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Imagine no religion

by Donald Prothero, Dec 07 2011

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Imagine there’s no Heaven, it’s easy if you try, No hell below us, above us only sky, Imagine all the people, living for today.

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.

—John Lennon, Imagine, 1971

As this post goes live, I’m doing museum work at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Whenever I travel to New York City, there are certain places on the Upper West Side (where I lived for 6 years completing all my graduate degrees at Columbia University) that I always return to, just see how the city has changed, and relive memories. One of these is the Dakota Apartment Building, on the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West. It has a long and famous history, from its origin as a unique building for the rich in the 1880s, to its use as a movie exterior (especially in Rosemary’s Baby and Cruel Intentions), to the many legends who have lived there: Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Connie Chung, Rosemary Clooney, Roberta Flack, Jose Ferrer, Judy Garland, Lilian Gish, Boris Karloff, Rudolf Nureyev, Jack Palance, Gilda Radner, Rex Reed, Jason Robards, and Robert Ryan, among many others. Not every star can live there; some, like Billy Joel, Gene Simmons, Melanie Griffith, and Antonio Banderas, were denied residency by the governing board. But one resident of that building is more famous than the others, especially because he died on its doorstep.

Tomorrow, Dec. 8, 2011, will be the 31st anniversary of the day that Mark David Chapman gunned down John Lennon in the doorway of the Dakota (the doorway is shown to the right of Yoko Ono in the picture at the top) just as he and Yoko Ono were returning from a late recording session. I remember that event vividly, because I was just five blocks away at the time it  happened.  I was working very late that night, finishing research on my dissertation at the American Museum of Natural History at the time, and even had an office on the southeast corner of the building (near the corner of Central Park West and 77th St). If it hadn’t been winter and my windows had not been closed, I might have even heard the gunshots. Back then, there was no internet or 24-hour news on your iPhone, so I went home about midnight not knowing he’d been shot around 10:50. The news was still reported by TV newscasts and the newspapers—but  I didn’t have a TV when I was a poor grad student in New York, and the papers didn’t have the news until next morning so I didn’t hear about it until I woke up and hit the streets and saw the news on every newsstand.

I immediately rushed to the Dakota, where a huge crowd of mourners had gathered, and flowers, candles, and tributes were stuffed into every part of the fence around the building. I couldn’t stay with the mourners all day, but it was amazing to see how deeply  John had reached so many people. The vigil outside the Dakota lasted for days, until eventually it was called off at Yoko Ono’s request.  In 1985, Mayor Ed Koch renamed the adjacent part of Central Park (which John and Yoko could see from their windows) “Strawberry Fields” and there is a mosaic memorial plaza there with the word “Imagine” that is nearly always decorated with flowers, guitars, candles, and other tributes, even 30 years later.

Readers of this blog who are not Boomers like me may not appreciate what the Beatles, and especially John meant to my generation. It may seem odd to them that so many people still hold Lennon tributes on the anniversary of his death. But the Beatles were more than the most popular and influential musicians of our generation, or (judging from how often their music is still played) many generations. The Beatles, and especially John Lennon, were also the voice of the younger generation, not just the “hippies” (I was a bit too young to be a hippie then) but for nearly everyone under 30 back then. We faced a criminal Nixon Administration which was secretly and illegally escalating the war in Vietnam into Cambodia and Laos, all the while hundreds of our classmates were being drafted and shipped off to die there. (I just missed being drafted myself). Nixon (and also Reagan) demonized our generation in their quest for power, reaching out to the “Silent Majority” of older, more conservative white people. Nixon also used his “Southern Strategy” to transform the solidly Democratic Deep South into a Republican bastion, largely by playing to racist fears. All of these divisive practices are still influential today, especially in the way politics has been polarized, and the racism of the some southern whites has turned the South solidly red. In college, we reveled at every minute of the Watergate hearings, and the entire campus of my alma mater, U.C. Riverside, burst into celebration the day that Nixon finally stepped down.

But John Lennon spoke out against Nixon and the Vietnam War in way that no other rock musician, and indeed no other public figure, did. While lots of people were turned off by the hippies and the protesters (I just missed being part of the Columbia riots by a few years), the Beatles were so influential that John’s protests and songs reached people who were otherwise turned off by the youth movement. Naturally, John was on Nixon’s “enemies list”, and Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI did all they could to deport John and Yoko in retaliation.

