Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sometimes leaving my atheist bubble unnerves me

Yesterday I went to the Purdue Christmas Show with Bryan and a couple of our friends. I really wasn't dying to go, as I'm already starting to get Christmassed-out... but it's a 75 year old Purdue tradition, and I felt like I should go see it once before I graduate. I have to say, I was very impressed. The student singers were fabulous, especially when they were dancing around stage in unison, and I loved the bit where they played some songs just with bells. I'm a mediocre singer and never learned how to play a instrument, so musical things always impress me.

But then came Act II, and they dialed the Jesus Factor up to 11.

Instead of everyone being dressed in comfy sweaters or sparkly dresses, all of the students wore matching church choir robes. The background changed from a wintry landscape with snowflakes to stain glass windows and crosses. Instead of dancing around stage and impressing us with their coordinated jazz hands, they stood somberly and didn't move for the entire act. And of course, instead of songs about winter and Santa and friendship and family, it was about Jesus and God and Creation and being saved.

Oh, religion. Why must you ruin everything?
Santa apparently loves Baby Jesus too.

I know what you must be thinking: "Jen, it's the Purdue Christmas Show. You can go on and on about how it's just a pagan holiday co-opted by Christians and is now losing its religious meaning, but some people do associate it with the birth of Jesus. You're going to have some religious songs." And you're totally right. A lot of Christmas songs that I enjoy have religious imagery, and they're quite beautiful. I went to this show totally expecting some.

However, I think sixteen highly religious songs* in a row is kind of overkill. By the time the fourth song came on, I literally started to feel trapped. It was like I had been tricked into going to church - the hall had been made to look like a Cathedral, and all the music turned into gospel worship songs. It was definitely uncomfortable, and that's not how I expect to feel going to a music show from a secular public University**.

Baby behind us: *wails*
Me: *turns to Bryan* That's about how I feel right now

But as I sat there, I realized it wasn't the context of the songs that unnerved me - it was that the vast majority of the 5,000+ people there literally believed every word of it. We could all listen to songs about Santa and enjoy them without believing that he really did come down chimneys on Christmas Eve. But when they started singing about God creating the world and sending his only son (who was himself) to save all of us, all I could think was "I'm surrounded by people who believe this nonsense." I would have the same feeling if you told me I was in a room full of people who all thought they had been abducted by aliens, or that the world was going to end in 2012.

That's why leaving my atheist bubble sometimes scares me. Nearly all of my friends are atheists, the one club I have time for is the Non-Theists, I read atheist I get deluded that everybody is an atheist. Then I go to something like this and I realize I am in the minority. It's quite a wake up call.

*Here are the songs, in case you want to judge for yourself: Angels We Have Heard on High, The First Noel, Silent Night (these first three the audience was supposed to sing along), Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Can You Hear It?, Some Children See Him, Ring the Bells, Lux Arumque, Anthem for Christmas, Emmanuel, O Come All Ye Faithful, Go Tell It On the Mountain, Joy to the World, Little Drummer Boy, Each Single Day, Silent Night (needed to hear it again, apparently)

**On that note, how does a public University get away with having a religious Christmas show? I can understand a "Holiday" show were they throw in the dradle song for good measure, but something so explicitly about Jesus? I don't see Purdue putting on giant shows for other religions. Where's my Happy Monkey dance number?


  1. So... are you complaining to the school administration about the overtly religious/christian content of the program? I understand what you're getting at and depending on who put on and sponsored the show I probably agree with you, but your remarks won't help unless they're directed at the people who have some power to do something about it.

    Personally I prefer the religious xmas songs, not for the words but because they usually have better music and I'm a big enough boy to listen to a song without agreeing with it. However, I'm not a secular, public-run university.

  2. Here at Kent State, I recently had to see an interpretive dance show for a theater class I'm taking to satisfy my fine arts LER. The second number was introduced by the master of ceremonies (via a statement prepared by the choreography people for that particular piece, not the university) with some weirdness about how that particular dance company recognized that art "comes from the soul" and that dance is a "gift from God". Er, no, actually, I'm pretty sure dance is actually the result of a hell of a lot of hard work, practice, and extraordinary physical fitness, but okay...

    It was a winter-themed piece about...uh, I have no idea, it was interpretive dance. But the background music was Faith Hill's horrid cover of "What Child is This?" (which is a terrible song to begin with--why would anyone do that to Greensleeves?!). All the dancers were in full winter gear, sweaters, hats and all, which must have been intensely uncomfortable. They even had the poor girls wearing boots. I looked around at the people sitting near me expecting to see grins and people exchanging dubious looks, but they seemed not to find the whole spectacle as bizarre as I did.

