Guest post: A new anti-theist (but popular) song:

March 4, 2015 • 9:50 am
I wasn’t aware of this song at all, and it mystifies me why I wasn’t. Reader Carvaka brought it to my attention in an email, and rather than paraphrase what he/she said, I’ll just put up the email, along with my thanks for permission to reprint it:

by Carvaka

I’m writing to draw your attention to an unexpected oasis in the vapid desert landscape of contemporary popular music. I refer to the song “Take Me to Church” by the Irish singer/songwriter Hozier. The song is currently at No. 5 on the Billboard music charts, and has been on the charts for the past 28 weeks. It was performed at the recent Grammy awards, and nominated for Song of the Year. A popular ditty, in other words. Here it is on YouTube:

The surprising thing is that, besides being a rather nice tune, “Take Me to Church” is quite explicitly critical of religion. It focuses on religion’s condemnation of sexuality, but the chorus is more generally applicable:

Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life

The song also features a play on Fulke Greville’s immortal dissection of Christianity’s central conceit — “Created sick, commanded to be well” — a characterization much loved (and oft repeated) by Christopher Hitchens:

I was born sick,
But I love it
Command me to be well

And it ends with this lovely affirmation of the pleasures of this life, in contrast to sterile promises of heaven:

In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene
Only then I am Human
Only then I am Clean

Perhaps I am too cynical, but I am very surprised at the humongous success achieved by this rather subversive song. A sign of changing American attitudes to criticism of religion? Or perhaps just a sign that young people don’t really pay attention to the lyrics of songs?

63 thoughts on “Guest post: A new anti-theist (but popular) song:

  1. I think Greville said ‘sound’ rather than ‘well’ –
    “O wearisome condition of humanity! Born under one law, to another bound; Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity; Created sick, commanded to be sound.”

    My friend interprets it as a love song.

    1. On the last line, your friend may be right. It may well be an Elvis-Costello-like metaphor. Hozier happens to be an anti-theist, though. He says “the damage done by the Church to the people of Ireland is completely irreparable,” and that “faith is an absurd thing.”

      I’m pretty sure Elvis is anti-Church but essentially a Deist.

      The Irish.

  2. A sign of changing American attitudes to criticism of religion? Or perhaps just a sign that young people don’t really pay attention to the lyrics of songs?

    I just listened to the song for the first time: the video particularly emphasizes that it’s critical of religion.

    So my guess is that many of the ‘young people’ are paying attention to the lyrics, watching the video, and understand the song.

    As for the rest, it’s the “Born in the USA” Syndrome. “Take me to church? I will worship? Well, isn’t it nice to hear rock music which isn’t ashamed to stand up for Christ!”

    1. I think you’re right – a lot of “young people” watch the video and it must certainly enhance their interest in the lyrics. I’ve heard the song many times and until this post, I had never paid attention to the lyrics.

  3. Cynical pop outsider’s view: you need the cash behind you. But yeah, in our house of teenage, teenybop, Katy Perry, One Direction wall-to-wallisms, my 2 14 and 16 year-old girls like this. My ears pricked up when I noticed the lyrics. Good for Hozier. x

  4. I’ve heard this and like it, but since I haven’t understood the words to hardly any song since 1980, I didn’t know what is was about.

  5. I swear I’ve heard this song before but I don’t know where. I don’t listen to the radio so it must have been an ad or something…? Maybe it just sounds familiar to something else I’ve heard.

    Either way I like it, message and melody alike.

    As for it’s popularity, probably a little bit of identification and a little bit not-hearing-the-lyrics. People like tunes all the time that have lyrics they otherwise wouldn’t endorse. This is the case for a lot of hip hop or metal listeners.

    Top 40 is a bit different, though, and that disgusting Robin Thicke track with the “I’m comin’ for you ladies, whether or not you like it” message was hugely popular. It was also dreadfully catchy. There’s a certain amount of message-deafness that happens, but I have to admit I’m really surprised Hozier were able to get anti-religion by listeners.

    1. I accidentally heard that recently.

      A quite staggeringly bad song. It sounded like a really really dreadful cover of Prince’s “Kiss”.

  6. I have serious doubts that it would ever have achieved the popularity it has if the lyrics had been widely known by listeners. A cult classic maybe, but a chart topping hit? I am skeptical.

      1. Actually it has hit number 4 in the US, I think. What I am saying is that I seriously doubt that many of the listeners that have contributed to its popularity know (or knew) the lyrics. Of course, I am talking about the US specifically.

