|Ja, ve are nihilists. We don't believe in anysink!|
Any discussion I undertake about music is inevitably going to lead me to talk about metal, and any discussion I undertake about religion is inevitably going to lead me to talk about atheism. The two are actually more closely linked than a lot of people think, but what links them together may be surprising. Maybe I can do this in one post; maybe I'll need two. We'll see.
When I think of metal, I think of a friend I knew when I was younger who I'll call Mike. Mike has had a huge impact on my life over the years, even though we're no longer speaking. He really deserves his own post; more than one, actually. But since this is a post about metal and atheism, I'll talk this time about the greatest thing Mike did for me, which was introduce me to many of the bands and artists who have had the greatest influence over my young life.
The year was 2000, and I'd been "officially" a practictioner of the alternate lifestyle for about three years. In those three years I was kicked out of two high schools and got into probably three dozen fights. I was at the age where anger and frustration with the world synergizes so perfectly with adolescent self-absorption, and boy was I ever pissed. I like to think I had good reason to be: I was dateless, most of my friendships were in ruins, I was going on my third school in as many years, and even though I had plenty of people to blame, in my heart I knew even then that this was all my own damn fault. In its purest form, I truly believe metal is an expression that one can see little or no beauty in the world, and when that ability is taken away all we're left with is our pain, anguish, anger, and spite at everything else. For my adolescent years, it was a match made in heaven (or, erm, hell).
Mike ran a website that reviewed popular metal bands and albums of the time, particularly those that were part of a movement in the genre that came out of scandanavia in the mid-to-late 90s and crested in the first half of this decade. Primarily focused on the city of Gothenburg, Sweden, these included bands that would later find commercial success in the US such as In Flames, Arch Enemy, Soilwork, Children of Bodom, and Dimmu Borgir. Generally speaking, as far as music goes, if it's popular in the US, I tend to dislike it, but if it's popular in Europe, I tend to like it a lot more (the crossover metal/progressive rock band Dream Theater is a notable exception). In the span of a year, from late 2000 to the end of 2001, Mike and his website introduced me to literally hundreds of bands that received repeated play time. I spent probably upwards of two thousand dollars on CDs and merchandise that year, and my collection grew from about 50 albums to close to five hundred. But it was more than music I'd bought: it was an attitude, an image, a lifestyle. I grew my hair long and wore dingy band shirts. I cursed. I spat. I was generally an angry dick. But as far as being an angry dick went, whatever I could do, Mike could do a hundred times better. The world was as bleak and dark to us as the music we listened to.
One thing people don't seem to appreciate about metal is how much like classical music it is. Metal, no matter how noise-like and unmusical it may seem, has and always will be about emotion. In particular, it is about negative emotion, and the intensity of the anger and the bitterness of the music and musicians reflects the anger and bitterness of its listeners. The whole Satanic motif is only useful as a means to an end as far as imagery goes: the message is really about atheism and nihilism, not a belief or worship of Satan. This is something the traditional critics of metal have had a really hard time understanding. Mike was at his core a nihilist, like I was for those years, even though I called myself a Buddhist.
There is an emotional tendency of human beings to view things and speak of them in absolutes. This is just as true for a belief in nothing as it is a belief in God or the Bible. As I approach the age of 27, theologically I really only draw two lines in the sand anymore, both of which I learned the hard way. The first is the belief that one's own spiritual or moral problem and prescription is necessarily true of anyone and everyone else. I resoundly reject this. The other has to do with the rigidity or absolutism of one's faith and/or practice.. Either one of these beliefs, however they're practiced, at best guarantees the practitioner will do not good in the world and at worst will cause a great deal of damage to those around them and the world at large. Every atheist and everyone who appreciates metal the way I used to has for whatever reason been unwilling or unable to see beauty in the world. They have also been unbelievably rigid in their belief of this, and insisted that others come to the same conclusion. Stephen Prothero, in his various non-fiction books on religion, likes to call a fundamentalist "a religious practitioner who is angry at something." The same applies here. Whether you're angry at the world like a metalhead, angry at modernity like a Christian or Muslim fundamentalist, or just angry at religion, you have ceded control of that part of yourself to the emotion, and you will cause harm, not the least of which to yourself. This has not been an easy lesson for me to learn. Anger and hate are very easy and convenient sentiments, because they allow us to avoid responsibility for our actions. Which is not to say anger is wholly or inherently bad and call for its elimination: rage is as human as joy and compassion and therefore just as legitimate. But we have to be careful how we digest and carry that rage, and deny it power over us. This was to have significant consequences between me and Ken, as I will write in the coming days. So let this serve not as an admonition, but merely a caution. When you believe there is nothing good and reedeeming to the world, or even if you simply believe that as a net result on a theological balance sheet, you're going to have a very hard time controlling your anger and your hate, and you're going to have an even harder time maintaining a balance between the positive and the negative: thus you will cause harm to yourself and others.
All this is not to say that I don't still enjoy metal. Negative emotions are every bit as important to us as positive ones, myself included. But the dark side does have the ability to infect and take over the light in a way that the light does not really have the ability to do the reverse, at least in most people I know. So we can't let it be the only way. There is always beauty and positivity if you're wiling to see it, even in tragedy and misfortune. The real tragedy, and the true misfortune, is that so few of us are willing to see it.