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Godless choir mixes fellowship with a full-throated defense of atheism

Voices of Reason choir members, from left, Christine Jones, Erin Keith, Jenny Hicks and Amanda MacLean split up into sections to master parts of a song on April 22, 2018, at Heretic House in Los Angeles. RNS photo by Heather Adams

LOS ANGELES — Eight years ago, Amanda MacLean enrolled for a singing course at Santiago Canyon College, a community college where she worked in Orange, Calif. All students were required to sing together as a choir. She was surprised when she found that the mandatory sessions not only included hymns but performances at religious events.

After singing at the City of Orange’s Christmas tree lighting three years in a row, she couldn’t stand it anymore. She went online to find herself an atheist choir.

“I knew there had to be nonbelievers out there who felt like I did, who had no place to sing without being forced to sing about Jesus,” said MacLean, now 40 and an administrative assistant at the J. Paul Getty Museum here. “I actually thought atheist choirs were a thing.”

They were and they weren’t. MacLean’s search led her to Bobbie Kirkhart, whose home near Dodger Stadium in Angelino Heights is familiarly known as Heretic House. In 2001, Kirkhart had co-founded the Voices of Reason with a fellow nonbeliever named Michael Jordan. Three years later, after Jordan’s death, Voices of Reason had disbanded.

With the help of Yari Schutzer, a 45-year-old IT consultant for Apple and an original member of Voices of Reason, MacLean rounded up a new batch of songful skeptics.

Voices of Reason is now, as it was in the beginning, the only atheist choir in the United States, its members say, and one of only a very few in the world.

The group performs at atheist events, science presentations, Unitarian Universalist churches, public libraries, and they are hoping to expand into nursing homes and schools in the future.

James Underdown, executive director of the Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles, where Voices of Reason has performed several times, said the choir is a natural philosophic fit for their organization, whose mission is “to foster a secular society.”

“There’s a lot of music out there that celebrates religious beliefs,” Underdown said, adding that people in his community “appreciate hearing something that lands in their perspective every once in a while.” 

Plus, he said, the choir is talented.

At a recent rehearsal, a dozen people gathered around a piano, reading sheet music and warming up their voices before launching into song, an update on Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz”: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me an Apple TV,” the choir sang. “My friends all have iPads and I want one for free.”

After a while they turned their attention to mastering a few new songs. “You all know where you’re messing up so I don’t have to tell you,” said music director Katie Sharp, to laughter. The singers broke up into small groups to work on specific sections.

When they all return, the group sounds more cohesive.

“Yes!” shouts Sharp.

Talent and secular music are common to many singing groups that call themselves choruses or glee clubs, and even Whiffenpoofs. What makes Voices of Reason a choir, and particularly an atheist one?

Voices of Reason members say they don’t simply avoid religious references. They draw attention to their rejection of religion, often picking songs that comment on its shortcomings. They have been in touch with members of Britain’s London Humanist Choir, which calls itself atheist as well, but doesn’t go for the jugular as they do.

The Voices of Reason choir practices in Heretic House, a house in Los Angeles dedicated to hosting and promoting atheist events and groups, on April 22, 2018. RNS photo by Heather Adams

Schutzer offers “Imagine,” by John Lennon, as an example of a pop song that is a quintessential atheist song. “Imagine there’s no countries,” Lennon wrote. “It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too.”

The group also sometimes changes lyrics to spiritual songs, as when they sing the “Evolution Chorus” to the tune of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”

One of their favorites is “Every Sperm is Sacred,” a spoof of anti-abortion Christians from the movie “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.”

“There’s this fine line between humor and offense and we try to walk that line,” Schutzer said.

The real goal, however, seems to be less an attack on religion than a defense of atheism. Sharp, 37, a post-doctoral researcher at UCLA, maintains that in American society, “the belief in nothing is worse than the belief in something.”

According to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, 1 in 7 Americans incorrectly believe atheists don’t have the same First Amendment rights as believers. A 2015 Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans would support an atheist for president.

“We’re still human, we still want some sort of entertainment,” Schutzer said.

Perhaps what makes Voices of Reason most fit the term atheist choir is that they are looking for a church choir experience without the burden of believing. A number of members grew up in religious homes, often singing in religious choirs.

“I was very, very involved in the church,” said Sharp. “I was very gung-ho about God. I got up every Sunday, sometimes twice, and sang and did band and led the congregation in music.”

But it didn’t feel right and she dropped out of the worship team and eventually the church.

“I realized I’d been forcing myself to fit into somebody I thought I was supposed to be,” Sharp said. “I never looked back.”

Kirkhart also grew up going to church and missed the music and community. “Music is common to all humankind and is extremely important to bonding groups,” she said.

“Church has this way of bringing people together, to sing together and that connect to the person next to you, connect to the meaning of the songs,” Schutzer said. 

