The Contributions of Freethinkers: Pearl Jam

(Editor’s Note: Thanks to DA reader Alan Waldron for suggesting this post!)

I’ve written about famous atheist composers before, but not all the great nonbelieving musicians belong to the past. Some are still living, working, and performing – like the subjects of today’s post on the contributions of freethinkers.

The band Pearl Jam was founded in Seattle, Washington in 1990, a part of the emerging grunge-rock movement that would also produce bands like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden. Its original lineup consisted of vocalist Eddie Vedder, guitarists Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, and drummer Dave Krusen (ultimately replaced by Matt Cameron). Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten, was released in August 1991 and became a breakout, certified-gold success thanks to hit singles like “Alive” and “Jeremy”. Their second album, 1993′s Vs., set records even more rapidly. Their subsequent albums include Vitalogy (1994), Yield (1998), Riot Act (2002), and Backspacer (2009). Allmusic calls Pearl Jam “the most popular American rock & roll band of the 90s”, and a 2005 USA Today reader’s poll voted them the greatest American rock band of all time.

Pearl Jam’s music, in addition to advocating a variety of progressive causes such as the pro-choice movement and environmental conservation, carries unmistakable themes of science and freethought. In “Big Wave” (lyrics), a song about evolution and how it connects us to our crustacean ancestors in the sea, Vedder sings:

I used to be crustacean, in an underwater nation
And I surf in celebration, of a billion adaptations
I feel the need, planted in me, millions of years ago, can’t you see?
The ocean’s size, defining time and tide, rising arms laid upon me,
Being so kind to let me ride.

The song “Marker in the Sand” (lyrics) demands to know why a deity would permit people to slaughter each other in his name:

Those undecided needn’t have faith to be free
And those misguided, there was a plan for them to be.
Now you got both sides claiming killing in God’s name
But God is nowhere to be found, conveniently.

And one of my personal favorites, “Do the Evolution” (lyrics), pointedly criticizes religion for encouraging humanity’s violent impulses and fostering an illusory sense of our species’ superiority:

I’m ahead, I’m a man
I’m the first mammal to wear pants, yeah
I’m at peace with my lust
I can kill ’cause in God I trust, yeah
It’s evolution, baby

The video, one of the rare exceptions to Pearl Jam’s policy of not creating music videos for their songs, is a psychedelic animated montage of violence through the ages, from knights in the Crusades to Nazi rallies to the KKK – pointedly suggesting that religion and other tribalisms are nothing but a mode of expression of the violent impulses arising from the darker side of our nature.

The Celebrity Atheist List also has this quote from Eddie Vedder:

I think [God is] like a movie that was way too popular. It’s a story that’s been told too many times and just doesn’t mean anything.

Other posts in this series:

Is Terrorism Courageous?
Atlas Shrugged: Sixteen Tons
Atlas Shrugged: Hobo Sign
Season of the Tempter
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • ashling

    I’m only passingly familiar with Pearl Jam, so I had no idea about this. Nice.

    If we’re giving a shout-out to freethinkers and doubters in modern music, I can’t resist adding Porcupine Tree (e.g. Intermediate Jesus, Halo) and Pain of Salvation (e.g. Diffidentia). Thoroughly recommended for those with an inclination toward prog rock.

  • hrd2imagin

    I was recently at the Pearl Jam shows where they were closing down the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Eddie took some time to talk about how, during sound check, the light coming through the arena entry ways made it feel as if God was shining through, after some fan applause, Eddie quickly threw in, “If there is such a thing”

    Another song to add to the list is “Faithfull

    M-Y-T-H is belief in the game controls
    that keep us in a box of fear
    We never listen
    Voice inside so drowned out
    Drowned you are, you are, you are a furry thing
    And everything is you
    Me you, you me, it’s all related
    What’s a boy to do?
    Just be darling and I will be too
    Faithful to you

    Basically states how religion is but myth and we are human, furry things, related to all other furry things and it’s best to put our faith in each other. It’s a humanism anthem. It’s also worth noting the extra “L” in the song title.

  • Maynard

    Another reason to love Pearl Jam.

  • Ebonmuse

    ashling: My brother introduced me to Porcupine Tree a while ago, and though I like them pretty well, I never noticed any freethought themes in their music. I’m definitely going to have to go back and take another look at those lyrics.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Though I gather that many here may recoil from their politics or early attachment to Objectivism, Rush’s “Free Will” was a turning point in my road to atheism.

  • KShep

    Rush’s “Free Will” was a turning point in my road to atheism.

    On a similar note, Frank Zappa’s “Dumb All Over” was a thought-provoking song for me that was, among many other things, a catalyst toward my atheism. It basically outlines how religion has done more harm than good, and how blind its followers are. It goes on about TV preachers, too. A very funny and poignant song.

  • ashling

    Ebonmuse: Awesome. They are a great band. Have a flick through some of the lyrics to their new album The Incident, or perhaps the lyrics to Halo from Deadwing (or just the titles of some of the instrumentals on the album Signify), and read with an appropriate sense of irony.

    While not atheistic, I think Steve Wilson can be fairly described as a freethinker as you can see from this interview:

    “I don’t like the religious coercion. I am not a big fan of organized religion or even of religion at all. I do believe in spirituality and I do see myself as a spiritual person, but I think that God and Satan exist within people, and don’t hover over us. I believe that God is found in mother earth and within us.

    “Many times religion promotes hate and friction between people. I don’t really like the religious side of Israel, although in Tel Aviv I hardly see it at all. Several days ago we played in a studio in Bnei Brak on Friday. After several hours we were told that we had to stop working because if we didn’t then the place would be fined because you aren’t allowed to play when the Sabbath begins. This method seems to me a bit unrealistic because it shows that someone is forcing his faith on me, and I don’t believe in those things.”

    (I hope this comment posts ok, the preview javascript seems to be not recognising the closing tags on some of the links.)

  • Tolerance

    Definitely agree on Rush and Porcupine Tree. Check out “You Bet Your Life” from Roll the Bones, as well as the title track, from Rush.

    Another band with freethinker lyrics to check out: Tea Party (absolutely no relation to the inane political movement of the same name), especially Great Big Lie from Tryptych

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “Why are we here? Because we’re here.” Yep.

  • Andrew T.

    I’m a fan of Rush; though I have a strong preference for their post-1970s material when they cast the Objectivist lyrical overtones (and Geddy’s upper vocal range) aside. :) Lots of good stuff in there…

  • Ebonmuse

    I’m not familiar with Rush’s earlier work, but I like Snakes & Arrows very much (lots of pro-freethought lyrics in there).

  • SerotoninZen

    My favorite non-(anti?) theist song ever is from Steely Dan — always funny (this one quotes Elmer Fudd), always obtuse — the final verse of “Godwhacker” (from the last SD album “Everything Must Go”) says:

    Yes we are the GodWhackers
    Who rip and chop and slice
    For crimes beyond imagining
    It’s time to pay the price
    You better step back son
    Give the man some whackin’ space
    You know this might get messy
    GodWhacker’s on the case

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Oh, how could I forget the Dan? “Your Gold Teeth II”, from Katy Lied:

    Throw out your gold teeth and see how they roll…
    The answer they reveal? Life is unreal.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Oh, and XTC’s “Dear God”.

  • Kennypo65

    What about Jethro Tull? the Aqualung album was all about how men exploit belief in god for their own ends.

  • Archimedez

    Re early Rush, fantasy/sci-fi phase, try this:

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Thanks, Arch. Heh, my first garage band used to do that song.