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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Musical Messages. The Shins: Fighting in a Sack

I've decided that I might start combining my interests in music and critical thinking. There are loads of songs out there with pretty good messages in them (and plenty of crap ones too) and I thought it might be interesting to have a bit of a look at some of them in a bit more depth than you might have done in the past.

To kick it off, I'm going to be looking at 'Fighting in a Sack' by The Shins. It's off their 'Chutes too Narrow' album, which is one of my favourites. There's lots of interesting themes in the lyrics to, if you can figure out the poetry.

The Shins Lyrics
Fighting In A Sack Lyrics

Well, I see this song as a journey through a deconversion experience, where the believer goes through stages of doubt, then disbelief, then leaves the religion and is able to look back and see the futility of the religious system.

I'll go through the lyrics and see if I can explain what the song means to me.
To keep this boat afloat
There are things you can't afford to know
So I save all my breath for the sails
Basically, the boat is an analogy to faith. To maintain one's faith, you have to be able to compartmentalise, or be able to discard those things that are in conflict with your beliefs. We see many religious believers doing this all the time. When a particular scientific finding conflicts with their faith, they have to create apologetics, or come up with (usually flawed) contrasting evidence to support their position (like AIG do). To keep their faith going strong, they have to put all of their effort towards the apologetics, hence to 'save all their breath for the sails'.
But you'll find those lingering voices
Are just your ego's attempt to make it all clean and nice
And make a moron out of you
I would say that the 'lingering voices' are the thoughts about the conflicting ideas leading to the apologetics used to reconcile the divide between beliefs and fact. Cognitive dissonance is the psychological conflict that results from holding beliefs that are incongruent and can lead to severe psychological issues if not dealt with. When a believer holds a religious belief (say, creation), but is also made aware of the objective facts relating to the issue (evolution), they often reconcile them through the path of least resistance (evolution is just a theory). If they were to attempt to disprove evolution scientifically, or discontiue believeing in creation, it would take much more mental effort than to dimiss evolution, as above. They have, in this case, settled for the easier alternative, rather than the most correct. This is a commom theme among religious apologetics.
Walking a bridge with weakening cables
Huddled up in fear and hate because we know our fate
And it's a lot to put us through
This section really speaks for itself. Their faith is based on weak reason, the believer knows that at some point they are going to learn that it is untrue, which is difficult for them to accept.
Most ideas turn to dust
As there are few in which we all can trust
Haven't you noticed I've been shedding all of mine?
So let's abandon that track
And leave our fathers fighting in a sack
Cause we are way too wise-assed for that.
This verse deals with the acceptance of the irrationality of religion and the choice to shed the ideas that have been shown to be wrong. It is the moment of deconversion, when reason wins out over the irrational beliefs of religions. The second part is the choice to move away from what is now seen as a waste of time. They make the decision that they are now headed in the right direction and will leave those who still believe behind 'fighting in a sack'.

This is the pivotal point of the song and characterises the point of deconversion quite well. When you go from believer to doubter, you have to go through a time of shedding your preconcieved notions of the world and adopting new foundations for reality. Then you have to make the decision to move away from those that still believe through quitting the church.

The next part is my favourite:
You might find some fools at your doorstep
Hustling the latest changes to the book
That's the strangest in an attempt to multiply
Marionettes on weakening cables
Huddled up with fear and hate
Because they know their fate and it's a lot to put them through.
This is in relation to the doorknock evangelicals, who try to push 'new ideas' about their beliefs on you with the hope of recruiting them to their religion and increasing the number of people whose lives they can control. But, as we saw earlier in the lyrics, the believers will move towards doubt at some stage and some will drop out of the religion. The doorknock evangelicals know that this will eventually happen and can see the futility in what they are doing, since it's a neverending loop; recruit members, members become doubters, members leave, need to recruit more members etc... This realisation makes them lose heart in what they're doing.
We've taken on a climb
And it's long enough to put the best of us on our backs
Walking up a slide
And there are those we know who'd have us five miles off the track.
This part deals with the difficulties of the new found disbelief. It takes a lot of self-directed learning to get yourself into a position where you are comfortable that you have taken the right direction. Also, there are always people out there trying to misdirect you through offering misleading information, trying to obscure the truth like the 'teach the controversy' crowd.

I find that this is the most difficult part of being a doubter. The religious crowd have their meetings that they go to to learn about the basis of their worldview in the company of friends and in a nice sociable pleasant way. As an atheist, there are few places that you can go to and get a similar experience. Most of the learning you do is self-directed and there are generally few supports. We are lucky to have a really great Atheist group in Sydney that hold both informative and social events, which helps us to feel like we belong to something. The only peoblem is that it is so small. I would like to see these kinds of groups flourishing all over the place, giving rational thinkers a place to get together and discuss their ideas and get information about where to look for answers.

I like this song on a bunch of levels. The music is great for starters, which is a big plus and the lyrics are poetic yet convey a really interesting story, without getting 'preachy'

And if that wasn't enough, the clip of the song on YouTube contains a bunch of escape artists, which just sweetens the deal in my opinion. Magicians are often involved in sceptical societies and atheist movements and they have been really good at explaining to the public how easy it is to be fooled.

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