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Jeremy Messersmith wears his atheist heart on his sleeve

Atheist musician Jeremy Messersmith tells RNS how his experiences as a former Christian inspired his most recent album, what he believes now, and why relating to his religious family can feel like going to a Renaissance Festival.

Jeremy Messersmith. Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford, courtesy of Glassnote Music.
Jeremy Messersmith. Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford, courtesy of Glassnote Music.

Jeremy Messersmith. Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford, courtesy of Glassnote Music.

When you’re a singer-songwriter, wearing your heart on your sleeve comes with the territory.

For Jeremy Messersmith—whose most recent album Heart Murmurs was released earlier this year—wearing his heart on his sleeve also means opening up about his atheism.

“This isn’t something I really talk about all that much,” he admitted early in our conversation. “But I want to.”

In an world with a surprisingly low number of openly atheist musicians, Messersmith’s willingness is unique. But his openness seems to be resonating—Heart Murmurs has been met with significant acclaim, and single “Bubblin’” landed him on The Late Show with David Letterman.

Below, Messersmith explains how his experiences as a former Christian inspired that album, what he believes now, and why relating to his religious family can feel like going to a Renaissance Festival.

CS: You attended an Assemblies of God college; now you identify as an atheist. How did you get where you are today?

JM: I was homeschooled on a farm by my parents. They were really involved in our local Assemblies of God church. That was my entire upbringing: There was homeschooling and there was church. So church was my social outlet. [tweetable]As a kid, virtually everybody I knew was religious.[/tweetable]

[tweetable]I ended up going to an Assemblies of God school—their most notable alumni include Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.[/tweetable] It wasn’t until the very tail end of my college career that I started actually questioning my faith.

It was actually based on an assignment that I had to do for a Bible class that I was taking. I had to write a paper on 1 Corinthians 11 and I just thought, “Okay, this will be easy.” So I started researching it and found out that nobody really has any idea what that passage means. Whatever the reason, that really bothered me. I thought that the Bible was 100 percent the inerrant word of God.

That was the start—I didn’t really identify as an atheist for a couple more years after that. I think it had a lot to do with our tendency to believe what the people around us believe. For the first time in my life I was removed from the social construct of school or church.[tweetable]With a little bit of distance and a little bit of Dawkins, I realized I didn’t really believe any of it anymore.[/tweetable]

CS: Do you still keep up with people from college? How has your family responded?

JM: I still meet up with lots of my friends from school. I’d say the majority of them are probably still Christians, though there are a surprising number of atheists. Overall, I have a pretty good relationship with people who are religious and people who aren’t. My family is a little more complicated—the difference is largely cultural.

[tweetable]Have you ever been to a Renaissance Festival? It sometimes feels like that.[/tweetable] You’re at a Renaissance Festival and you’re not dressed up or anything, but someone else is very much in character—and they’re trying to talk to you in character, but you’re not really sure how to respond. Half of the time it feels like interacting with people who are LARPing [live action role-playing], but it’s their whole lives. It’s like they’ve established an alternative framework. I find it challenging. But I think the key is communicating. I think dialogue and understanding is absolutely fantastic. It’s hard for me, but I’m getting there.

CS: Much of your recent album seems like it was inspired by Christianity and atheism. You told that one song “played off my experience growing up in a conservative church,” another was inspired by something a former youth pastor said, and another was “an attempt to write a gospel song, but one without all the Jesus in it and more just about the power of love.” Was this intentional? Would it be fair to call this a concept album about your experiences with Christianity?

JM: Yeah, it would be pretty fair. What’s funny is that I set out to try to write a record of love songs—but I quickly realized that love can mean an awful lot of things. I think the religious or atheistic themes creep in because Christianity was my framework for most of my life.[tweetable]I can still put on the religious-tinted glasses to see things.[/tweetable] I’m still processing a lot of that, and I think it comes out in my songs.

[tweetable]Though if there’s anything I learned from church and religion, it’s never be preachy.[/tweetable] Especially in songs. I have an aversion to that, so I try very hard to keep those things in subtext and keep the music as genuine as I possibly can.

CS: Do you see your music as an expression of your values? People accuse atheists of not really believing in anything. What do you believe in?

JM: I think my values are expressed in my music, and that’s because I try to write honestly. As far as what I believe: [tweetable]What it boils down to is that I’m a Humanist. We’re all we’ve got. People can solve people-made problems.[/tweetable] I try to be very aware of what I know and what I don’t know, and to have relative degrees of uncertainty. [tweetable]We’ve only got one life, so I choose to hopefully make other people’s lives better, to contribute to our culture, and to treat the Earth with respect.[/tweetable]

CS: You and Brother Ali, a Minnesota rapper, once got into a discussion on Twitter about religion and atheism. What did you take away from that?

JM: I respect Brother Ali and wanted to respond, but I don’t think Twitter is a particularly good place for me to have that kind of conversation. Some people are great at it, but I’d rather read a book or do just about anything else. There are people who love going into churches and debating people—but for me the model has always been to be like the churches who are simply kind to people and accept people for who they are.

CS: In that Twitter exchange, you said that you aim to talk about atheism from “a point of compassion.” What do you mean?

JM:[tweetable]I don’t evangelize. I don’t go knock on doors or attempt to convert people.[/tweetable] But if I sense that what I have to say might be helpful to someone, then I can share that out of a sense of love.

CS: What are you working on now? Any new music?

R: I’m working on a Christmas single.

CS: Wait—a Christmas single?

R: Yeah, I know, it’s very funny. It’s a distinction that Dawkins makes: [tweetable]You can be an atheist and love Christmas songs. I’m really happy to have any excuse to throw a party.[/tweetable]