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July 30, 2012 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Is there such a thing as a humanist hymn?

I grew up experiencing the great soaring Protestant hymns in the 1940 Episcopal hymnal. I loved the music, still do, but as an adult my convictions don't really line up with most of the lyrics (lots of imperialist baggage, paternalistic racism, and praise for/expressions of faith in an interventionist God in whom I don't believe). I don't have faith in a higher being, I have faith in humanity.

Examples of my dilemna:
I love the Kipling Recessional's ("God of our Fathers") warning against imperial hubris, but it's hard to get past the line about "lesser breeds without the law."

"O God of love, O King of Peace" is great, peace is good, but I don't want to beg a deity to grant us peace, I want us to achieve it ourselves.

I have the same problem with many of the great nationalistic hymns. "I vow to thee my country" gives me chills but the lyrics about sacrifice are somewhat terrifying, especially when you consider that they were written just before the slaughter of WWI. Happily, the same powerful tune is used for the rugby world cup anthem "World In Union" which has much nicer lyrics.

So what is out there that evokes the same depth of feeling without the baggage? I would be interested to hear from UU folks, although I have a very low tolerance for the, for lack of a better term, super hippie/new age hymns. It's the ceding of agency to God that I object to in the old stuff, not the pomp and circumstance.
posted by Wretch729 to Religion & Philosophy (45 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Oh so hippy-dippy, Spirit of Life came immediately to mind. We sang it at the start of services at my UU church.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:41 PM on July 30, 2012

Best answer: Robert Burns' "Is There For Honest Poverty (A Man's A Man For A' That)" (song; lyrics) may fit the bill. For example:
Ye see yon birkie ca'd 'a lord,'
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that?
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a cuif for a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that,
The man o' independent mind,
He looks an' laughs at a' that.
posted by Zonker at 12:49 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Steve Martin wrote Athiest's Don't Have No Songs.
posted by postel's law at 12:55 PM on July 30, 2012

Atheists', even.
posted by postel's law at 12:56 PM on July 30, 2012

Best answer: "Die Gedanken sind frei"? "Imagine"?

The British Humanists Association choir is commissioning some music; check their Facebook page for videos of their performances.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:57 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Have you perused the UU hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition? I don't have my copy of it on hand right now, and I'm afraid a lot of it might fall under the "too hippy-dippy" category, but it does have a diverse range. Here is someone who appears to be a UU minister talking about the book, with links to covers of some included songs.

For faith in humanity, how about civil-rights-movement era songs like "We Shall Overcome" or "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize"? Some of those are religious in origin, but they take on whole other meanings if you think of them in the context of civil rights.
posted by ActionPopulated at 12:59 PM on July 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

One of the comments on this blog suggested Randall Thompson's "Frostiana".

Anthony Davis's "Voyage Through Death to Life Upon These Shores" isn't really a singalong piece, but it is a powerful secular oratorio.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:03 PM on July 30, 2012
I love this version of Langston Hughes' "I Dream a World".

I Dream A World

I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom's way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world!
Langston Hughes
posted by mmf at 1:03 PM on July 30, 2012

As a cradle Episcopalian PK now none-of-the-above married to a UU, I came to suggest the UU hymnal which has been cited many times already above, so I'll add, it's like someone in the mid-70s took the 1940 hymnal and erased all that paternalistic jesus-talk and replaced it with what was the inclusive, universalist (go figure) language of the day.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:05 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jo Walton's Secular Humanist Hymn came to mind.

I am familiar with, and not particularly fond of, most of the standard UU hymnal repertoire (both Singing the Living Tradition and the newer, turquoise-ier, Singing the Journey), as well as some of the more recent UU choir music. The stuff I actually quite enjoy that might work for you:

Vaugn Williams, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (OK, sexist, but great stuff)
Frostiana and Alleluia, Randall Thompson
posted by pie ninja at 1:06 PM on July 30, 2012

Just to clarify, I mean the actual hymns from the 1940 hymnal. It drives me nuts when my wife drags me to church with her and the damn words are different! Wait, what happened to that line about the all male Trinity saving the Earth from wickedness?!?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:07 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Two songs I've always considered "areligious (but not neceshymns"

What a Wonderful World
I see skies of blue..... clouds of white
Bright blessed days....dark sacred nights
And I think to myself .....what a wonderful world.

