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 LA Weekly 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 became 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 in 2011?

Amanda MacLean: It was 2011 and I was a choir member at Santiago Canyon College. I did not like 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. Sure enough I received a response from Bobbie Kirkhardt, one of the founding members of Voices of Reason, who explained the group was defunct.  She suggested that I reach out to Yari Schutzer, a previous member of the group, and encouraged us to form a new atheist choir. I reached out to Yari and he was just as interested and invested as I was in forming a new, thriving atheist choir. Thus, Voices of Reason was born 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: Right before Voices of Reason, I was a choir member at Santiago Canyon College. Despite the choir being a part of a public community college, we still sang religious music around the holidays and it was hurting my soul. Unfortunately, choral music is very connected to the church. In other words, it is the nature of the choral beast. I still wanted to sing choral and a cappella music but without any dogma or religious talk. I knew that an atheist choir would be the best fit. 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 have 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 to the group and we as a group decide what we want to sing. Since the beginning, Yari Schutzer has arranged the majority of music. I want the group to do a rendition of songs from Free to Be… You and Me and “This Land Is Your Land.” I am working on it now but it is taking me a long time. 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 Freethought Alliance Conference. A couple months ago we partnered with another local choir and performed at the 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 are happy with that number, but we are always looking to grow. Within the past couple of months, Katie Sharp has become our conductor! 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. Voices of Reason wants 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 to learn about the “getting started” process and how to garner support. We have communicated with them on several occasions and shared our music arrangements with them. Do you know of any other atheist or humanist choir groups that exist?

MacLean: Unfortunately, I do not. It bewilders me and it makes no sense. The only ones that I am aware of are outside of the United States. The UK Humanists have a thriving humanist choir called the London Humanist Choir and they are phenomenal. They have around 150 members (a number I could only dream about). We communicate with them quite regularly and both groups have shared music and arrangements with one another. The other group that I know of is Atheist Choir Sydney is Sydney, Australia.

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.