Atheists of classic rock is a topic that I haven’t covered much on my blog and it’s surprising I haven’t already because I am an atheist myself. My journey from Jew to atheist is an interesting one. My parents are an interfaith and interracial couple and they left it up to me to decide what religion to choose and I thought Judaism sounded cooler.
No one in my family really goes to synagogue, at least not on a regular basis anymore, although that was something they kept up in my dad’s generation. So it was weird when my grandpa told my dad he has to sign me up for Hebrew school even though he wouldn’t pony up the money and he’s not that observant. My dad dragged his feet as long as he cold because Hebrew school isn’t cheap. My parents chose the nearest synagogue and the rabbi lived in our neighbourhood. We went to her house to enrol me in Hebrew school and that was when I first saw how dumb and arbitrary religion was. She told my parents I must convert because I’m not a “real Jew”. The conversion process isn’t taking a pledge and you’re done, no there’s a whole ritual and you can look it up. It’s a lot for a 10 year old to go through and it’s uncomfortable and creepy. Anyway, I found Hebrew school boring and stopped going after a year because we moved and I was going through some personal stuff.
It made no sense to me why I wasn’t considered a real Jew even though that’s all I ever identified as. That law is arbitrary and out of date because back then there was no way to prove paternity. But isn’t religion about what you identify as? Anyway, it didn’t take long for me to see how none of the god stuff made sense. I left religion and never turned back. I only have a limited time on this planet, why spend a significant portion of it in a synagogue listening to stuff that doesn’t make sense?
In this blog post, I’ll share stories of openly atheist classic rock musicians and whatever I can find about them being an atheist: quotes, stories, and why they’re an atheist.
Alex Lifeson: Guitarist of Rush. When asked in a 2016 interview if he believed in god, he said this:
“No. When I was younger I did. My mother is not super-religious but she has a belief. My father was the total opposite. He thought religion was a crock. In my early teens I started to question it all. I had friends who were Jesus freaks, others were just very spiritual, and we had these great long discussions about these things. But as I get older it just becomes a less and less sensible thing to think about.”
Ani DiFranco: 90s folk rock musician who has her own record label called Righteous Babe Records. She is bisexual, a feminist, and an atheist. In interviews she has mentioned she is an atheist when asked questions like “What song proves to you there is a God?” or “Is there a God?” Here’s one quote from an interview:
“Well, it depends on how you mean. In my book, no. I guess the quick answer would be “no” for me. I think, whatever my spiritual leanings are, that the deities are many and that we possess them. I do not assign responsibility to a higher being. I think that we’re responsible to each other, and God is a metaphor.“
Aviv Geffen: Israeli rock musician who started his career in the 90s. He is an outspoken public figure of the Israeli left wing movement and refused to serve in the IDF. He is known for his androgynous style and I think he’s very Lou Reed/David Bowie like. He said this in an interview with a Dutch magazine:
“I am Jewish, but one hundred percent atheist. Religions and gods disperse people; music brings people closer together. Music is therefore my god.”
Right on! I find that religion divides people more than it unites, causing more harm than good.
Billy Joel: The Piano Man was born to Jewish parents, but was not raised Jewish. His grandfather was an atheist. Rather, he went to a Roman Catholic church with some friends and was baptised in a Church of Christ when he was 11 or 12. But he became disillusioned when he saw people blaming the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Jewish people. He started reading a lot, inspired by his well-read maternal grandfather and that’s how he found his way to atheism. A quote from him about why he’s an atheist:
“As an atheist you have to rationalise things. You decide first of all that will not ask Daddy – meaning God in all of his imagined forms – for a helping hand when you’re in a jam. Then you have to try and make some sort of sense out of your problems. And if you try and find you can’t, you have no choice but to be good and scared – but that’s okay! When animals are afraid, they don’t pray, and we’re just a higher order of primate.”
“Only the Good Die Young” has these lyrics:
“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
You know that only the good die young”
Björk: Icelandic singer-songwriter known for her eccentric and eclectic music and fashion. As a child, she lived on a commune with her mother, who was an environmental activist.
“If I get into trouble, there’s no God or Allah to sort me out. I have to do it myself.”
Before Ireland struck down its outdated blasphemy laws, atheists in the country used quotes from Björk among others to challenge it. Blasphemy was punishable with up to a €25k fine, until the law was removed in 2018 after a referendum where 65% of voters voted to remove the archaic law.
The Björk song “It’s In Our Hands” is considered an atheist anthem and from the title alone I can see that. It’s not in the hands of a higher power, it’s us.
Bob Geldof: Lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, star of Pink Floyd: The Wall, and organiser of Live Aid. Of his identity, he told the Manchester Jewish Telegraph:
“I was a quarter Catholic, a quarter Protestant, a quarter Jewish and a quarter nothing — the nothing won.”
