Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D
Anthropologists place the world’s religions into several categories, including animism, ancestor cult, nature religions, polytheism and monotheism. Each of these broad groupings contains a diversity of convictions, practices and mythologies reflective of the fertility of human imagination. Religion, it seems, is as variegated as humanity itself. Still, it is possible to locate shared purposes within these sundry (and in many ways incompatible) systems. For instance, they all strive to help people deal with uncertainties, provide meaning for their lives, give answers to difficult questions and promote social cohesion. While no particular belief or practice is common to or deemed valid by every group, these aims are universal.
A rationalist might argue that the extreme variety of religious beliefs is evidence of their falsity. If each claims to be the absolute truth, then none of them can be absolutely true. It might also be asserted that scientific research and other modern advances have made and will continue to make religious answers obsolete. Even sacred subjects like the soul, morality and apparent glimpses of the afterlife have been shown to have brain-based origins. At the same time, it is clear that the core issues religions address are inherent to the human condition. If centuries of philosophical inquiry and empirical data have taught us anything it is that life is uncertain, unpredictable and devoid of absolute meaning. That religions construct order in this chaos is justification for their persistence, even in the age of science.
It would be a mistake to dismiss religious beliefs as mere wish fulfillment. Though faith derives from and appeals to the intellect, it is not without experiential confirmation. Believers genuinely feel that they are in contact with supernatural forces. Proof of divine concern is not always observable in the course of everyday life, but there are certain feelings that provide assurance. Knowledge of horrors and tragedies might pose a challenge to belief, but sensations mitigate doubt.
It is no coincidence that cultures far and wide associate singing with the supernatural and infuse religious activities with song. Religion needs singing. It is a primary mode by which convictions become feelings. Songs of hope generate feelings of hope, songs of peace promote feelings of peace, songs of gratitude create feelings of gratitude. They yield tangible results. Of course, all of this can be attributed to music-triggered emotional and neurological responses. But in the context of worship and the mind of the believer, they are confirmations of faith.
Music’s role in supporting belief can be traced to prehistoric times. Archaeological ruins indicate that rituals were often performed in rooms and caverns with the liveliest acoustics. Paleolithic paintings are generally clustered on the most resonant cave walls, suggesting that they were used in conjunction with ritualistic chant. Neolithic stone configurations, like Avebury and Stonehenge, were similarly composed of echoing rocks. As society advanced, the association of vibrant sounds with the holy found its way into sacred architecture, where reverberating sanctuaries symbolically convey a back-and-forth between humanity and the supernatural.
It is not necessary to accept this devotional interpretation to understand music’s confirmatory power. Whether we are religious or not, we remain a species attracted to the emotionalizing effects of song and vibrant acoustics. Their impact is enough to convince us that what is being sung is right and valid. While the beliefs themselves might not resonate with people outside of a particular worldview, we can at least appreciate the persuasive hold of the music.
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