Pie in the Sky
March 20, 2015 • Los Angeles
Hanging out with one of my in-laws recently, the subject of religious belief came up, and she sang a line from the song “The Preacher and the Slave”: “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.” She said it had been her father’s favorite song in the 1940s. He had been a strong lefty, and her parents had met at a union meeting. I couldn’t get the lyric out of my head, and looked it up online. The song is associated with the Wobblies, a lefty labor union formally known as the IWW, and dates to 1911. The author, Joe Hill, wrote it when he was working the docks in San Pedro to satirize the strong-arm tactics of the Salvation Army in working-class communities, and it is full of antireligious sentiment.
Sadly McCarthyism and subsequent anti-union trends have mostly assigned the Wobblies to history. But the song lives on, and it’s the source of the idiom “pie in the sky,” if Hill’s biographer is to be believed. Best of all, the song ends with the Wobbly solution to going hungry: learn to cook and chop wood—work for yourself—and you can solve your own problems, no belief in the afterlife required. You can hear a version of the song on YouTube.
Several of the reader reviews for Signs Point to Yes have expressed relief that the “psychic thing” was not heavy-handed or too central to the story. It got me to wondering whether there are a lot of nonbelievers out there, or whether psychic power is somehow a threat to other existing beliefs. Given that less than two percent of the population are willing to admit that they are nontheists, the only conclusion has to be that the idea of a psychic detective threatens religiosity itself.
Ned, one of the main characters in the Mason Braithwaite Paranormal Mystery series, is an avowed and in-your-face nontheist. In the second book in the series (forthcoming), he reacts to other people’s assumptions about religion, and lumps Mason’s psychic powers in with religious beliefs. Mason, of course, doesn’t think it’s that simple.
Perhaps we’re lucky to live in a time when we have more choices than the Sally Ann or the IWW. Lots of people still don’t have choices about the beliefs and assumptions in their communities, but lots of us do have the option to figure it out ourselves, and base our beliefs on scientific evidence or on personal inspirations. I think the whole evolution of New Age spirituality parallels our liberation from the heyday of the Sally Ann, and what’s can be more optimal than free choice?