I’m a skeptic. When I meet other skeptics, we usually end up talking about how we became one, and those stories usually involve some mention of our first freethinking heroes: The ones who made us realize we weren’t alone in our thinking and taught us more. For many of my skeptic friends, their first heroes were scientists, writers, activists, or magicians. They’ll often explain how they experienced the works of intellects such as Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Eugenie Scott, Penn & Teller, James Randi, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and more. Those public figures are my heroes as well, but my very first skeptical heroes were rock stars.

Most of these artists probably aren’t full-blown capital S Skeptics, but they did touch upon subjects, such as religion, politics, science, sociology, sexism, feminism, etc. that are all part of logical and critical thinking. I felt release and a sense of connection when hearing these songs. They got the wheels in my head turning and eventually led me into questioning other subjects.

Before I was an all-around skeptic, I was a religious skeptic. I became an atheist while still in elementary school and told no one. I lived in a suburban Midwest town with little religious diversity. I didn’t know the word “atheist” existed. I always heard nonbelievers talked about as being evil, trashy people. It took a while for me to learn that I wasn’t alone in coming to my unbelief for logical reasons and that there are many intellectual freethinkers.

For a while, I felt alone. Then I bought “The Downward Spiral” album by Nine Inch Nails. There was a song that wasn’t a hit or a single, so I wasn’t aware of it ahead of time. It was “Heresy”. The song came on. I heard the lyrics and felt the darkness and anger of the music. It said everything I had been secretly thinking to myself. It got in your face, didn’t mince words, and called out Christianity for the lie that it is. It was angry. It expressed the frustration I had been feeling inside. I felt liberated hearing this. When I listened, I knew that I was “supposed” to feel guilty and scared and switch it off. I’d been taught that relating to something like this was blasphemy – an unforgivable sin that’d land me in hell. I listened to this not caring, knowing that I had really escaped the false belief in a god. Hearing this song made me realize I was no longer afraid, not even deep down inside. I wasn’t alone and I felt like I could connect and let out all of this when singing and moving along to the music. It changed me. I’ll never forget when I first heard it and how amazing that song made me feel. I didn’t know of any other religious doubters and had not talked to anyone about this. I felt like this song was my first atheist friend.

It is still sometimes played in “goth” clubs. Whenever it is, I see a lot of people run to the dance floor and passionately dance to it. I’ll then hear them tell a similar story about how it changed and moved them. It’s a pretty cool thing when that happens. “Heresy” really connects a lot of people to this day, even though it came out in 1994.

Nine Inch Nails “Heresy”

When I was a teenager, I moved on up to the big city (in comparison) of Baltimore. It was much more religiously and racially diverse than Dayton, OH. Along with other religions being represented than just Protestantism, there were more secular, nonreligious, and atheist students at my new schools than what I’d experienced before. I could be open. I wasn’t alone. I didn’t feel evil. It was wonderful.

I started listening to a DC/Bmore radio station called WHFS, which had a retro/flashback lunch hour. They played “Dear God” by XTC. It was another song questioning religion, but it moved me in a different way. It reminded me of being the young girl who wanted desperately to stay a good Christian, but could not because the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to it being untrue. This song still touches me.

XTC “Dear God”

“Jesus He Knows Me” was one that definitely made me think while I still believed in God. It made me question a lot of the problems of religious leaders. At the time, I saw it more as a criticism of the bad preachers and televangelists and not a criticism of Christianity overall. I think the song’s topics were a little ahead of its time. It’s a good one.

Genesis “Jesus He Knows Me”

A song in a similar vein is Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”.

Then along came Marilyn Manson. I think I appreciate MM even more now than I did back then. I was always a fan, but when I think about all the protestors and violent threats the band endured, and the fact that they still carried on and played in some of the most conservative parts of the U.S., I really have a lot of respect. There was especially a lot of controversy after the Columbine tragedy, as MM was a scapegoat, since it was falsely reported that the shooters were fans (as if that somehow would make the band responsible, even if it were true). Many other people would have understandably and justifiably canceled touring, or at least touring in the Bible Belt, but the band toured anyway. I think those parts of the country are where there was a need for that the most. The MM fans in those towns probably felt the most alone and outcasted and greatly appreciated the performance and the chance to meet other likeminded fans in the audience. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that those concerts were life changing for many of them.

He is also a great speaker. Some of his interviews had a positive influence on many people. I worked at a CD store in high school and talked to customers. Many of them were parents who asked my musical advice. We got to know each other more and more over the months and years and I remember some parents not only changing their minds about their kids’ musical choices, but also about their philosophical and religious views, thanks largely to Marilyn Manson’s interviews. I remember a mother who refused to let her child listen to Manson because of his “shocking” appearance and his lyrics that questioned religion. I then remember her saying she saw an interview with him on a news program. She couldn’t believe how well-spoken and intelligent he was and that he was a journalism major. She said his explanation of why he was no longer a Christian opened her eyes. While she was still a believer herself, she understood that her kids listening to this music wasn’t because they were bad people. His interview with Bill O’Reilly is an example of how he can communicate with those of opposing views in a respectful manner.

I was also a big fan of the music coming out of the Pacific Northwest rock scene. Bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, 7 Year Bitch, and Team Dresch had songs related to feminist issues and LGBT issues and some were activists.

7 Year Bitch “Dead Men Don’t Rape”

Liking these bands, along with other punk, indie, and riot grrrl bands led me to reading political literature. The internet wasn’t what it is now and before there were blogs, there were zines that were part of the merged musical and political scenes. I read zines from the Pacific Northwest, along with some European ones, and local ones in DC and Bmore. Some of the topics weren’t so skeptical, like conspiracy theories, but most of what I read was very logical and informational and mostly had pro-science and pro-justice slants to them. They informed me and made me want to get involved and make a change.

Explanation of Privilege – a sociological concept – from Bikini Kill zine:

My point in sharing this is to explain that everyone’s story is different and that each of our journeys begin in different ways. There are different ways to reach out to others, to make a difference, and to express oneself. There are a lot of skeptics who want to get involved somehow, but feel like they have nothing to contribute that hasn’t already been done, or that they don’t have the right credentials to give a lecture or write a book. But not everyone learns or is reached out to in the same way. Some learn through books and academia. Some people like blogs and podcasts. Others like online discussions. Many of us like some sort of combination. But art is a real way to communicate to people and to reach out to those who don’t have others speaking their language to them. I also think it can convey feelings in ways that other forms of media cannot. And it’s not always about convincing new people of new ideas. Expressing oneself through art is an important outlet and helps people who already have certain views because they can relate and feel connected.

I remember when Christopher Hitchens died over a year ago. I reread some of his works and watched some videos. But I found myself listening to this song a lot, as it helped me cope and celebrate his life in ways the other forms of media could not.

IAMX “I Salute You Christopher”

Some artists that are very popular within the skeptical community are George Hrab, Gary Stockdale, and comedian/musician Tim Minchin. They are very talented musicians and quite witty.

Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences and let me know the other free-thinking artists I missed.