Ask Richard: Songwriter Famous for Christian Music is Secretly an Atheist

Dear Richard,

I’m an atheist, and although I’ve only been reading The Friendly Atheist for a couple of months, I suspect my situation is unique: I’m actually famous, literally, for the Christian music I used to write and perform.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, the son of a conservative, Christian pastor. I began writing Christian songs as a child. As a teenager, my music was already being performed on Christian TV programs. After attending a well-known Christian university in the Midwest, I headed for Nashville, where I wrote songs for (and recorded or performed with) many of Christian music’s biggest stars: Sandi Patti, Amy Grant, and many others. I’ve won Dove Awards (Christian music’s highest award) and even a Grammy Award, all for Christian music. Church congregations around the world sing my music. Music that was written by an atheist.

Even as a child I’d questioned religion, but I was always admonished to ward off those “evil thoughts.” Finally, while in Nashville, I allowed myself to embrace my inner atheist (privately) all the while writing and recording Christian music. Eventually I tired of that double life, however. So, I moved to the east coast. Although I continue to have success as a songwriter, I no longer write Christian music. It was never more than a gig; I did it for the money. I now write songs for major country and pop artists.

My dilemma is this: because I recorded a couple of Christian albums, years ago, both certified gold, I have a following; people recognize me and assume I’m still a Christian. I have a Facebook fan page, where I can let fans know what I’m up to. But so many of them are devout Christians who post messages like, “Continue to do the Lord’s work!” and “We thank the Lord for your ministry!” But I don’t have a goddamned ministry! If they merely write “God bless you” or something, that’s fine. But I’ve been deleting the more sanctimonious messages, because I just can’t stand them.

While most of my fans are aware of my pop and country work, they don’t realize I’ve abandoned my Christian writing, all together. And sooner or later, they’re likely to figure out I’m singling out the religious posts on my Facebook page for deletion.

Although I’ve done well financially, I’m not independently wealthy. So, it’s important I maintain my fan base and keep them informed about new projects. I may even record a new solo project, something they’ve been asking me to do, but of course it won’t be religious music. Who knows what’ll happen once they realize that.

So, I’m trapped: If I “come out” as an atheist, I’ll lose fans in droves. But by not doing so, I’m “condemning” myself to the “torture” of fans who assume I’m still a Christian. It’s not that I can’t hold conversations with Christians. Of course I can. What’s driving me nuts is the fact that so much of their conversation is God-centric. They can’t simply say, “Hello.” Instead, they greet you with, “Praise the Lord” and such. (Ugh.)

I’ve seen you advise others, so eloquently, about not being in a rush to reveal their atheism to friends and family. Or that if they do so, they must be prepared for the consequences. My problem is that I’m, pardon the expression, “damned if I do and damned if I don’t.” How do I come to terms with this?

The Autographing Atheist

Dear Autograph,

At first glance, some people might think that the main issue here is an ethical one, centering around your writing Christian music while being an atheist. I don’t think so. It would be a shame for that to distract from what I think is the more important issue, so let me briefly attempt to put the ethical one to rest.

Years ago, you got tired of having to pretend, so you stopped writing that kind of music. You stopped feeding people’s misconceptions of you, and increasing a situation where you might be considered a hypocrite. Good idea. My good friend, ethics expert Jim Lichtman agrees with me: If there was any ethical concern about being disingenuous, it was resolved when you stopped writing the songs, and you do not owe it to anyone to reveal your private, personal views and beliefs. Not then, and not now.

For centuries, artists and composers have been producing both secular and sacred art and music. For many of them, it is impossible for us to know how devoutly and sincerely they believed in the religion they were glorifying. Certainly many did, but it is likely that some did not. For some perhaps, it was never more than a gig; they did it for the money. They had to paint landscapes or saints; they had to write quartets or hymns. They had to eat.

But that makes no difference. Regardless of their private thoughts and innermost feelings, by their talent and their hard work they produced great things. Their creations give both believers and skeptics experiences of awe, astonishment, inspiration, insight, and sheer pleasure.

I think that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and artists and composers make mirrors. When we see and hear their works, we are moved by seeing the reflection of our own humanity, which is deeper, richer and more beautiful than we usually appreciate in our daily lives, our mundane routines.

You wrote wonderful Christian music, and Christians still love it today. They feel joyful, inspired, and perhaps moved to be kind and generous. That is them doing that. Their reaction to your creation is their creation. They are seeing their beauty in your superbly crafted mirrors.

Now to what I think is the important issue, your tolerance.

I think you should take a long look at your revulsion at the gushier Christians who admire and thank you in their religious terms. Where does your disgust come from, to the point that you call it “torture,” even if you put it in quotations? Some of them are gushy, some are more reserved, but it’s the language they speak. You spoke it very well in your Christian songs.

I talked about the ethical issue above just in case you feel some inappropriate guilt about your past as an atheist Christian songwriter. There’s no need for self-reproach if that is what is feeding your aversion to these Christians. Years ago when you started to feel conflicted, you stopped writing those songs and you moved on. You resolved the conflict.

I suggest that when Christians compliment you on your Facebook page, don’t delete their more religious remarks. You don’t have to refute their beliefs or reinforce them. Take a couple of deep, slow breaths, and thank them just as you do the less overtly religious ones. Allow everyone to admire any work you have done for whatever reason they have, in whatever terms they use.

Many artists reinvent themselves during their careers. A few do it several times. Their talent either outlasts the fashion of their original genre, or they outgrow that genre. They need to explore new avenues. When they change, some of their old fans will continue to only like the earlier works, some will follow the artist into the new art form, and some new fans will embrace the artist for the first time. Sometimes artists will express frustration that they are most admired for work that they don’t consider their best or their most important. Artists and art lovers don’t necessarily have the same agenda.

I think you should gradually tell your fans in simple terms that as an artist you must try many things. Express your gratitude for their support of your earlier work, and invite them to follow you as your art evolves. If some prefer your earlier songs, that’s okay, no hard feelings.

Autograph, your great talent is about helping people see the beauty of their own humanity reflected in your mirrors. It doesn’t matter what the genre is that you want to develop now. That’s like the style of the mirror’s frame. People will choose various frame styles to fit their lifestyles. Let them. Just keep helping us see ourselves in ways we might otherwise miss.


P.S. Hemant pointed out an interesting fact:

Dan Barker of FFRF actually spent much of his career writing Christian music. He even wrote two musicals for children called Mary Had a Little Lamb and It’s Fleece Was White as Snow which still get performed and which still generate royalties for him today (as far as I know)! He writes about it in his book Godless.

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a very large number of letters; please be patient.

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