A study published in the Psychology of Music in 2016 found that choral singers reported significantly higher feelings of well-being compared to solo singers, and described choral participation as more meaningful than being on a team sport. Other studies suggest that singing in a choir gives members more endorphins and regulates heart rates.

Daniel H. Pink writes about this concept in his book “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing,” crediting the benefits of choral singing to the sense of belonging.

It may be that Voices of Reason provides its atheist singers and its audiences and members as much connection as it does entertainment. 

“Voices of Reason is there to build a community,” Schutzer said.

Sharp goes further: “We’re all just good people trying to be better and trying to make the world a better place.”

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Heather Adams

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  • I wonder if they perform another favorite Python song, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life?

  • I hope they will write stuff which uplifts secularism more than trying to specifically reject religion. The reason why is that attacking ideas is often more counter-productive than actually attractive to minds.

    Woodie Guthrie wrote the lyrics to “This Land is Your Land”
    as his critical response to “God Bless America” on the radio in 1940. It is thoroughly secular and is still sung—-probably because it offered a positive alternative, rather than a rebuke of something else.

  • “Church has this way of bringing people together, to sing together and that connect to the person next to you, connect to the meaning of the songs,” Schutzer said.

    He’s right. But “church” is not some fancy building. “Church” only happens when a certain Person shows up (Matt: 18:20), and that Person always insists on having a personal, heart-level, soul-saving relationship with individuals by faith.

    A choir singing songs like “Imagine”, “Evolution Hallelujah”, and “Every Sperm Is Sacred”, may entertain fellow atheists for awhile (at least till the novelty wears off), but let’s be honest. It ain’t church.

  • Your right it isn’t church. Of course non-believers aren’t looking for a relationship with individuals through faith. Singing together can bring secular people with similar values and goals together. This could be for social change, encouraging common values, encouraging support, celebrating accomplishments or many other purposes.

  • So fallacious. Now, really, if we’re being honest, the word “church” is not owned by any particular group. For that matter words, in general, aren’t owned by any group or individual. Certainly people may associate particular sentimental values to words but no one can say categorically that, “This (or that) word is ours and you can’t use it unless you define it by our standards!” Take for example God and god. The former is a proper noun associated with a central mythical deity that governs the Abrahamic religions and, not surprisingly, it’s also associated, as a proper noun, with a few gods of the Vedic and Greek religions. In fact the proper nouns Jupiter and God were often interchangeable in Roman religions. And there is a fine example of how words, and even names, aren’t owned by any specific group.
    But let’s look directly at the word “church” and its meaning. In traditional Greek the word “kyrios” can be translated to master or minister. The word Kyriakós means assemblage or house. Taken together they can mean, “house of the master.” And within the context of this story, we have an assembly of choral singers meeting in a house, singing with a choral master, and for all intents and purposes, we can, and are, calling that a church. You and others might call that a misuse of the word but nobody owns words.

  • “as when they sing the “Evolution Chorus” to the tune of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”.

    They need to find a better therapist.

  • Said, by the country’s leading funeral directors, to be one of the most requested musical events at UK funerals.

  • Any word has to mean what floydlee thinks it means – if it doesn’t his tenuous grip on superstitious belief is threatened.

  • Umm, you’re the one whose current religion is having a code-blue terminology crisis these days. Mine seems to be holding steady so far.

    But that’s where the novel suggestion of MyTwoScents comes in, yes? Simply do a fiat, arbitrary declaration that “nobody owns words.”

    And therefore if you’re currently mis-using an important term like “church” or “atheism”, even if you’re sacrificing clarity & correctness for mere convenience, you can get off the hook and keep on mis-using.
    Why? Because, well, “nobody owns words.” A wonderful escape hatch.

    By the way, using MTS’s specific argument, your local secular public high school choir is now a CHURCH choir. Whoda thunk it?

  • Up to your normal standard…..

    I was commenting on your oft-demonstrated need to have words used in a way that minimises your dissonance. I was not agreeing with every detail of MTS’s comment.

    I don’t have a religion

    You have been taught what “church” means. In common usage “Church” means different things, a building, a political or social force or a group of deluded people.

    I am particular about what atheism means – it means the absence of belief in god(s).

    “nobody owns words”? – the reason languages evolved is so that people can communicate. If communication is to be precise it is important that everyone understands the words within that language to mean the same. When people misuse words (as in “I know in my heart” meaning “I believe in my brain”) the opportunities for misunderstanding are increased.

    and “local”, unless we’re thinking cosmologically, isn’t c. 6K miles!

  • If they were “Voices of Reason” they would know that highly intellectual people use their reasoning skills to choose to be followers of Jesus. Atheists have no exclusive rights to “reason”

  • Most christians, and religious people of all flavors, began believing as toddlers. After that, reason is only used to reinforce the decision already made.

