The Humanist Dilemma: Singing Not Necessarily Believing

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Sing-Along: My daughter likes to sing, and her friend asked if she wanted to join the choir at the church she and her family attend. Our family is not at all religious, and my daughter is worried there will be too much “God talk.” At the same time, she really likes to sing choral music. What do you advise?

—Not Preaching to the Choir

Dear Not Preaching,

As a life-long chorister myself, I’ve sung in schools, churches, and synagogues, in languages I don’t speak or understand, and in all kinds of styles, regardless of whether I particularly like them. But what I always do like is the experience of singing harmonies with a certain degree of musical standards and community enthusiasm.

My question for you is whether this particular church choir is the best available option for your daughter. It very well may be. But have you looked around for secular singing groups in your area, such as choruses in her school (assuming it’s nonreligious) or outside, whether they’re specifically for her age group or open to all? Do you know anything about the choir at her friend’s church versus those associated with other religious organizations near you? Church music can vary wildly. Some church choirs are really phenomenal, and church music can range from traditional and classical to folk, pop/rock, gospel/spiritual, jazz, or new age, with various instrumental accompaniments beyond organs and guitars. But some religious choirs can be absolutely stultifying, plodding along with dreary hymns and no artistry whatsoever. (I had a conductor whose most withering criticism was, “You sound like old ladies in a church choir.”)

It might be a good idea to explore the different options available to your daughter. Many people who enjoy choral singing participate in more than one group at a time or hop from one to another over time. Your daughter might want to sample a variety of organizations (many allow prospective members to sit in on rehearsals) and see which are the best fit for her. For the New York metropolitan area, there’s a website called Vocal Area Network, where you can plug in variables such as what days of the week you’re available to rehearse and what neighborhoods you prefer. The site will list all the groups that match your criteria and provide details on each group’s requirements (e.g., auditions, experience, sight-reading). Perhaps there’s something like that where you live.

If there are no better options, the friend’s choir might be a very enjoyable experience, especially if the friend would be singing with her. Be sure to check whether the group accepts singers who are not members of the church or the religion. If she is welcome despite her non-belief, there’s no harm in giving it a try. And if it does turn out there’s too much “God talk” for her (there likely will be God talk, the question is how much—and how much she can tolerate) or she just doesn’t like it for whatever reason, she can quit. Bear in mind, singing in church choirs typically requires attendance on Sunday mornings, when many kids would prefer to be sleeping in, and there may also be rehearsals that can cut into time available for homework or other extracurricular activities.

Encourage your daughter to pursue her interest in choral singing, wherever it may take her, and even if she has to try a few groups before she finds one she likes. It’s an avocation that can provide incredible rewards from childhood to old age, for both the singers and their audiences.

And check out this Friendly Atheist article for a great discussion of atheists enjoying religious trappings, including and beyond music.