Atheism in the face of beauty: Nick Parrott

As a rationalist, it is with no pride that I confess there was a time in my life when, while I didn’t believe in God per se, I was certainly not an “atheist.” I spent my first two years of higher education studying jazz piano at Berklee College of Music, where, as is typical at art schools, I was surrounded by anti-reason of all kinds, from fundamentalist religion to New Age spirituality to various genera of mysticism based around music itself.

Though I was learning and playing jazz, as well as indulging in the spiritualism that surrounds Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and other masterpieces, my attention shifted to J.S. Bach, whose sublime music simultaneously engages the intellect and the emotions. Bach’s titanic work, the “St. Matthew Passion,” compelled (and compels) me to experience feelings of reverence and adoration usually associated with religious ecstasy.

Even the text, taken from the Gospel of Matthew, adds to its beauty (the Christian story is much more engaging in half-understood German). It seemed to me that experiences such as these could be legitimate grounds for religious conversion, or at least belief in some sort of higher power. I assumed that atheists like Richard Dawkins, of whose work I was vaguely aware, simply hadn’t had these experiences and thus didn’t know why religious people believed. (If I had actually bothered to read Dawkins’ work, I would have known better.) In conversations with friends and fellow students, I was willing to defend religious belief on these experiential grounds.

Despite my willingness to apologize for the religious, I had long since given up traditional religious belief for myself. Like many others in my generation, I was nebulously “spiritual, not religious.” In my childhood and early adolescence, I had attended extremely boring (and decidedly not very spiritual) Presbyterian services for 15 years. I was almost immediately able to dismiss Christianity, not due to atheist influence but because of a lack of indoctrination from my parents and the patent falsity of the beliefs themselves.

As a child, I remember praying to God for trivial miracles, none of which occurred. I developed objections to religion as a teenager that were more sophisticated than indignation at the conspicuous absence of divine interventions. Placing Christianity in its historical context, I noted that it was one religion among many and didn’t seem to be able to support its own doctrines any better than, say, Zoroastrianism or Islam.

The decision to put one’s faith in any one of these dogmas seemed hopelessly arbitrary. It was not until recent years that I became familiar with the arguments for the existence of God proposed by Thomas Aquinas (and the devastating objections to them raised by thinkers ever since). But in the past, I was able to formulate rational arguments against religion based on my experience with it (no one ever mentioned the cosmological argument in church).

Nothing about so-called spiritual experiences is categorically unexplainable by the natural sciences.

I was particularly bothered by the repugnant idea of an eternal hell. Wasn’t this punishment wildly disproportionate? Isn’t eternal punishment for a finite crime infinitely unjust? Though I was not yet familiar with the word “epistemology,” I could already see that the bible was highly problematic as a source of knowledge. If anything made me reject Christianity with confidence, it was reading the bible, the authors of which had an uncanny ability to be repetitive yet contradictory, violent and gruesome yet tedious and dreary.

With the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks dominating the political discourse of my teen years, the societal effects of religion were not lost on me.

In spite of my rational objections, I was not able to stop attributing metaphysical significance to the powerful experiences I was having with music and art. Hell was clearly evil, and the bible was absurd, but music (even music that was inspired by these same beliefs) was often sublime.

As a budding musician, I found my growth toward atheism constantly obstructed by this apparent contradiction. I was unquestionably capable of reasoning, and I reasoned my way out of traditional religious belief. Yet I still clung to the idea that I could “turn reason off” when it concerned emotionally overwhelming experiences.

This selective application of reasoning allowed me to persevere in believing in “some truth in all religions” or a “divine spark” in the genius of great composers or any other inchoate intuition about the supernatural that I found satisfying for some reason. In other words, I had not accepted the ancient conception of knowledge as “justified true belief.” Like so many religious believers, I sought to avoid that tricky “justification” part and take a mystical shortcut to “true belief.” Given how nonsensical this line of nonreasoning appears to me now, it baffles me that I could have been convinced by such ideas until quite recently.

From spiritual to analytical

One problem I faced then and still face is that the English language is inherently biased against rational and scientific explanations of (what I can most prosaically refer to as) profound emotional experiences. Words like “ineffable,” “spiritual,” “transcendent” or “numinous” have mystical or supernatural connotations. It is simply difficult to speak about such matters without appealing to the divine, whether one intends to or not.

Another reason I was delayed in abandoning my mystical beliefs is that as a music student, I was not required to take any science courses after high school and (not having learned much in high school science class) I was quite ignorant of science. If I had known more about psychology or biology or neuroscience, I would have known that nothing about so-called spiritual experiences is categorically unexplainable by the natural sciences.

That which we call numinous and transcendent is just as susceptible to rational explanation as anything else. Music itself, although it may initially appear abstract and mysterious, is highly analyzable. This is particularly true of the music of J.S. Bach, which is conceived in a rational, systematic and even mathematical way. As for my emotional reaction to the music, psychology and neuroscience (if they do not yet provide complete explanations of “spiritual” experiences) show much more promise as methods of acquiring explanations than the speculations of obscurantist mystics (who seem more interested in wallowing in mysteries than in elucidating them).

When I later adopted a more consistently rational and scientific view of the universe, I found (as most atheists do) that understanding nature, mind and music scientifically in no way diminishes their beauty. In fact, beauty is often augmented by deeper understanding. By studying music theory (not quite a science but still employing methods like observation, classification and analysis), I was able to hear more in Bach’s music and enjoy it more than I had before.

I had similar experiences learning the basics of astronomy and biology from the writings of great educators like Dawkins and Carl Sagan. I had previously assumed that atheists scoffed at the sublime, but when I actually took the time to acquaint myself with atheist thought, I found that nothing could be further from the truth. This was a myth endorsed by opponents of science (often religious apologists, psychic frauds, or authors of New Age self-help books), who sought to dismiss science as too “reductionistic” or “dehumanizing.”

In reality, there was no emotional harm in “unweaving the rainbow” and rejecting magical thinking in favor of reason; there was “grandeur in this view of life.” As Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) memorably put it, “Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.”

It is undeniable that the arts and passions wield incredible power over humans, but to use them as an excuse for religious belief is misguided. For one thing, the creators of such art cannot seem to agree on which “transcendent” ideas they are expressing. Great musicians have held a great diversity of religious beliefs: Bach was a Lutheran, Beethoven a pantheist and Brahms an agnostic. (And those are just the Germans.)

Great music often fails to translate into great philosophy. The full emotional force of the “St. Matthew Passion” can be experienced without any belief in the gruesome human sacrifice it describes, just as the operas of Wagner can be absorbed without Wagner’s vicious anti-Semitism. To think about art and the sublime rationally is to reject the tribal dogmas of revelation and to acknowledge the universal power of art, which is, after all, natural and humanistic.

It was this realization more than any other that finally gave me comfort and pride in calling myself an atheist.

Nick Parrott is a junior psychology major at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Earlier, he studied piano for two years at Berklee College of Music in Boston before transferring to Northern Virginia Community College for a year.

Freedom From Religion Foundation