Religion, Rock and Roll | The Sociology of Religion

by studentpaper · January 7, 2015

By: Debbie Wiseman

When I was a young lad I was attracted to rock music that had spiritual, mystical, and religious overtones. Of course, because I had rejected the Catholicism of my birth I would never have shown up in a statistic on the prevalence of spirituality. I thus represented a spirituality that may be hidden from the view of many academics. This paper does a marvelous job of revealing some of these overtones in the rock music of today and yesterday. Maybe its a surprise to you because you think that only “Christian Rock” is spiritual, but maybe its not. However you approach this the key is to see that spirituality and religion penetrate our reality far more than proponents of the secularization thesis would be comfortable admitting, I think.

The ability of music to connect with audiences everywhere through lyrics, instrumentation, and vocals, is usually the reason behind a band’s success. The lyrics of a song can reach out to a large number of people, and depending on their mood, the song can have a lasting impact and connection. Many people experience a religious-type awe when listening to certain pieces of music, whether it’s opera, classical, pop or rock. I will examine the relationship between rock music and religious based lyrics and how it affects, the listener by using the Beatles, U2, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath as my examples. I hope to show that at certain moments, music goes beyond a cultural impact and unites a community with a sense of religiosity. Rock music is a cultural phenomenon because it intensifies emotions and it helps form communities. In my estimation, many of the moral generalizations that have been applied to religion can be just as relevant to music.

The sociology of rock music rarely deals directly with the effects and experience music has on the listener. So, is it fair to ask; does rock music have a transcendental effect, resulting in religiosity? According to Moberg (2012), rock music has been fascinated with the world of religion and in particular the darker religious and spiritual themes drawn from various sources such as the Bible, mythology, occultism, Satanism, esotericism and paganism. Because of this use as a theme in rock music, it is seen as disruptive, destructive and dangerous to our cultural and social environment. In spite of these views, rock’s darker side of religious and spiritual themes has intensified over time and some can say, so have the fans of this genre of music, particularly because this music has only been around for a very short period in history. However, not all rock music is focused on the occult and dark side of religiosity. Apart from the many Christian rock bands who became a staple in the music industry in the 1980s, there are several examples of non-religious rock  bands that use lyrics referring to religion or Christianity in a positive way. For example, one of the most successful bands in the world, the Beatles, are not seen as a religious band, but much of their music has a positive message about peace and love. Whereas U2 speak directly about religion and its impact on our lives, and the impact it has had on the band members themselves. However, the band Led Zeppelin was greatly influenced by the occult, and they shared that fascination with their fans within their music, artwork and filmography. Which brings us to Black Sabbath. Probably best known for their ability to shock and frighten their listeners with their references to satanism, death, destruction and the occult and still one of the most popular bands in rock history.

As mentioned earlier, the success of the Beatles provided them unprecedented influence in shaping popular music for the past five decades. Whether the listener agreed with the content of their message or not, there was no denying that their influence was and still is enormous. The Beatles have had a diverse, spiritually evolving journey since they first set foot into the United States to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show 50 years ago. From John Lennon’s controversial comment about being “more popular than Jesus”, with which he was really referring to the decline of Christianity, to their later experimentation in Eastern religion, the Beatles were always interested in trying something new and different . They were at the forefront of the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 70s in much of North America and Europe, where peace, love and rock and roll was a large influence on the generation of that time. Much of their philosophy and music stemmed from this time period known as the Age of Aquarius , due in part to the music and the early beginnings of the New Age.

Lennon became a cultural leader whose aim was to influence his fans in following a Christian ethic without having to follow a specific religion. Some would say that John Lennon was anti-religious, however, reviewing his lyrics, we see that he spent a great deal of his adult life trying to understand religion and the life of Jesus. (Regev, 2012). Through his actions, such as the Bed-In for Peace and through songs such as Give Peace a Chance and Imagine, Lennon aimed to spread the word of peace and love. This was his form of religion and millions of fans were devoted to him and his message. Some fans were and still are, in awe of his talent but especially of his message. That sense of community is felt by fans around the world. That was especially apparent upon his death with the outpouring of love and adoration shown by all. In his lyrics in the song Imagine, he wrote:

Imagine there’s no countries It isn’t hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion too Imagine all the people

Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer But I’m not the only one I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one