The colors of a pretty the sky
Are also on the faces.....of people ..going by
I see friends shaking hands.....sayin.. how do you do
They're really sayin......i love you.
It's certainly got the scope and singability of a hymn.

Imagine perhaps less so, but also rings those bells for me.
posted by bonehead at 1:13 PM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

This was the processional for my wedding, and I suspect a lot more of Gaia Consort would fit the bill. They are definitely bit hippie, but despite the name not actually new age.

Pink Floyd's _On The Turning Away_ is sort of dark, but I think it might qualify too.
posted by novalis_dt at 1:17 PM on July 30, 2012

While "This is My Song" mentions God, it could easily be edited not to. Sung to the tune of "Finlandia":

This is my song, Oh God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh hear my song, oh God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:17 PM on July 30, 2012

Doesn't get much more secular than The Internationale.
posted by jquinby at 1:24 PM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think Imagine and What a Wonderful World are good ones! I remember singing Joni Mitchell's Circle Game at camp and always being deeply moved by it... Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah, maybe? I can't remember all the lyrics or whether it gets explicitly religious.
posted by désoeuvrée at 1:26 PM on July 30, 2012

Best answer: I also thought immediately of Singing the Living Tradition. It has its hippy dippy moments, but it also has thoughtful humanist rewrites of some of those old favourite hymns--I'm pretty sure there actually is an "All things bright and beautiful" version in there. I don't remember how heavily edited that particular hymn is; sometimes they just swap out "God" for "spirit," sometimes the entire hymn has been rewritten with completely different words for a familiar melody. And sometimes God is still in there, too, but usually when the context is less likely to offend the atheist humanist sensibility. There are also hymns composed and written by UUs; I think the older ones, from the late 1800s and early 1900s, are most likely to be humanist without getting too hippy for you.

You can preview some of it on Google Books. Definitely worth checking out--pop into your local UU church at post-service coffee hour and flip through a pew copy, maybe?
posted by snorkmaiden at 1:28 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've run into a similar problem, although my Christian music background is gospel and bluegrass. Most of the time, with the classics like Johnny Cash and the more old-time mountain music, I can ignore the god part and focus on the beautiful music. But when I can't, I've found that a number of songs from my childhood serve a similar uplifting purpose and are perfect as to content and singability.

Gonzo's I'm Going to Go Back There Someday and Wishing Song are perfect examples of hope and happiness.

On the bluegrass side, Old Crow Medicine Show has a few beautiful tunes, some are overtly Christian but I Hear Them All is a very beautiful example of a more encompassing view of the world.
posted by teleri025 at 1:41 PM on July 30, 2012

Response by poster: These are great ideas, keep them coming!

Also I thought of an example of a hippie-type song I do like - Peter Paul and Mary sing the most amazing harmony with "Because All Men Are Brothers" but it avoids the hippy-dippy problem by cheating and using a Bach tune.

I don't mean to keep using hippie in such a snarky way, but I can't think of a better shorthand term for what I mean.
posted by Wretch729 at 1:51 PM on July 30, 2012

Singing the Living Tradition definitely has some hippy dippy, cringe-worthy selections, but it also has some songs that are very thoughtful and wonderful to sing. There's a great version of Finlandia (a.k.a. "This is My Song").

Sweet Honey in the Rock doesn't exactly sing in the style of standard protestant hymns but for inspiration, they're great. Some gorgeous social justice music, lots of fun to sing.

Another from my days as a UU chorister was a setting of e.e. cummings "i thank you god for most this amazing day."

If you want the pomp and grandeur without troublesome theology, try some non-English church music from Mozart, Bach, Rachmaninoff, etc. You can get lost in the beauty of the music and never have that record-scratch "Wait, what's this bit about the heathens?" moment. Or even Arvo Paert. You can't make out the words to his Beautitudes without straining, but the music is breath-taking.
posted by bunderful at 1:57 PM on July 30, 2012

Best answer: The people, Lord, thy people are good enough for me. Kipling again.

