B. F. Skinner on Church Music

If you fell out of your seat when you read that title, I can’t blame you.  The notorious psychologist, behaviorist, and social philosopher B. F. Skinner was not a Christian and certainly not Reformed.  But in order to explain this subject line I’ll need to provide a bit of background information first.

For my world-views course I recently had to read Skinner’s 1948 book Walden Two, which outlines the structure of a utopian society right here in America (obviously a fictional one).  The central tenet of the Walden Two society is behavioral engineering: control the inhabitants through their education and environment, thought Skinner, and they will be peaceful and happy.

Since Skinner’s central belief is erroneous to the core—human nature will always be sinful, regardless of social circumstances—I didn’t seriously consider any of his suggested steps to utopia during my study of Walden Two.  But I was particularly jolted when I came across this passage, in which the fictional society’s founder Frazier explains to his guests how religion is incorporated into Walden Two:

‘We’ve borrowed some of the practices of organized religion—to inspire group loyalty and strengthen the observance of the Code.  I believe I’ve mentioned our Sunday meetings.  There’s usually some sort of music, sometimes religious.  And a philosophical, poetic, or religious work is read or acted out.…Then there’s a brief “lesson”—of the utmost importance in maintaining an observance of the Code.  Usually items are chosen for discussion which deal with self-control and certain kinds of social articulation.

‘There’s nothing spurious about this—it’s not an imitation church service, and our members aren’t fooled.  The music serves the same purpose as in a church—it makes the service enjoyable and establishes a mood.  The weekly lesson is a sort of group therapy.  And it seems to be all we need.’

–B. F. Skinner, Walden Two, Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., Inc., 2005, pp. 185, 186.

This passage is pregnant with assumptions, and I found myself pondering some of them.  Do we treat the music of the church as nothing more than entertainment?  Is it there only to make the service enjoyable and establish a mood, as Skinner suggests?  Sadly, I fear that we can trace this philosophy in the worship practices of many “Christian” churches today.  “Acting out” a philosophical, religious, or poetic work in the service, including a “brief lesson” to encourage morality, treating worship as merely “group therapy”—these practices are often evident in contemporary churches, sad symptoms of a man-centered rather than God-centered view of worship.

Whatever the value of his humanistic social philosophy, Skinner’s suggestions can teach us an important lesson.  In Reformed worship, as well as all Christian worship, we should strive to avoid the mentality he outlines here.  Music is a part of the service because God has commanded us to worship him through song.  Our “mood” should flow forth from the glorious truth of the gospel which we hear each Lord’s day, not from the psychological effects of stirring music.  Congregational song is part of our grateful duty to God, not a means of entertainment.

B. F. Skinner’s notions about worship music are unfortunate.  But they are downright shameful if he derived them from his own observations in the Christian church.  If that’s the case, perhaps we share the blame.

–MRK

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8 Responses to “B. F. Skinner on Church Music”


  1. 1 R. Scott Clark September 15, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    This is fascinating. Thanks!

  2. 3 Kevin McNamara September 15, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    Dr. Leonard Payton has said that the church’s collective “musical Achilles’ Heel” is the notion that “music does not really substantively or doctrinallly matter.” In this regard, even those churches that claim to take their ecclesiology seriously do not seem to be as intentional and/or purposeful in their approach to music as they might claim to be. As such, the de facto, lived-out attitude towards music in our churches is essentially the same regardless of whether the church incorporates exclusively psalmody, traditional hymnody, contemporary commercial genres or anything in between. Thus, B.F. Skinner’s pejorative characterization of music in the church, while, perhaps, overly simplistic, should not be so quickly dismissed as the naive opinion of some ignorant pagan. Unfortunately, I would suggest that it describes what is actually going on in many of our churches, including many of our historically Reformed congregations.

    I will further suggest that the proper antedote to this condition is fostering the notion that music’s true purpose and function in worship is a didactic one. As stated in different ways by Paul Westermeyer, Calvin Johannson, Leonard Payton, Paul Jones, and others music serves to teach us as we sing the truths of Scripture into our minds and hearts.

    If anyone is interested, I have explained this a little more thoroughly at:

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=71712122460

    Finally, thank you for an interesting and thought-provoking article. I read Walden Two many years ago but don’t remember the passage quoted. I think it is rather telling in so many ways.

    Thanks again!

    • 4 Michael Kearney September 17, 2012 at 7:56 am

      Mr. McNamara, thanks so much for commenting! I look forward to listening to the sermon you referenced. Simply put, music matters–that’s why this quote from Skinner really stood out to me.

      –MRK

  3. 5 Pilar September 16, 2012 at 9:25 am

    This is great Michael. I was also taken back by the passage where he explained how they set-up the “service” when a visiting pastor/minister comes around. Changing things to suit that particular denomination. It is like he predicted the future of the church, scary!

  4. 7 Gary September 16, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    Now I understand why, when the local church bell rings, I salivate.

    (Sorry — I couldn’t resist.)


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