Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Imagine No Religion

I know a lot of religious people who don't like the song 'Imagine' by John Lennon because of its message. It's just an exhortation to imagine a universe without heaven, hell, personal property, nations, or religion... I can't imagine where the problem is!

My response is based on a Joseph Smith quote that I can't verify* and can only paraphrase. It goes something like "Whenever I am criticized, I sit down and look inside myself and see if there is any kernel of fault in me that may have prompted the complaint. And more often than not, I do find a fault in myself and can go to the offended and apologize." Lennon's dream in the song is to bring about a world where people are "living for today." I believe his criticism of institutions we hold dear is conditional on the idea that they are harmful; he's not criticizing them just to be a jerk, he honestly believes they make people do bad things, whether pointless wars or just not living life joyfully.

So we have to ask ourselves: does Lennon have a point? I think the answer is an unequivocal yes. Clearly these institutions have been causes of terrible things. The existence of nations has led to horrendous acts in the name of nationalism. Fear over going to hell has wrought psychological trauma, been a factor in suicides, and promoted superficial righteousness. Belief in heaven has made people ignore injustice in this world or been used as a red herring by oppressors to distract their victims. Capitalism ensures the strongest survive, but incidentally also ensures that the weakest suffer. And religion, no one can argue, has been the root of some awful atrocities, from the Inquisition to Mountain Meadows to September 11th. If we do as Joseph Smith (perhaps only in my mind) said, we can find plenty of validity in Lennon's accusations, and indeed we owe him and all others harmed by these institutions an apology.

Does this mean we should scrap all of these institutions? I concede that John Lennon was probably in favor of the idea. But I believe we can answer his critiques better by proving them wrong, by leveraging these institutions for good. While the institutions Lennon assails undoubtedly have been used for evil, I don't believe that they must be. They are not inherently bad, but they're not inherently good either. They are inherently powerful, and anything powerful can be wielded for good or ill. (Obviously, they are not necessary conditions for evil: terrible acts have been committed by atheistic and socialist and anarchist organizations in abundance too; bad people seem to use whatever ideology and tools at their disposal to be dastards.) The answer lies in the line from the hymn 'Have I Done Any Good?' that sounds like it could have been penned by Lennon: "Wake up and do something more / Than dream of your mansion above." Realize the strengths and weaknesses of every institution, then work hard to minimize the weaknesses and maximize the strengths!

Let's make sure our religion really is helping us "live for today." Let's not forget that Jesus himself was a harsh critic of dead religious practices. If our ordinances and meetings and doctrines aren't making us happier, we need to take a look at them and at ourselves. Let's let our belief in the afterlife be an impetus to make the presentlife more like that future paradise. Let's not believe that America can do no wrong, but also remember it's astounding potential. Too often Lennon is right about me and my life. But as I strive to live a Christlike life, I have experienced periods of the abundant life he promised. I find an answer to Lennon in the restored gospel of Christ, but it's an answer I have to continually struggle to give as I tend to lapse into the kind of life Lennon assails. That's why I'm grateful to Lennon for his eternally relevant admonition to look critically at all our institutions. I believe he would agree with Spencer W. Kimball that "People are more important than programs."

So the point is, 'Imagine' should be included in the next version of the hymnal.

* This comes from a Truman Madsen lecture on Joseph Smith that I listened to on CD on my mission. This would have been 5 years ago now, so I'm sure my memory has greatly mangled the quote. Any alert readers recognize it and can help correct it? I think I still have mp3's of it all, but I haven't had the time/inclination to listen through all 8 CD's looking for the exact wording. And even if he didn't say this, I believe it's true (and a post on the problem of appeals to authority may be coming up soon).


  1. I have been guilty of dismissing Lennon's song because of its secular sentiment. But I think you're right. Lennon makes some good points.

    I'm particularly intrigued by Lennon imagining a world without heaven or hell. I've been thinking a lot recently about universalism and to what extent it is compatible with Mormonism. I'd be curious to get your take on that. If you ever get bored sometime... you could blog about that :)

  2. Done and done, sir. Let me know if that was useful/interesting/whatever!