September 06, 2021
The Impact of a Song
In the 45 years since the release of John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ as a single in Britain in October 1975, the world has undergone enormous changes, one of the most significant of which was the Fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. This paved the way for German reunification in October 1990 and, in turn, triggered the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991.
In 1992, in the aftermath of the implosion of the USSR, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University was quick off the mark with a book entitled The End of History in which he predicted the triumph of liberalism as well as secularisation. Well, it hasn’t quite worked it like that, not for liberalism and certainly not for secularisation.
The horrific events of 9/11, the perpetrators of which were religiously motivated, put a bloody end to all talk of the ‘end of history’. The destruction of the World Trade Centre also raised again, though with a new and sudden urgency, old questions, mainly about the role of religion.
In view of all that has happened why does anyone need religion in the twenty-first century? And why do so many people across the globe still claim a religious affiliation of one sort or another? Surely in these more secular times, we should be seeing an abandonment of religion.
Questions such as these surface from time to time in discussions on radio and television about the persistence of religion, or when the differences between Christianity and Islam are being talked about. But nobody pretends any more that religion doesn’t matter.
It was Karl Marx (1818-1883) who popularised the idea of religion as a crutch, something that gives false comfort. He called it ‘the opiate of the poor’. But as broadcaster John Humphrys emphasised in his 2007 book In God We Doubt, for vast numbers of ordinary, thoughtful people it is impossible not to believe in God. ‘Quite simply – and this will cause many an atheist lip to curl – they want there to be something else.’
But what if there isn’t something else? What if there is no heaven, or no hell? In July 2001, on the day that Liverpool Airport was being renamed the John Lennon Airport, his widow Yoko Ono made this comment to those attending the ceremony: ‘As John said, there is no hell below us, and above us only sky’.
This statement of unbelief in the supernatural has a powerful resonance for many young people today, a tribute among others things to the powerful influence of a musical and cultural icon.
In January 2001, the Observer published the results of a poll conducted in co-operation with Channel 4 television to find the ‘100 Greatest No 1 Singles’. The winner was John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, recorded at the home of the most richly gifted of the Beatles in Ascot in May 1971, though not released as a single until October 1975.
In an ‘anatomy of an anthem’, Yoko One said: ‘We both felt that it was an important song … the song was more like a prayer than a prediction: a prayer in the sense of “Let’s hope that this will circulate”.’
The result of the poll was hardly a surprise. ‘With its utopian sentiments, solemn piano coda and wistful lyrics, Imagine has become the premier item in pop’s slim hymnal, edging McCartney’s Let It Be into second place, with Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters among the also rans,’ wrote Neil Spencer in the Observer’s commentary on the poll.
The song is (a) anti-religion, (b) anti-nationalism, (c) anti-capitalism, and (d) anti-conformity. And of course for these sentiments, plus its inherent musical qualities, it had and still has huge appeal, especially among the disenchanted and rebellious young.
We find its opposition to religion in the lines ‘Imagine there’s no heaven … and no religion too’; its being anti-nationalism in ‘Nothing to kill or die for’; its being anti-capitalism in ‘Imagine no possessions’ and ‘No need for greed or hunger’; and its being anti-conformity in ‘Imagine all the people sharing all the world’ – a blueprint for a utopia that hitherto only writers of science fiction have speculated about.
In the course of the song Lennon concedes that critics of the ‘message’ of the lyrics may dismiss him as ‘a dreamer’, but most assuredly, as he was quick to add in the recording, he is ‘not the only one’.
In a post-9/11 world, where we have witnessed the emergence (or re-emergence) of ‘politicised’ religion, very many people must from time to time have felt that the world would be a far better place if all religions were abolished. And many of them do not accept, as popes would have all us accept, that a world without God is a world without hope.
These days a new generation of disaffected youth – deeply skeptical of conventional religion, anti-church, anti-establishment, anti-war, anti-hypocrisy, anti-globalisation – readily embrace the idealism of ‘Imagine’.
Never mind the irony of the admonition to ‘imagine no possessions’ coming from a millionaire rock star, or the fact that one of Lennon’s most scabrous critics, the author Albert Goldman (best known for a controversial 1981 biography of Elvis Presley), has dismissed ‘Imagine’ as a ‘hippie wishing-list full of pennyweight dreams for a better world’. In spite of this, the song is still regarded by the young as an anthem of hope, an anthem full of promise, resonating with the vision of an alternative world, a war-free, greed-free, conflict-free and, yes, a God-free world.
It is easy to be cynical in an age when cynicism is a synonym for cool, but Lennon believed in the possibility of a better world. And such is the status and influence of rock stars today that he may well have inspired millions of young people to believe in such a possibility as well. And that is no bad thing.
In the 45 years since its release as a single in Britain, Lennon’s vision of a God-less, secularised society has been realised to a considerable extent in parts of the Western world in particular. But the overall impact of the process of secularisation on the religious landscape globally has been less than many predicted or others hoped for.
The American philosopher Sam Harris (The End of Faith) is one of the best-known of the New Atheists along with Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) whose books have sold in huge numbers. Yet in his 2010 book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris felt compelled to make this admission:
Since the nineteenth century, it has been widely assumed that the spread of industrialised society would spell the end of religion. Marx, Freud and Weber – along with innumerable anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and psychologists influenced by their work – expected religious belief to wither in the light of modernity. It has not come to pass. Religion remains one of the most important aspects of human life in the twenty-first century.
That same year the editor of the Economist, John Micklethwait, in partnership with the magazine’s Washington’s bureau chief, Adrian Wooldridge, produced a book called God Is Back – How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the World. That said it all. Lennon’s dream had been buried in the rubble of the World Trade Centre.
T.P. O’Mahony is a leader writer with The Irish Examiner.
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