the punk/funk “Shallow Be They Name” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers; and satirist and pianist Tom Lehrer comically sings “The Vatican Rag.”
There is new music coming out all the time as well. A 2011 CD by Divided Heaven, the name of a solo project by singer-songwriter Jeff Berman, includes “Born-Again Non-Believer,” a smile-inducing, uplifting, and catchy acoustic tune that’s easy to love; Tonight We Strike,
a rock/punk/alternative band from New Jersey, sings “Inglorious” with meaning, wondering why war is seen as glorious. While the song is not explicitly nontheist, guitarist Donnie Switchblade (also known as Don Yonker) is a passionate atheist.
It could also be argued that any music without a specifically religious message could be considered atheistic—or at least secular. Songs like Paolo Nutini’s “New Shoes” and “Smile” from Vitamin C and Lady Saw would certainly fit in this regard, as would “Stay” from Lisa Loeb. A plethora of other love songs and instrumentals can certainly be seen as secular as well. The website SymphonyOfScience.com has done a wonderful job creating music videos that include the voices of famous scientists along with beautiful images.
Donnie Switchblade, Tonight We Strike guitarist and the band’s main lyricist, mentioned the idea of how to label godless music in an email to HNN. “Any non-religious music could rightly be called secular. Songs about ‘California Girls’ and ‘Love in an Elevator,’ while secular, don’t present the listener with ideas about freethought, our place in the universe or anything we find important. Humanists certainly describes our overarching ethos and we encourage people to think for themselves…,” he wrote, adding that listeners “…won’t find many lines in our songs where we purport to have answers or tell people what to think. We have a lot more questions in our songs than answers. We hope that simply asking questions about God and religion gets people to apply logic and reason to their religious beliefs and ultimately arrive at atheism.”
Donnie added that he would like to see a lot more atheist music being produced. Some songs by Propagandhi, The Subhumans, Dead Kennedys and NOFX, for example, are atheistic, he points out, but until more bands are open about their outlook, it makes it tougher for those who are. “We’d like to develop musical and personal relationships with other like-minded bands but have yet to find them,” Donnie wrote.” I think having songs about these topics also makes labels hesitant to seek us out.”
Berman says the name he’s chosen, Divided Heaven, has been a bit of a help—in some cases. “I enjoy the juxtaposition of branding myself with the word ‘heaven’ while not having any religious connection. It does throw folks off a bit when I am booking shows,” Berman wrote to HNN. “Certain promoters are attracted to me because they think I am religious, while certain promoters are turned off to me because they read my name and think I am religious.”
Despite some issues, Berman is openly atheist. “I consider my music to be atheist, just as I consider myself to be atheist,” he wrote.
So there are plenty of choices out there when it comes to nonbeliever music—even Steve Martin would have to agree—but it can take a little work to find it. However, it would be a wonderful catalyst for the artists who do put themselves out there if they could get some additional open support from fans in order for the industry to be more supportive of what’s being offered. Music fans can certainly play a key role in getting more of these artists recognized and, therefore, making all of them easier to find.
If you’d like to support freethought music, Tonight We Strike has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their next EP. To learn more, click here. And please feel free to share your thoughts and your favorite godless tunes/artists in the comments below!
Brian Magee is the American Humanist Association’s communications associate.