Keep in mind in those days if you were in the UK or Ireland, you were treated like a mixed race person if you even just had one Catholic parent and one Protestant parent. Makes no sense to me. At the end of the day, are they even all that different?
Makes me think of this Family Guy scene:
Brian Eno: Musician who got his start in glam/art rock band Roxy Music in the early 70s before going on his own and making avant-garde rock and ambient music. He also worked with David Bowie, Robert Fripp, and the Talking Heads. You might also know him for composing the Windows 95 startup sound. He’s a big fan of technology and even made phone apps and created sound installations exhibited around the world. He describes his music as godless.
Not only does he call out religion, he also called out something a lot of spiritual, but not religious people believe in, astrology. Imagine that, people using birthdates to determine what they think a person is like and making big life decisions based on what they think the positions of the planets and stars are! Astronomers are laughing at this pseudoscientific belief.
“Well, I’m an atheist, and the concept of god for me is all part of what I call the last illusion. The last illusion is someone knows what is going on. That’s the last illusion. Nearly everyone has that illusion somewhere, and it manifests not only in the terms of the idea that there is a god but that knows what’s going on but that the planets know what’s going on. Astrology is part of the last illusion. The obsession with health is part of the last illusion, the idea that there’s that if only we could spend time on it and sit down and stop being unreasonable with each other we’d all find that there was a structure and a solution underlying plan to it all, for most people the short answer to that is God.”
David Bowie: No introduction needed for this music genius and style icon who was known for his various eras: The Man Who Sold The World, Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Jareth the Goblin King.
He wasn’t raised religious and it’s hard to pin down what he actually thinks about politics and religion. He was a mysterious person and would go through phases of being a recluse.
When asked in an interview in 1973 if he believed in god, he said:
“I believe in an energy form. I wouldn’t like to put a name to it.”
In his song, “Seven”, there’s this one Nietzsche like lyric: “The gods forgot that they made me/So I forget them, too/I dance among their shadows/I play among their graves”
David Gilmour: Guitarist of Pink Floyd, a band with pretty much all atheist members. Politically, he is a leftist and describes himself as a socialist. He said this about his views on religion and if there’s an afterlife:
“When you get to 60, one of your preoccupations is that the life you have ahead of you is quite a lot shorter than the life you have behind you [laughs]. You can’t help thinking about that. It’s something inside all of us, even though I’m not a believer in God or an afterlife. I’m an atheist. I’m sort of resigned to my lot in life, and content in it.”
Eddie Vedder: Lead vocalist and guitarist of Pearl Jam known for thought provoking lyrics and his angry stage presence. He was not raised religious. Since the 90s, he has spoken out about his atheism. He also supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020. Here’s one quote I liked:
“People on death row, the treatment of animals, women’s right to choose. So much in America is based on religious fundamentalist Christianity. Grow up! This is the modern world!”
Elton John: No introduction needed for this music and style icon. His atheist views even lean towards anti-theism, with him once saying that if it were up to him, he would “ban religion completely”. He described Jesus as a “compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems.”
Frank Zappa: Multi-instrumentalist and band leader who experimented with all sorts of genres and recorded over 60 albums in his career. Not only did he record music, he also directed movies and music videos and designed album covers. If anyone personifies diversity in sound, it’s Frank Zappa. He grew up in a religious family and his parents made him go to Catholic school, despite his protests. He thought that religion, especially Christianity, promoted ignorance and anti-intellectualism.
Below is an interview Frank Zappa did in 1988. Here we are 30 years later and a lot of what he says still applies.
“Reality is what it is, not what you want it to be.”
Gary Numan: Singer best known for “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and “Cars” and considered an electronic music pioneer. His androgynous look and distinctive voice make him stnad out. In a 2010 interview he said this about his atheism:
“I believe in pretty much everything apart from God. I believe aliens are real, demons, possession, poltergeists, all of that. I believe in ghosts but I do not believe in Heaven; to me, a ghost is just one of nature’s tragic mistakes. They shouldn’t be there, but they are. It does indicate some kind of life after death, but that has nothing to do with a Heaven. If you believe in one God creating everything then I don’t understand why the idea of many Gods is so laughable. None of the God ideas make any sense to me but one God is perhaps the most ridiculous of all.”
Geddy Lee: Bassist and lead singer of Rush. He was raised Jewish, but now considers himself a Jewish atheist.
“I consider myself a Jew as a race, but not so much as a religion. I’m not down with religion at all. I’m a Jewish atheist, if that’s possible.”
Howard Kaylan: Founding member and lead singer of The Turtles. He was born into a Jewish family. He said he’s an atheist in his book Shell Shocked.
John Lennon: All the Beatles gave up religion by 1964 and identified as agnostic, but John Lennon seemed to be the loudest atheist. George converted to Hinduism. Paul seemed to be agnostic or spiritual, but not religious.