Peter Bellamy has written a lovely tune for it. It doesn't seem to be anywhere on youtube, but Amazon has an mp3 of Bellamy singing it. It's a folk style tune and not a hymn hymn, but it's still a very nice old-fashioned dignified tune, not unbearably hippie-esque or repetitive, and it's the sort of thing that you could harmonize up in a chorale style if you wanted to.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:59 PM on July 30, 2012

My experience going to a UU church for their Christmas Eve service informs me that Singing the Living Tradition also contains a number of hymns edited to decrease the Messiah-ness of Jesus. Its version of "Joy to the World", for instance, doesn't refer to Jesus as "Lord" or any other dominant title, and I don't believe the refer to him as "savior" or anything like that too much either. I think that went for all the other more standard hymns at the service.
posted by LionIndex at 2:10 PM on July 30, 2012

Seconding getting your hands on a UU hymnal. I was very pleased (and very much cracking up) when I realized one Sunday we were singing "Onward, Christian Soldiers" but with words about the beauty of nature or somesuch. Some hymns may get too hippy-dippy for you, but I'm sure you'll find some you like.
posted by TrixieRamble at 2:12 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Grieved Soul from the Sacred Harp also seems like it would fit the bill. Despite the downer of a title it's basically a hymn to human fellowship and kindness. It's a real joy to sing, too — the only downside is that it's so short, and leaves you wanting more.
Come my soul and let us try
For a little season
Every burden to lay by:
Come and let us reason.
What is it that casts thee down?
Who are those that grieve thee?
Speak and let the worst be known—
Speaking may relieve thee.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:23 PM on July 30, 2012

Best answer: The old Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts":

Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free
Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

There is a also a Christian hymn to the tune O Waly Waly (the English folk song "The Water is Wide") that uses words from 1st Corinthians that don't mention God and could be perfectly humanist (except for the source):

Though I may speak with bravest fire
And have the gift to all inspire
Yet have not love, my words are vain
As sounding brass and hopeless gain.

Though I may give all I possess
And striving so my love profess
But not be given by love within
The striving soon turns strangely thin.

posted by hydropsyche at 2:48 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

"For the Beauty of the Earth" was my favorite hymn from Singing the Living Tradition during my UU days. Old song (1864--and was I tickled when I watched the Winona Ryder version of Little Women and they sang it at Meg's wedding!), but the UUs tweaked "Lord of all" to "Source of all" (either the earth itself or the benevolent universe or what have you) and voila.

Oh, and they also left out the last four verses, which I'd never even seen until a few minutes ago.
posted by dlugoczaj at 2:50 PM on July 30, 2012

We always sang this hymn first at UU services. Lo and behold my Christian friends knew the song, but with much different lyrics. I don't have singing the living tradition, but its definitely in there and I would recommend it.

My church sang the these lyrics:

"For all who dwell below the skies
Let faith and hope and love arise
let beauty truth and good be sung
through every land by every tongue."

And then the kids headed off to youth group and the youth headed off to hang out in the canyons.
posted by kittensofthenight at 3:20 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's never been an entire piece, but The Green Hills of Earth should be assembled and set to stirring music.
posted by zadcat at 3:31 PM on July 30, 2012

You may enjoy Ray Wylie Hubbard's version of Slaid Cleaves's/Woodie Guthrie's "This Morning I Am Born Again":

"This morning I was born again and a light shines on my land
I no longer look for heaven in your deathly distant land
I do not want your pearly gates don’t want your streets of gold
And I do not want your mansion for my heart is never cold."

