by Monica Miller
Note: this post originally appeared on the Culture on the Edge blog, where the author was reporting from Skepticon 6, which is held annually in Springfield, Missouri.
She uses her sweet, melodic, and soulful voice as a lyrical window into her journey from Judaism to Atheism and as a tool of activism to challenge the dogmatic confines of religion in society. Meet Shelly Segal: a Melbourne based singer-songwriter heavily involved in secular activism who serenaded us last night with some songs off her most recent album “An Atheist Album,” which, according to Segal, “is a passionate response to dogmatic belief, inequality, religious oppression and the idea that only the devout can be grateful and good.”
Shelly went on to explain how she grew up in an orthodox Jewish home and community which was quite segregated along the lines of gender. She recounts how other community members would often acknowledge her father and brother with a handshake except for when it came to her. She recalled how prayer in Jewish school was also segregated along the lines of gender, telling us that she can still remember the problematic call and response ritual where men would say something to the effect of, “Dear God, thank you for not making me a woman” and the women replying, “Dear God, thank you for making me who I am.”
Her lyrical deconstruction engages themes such as morality, gender, and myths like fairies, dragons, demons and god. One song in particular stood out to me (see link here).
Here, she speaks back to her critics who assume that talk of morality and meaning necessitates something like god and religion as points of orientation. For Shelly, her morality isn’t set into stone tablets, as she says; rather, it emerges out of a “common humanity.”
While I’m not particularly sure what she means by “common humanity” this song got me to thinking about the shared assumption in our own field of Religious Studies that (erroneously, I would argue) assumes that something like religion ought to be theorized and described as meaningful, well-intentioned, transformational, and a source of ethics in the world. So, according to this logic, if you’re a self-described Atheist one might seem to wonder how one “knows” how to be good, do well, and live a “proper” life.
It’s also been my experience that many Atheists often rehearse this common trope and rhetorical ritual of defense as a bit of a straw man for the ways in which such a group might go about legitimating their ethics without religion. In other words, I am suggesting that identity formation and identification in some ways always entails an exchange with (and over and against) an ‘Other.’
And while something like speaking of a “common humanity” doesn’t strike me as particularly compelling, her song provides a moment to think further about how certain trans-historical and cross-cultural universals (e.g., meaning, God, human nature, truth, and so on) are assumed to be self-evident, a priori, free-floating, and untethered to the social processes and formations that make possible such ideas.
After all, what is morality anyway and from where does it arise? Might it simply be a theoretical fiction and rhetorical strategy, like talk of the sacred and profane, which merely seeks to divide up and classify social and cultural interests and actions in the service of particular means and ends?
Monica R. Miller is Assistant Professor of Religion and Africana Studies at Lehigh University and among other publications, author of Religion and Hip Hop (Routledge, 2012). Miller currently serves as a Senior Research Fellow with The Institute for Humanist Studies (Washington, DC), is Co-Chair and founder of Critical Approaches to the Study of Hip Hop and Religion Group (American Academy of Religion) and is Principal Investigator of a large scale survey project entitled “Remaking Religion,” which examines changing patterns of religion and irreligion in youth culture in Portland, Oregon. Miller is co-author of a forthcoming volume Religion in Hip Hop: Mapping the New Terrain with Dr. Anthony B. Pinn (Bloomsbury Press). Monica also is editing Claiming Identity in the Study of Religion, the first book in the Culture on the Edge book series.