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Posted by on Sep 16, 2012 in Featured Inc, music, philosophy, secularism | 10 comments

Atheist jams: Billy Joel

In the pile of hits for most musical genres, there’s a satisfying glint of atheistic thought. It’s no surprise that counter-culture musicians, like John Lennon or Nirvana that define themselves by opposing the mainstream should criticize religion. Organized religion is an edifice of the status quo, of the right and proper American. In contrast, however, sometimes even artists with widespread popular appeal pen critical tunes. These are more interesting to me than all the Imagine replays or pithy Bad Religion swipes. Case in point: Billy Joel’s 1977 Only the Good Die Young.

Joel’s tune is worth a close listen, and not just because of its laid-back charisma and underdog protagonist, but because of the elegant lyricism that totally nails deep philosophical points in a few short measures.

The most quoted bit is Only‘s “I’d rather laugh with the sinners” line. Here is the stanza:

They say there’s a Heaven for those who will wait
Some say it’s better but I say it ain’t
I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
The sinners are much more fun…

The sentiment is hardly novel, but it’s beautifully succinct. Religion, and here specifically Catholicism, is often emotionally pathologizing. Using opinion without argument reminds you that dogma is really all opinion, just something someone once wrote or said without evidence. They say it’s better. So what? I say it ain’t. The last line is sort-of an argument from fact: the sinners (or at least the non-puritans) are more fun.

Taken with some of the other lines bespeaking humanist virtues, the song is more compelling take-down of Pascal’s wager than I’ve read in any ten pages of philosophy treatise. Consider these bits.

They built you a temple and locked you away
But they never told you the price that you pay,
Things that you might have done… […]

The stained-glass curtain you’re hiding behind
Never lets in the sun […]

I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
The sinners are much more fun…

In common form, Pascal’s wager is an argument for belief in, or at least obedience to, God because if you’re wrong about atheism you risk hell, but if you’re right you gain heaven. Joel’s simple wisdom cuts through the crap. You can’t be sure that you have a soul or an eternity to gamble. The value of those things is attenuated by their likelihood, which even believers can’t demonstrate. Conversely, we can be sure of the value of our lives; our relationships, our precious moments with each other. That is the price that you pay, that they don’t want to tell you about. That is, that Pascal’s Wager asks you to gamble with the only thing in the universe you can be certain you possess and value. The humanist tragedy of religion is that people do it, they trade a little or a lot of their intellectual, emotional, and sexual freedom and joy for a fraudulent promise about a neverland that never comes.

The piano man
Joel’s tune is critical but not confrontational or judgey. It is about trying to get laid (and why not?) and it laments the neglected humanity, the ease with which we treat each other so badly:

You say your mother told you all that I could give you was a reputation
Aww She never cared for me
But did she ever say a prayer for me? 

  • http://www.bloodwitness.com Hittman

    >>define themselves by opposing the mainstream should criticized religion.<<

    You've got an extra word in there…

  • Jonathan MS Pearce

    I think it is interesting that there are and have been so many bands and songs over the last 50 years. Hundreds of thousands. And hardly any, comparatively, impactful songs: philosphical, political and worldview oriented (at least explicitly).

    I am going to post something on this over the next couple of weeks: my favourite atheistic songs.

    • Edward Clint

      In the Venn diagram showing the circles of philosophers and musicians, there is very little overlap. Song-writing is generally seen as story-telling, not intellectual excavation. Stories can have a moral, but usually the ones that sell are about breaking up or what the DJ should or should not be doing.

  • Copyleft

    As a Billy Joel fan, I approve this message.

    It does make a great argument that refutes Pascal’s nonsense quite succinctly.

    Q: “Even if it’s wrong, what does believing cost you?”
    A: “It costs you the only life you’ll ever have.”

  • http://www.skepticblogs.com John W. Loftus

    Nice. I love Billy Joel’s music!

    • Edward Clint

      Side note: Only the Good Die Young was banned from many radio stations. This had the effect of propelling it into hit-dom.

  • Jonathan MS Pearce