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Heavy Metal, Judaica, Life, Music

Haunting the chapel: my thoughts on heavy metal and religion.

jewish metalhead

Is heavy metal inherently anti-religious? Having been virtually a lifelong metalhead, I can say from experience that many people, both within and without the scene, believe that it is, or should be. Critique of organized religion or aspects of it has been a common lyrical and thematic element in metal for decades. Megadeth’s “Holy Wars”, Queensrÿche’s classic album Operation: Mindcrime or Exhorder’s Slaughter in the Vatican are but a few of the many, many, many examples. While there are examples of metal bands or musicians who either are religious or expressly tackle religious themes (Stryper, from the early 80s, is an egregious one), I would say from my own observation that at least a majority of people in the metal culture would consider themselves to be either indifferent to religion in general or openly hostile to it.

It’s easy to understand why. Even without analyzing the long history of Satanic themes in metal, the music itself has always celebrated nonconformity. Its heavy and dissonant tones, developing beginning in the 1950s, by their nature challenge the normal, the usual and the mainstream. Religion, especially orthodox or fundamentalist religion, is the ultimate conformity. It certainly didn’t help that some religious organizations and people, especially evangelical Americans, made metal music a target in the 1970s and 1980s, blaming it for causing suicides, school shootings or indoctrinating kids with Satanism. Against this background, the heavy-handed anti-religiosity of figures like Glen Benton (Deicide) seems more like retaliation than provocation.

But I have noticed, to the extent metal can be said to have any kind of ideology, that its view of religion is somewhat monochromatic. I’ve noticed this more since I myself have become more religious in the past few years. For most of my life I was an atheist, but recently I’ve been discovering religion, especially Judaism. Once I finally decided that I did believe in God, I will admit that the view of organized religion I absorbed from nearly 30 years of being steeped in the metal scene made me extremely reluctant to join any kind of religious organization. In metal, one is constantly reminded either of the atrocities committed in its name over the long run of history–think Megadeth’s “Holy Wars” again–or the dangers of swallowing any ideology totally and unquestioningly. The Catholic Church did call the Crusades; fundamentalist activists do picket metal concerts and hurl abuse at metalheads. You just can’t forget these things.

A metal classic: Megadeth’s “Holy Wars,” performed live in 1992.

Essentially I learned two things about God and religion from the metal culture and the atheists (of which I was one, for years) that it brought me in contact with. The first was that God was a cruel tyrant who threatens you with Hell if you don’t believe in Him. The second was that adherents of organized religion, especially Christianity, think their belief system is absolutely right, commanded by God, to the exclusion of all other beliefs. These two views of what faith is about formed the cornerstone of my opinion, deeply held for many years, that all religion was a brainwashing cult, suppressive of initiative and independent thought, and an anathema to self-determination and self-discovery.

As I’ve become more religious myself, however, I began to notice that neither of these things I learned were really true–or at least not true of many, and I dare say most, religious people. Despite the high visibility of thundering fundamentalists like Pat Robertson or the terrorist organization known as the Westboro Baptist Church, the idea that God enforces people’s belief in Him by threatening the punishment of eternal damnation is not really shared by most religious people I’ve come in contact with. I’m certainly not motivated by that–I don’t believe in Hell, for the record–and it’s hardly the operative theological backbone of most faiths that some critics of religion make it out to be. Secondly, as it is virtually self-evident that organized religions, churches and their tenets were created by human beings, not God, most people accept this fact. I believe in God and am starting to call myself a Jew, but I have no doubt whatsoever that Judaism, as an institution and a belief system, is entirely the work of human beings. People join churches, synagogues and mosques for intensely human reasons: to become part of a community, to reach out to others, and to find comfort from other people as much–or more–than from God or whatever deity they believe in. What I learned from metal albums and “fundamentalist atheism” tends to gloss over this very important reality.

Judas Iscariot is regarded as one of the most passionately anti-religious bands in the history of metal. Their name celebrates the betrayer of Christ. Killer riffs!

Are there exceptions? Of course. The other day I encountered a Christian proselytizer who insisted that every word of the Bible was literally true and that I’m going to Hell for not accepting Jesus as my savior. I disagree with that guy. But I also disagree with Varg Vikernes, the black metaller who torched ancient medieval churches in Norway in 1992 as a form of guerrilla warfare against the faith he blamed for “destroying” Scandinavian civilization. Even if you hate religion, that’s not the way to go about opposing it.

A few years ago, while I was still an atheist, I happened to meet a guy from an Arab country in the beer garden at the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany. As he was enjoying a huge mug of beer and wearing a Dissection T-shirt I presumed he was not Muslim. I was surprised when he told me that he was a Muslim. We talked a little bit about religion. He believed in Allah, believed in the major tenets of Islam, and thought that Islam was generally a positive belief system. It seemed strange to me at the time that he was drinking beer (the Quran condemns alcohol) and celebrating a metal lifestyle that seems inconsistent with how most of us in the West view Islam. Now it doesn’t seem so strange to me. Just as not every Muslim is Osama bin Laden, not every Christian belongs to the Westboro Baptist Church, and not every Jew is Rabbi Kahane. Believing in God or joining a church is not by definition abrogating your free will. In fact, it’s a celebration of it–as is listening to heavy metal music.

The photo at the top of this article was taken by Alan Miller and published by Flickr user “zeevvez,” and is used under Creative Commons Attribution license.

8 Comments

  1. Great post. Out of curiosity, have you seen the documentary Taqwacore? It’s about Muslim punks trying carve a niche for themselves in a scene that’s inherently atheist. While non-religious myself, I found the whole thing fascinating.

  2. Interesting observations. My husband loves heavy metal and he’s a lifelong Catholic. He just ignores the satanic elements, I suppose. Good luck with your exploration of Judaism.

  3. The photo at the top of this article was taken by Alan Miller and was published by zeevveez. Could you change the credit?
    Yours
    Zeev Barkan (zeevveez), Jerusalem, Israel

  4. Great article, Sean. I hope you discover some amazing things down your journey!

  5. JST

    “But I have noticed, to the extent metal can be said to have any kind of ideology, that its view of religion is somewhat monochromatic. ”

    Have you noticed a difference between the subgenres (power, death, thrash, traditional heavy metal) in regards to relgion?

  6. JST

    Asking because sometimes people think all metal sounds the same.

    • I can’t say that I’ve noticed a difference among metal genres as to how they treat religion, except by omission. Power metal bands tend not to reference religion very much. Anti-religious lyrics tend to come more often from death, black or thrash metal bands. In the power metal genre Edguy and Tobias Sammett’s side project Avantasia are an exception, as they deal with religion but more in the context of a story than a contemporary critique. Then again Edguy does have songs like “Land of the Miracle” which, though not referencing Christianity explicitly, could be considered obliquely pro-religious.

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