In a Playboy interview in 1965, The Beatles said this:
McCartney: “We probably seem antireligious because of the fact that none of us believe in God.”
Lennon: “If you say you don’t believe in God, everybody assumes you’re antireligious, and you probably think that’s what we mean by that. We’re not quite sure ‘what’ we are, but I know that we’re more agnostic than atheistic.”
Playboy: “Are you speaking for the group, or just for yourself?”
Lennon: “For the group.”
Harrison: “John’s our official religious spokesman.”
McCartney: “We all feel roughly the same. We’re all agnostics.”
Lennon: “Most people are, anyway.”
McCartney: “In America, they’re fanatical about God. I know somebody over there who said he was an atheist. The papers nearly refused to print it because it was such shocking news that somebody could actually be an atheist … yeah … and admit it.”
Starr: “He speaks for all of us.”
John Lennon shared his views about religion in the songs “Imagine” and “God”
“I don’t believe in magic…” “I just believe in me”
John Lydon: Also known as Johnny Rotten, he’s the frontman for The Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. He was born to Irish Catholic parents and went to Catholic school, but hated it and got expelled at the age of 15.
The PiL song, “Religion” criticises organised religion, especially the Catholic Church.
A quote from John Lydon:
“I hate all religion! All religion! All institutionalised religion! I need no institution between me and my god/maker! I hate all religion!”
Kathleen Hanna: Riot Grrrl pioneer and lead singer of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. In an interview, she said that there is no God and it doesn’t have an appearance, because it doesn’t exist. However, she said she believed in a good force in the world that makes you feel good, be it a song that makes you happy, good artwork, or conversations that you have with your friends that make you happy that you are all alive.
Kim Deal: Singer-songwriter, member of The Pixies, and founder of The Breeders. In a Q&A with SF Station, she said:
“I’m an atheist. I go with whoever brings the minimal amount of religion into government.”
Lemmy: Best known for being the bassist, songwriter, and lead singer for Motorhead, but before that he was in Hawkwind, The Rockin’ Vickers, and Sam Gopal. The Motorhead song, “Poison”, is a somewhat autobiographical song about Lemmy’s father being a preacher and ruined his life by walking out on his mum and also about Lemmy’s heavy use of cigarettes and alcohol.
“My father, he used to be a preacher,
Never taught me nothing but scorn,
If I ever catch him on the street, yeah,
I’ll make him wish he’d never been born”
Linda Ronstadt: Singer well known for her solo work and work with The Stone Poneys. She has won many awards during her career: 10 Grammys, 3 American Music Awards, an Emmy, and an ALMA Award. Her music is inspired by many things: her Mexican background, country, and rock. As a kid, she went to Catholic school, but she started questioning religion when she was about 8. She said, “I was an atheist by the third grade”. She describes herself as a spiritual atheist.
Neil Peart: Drummer and lyricist for Rush. He was considered one of the best drummers of all time. His lyrics had science fiction, fantasy, philosophy, secularism, and libertarianism. He also wrote a few non-fiction books about his life and travels. He described religion as “a kind of brainwashing in almost all cases where poor children have been brought up and formed into these moulds”. My favourite atheist Rush song is “Freewill”
“You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear, I will choose freewill”
Nick Mason: Drummer of Pink Floyd. One of his biggest hobbies outside of music is car racing and cars generally. In total, he’s owned 40 Ferraris. He’s also a qualified pilot. Politically, he has spoken out against fox hunting and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and oppression of Palestinians. He’s an atheist, but had said that sometimes he wished he believed in god and made a tongue in cheek remark of believing in God Dylan.
Noel and Liam Gallagher: Founders of Oasis. Noel Gallagher really liked Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Both brothers went to Catholic school, but would often skip class and get in trouble.
In this interview with Gay Byrne, Noel Gallagher talks about his religious views. He says that he believes in the power of love and humanity, but that there is no “hand of God” at work in the world because if God as a real thing exists, with terrorism and wars fought in his/its name, how can that be allowed to happen? How can all these innocent people die?
This lyric is from the song “Sunday Morning Call”
“Everybody’s gone for quick, sure fire solution, but faith in any god is gonna bury us all. No-one’s gonna fight in a ten-bob revolution. Have faith in what you’ve got and it will carry us all.”
As for Liam, he takes a lot of inspiration from John Lennon in his singing style, songwriting, and views on religion – even mimicking the “bigger than Jesus” quote. Here’s what he had to say about atheism:
“I live for now, not for what happens after I die. If I die and there’s something afterwards, I’m going to hell, not heaven. I mean, the devil’s got all the good gear. What’s God got? The Inspiral Carpets and nuns. Fuck that.”
Phil May: Lead singer of The Pretty Things. He revealed in a 2015 interview that he was an atheist. When asked if he believed in god, he said this:
Not at all, not even some higher being. I think whatever guides us comes from the inside. That’s why Zen makes so much sense, it’s all about self-knowledge.
