Last summer, a billboard appeared at the base of Capitol Hill imploring its readers, in Old English script, to "Imagine No Religion." Wince-inducing paraphrase of John Lennon aside, the sign was a welcome sight for at least this atheist—it's always nice to know you're not alone in the feeling that, fundamentally speaking, we are all alone. And while that sign might not have seemed too controversial in secularly tolerant Seattle, as part of a larger nationwide campaign, it was a reminder that the vast majority of America—some 78 percent according to recent polls—still believes in a Christian God.
Singer-songwriters John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats and local David Bazan of Pedro the Lion have both counted themselves among that 78 percent at times. They've both also dealt in their lives and in their songs with varying degrees of doubt and disillusionment, agnosticism and atheism. Recently, both artists released new albums, and while neither is exactly a billboard of apostasy, both offer a revealing look at complex, often rocky relationships with religion.
Bazan's Barsuk release Curse Your Branches is his first solo full-length since the dissolution of Pedro the Lion in 2005, and it's a first in other ways as well. Whereas Pedro the Lion frequently used fiction to explore the corners of faith and the human condition, Bazan has said that the new record is largely autobiographical. And it covers some pretty dark personal territory, exploring Bazan's falling out with his former evangelical Christianity and his subsequent attempts to drown out his newfound agnosticism with alcohol. The songs were reportedly well received at this year's Cornerstone Christian music festival (from which Bazan was cast out in 2005 for drunkenness).
The Mountain Goats' latest, The Life of the World to Come, appears at first to be more pious. Each of its 12 tracks is named after a Bible verse, and Darnielle has framed it as "12 hard lessons the Bible taught me"—for instance, "Genesis 3:23" ("So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden...") is a song about him visiting his old place in Portland and about how you can't go home again. But Darnielle's spiritual path has been convoluted—he was raised Catholic (and remembers it fondly), became a strident atheist in high school, then returned to the church, and now attends Hare Krishna services as enthusiastically as he does Mass—and his current stance is ambiguous. In a recent Pitchfork interview, he said, "The story of my religiousness is a long thing... I mean, I go to church, but I don't have the faith of the people there." His previous album was called Heretic Pride; one of his early breakthrough songs, "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" ends with a rousing refrain of "hail Satan!" On the new record, his interest in the Bible comes across as more literary and theological than devotional. He recasts its archetypal narratives to modern troubles and even incorporates more poetic bits of scripture directly into his own lyrics.
Both songwriters detail messy, wayward lives, but they do so for distinctly cross-purposes. Bazan seems largely concerned with ethics, with the struggle to be good, moral, and righteous, and his songs palpably sag with the guilt of inevitably falling short of such high, holy standards. His songs are alternately repentant and flagellant, acknowledging his own shortcomings (the line on "Bless This Mess" about kissing his baby's forehead with booze on his breath is especially brutal) as much as he lashes out at the hypocrisy and wickedness of politicians or (ahem) the nastiness of critics.
Darnielle seems more occupied with the loftier existential questions religion tries to understand: Why must we suffer in life? What becomes of us when we die? (Several songs on The Life of the World to Come— "Philippians 3:20–21," "Hebrews 11:40," "Matthew 25:21"—deal pretty directly with the fear and uncertainty of dying.) Even when he zooms in on some small-scale scene of earthly misery or squalor (as on outstanding older songs "Palmcorder Yajna," "Dance Music," or "This Year"), he exposes the way hope and despair play tug-of-war with the human heart—with more eloquence and empathy than comes across in Bazan's bitter scolding and self-recrimination.
Both albums are artful reminders that there's more to America's soul than the cold certainty of either hardcore Christians or the "new atheists," that there is in fact a vast, fascinating gray area out there between absolute faith and absolute doubt—imagine that.