Flyleaf, Cassie Bernall, Columbine, and religious themes vs the Atheist position

Baron Soosdon introduced me to Flyleaf, through his awesome machinima video of “I’m so sick”. I got my hands on their special addition album which also includes several acoustic renderings of their songs.

Flyleaf appeals to me in the same way Evanescence, Linkin Park and Limp Biscuit appeal, so you get a sense of the kind of music. Hmm, well actually, you get an even better sense by the following:

(click here if you cant see the video above)

and here is the actual video clip for the song, and a bit from the wonderful acoustic version.

Now to get to the actual point of this post. I am an atheist, and somewhat outspoken about it. Flyleaf has been described by many as a Christian rock band, and its not hard to hear why. Many of the themes of their songs and the lyrics are religious and evangelic in nature.

Now the initial reaction of many would be “who cares”, right? I try to tow that line wherever I can, but I find I am having some trouble in this case.

I am not the kinda guy who treats music, films as just background “noise”. I value the content and the message greatly. I need a good story and narrative to enjoy a movie, I need good and well developed lore to enjoy a fantasy or sci-fi universe. And I spent time understanding the lyrics and message of music I listen to.

This is the first time I have been exposed to music where my enjoyment of it is coming into some conflict with its message. I listen to the lyrics, and immerse myself in the feeling of what they are trying to convey, and I am feeling conflicted about the songs in this case.
The music is very good, and the both the music and the lyrics convey a very powerful feeling. You get drawn in. But at that level, it comes into conflict with my disapproval of the message; mainly the subjugation and surrender to God and Christ. Especially the song “Red Sam” is very strong in this, and the acoustic version is one of the best on the album. 

However, something that surprised me a little was that these songs are giving me a level of understanding and sympathy for believers that until now was purely and intellectual understanding. I believe I am more or less able to understand the need of believers, from a purely academic point of view. Physiology mostly, the works of people like Steven Pinker and Andrew Newberg, amongst others, have always been the way I have looked at these issues.

The music of Flyleaf (and i am sure many other bands) shows you the other side of the coin. Placing yourself in the mindset of the “born again” evangelical Christian, you can begin to somewhat appreciate the emotional appeal the unconditional belief and complete surrender to the embracing and loving higher power.

In this emotional context it becomes very apparent how and why Christians have serious serious issues with criticism and any attack on their religiosity. All of it cannot be interpreted as anything else than a personal attack. Anyone who has even tried to have an intellectually critical discussion about religion with a believer will know this. There are very few who are able to keep their cool talking about their religion subjectively, because of course, it cannot be subjective to them in any way. Its become part of their own self-identity, a total intertwining of values and world-view. No wonder people have such a hard time giving up religion.

There is a problem with this, besides the obvious objections of reason applied to all of dogmatic belief. That problem is how I as an Atheist, am automatically positioned in regard to these people and their value system. As Atheist in strong religious communities no doubt already know, there is an immediate conflict of values of morals when strong believers are confronted with a person who denies the very  existence of the structure these people base their personal religious experience on. For many believers, the Atheist position is nothing less than a denial of, what to them is, the most basic tenets of moral and “whole” existence. 

The very idea of non-belief is therefore deeply offensive in and of itself. We don’t even need to open our mouth to already be distrusted and cast into a negative light in a very fundamental way by the deeply religious. Spending any time at all on the internet shows you many examples of this plainly. The sentiment is often expressed in terms of distrust, of not being able to identify with someone who does not share the same basic value system (even though we often do). The point is, that many expositions of belief include the underlying criticism of un-belief, the distrust and contempt of the “outsider”, who does not, and can not, be viewed as equal, because he or she does not hold true to the tenets of the faith. The person who has not chosen to be saved is therefore not worthy of being held in the same regard.

Now let me it clear that the above view is probably not held by most believers in such strong terms. But my experience that it is true to some degree in the opinion of almost all believers toward the non-believer. Even here, in the extremely liberal, non-religious central west-Netherlands, I frequently run into people, usually colleagues at work, mostly of the Muslim faith, who, if probed, will reveal what they actually believe of those that do not share their faith and associated values. They may joke about it, they may dance around it, but one does pick up on the underlying tension. This brings me back to Flyleaf and their lyrics. Here are some copy pastes. Now, taking into consideration what i have written above, can you see what my issue is with some of the lyrics?

