Reading Time: 3 minutes

In the beginning, there was XTC.

And by the beginning, I mean the dawn of the contemporary atheist awakening: the explosion of best-selling books by the New Atheists, the proliferation of thousands of humanist groups all over the world, the emergence of movements like Camp Quest, Black Nonbelievers, Ex-Muslims of North America, the Secular Student Alliance—all amidst unprecedented secularization and the well-documented “Rise of the Nones.”

XTC hailed from the Bakersfield of England, Swindon. Led by geniuses Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, they were one of the best bands of the 1980s, churning out ten albums full of brilliant, smart, wry, cracking, and beautifully lush New Wave/pop gems.

Among them was the one that augured the birth of our dynamic secularist era: “Dear God,” released in 1986.

The opening lines were sung by a child—a most poignant move. It was a knowledgeable commentary on the very nature of religion: that it can only reproduce itself by inculcating the young. Religion survives by socializing children who have not yet developed critical thinking skills; it exists by imposing upon kids beliefs and identities that they would never adopt freely on their own, but readily internalize because they are beholden to others who love them and take care of them. This is why a century of social science shows that kids universally adopt the religion of their parents. Hence, XTC chose a child to open their defiant atheist anthem.

In the first verse, the skeptical child explains why he doesn’t believe in God: there’s just way too much unnecessary pain and needless suffering in the world. For the morally minded, this is ground zero for questioning God’s existence. After all, how can there be a god, when over half a million children die from diarrhea every year? How can a god exist in, near, behind, or below, the same universe as smallpox? As Epicurus asked over 2,000 years ago: If God is all-powerful, then why does he allow such wanton suffering to exist? The answer: Either he can stop it, but chooses not to (in which case he isn’t loving or moral), or he wants to stop it but can’t (in which case he isn’t all-powerful). Either way, something’s amiss with this deity.

Or more likely, it simply doesn’t exist at all.

I won’t believe in heaven and hell

No saints, no sinners, no devil as well

The pearly gates, no thorny crown

You’re always letting us humans down

The wars you bring, the babes you drown

Those lost at sea and never found

And it’s the same the whole world round

The hurt I see helps to compound

The Father, Son, and holy ghost

Is just somebody’s unholy hoax

FROM “DEAR GOD” BY XTC

The second verse takes on the brutal historical record of intra-religious strife: since religious people can’t ever agree on their holy dogmas—let alone deities—their pious disputes have resulted in millennia of bloodshed. As XTC sing: “And all the people that you made in your image/see them fighting in the street/’cause they can’t make opinions meet/about God.” We’re talking millions of needless deaths caused by wars between Protestants and Catholics, Shiites and Sunnis, Hindus and Muslims — to say nothing of the countless persecutions of religious minorities, such as Jews and Bahai’s, by religious majorities the world over. At this very moment, there’s a decisive religious element to the Russian assault on Ukraine, the Hindu persecution of Muslims, the Israeli oppression of Palestinians, military conflicts throughout Africa, and so forth.

“Dear God” continues to list other reasons to be a non-believer. For example, the fact that all evidence indicates that the Bible was written by humans, with no supernatural involvement. Another reason to reject the Abrahamic faiths: the absurd idea that there exists a devil; why would a deity allow this nasty, malicious devil to roam about, making such wicked mischief? If God can just snuff this devil out, why doesn’t he? If he can’t, then what kind of deity is he?

And yet another reason cited by XTC top reject God-based faith: the absurdist notions of heaven and hell, which reduce human morality to a scared child’s game, and render our early life and existence essentially insignificant and profane.

“Dear God” was a relative hit, reaching number 37 on US Billboard and 99 in the UK. But much more importantly, it blew my teenage mind and expanded by teenage veins and fondled my teenage follicles.

I’ll never forget blasting it in my room for the first time, age 17, feeling the comforting acoustic guitar, dancing to the edifying drums, and basking in the atheistic sentiments which I had nurtured on my own for years.

There have been many great atheist pop songs over the years — from John Lennon’s “Imagine” and the Dead Kennedy’s “Religious Vomit” to First Aid Kit’s “Hard Believer” and Frank Zappa’s “Jesus Thinks you’re a Jerk.”

But for me, “Dear God” remains the most raw, righteous, and riveting.

Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2019) The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford,...