A Christian musician’s path to disbelief – Joseph Taylor

Joseph Taylor gave this speech (edited for print and space) at FFRF’s national convention Oct. 8 in Hartford, Conn.

I first got in touch with Dan Barker after I was browsing through the atheist books at Barnes and Noble. I saw this book Godless, which is quite a provocative title. I started reading it right there in the aisle and saw his involvement in Christian music. It even mentioned southern California. I said, “I’ve got to get in touch with this guy.” So I dashed off an email to him and he was kind enough to respond.

I teach the history of rock music at James Madison [University, Harrisonburg, Va.] We have 306 students every semester. This is the first time I’ve addressed a group that’s made up almost completely of unbelievers, and I’m tempted to say you’re all going to hell. On the other hand it makes me think of that bumper sticker, “Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket?” All right, well, let’s detail my own trip to hell.

I’m an artist. I’m not a scientist and I’m not a philosopher. This is an important distinction to make, an obvious one, but I was listening to the speakers last night, and many of the books that we all read, we depend on science and philosophy. We even depend to some degree on theologians to find out what the other side, if you want to call it that, is thinking.

Art on the other hand is a little bit different. We depend on the raw material from science and philosophy and hopefully bring some interpretive meaning to it. How does this impact my world? How am I to think about this? How can I put this into some kind of meaningful context? The arts bring meaning to that.

It’s also meaningful to point out that laws, but also facts, as critically important as both are, are often not enough to change our hearts. Absolutely essential, but can they change our hearts? If you look at the history of the civil rights movement, we had the desegregation laws, but it was when at concerts where black artists were playing and they had a rope down the middle of the audience — one side for the blacks, one side for the whites — and they started dancing and the rope came down, they started dancing with each other, which was absolutely scandalous.

That’s what it takes to change people’s hearts. Laws and facts are essential, but it’s the arts that really appeal to people’s hearts.

A believing brain

Let me start by referencing Dr. Shermer’s book, The Believing Brain. I always had a sense of God in my life from my earliest memories. It might have had something to do with the fact that my mother was an Italian Catholic whose mother was one of 19 children — between 16 and 19, we’re not sure, because they lost some in childbirth.

The youngest of those, Uncle Fred, had nine children himself. He was a devoutly Catholic, Italian guy in Philadelphia who made his family sit through one decade of the rosary every night before dinner. We were threatened, “If you don’t behave, you’re going to go to Uncle Fred’s for the weekend.” Holy shit, anything but that, please.

I remember a dream that I had when I couldn’t have been older than 5. I wrote and recorded a song about this: I was in the Vatican and I was dead, in a line of dead souls waiting to ascend a staircase to heaven. The pope was walking around and he could see us, but nobody else could, so the pope knew that we were there but nobody else did. What vivid imagery.

In first grade, a year later, a nun told us a story of a statue of the baby Jesus in the church coming to life and playing with two lonely children. This is the honest truth. I went to the church after school that day and knelt down in front of the altar because we had a statue of the baby Jesus in our church. I prayed that the statue would come to life and play with me. I was 6. Of course, we know the ending to that story.

I wanted God to be real. I used to watch “Bernadette of Lourdes,” “Ben-Hur,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” all these religious movies, and the music was so moving. They know how to do this to appeal to our deepest, most powerful places. I wished so hard I could have lived back then. I could have walked with Jesus, I could have seen him walk on the water, I could have seen him rise from the dead, or not. So from my oldest memories, I had a believing brain.

Of course we have to adjust at some point, we have to get over it, because it just doesn’t happen. In high school I left the church altogether. God was not present in my world; that’s just the way it was.

Three ‘Broken’ records

Shortly after I was invited to be in a band in high school, my uncle told me about this church in Costa Mesa, Calif., Calvary Chapel, that had Christian rock bands. Maybe I’d like to go and check them out? I went with him. It was a very large church that spearheaded much of the Jesus movement in the late ’60s or early ’70s. The young people were coming in barefoot or with sandals and jeans and shorts. They sang and were very much animated and energized by their faith.

I really wanted God to be real in my life, and boy, God sure seemed real to these people in their lives. So there I was, and I went forward at an altar call and immediately launched my mission from God.

The band that I was in [Undercover] started playing Christian music and writing our own songs. I didn’t grow up in the Protestant sociology that Dan came from; I was Catholic. We didn’t have a lot of the same restraints, but he’s absolutely right. The church and Christian rock was an oxymoron in some of those Protestant evangelical circles.