    Seriously. How many people examined the claims of multiple religions before choosing a religion? How many people who claim to compare religious claims as adults end up concluding for the one taught them as children?

    All religion is based on emotion. Whether that fact is good or bad depends on your perspective. But it is fact.

  • How many atheists examine the facts for atheism? None. Because if they did, they would find that there are no facts that support atheism being true.

  • For a group of people who are trying so hard to do away with Jewish and Christian worship services in this country, it looks to me like they’re replicating them really well, with their own kind of worship services, and now even a choir!

    What’s next, a confessional?

  • I don’t think any but a few very hard core atheists are trying to “do away with Christian and Jewish” worship in this co7ntry, any more than They are trying to do away with Buddhist muslim, Hindu, Sikh or any one else’s religon, though the Christian nationalists are certainly trying to do asomething along those lines.

    Rather, most are demanding that your religions not be maintained at the expense of our freedom not to participate in it.

    There is a world of difference.

  • Good music is good music. There’s nothing wrong with choral music whether for religious or nonreligious reasons.

  • Bingo. And until there are facts, I conclude there is no basis for believing in a deity

  • “Atheist” is really the wrong term to apply here. The application of satire and parody to religious music actually only serves to validate it. A genuine atheistic treatment would be to ignore the religious themes altogether and create/perform music embodying secular themes.

  • Rather, most are demanding that religions be kept at home, synagogue, temple, church, or other dedicated edifice and out of the public square.

  • Ralph Vaughan Williams, pre-eminent British composer of the 20th century, on his Mass in G Minor;
    “There is no reason why an atheist cannot write a perfectly good mass.”
    He was referring to himself.

  • Atheists acknowledge that there is no evidence for any of the deities worshipped by humans, past or present.

    We are atheists because there are no facts about deities to examine.

    To say that atheists should “examine the facts for atheism” is non sensical. We also don’t waste time “examining the facts” for a-SantaClaus-ism or for a-EasterBunny-ism or for a-Zeus-ism.” If the Yahweh, Santa Claus, Easter Bunny and/or Zeus fan clubs produced evidence, we would check it out. But holding our breath, we are not.

  • A desperate effort to tap into the benefits of faith, while denying their source: “I intensely need to quit feeling thirsty, but I refuse to have anything to do with water.”

  • Well, Ben, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us today.

    I’m not aware of any religion that’s being “maintained at the expense of our freedom not to participate in it,” although I’ve been wrong before.

  • The atheist has no facts that proves atheism true yet they still the nonsense. That can only mean one thing: they prefer God not to exist. No amount of facts against their preference will change their preference. That is the sign of a dead and closed mind.

  • And you have no evidence and no facts that prove a-SantaClaus-ism is true. You and your silly closed mind simply must prefer Santa Claus not to exist.

  • Interesting anecdote about that song.

    In the Falklands War, when the HMS Sheffield was sunk, survivors sung it while they were floating around, waiting to be rescued.

    There is as YouTube of a survivors reunion where the whole room is joining in.

  • Playing coy there. 🙂

    Any religion where you see
    _____ fundamentalists; or
    _____ nationalists

    You see such a thing.

  • Untrue on both accounts. It is the lack of evidence for God which supports atheism.

    Any believer who claims their religion has a rational fact/evidence basis is a liar. The basis of all rekigion is faith. Belief despite the absence of evidence.

    Why do you have such little trust in your own faith?

  • Less coercion in maintaining membership. No threats of invisible sky daddies if one leaves it.

  • Like I said. Atheism is nonsense. It has NO FACTS that shows its true.

    It takes far more faith to be an atheist than for a theist to believe in God.

  • The fact showing atheism to be credible is the lack of facts which support religious belief. No facts are needed to show atheism is true because it is a lack of belief.

    The faith you have, but feel the need to deny and lie about so plainly, is belief in the absence of fact. Atheism is disbelief in the absence of fact.

    Nobody has to prove atheism. It is not a belief or a claim. Nobody can prove God.

  • The atheist just a preference claim like their favorite color. They prefer God not to exist. They want people to believe that without proving it. Its like a child who believes a fantasy is real.

  • Actually its not even a preference. Its just choosing not to do something others have done without reason or rational thought.

    You chose not only to believe in God, but to lie about why and how you do so.

  • I suppose it’s much like writing a science fiction novel. You don’t have to believe Martians and time travel exist to make stuff up about it.

  • Its not rational to be an atheist. I have already shown you why. Thus, you are irrational.

  • How would you know? I have never seen you make any rational statements. You have not shown anything other than how dishonest and infantile a religious believer can be when they deny faith.

  • Re: “I don’t think any but a few very hard core atheists are trying to ‘do away with Christian and Jewish’ worship in this co7ntry …”  

    I’d go further than that. If there are any such folks, they’re incredibly few, if not non-existent, and any that might exist aren’t taken seriously. Sort of like conspiratorialists, e.g. Alex Jones … except, in his case, millions of people DO take him seriously. 