    So I feel like I know exactly what you mean when you talk about "the atheist bubble", and the vaguely disturbing things that occasionally intrude into it...

  3. "Oh, religion. Why must you ruin everything?"

    Oh, sky cake. Why are you so delicious?

  4. I suspect that public universities can include a lot more religious music because (a) you are in no way required to go, (b) you are adults, (c) no one is expected to believe it, and (d) probably a lot more input by the students into the show (and the religious music is often better).

  5. Just to note, the robes and standing without moving aren't necessarily religiously-themed. I did a lot of concert choir in high school, and we all wore robes and stood on bleachers. Google image search "concert choir" and you'll see what I mean.

  6. I got trapped at one of these recently too - less than an hour ago actually - I felt like throwing up about 6 Jesus-y songs in. Got the same feeling too - how can people actually believe some magical godlike baby was born in a manger with wise men coming with gifts and stars in the sky and sing about that kinda stuff. Most of the time I can ignore the religious idiocy of the world, but everyone feels the need to amp it up around this time of year. If I were you, and not held there by familial obligation, I probably would have left =P. And yes, religion ruins everything. Even if it's foreign, hearing 'jesu' and stuff thrown in ruins it - If I understand the topic, it destroys it for me. Now to detox from that bombardment of baby jesus savior king music I had to endure...

  7. You think that was bad, I was IN the Christmas Show last year!

    I absolutely love singing, because when I put the time in I'm pretty decent at it, and it just feels amazing being part of this enormous... thing... on stage. It feels... powerful. Like a religious experience, without having to believe anything other than SINGING IS AWESOME.

    That aside though, the heavily Christian music got to me at times. The really common ones (silent night, etc) don't seem to bother me as much, because they're just Christmas-y and familiar, but a few of the songs we did were more obscure and kind of eh... and it was like, would we be doing this if it wasn't about Baby Jesus? The worst thing though is that many of the people in the choirs, including some of the directors, are fairly religious. So every now and then people would say things backstage or in rehearsal with the assumption that everyone in the room shared the same beliefs... which obviously, I didn't. At such times, I became VERY interested in fixing my hair or rearranging my music, because I didn't want a religious debate to ruin Christmas show for me.

  8. Just FYI: it's usually spelt "dreidel" or "dreydl". Now that I've gotten my Jewish pedantry aside...

    I wanted to comment on one thing. I'm not usually an optimistic person, except in one respect: I do usually assume that people I meet are atheists until given evidence to the contrary (one might call it 'innocent until proven guilty'). What I've found is that, in the kinds of circles I inhabit, it tends not to be too far off the mark (occasionally I meet people who believe in belief, or who are culturally religious, etc)... and then the anvil drops and I meet somebody who actually believes all this nonsense.

    When I do meet such people, I'm often so floored by the fact that they really believe it that I am rather lost for words. The religiosity does really seem to come out of the woodwork around holiday time, though... just one more reason I loathe this time of year.

    I don't know if I'd be able to function in my daily life if I didn't assume people were atheists - I'd probably be a lot more paranoid if I were to assume everybody to be true believers...

    Now, there's another thing too. As someone who grew up Jewish, the ubiquitous Christmas music tends to nauseate me. Even the purely secular parts of Christmas always irritated me, and honestly it bothers me even more when they try to be multicultural and throw in something like the dreydl song just for appeasement's sake. I'd rather they just didn't sing anything.

    It's all just so tacky and over-the-top. I hate December. I just sometimes wonder if I hadn't learned to associate it with ostracism and being misunderstood, if I'd hate it quite so much...

  9. I had free tix and I'm happy I didn't go...I was Christmased out about 2 weeks ago

  10. This is the kind of stuff that makes Christmas Eve not something I look forward to at all. My family has had a tradition of going to the Christmas Eve candlelight service every year. Since I became an atheist, I've continued to go because my mom has specifically requested it (she's aware that I'm an atheist). There's quite a strong sense of lonliness that comes from being in a room with a thousand people and knowing that you're one of probably less than 10 people in that room who don't believe what they're saying.

  11. That was an inordinate many songs. Never heard of Lux Arumque and that despite preferring the later Latin text of Come all the faithful.

    Hell, we only do three songs at church services here (perhaps four). As it happens I liked - and knew - all three used at my supervisors recent funeral (but fuck do I not have musical training).

    I guess we up the ante a bit around the three Christmas Eve, but even then it's usually "First two verses and then the last".

  12. Ah - AUrumque. That makes more sense.