Humanist Anthems for Your iPod Playlist

From John Lennon to Billy Joel to NOFX, Erin Williamson selects the top ten songs that best convey humanism and nonbelief.

by Erin Williamson

In keeping with an HNN favorite subtopic of humanism in pop culture, I decided to examine how humanism is reflected in one of my favorite mediums (if not my favorite): music. Words and a tune combined somehow have managed to engage our heads and hearts nearly since the dawn of humanity, and the expression of emotion through song is extraordinarily powerful. Having grown up in the 90’s, I was tempted to call this a mix CD of humanist anthems, but it’s 2011, so instead it will be an iPod playlist of the Top Ten songs that represent the tenets of humanism best. Of course there are uncountable musical messages, and feel free to add them in the comments. These were staff favorites, some more well-known than others, some more obvious than others (in fact I think #5 was a driving factor in my own humanist outlook), so give them all a listen!

1. “Imagine” by John Lennon: This playlist couldn’t start with any other song. Perhaps one of the most iconic musicians of all time called for us to “Imagine there’s no Heaven /It’s easy if you try /No hell below us /Above us only sky /Imagine all the people /Living for today.” If that isn’t the most humanistic mantra, to do good without supernatural repercussions or rewards, I don’t know what is.

2. “White Wine in the Sun” by Tim Minchin: This sentimental tune may be about the joys of Christmas, but Minchin waxes sentimental about the holiday not for its religious meaning, but rather for the forum it provides for enjoying family, togetherness, and relaxation. Notable lyrics include “I am hardly religious/I’d rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu, to be honest” and “And yes I have all of the usual objections/To the miseducation of children who, in tax-exempt institutions/Are taught to externalize blame/And to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right and wrong.” Warning: the full set of lyrics is tear-wrenching, particularly if you’re a recent transplant to somewhere far away from your family.

3. “Dear God” by XTC: More on the atheist end of the spectrum is this song about the evil in the world done in the name of God. The lyrics address “God” directly, accusatory of disease, misfortune, and war. However, a close listen to lyrics such as “Did you make Mankind after we made you?” and “The hurt I see helps to compound that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is just somebody’s unholy hoax” pretty clearly assign humanity the responsibility of proliferating hardship in the name of God.

4. “Operation Spirit” by Live: For a “grunge-esque” band from the 90’s, Live still manages to be relevant today, even if their sound is vintage to our ears in 2011. Timeless lyrics like “He could have been telling me about my higher self/But he only lives inside my prayer/So what he was may have been beautiful/But the pain is right now/And right here” referring to Jesus echoes the disillusionment many people have with a higher purpose.

5. “I Am Mine” by Pearl Jam: I knew I liked the message of this song before I knew what humanism was or that I was a humanist. One of my all-time favorite bands, Pearl Jam has managed to stick with me, with Eddie Vedder wailing gems like “I know I was born and I know that I’ll die/The in between is mine/I am mine.” This speaks volumes to the listener about having control and autonomy over one’s own life and valuing every minute spent in the only life we have.

6. “Only the Good Die Young” by Billy Joel: Filled with religious metaphors, this song pretty staunchly reiterates that religious beliefs prevent one from truly living life to the full extent and the “good” (read: Christian) “die” (read: dedicate themselves to something beyond life itself) young. But “They showed you a statue, told you to pray/They built you a temple and locked you away/Aw, but they never told you the price that you pay/For things that you might have done” and (one of my favorite lines of all time) “They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait/Some say it’s better but I say it ain’t/I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/the sinners are much more fun” seem to support that interpretation pretty strongly.

7. “Belief” by John Mayer: This song is another protest against what the establishment of a belief (presumably in the supernatural) can contribute to humanity. Essentially, in the words of Mayer, belief is “What puts a hundred thousand children in the sand” and “What puts the folded flag inside his mother’s hand.” Regardless of what one believes in, strict adherence to dogma will weigh you down with “the heaviest sword.

8. “The Stars are Projectors” by Modest Mouse: A band well-known for their often heartbreaking evaluations of the human condition, Modest Mouse sets this song at the moment right before death, with a reminder that our lives are mere specks in the universe. They lament that “everyone wants a double feature” (presumably an afterlife?), and end with some of the most humanistic words that I’ve heard sung by a popular band: “God is a woman and the woman is /An animal that animal’s man, and that’s you/Was there a need for creation? /That was hidden in a math equation /And that’s this?/Where do circles begin?”

9. “What You Are” by Dave Matthews Band: One of the ultimate jam-bands, DMB put forth this song about the importance of individualism, leading a fulfilling life, and personal growth. Challenging listeners to “Live life say why/Don’t you know if you live life/Then you become what you are,” Matthews candidly discuss individual development and adds that religious beliefs won’t fulfill the desire for self-actualization: “Hoping to God on high/Is like clinging to straws/While drowning.”

10. “Best God in Show” by NOFX: Frontman “Fat Mike” Burkett is one of the most outspoken atheist musicians of the last 20 years. “Best God in Show” is a punk rant covering just about every aspect of the Religious Right that there is. From proselytizing, to denying science, creationism, and voluntary ceding of free will, the entirety of the lyrics are post-worthy here. A sample: “I find it’s getting painful to put up/With grown adults who actually believe/In Unicorns and Creation, and god always takes their side.” 

What are your favorite humanist songs? Think another song is more deserving of a Top Ten spot? Add your comments below!

Erin Williamson is the development and communications assistant for the American Humanist Association and administrator for the Institute for Humanist Studies.