The Hubbard version sounds like the pick-up midnight gospel choir over there in the corner of the bar--great harmonies, and strength and lift out of simplicity. I commend you to it.*

Really, seriously: Hubbard's rendition is a knockout, but not on YT, more's the pity.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:39 PM on July 30, 2012

Also, if you like stirring patriotic songs but get twitchy about the nationalism, try out Phil Ochs' Power and the Glory. That hits some of the hymn buttons for me too.
posted by ActionPopulated at 3:57 PM on July 30, 2012

Best answer: As you mention Kipling's line about 'lesser breeds without the law', you might be interested in George Orwell's take on it -- which, if you can get past the homophobic sneer at the 'pansy-left', does actually make a good point:

An interesting instance of the way in which quotations are parroted to and fro without any attempt to look up their context or discover their meaning is the line from ‘Recessional’, ‘Lesser breeds without the Law’. This line is always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles. It is assumed as a matter of course that the ‘lesser breeds’ are ‘natives’, and a mental picture is called up of some pukka sahib in a pith helmet kicking a coolie. In its context the sense of the line is almost the exact opposite of this. The phrase ‘lesser breeds’ refers almost certainly to the Germans, and especially the pan-German writers, who are ‘without the Law’ in the sense of being lawless, not in the sense of being powerless. The whole poem, conventionally thought of as an orgy of boasting, is a denunciation of power politics, British as well as German.
posted by verstegan at 4:35 PM on July 30, 2012

The Atheist Christmas Carol
posted by jaimystery at 4:40 PM on July 30, 2012

Best answer: Some of my favorites from Singing the Living Tradition, with some bias toward Protestant-hymn-based music, by hymn number.

#1 May Nothing Evil Cross This Door (lyrics) (recording)
#6 Just As Long As I Have Breath (lyrics) (recording)
#18 What Wondrous Love (lyrics) (recording)
#108 My Life Flows On In Endless Song (lyrics) (recording)
#121 We'll Build A Land (lyrics) (recording)
#123 Spirit Of Life (lyrics) (recording)
#139 Wonders Still The World Shall Witness (lyrics on p. 3) (recording)
#159 This Is My Song (recording) / #318 We Would Be One (recording), both to Finlandia. (lyrics for both*)
#194 Faith Is A Forest (lyrics, scroll to bottom) (recording)
#300 With Heart And Mind (lyrics on p. 2) (recording)
#331 Life Is The Greatest Gift Of All (lyrics, bottom of p. 3) (recording)

* The UU version of This Is My Song drops verse 3.

As LionIndex notes, there are also some low-Messiah versions of Christmas songs. It's been pointed out to me that the UU rendering of In The Bleak Midwinter (#241) is particularly lovely.

As a general note: if you're ever in need of a recording of a UU hymn, there's a good chance the UU Church of Nashua recording page has it. And as pointed out by snorkmaiden, you can find music for all of these hymns and more by searching the Google Books preview. Of course, if you can drop by a UU church to look at a physical copy, so much the better! If you're looking for hymns by a specific composer or to a specific tune, don't forget to check the Composer index (pp. 654-660) or the Tune index (pp. 661-663).

Singing the Journey (Google Books | instrumental recordings of all 75 hymns), the newer supplement to Singing The Living Tradition, draws on mostly to entirely non-Protestant sources (and is correspondingly hippy-dippier, on average), but I can't resist recommending my absolute favorite song from StJ, #1028 The Fire Of Commitment (lyrics) (recording), which is absolutely gorgeous in every sense and never fails to give me chills.
posted by beryllium at 5:05 PM on July 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

If you like the Internationale, you'll probably like Bread and Roses (here's a choral version that replaces the problematic phrase "rising of the race" with "rising of them all"). At my alma mater, this song is part of an annual ritual that reminds me a little of a congregational service.
posted by Naiad at 5:09 PM on July 30, 2012

For inclusive/universalist/hippie dippie sing along goodness try the Winds of the People songbook
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:12 PM on July 30, 2012

A lot of Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Indigo Girls, and Leonard Cohen music hits this spot for me. They can be very earnest and spiritual but not explicitly religious. "Born at the Right Time," for example.

Tim Minchin's Christmas Song, "White Wine in the Sun".

Vienna Teng's "Atheist Christmas Carol".

