Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sacred music

I've just seen this: Apparently, as an agnostic / borderline atheist*, I shouldn't like religious music.

I've been thinking about posting something on 'sacred music' for some time. Nothing very profound or original; just to pass on an observation that was made (in a much longer way) on a BBC4 programme a while ago.

It was something like this: That religious choral music is almost unique in that it is a concerted attempt to make noise that can be unequivocally described as beautiful. This is because the intended audience is not interested in getting laid, having a dance, or being provoked to think in any way.

When people compose music, they do it for all sorts of reasons, but very rarely simply to create something that is purely, subjectively beautiful, and this is why sacred music is so singularly fascinating.

What do you think about that? I don't think you need to believe in a god of any kind to see some sense in that argument, do you?

*I'm only an agnostic because I think that atheists are too religious for my liking


Transmontanus said...

Hi Paulie.

I think Quan is making some very interesting points. I was especially pleased to read that she refers to herself as a secular Catholic; I've referred to myself exactly that way, having fancied myself a Marxist atheist in my mid-teens, long before I stopped going to Mass. Pleased as well to see her use the term "tone deaf" to describe much of the contemporary atheist polemics; I've used that very term as well to describe some of my fellow atheists.

I've always thought that it's this aspect of the religious experience - the quality of the experience that is very much like the rapture, for want of a better word, inspired by great works of music and art - that tends to be dismissed, or at least go unappreciated, or unacknowledged, in atheist polemics.

As a species, we've evolved this way. We've been naturally selected to be made to go all collectively bonkers by music, and religious devotion ("belief," even) is part of that phenomenon, regardless of whatever illusions religion might offer in the way of explaining natural phenomena, and regardless of any contribution religious belief attempts to make to the intellectual life of the people.

That's how I've used the term "tone-deaf" in relation to atheists, anyway. Yes please, let's forever attack and undermine the political function of religion, and attack the irrationality of religious belief when it presumes to supplant rational analysis of material processes. But to think that this supplanting of rational analysis is the key role that religion plays in the lives of the faithful is to be, well, tone deaf.

You might just as well raise rational arguments against jazz.

Mark said...

Remarkable line of argument from Quan. Because I reject Stalinism, do I have to throw out my Shostakovich CDs?

(Yes, I know Shostakovich's relationship with the Soviet Union was problematic. But while Christianity seems to be trying to take the credit for Mozart's masses, it is silent on the point that the Church sought at various times to ban (a) counterpoint - i.e. all music involving more than one note at a time, and (b) the diminished fifth interval - as featured in all music of the last 200 years and beyond. Makes the Shostakovich-Stalin relationship look positively simple.)

Paulie said...

Terry - YES! I really like that 'tone deaf' way of explaining things.

I'd go further in some ways. I don't believe in god, but I find that my catholic background has created a channel that authors like Muriel Spark, Brian Moore or Graham Greene can speak to me through.

Moore was no more of a catholic than me, in the end, I think?

But their transpositions of catholic ways of thinking into other stories is very instructive. The 'examination of conscience', the preparation for death - 'between the stirrup and the ground he mercy sought and mercy found' - is a very useful way of asking yourself "am I being a fair / good / kind / person. Am I always ready to be judged by my own standards?