        Watch all the popular singing shows and religious affirmation is rampant among contestants and fans.

  7. I tried to think of good songs that were overtly critical of religion – couldn’t really come up with any. There are some lovely songs about religious doubt and agnosticism though – my favourite being Spacemen 3’s Lord Can You Hear Me? which I try and force on as many people as I can – but anti-theism, not so much, at least not off the top of my head.

      1. There are *so* many songs that are absolutely savage on organized religion – specifically Christianity. I wouldn’t post them in polite company, though.

    1. Dear God by XTC is overtly critical of religion, a good song (though that is of course largely subjective), and achieved something of a cult classic kind of success. But it never made it into Billboards Top 100, at least not in the US.

    2. Here’s one:

      Faith is cold as ice

      Why are little ones born only to suffer
      For the want of immunity or a bowl of rice
      Who will pay the price on the heads of the innocent children
      If there’s some immortal power to control the dice

      We come into the world and take our chances
      Fate is just the weight of circumstances
      That’s the way that lady luck dances
      Roll the bones
      Get busy

      ‘Roll the Bones’ by Neil Peart

      1. I recall in a recent DVD (I think R30), Alex is shown sitting down with a copy of ‘God is not Great’. Great band for all time.

    3. I would definitely recommend Epica. They’re a Dutch symphonic power metal band. While they don’t do exclusively atheist/agnostic music, there are some references in some of their songs. Fools of Damnation is a big one that is undoubtedly anti-theist. Then, to a lesser extent is Cry For the Moon which is in reference to the Catholic priest pedophile scandal and then there is Serenade of Self Destruction. That one is in reference to suicide and for the most part, it’s suicide in general, including those suffering from depression, but then near the end, it also references suicide bombers.

      “I’d rather die than breathe in my shame.
      They’ll know my name
      All hell in flames

      For our sovereign, we proudly die.
      (insert bit I’m blanking on) all hell will arise”

    4. This may have been mentioned – but Tori Amos’ “God” was pretty critical..imo. But maybe that got a slide because….you know..she’s hot?

      1. I think that song is a well done critique of the God. She is also good friends of Maynard (Tool), another band that rants well against the insipid attributes of faith.

    1. I did look at the web page you offered. The church is traditionally considered female gender, though, so “girlfriend” is an inference that may or may not be true. But there is also a quote from Hozier that appeared in New York Magazine interview (I haven’t verified the source yet) in which he says:

      “‘Take Me to Church’ is essentially about sex, but it’s a tongue-in-cheek attack at organizations that would… undermine humanity by successfully teaching shame about sexual orientation — that it is sinful, or that it offends God… But it’s not an attack on faith… it’s an assertion of self, reclaiming humanity back for something that is the most natural and worthwhile.”

      Make of that what you will.

    2. Imo the analysis is just wrong. The “she” is clearly mother Church. His analysis simply doesn’t make sense, and his, “… at least he knows it’s a sin” jab is sickenly typical.

      I don’t listen to the radio, so I’d never heard the song, but I love it. If you’re not listening properly though, pretty much the only words you’ll hear are, “Take me to Church”.

  8. Thanks for sharing this song! I didn’t know about it either.

    From amazon’s “Hozier page” I learn that he is age 23. He talks about his musical influences:

    ‘Hozier’s childhood and adolescent listening was dominated, he says, by his father’s record collection but particularly “by Chicago blues, Texan blues, Chess Records, Motown, and then I discovered jazz, but more importantly, Delta blues – that extraordinarily haunting sound, Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson, people like that. Later, it was Pink Floyd, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, plus Tom Waits was a huge, huge influence. I was always drawn to singers with something haunting about their voices. The same goes for writers such as James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. You can’t define what it is, but it buries itself deep in your soul.”’

  9. Unfortunately, I think it is the latter of the two presented options, people aren’t listening to the lyrical content. This song has been used in a commercial in a manner which suggests that the lyrical content isn’t being considered. The spot is not expressly religious, but the visual content in no way reflects the lyrical content and I would be surprised to learn that the parties involved were making a statement critical of religion

    There are many examples of this, particularly in advertising. The Iggy Pop song, “List for Life” which is about the unraveling life of a junkie, has been the musical accompaniment for Carnival Cruise line commercials for years. Volkswagon once used Nick Drake’s Pink Moon in a commercial for their cabriolet. The commercial featured young lovers taking a moonlit, romantic drive on the coast. The song Pink Moon is about Drake’s on-going battle with depression. Drake died a few years after recording the track from an overdose of anti-depressants. His death has never been confirmed as a suicide or an accident.

