I am not a mugwump atheist…sitting on the fence and calling myself agnostic. I call myself an agnostic out of belief in evidence and empiricism…and because I subscribe – at least in principle – to the decency of humility. I try to avoid the term belief altogether where possible, preferring faith, as the deepest meaning of this word is confidence. I fear scientists in general do a disservice to reason in calling themselves atheists until they are backed into a corner and forced to admit they are in fact agnostics. I would go so far as to say science is another name for agnosticism. I do not pretend to know what is not known…or knowable. It is not for the sake of clarity, but of convenience that scientists use the term atheist, although it is as legitimate to say they don’t believe in gods because they have no reason or evidence to do so.
Agnostic that I am, I love hearing Bach’s B minor mass, the St. Matthew Passion, the Verdi Requiem and many other such works. I suspect they inspire no less awe in me than they do in somebody wearing a symbol of capital punishment around his neck. Awe is not belief. I am as in awe of the universe…as any saint! The christian myths may indeed recount “the greatest story ever told”, [although my vote would go for Prometheus, who pays eternally his love of mankind ] however it is just that: a story.
But getting back to so called sacred music: I used to love to sing hymns with the choir [and no choirmaster ever rejected my rather decent soprano because I was an avowed heathen ] One of my favourites was We Gather Together, a hymn of Dutch origin – Wilt heden nu treden – written by A. Valerius in 1597. Call me pagan, a devil, a witch, but I laughed before I cried upon learning it was composed in honor of a Dutch military victory over the Spanish. Nothing like the killing of a few thousand fellow christians to get the creative juices flowing, eh?
From century to century we ask…Is nothing sacred? Not Sacred Heart in Paris, that’s for sure. It was built to commemorate the crushing of the “socialist” Paris Commune. It is, in my view, a tasteless embodiment of conservative moral order, which says, basically, might makes right.
Is nothing sacred? Is nothing sacred? [Can you see me pulling what remains of my hair out?] Man was a wolf to man before the nazarene tale and perhaps even moreso since. Let me take a break from my turmoil to pass on a quote from the preface of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I don’t care if you saw the show; read the book. He was writing about an earlier commune, but it hardly matters: So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.
Pretty stories and glorious music are not likely to get the job done, however…