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This week’s pick: “If I Could Believe,” released on Wise Up Ghost (2013)
Gary Stewart: If there were ever such a thing as a gospel song for atheists, “If I Could Believe” would be it. But it doesn’t resort to the cheap mocking (or even questioning) of belief in a higher power or greater plan. Instead, the singer—coming from a place of doubt and even despair—is trying to understand precisely because he can’t share that same feeling. And in many ways he wishes he could.
This song doesn’t really feel like it belongs on Wise Up Ghost, an album of dense cacophonous sounds and textures that’s at times angry and confrontational. Musically it’s the odd track out: On the surface it seems like a Bacharach collaboration that could’ve escaped from Painted From Memory. But really, it’s the perfect closer to an album that examines politics, violence, faith, and the often horrific realities when all three can’t be reconciled.
When I hear this song I always think of a panel featuring hardcore doubters/atheists Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. During the talk, a man prefaced his question by saying he was an atheist who still defended believers. That man, who was mostly on their side, was more interested in exploring the issue of faith than debating it in black-and-white terms. Of course, rather than engaging him, they made quick stuff of him. I think they could’ve used this song, which makes a plea for empathizing with both sides, rather than “winning” the argument. It’s another kind of “peace, love and understanding.”
David Gorman: This song is the perfect complement to John Legend’s “Show Me.” That song starts as a prayer but shifts to doubt as Legend begs for some sign that God could exist at all with so much suffering and injustice in our world. In the end, Legend resolves to accept life as it is while keeping hope that God still might be watching over and waiting for him. It’s a profound and brave song in the way it lets doubt and faith coexist.
“If I Could Believe” is at the other end of the telescope (sorry, couldn’t help it, but it does apply) and it shook me as deeply as “Show Me.” Legend and Costello are clearly looking for the same thing, just from opposite sides. Their common ground, and what “If I Could Believe” gets so right (and so many of the most vehement celebrity atheists get so wrong), is that it respects the basic and uniquely human need to believe in something. On paper, Costello’s lyrics could read as cynical, dismissing faith as a lazy solution to weighty problems, but he sings the song as a man begging for the kind of comfort faith provides those who have it.
The current media climate that pits scientists against clergy only strengthens resolve and polarizes positions—it doesn’t change minds or build bridges. I’d prefer to put the two men singing these songs together and let them discuss the common ground between their seemingly opposing perspectives on faith. It might not drive clicks, but it just might open minds.
Our alternate-reality best-of Costello, aka The Elvis Costello Song Of The Week Playlist, is here to enjoy. So please do: