If heavy metal is a religion, then arenas are its churches. Photo by Flickr user Whiskeygonebad.
“Is heavy metal a sacrament? For some people it is. If it keeps kids alive, if it gives them hope, if it gives them a place to belong, if it gives them a sense of transcendence, then its a spiritual force and I believe it is a pipeline to God.”
— fan, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey
Earlier this year, UK headbangers launched a campaign to get heavy metal fans to list metal as their religion on the UK Census. Census forms were mailed March 27, so it’s too soon to tell how successful they were in getting metal recognized. Surely some people think the idea is a joke, but there’s plenty of reason to call metal a religion.
Socially, the heavy metal subculture has much in common with religion: a tight-knit community, kinship with others in that community even if you’ve only just met, rules about dress and behavior. More than that, though, metal also inspires loyalty (even worship) toward music and musicians, and the music itself — both recorded and live — creates states of displacement, even ecstasy.
Last year, James Robertson examined the relationship between metal and religion in The Immanent Frame. On the one hand, metal adopts many symbols from Christianity, often times in obvious rebellion against the religion. It also makes use of pagan and Satanic icons — pentagrams, upside-down crosses, Baphomet, and so on. But it isn’t the use of these symbols that makes metal so much like a religion. It isn’t even the use of these symbols that makes fans so devoted to metal. Not exactly, anyway.
Greg Downey looks deeper:
Although many musical genres perform a similar function (a kind of aesthetic appreciation of emotion performed and articulated) Metal gets particularly religious because the emotional palette on which it draws — the stances it takes toward such emotions as righteousness, rage, death, awe, and solidarity — is very similar to Christian emotional footings, especially in more baroque forms of Christianity (like Catholicism). The use of religious iconography and themes is not simply an act of sacrilege, but rather a cross-fertilization because the music approximates some of the emotional stances believers can take toward the sacred.
That is, Metal doesn’t get linked to all religions, but to very specific religions that share some of the emotional dynamics found in Metal and compelling to its audience. (Emphasis Downey’s).
Downey goes on to describe how music, especially metal, serves many of the same functions as religion: it assists the process of identity creation, it helps us understand emotions, it helps us understand present and past, and we become possessive of music that holds this kind of meaning for us. This is especially true for young people, because they’re just figuring out who they are and are constantly dealing with powerful emotions that may not entirely make sense to them, he says.
Even if you can’t conceive of heavy metal as a religion, it’s certainly a distinct culture. The folks with the International Day of Slayer are are petitioning the UN to formally recognize the heavy-metal culture. What this means isn’t certain. In the meantime, the International Day of Slayer is June 6, 2011.
What do you think? Can metal — or any genre of music — be considered a religion?