Sometimes—regardless of inspiration, meaning, or intent—a good song is just a good song. Take a look at (and a listen to) our staff picks for songs that we still enjoy despite their religious references.
“O Holy Night”
performed by Mariah Carey (originally composed by Adolphe Adam)
Christmas is my favorite holiday—I’m the kind of person who puts up the tree before Thanksgiving. Though Christmas has essentially become secular in the United States, and there are plenty of non-Christian holiday songs, I find myself drawn to the beauty of religious carols. My favorite is “O Holy Night,” sung by none other than the most amazing songstress of all time, Mariah Carey. Do I balk at the “fall on your knees, O hear the angels’ voices” part?” Absolutely not—the lyrics are just too beautiful, the singing voice too powerful, to get caught up in the little details. Besides, I already listen to Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (a great secular song) way too much. I need to mix it up a little.
– Maggie Ardiente, TheHumanist.com Senior Editor
“The Sound of Sinners”
by The Clash
The Clash is one of my favorite all-time bands and without a doubt my favorite punk band. Fiercely political, The Clash experimented with multiple styles on their six studio albums. “The Sound of Sinners,” from the triple-album marvel Sandinista! (released in 1980), is their attempt at a gospel song and it’s about a sinner having a religious conversion. There may be a wee wink and a nod there (“After all these years/to believe in Jesus/After all those drugs/I thought I was him”), but at heart it’s a straight-up praise-Jesus tune. I still love it.
– Jennifer Bardi, TheHumanist.com Senior Editor
“Border Song (Holy Moses)”
performed by Aretha Franklin (original by Elton John)
When working in the AHA offices, I often find myself listening to the same, 60-song Aretha Franklin compilation album, Soul Queen—so much so that I’ve apparently started singing out loud to the lyrics that have been imprinted into my head.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized I was joyously singing the words “Holy Moses!” during Aretha Franklin’s cover of Elton John’s “Border Song.” Now imagine the surprise of my coworkers down the hall.
Still, I can’t help but find every part of this gospel ballad infectious and uplifting. Gospel and soul music is wonderful for work productivity—who knew?
– Peter Bjork, TheHumanist.com Managing Editor
“The House of the Rising Sun”
by The Animals
The song details the sinful nature of the singer and attempts to serve as a warning to children who might seek a similar life. While I don’t find gambling and drinking to be “sinful,” I think the imagery of the lyrics, combined with the Animals’ musical ability, makes for an enjoyable song.
– Matthew Bulger, AHA Legislative Associate
“Shall We Gather at the River”
performed by Burl Ives (composed by Robert Lowry)
I smile whenever I hear “Shall We Gather at the River?”, a 19th-century Christian hymn, merely because I find the tune of this old hymn enjoyable, like the melody of my other religious favorite, J.S. Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Regarding the words, they conjure in my mind images of ancient Romans in robes gathering at the mythic river Styx ready to pay Charon the ferryman to take them over to Pluto’s realm of the dead. I guess, for me, one myth is as good as another!
I’m not alone in this enjoyment. Composed by Baptist Minister Robert Lowry in 1864, it was one of filmmaker John Ford’s favorites. He uses a drunken version of it, like a parody of a temperance march, in an early sequence of Stagecoach (1939). And blacklisted freethinker Burl Ives recorded a version in 1965.
– Fred Edwords, United Coalition of Reason Director
written by William Blake (music by Sir Hubert Parry)
The name of my favorite religious song would have to be “Jerusalem,” the poem of William Blake that Sir Hubert Parry put to music.
The lyrics are:
And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green: And was the holy Lamb of God, On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine, Shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here, Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold; Bring me my Arrows of desire: Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold! Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight, Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand: Till we have built Jerusalem, In England’s green & pleasant Land.
During my nearly fifteen years living in the UK, this song became special to me because of my travels around England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—including the towns and villages of Britain’s literary giants like William Blake. The “dark satanic mills” could have spoken about social justice issues, or perhaps it is a warning about church/state non-separation, or perhaps Blake is making reference to a universal progression towards human ideals, with or without the use of religion.
Either way, the song also speaks of a bygone ideal in the UK—one that no longer exists. People have gone their own separate ways now and have lost sight of social justice: the “Kingdom of God (Jerusalem) on earth” has now become “everyone for themselves.” This song was used in the universal suffrage movement in England, long before it became a popular song on the Last Night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall or performed at the start of rugby matches or in royal weddings.
– Jason Heap, United Coalition of Reason Coordinator
performed by Rufus Wainwright (original by Leonard Cohen)
It’s a hauntingly beautiful song that I love to hear sung, and even though it’s full of biblical references, at its heart it’s just a song about a relationship.
– Cindy Le, AHA Member Services Assistant
“Spirit in the Sky”
performed by Doctor and the Medics (original by Norman Greenbaum)
One of my favorite religious ones is “Spirit in the Sky.” While originally by Norman Greenbaum in 1969, that was before my time—my preferred version is 1986 release by Doctor and the Medics.
While I didn’t know it at the time, I just liked the tune and found its cross between gospel and rock to be fun. I also like that I discovered that this very Christian sounding song was written by a Jew who, according to a blogger, thought, “The song was never intended to proselytize for Christianity (or indeed for Judaism or any other religious group), but was a send-up of what he perceived as naïveté on the part of religious people in general.”
– Roy Speckhardt, AHA Executive Director