“PRAY, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.”

Ambrose Bierce

“PRAYER, n. Hour upon hour of brown-nosing to nobody.”

Nom dePlume

“When my way grows drear, precious Lord linger near/When my light is almost gone, Hear my cry, hear my call.”

Gospel lyrics

I continue to marvel at how religion gets such a wide berth of undeserved respect in the media. It’s like politics in the old Soviet Union, which I visited in the 60s: we’re all SO happy, and we LOVE the Party. That’s all you would see in the media. It’s the same with religion. It’s so good for you!

A photo in the newspaper (Chicago Tribune, 12/2/07) shows a gospel choir of Black people getting into the Christmas spirit, praising Jesus in song. I just absorbed the picture for a while, trying to figure out what was happening. And without reading the article, I got the message.

The power of ecstasy

Looking at the innocent enthusiasm in their faces (at least one person has his eyes closed in ecstasy), I couldn’t help but think….Wow!

I read what Dawkins has to say on this subject, and I still can’t claim to understand how religion maintains such a hold on people (don’t we have equally inspiring music on humanistic themes?). After all, the USSR also had concentration camps and mental hospitals to discourage and punish dissenters.

Certainly there’s a hypnotic element, facilitated by music, prayer, and chanting, that encourages outright abandonment of the critical faculty and generates all kinds of feel-good brain chemicals and even such bizarre behaviors as glossolalia (speaking in tongues).

Mesmerism and light trance

I recently read that high-maintenance cults — no surprise — require a continuous intellectual and emotional enmeshing with the ideology, via restrictions on language; song/chant; ritual repetition, as with five-times-a-day prayer (which can keep people in a constant “light trance”); and other means. So there is, to me, strong evidence of a real, externally-induced change in the higher brain functions, brain chemistry, and neurology of religious believers.

Crappy lives, retreat into fantasy

It seems that the worse a people’s lives have been, the more they seek happiness in religious fantasy and ecstasy — and the more tenaciously they cling to them. Look at how Jews with hellish lives created the phantasmagorical Kabbalah and, later, Hasidism.

I’m not impressed with mysticism. Direct experience of the deity? Who cares? It’s one more way to retreat from the real world and consort with imaginary beings.

Blacks and Jews have suffered grievously at the hands of white Christians, so their retreat into passivity and fantasy is understandable.

Giving up on human power

This is unfortunate, because God and Jesus have not done a damn thing for us. They didn’t rescue Blacks from slavery or Jews from Hitler. Everything we have done, we’ve accomplished ourselves and in cooperation with each other.

To the extent that people embrace religion, they have actively given up on salvation through human action in this world. They show that they’ve given up on themselves and other people by putting things in God’s hands, praying/begging God for favors, and preparing for an afterlife, with or without apocalypse.

Well, people do have limited power over events. But they have more than they think. If every minute spent praising Jesus (and killing unbelievers) were devoted to social and personal improvement, we would have a much better world.

I continue to be the spiritual brother of The Infidel Guy and of that Black Atheist rapper. It’s too bad there are so few of us.


Alan M. Perlman has a PhD in linguistics. He is a secular humanist speaker and author — most recently, of An Atheist Reads the Torah: Secular Humanistic Perspectives on the Five Books of Moses. For information, go to

6 Responses to “Praisin’ Jesus: gospel music, religious mesmerism, and mind control”

  1. on 06 Dec 2007 at 7:27 amRick Levy

    I think that Black America’s embrace of Christianity is an excellent example of the Stockholm syndrome.

    However, I do enjoy gospel music for its intensity and soul (pardon the pun). I rock music, especially that of the 1950’s and 1960’s where gospel music’s influence is most profound.

  2. on 06 Dec 2007 at 4:00 pmAlan


    Excellent point about Stockholm Syndrome. And for most of the time, Blacks revered a WASP/White-looking Jesus. Only recently has this iconography been questioned. Jesus, if he existed, probably looked more like Yasser Arafat.

    I like to compare gospel with secular love songs (I’m a jazz musician). The latter are also very emotional and very romantic. In fact, much of the traditional American songbook — Porter, Gershwin, Kern — is unrealistic about the way love works in real life (as opposed to Black blues music).

    The difference is: unless one happens to be singing to a specific person, we KNOW the lyrics don’t refer to reality.



  3. on 07 Dec 2007 at 4:07 amRick Levy

    Whoops! I forgot to mention the (obvious) bridge between gospel and rock: Blues, which I also enjoy for its grit and emotion, and for its greater realism about the angst of relationships between men and women than the typical sugar-coated entries in the American songbook.

  4. on 07 Dec 2007 at 4:48 pmAlan

    Yes, some songs are more realistic about life and love. But they’re still songs.

    Thanks again for reading — and writing.



  5. on 16 Dec 2007 at 4:49 pmB Goldhagen

    Hi Allan, I have not had a chance to read your blog for a while, and now realize how much I have missed your insights and musings. Reading your links, and comments always helps me to remember that I am not alone in my secure belief that God is a human concoction that on merit has done more harm than good. You fellowship aprroach to understand why non believers like myself, still belong to a reform temple, have a son in confirmation class,and enjoy the quarterly mens club meetings. At my level of involvement, I take the good stuff, nice guys and good food, and leave the rest to other people. Am I a hipocrit? Maybe, but with little harm. The only problem I seem to be having is being honest with my 16 year old son, who wants to be a Jewish believer. I have to control my impulse to share my heartfelt convictions, He should make up his own mind. When he asks specific questions about my beliefs, I say no one knows the answers. That is somewhat of a cop out, but it works for now. When he is 18, I have decided to share my life time conviction, that I am a Jew, but do not in even an abstract way , believe there is a God, an after life or any salvation when we die. All the more important to live your life in a as a good and helping person. Thanks for the space to share. Have a happy and healthy New Year… Bruce

  6. on 16 Dec 2007 at 6:07 pmAlan

    Hi Bruce,

    Nice to hear from you. I always say that if one person appreciates what I’m doing, it’s worth it.

    Secular Humanistic Judaism is what enables me (and many other people) to be Jewish with our integrity intact. We don’t pray to deities who aren’t there, and over the years, we have worked out a parallel Judaism that connects with the traditional culture — but not the ancient mindset that produced rabbinic/halakhic Judaism.

    I most earnestly urge you to share your convictions with your son. The best thing we can pass on is authenticity. As a parent, I try to model my convictions. I hope my son will perpetuate Secular-Humanistic beliefs.

    I have long had an issue with agnostics and other liberals who want to let their kids “make up their own minds” about God, religion, and the afterlife.

    This does the kids no service, for they then grow up in a world where belief is the norm, not believing is stigmatized — and, very importantly, NO orthodox religion on earth lets its kids make up their own minds. Quite the opposite: kids’ minds are made up quite early. Fortunately, there are many Humanist youth groups — but not nearly enough.

    And the Happiest of Holidays and New Years to you and yours. Hope you’ll be a frequent visitor. I want to present original stuff, not recycle other people’s videos. Nutty religious people give me endless material. And the “Subscribe” feature will soon be activated.



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