Randy Newman: Singer-songwriter, arranger, and composer best known for the songs “Short People”, “I Love LA”, and “You’ve Got a Friend In Me”. His parents were nonobservant Jews and he wasn’t raised with religion or any sense of religion in his identity – to the point that he was confused when a girl asked him to be her date at a ball at a country club, but her dad wouldn’t allow them to go together and the country club wouldn’t allow him in because he’s Jewish. He asked his parents, “what’s a Jew?”
When walking through a children’s ward at a hospital, Randy Newman’s father said, “That’s god’s will over there… That’s god’s will over there…” in response to this idea that there’s a god. Would god really allow children to get cancer?
He cynically sang about religion in “God’s Song”.
Richard Hell: Punk rock innovator and style icon who was in Neon Boys, Television, and Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers. Here’s what he had to say about his upbringing and atheism:
“My father was born a Jew but he didn’t believe in that. He didn’t have anything to do with religion….[he] raised me as a communist and atheist.”
Robert Smith: Lead singer of The Cure and for a couple years was the lead guitarist of Siouxsie and the Banshees. He is considered a goth icon. His family were musical and raised him Catholic, but he later on became an atheist. A quote from Robert Smith on religion:
“I used to lay myself open to visions of God, but I never had any. I come from a religious family, and there have been moments when I’ve felt the oneness of things, but they never last, they fade away, leaving me with the belief that it’s only fear that drives people to religion. And I don’t think I’m ever going to wake up and know that I was wrong.”
Roger Daltrey: Frontman of The Who. Despite wearing cross necklaces, he’s actually not religious at all! In his autobiography, Thanks A Lot Mr Kibblewhite, he mentions that he is an atheist.
Roger Waters: Bassist, singer, and songwriter of Pink Floyd. He often came up with the ideas behind the band’s famous concept albums (to the point where it’s a meme). Roger Waters is very outspoken politically: he’s part of the BDS movement, he’s critical of Donald Trump, he’s pro EU, supports the Labour Party, and he’s an atheist. He’s very critical of religion, as seen in this quote:
“I’m not a practicing Christian myself, but it just staggers me that people who claim to be can stand up and spout–like your president George Bush–can stand up and spout this bullshit [about God supporting one side over another in war], which is why I wrote the lyrics of the song [“What God Wants”]: “God wants crusade/God wants Jihad.” Well it may well be that God doesn’t want either of those things. They’re manifestations of the insecurities of the Muslim and Christian communities.”
Roy Harper: Folk singer who influenced Led Zeppelin (who had a song called “Hats Off to Harper”, Pete Townshend, Kate Bush, Pink Floyd, and Ian Anderson. His lyrics are considered complex and eloquent. He’s not only an atheist, but also an anti-theist and he often criticises organised religion in his music.
Simon Le Bon: Lead singer and lyricist for Duran Duran and Arcadia. He describes himself as a concerned agnostic and he contributed an essay to the book The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas. He’s also a distinguished supporter of Humanists UK. You can hear him read Losing My Faith from The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas below:
Steven Wilson: Prog rock musician from Porcupine Tree and has a successful solo career. Has worked with many classic rock bands like King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Yes, Marillion, and Roxy Music. He’s been described as the most successful British rock star you have never heard of. His music takes inspiration from metal, prog rock, and even pop and electronic music. Two of his biggest idols are Prince and David Bowie. As for his views on the world, he’s a vegetarian – ensuring that all catering on tour is meat free and encouraging his band and crew to eat veggie on the road and he’s an atheist. He said this about atheism in a 2012 interview:
“I guess I am in some ways your archetypal atheist. I think the whole myth of religion is absolutely absurd. I say this with the caveat that I understand it brings happiness to people who would otherwise be unhappy. There is comfort in it for people who would otherwise be tortured by their own existence and all that stuff. I appreciate those reasons and arguments, but at the end of the day, I’m afraid it’s just a silly fairy tale that mankind has dreamed up because of our fear of death. It’s as simple as that.”
Sting: Songwriter, lead singer, and bassist for The Police. He was raised Catholic and later on went through a phase of being interested in Hinduism and India before becoming sceptical of religion and calling himself an agnostic. However, he likes the stories behind religions, but they shouldn’t be taken literally. Here’s a quote from him on his views:
“What I believe in is the human imagination. Religion is a product of that just like literature or music, so to deny religion is to deny part of what it means to be human. I don’t believe for a second that Mary had a baby and stayed a virgin. But it’s a magical story and it has power.”
Syd Barrett: Original lead singer, songwriter, and founding member of Pink Floyd. As he was a recluse, he didn’t speak to the media himself about his personal life or views, but when he passed away in 2006, he had a humanist funeral.
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