Even more importantly to skeptics, John was the first hugely popular public figure to “imagine no religion”. Few people today realize how controversial that song was at the time because of those lyrics, but they spoke to an idea that was starting to grow among the younger generation, even though it was taboo in most polite circles. I remember when I first heard “Imagine” and how it spoke to my budding agnosticism.  I remember how liberating that song was to so many of my peers, when we became disenchanted not only with a corrupt, criminal U.S. government, but also began to drop the religious shackles of our childhood as well. For many of my generation, this was the beginning of the loss of religion and the rise of skepticism in our time. Certainly, John was not the only religious skeptic or prominent atheist of his time, but in contrast to people like Madalyn Murray O’Hair, John’s message reached so many of us through his music, and make it acceptable to question the religion we had been raised with. If you doubt his influence, just note how many times in recent years that the Religious Right attack Lennon and his music, or play “Imagine” as proof that the culture in under attacks by atheistic public figures. Even Ben Stein ripped off a few lines from the song in his crummy propaganda film “Expelled” while playing shots of protests and street violence.

peace image

Today, we see an entire younger generation with casual attitudes, indifference, and a certain cynicism about religion, and who will not tolerate racism, homophobia, sexism, and many other societal ills, but this wasn’t true of kids in the 1950s. Back then, even early rock’n'roll, Elvis Presley and James Dean were considered dangerous and controversial just for showing the slightest rebellion against conformity and the powers that be. That all changed with my generation, and for that I’m proud to say I’m a Boomer. We still have a long way to go to erase the racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious dogmatism that we inherited, but we’re never going back to the bad old days of the 1950s, and I’m glad of it.

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69 Responses to “Imagine no religion”

  1. Steve Carballeira says:

    Nice post. It really amazing how much the Beatles affected/ reflected the times then. Almost every day I hear a reference to ” Paul McCartneys’ first band” on the radio or online. They changed the world. Yes, the world was ripe for change of that type but it seemed back then that they were always spot on. And I don’t care what anybody says ” Yellow Submarine” is a great song.
    Keep the great posts coming, Donald. I am enjoying them as much as the 2 books of yours I am reading right now!

  2. Kenneth Polit says:

    Thank you for this post. I’m a bit younger than you, I turned 15 a week before John was killed, but I always loved John Lennon. I was greatly influenced by my older sister’s record collection. I hate this day because I have to mourn him all over again.

  3. Nyar says:

    Maybe it is just a generational thing but I just don’t get the point of idol worship. I mean I like the Beatles’ music too, but the weird cult thing just seems creepy to me. But then again I am a Gen-Xer so I am probably a bit too cynical to really get it.

    • Max says:

      Don’t Gen-Xers worship Curt Cobain or something?

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I don’t idolize John Lennon. I think highly of him as an activist and a voice for a generation, and I love his music, but I recognize his personal flaws and blind spots as well. There’s a big difference between respectful reminiscences and idolization…

      • Nyar says:

        I wasn’t really talking about you. I talking about the people who have built a shrine to their martyred prophet and still make offerings to him over 30 years after his death. It is ironic that he asked us to imagine no religion when he has become the center of a new one. Give it a thousand years or so to develop and Lennonism will be indistinguishable from Christianity.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        I’m going in to Manhattan tomorrow morning, and I will try to go by the Dakota and see how much this is still true 31 years later…

      • Beelzebud says:

        Yeah because leaving mementos at the site of a murdered person you admire, on the anniversary of their death, is really exactly like a religion…

      • Nyar says:

        It is actually.

  4. Wrong says:

    I’ve got to admit. I didn’t particularly like the sound of songs like Imagine. But the lyrics always have resonated with me. I’ve always liked music with a message, whether it be rappers Flobots, or political punks like Rise Against or Bad Religion (Especially in the context of atheism, lol).

    • Max says:

      I like the sound but get annoyed when 1-percenters tell the 99% to imagine no possessions. Many people in the world don’t have to imagine it, they experience it, and it sucks.

      • tmac57 says:

        I always liked the song,but I had a hard time with that line too.I had this picture in my head of John Lennon coming home and finding a group of burglars emptying his apartment, bucket brigade style,all the while singing sweetly “Imagine no possessions,it’s easy if you try…”

      • tmac57 says:

        Actually,the lyrics were:
        “Imagine no possessions,I wonder if you can”.
        But I like the next sentiment:
        “No need for greed or hunger
        A brotherhood of man
        Imagine all the people sharing all the world”
        Probably a bit too idealistic,but it’s a nice thought,none the less.
        The one that really resonated with me was the opening:
        “Imagine there’s no heaven
        It’s easy if you try
        No hell below us
        Above us only sky
        Imagine all the people living for today”
        I already thought that way,and was surprised that the song rankled so many people,but actually,today,it would be headline news for weeks on Fox,so maybe our country wasn’t so different back then.