No sooner had they started to get used to someone coming in with long hair and an acoustic guitar rather than playing piano or an organ, and here we came with tattoos and mohawks and ripped jeans and boots and spikes and leathers and earrings and whatnot. I didn’t care what they thought. We were on a mission from God. We were playing nightclubs and college campuses and high schools and wanted to communicate through the music we knew what we thought we’d found.

We were approached by Maranatha Music because we had developed a little bit of a following. They asked us to record our first record. Maranatha was a parachurch organization. It was the record company owned by Calvary Chapel, the church that started a lot of the Jesus movement stuff, and as such they were famous for their “praise” albums.

Does anyone have those early praise albums? So you know what I’m talking about. It’s very mild, stuff to be played in church. Then they started a label called A&S for edgier music. A&S’ claim to fame is Sam Phillips. She’s a great artist, writes for television shows and was married to T-Bone Burnett, who has produced all kinds of movie music and records.

We built quite a following. There were a lot of bands that were spinoffs of what we were doing. We’re talking about rather extreme music, loud alternative music, punk rock, heavy metal. And the churches are going, well, what are we going to do with this? So Maranatha Music started yet another label called Broken Records and hired me to be a staff producer to mentor new groups.

This is from a promotional postcard: “Broken Records is an unprovoked attack on complacency. Broken Records is a clear, uncompromised call to the unsaved, unchurched and culturally disenfranchised within the body of Christ. Broken Records is radical restructuring of relationships between music and the church, between artists and audience, between business and labor. Broken Records is people over product, vision over vinyl. Broken Records is surrendered and dependent.” (Whoo. Love that one.) “Broken Records is armed and dangerous. Broken Records is a militant response to the trickle-down theory of evangelism.”

We released three records on that label. Our group’s logo was designed by Rick Griffin, a quintessential San Francisco artist who did Grateful Dead record covers, concerts for the Fillmore, Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix. This highlights our militant approach, “Onward, Christian Soldier.”

We did 250 dates a year all over North America and Europe, giving altar calls. The lights come down, the music comes up, you know the scriptures to say. It’s powerful stuff that you can use to bring people forward.

Christian branding

Reality often interferes with the best-laid plans. Lots of us go through divorce, 52% statistically. Of course, according to the Barnard group, atheists do better than the religious, so we’re probably less than 52%. So, congratulations.

But there I was then, a mentor surrounded by kids and oh, by the way, I’m going through a divorce now. It wasn’t just how do you deal with the divorce and the scandalous aspect of it, but the bigger question of why was my faith so powerless to do anything about teaching me what it was like to be married, to do anything about building the kind of character I needed to be a successful human being in a functioning world?

I had four beautiful kids, so that was my question, and as a result I wrote this album, “Branded.”

“Branded” had multiple meanings for me: Number one, I was branded in the sense that once you go through divorce in the Christian church, your star’s dimmed a little bit. But for me the imagery of the tattoo [of crosses on the album cover] was more important. Yes, I wanted to keep my faith; I was branding myself a Christian.

So we released this record where I documented the process of my divorce and what it was like to deal with the failure of my faith. I don’t mean to blame my faith, I assume full responsibility for myself, but really, the faith I was practicing, the things I believed in were completely powerless in any meaningful way in my life. We released the record, and it was powerful, 25 years ago this year. The record label did a rerelease. Right now there’s a list coming out where it’s in the top 50 Christian music records of all time.

In 1987 I bought Broken Records and changed the name to Brainstorm Artists. We produced well over 100 records, won all those awards. We shifted the focus because it was obvious to me that evangelicalism didn’t work. I was still holding on to my faith, but we shifted from a more militant view to a more art-based form of Christian music.

I held that label for a number of years and sold it eventually. I was tired of the hypocrisy. I saw other artists whose lives were ruined. Alcoholism, drug addiction, all kinds of messes, and I don’t mean to say that this is caused by religion, but I’ll tell you what I do believe, that it’s perpetuated because they stay in religion and there is no power there, there just is nothing. Of course you know this, I’m preaching to the choir, if there ever was such a concept.

We played scattered concerts, Chicago in 2000 and various others, but by and large I was becoming unraveled. I stayed in a period of believing in the fundamentals of Christianity. We were doing Christian music, playing the same songs, I could deliver a sermon. I don’t feel like I was hypocritical because I did believe the things that I was saying, but the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and I can’t promise anybody anything. There’s no there there, so I can’t promise you anything. All I can say is you need to believe in Jesus. Now here’s this song, you know.