During the 1960s, particularly through the influence of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles became very interested in Transcendental Meditation. This became apparent in their song Across the Universe with the lyrics “Jai guru deva om” (translated to mean “Victory to God Divine”), “Nothing’s gonna change my world” (Wenner, 1970). But it wasn’t just the lyrics that made it a spiritual anthem, it was also the use of the sitar, which is widely used in Eastern music. Another band member, George Harrison, originally discovered Easter religions through his love for Eastern music and it further developed when he was introduced to Ravi Shankar, a renowned sitar player, on a trip to India (Rabey, 2012, p. 19). He incorporated his love of music with his love of Eastern religion through his song My Sweet Lord , where at the beginning of the song, he’s strumming his guitar while singing about his desire to connect with his Lord, and by the end of the song, we hear the chorus in the background chanting “Hare Krishna”. He was once quoted as saying “All religions are branches of one big tree. It doesn’t matter what you call Him, just as long as you call him” (Jackson, 2012, p. 8). But his greatest legacy may be the way his decades-long spiritual quest shaped the ways the West looks at God, gurus and life. George Harrison’s legacy of “The Concert for Bangladesh”, which was the first benefit concert that brought together an impressive array of major artists collaborating to raise funds for humanitarian purposes. The community of musicians brought together for this event made a large impact on the audience as well. This sense of community that brought together the musicians with the audiences was said to bring a religious feeling of awe as they were setting a precedent that music could be used to serve a higher purpose . It made such an impact, that  they repeated the adventure 40 years later, nine years after Harrison’s death (

Ultimately, George Harrison and John Lennon had the same goal in mind: to promote global unity beyond religious borders, but bringing that sense of community to all who wanted to take part, but they did it in opposite ways. John Lennon encouraged his listeners with his lyrics to imagine there was no religion, while George Harrison encouraged his listeners through his music to look past the differences between religions and search to find their common denominator (Jackson, 2012, p.8).

From the group’s beginnings in Dublin to their arrival, in my opinion, as one of the world’s greatest rock bands, U2 shines a spotlight on the very real struggles and triumphs of constantly being in the spotlight. It’s almost impossible to listen or to try to understand U2 without also understanding their origins. Living so close to Northern Ireland, they grew up in a society torn by civil unrest, bombings, and hatred, all in the name of God and country. This had a significant impact on the band members growing up. For more than thirty years, U2 has done their part to break through the  temptation of hate and hopelessness with which they grew up with, by directing listeners to a more transcendent reality of heaven and hell, angels and demons and love and peace. Their music is not simply lyrics about God and peace, but instead, their songs deal with real pain and frustration without putting a lot of emphasis on being helpless or hopeless.

Lead singer Bono has the reputation of being one of rock music’s most effective unofficial spiritual leader . He awakens the souls of fans all over the world (Fry). Although most people are tired of being preached to and berated about social issues by overpaid rock stars, Bono still manages to captivate his audience. He has a charismatic charm about him that to his fans, it gives him the ability to be the only one wearing sunglasses indoors without coming off as an egomaniac ; and that was even before they learned about his eye condition. The band members drink, smoke and swear, yet the bible and their faith are evident throughout their lives and music. In an interview in Rolling Stone magazine in 2001, Bono discussed the fact that not only did he feel the presence of God in his life, but he’s been told by his fans that they feel that feeling of awe as well. He said:

“God is in the room… It feels like there’s a blessing on the band right now. People are saying they’re feeling shivers – well the band is as well. And I don’t know what that is, but it feels like God walking through the room, and it feels like a blessing in the end, music is a kind of sacrament; it’s not just about air play or chart positions.”

The fan who is listening to their music will interpret the lyrics based on their personal knowledge and experiences, whether it’s religious or not. For example, when U2 came out with their album Joshua Tree in 1987, many Christian listeners concluded that U2 had departed from their Christian faith when they heard the lyrics to the song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (Gilmour, 2009, p. 18). But, U2 stated that this was not the case and in fact, this song was originally written as a gospel song on the Rattle and Hum album version and even included a gospel choir. In fact, quoted on the BBC television show “The Culture”, Bono said that what he likes about rock and roll is the religiosity aspect of it. Religion is prevalent in rock music and appears in a variety of forms, whether it’s in the  instrumentation and lyrics, concerts or videos, album covers or interviews, or in the case of U2, the crucifix Bono places on his microphone stand at the conclusion of a concert (Gilmour, 2009, p. 10). His religion and his music are all part of who he is and therefore, when the writes their lyrics, religious aspects will always come through.