      • Max says:

        I imagine that all the people living for today wouldn’t solve long-term problems like Global Warming.

      • tmac57 says:

        Good point,if taken to the extreme.I don’t know how Lennon meant it,but I think of it as “appreciate the here and now”, not, “never worry about the future”. Balance is a good thing.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        Don’t forget–Lennon grew up in a broken home in a lower class section of Liverpool, on the brink of poverty most of his childhood, so he was always working class, even when he became a rich Beatle

      • John Greg says:

        Donald Prothero said:

        “Lennon grew up in a broken home in a lower class section of Liverpool, on the brink of poverty most of his childhood….”

        Actually, and no disrespect to you or Lennon (I love Lennon’s work) intended, but that is simply not true. That is a partly Lennon-created, partly PR-created myth. John, especially when compared to the other Beatles in their youth, was fairly comfortably middle class.

      • John Greg says:

        I should clarify a bit. Obviously it is true about the broken home. Nonetheless, Lennon was in fact much more comfortable and happy with Mimi, and especially Mimi’s husband George than he generally let on. And the bit about poverty and working class is simply not true at all.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        And he skewers the whole “Working class hero” idea in his brilliant song of that title

      • John Greg says:

        “And he skewers the whole “Working class hero” idea in his brilliant song of that title.”

        Yes. Though I guess we all know that Lennon was a pretty deeply conflicted guy. Some days he was pro-Mao; some days he was pro-$50,000 white Chinese silk carpets for his drawing room.

        But none of that, in my opinion, takes away form the quality of his work though.

        Personaly, as big a fan of the Beatles as I am and was, from the first single I heard back in ’63 up to today, I think Lennon really began to surpass them all in terms of genius of sonewriting somewhere around “I’m a Loser”, and crossed into new territory and began to find his unique voice with “Rubber Soul”, and even more so with “Revolver” — “Tomorrow Never Knows” still stands as a brilliant piece of ground breaking music.

  5. DeLong says:

    It’s not so much the person as the ideas that need to be remembered. The title of this piece, “Imagine No Religion” was actually misleading as the article did not expand upon Lennon’s thoughts about a world without religion. As an atheist, I find it disturbing how the christians, jews, muslims and others argue amongst themselves as to who is more “christian” than the other, or more “jewish” than the other, etc. They insult each other within their religions and insult each other across religions. As a person without a diety, you cannot insult what I don’t have or care about. This was the message that I take from Lennon’s “Imagine.” You cannot insult me, I don’t care, therefore, I will not start a war because of your words or actions towards a non-existent idol. Lennon is not an idol but a person who proposed ideas that transcend time, ethnicity and religion.

  6. Max says:

    I don’t get how anyone could look at the Soviet Union and China in the 60′s and still think that Communist ideals of no religion and no possessions would make the world better.
    Lennon’s 1968 song “Revolution” was less naive.

    • I was just thinking about Revolution because I actually do like it better, for various reasons. Imagine isn’t bad, but it’s not quite great, in my book.

      • BillG says:

        Listen to “God” from the Plastic Ono Band album – I think it’s a better, more powerful (non-belief) song than either Imagine or Revolution.

      • Ethan says:

        Following on the heels of some theist pressure at school the other day, my 6 year old and I were talking about what we believe, and he said “I’m like that song… I just believe in me.” It was awesome.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        It’s true “Imagine” is highly idealistic, whereas most of his songs had a satirical bite (like “Revolution”). But it has amazing powers to move and inspire people toward idealistic goals, and that’s why it comes out in nearly every poll as one of the top pop songs ever written…

  7. peter says:

    “I don’t get how anyone could look at the Soviet Union and China in the 60′s and still think that Communist ideals of no religion and no possessions would make the world better.”

    Because you are utterly clueless and brainwashed?

    Communism has nothing to do with “posessions” as in private property, it has to do with the control and ownership of the means of production. In what you call “communist” countries that control was never ever in the hands of the workers, it was always in the hands of a party elite subsuming the role of the feudal lords they replaced in Russia as well as in China, at the same time through a personality cult replacing the traditional religions with a handcrafted and customized one.
    But I guess for the average US nincompoop the ideas of communism are filtered through a press that is all about spin and not ideas and reality.

    And no religion making the world better – for sure, just ask the leaders of the enlightenment fighting against the power of religion in Europe. As it was so well put: religion poisons everything.I like yo expand: religion is at the root of all evil.

