Sunday, November 21, 2010

Goth and Atheism

This post is one I have wanted to write for quite a long time now. It has to do, partially, with the name I chose for this blog. I have had a lot of people who have read the title and said to me "wait, isn't that a contradiction? How can a Goth be an atheist? Isn't Goth some kind of religion?". Whenever I hear this, I cannot help myself from the cliché of doing a literal face palm.

For those who might be reading this and may have thought something similar or remember hearing someone saying something close to it at one point in your life, I would like to answer this question once and for all. Furthermore, I want to explain why I see the Gothic sub-culture as not only being accepting of atheism, but proving to the readers that the majority of the sub culture would self describe as either atheist or agnostic (or Agnosto-Atheist such as myself, as you will soon discover, such attention to detail and fact is something of a cornerstone in the sub-culture).

So to begin I shall, without any question, state that whatever the goth subculture (or any of its many sub-subcultures...we will get to that later in the post) are absolutely not a religion and have never been even remotely close to one.

The best way to go about stating what the subculture is would be to tell a bit about its history first. What eventually became what we all now know as 'Goth' started in 1980's England. At this point, the term for the subculture was not even known. It started as part of the Punk subculture where some of the more introspective members of the culture started making music that was just a bit different. Instead of being about extroversion and being angry at all the idiocies of the world around us, which was a noble thought to begin with; the music became more introspective. While Punk was raging at the world, these new music artists looked at themselves and thought "what is actually going on and what does it mean to me as an individual". These first proto-goth bands went on to become some of the best remembered "post-punk" artists of all time. Groups such as The Velvet Underground, Nico (who started as a member of The Velvet Underground but then went solo), Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, Iggy Pop, The Birthday Party, and Killing Joke. It was the media who first used the term goth and it was used to describe some of these band, in fact the first usage was to describe the singer of The Velvet Underground, Nico, in 1971.

The term goth was brought up again by independent parts of the media to describe various bands from then on. Martin Hannett, of Joy Division described their music as "dancing music with Gothic overtones". Where as the part owner and manager of Factory Recods, Tony Wilson, Described Joy Division as "Gothic" on the television show "Something Else". The term goth was later thrown around as a derogatory remark by the media to describe the bands Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees. But it was not until the music critic, Simon Reynolds used the term goth as a "positive identity, a tribal rallying cry" that the still nameless subculture took on that name.

Now that the subculture had a name, had something to call their own, it started to feel itself out. Whether a band called themselves goth or not, these new bands started shaping the subculture. Bands such as Bauhaus, Joy Division, Specimen, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Damned, The Cure, The Birthday Party, Southern Death Cult, Ausgang, Sex Gang Children, The March Violets, 45 Grave, UK Decay, Virgin Prunes, Kommunity FK, Alien Sex Fiend, Christian Death, Gloria Mundi, This Mortal Coil, Dead Can Dance, Mittageisen, Killing joke and even early Adam and the Ants.
Thus began what is now looked back upon as Goth Rock, or as it had been termed within the Punk subculture, Death Rock.

Goth as an individual entity exploded from what had been lain down by previous bands. It was now the 1980's. Some said that Punk was dead, and that music was left in a post-punk world trying to find itself. Others knew that Punk just did what it had previously done, before all the fame; it went back underground and pushed forward. The newly formed goth subculture could now start to step forward and claim individuality. Not just a nebulous out-growth of Punk, but a branch that became an entirely new and individual tree of music and culture. Bands such as Sisters of Mercy, Fields of the Nephilim, The Mission (or The Mission UK as they became known in the states), and Clan of Xymox took the mantel of goth further.

It was now the time of 4AD Records, a record company that signed bands that defined the subculture and those that drifted towards it as well. Names such as The Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Modern English, The Pixies, Tones On Tail, This Mortal Coil, The Wolfgang Press, Xmal Deutschland, and Camera Obscura. 4AD still lives and in 2008, the owner of the label, known as the Beggars Group finally realized that 4AD was their most prestigious and successful label so they merged them under one name. Originally all of the sub-labels of the Beggars Group were under the label Beggars Banquet, but even the core label knew that 4AD surpassed all the others and decided to rename the entire label as 4AD.

