Friday, October 17, 2008


The other day I was listening to music on Pandora (you should try it--it's really cool. You type in names of artists/groups you like and then it plays them and similar ones for you like a radio station, only you can say if you don't like a certain song and it goes to the next one, and you learn about all sorts of new artists...anyway...), while I was reading Durkheim, and John Lennon's "Imagine" came on.

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

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man [er, humanity, if he was born 20 years later...]
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

This seems like it's kind of Durkheim's vision, too: imagine if there was a world where we realized that the only "god" was society, and where we did what was right for each other and gave up on all the religion junk, because all that does is get us mad at each other and make it easy for someone to come and manipulate us using religious language so we're willing to kill each other.

These are good points, not easy to refute, because a lot of horrible stuff has happened in the name of religion. We can go back to the Crusades or further, back to God telling Israel to wipe out every living being in certain cities they took over, but we don't even have to go back in time. The same thing is happening as you read this. Our troops are in Iraq defending the cause of "freedom" for those like us, at the expense of the freedom of those not like us (the Iraqis).

And I'm all for a world with no religions, meaning no one has to perform specific ritual acts to get into heaven (or whatever it is they believe), there's no legalism, there's no hierarchy that people have to have their salvation mediated through. That would be a great improvement over what is currently practiced.

But I don't agree that if we just got rid of this silly God concept, then everyone would get a long because there'd be "nothing to kill or die for." Here are two reasons (and I'm sure there are more):

1. People are always going to form some sort of groups, because we are inherently social beings. We can't survive without other people--literally at least when we're babies--and when we make groups there are unfortunately alliances and bonds that encourage people to think about "our" people as more important than "their" people, our needs trumping their needs, and since there's not enough to go around we'll fight for what there is. (Note: I don't think there's not enough to go around, but that's the mentality of most groups, for some reason.)

2. If there's nothing worth dying for, is there anything worth living for? It seems like as humans, we have an innate need to be part of something larger than ourselves. This "something else" is worth so much that our own lives are worth little to us in comparison. This is what gives life meaning. Unfortunately, this is twisted and manipulated by so many cultures and religions that people think, "What's worth dying for is worth killing for," which is a perversion of this first feeling.

I think this sense of "something greater" that we all want to be part of points to the existence of God. Durkheim thinks although we call it God it's actually just society, but I'm unconvinced. If so, how could we all (from various times and cultures) have the same vision Lennon describes in "Imagine"? How could we all yearn for that ideal world of morality and wholeness? Where would we get the idea that this world wasn't whole, and where would our morals come from? Durkheim gives answers, but they are snatching at straws, in my opinion, that don't really explain the depth of the fact that all cultures yearn for this other world, this ideal life, and their myth structures form around that basic desire.

I know, maybe all our morals and such arise out of what's good for our species in order for it to perpetuate itself, so they're just evolutionary constructs. But that is unconvincing to me, because it seems like they're so much deeper than just utilitarian acts.

Although I could keep talking about this, that's all I have time for! So feel free to post your own thoughts in your comments!


Will T said...

I have always had reservations about this song. Perhaps because I wasn't particularly wounded by religion growing up, I have never understood the idea that the world would be a better place without religion. Maybe it is because I identify religion with the prophets and not the kings and missionaries.

The first verse implies to me not just that there is no heave, but there is no God. I cannot reconcile that view with my experience. And while I would like to think that there is nothing that I would kill for, I also like to think that there are any number of things that I would be willing to die for.

Will T

Jeremiah said...

I haven't read Durkheim, but I loathe John Lennon's song.

The line about imagining there's no religion is, I think, a central reference point for the hippie counterculture and its rejection of organised religion in favour of a privatised, individualistic spiritual quest (with or without drugs to spice it up).

Perhaps John Lennon was unwittingly acting here as an advance guard for Margaret Thatcher, with her view that "There is no such thing [as society]! There are individual men and women and there are families..."

As for "Imagine all the people/Living for today", I don't have to imagine it, I just have to pop down to my local shopping mall and watch people drifting about, led by their impulses.

Corporate Britain has returned Lennon's compliments. A few years ago the airport at Liverpool was renamed Liverpool John Lennon Airport, with the strapline "Above us only sky".