From 1968 – 1980, Led Zeppelin reigned as the supreme rock band, changing the course of music and people’s lives forever. A group comprised of four musical geniuses, all from different backgrounds, and in my opinion, considered to be one of the most powerful and influential bands in rock history and that defined rock  as we know it today. From their debut album in 1968, Zeppelin changed the course of rock music forever. Every album they recorded broke records, they had the highest audience attendances of that time and were the centre of more urban legends than any other band. They were a true powerhouse It was even said that they sold their soul to the devil for their fame and fortune. In fact, for real connoisseur of Led Zeppelin, it was common knowledge at the time that band member Jimmy Page had more than a passing interest in the occult. He went so far as to purchase the home of Alistair Crowley, who was a well known occultist and novelist who practiced esotericism, because in Page’s view, it was the perfect home for performing magical rituals (Cope, 2010, p. 82). Due to his involvement in the esoteric, some people went so far to blame the fascination with the occult on the death of the son of band member Robert Plant. (Till, 2010, p.121). But the influence of the occult was not only a part of Page’s life, but it was for all the band members as well. This becomes very apparent when listening to the lyrics, viewing the artwork on their albums, and watching their live concert film The Song Remains The Same.

Led Zeppelin wrote one of the most transcendent albums of all time. Their fourth album, Led Zeppelin IV, some say, is based on Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. This series of books has a religious undertone along with a mythological foundation. For this album, they adopted symbols to replace their given names, because in their words,” it was a very hippie thing to do” ( The symbols are similar to the r une symbols that are found throughout the stories written by Tolkien. They were chosen from the Book of Signs by Rudolf Koch which includes religious, alchemic and rune symbols. The album as a whole integrated mysticism, war, and darkness along with New Age references (Till, 2010, p. 121). On this album, Robert Plant wrote one of the most popular songs of the past thirty years, that being Stairway to Heaven. This song speaks to each listener in their own particular way. With its heavy rock sound and spiritual undertones, this song broke many barriers that had never been crossed before within this genre of music. It has developed a cult-like following by listeners that span many generations. Interpreting the lyrics has become a favourite pastime of many rock fans. Some view it as a very Christian song, where others view it as secular. Each listener interprets the lyrics so they have a meaningful message that pertains to them, but that’s part of the mystic. It’s very ambiguous, but no less transcending and makes an impact to all who listen to it. Viewing websites dedicated to the band, it’s very apparent that even today there is still a wide dedicated fan base. On one such forum, an open letter was recently written to Robert Plant pleading him to bring the band together one more time, “ha[s] everything to do with love, passion, human connection, and an amalgam of other reasons which made yours the greatest band in the world in the first place”(Millennial ZepHead).

Black Sabbath also came onto the stage during the time period that was marked by a significant interest in the occult. The time period was 1969 – 1975 which is just after the founding of the Church of Satan, but during the same period of the Manson murders, which had been publicized as a satanic cult, and when the Satanic Bible was written (Cope, 2010, p. 83). So, it came as no surprise that an extensive amount of their music revolves around this phenomenon. The birth of occult rock began with the appearance of Black Sabbath onto the rock stage. But according to the band members, this was never intentional; it was their music label that promoted them as such. They never had an interest in the occult nor were they as a band trying to promote such a thing (Gilmour, 2009, p. 112). Gilmour continues to conclude that it’s very unlikely that the mere use of religious material in lyrics indicates a lot about the songwriter or the audience. To the band, what they do on stage is only an act, not their true reality. This also applies to their use of Satanic imagery. For instance, Ozzy Osbourne, the lead singer, has been known to wear a long black robe and upside down cross hanging from his neck. He was portraying the image of a Satanic priest, but this never meant he was performing Satanic rituals in the privacy of his home. For anyone who ever watched The Osbourne’s can attest to the fact that Ozzy did no such thing, at least not on television. The album covers from the bands first three albums are heavily influenced by the occult and portray anti-Christian symbolism . This, in fact, was also the doing of their record label to increase sales amongst the mostly teenage boy listeners, and it worked. It’s difficult to believe, but the band had no control over the artistic imagery of these album covers . Although most of Black Sabbath’s fans are drawn to the imagery of Satanism, Sylvan (2002) argues that this is mostly due to the individualistic philosophy of metal music and its rebellion against authority and a connection with the supernatural (p. 178). The connection to the music along with the imagery that Sabbath was putting forth, allowed for the listeners to have a sense of community and belongingness that they may not have found elsewhere. It was in a sense, their connection to religiosity, even if they didn’t know it. This is still apparent 40 years after the band hit rock star status, based on reading fan websites such as BlackSabbathonline and the sense of belonging they still have. It is clear to see, that even after all this time, the band had an enormous impact on their fan base. To quote a long time fan, Axeman_12656 “I’m 33 now. Since I was about 11 or 12 years old its been all OZZY all the time for me. I have a personal connection that I can’t explain.” (, fan forum)

