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Horns and Halos: a humanist perspective on Satanic music

Updated: Apr 2

By Gareth Hall

Gareth is the Chair of Wrexham Humanists, an accredited school speaker for Humanists UK, and Lead Coordinator for the North Wales Interfaith Network. In this article he explains that some of the greatest rock and roll stars have been inspired by religion. “Humanists and Christians might want to sing different songs, but we don’t want to live different lives.

I have no faith distracting me / I know why your prayers will never be answered / GOD HATES US ALL…” Disciple: God Hates us All

For those readers who appreciate the fine art of thrash metal, Slayer’s “Disciple” is a classic track by one of the great enduring legends of the genre. And for the non-religious, who have waited centuries for the right to openly criticise organised religion without being killed/tortured/ostracised, sometimes it can feel incredibly liberating to scream in defiance, and listen to others do the same.

And yet... Tom Araya, Slayer’s lead singer, is a Christian. He does not sing “God hates us all!” because he believes that to be so. He sings it because... he can. Because the freedom to criticise religion was a long, long time coming, and now that it's here – for some of us, at least – that is a freedom worth celebrating.

For an angry 13 year old atheist, it's easy to listen to this music, give a middle finger to the church for every hypocrisy and atrocity ever committed in its name, and secretly hope someone religious is offended by it. But when you grow a little older – a little wiser? – and start learning about the people behind the songs, a deeper, more complex narrative emerges.

Tom Araya was not the first Christian to sing “Satanic” songs – far from it. In fact, nearly every aspect of modern popular music for the last 100 years has been forged by Christian artists stepping out of church and breaking the rules. For the blues, it was Robert Johnson “selling his soul” at a Mississippi crossroads; for R&B, it was Ray Charles daring to put “worldly” lyrics to traditional gospel melodies; for rock ‘n’ roll, it was Jerry Lee Lewis warning his fans that sinful lust would bring down “great balls of fire” (but succumbing to that desire because “you broke my will…what a thrill!”); and for the pioneers of heavy metal, who would ultimately inspire Slayer and countless others, it was Ozzy Osbourne coming face to face with the Devil himself (“Satan’s sitting there… he’s smiling!”).

All of these artists were religious, and all of them were condemned by church leaders and Christian communities – not because of what they believed, but because they did not allow their beliefs to restrict them from singing about violence, sexuality and all manner of “unholy” behaviour.

The battle for the soul of popular music was never between the godless and the faithful – that line in the sand was washed away before most people could afford their own record players. Right from the start, secular music has attracted artists and audiences from both sides of the aisle, and the more we mix together, the harder it becomes to separate the religious and the non-religious. Do we really need to? Like a vast family, we bicker and we disagree, we occasionally vow to walk away and never come back – and yet, somehow, we all recognise this is where we belong, and make our peace in the morning.

Alice Cooper once sang “back off preacher, I don’t care if it’s Sunday!” He’s a Christian, too – and a preacher’s son. He doesn’t want a world without religion – he just wants to live in a world where religion doesn’t control what he wants to sing about. Does that sound familiar, humanists? It should.

Humanism advocates for a society where no religion has the power to dictate what anyone says or does (or sings). Not a faithless society – a free society. A place where people of all faiths and beliefs live together, as equals, in peace. Never mind the fringe extremists on either side – that is exactly what most of us want. Christians, Muslims, Humanists… everyone. We might want to sing different songs, but we don’t want to live different lives. Not really. And this is the crucial point that so many people – the religious and the non-religious – tend to miss.

When that angry atheist listens to Slayer and fantasises about a faithless world, he doesn't realise that he's literally wishing his favourite band into oblivion. In that future, Tom Araya doesn't exist – and there is no place for the generations of artists that inspired him either. A world where everyone is free to blast heavy metal on their car stereo, or listen to a gospel choir at the local church, and there is no wrong choice to make, because we are friends regardless... isn’t that the world we all want to live in?

Does “God hate us all”? It depends on your point of view – and which God you're thinking of. Either way, it’s not the either/or choice you might think it is.

Horns or halos? I’m happy with both.


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Neil Lucock
Neil Lucock
May 01

Christian rock has always done badly when marketed as such, but sometimes a great song is a great song. I'll happily play Spirit in the Sky (Norman Greenbaum) despite its religious messsage. I tend to listen to pagan-inspired music because they make some fine songs (try Sabaton's Swedish Pagans). I don't think religion attracts the best musicials any more , but Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and Mozart's Dies Irae have stood the test of time.

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