    1. I *knew* I’d heard this before. You just saved me an hour of unproductive distraction trying to remember.

      Yeah, it’s all about the tone of the song here. Nostalgic, regretful, but with an optimistic lilt. Perfect for the kind of overblown, sports-celebrity worship on display. I think you’ve pretty much proven why this song is so popular, bob.

      (Aside: I have nothing against LeBron James – just the marketing that shadows him everywhere)

      1. No caveat needed. I love sports but the marketing is ridiculous. John Ameche, a former NBA player whom has since come out of the closet, calls this type of marketing ‘bro-porn, for fairly obvious reasons.

    2. If I could pass one essentially pointless law that is nevertheless important to me it would be to ban the use of music on commercials. I don’t care how much Nick Drake’s estate got for that advert, I don’t care how much Iggy and Bowie got for placing LFL, it’s just too depressing to see wonderful music become entwined with the tackiest, most artless medium in the world. The choice should be taken out of their hands. When it comes to music I’m an unapologetic fascist.

    3. Hah – immediately THIS came to my mind – the song is very creepy and haunting (not in an appalachian folk way but creey in a modern way)…the video however is genius -it’s a fake sneaker commercial interspersed with a marketing meeting filled with vapid advertising people brainstorming the ad campaign for the sneaker. It quickly turns very dark…warning: graphic violence (but it’s funny…for some reason). I think they are touching on that whole idea of using art in advertising which cheapens art..blah blah blah…

  10. A less ambiguous criticism of religion can be heard in another popular song, “Prayer in C” by Lily wood and the Prick, which hit the top 40 and is getting a fair amount of airtime now. It’s encouraging to me that pop culture is beginning to shed its reticence at depicting religion in an unflattering light.

  11. I have listened to that song so many times and didn’t pay enough attention to the lyrics to realize the meaning. This is wonderful!

  12. Y.M.C.A by the Village People was also pretty subversive. It was funny to think that many really thought it was about going to the gym.

  13. I think most people that like it don’t understand the meaning, but just like the song regardless of the meaning. Many of the most popular songs these days have the worst lyrics and no meaning, so I know they don’t put much stock in it.

    Sadly, I don’t actually like this song. I like the message but nothing else.

  14. I’ve heard this song before…almost assumed that it was religious, but not till now did I know what the lyrics were. Wow. As Sastra says above: young people are not only listening, they are paying attention. This is fantastic.

    Art (Music included), satire, comedy is, in my opinion, a thousand times more potent than any book. Put a guitar in a person’s hands (aka Townsend) and you can change the world.

    In the theatre, we were born human (Aeschylus, Euripides,Homer). And if we are to stay human, to the theatre we must go.

  15. I never interpreted it as anti-religious, just using church as a metaphor for sex. But someone more devout than me might think it’s pretty blasphemous.

  16. I suspect the popularity despite it’s anti-religious outlook is a combination of things:

    1) Young people, who drive the Billboard ratings, have historically used music as a key means of rebellion against their parents. Some percentage of these kids will “mature and come back to the fold.”

    2) As Jerry points out, people often don’t listen that closely to lyrics.

    3) As has been shown many times on this site, young people are the fastest growing demographic of religious “nones.”

    However, this isn’t the first song in recent years to take a swipe at religion, check out Macklemore’s Same Love, which was Grammy nominated in 2012 (perhaps it could be interpreted as a bit accomodationalist sounding but definitely harsh on mainstream religion):

    The right wing conservatives think it’s a decision
    And you can be cured with some treatment and religion
    Man-made rewiring of a predisposition
    Playing God, aw nah here we go
    America the brave still fears what we don’t know
    And “God loves all his children” is somehow forgotten
    But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago
    I don’t know

  17. Just a trivia. Caravaka is the Atheistic thread within Indian Philosophy. So from where did the group get its name?

  18. I heard this song a couple of weeks back on the radio, and found it interesting.

    Another anti-theistic song, done as a parody, is Hayes Caryll’s She Left Me for Jesus. Very amusing.

    Check out this amazing dance to this song by the Bad Boy of Ballet, Sergei Polunin. Even those that don’t really care for ballet can’t help but be impressed by the sheer athleticism displayed here.

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