Date an atheist?

In 2007 I took my job at James Madison University, and in 2008 I knew not a soul there. So I’m going to have confession here, excuse me. I signed up for a dating website just to meet people. I came into contact with a scientist and she was an atheist, the first atheist I’d met.

She said the first time we talked that she had Googled me: “I want you to know that if you’re going to try to convert me or if you think I’m going to hell, I’m not going to go out with you.”

It got me to thinking about what I believed. There’s a book by Rob Bell [founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.]. He’s trying to work his way through the idea that hell is still a possible coherent idea. It’s simply not, especially if you want to postulate the existence of an all-loving God. It’s ridiculous, and I knew that.

So I constructed my own idea of what hell must be like, Of course I couldn’t abandon the idea — there it is in scripture. But one day I woke up and said, “I just don’t believe any of it. It’s all bullshit. I’ve been making shit up my whole life.”

Keith Parsons, a wonderful philosopher, had this to say about two scholars arguing for the existence of hell: “To refuse to believe in hell is to measure God’s thoughts by ours.” You’ve all heard this argument. God’s ways are higher than our ways, and we don’t know the mind of God.

Parsons: “Allow me at once to plead guilty to measuring God’s thoughts by my own. As I see it. I have no other choice. If my intellect and my deepest moral convictions tell me that hell is a monstrous dogma unworthy of belief by decent human beings, then I can think of no greater sin than to accept such a doctrine. It is a sad but edifying spectacle to see how intelligent defenders of the indefensible tie themselves in ethical and conceptual knots.”

I had to wake up and say, “You know what? That’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve tied myself in knots trying to rationalize and justify things that cannot be rationalized or justified. So I said to the woman, “Yeah, we can go out.”

But we didn’t. We had a couple of nice chats and she told me that she thought I had a responsibility to come out and to announce this to my Christian audience. I disagreed. I said, “I couldn’t possibly care less. It’s been a number of years since I’ve been out of Christian music anyway, and my phone’s not exactly ringing off the hook with people who are overly concerned with the well-being of my eternal soul. So I’m just inclined to say screw the whole thing and let them, let’s just let the world get on with itself.”

Thinking things through

Once I acknowledged to myself that I was an unbeliever, I began reading everything I could get my hands on, all the Dawkins and Hitchens, Dennett and Sam Harris. I picked up Dan’s book Godless and just soaked it all in. But the problem was this, and I would submit to you that this is a fundamental problem, that I had no context for a life away from the idea of God.

So many hands went up when I asked how many of you are lifelong atheists. You get it. I sat at breakfast with someone this morning who said they’re second-generation atheist. You’re very lucky. Me, Italian Catholic, two first holy communions for crying out loud.

How do you think about reality? It wasn’t enough to offer me facts. It’s like, all right, how do I construct a worldview out of this?

Very shortly after, this book came out: God’s Not Dead (And Neither Are We). I have a chapter in the book [subtitled The story of Christian alternative rock’s pioneers then and now, as told by the artists themselves]. It was an interview done before I acknowledged that I didn’t believe any of it. I was asked to help promote the book on Facebook. I had not done Facebook, but I said OK. I had no idea what I was getting into.

Next thing I know I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of people coming on board. I’m faced with a crisis. I’ve got to be honest with these people, or not. That was an easy choice to make. I was not willing to be untruthful about where I was, what I believed.

My fear was that I wouldn’t have all the right answers. If someone asked me a question about the beginning of the universe, the big bang theory. Remember, I’m not a scientist, I’m not a philosopher, I’m an artist.

What I didn’t know is that I don’t need the right answers; all I need is the right questions. I would submit to you that that’s one way to approach this. It’s not all about answers. It’s about questions, and so the conversation started, and it started in earnest.

‘Ojo Uncovered’

Down the Line magazine in July of 2010 is where I came out altogether, in “Ojo Uncovered.” [He was known as Joey “Ojo” Taylor.] They asked me directly — we’ve heard on Facebook what you’re saying about your beliefs. What are your beliefs? I laid it all out. What do you think about the Christian faith? And I laid it all out.

The reactions have been all over the place. I haven’t had any death threats yet, although some of my friends have warned me that I should get protection sometimes. That seems so extreme, yet I know there are people that do get these kind of threats, and I’m wary about them.

I’ve heard things like, “Oh you’re a fraud, you never were a believer, you never were sincere to begin with, you were probably just in Christian music for the money.” But there’s more interest in what I’m doing now than there was when I was Christian musician. Tons of questions.

