Is Rush Helping Humanism Out-maneuver Religion?
[Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of essays that looks at selections from Rush and Philosophy (Open Court Press: 2011), edited by Jim Berti and Durrell Bowman. The book came out in March 2011 and looks at Rush’s music through different philosophical lenses.]
Humanism is a secular ideology in which morality and decision-making are based on reason without appeal to anything that smacks of religion or the supernatural, so there are no gods; there are only humans who, using all of their skills and creativity in a free and supportive environment, strive to create a world in which as many people as possible can flourish.
For people who are fed up with intolerance, religious divisiveness, or passivity (“Oh, it’s God’s will”), humanism is deeply attractive. But, ironically, it’s also the absence of anything that appeals to the unknowable or mystical that keeps humanism “out-maneuvered” by religion, says Chris McDonald in his essay “Enlightened Thoughts, Mystic Words.”
McDonald is becoming a familiar figure to Rush listeners. His book about the band as an avatar of middle class values and aspirations, Rush, Rock Music and the Middle Class (Indiana University Press: 2009), stands as the first extended-length look at the band that goes beyond biography to focus solely on the band’s music and lyrics from an academic standpoint.
In “Enlightened Thoughts,” he makes the case that humanism is deeply embedded in Rush’s work and that, given the rational, “academicized” discourse in which humanism is ordinarily expressed (in other words, it’s dull), that’s probably not a bad thing. As he says in one of the subheads of his piece, “Humanism needs its evangelists, too,” and the music of Rush is not a bad evangelist to have on your side.
McDonald uses much of his essay to build the case for Rush as an avatar of humanism. Since the problems of religion play such a big role in Snakes and Arrows, the album provides a rich vein to mine nuggets that either espouse humanistic ideas (“I have my own moral compass to steer by” in “Faithess”) or question religious ones (“We hold beliefs as a consolation / A way to take us out of ourselves” in “Armor and Sword”).
But humanistic ideas are threaded deeply throughout the band’s catalogue. McDonald spends some time looking at a trio of songs from the band’s early years that, in their totality, represent a highly unusual celebration of eighteenth-century secular political movements: “Beneath, Between and Behind,” which talks about the promise, and the later decay of that promise, of the American revolution, “Bastille Day,” which celebrates but also casts a critical eye on the French revolution, and “A Farewell to Kings,” which talks about replacing feudal society with something that has the promise of being better (democracy) but that comes with its own risks of disappointment and excess.
In between the early songs and Snake and Arrows is a consistent evangelism for humanism or for the pursuit of self-excellence, a humanistic ideal: “Something for Nothing,” “2112,” “The Trees,” “Marathon,” “Mission,” “Available Light,” “Cut to the Chase.” The list is long and deep.
In McDonald’s view, what these songs do is provide a way of talking about humanism that transcends the “academicized” discourse that entraps humanistic ideals. “If humanistic ideals are to replace religious ones, the same feeling of sacredness, power and mystery [that is leveraged by religion] must still attend them,” he says.
That’s a view shared by many humanists, who say there’s nothing inconsistent about humanism’s focus on rationality while encouraging people to talk about it in poetic terms, because people need to feel wonder and have a sense of spirituality about things to motivate them. It’s about inspiration.
And Rush—“so secular, so critical of faith and superstition”—yet also employing the tropes of religion (like its borrowing from the Lords Prayer in “Something for Nothing”) steps into this vacuum to “inspire the wonder in us.”
—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
Read the first essay in this series: “Philosophy of Mind has a Headache; Cygnus has Aspirin.”
Read the second: “It’s Just Chemistry: Rush Try to Make Sense of Reality.”
Read the fourth: “The ‘Rand’omness of Rush’s Libertarianism.”
Read the fifth: “Rush’s Table of Virtues.”
Read the sixth: “Rush’s Rosier Shade of Reality.”
Read the seventh: “The Trees: More Than Meets the Eye?”
Read the eighth: “Plato: ‘Rush Non in Forma Petra Musica'”
Read the ninth: “Rush Music: Spontaneous as a Baroque Jam Session”