Reason through Song: LA’s Atheist Choir Harmonizes without Religion

Several times a day, I type the keywords “atheist,” “secular,” and “humanist” into Google News in hopes of finding a news story that pertains to local secular groups, humanist celebrations, or simply an article that piques my interest. Last week my search brought me to an article entitled “LA’s Only Atheist Choir Questions Organized Religion through Song.” Being both a music enthusiast and one who enjoys questioning organized religion, I was immediately intrigued about “LA’s Only Atheist Choir,” Voices of Reason.

After reading the article I was left with several unanswered questions: Do other atheist choirs exist in the United States? What new songs does Voices of Reason have in the pipeline? To learn more about Voices of Reason and the future of atheist choirs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amanda MacLean, one of the founding members of the group. To be honest, I did not even know that atheist choir groups even existed. Did they exist before you helped form Voices of Reason?

Amanda MacLean: It was 2011, and I was a choir member with the Orange County Master Chorale . I wasn’t happy with my choir because they sang too many religious songs. I decided to do a Google search of “atheist choir groups in LA” and assumed that several groups would pop up because LA is a pretty progressive, nonreligious town. Unfortunately, I was wrong. My search led me to a defunct page for a group called Voices of Reason. While the group no longer existed, I discovered their connection to Atheists United, an atheist community in Southern California, and reached out to them. I received a response from Bobbie Kirkhart, one of the founding members of Voices of Reason, who suggested I contact Yari Schutzer, a previous member of the group, and encouraged us to form a new atheist choir. Yari was just as interested and invested as I was in forming a new, thriving atheist choir. Thus, Voices of Reason was reborn in 2011 and the rest is history. Why did you feel the need to join an a cappella or choir group that was specifically atheist in nature? Why not join another choir group that sings secular songs?

MacLean: Before Voices of Reason, I was also a choir member at Santiago Canyon College. Despite the choir being a part of a public community college, we still sang religious music and it was hurting my soul. Unfortunately, choral music is very connected to the church. In other words, it’s the nature of the choral beast. I still wanted to sing in a choir but I wanted to sing secular music exclusively. I figured the only way to make sure that happened would be in an atheist choir. Your Meetup page says Voices of Reason sings a cappella and choral music with a secular/atheist/humanist twist. Can you give me some examples of songs you’ve sung in the past and any future compositions? How do you decide what songs to sing?

MacLean: Our biggest hits have been G.F. Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” reworded as the “Evolution Chorus,” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and “Every Sperm is Sacred” from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. The members of Voices of Reason present their ideas and we as a group decide what we want to sing. Since the beginning, Yari Schutzer has arranged the majority of music. I am currently working on a medley of “Free to Be…You and Me” and “This Land is Your Land.” Your performances typically cater to nonreligious audiences. Where does Voices of Reason normally perform?

MacLean: We normally perform before local atheist and humanist group events and meetings. Earlier this year, we performed several songs before Lawrence Krauss delivered a talk at a Center for Inquiry (CFI) event in LA. We perform regularly at Atheist United events. We were invited to sing at both the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s annual conference and the Freethought Alliance Conference. In 2013 we partnered with another local choir and performed at a public library. Being that it was an open event, this was a great way to increase our visibility. How many members are in Voices of Reason? Do you want to increase the visibility of your group?

MacLean: We currently have between twelve and fourteen members. We’re happy with that number, but we’re always looking to grow. We absolutely want to increase the visibility of our group and perform more often for the greater public. Many members have interest in performing at nursing homes or schools in our area and this is something that I really want to see happen. We in Voices of Reason want to be ambassadors for the atheist and secular community and dispel the false rumors about our community. Have other humanist and/or atheist groups contacted you looking for advice about how to form a group like Voices of Reason in their community?

MacLean: Yes! Several months ago, a humanist group in San Diego contacted us and expressed interest in forming a humanist choir. They wanted advice on how to get their own group started. Do you know of any other atheist or humanist choir groups that exist?

MacLean: The only one that I am aware of is outside of the United States. The UK Humanists have a thriving humanist choir called the London Humanist Choir; they are phenomenal and have around 150 members. We communicate with them quite regularly and share arrangements.

Voices of Reason will perform at Sunday Assembly LA’s Yule Rock on December 16 from 7-10pm. You can find information about Voices of Reason on their website and Meetup page.