If you want to go a slightly different direction, there's Phil Collin's "Jesus He Knows Me".
posted by bunderful at 6:41 PM on July 30, 2012

Nick Cave - Into My Arms.
posted by Wavelet at 8:16 PM on July 30, 2012

My husband suggests #347 Gather the Spirit. I actually had the pleasure of spending a week at a UU retreat this summer [UUMAC] where the songwriter, Jim Scott, was our music director for the week. He did a good job in leading and teaching us unfamiliar music. Most of his hymns have many verses are reference nature and peace as opposed to God.

If it doesn't need to be long and ponderous, there's stuff in StLT that doesn't explicitly mention God - #100 I've Got Peace Like a River, #118 This Little Light Of Mine, #168 One More Step, #170 We Are a Gentle, Angry People, #348 Guide My Feet. I tend to like simpler stuff, and some of this lends itself to swaying and clapping.
posted by booksherpa at 8:39 PM on July 30, 2012

Best answer: How about the Ode to Joy segment from Beethoven's no. 9 symphony?
posted by rjs at 8:56 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd like to add Blue Boat Home to the list.
posted by nangar at 9:40 PM on July 30, 2012

Yes, definitely "White Wine in the Sun" for Christmas; fun, but also moving.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 10:20 PM on July 30, 2012

I love Glory Hallelujah by Frank Turner

Brothers and sisters, have you heard the news?
The storm has lifted and there's nothing to lose,
So swap your confirmation for your dancing shoes,
Because there never was no god.
Step out of the darkness and onto the streets,
Forget about the fast, let's have a carnival feast,
Raise up your lowered head to hear the liberation beat,
Because there never was no god.

posted by Gilgongo at 11:19 PM on July 30, 2012

Best answer: If you like Peter Bellamy's setting of Kipling's a Pilgrims Way (as I do), you might like to track down the album 'Lost in a Song' by Canadian folk group Finest Kind. I suggest this not only for their version of A Pilgrim's Way, but because it also includes the moving song 'No More Fish, No Fishermen' about the loss of the Atlantic fishery and using a hymntune, 'See, Amid the Winter's Snow' (and inspired by the earlier folksong based on the same tune, 'Coal not Dole'). Finest Kind also perform the actual hymn (though it has no mention of god), 'Only Remembered for What We Have Done' and the less serious (unless you are very serious about women and drink), 'Sussex Drinking Song' (lyrics by Hilaire Belloc) which despite its topic has a very hymnlike sound to it.

You might also consider looking for some songs from the first and second world wars. One great example I can think of is 'When this Bloody War is Over' (based on 'What a Friend I have in Jesus'). In a similarly anti-war vein are a number of Eric Bogle's songs (not hymns, but have some of the same feeling), such as 'No Man's Land' (aka 'Green Fields of France), in this version sung in both English and German.

Finally, this question has been asked at least once before on this music forum, you might find some more answers there.
posted by Sing Fool Sing at 11:37 PM on July 30, 2012

Before the UU hymnal there was Stanton Coit's Social Worship, which includes poems by Shelley, Swinburne, Whitman and others, turned into 'ethical' hymns and anthems. Percy Dearmer made some similar selections for Songs of Praise (1925), including Whitman's 'All The Past We Leave Behind' (aka 'Pioneers! O Pioneers!'), Whittier's 'O Brother Man, Fold To Thy Heart Thy Brother' (to Parry's tune 'Intercessor') and Shelley's 'The World's Great Age Begins Anew'. My favourite from this great age of Broad Church hymnody is Bax's 'Turn Back O Man, Forswear Thy Foolish Ways', which goes to the stately tune of the Old 124th. Bax wrote it in 1916 as an anti-war hymn, and although it refers to an 'inner God' there's very little religion in it; it's basically an exhortation to rise above the darker side of human nature.
posted by verstegan at 5:39 AM on July 31, 2012

Best answer: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life" references a "God o'erhead", but largely speaks of courageous living in the present. An excerpt:

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream! —
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

It has been set to music several times.
posted by leapfrog at 12:52 PM on July 31, 2012

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