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Dodging Atheism, One Note at a Time

Dodging Atheism, One Note at a Time

By Pete Haug

My last column traced my journey from Christianity, through agnosticism, into the Baha’i Faith. Given my attitudes towards religion during a dozen agnostic years, I’ve often considered why I didn’t become an atheist. The short answer is, I didn’t have the chutzpah to state authoritatively that the God I didn’t believe in didn’t exist. On reflection, two major influences (besides lack of chutzpah) kept me from becoming an atheist: nature and liturgical music. 

Gaia, the Earth we inhabit

I became interested in the Creation as a child, naming constellations in the night sky and spending solitary hours sitting in the eastern deciduous forest. That quiet solitude was interrupted only by an occasional insect’s buzz, a bird call, or the soft rustling of leaves. Peace touched my soul. I loved hiking, backpacking, and camping. Winter found me atop a ski slope for an early run, a low winter sun casting shadows down sparkling, tree-lined trails. Mother Nature – Gaia – has had a grip on me for eight decades.

As an adult, I finished a master’s degree in wildlife biology and a PhD in systems ecology. For two decades I studied and analyzed environmental impacts. Along the way I grew to recognize that the creation I loved was God’s. I’d felt it during those boyhood days in the woods, but that knowledge grew and developed as I plumbed the impossible intricacies of the living ecosystems that sustain us. 

Recently we lost an intellectual giant who devoted his life to understanding those complexities. James Lovelock died last month on his 103rd birthday. He originated the Gaia Hypothesis, which postulates interconnectedness among all things, living and nonliving. Lovelock’s legacies continue to inspire and shape the direction of humankind’s efforts to mitigate and reverse devastation to Earth’s environmental support systems.

After becoming a Baha’i, I better understood just how interdependent our collective spiritual outlook is with the physical surroundings that nurture us. 

Now to Music

Music was the other influence that deterred me from atheism. Shakespeare called it both “food of love” and “spirit of love.” As an 8-year-old choirboy soprano, I loved singing Sunday school hymns. The voice, some said, was angelic; its owner was not. Though I enjoyed the music, I didn’t understand many of the lyrics. After my voice changed to bass-baritone, I started singing the good stuff, centuries-old liturgical choral music. There were innumerable pieces, large and small, of sacred music in many languages, all in praise of the Creator. 

I sang Mozart’s Requiem to commemorate the 200th anniversary of both his birth (1956) and his death (1991). I’ve sung Handel’s Messiah multiple times, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Honegger’s “Joan of Arc at the Stake,” Bach chorales, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and Bach’s Mass in B minor — and thereby hangs a tale.

My wife Jolie and I began a friendly relationship our senior year in college, when our two schools joined forces to perform the B minor Mass with full orchestra and professional soloists. She was a voice major in the women’s chorus. I was a singer in the men’s. We’d met a year earlier when she was dating my roommate, who later dropped her. Our relationship began casually but blossomed into romance within a year. We married 61 years ago. 

Whenever we hear the B minor Mass (which isn’t often), we gaze fondly into each other’s eyes and recite, in two-part harmony, “Listen, dear, they’re playing our song.”

Marriage aside, liturgical music has played a huge part in my life. I find the sweep, scope, and majestic beauty of these human creations breathtaking, profoundly moving, paeans to a God beyond our understanding. 

Singing, or now mostly listening to, these musical tributes to an unknowable Essence, a Creator that transcends human ability to understand, uplifts me beyond description. That emotional response is what kept me from denying the existence of God. There had to be something that inspired humans to create such beauty on His behalf.  

The worlds of nature and music merge in the philosophical concept known as “music of the spheres,” which regards movements of celestial bodies as a form of music. The idea was introduced by Pythagoras and further explored by 16th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler. He believed this “music” was inaudible, but that it could be “heard” by the soul. Perhaps my own experiences with nature and music were not so unusual after all.

 “We … have made music as a ladder for your souls,” Baha’u’llah wrote, “a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high.” In the Baha’i Faith, “Music is regarded as a praiseworthy science … spiritual melodies, songs and tunes … bring the earthly music into harmony with the celestial melody … what heavenly joy and life it conferreth.” 

Though unknowable, God is believable through the “joy and ecstasy” of heavenly melodies.

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