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After I put out a call for atheist public school choir directors to interview for a research article, I received an email from a colleague: “The choral music education program of any school must include music from the masters, which of course will include some sacred music. It is a part of our culture.” 

I have a few issues with this. 

First, who determines who “the masters” are? When you ask choir directors from a white European background, why are “the masters” almost always white European composers? Second, while I agree that the study of historical sacred music may be important, the singing of religious music within a secular education system may not be. Are art students required to spend significant portions of their curricula reproducing religious artworks? Do they spend December painting crosses or Christmas scenes, as many choir members spend singing Christmas songs? (For a laugh, read about Flory vs. Sioux Falls.)

Finally, “It is a part of our culture” erases any notion of plurality from society. I grew up in a nonreligious household and have identified as an atheist my whole life. Sacred Christian music has never been a part of my culture. As more Americans identify as nonreligious, it may not be a part of their cultures either. 

My colleague’s email illustrates the depth to which religion, especially Christianity, is embedded in choral music.

The significant religiosity in choral music is due to several factors, of which we will only deal with the main ones. First, the priests of the Catholic Church were the main patrons of choral music throughout history. Wealthy clergy would hire the best music directors to lead and compose music for services, as well as commissioning music from the best composers of the day. They also hired the best singers and instrumentalists to ornament their religious rituals. This led to a large corpus of historical sacred music which is still performed today. Think of Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s Passions, and the like, all performed regularly, and historically Christian in worldview.

Secondly, entire genres of African American choral music such as gospel or spirituals are almost entirely religious. They are important for their history and how they developed, as well as for the types of music they influenced. Any study of American music should include these genres. Finally, there are MANY church choirs in the United States. There are individuals who only sing in church choirs their whole lives. A significant amount of contemporary religious music is composed to keep these many choirs in music. These three main factors and several other smaller factors lead choral music to have significantly more religiosity than other artistic disciplines.

But what does this mean for public education, a secular entity thanks to the Establishment Clause? The First Amendment states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. In education, that generally means that students can learn about religion but are not proselytized to. I would argue that some choral music teachers in public education constantly violate the Establishment Clause (I was surprised that the most recent Supreme Court case to erode the church/public education separation centered on football). Public school singers all over the United States give Christmas concerts in which the music is largely or entirely from the Christian viewpoint. Non-December concerts still regularly include significant amounts of religious music. Directors frequently implement church choir policies, such as wearing choir robes for uniforms and performing in churches. It is hard to know whether these policies modify any students’ religious choices, but it does reinforce a Christian supremacy in the choral music discipline.

Christians should sing Christian music at their churches, but public schools should be a welcome place for all beliefs.

To study how this supremacy affects atheist public school choir directors, I put out a call for any who were interested to be interviewed. Six public school teachers responded, four from Massachusetts and two from Alaska. (All names are pseudonyms to protect against public or professional repercussions). 

Christians should sing Christian music at their churches, but public schools should be a welcome place for all beliefs.

Byron’s parents raised him in a nonreligious household, leaving him the least “baggage” from religion. Michael attended Muslim and Christian services in his youth, while George was raised Mormon. Lindsay and Tobias attended Catholic services, and Lucille was baptized Catholic, then attended an Episcopal church, a non-denominational Christian Church, and a Unitarian Church. All six are public high school choir directors and atheists.

After three interviews of about 45 minutes in length with each participant, five themes emerged from the interview data: 

  1. Youth religious participation motivated largely by community and vibrant music
  2. A move away from religious teaching throughout adolescence and college (with intersections between losing faith and acceptance of homosexuality)
  3. Feelings of othering as a non-Christian minority
  4. Stepping into a role to participate in religious rituals, and 
  5. Programming religious music by presentation rather than proselytizing.

Most of the participants enjoyed going to church in their youth because of the music or the community rather than any religious feeling or connection with a deity. Tobias fell in love with the sound of a pipe organ, and George and Lindsay sang in the children’s choirs. 

