Though Steve Martin said that “atheists don’t have no songs,” there are plenty of great songs with nontheistic themes. Below is the final installment of my list of the 20 best atheist or nonreligious anthems.
In order for a song to qualify for this list, it had to be either explicitly atheistic, express a skeptical or Humanistic viewpoint, or come from an artist who has identified in some way as nonreligious.
5. Bill Callahan, “Faith/Void”
“It’s time to put God away.”
“Faith/Void” is a wonderfully meandering atheist hymn that closes Callahan’s splendid Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. Reflecting on the song in an interview with The A.V. Club, Callahan said that he was not raised religious, and that for years he struggled to talk about his beliefs. “People would always ask me, ‘Are you a spiritual person?’ and I would say yes, but it made me uncomfortable. Before ‘Faith/Void,’ I was reading a lot of atheist literature and I realized, no, I’m not a spiritual person, because I don’t know what that means. I like mountains and oceans and stuff, which is where I’ve always felt some sort of power of meaning, but that’s not necessarily spiritual. I’ve realized it’s better if we just stop talking in that language.”
4. The Flaming Lips, “Vein of Stars”
“Maybe there isn’t a vein of stars calling out my name… Nothing there to see you down on your knees… Maybe there is no heaven / There’s just you and me / Maybe that’s all who’s left / And if there is no heaven / Maybe there is no hell / Who knows?”
Grammy Award-winning band The Flaming Lips is fronted by Wayne Coyne, an atheist who has joked that he wishes he believed in God—but you wouldn’t know about that yearning when listening to the breathtaking “Vein of Stars” or their other songs with atheistic themes, like the dizzying “Do You Realize???”
3. John Grant, “Glacier”
“There are days when people are so nasty and convincing / they say things beyond belief, that sting and leave you wincing / And to boot, they say their words come straight down from above / And they really seem to think that what they’re doing counts as love… What they want is commonly referred to as theocracy… No one on this planet can tell you what to believe.”
John Grant’s two solo albums have both been met with universal critical acclaim—his debut Queen of Denmark was one of only a few albums to ever be labeled an “Instant Classic” by Mojo. Perhaps this is because his music is astonishingly personal. He offers an intimate critique of fundamentalist Christianity in the song “JC Hates F—-ts,” but it’s the closing song off his most recent album Pale Green Ghosts that packs the biggest wallop. In it Grant, who is gay and identifies as an agnostic, offers words of comfort to anyone who has been told that who they are sick or wrong because of who they are. The heartening “Glacier” isn’t just one of the best nontheistic songs—it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.
2. Björk, “It’s In Our Hands”
“Look no further… It’s in our hands / it always was.”
Multiple Grammy Award and Academy Award nominee Björk is one of the world’s most celebrated artists. But is she an atheist? A number of atheist websites suggest she is, and she has certainly spoken critically about religion, but the truth is a bit more complicated. In one interview she said, “I’ve got my own religion… The United Nations asked people from all over the world a series of questions. Iceland stuck out on one thing. When we were asked what do we believe, 90% said, ‘ourselves’. I think I’m in that group. If I get into trouble, there’s no God or Allah to sort me out. I have to do it myself.” But in another, when asked if she is an atheist, she replied, “Isn’t that being religious too? I am more just outside all of this.” A couple of years ago she said, “I was sure that I was an atheist. But as I matured, I realized nature is my religion.” But even if she doesn’t identify as an atheist a number of her songs are strikingly Humanistic, such as the stunning “It’s In Our Hands,” taken from her 2002 Greatest Hits album.
1. Portugal. The Man, “Modern Jesus”
“Don’t pray for us / We don’t need no modern Jesus / To roll with us / The only rule we need is never giving up / The only faith we have is faith in us.”
Portugal. The Man’s seven excellent studio albums contain countless songs that touch on religion (one of their albums is even titled The Satanic Satanist). In an interview with The State Press, lead singer John Gourley said he is not religious, and criticized the conservative religion he grew up around, posing the question, “Is my buddy over here who doesn’t believe in your god, yet is a good person, really going to go to your hell?” When asked by WNYE’s The Alternate Side if he grew up religious, he replied, “No. Grew up around it. I’m fine. Whatever anyone wants to do, I don’t care.” In an interview for Redefine Magazine, bassist and back-up vocalist Zach Carothers said, “I’m personally not religious; I don’t have any religious beliefs, but… I love learning about it. I love knowing people’s reasons for believing or not believing.” While many of their songs explore religious and atheistic themes, such as “Sleep Forever,” “Church Mouth,” and “Created,” the brilliant, propulsive “Modern Jesus” takes the top spot as my favorite nontheistic anthem.