Saturday, December 26, 2015

Non-Christmas Holiday Songs: Atheists Don’t Have No Songs

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.”

Monday, December 21, 2015

non-christmas holiday songs: Middle Eastern

First off .. let's agree that what we celebrate as Christmas is a melange, to say the least. It is a mix of traditions that include northern European forest/druidic rites and Middle Eastern Judaic acceptances. Further, as a result of dialog/agreement among church elders thousands of years ago (for example, the Nicene Creed), certain adjustments were made to established dogma: "we agree that [the birth of Jesus] happened this way..."

So, the first Christmas ...babe in the manger, wise men from the East (or did they come from the West? How well do you know your geography and astronomy?)The choice of December 25th was established at a time before the Gregorian calendar that most of the world accepts today. You do know that the year is currently not 2015, but 1437 for Islam? And that the Gregorian calendar that most Westerners accept was only adopted about 400 years ago?

I was lucky to grow up the child of missionaries in the Middle East. My parents daily faced deportation (or worse) for the crime of proselytization. That is the crime of trying to convince someone that your religion is better than theirs. Understand: I inherited none of that mind set. It had quite the opposite effect on me: I consider myself an agnostic with a strong moral sense of right and wrong. But it means I have an fairly informed background related to things of this sort. And it means I was born into a more-than-most "universal" environment.

So ... over here, where I live, Christmas is not particularly part of the daily cultural/religious framework. Except that it is. All the stores are decorated with spray snow, tree-hung lights everywhere ... it is likely a mixed-effect of commercialization and the fact that - damn it - this time of year calls for blinking red and green lights.

But, when it comes to music ... well, the only Christmas music I have heard since last December is what I choose to play for myself. More or less. A few mall stores play Xmas jazz over their local sound systems -most likely careful to stay away from anything overtly Xtian, and TV ads include "winter" scenes that may or may not include a Santa (Coke?).

However, if you closely follow Middle Eastern events, you may be aware that one of the "groups" most prosecuted by the sad political events over here are the Middle Eastern Christians: be they in Syria, Israel or wherever (and again, I claim no affiliation whatsoever - just a sense that "this ain't right".)

Seems to me that - if anyone can - they lay claim to the Nativity, the star that guided the Wise Men, - the entire Christmas scene, since Jesus was " one of them" (and I would not limit this to the Christians).

Enough political rant. Middle Eastern (not your usual) Christmas music in the link above.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Of course, Christmas is a nonsense, timing wise. Whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was real, and it seems likely he was, the timing of his December birth seems equivalently a sham, hurriedly shoed in to take advantage of the existing celebrations. And December 25 seems inescapably close to, roughly, Dec. 21, the shortest day, the winter solstice, long a celebration of the end of plenty, the beginning of famine and a time to kill the remaining cattle and get through the challenge of January through March. This has been drawn into focus recently for me by the History Channel's saga, "The Vikings", an accurate, yeah, right, portrayal of the life and times of Ragnar Lodbrok. Wonderful telly, questionable history. But it set me a'thinking. What music have we for a solstice? OK, so there are nasty Scandi death metal satanic tunes, but they seem not where the ancients were coming from.

Yule was the pagan winter celebration, 10-12 days of feasting, to celebrate the consequent dearth of supplies, full in the knowledge that the sun would return. Hopefully. Should you sacrifice sufficient. Here's a confident approach thereto, Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson always coming across a distinctly pagan man:

Should middle class English guy seems a bit scant, let's go Viking. Hedningarna are the obvious choice. A Swedish group who formed in 1987, working still to this day, angulating a steep path between ancient Scandinavian folk and more modern elements, rock and electronica. Here's an example of their hardcore:

Lest that be a bit impenetrable for our ears, I always feel that somebody stating the obvious can be a bit helpful. As a Celt of Hebrides lineage, brought up in the Anglo-Saxon interpretation of Christianity, something I have some difficulty in embracing, I think Dar has it just right:

So what am I saying? hell, I don't know, but probably it means, if you have something to celebrate, celebrate.

See you next year!