Lucille valued the community she found at the church:

“For me, church was always kind of about community, and God was just a means for me to have something in common with those people,” she said. ”Later it was just replaced with a different community, my music community. That was enough for me. Looking back now, I think that church for me was just a way to have relationships with people. It was very social, but deeper than your average teenage social contract. It was still about the people more than…even when I went to church, and even when I was going to church all the time, I didn’t go home and pray. Even though I liked going to church, it was very surface, even then.”

All of the participants (except Byron, who was raised nonreligious) started moving away from the religion of their youth during adolescence and college. Lindsay, raised Catholic, eventually declined to go through with her Confirmation.

“I said I just can’t do it,” she said. “I told my parents, I said, I can’t be a hypocrite. You want me to say that this is my belief, or this is what I’m going to be for the rest of my life, and I have no interest in that. I am a black and white kind of person. If I say I am, I damn well better believe it.”

Both George and Tobias found that their religious belief was incompatible with their homosexuality. George especially had a traumatic adolescence growing up Mormon. It came to a head when he went to college. He attended service at the local Mormon ward the first weekend he was at college, then never returned. A few months later, his parents surprised him with a visit by going to the church Sunday morning where they assumed he would be. When they didn’t see him there, they asked around and found out he hadn’t been attending. When they confronted him about it, he had to out both his homosexuality and his lack of belief in God. 

“Being raised gay in the Mormon church is like a whole thing,” George said. “I think there was a lot of self-loathing and self-doubt and lying for self-preservation. I associate a lot of shame with religion in general.”

All the interviewees described feelings of “other” being a minority belief in a majority-Christian country. Byron discussed concern about the violence that goes on in the world at the hands of Christian nationalists. George and Lucille agreed that there would be social and possible professional repercussions if they were vocal about their atheism. Michael agreed, “I just avoid it. I avoid posting it, I avoid it. Because people have some irrational attachments. I don’t need that negativity. Plus, I like getting hired.”

Performances at Christian churches can be an important way of earning money as a musician. Many of the interviewees participate in religious services at churches by being music directors, organists, or paid soloists. To be able to sing in these places, most participants discussed how they “stepped into a role” to be able to perform religious music. Much like an actor, they tried to find a means to portray the music to make the performance as real as possible. Byron says, “[It’s] just like a play, to me. I’m not professing my faith. Or a faith of any type or beliefs, I’m just singing the music that other people have put their heart and soul into.” 

All the participants have been complimented by congregation members on how their performances have engendered feelings of religiosity in them, despite the participants being irreligious.

In their roles as public school choir directors, atheism doesn’t particularly manifest itself. All the participants except Michael still program religious music with their students. However, they chose that music for historical, musical content, emotional content, or for different religious or cultural viewpoints. They always strive to program religious music to “present it, not to proselytize” with it. 

“I think that’ I’ve also been more conscious of choosing from a variety of religions,” said George. “I think that most Christian teachers are just like “well, there’s sacred or their secular, and sacred is Catholic and Christian and all of this. But it’s like, well, I try and do a Buddhist chant or a Muslim text or Islamic text, or I’ve done some pagan stuff. I think that that has made me more conscious because I’ve been on the receiving end of being uncomfortable about music texts.”

These five themes illustrate the growth of non-belief throughout early life and the types of issues that atheist public school choir directors deal with. There is a lived contradiction between being nonreligious individuals who have chosen a worldview through careful thought and working in a field that has a significant religious component. Public education should reflect the diversity of thought that exists in the world and not cater to Christian supremacism, even in one discipline.

“[Programming religious music] means that we are beholden as music teachers to things that are outside of the curriculum. And you don’t do that to Math teachers. You don’t do that to English teachers. You don’t do that to PE teachers. You don’t say to Art teachers, “Why don’t you paint pictures of crosses at Christmas time?”

Christopher Clark

Dr. Christopher Clark is director of choirs and lecturer in music education at Case Western Reserve University.