What I hear more than anything is how tragic it is. I see blog posts titled “Ojo Taylor, one of our heroes, has fallen.” How saddened they are by it. “He’s lost his faith.”

No, I didn’t lose my faith; my faith died a thousand deaths. From the minute I walked down the altar, things didn’t make sense and it has died a thousand deaths over the years. I had no context for what it was like to live outside of that. I do now.

Many of you maybe are not involved actively with a lot of ultra-religious people, but I am regularly. Every single day, dozens of posts come to my blog, to my Facebook page.

Some are very kind and ask questions sincerely, intellectually curious, others not so much. I would submit that you have about as much chance of changing someone’s religion with debate and confrontation and argument as you do changing their political affiliation. Anyone have parents that sit in front of Fox News all day long? You know what I’m talking about. Maybe your parents sit in front of MSNBC and you roll your eyes, too, I don’t mean that to be a partisan statement, but we cannot change people’s minds just by argument. We’ve all got our arguments.

Life without faith

I’ve learned that people need a context for seeing a life without God. I think this is where the arts become critically important: The T-shirt that says “This is what an atheist looks like.” The billboards that are going up all over the country, “Good without god.” The billboards that Freedom From Religion Foundation are doing that many of you have submitted that, “Yes, I’m an atheist, here’s what I look like. I have a family, I have a job, responsible, taxpaying citizen. I don’t eat babies, I don’t have satanic sex orgies.”

It’s very difficult for anyone to abandon their faith without an idea of life without it. We can’t just argue, we can’t just throw facts around, we need more than that, as critically important as that is. In this way the arts can be extremely effective. We appeal to feelings and emotions, that’s true. It’s not always necessarily bad. If I pay $75 to go see someone in a concert and I’m not moved, I’m pissed off. I kind of want my money back. I want you to take me on a journey.

We depend on metaphor, irony, paradox, all these things, asking questions. Stay free, that’s my message to myself. I’m not interested in replacing one fundamentalism with another. Maybe some of you will disagree with what I have to say and maybe I’ll disagree with you. That’s the beauty about this. We don’t have any kind of doctrinal purity to subscribe to.

I hear this all the time: “Atheism is nothing but a religion.” Well, atheism is a religion like the “off” switch on a television is a channel. I don’t have a purity doctrine because there isn’t one. I don’t believe, and neither do you, OK? Some of us are Republicans and some of us are Democrats and some of us are libertarians and independents and whatever else.

When I wrote the article in Down the Line, I was inclined to let the religious be. Coexist, what a wonderful world that would be, we all just coexist. You don’t put your religion on me and I won’t put my disbelief on you, but it just doesn’t work that way, does it?

The other day I posted about coming here and boy, the vitriol from the Christians about the Freedom From Religion Foundation. One guy had done some Googling and found this article by Dennis Prager about an FFRF lawsuit against a nativity scene in front of a government building. Prager got his knickers in a twist and said the people at FFRF don’t know beauty. “They’re atheists, and atheists don’t know beauty.” That was my friend posting on my Facebook wall.

I asked what in the world was he talking about? He said the nativity scene is beautiful, what don’t you get?

I said look, take away the fuzzy sheep and the donkeys, you ass, and what are you left with? The cute baby Jesus. What’s beautiful about a god who is so offended by us acting the way he made us act — so offended that he needs human blood sacrifice of his son to mollify him? That’s beautiful?

Yes, the mythology might be strong, but, I’m sorry, it’s just not a beautiful statement to me at all. This is why religion is rarely harmless and why we need groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It’s important for us to support them and advocate on their behalf and get involved.

Love is the umbrella over all of humanity. Love is what unites us; to me that’s the pinnacle of the human experience. Religion would have it the other way around: doctrine is most important, and their version of doctrine is more important than anything.

So we must aggressively — again, I’m speaking to myself — counter any attempt by religion to co-opt or assimilate our own love or any of the other human experiences, the fullness of the human experience — because it doesn’t belong in the realm of religion. It’s the big umbrella under which religion unfortunately resides.

To quote the Beatles, “In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” For me it’s about music, freethought and “lovism,” that’s what it says on my blog.

Love, the highest calling that we have. For me, that is most deeply expressed in music. Thank you very much for listening today.

Joseph Taylor teaches the history of rock, artist management, songwriting, marketing of recorded music and entrepreneurship in the music industry at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. He blogs at ojotaylor.wordpress.com/tag/agnosticism/.

Freedom From Religion Foundation