If You Don’t Believe in God, Do You Believe in Rock’n’Roll?

Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia in 2013 (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Though atheism is sometimes criticized for not having musical traditions as the world’s religions do (an erroneous assumption that we have debunked), rock music has long been dismissed as godless or “the devil’s music.” Even today, Google searches that combine the terms “rock and roll” and “godless,” “demonic,” or “satanic” will yield results in which Christians are still debating whether listening to even Christian rock music is acceptable in their faith.

While humanists know that rock and roll isn’t evil, rock music does have a long association with countercultural movements, which is likely why it’s had such a tenuous relationship with the white, Christian establishment. Many rock musicians have unabashedly criticized conformity, and those critiques often include mocking religion, whether through thoughtful ballads like John Lennon’s “Imagine” or through outlandish statements like Marilyn Manson’s claim that he is “bigger than Satan.” Even some Christian singers don’t necessarily shy away from profaning their faith in their music, as evidenced by Catholic Lady Gaga’s rock-inspired-pop song “Judas,” in which the singer expresses a fascination with the disciple who betrayed Christ. Conversely, Alice Cooper’s shock rock persona seems to contradict fairly traditional religious beliefs.

Perhaps because of its ethos of rebellion and knack for tackling taboo topics, rock music also attracts atheist performers  Notable nontheistic rock musicians include the American Humanist Association’s 2014 Humanist Arts Awardee Greg Graffin, the Beatles’ John Lennon, Ani DiFranco, Rush’s Geddy Lee, the Cure’s Robert Smith, and Frank Zappa, among many others. Some of these atheist rockers have been recognized for their contributions to music and cultural significance with their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The 2017 nominees for induction into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were announced last week. Of the nineteen nominees, five will be inducted, and one could very well be the band Pearl Jam, whose frontman Eddie Vedder is an outspoken atheist. For example, he once remarked to a concert crowd about the weather: “I would thank God, but I don’t believe in it.” And in a 1991 Rolling Stone interview Vedder said:

When you’re out in the desert, you can’t believe the amount of stars. We’ve sent mechanisms out there, and they haven’t found anything. They’ve found different colors of sand, and rings, and gases, but nobody’s shown me anything that makes me feel secure in what happens afterward. All I really believe in is this moment, like right now.

This is the first time Pearl Jam has been nominated, and fans’ votes are included in the process for selecting the nominees. (Anyone who is interested can vote here.) Unfortunately, fans will have to wait until December to find out which of the nominees will be inducted, but with so few famous, open atheists in our pop culture, it would be exciting to see Vedder join the other godless atheists in the “rock god” pantheon.

While many rock enthusiasts celebrate the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame it’s also a symbol of establishment that clashes with rock’s counterculture roots. Canonization of any art form, whether rock music or literature, is problematic because it often upholds and promotes a status quo that caters to the tastes of white, upper-class men while ignoring the contributions of people of color, working class people, and women. Like it or not, while rock continues to push boundaries in an attempt to be edgy, it’s also become a fundamental part of American culture, no matter what a few fringe, conservative Christian groups believe. Rock and roll is dead; long live rock and roll!