Run On

By Sean Carroll | October 16, 2008 10:23 am

I must not be a very good atheist, because I love gospel music. Here are the Blind Boys of Alabama, with “Run On.”

The Boys first got together in 1939. And they’re not some ongoing concern whose membership turns over, like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; their current lead singer, Jimmy Lee Carter, was a founding member of the group. Other charter members were active until recently: vocalist Clarence Fountain cut down on touring in 2006, and George Scott (singing lead in this track) passed away in 2005. They gained a bit of late-career notoriety when their cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” was used as the theme song for the first season of The Wire.

Sorry for the lack of substantive blogging of late. Science comes first.

  • Matt

    That’s an interesting observation, Sean, if only because I’ve always thought music was the closest thing there is to some kind of evidence of a spiritual human component.

    I’m not prepared to defend that claim with any rigor, mind you. “Spirituality of the Gaps” theology complaints anticipated and acknowledged. I just love the mystery and power behind our strange experience of music.

  • CWhite

    I’m the agnostic son of an evangelical minister. My mother was a very liberal Southern Belle.

    While my brother and I were still little, in the 50’s, Mom made a point of exposing us to an eclectic selection of art, music and literature (what was suitable for us boys).

    Before I was ten, she took us to symphonies, opera, operetta and live theater. Every so often we would attend a black church in Orlando where we grew up. Remember, this was in the days when there were separate restrooms and drinking fountains for “blacks” and “whites”.

    Mom’s parents were from an Old Georgia family that always “had help” in the house. We were taught to be respectful regardless of color or economic circumstance. Some of us also became close enough the have genuine feelings for each other, some that last until this day.

    Each time we went to the local black church, Mom would remind us of the history of slaves in our country to put the “experience” (in those days, that’s what it was) in perspective.

    Ever since, I’ve had a deep appreciation of gospel music and an appreciation of the black experience, that most “southerners” simply don’t understand.

    There’s NOTHING like good ole gospel music! … and a hat tip to Mom, the 1950’s “futurist”.

  • andyo

    In the Spanish culture (the language, not only the country), there are lots of references from poets, and songwriters, even strong anti-catholic ones, to catholic/christian mythology. And they do come up with beautiful songs. Although many times they do revolve around the more tragic characters of the bible, whose stories are probably more interesting anyway.

  • boreds

    That’s a nice version of the song.

    I’ve always thought that faith-inspired music is the best possible way to an atheist’s heart, and I can think of a few other good conversion-worthy examples.

    But the thing that confuses me is…why then is Christian rock so bad?

  • Elliot Tarabour


    I’m with you regarding music being very close to spiritual. From Mahler’s 2nd to Jimi Hendrix to Emmy Lou Harris to a great gospel version of “Amazing Grace”, I get goosebumps at times when I hear music. It is quite unlike any experience from the visual arts.

    If you haven’t read “The Sparrow” it touches on this theme.


  • Tom Walker

    Being an atheist myself, I have to admit that when I travel to England (where I grew up) or any place older than this country, one of my favorite things to see are the old cathedrals and churches. I think it’s because despite their reason for being they are still magnificent testaments to human ingenuity and determination. There is irony in the fact that my engineering profession came about basically because people wanted to build religious monuments. You have to start somewhere, right?

  • Tom Walker

    Heh, I got a little off-track there. My point being that I see no reason you have to exclude appreciation for any art or other creative efforts just because they have religious significance. I first heard the Blind Boys when they did the backing and chorus for Peter Gabriel’s song “Sky Blue”. Regardless of the message, it’s good stuff.

  • Jacob Wintersmith

    An excellent song, although I prefer Moby’s rendition.

  • ropata

    Q. What is the chief end of man?
    A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

    Music is intrinsic to humanity, created in the image of our Maker. One of the most powerful expressions of mass worship I have ever seen was a clip of a Michael Jacksom concert. People were crying and adulating the dude.

    why then is Christian rock so bad?
    Excellent question, addressed thoroughly by The Internet Monk: The Missing Voice of the Christian Counter-Culture

    Predictably, many of these artists are far outside the evangelical Christian mainstream, having found out that, like artists from Bono to The Call’s Michael Been, there is more freedom and a far more receptive audience outside the boundaries drawn by the church.

    Christian radio will not play these voices. They will not be leading the bouncing worship songs at your next youth event. They are not entertaining the sheep into a state of altered- and largely insensitive- consciousness.

    Evangelicals have now produced a massive consumeristic niche ready to buy, wear and applaud whatever fits in its pre-described mold of entertainment oriented discipleship and warm, fuzzy, evangelical experience.

  • Elliot

    I think that one of the reasons Christian Rock tends to suck is that it is an oxymoron. Rock is the devils music. The music that black people invented which was stolen by the white folk, is purely sexually primitive in nature cannot be the music of God.

    Actually it mostly sucks because the lyrics are so lame. The music sometimes isn’t half bad.


  • per

    And I can’t be a very good man of God (albeit in a somewhat different way than people tend to think about them on this site) since I like this blog :)

  • Josh Smith

    Sean, whenever I explain to people my deep love of religious choral music, I always send them to this short piece in The New Republic.

    If you’re not familiar with him, do try to listen to the pre-Renaissance choral music of Josquin Desprez. It’s just magnificently beautiful each and every time I listen to it. Certainly ironic for it to be a passion of an atheist, but by no means absurd.

  • Rhys

    “Spiritual” is an unnecessary word here. Music causes strong emotional responses, and that’s good enough for me. The reason I can sometimes enjoy music with religious themes is that it conveys emotions with which I can identify. This is true despite the fact that the composer may have been inspired by a belief I find absurd.

  • chemicalscum

    I love Handel’s Messiah but I guess that must be OK because the music was written by an atheist. He only did it for the money. I also love Bach’s St. Matthew Passion – Oh got a problem there. So you must be right.

    I am also a punk from back in ’77. I still listen to punk music. Every month I check every new CD acquired by my public library that has a punk tag and reserve the ones I want. A month or so back I reserved them all without checking if I really wanted them. I got an album by MxPx among them. It seemed like just another boring pop punk album. I thought I would check out the lyrics so I read one from the albums liner – looked pretty meaningless to me. I later discovered that the are a Christian band. So I returned the album PDQ as I didn’t want it to be seen in my possession as it might destroy my street cred.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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