In a lot of ways, Voices of Reason is a choir like many others. Lay vocalists with various levels of experience meet twice a month in a private home to practice. They sing a cappella and choral sheet music.
But Voices of Reason’s repertoire is different. As an atheist choir that performs regularly for a limited but devoted audience of Atheists United members, it chooses songs that are critical of religion or that address topics of interest to people who frequent atheist groups — often with a humorous twist. Its repertoire includes everything from "Imagine" by John Lennon to "Every Sperm Is Sacred" from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.
Choral music has its roots in the Christian church of the Renaissance. Even today, many choirs sing religious music, whether or not they are based at a church.
“The church was so involved in the arts, it was commissioned. Who is paying atheists to sing music?” says Yari Schutzer, a member of Voices of Reason since its inception.
The original group dates back to 2001. Bobbie Kirkhart and Michael Jordan, two Atheists United activists, wanted to find an answer to a problem that many former churchgoers face once they turn their backs on organized religion: They miss the culture associated with it, they miss the community aspect and some miss music, too. The choir disbanded in 2004 after the death of Jordan, its musical director, and relaunched in 2011.
Co-relauncher Amanda MacLean, who grew up atheist, wanted to sing but wasn’t happy as a choir member at Santiago Canyon College. She joined as an employee, not a student, and performed at three tree-lighting ceremonies in Orange before she had enough.
“I thought, 'We are in a school choir that is government-funded, why are we always singing religious stuff?'” she recalls. “I was getting all mad!”
MacLean moved to Los Angeles and started searching the web for an "atheist choir." She was shocked when her digging only turned up dead links to a group called Voices of Reason. “I was sure it must’ve existed. I thought it was already an established thing,” she says.
In the end, it was one of those dead links that led her to Kirkhart, one of the original founders, who connected her with Schutzer. Schutzer, 44, grew up in a Reform Jewish family in New Jersey and New York. He recalled realizing around the age of 13 that “religion was contradictory and God/heaven unlikely,” but his family wasn’t interested in his perspective. As an adult, the events of the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, motivated him to step out and become more vocal.
“I decided that silence was no longer a moral choice for my conscience," he recalls. "Once I learned that an atheist community called Atheists United existed, I got involved.”
Getting the choir up and singing again wasn’t easy. “We put ads on Craigslist and got two or three responses and then one person showed up [to choir practice] — it was a very long and slow start,” Schutzer recalls. David McGee and his wife attended one of the Atheists United meetings at which Voices of Reason performed. The passionate singers immediately began to join the choir’s rendition of "Rhythm of Life" by Sammy Davis Jr.
McGee, a practicing Roman Catholic, says he is comfortable singing songs that satirize religion. “It’s not unusual for an atheist to join a choir that sings religious music, so this is the reverse,” Schutzer says.
Others find the group’s repertoire more offensive. A young woman came to practice with a binder full of every song Voices of Reason had ever practiced. Somehow “she didn’t realize that we are an atheist group,” MacLean recalls. A 23-year-old who grew up Orthodox Jewish had never heard of John Lennon or The Beatles.
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The choir meets at Heretic House, Bobbie Kirkhart’s home, which she regularly opens to atheist organizations and events. Of late, Katie Sharp has assumed the role of conductor.
“We’ve been discussing for the last couple of months that we need someone to just step up and take the role and just conduct the whole thing,” says Sharp, a mathematician with a performance background.
The New Zealand native and Schutzer met at an event organized by Sunday Assembly, another atheist organization. She joined Voices of Reason about a year ago. “An atheist a cappella choir," she says "That’s fucking awesome!”
Voices of Reason will perform at the beginning of the next Atheists United meeting, Westside Pavilion Mall, Community Room B, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., Rancho Park; Sat., Nov. 26, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. atheistsunited.org/article/event/au-monthly-meeting-with-david-mcafee-and-voices-of-reason.