Can An Atheist Love Gospel Music ?

Written by Jay Jay French


If I weren’t a writer, always looking for interesting stories, this article would not have been written.


Because I wouldn’t have ruminated over the fact that, as an atheist, my entire music foundation and love of rock ‘n’ roll and the blues is steeped in black music and, by extension, artists that were, more than likely, taught their craft through the connection of the Southern Baptist churches. It also extends to gospel music as well.

Isn’t it ironic that gospel music is a celebration of the Christian faith whereas rock ‘n’ roll and the blues is viewed as the flipside, often considered “devil’s music”?

Either way, religion in general permeates the music and the sound of the music that I hold most dear.

I say “the sound” because whether it’s the gospel music of The Edwin Hawkins Singers, Ben Harper, and the Blind Boys of Alabama, or the blues sung by Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, or the pop music of Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Levi Stubbs (4 Tops), Eddie Kendricks (The Temptations), Aretha, Martha Reeves (Martha & the Vandellas), Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson— I love hearing it all.

The lyrics almost never matter.

Maybe that’s why.

The lyrics have almost never mattered, regardless of who is doing the singing.

Even Dylan. As much as I love his music, as a teenager, I never understood a lot of it lyrically.

Okay, yes, some songs, such as the Beatles’ “In My Life” and Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” (just to name a couple of examples), do matter and can bring an emotional response out of me, but for the most part, it’s always been the melody.

Oddly, the non-African-American singers I feel the most connection with are directly coupled to blues artists, and almost all are British (another phenomenon of the confluence of timing as they all come out of the same era, 1965-1975): Eric Burdon (The Animals), Mike Smith (The Dave Clark 5), Van Morrison (Them), Rod Stewart (Jeff Beck Group), Gary Brooker (Procol Harum), Steve Winwood (Traffic), Paul Rodgers (Free), Steve Marriott (Humble Pie), as well as Americans Greg Allman, Janis Joplin, and the most underrated American female blues singer from the 1960’s and ’70s, Tracy Nelson.

What we have here is my list of singers (and bands) that I love. Add to that list BB King, Albert King, Freddy King, Memphis Slim, Magic Sam, Paul Butterfield, Johnny and Edgar Winter – just about every blues singer you can imagine – and you get the idea.

So…whether it’s the uplifting gospel-style pop leanings of Earth, Wind & Fire, or the “hell on wheels” devil’s music of Little Richard, I love it.

All of it.

And, none of it makes me want to believe in God— or the devil, for that matter.

I don’t believe there is a Heaven or a Hell.

I wasn’t here before I was born and I’m not gonna be here after I’m gone. Period.

But there is something about the culture of the church that brings out some of the most amazing talent that I have ever heard.

This also extends to country music, as I believe that the discipline that the church experience creates in young people forces a certain weeding out process of the talent pool.

No, I have no studies to prove this but I can tell you this:

On any given night, you can walk into a bar in Manhattan or LA and hear some pretty awful musicians.

That’s what is known as “alternative” music to me. It’s an alternative to actually learning how to play, write, and sing songs with real musical foundations.

I have never walked into the Apollo Theater or any bar in Nashville and seen sucky players. It just doesn’t happen. It’s like it’s against the law or some kind of standard that the older ones pass on to the young ‘uns.

There is something to this, and all I have to say is if it’s the belief in a higher power that somehow imbues the artist to reach for the magic that great artists possess, then I’m all in as a fan.

Ironically, many of you know that I write for other publications and, on occasion, the stories I write about can overlap as my life reflects business, music, and my audio hobby.

I will leave with a quote from a gospel song written by an artist I used to manage. The refrain will be the subject of an upcoming article for (a business magazine). The purpose of my articles for are to give entrepreneurs tools to help them move their businesses along, and help them to get through tough times.

Great gospel music can be very uplifting, and nothing is a greater example of that than this line from a song called “I Say Grace”. It speaks entirely to how one can approach failure with unyielding optimism.

Andy Fortier, the artist who wrote it, has gone through incredibly hard times, but has always pulled through them with grace and a belief that everything will be all right. This line is so good that even I use it and reflect on it when things seem the bleakest:

“And when the roof caves in, it lets the sunshine in.”

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