    To wit – the abuses of aboriginal people in colonized countries like Canada and the Americas by religious institutions, the continued abuse of minors by clergy of all persuasions, the inherent misogyny in most religions, the inherent arrogance of being the chosen and righteous ones by most religions fostering intolerance and hatred of members of all other religions are all more than sufficient reasons to fight religions with all the might one can muster.
    As the religious can so proudly proclaim they hate not the sinner, they hate the sin, I proclaim proudly that I hate not the religious idiot (I pity him) I just hate all religions.

    • Max says:

      “Communism has nothing to do with ‘posessions’ as in private property, it has to do with the control and ownership of the means of production.”

      Here’s what Marxists say about it.
      http://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/p/r.htm
      “Private property is essentially the denial of the private property of others and finds its ultimate expression only in the relation of wage-labour and capital. The abolition of private property constitutes the emancipation of humanity as the relation of person to person is immediate rather than mediated through things.”

      If you expand the definition of religion to include everything that’s bad, then “no religion” would make the world better by definition, but it would also be special pleading.

      • Renegade Saint says:

        Marxists also distinguish between private property and personal property. Personal property that which you possess and use yourself. Everything in your house is your personal property. Your house is your personal property. Even a business can be considered personal property. To give an example of the difference, say you own a hot dog stand and you’re the only worker. That’s still personal property since it’s being personally used by you. But let’s say you hire someone to work the hot dog stand for you. That then becomes private property (as are the vast majority of businesses, obviously). Marxists are interests in abolishing the later, not the former.
        So when people come in with these arguments against socialism like “well how about I just come and use your car and take all your stuff, since you don’t believe in private property that should be fine!” they’re just demonstrating their own ignorance.

      • Max says:

        In the Soviet Union, urban housing belonged to the state, so I guess that’s closer to the “no possessions” ideal.

      • Renegade Saint says:

        So? Fuck the USSR. Fuck China and Cuba too. They’re not and never were socialist in anything but name. They were (and China still is) state capitalist.

      • Max says:

        So imagine no possessions. I wonder if you can.
        It means either the government owns everything or there’s nothing to own.

      • This, per my snarky comment about Peter vs. Adi (or Nyar, or similar) below reminds me of exactly why I made that comment.

        Change the names of the countries, change “communism” to capitalism, and economic libertarians would make the same claims: “That’s not REAL capitalism.”

        Yeesh.

      • Renegade Saint says:

        What’s your point SocraticGadfly? That’s a false dichotomy, same as Shermer is propagating in his latest blog post. The dictionary definition of socialism is an economic system where the workers control the means of production. Was that the case in the USSR? China? Cuba? North Korea? No, ergo they weren’t “socialist”-unless you think that calling yourself something makes you that thing.

      • Nyar says:

        @Renegade Saint

        You have fallen victim to the “No True Scotsman” fallicy.

    • All we need now is to have Peter square off directly with, say, Adi, while the rest of us lock the “cyberroom” behind us as we leave and trap them there together.

      Oh, and Peter? Communism doesn’t have to be irreligious. Second Chapter of Acts.

  8. CountryGirl says:

    I was 20 years old in 1963 when the beatles hit the big time. About half their music was good to great and the other half only sold because they were The Beatles and not because is was good. I am not sure their skill set went beyond writing and playing songs. To try to elevate them to some cerebral guru is a real stretch. The most intelligent thing that anyone of them did was when Lennon left England because he didn’t want to pay the high taxes.

    • Beelzebud says:

      Lennon did not leave England over taxes. Do you just make shit up? Rhetorical question, of course…

      • CountryGirl says:

        No. That is why he moved to New York. His $400 million or so would have been $40 million or so if he had stayed in England. Many successful people have left England because of their oppressive taxation.

  9. yeti2012 says:

    Pretty cool to see skeptics discussing Lennon lyrics. :)

    I’m only 25 so I didn’t grow up anywhere near The Beatles heyday but still enjoy their music and message. It’s unfortunate that there are no musicians these days with as much influence and thought provoking lyrics as the Beatles had back then. I can’t imagine sitting down 40 years from today and discussing which Katie Perry lyrics helped influence my own skepticism.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      And that’s what a lot of my students in their teens and 20s tell me as they listen to the Beatles, the Stones, CCR, the Who….It was an extraordinary time of social unrest which triggered amazing creativity

    • Beelzebud says:

      That’s because the music industry is just a stale corporate environment run by MBAs with no passion for music, these days.

      There are artists out there that make meaningful music, but good luck getting an anti-war song played on the corporate ran pop radio stations.

      • tmac57 says:

        What is this “radio station” of which you speak?

      • Max says:

        Was the music industry better in the 60′s?
        There’s no shortage of left-wing or anti-war music. Rage Against the Machine, Bad Religion, Flobots, even Green Day and Eminem jumped on that bandwagon. And political doesn’t equal meaningful. Love songs can be more meaningful than political rants.

