Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers: Atheists Don’t Have No Songs
I can’t pinpoint when I became an atheist. Actually, to be more accurate, I can’t pinpoint a time in my life that I specifically believed in the existence of a god, or when I specifically identified as an atheist. I was raised in the Reform Jewish tradition, went to Hebrew School, was bar mitzvahed, and went to temple, grudgingly, on the High Holidays. But I don’t recall ever really thinking about whether or not I believed that there was some sort of all powerful being out there. And at a certain point, I decided that I didn’t. My wife, luckily, is pretty much of the same mind. So, although she was raised in a Protestant tradition, I guess in some ways I did marry in the same non-faith. We taught our kids about our family traditions, which included family gatherings for both Jewish and Christian holidays, mostly without any overt religious content, the same way as we taught them about other family traditions—the sports teams we root for, going to college reunions, seeing live music, etc. And we told them honestly that we didn’t believe in god, but that they were certainly allowed to do so if they wanted. They don’t.
I’ve been heartened over the years by studies that show that atheists are overall as moral than religious believers, that atheist children are more generous and kind than religious kids, and that rejection of organized religion is increasing among young Americans. Despite that, I’m disheartened by the hatred that religious people, at least in the US, have for us nonbelievers in their particular superstition, such as the polls that show that many Americans would not consider voting for an atheist for President. Although in a recent Gallup poll 58% of US adults said that they would consider doing so, that number was less than the percentage that would consider voting for a Muslim, and only greater than the percentage of people who would vote for a Socialist (which makes the Bernie Sanders candidacy seem somewhat quixotic). And other, worse junk on the Internet, that I won’t link to. That shouldn’t be too surprising considering the disdain that religious believers have always had for people who believe in different superstitions. We see it in a big way now with the knee-jerk anti-Muslim rhetoric that passes for political discourse, mostly on the right these days, as well as in the legal attempts to impose religious beliefs of one sect on people who don’t believe the same way. These people would be likely the first to complain if they were required to follow the teachings of some other religion.
We still live in a culture that assumes that a person has a religious affiliation and belief. Which is why even though I live in a community that a recent study calculated was 13% Jewish, most people lately have wished me a Merry Christmas. Now, I happen to celebrate Christmas, and have done so for 30 years as part of my wife’s family’s traditions, which I have adopted and adapted, as my family also celebrates a secular Hanukkah. In fact, apparently, 87% of non-theists in the US celebrate some form of Christmas. So when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, I thus assume that they are Christian, and wish them a Merry Christmas back. Because I’m wishing them a happy celebration of their holiday, not imposing my personal beliefs on them. But when I am the first to proffer holiday greetings, I almost always say “happy holidays” or “have a great holiday,” since I can’t assume that they celebrate any particular seasonal holiday, or none at all. To me, that’s just politeness and consideration, not any sort of war on Christmas. Because as an atheist, I think that people should be allowed to believe whatever they want, even if I think it is a silly belief, as long as it doesn’t impose on my life.
One of the basic premises of this theme is that there is far less good holiday music for non-Christians than for Christmas. And songs that specifically are atheist provide even slimmer pickings, although some would take issue with that assessment. Steve Martin, who became a phenomenon as an unusual standup comedian, but has also become known for his acting, writing, playwriting and more recently, songwriting and banjo playing, addressed this issue directly, with the very funny featured song, “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” which he wrote and has performed and recorded with the Steep Canyon Rangers. I’ve given you the video of their performance of the song on Letterman, because watching Martin’s face is worth it.
As Martin sings:
Atheists don’t have no songs.
Christians have their hymns and pages,
Hava Nagila’s for the Jews,
Baptists have the rock of ages,
Atheists just sing the blues.
Now that Christmas is over, though, we can all agree that it will soon be time to wish everyone a Happy New Year. Unless, of course, you follow the Jewish calendar. Or the Hindu calendar. Or the Julian calendar. Or the Buddhist calendar. Or....oh forget it. Just be healthy and happy, and treat other people fairly. Because pretty much every religion, culture and ethical group, from the ancient Egyptians to modern humanists, all advocate some version of the “Golden Rule”—that you should treat others as you would like others to treat you. As Hillel supposedly said, “the rest is explanation.”