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A short rant on the performance of John Lennon's "Imagine" at Unitarian Universalist church services

Peter A. Taylor
July 13, 2015

This is in the context of an upcoming Bay Area, Houston (BAUUC) service on July 19th, 2015, featuring a speaker from Humanists of Houston.

Consider the first verse:

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

There are two issues here. What does "living for today" mean, and what does it have to do with rejecting the supernatural? What happened to planning for seven generations? Does "living for today" mean not having children, or having them, but not caring about the world we leave behind for them? And what does short-sightedness have to do with atheism? Are atheists forbidden from working on projects that will survive them? I realize that we have to cut poets and songwriters some slack because of brevity and scansion, but if this is interpreted as written, it's insulting to atheists.

Consider the second verse:

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

As David Friedman said regarding libertarians who wanted to abolish the US government, there may not be a government to defend, but there will still be governments to defend against. Or as Richard Fernandez asks, if members of your society don't think your society is worth fighting for, who is going to risk his life to defend it? As George Orwell observed, "Those who 'abjure' violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf."

Imagine no defenses against the next Hitler or Stalin. We can tell Jim Goodwin, regarding his service in WWII, "Thanks, but you may as well have not bothered."

With no countries, how do you propose to pay for the police? Who will stop local criminals? Vigilantes?

This is a moral inversion: a person who is free-riding on the military and police protection of others is claiming cheap moral superiority over the people who are defending him. He's making a virtue of a vice. I am insulted at being asked to embrace this moral inversion.

Lennon also associates "no religion" with his utopia, which is problematic for several reasons.

  1. Why are we singing this in our own "church"? It's no wonder that former Texas Comptroller Carol Keeton had doubts about whether UU was a real religion. Will we be singing this song at our next canvass dinner?

  2. Lennon himself doesn't seem to be able to imagine a non-religious world. Consider Isaiah 11:6:

  3. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.

    Lennon's "no religion" sounds remarkably like a poorly thought-out derivative of Christianity.

  4. From a sociological standpoint, Lennon's association of religion with violence is extremely suspect. Violence is often justified in religious language, and religious institutions can be quite good at violence, but other things being equal, most religions seem to be associated with reductions in violence. Religious violence usually has more to do with the political environment than with theology. Laurence Iannaccone writes in The Market for Martyrs,

    The starting point for any analysis of religious militancy and terrorism should be its infrequency in all religious traditions, especially when compared to secular ideologies such as nationalism, communism, fascism, and even democracy or the great secular associations we call "governments," "nations," and "ethnicities."

    See also Laurence Iannaccone and Eli Berman, Religious extremism: the good, the bad, and the deadly; Gunther Lewy, Why America Needs Religion; and Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. From Haidt's book:

    Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.


    Religions are moral exoskeletons.

    If we want to reduce the level of violence in the world, we should take a lesson from the twentieth century: keep the traditional religions and get rid of Marxism.

Consider the refrain:

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

Lennon's song might have been interpreted generously as a mood piece, a description of an emotional state, rather than anything meant to be taken seriously and acted upon. But he doubles down in this refrain. He's actually trying to organize action to "immanentize the eschaton", and making a promise of its correctness and effectiveness.

Consider the third verse:

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world, you

There are three possibilities for how material goods can be managed: private property, public property, and unowned resources. It doesn't appear that Lennon understands the difference between the latter two. "Public property" means that the government controls it. "Unowned" means that no one can limit anyone else's use or abuse of something, and that no one has any tangible incentive to behave responsibly towards it. Wild fish outside of any nation's territorial waters are unowned, "fugitive resources" in the economics literature, and are notoriously abused. In other cases, it makes sense for something to be unowned, such as the English language. Anyone can coin a new word or use an old word without interference. These uses of language are "non-rivalrous". But food is inherently rivalrous. We can't all eat the same morsel of food.

By "no possessions", Lennon seems to mean public property, that the political authorities that he denies earlier in the song are now going to provide perfect organization for the production and distribution of material goods. At least, that's how the Marxists planned it. The State will somehow wither away some day, but in the mean time we get the Soviet agricultural system. It was inexcusable for anyone to support this nonsense in the first place, and certainly anyone such as Lennon, who lived after the Ukrainian holodomor became widely known. Now that the Soviet Union has fallen under the weight of its own incapacity to feed itself, we have even less excuse to embrace collectivism.

"Greed" is a dysphemism. People compete for status using whatever markers are available. If material goods are not available as status markers, they'll compete on the basis of power over other people, which is far worse.

"Hunger" is a natural phenomenon for animal life. What is unnatural is not having to worry about where your next meal is coming from. This unnatural condition is brought to you in large part by property institutions. Again, we have a moral inversion: pretending to try to solve a problem by attacking and claiming moral superiority over the people and institutions that actually do solve it.

"A brotherhood of man" and "sharing all the world" presumably mean something like "right relationship". My idea of "right relationship" is that I respect you and your stuff, and you respect me and my stuff. Lennon's idea of "right relationship" seems to be that no one will have any opinions that conflict with his. Alternately, some political authority, controlled by people he identifies with, will control everything, and any conflicting opinions will at best be ignored.

Even the Soviet Union has stopped believing in Marxism. Why are we still singing praises to it?

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