In the beginning, Black Sabbath music focused primarily on anti-Christian and non-conformity themes. But they also wrote a number of songs concerning the horror of war, good versus evil, suffering and death, the supernatural, the afterlife as well as lyrics based on horror movies, from which they got their band name. For instance, the song God is Dead?, incorporates both good and evil, and was written by band member Geezer Butler, who wrote that song based on the time when he heard about the cover-up of the pedophile priests in the Catholic Church in England. He grew up in a strong Catholic family and was very disturbed by this knowledge. To deal with it, he wrote this song based on the point of view of the father of the young boy who had been molested and his reaction to the news. The father is questioning everything he thought he knew about God but at the same time he is praying to God to help him from having the evil thoughts of killing the priest for what he did. In the song he asks the following:

Do you believe a word What the Good Book said? Or is it just a holy fairytale And God is dead? God is Dead


 The song trails off as the narrator repeats the phrase “God is dead” four times. The band, and hard rock music in general, had been criticized for so long for being anti-Christian, Butler said, that this was their way of getting back  at the Church. He couldn’t understand how they could dare criticize their music when they were involved in such hypocrisies and evil-doing (Sterdan, 2010). While the occult would long be associated with the band, the first incarnation of Sabbath moved quickly away from it, and by 1971 they had penned a song on the album Master of Reality that would have been appropriate on most Christian rock stations. After Forever was a song on that album about accepting Christ and saving one’s soul. Butler’s last verse in After Forever declares in no uncertain terms that when it comes to Black Sabbath and the occult: “Perhaps you’ll think before you say that God is dead and gone. Open your eyes, just realize that he’s the one. The only one who can save you now from all this sin and hate. Or will you still jeer at all you hear? Yes – I think it’s too late” (Sterdan, 2010). This change of direction had no real impact on their fan base. The band is so highly regarded by their fan base, that the sense of community and belonging that the music brought to them, kept them hooked for years and sometimes decades.

Sylvan (2002) claims that rock music offers “an entire meaning system of looking at the world, a surrogate religiosity” (163). A musical subculture, according to Sylvan, provides almost everything for its followers that a traditional religion would, such as encounters with the numinous, rituals, communal ceremony, a similar philosophy and worldview, a culture identity and a social structure which serves to promote a strong sense of belonging. Although, some scholars are able to clearly identify rock music as a source of religious meaning, the specific spiritual and religious implications of the musical experience in rock music are often not always recognized as such by the fans. They love the music, they enjoy the sense of belonging and identify with the lyrics. To them, that’s what it’s all  matters.

This ability to connect with audiences everywhere and reach out to the fans, can prove to be, in a sense, a religious feeling of awe when encountering a favourite piece of music. And in the final analysis, rock music and the religious dimensions of rock lyrics are represented as emerging most clearly when the fans are gathered in large numbers to appreciate the music collectively. It’s not only the lyrics and music, but the whole phenomenon surrounding the music. It’s a substitute of religiosity that explains the power of music to its fans and all who adhere to it.


Cope, A. (2010). Black Sabbath and the rise of heavy metal music. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

Fry, Mady. “Bono Biography.” Bono: Biography from @U2. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Nov. 2014.

Gilmour, M. (2009). Gods and guitars: Seeking the sacred in post-1960s popular music. Wako,     Texas: Baylor University Press.

Harrison, George (2014). The Concert for Bangladesh. Retrieved from

Jackson. A.G. (2012). Still the Greatest: The essential songs of the Beatles’ solo careers.    Plymouth, UK: The Scarecrow Press.

Moberg, M. (2012). Religion in Popular Music or Popular Music as Religion? A Critical     Review of Scholarly Writing on the Place of Religion in Metal Music and Culture.   Popular Music & Society, 35(1), 113-130. doi:10.1080/03007766.2010.538242

Rabey, S. (2012). George Harrison as theological rock star. Christian Century, 129(1), 19.

Rappolo S. (2014). “Led Zeppelin Online Forums.” Led Zeppelin. Nov. 11, 2014 Retrieved from

Regev, E. E. (2012). Lennon and Jesus: Secularization and the transformation of religion. Studies In Religion-Sciences Religieuses, 41(4), 534-563. doi:10.1177/0008429812460126

Saraceno, C. (2001). U2 elevate again. Rolling Stone Magazine. Retrieved from

Siegler, Joe. “Black Sabbath Online Forums.” Black Sabbath Online. N.p., n.d. Retrieved from

Sterdan, D. (2010). Butler reflects on Sabbath, Dio. Retrieved from www.

Sylvan, R. (2002). Traces of the spirit: The religious dimensions of popular music. New York:      New York University Press.

Till, R. (2010). Pop cult: Religion and popular music. London & New York: Continuum

Wenner, J.S. (Interviewer) and John Lennon (Interviewee)(1970). Rolling Stone Magazine  Podcast. Retrieved from www. rolling- stone/id408490909?mt=2