Why John Lennon’s ode to humanism still resonates
Fifty years ago, John Lennon released one of the most beautiful, inspiring and catchy pop anthems of the 20th century: “Imagine”.
Sweet and yet more and more moving as the song progresses, “Imagine” is unabashedly utopian and deeply moral, calling people to live, as one humanity, in peace. He is also deliberately and powerfully irreligious. From his opening words, “Imagine there is no Heaven,” to the chorus, “And no religion too,” Lennon sets out what is, for many, a clear atheist message.
While most pop songs are secular by default – in the sense that they are about the things of this world, with no mention of the divine or the spiritual – “Imagine” is explicitly secular. In Lennon’s story, religion is an obstacle to human development – something to be overcome, something to be transcended.
As a secular scholar and avid Beatles fan, I have always been fascinated by how “Imagine”, perhaps the first and only atheist hymn to be so successful, became so widely adopted in France. America. After all, the United States is a country that has – at least until recently – a much more religious population than other industrialized Western democracies.
Since its single release on October 11, 1971, “Imagine” has sold millions, becoming No. 1 in the US and UK charts. And its popularity has endured. Rolling Stone magazine named “Imagine” as the third greatest song of all time in 2003, and it consistently tops national polls in Canada, Australia and the UK.
Countless artists have covered it, and it remains one of the most played songs in the world.
But not everyone is in love with his message. Robert Barron, the auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, responded to the recent interpretation of Tokyo by lambasting “Imagine” as a “totalitarian hymn” and “an invitation to moral and political chaos”. His problem: atheistic words.
Many attempts have been made since the release of “Imagine” to reconcile Lennon’s hymn with religion. Scholars, believers and other musicians have argued that the lyrics are not really atheist, just an anti-organized religion. Others took the hammer approach and just changed the lyrics – CeeLo Green sang “And all religion’s true” in a televised performance on New Years Eve 2011.
In interviews, Lennon was at times ambiguous about his beliefs about religion and spirituality, but such ambiguity contradicts the clear message of “Imagine”. The irreligious ethics of the song is straightforward. The first verse says that there is “no heaven”, “no hell” – “Above us, only heaven”. In such clear and distilled words, Lennon captures the very core of secular orientation. To me, Lennon says we live in a purely physical universe that operates under strictly natural laws – there is nothing supernatural there, even beyond the stars.
It also expresses a distinct “here and now” at odds with many religions. Asking listeners “Imagine all the people, living for today,” Lennon is, to quote labor activist and atheist Joe Hill, suggesting that there will be “no pie in heaven when you die,” no more than an eternal fiery torture. waiting for you.
Lennon’s words also leave room for an implicit existentialism. Without gods and lifeless after death, only humanity – within and among ourselves – can decide how to live and choose what matters. We can choose to live free from violence, greed or hunger and – to quote “Imagine” – exist as a “brotherhood of men… sharing everyone”.
It is here that Lennon’s humanism – the belief that humans, without relying on anything supernatural, have the ability to create a better, more humane world – takes over. Nihilism is not the way, nor is discouragement, debauchery or destruction. On the contrary, Lennon’s “Imagine” implies a humanistic desire to see the end of suffering.
The spirit of empathy and compassion throughout the song is consistent with what scholarship has found to be strong traits commonly seen in secular men and women. Despite attempts to link Lennon and “Imagine” to bloodthirsty atheists like Stalin and Pol Pot, the overwhelming majority of atheists seek to lead ethical lives.
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For example, studies have shown that when it comes to things like wanting to help refugees, seeking to establish affordable health care, fighting climate change and being sensitive to racism and homophobia, atheists stand out as particularly moral.
Indeed, secular people in general exhibit a distinctly tolerant, democratic and universalist orientation – values that Lennon defends as ideals in “Imagine”.
Other studies show that the least religious democratic countries – those which have gone farthest in the path of “imagining no religion” – are the safest, the most humane, the greenest and the most ethical.
“Imagine” was not the first time Lennon sang of his secular humanism. A year earlier, in 1970, he had released “I Found Out”, declaring his lack of belief in Jesus or Krishna. Also in 1970, he extinguished the haunting and burning “God”. Beginning with a classic psychological explanation of theism – that humans construct the concept of God as a way to face and measure their pain – “God” goes on to list all the things Lennon decidedly doesn’t believe in: the Bible, Jesus. , Gita, Buddha, I-Ching, magic and so on. Ultimately, all he believes in is his own personal verifiable reality. Coming to such a place was, for the Liverpool Spectacled Walrus, truly ‘reborn’.
But neither “I Found Out” nor “God” achieved the massive success that “Imagine” enjoyed. No other atheist pop song has done it.