It may not have been Lennon's intention, but in practice the counterculture he represented so well has now assimilated almost entirely into the dominant culture of consumerist greed with which it always had a great deal in common (Thomas Frank is a good American commentator on this). This culture is not peaceful, as it must fight wars to secure access to resources and to maintain grotesque inequalities.

There's also the danger that people will kill themselves or others to escape the boredom and anomie of a world where there's "nothing to kill or die for". If Christianity and other religions do indeed give structure and meaning and direction to people's lives, then doing away with them risks throwing people into an abyss of meaninglessness. They may well turn to murderous new 'religions' such as the fascism and communism that were emerging in the Europe of Durkheim's later years, or indeed the violent revolutionary groups that flourished on the fringes of the hippie counterculture.

Or they may commit acts of violence just "for the hell of it", attempting to redeem their lives from meaninglessness without subscribing to some larger movement.

Sorry to sound so negative. I'd like to make a case for a Quaker Christian faith that could offer us a way out of all this negativity and nihilism. But I'm not feeling very confident about it at the moment. Still, you are doing a good job on your blog making just such a case.

Swallowtail said...

I think it's ironic that John Lennon gets so denigrated for the first line of this song when all he tried to do was bring peace to the world. He tried to bring humanity together with his words instead of having people constantly fighting over religion, over nationalism, over possessions. What does it take to bring people together? Yes, Imagine was idealistic, but that was John's point. With all the violence and destruction that was taking place at the time, idealism was desperately needed. People interpret the song however they wish, but it is important to understand Lennon's intention (which wasn't to celebrate atheism).


Swallowtail said...

Cherice, I checked out Pandora... very cool! Thanks for the suggestion... Kurt :)

cherice said...

Kurt, I agree about the first line of the song. I'm not saying the song is horrible. Actually I like it for a lot of reasons. I just think it's unfortunate that the only way we can "imagine all the people living life in peace" is to imagine a world without religion. It's sad that this is the case. The rest of the song is a great ideal--although I agree with Will and Jeremiah's comments that it (and the Lennon lifestyle, and the trends of the time) spurred hippie and mainstream ideologies that aren't helpful, such as consuemer selfishness. This wasn't Lennon's intent, but the song does suggest an ethic of selfishness underneath the surface of utilitarian good. This is similar to Ayn Rand's criticism of utilitarianism, but that will have to be another post...

Anonymous said...

I guess I'll throw my two cents worth in here. To me, the idea of no religion or no heaven is that we shouldn't live our lives as if the only thing that matters is the end of life. Many (all?) cultures use religion as a way to wield power; patriotism = religion = money and power. There's a lot of difference (to me) between religion and spirituality. We are unable to live a life of peace because of a sense of separateness between each of us as humans, and each of us and God. The life of peace can only happen when we experience love. I prefer the Quaker terminology-- the Light of Christ within us--to be the explanation of this love. When we are able to experience this love today maybe we can learn that there is no need for killing or religion or greed. Or maybe I'm a dreamer, too :-)


Swallowtail said...

It's hard to imagine peace with so many different religions that preach intolerance. So I suppose it's a world without intolerance that is needed for peace.

I disagree that Lennon contributed to selfishness with Imagine, which was against possessions and greed. As he stated himself, the main points of Imagine were actually the main points of the Communist manifesto, which was the opposite of selfishness. Although Lennon himself did not advocate communism. And I think when he wrote "living for today", Lennon meant it in the general sense, not living for the next life but living for this life that we have now.

I agree that there should be a spiritual basis for "doing good". I imagine the Quaker way is close to the ideal... no doctrine, tolerance of all, equality of all, the belief that we all have the Light of God within us. Perhaps Lennon would have discovered Quakerism had he lived longer.


Anonymous said...

I empathize with John Lennon, having lived through that era as a dedicated war protester. With Lennon I recognized that a great majority of Christians supported the killing, and it turned my stomach--but it ultimately made me a better follower of Christ, because I was reminded of the early Christians, who loved Jesus more than any nation, and who were all pacifists who loved their enemies.

Perhaps we should see Lennon as reflecting those 300 years before Constantine nationalized the church and made the Prince of Peace into a god of war. I wish the John Lennon I enjoyed with a grimace could have experienced Jesus Christ personally. I wish there had been enough Christians loving our enemies so much that they feared us no more and soon became our friends. Then Lennon wouldn't have had to only "imagine" all the people living life in peace.

Gr. Ralph