      • Beelzebud says:

        I didn’t say there was a shortage of “left wing anti war music”.

        If you write songs that challenge the status quo, you aren’t going to get air play. Rage Against the Machine exists because they toured non stop for a decade. They did not get where they are by getting huge support from TV and radio. Same goes for Bad Religion. Green Day and Eminem both started out singing songs about poop and getting high, so it was easy for them to sneak a subversive track into the pop culture, but their body of work is just pop music.

        A Perfect Circle released an entire anti-war album, and MTV(1,2) refused to play their cover of Imagine on the networks because they said it was “offensive”.

        The songs that get pushed by the mass media now, are pro war. “burn motherfucker burn”, “I’mma put my boot in yer ass”, etc.

    • Bryant Platt says:

      There are still some groups, like Bad Religion for instance, that still have something meaningful to say, you just have to look to find them.

  10. Insightful Ape says:

    Max, relax. “Imagine no possessions” is in the bible. That is how early christians lived. Everyone nit surrendering all his/her possessions to the church would be cursed and die. Read Acts chapter 5 verses 1 through 10.

  11. Phea says:

    The older I get, the more I’m amazed at what the Beatles accomplished before they turned 30.

    • Beelzebud says:

      Reminds me of how blown away I was when I realized that Jimmy Hendrix, performing in his own band, was only active on a national level for 4 years. 4…

    • CountryGirl says:

      Yes the list is long… Actually what did they accomplish that was meaningful? Other then sex, drugs and rock and roll.

      • Phea says:

        Well for starters, the Beatles made pop, serious music. Up till then, about the only serious stuff was folk. Every one else was making pop rock and roll, like The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Four Seasons, Chubby Checker… The Beatles took the pop genre to a more serious level,(thanks to Lennon).

      • CountryGirl says:

        “We all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine…

        Repeat ad nauseum until someone declares your “music” to be serious.

      • Wrong says:

        You do know that that lyric is essentially meaningless? But that doesn’t mean that they all are. That would be fallacious. “I am the Walrus” also was silly. But the point of political music is to capture the attention of people through entertainment, and then aspire to something more, and have a message. If you have to do that by alluding to drug trips and submarine journeys, or singing about walrusses, then that’s what you have to do. It’s the message they choose to spread with the attention.

      • CountryGirl says:

        Kind of like a million monkeys writing a million songs in a hope that a million people will read something into those songs of great importance. I see…

      • jwthomas says:

        Writing songs whose lyrics contain political or religious opinions that a large part of your public already supports blindly is not being serious. It’s being trendy. Beethoven is serious; Bach is serious. Pop is just pop, whether by the Beatles or Lady Gaga. Please get over your teenage angst. It’s not much different than believing in UFO’s.

      • Phea says:

        I’m not going to explain my comment any further. Perhaps if you actually read it, you might actually understand the point I was making. Beethoven and Bach, how elitist can you get?

      • Phea says:

        On second thought, don’t bother. Personally, (just my opinion now), I tend to think, “She’s Leaving Home” to be just a tad more “serious” than “She’s Real Fine My 409″. (Both great songs, by the way). You get it now?

      • Wrong says:

        How is Back more serious than imagine? Bach’s music is nothing more than entertainment. Now, I may despise the music of Lady Gaga, but I can see when she’s singing songs like “Born this Way” that she’s doing more for the world than Bach or Beethoven ever did. And may I remind you, in their day, Bach and Beethoven were the popular ones.

        The bit about believing in UFOs reveals the truth: You’re an irrational person attempting to rationalise an unpopular opinion via ad hominem. You could explain your crazy analogy, but I’d prefer it if you left it. Then I could imagine you as an escaped mental patient who somehow got at a computer.

      • Beelzebud says:

        You wouldn’t understand.

  12. Black Bart says:

    I recall John tooling about New York in his psychodelic Rolls Royce. Capitalist pig!

    • John Greg says:

      I think that may be a false memory. I am pretty sure that Lennon never brought his Rolls to North America; that in fact the Rolls did not reach North America until Jimmy Pattison, of Vancouver Canada, bought it to display it around the US.

  13. Phea says:

    Don, thanks for sharing your experience. John Lennons murder was pointless and tragic. His music added to the overall enjoyment of my life, and it’s sad to think about the music he might have created in the last 31 years, had he been allowed to.

  14. jaboese says:

    When JL was killed, I lived only 14 blocks away, and I was stage managing a Broadway show with Chris Reeve, who lived even closer to the Dakota. The next day was very somber. Chris revealed that he was scared that someone would, one day, want to kill “Superman”.