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:

The Post-Work Society
So Wrong For So Long: On Liberal Biblical Reinterpretation
SF/F Saturday: The Culture
Dark Heart Now Available For Free!
About Adam Lee

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