  • I wrote that because there are Certain People— residents of BobWorld— who would be able to find one Homer Dildeau of Crapjeans, OK, with his manifesto declaring the end of religion as we know it, and happily denounce everyone as being an enemy of god…

    Ifyouknowwhoimeanandithinkyoudo.

  • Something that doesn’t exist for me, is inseparable (to me!) from something that does not exist at all. Hence, your claim such evidences exist, is false — and since you know that, given what you said above, it makes you a liar.  

    Do you like being a liar for your Jesus? Does he approve?  

  • What is your evidence for the non-existence of God? What arguments have you made against the evidence for God that was based on facts?

  • Re: “What is your evidence for the non-existence of God?”  

    I’m an Agnostic, so I have none, and on top of that, I never said I did. So why are you asking me for it?  

    You, on the other hand, have said there are “evidences” (plural) for you God. So produce them already … or admit they don’t exist and that you lied when you said they did. Until you cough them up, that makes you a liar.  

    Re: “What arguments have you made against the evidence for God that was based on facts?”  

    I can’t “make arugments against evidence for God” that doesn’t exist because you refuse to produce it. This isn’t about me, in any event. It’s about whether YOU can back up your own claim. I suspect you can’t … in which case, you’d be a liar.  

  • Don’t give me this agnostic nonsense. An agnostic is a gutless atheists. Give me an argument for atheism based on facts or just admit its your preference that you prefer no gods exist.

  • Re: “Don’t give me this agnostic nonsense.”  

    Don’t tell me what I can and can’t say.  

    Re: “An agnostic is a gutless atheists.”  

    Uh, no. They’re different things: https://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/agnosticism-faq/

    Re: “Give me an argument for atheism …”  

    I’m not an atheist, so I can’t do so. You can petulantly demand I give you one all you want — but it’s never going to happen. Grow up already and deal with it.  

    And you’re still a liar when you say there are “evidences” of your deity. Does your Jesus approve of you lying for him? If he does, why does he need you to lie for him? What need would any deity have for his/her/its followers to lie on his/her/its behalf? Why would I want to worship a liar deity promoted by liar believers?  

  • I wonder if they sing carols and hymns but with different, secular lyrics? I hope they do. I would like to have some of their secular lyrics to carols and popular hymns.

  • As I said, Reality will trump ALL opinions — including yours, including mine, including Richard Dawkins’s, and including Billy Graham’s. The details of our destiny will come as a surprise to almost everyone, but one thing is for sure: they will overwhelm any attitudes we have about them.

  • “Reality will trump all opinions” is not a “claim,” it’s a fact imposed by the meaning of the words involved. Other than that, you’re asking for 4-dimensional (space-time) evidence of a higher-dimensional world. But our sensory apparatus won’t let us detect things beyond the limited dimensions in which they operate. However, once you “graduate” to enter and experience that higher dimensional (“spiritual”) world, you’ll have all the evidence you’ll need – and a great deal more.

    By the way (if it wasn’t evident already) I’m not hoping to “convince” you of anything. A change of opinions is not really on the table for either of us. I’m providing a framework of understanding that may help you get a better grip on how others see life, the world, and human destiny.

  • The unavailability of (space-time) “evidence”is what my response specifically addressed. Apparently you missed my observation that I wasn’t trying to “convince” you, just trying to help you “get a better grip on how others see life, the world, and human destiny” – though that may be a lost cause too.

  • That is not evidence, that is a claim. A hypothesis. If there happen to be higher dimensions, they do not necessarily have to be ‘spiritual’, a word of which you have not defined anyways so it is completely meaningless at the moment.

    By evidence, I mean something that is peer reviewed, tested, and verifiable. I reject your framework as it has produced no repeatable or testable results that can be verified.

  • I know exactly what you mean by “evidence”, but you’re still not getting the point. I’m not offering you evidence. I’ve already said I’m not offering you evidence. What I am offering is an explanation of why 4-dimensional evidence of higher-dimension realities is unavailable. If you can’t or don’t want to follow the concept, that’s up to you, but I’ve already made it clear that I’m not trying to change your mind – just trying to enlarge it (against considerable resistance, I might add).

  • I understand the concept just fine, I just don’t find it very convincing. I’ve heard plenty of new age concepts, including chakras and the usage of healing crystals. This isn’t anything new to me.

  • So, it appears you absorbed a weak and distorted (”New Age”) version of the “dimensional” concept, and that stimulated your response of rejection to the whole idea. That sounds like a spiritual “vaccination” to me. The point isn’t its novelty — it’s its cogency.

  • You still haven’t defined spiritual, so you can expect many different interpretations of what you proposed.

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