Gothic music continued to branch and unfold in new ways. It soon began to run alongside another subculture spawned by the Punk culture. The Industrial movement paralleled and in many ways has fused with Goth. While there are still those who see Industrial as a subculture all its own, it is generally accepted that it has become part of the Goth subculture. Other branches formed or became intertwined with Goth, such as Ethereal, Heavenly Voices, Neo-Medieval, Darkwave, Synthpop, Futurepop, Shoegazer, Psychobilly and others.

The subculture has grown to encompass so much that where 'goth' stops and another genre starts has become nothing more then shades of gray. It wasn't that goth had overpowered or pushed into these other territories, but what was goth grew to become more. Which brings me to the core of what Goth is. It isn't just a set of music styles, or a group of like minded people, but a mindset. Just as the music that spurred the formation of the subculture was introspective, so is the subculture itself. It developed into something much more then music but about freedom of expression. About art for arts sake. About passion, love and everything that made a person.

Goth was now something entirely more. With the free thinking of its Punk roots and its introspectiveness of its first bands and individuals it became an almost thought process. One where Individuality is key, where knowing oneself and others became habits. Where knowledge was valued alongside music and aesthetics. It is within the gothic subculture that, if one is truly a member, one must be well read, believe that fact must come before belief, put what is true before what is desired and through it all an inner beauty will form of understanding. And through this understanding and knowledge comes even more beauty, for only those that can know something so intimately could truly say they understand.

So it is only now, with this understanding of what goth is, can we answer the question that started this post in the first place. What is the link between atheism and goth? As many probably have discerned they both share many key features. While atheism can only be said as the belief that without substantial evidence there is no reason to form a belief in a deity, one must admit that those who are drawn to it, those who pull themselves from religion, or strive against it often have something in common. It is a sense of individuality and understanding for the sake of understanding. The same key features that make up the gothic subculture.

And these features are what I see as tying the two together, both are individuals, both stand up for knowledge and have a deep seated respect for the person next to them, especially so if they too are experiencing themselves as an individual. As such those reading may find this statistic on the beliefs of goths quite interesting. In fact, here is what says about the gothic subculture. While I wish I could give an actual poll on the percentages of 'goths' and their religion, this is quite difficult. For one the idea of self identifying as goth is a bit counter to what goth is. Yes one can say one has gothic tendencies, but one never is goth, for if someone was, then they would be the stereotype and thus would defeat the very purpose of goth. Though for the most part, within the gothic subculture, agnosticism and atheism is the majority, with a bit of pagan, deist, christian and others. But if one is part of the subculture, one of the key ideas is to accept those beside you for who they are. Yes, you will often find a group of 'goths' arguing about the philosophies and logistics behind theism or non-theism. But the end result is just the same as for an amicable atheist and deist, they will both put their points forth and in the end, agree to disagree. They will then go and thank each other for their thoughts and the chance to think in those ways. It is this similarity that I see as connecting the gothic subculture and the atheist 'movement' or whatever the freethinking body wishes to be called. They both respect, they both seek knowledge; they both are open to debate. While there will always be those within the cultures that cause problems for the whole. Stupid kids who think dressing in black and blaring angry music while letting out hate speech against another is trendy. Or the atheist who thinks that yelling out in a church is the best way to be heard. Both are outliers, both are individuals who are making wrong decisions under the guise of the names of us all. Neither represents the whole at all yet both are accepted as the stereotype. Yet another way the two are similar.
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Anonymous said...

This is a well rounded and fair minded observation of where the goth sub-culture began. But I don't think it has a thesis anywhere. What I'm saying is although to people who regularly take the time to read and think this is very clear, those are not the people you are addressing. That being said, this is a great article addressing a general misunderstanding that I have run across a few times myself.

Infidel753 said...

Good grief, I never knew any of this. I figured it was just about dark eye make-up.

Siouxsie and the Banshees had the evils of religion figured out in a way that would shock the politically-correct even now -- just listen to "Arabian Knights".

As for claiming Goth is a religion, well, that doesn't surprise me -- they're even claiming atheism is somehow a religion these days. Funny how religious people try to discredit what they don't like by calling it a religion.

Thorn said...

I don't know, I'd say most goths, based on polls and stats I've seen are, in order of popularity/frequency: 1. Christian ( something even goths find shocking)2. Agnostic 3. Neo-Pagan of some flavor 4. Atheist 5. Jewish 6. Newer, seldom known religions, often of a New Age or occult bent 7. "Eastern" religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Taosism, Kao Dai, Sikhism, among others) 8. Muslim

Anonymous said...

Atheist Goth Movie. Very funny, check it out.