From “Red Sam” :

But who are you
You are the truth (you are the truth)
Outscreaming these lies
You are the truth (you are the truth)
Saving my life

From “Cassie”:

The question asked in order
To save her life or take it
The answer no to avoid death
The answer yes would make it
Make it
Do you believe in God
Written on the bullet
Say yes to pull the trigger
Do you believe in God
Written on the bullet
And Cassie pulled the trigger

How many will die
I will die
I, I will say yes

The accusation in “Red Sam” is plain, and I cant help but feel personally insulted every time I hear it. No one likes to be called a liar, but more to the point, is that many Atheist and those promoting the rational and scientific world-view are as convinced of the truth of our ways as the believer is. The fact that we have the fundament of reason on our side doesn’t faction into the discussion of course, much to our continued frustration. How can it compete against the ingrained emotional  meaning that is so valued by believers.

“Cassie” is a slightly more interesting case. Listening to the Lyrics, and the scenario described, one cannot help but wonder what is going on here, what dramatic circumstance has lead this girl to be put in this position.
Cassie Bernall, 17, was one of 12 students killed the Columbine high school massacre. The circumstances surrounding her death are now legendary within the US Christian community. From Wikipedia:

Initial reports suggested that one of the assailants, either Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold, asked Bernall if she believed in God moments before fatally shooting her. She was reported to have answered "yes". This story led to Bernall being presented as a martyr by some Christians, and served as the inspiration for several songs, including Michael W. Smith‘s "This Is Your Time"[1] and Flyleaf‘s "Cassie"[2].

It turned out the exchange did in fact not take place between her and the killers, and she was shot dead with no words being spoken between her and her assailant.  In fact the words where directed at another student, Valeen Schnurr, who did answer in the affirmative, but was left alive and survived.

The issue is that this specific part of the Columbine tragedy fed straight into that negative undertone I have been trying to describe. The Columbine killers where Atheists and Nihilists and severely  troubled. Much like Stalin and Hittler are often touted as the poster children for the “harm” of Atheism (Hitler was roman-catholic, btw), the Christian right wasted no time in zeroing in on this alleged aspect of the killers motivations, much like many other things where, such as their video game playing (another thing I have a problem with).

Salon has a very excellent article on this that conveys far better than I can here, what the exact issue is. In short, the circumstances of her death were exploited very plainly by the evangelicals, going so far as calling her a “martyr” of modern times. Her mother even went to far as to publish a book about it. Especially considering her conversion from former troubled youth to a born-again Christian. Everything about the urban legend of “Do you believe in God”  was a fantastic showpiece for them. But as the Salon article illustrates, this view and the associated evangelic agenda did not sit at all well with even the other Christian denominations in the area.

To my surprise, there is not even a mention of Atheism in that particular article, but its not hard to find the evidence of the immediate backlash against the Atheist position as a result. This youtube video very nicely shows the general sentiment, if not the overall knowledge of the facts of the producer.

The point is, that many believers position the Columbine massacre generally, and the death of Cassie Bernall specifically, as exemplary of the “war” of Atheists on the religious. This post is a good example of the position, and I agree with its authors that the “debunking” of the Cassie Bernall “martyrdom” by Salon, and the subsequent embrace by the Atheist community of those facts, is entirely beside the point. Harris’ particularly included his hatred of all those with religious convictions amongst the many things he hated about mankind in general.  For that reason of inclusiveness and not exclusiveness  of that opinion to the detriment and others he held about people, I don’t agree with the authors view that an Atheistic world view by the killers was the cause of the the Columbine Massacre, but that is a separate discussion for a later time.

With all that, you can now understand what makes me uncomfortable about Flyleaf’s song “Cassie”, where this sentiment is very very strongly presented. I have very little doubt at all about the opinion the members of Flyleaf would have to the average atheist such as myself. Knowing this, makes listening to this song in particular, and all of their music, a little uncomfortable on some level, even though I would call myself a fan at this point.

Its a strange contradiction that I didn’t expect I would have to deal with. It makes me a little worried about the effect this will have on my enjoyment of other music i have yet to discover. In the meantime I just try to drown out the nagging discomfort, maybe eventually I will be able to not “hear”  that message anymore, but somehow I don’t think that would be true to myself.

Full text of “Cassie”  by Flyleaf (Acoustic version from the Special Edition DVD”

The question asked in order to save her life or take it
The answer no avoided death and yes would make it

Do you believe in God?’
Written on the bullet
Say yes to pull the trigger
And my Sister Cassie pulled it

They didn’t love their live so much
As to shrink from death
Inspired in their footsteps
We will march ahead
Don’t be shocked that people die
Be surprised you’re still alive

All heads are bowed in silent reverence
The floor is wet with tears of sorrowful remembrance
The alter is filled with hearts of repentance
Perfect love kills all fear, rejoice in this deliverance

They didn’t love their live so much
As to shrink from death
Inspired in their footsteps
We will march ahead
Don’t be shocked that people die
Be surprised you’re still alive

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