An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive
Suitable for Key Stage 4/5
To explore John Lennon’s idea in his song ‘Imagine’ of what it would be like if there were no religion.
Preparation and materials
- Have available the song ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon and the means to play it at the beginning of the assembly when required.
Begin by playing John Lennon's song 'Imagine'.
John Lennon didn't have much time for Christianity. In the famous interview with his friend Maureen Cleave for the Evening Standard in 1966, he claimed, 'Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now. I don't know which will go first – rock ‘n‘ roll or Christianity . . .'
Not that being 'popular' makes you good or right, of course! Lennon's rejection of religion in general is explicit in the lyrics of 'Imagine' – 'all the people living for today . . . no religion too . . .'
It's not exactly clear from this how religion is responsible for making things bad, but that is clearly the implication. Religious institutions such as churches can, of course, be guilty of terrible hypocrisy – practising hate rather than the love they claim – but any institution can be guilty of that. It's equally true of the Communist Party. Come to that, John Lennon, despite calling for us to have 'no possessions' in this song, died owning garages full of expensive cars and wardrobes crammed with fur coats.
John Lennon's song does, however, draw on a more serious anti-religion argument: that it is innately bad. The biologist Richard Dawkins argues this, claiming that religion teaches what is false and inevitably it makes people do bad things. He recently claimed that the terrorists who flew into the Twin Towers in New York did so precisely because they believed in life after death. Religion, in his view, is 'a dangerous nonsense' – in fact, he characterizes it as a virus that infects people's minds.
That's a rather scary way of looking at things – a 'virus' is the kind of term that Hitler used to describe the Jews. It implies something harmful that needs to be eradicated, but does he have a point?
He is certainly right that Christianity, because it preaches there is hope beyond the limits of this world, can give strength to people to do and face things which would otherwise seem too powerful. It was this hope that gave strength to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to face the Nazis when he was held in a concentration camp and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to confront the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Is Dawkins right that religion encourages people to do bad things? The Church has certainly done many bad things, but, in the end, the standard of Christian behaviour has to be Jesus himself. Whatever his followers or the Church might do, Jesus taught and practised generosity, forgiveness, non-violence . . . love.
John Lennon asks us to imagine a world where there is 'no religion'. It's an interesting thought experiment. Try it!
Imagine all the churches closed, bulldozed or turned into supermarkets or art galleries. Would that be a loss?
One man thought it wouldn't be. He was W.H. Auden, one of the greatest English poets of the twentieth century. Then, however, his political sympathies inspired him to go to Spain in 1937 where he volunteered to drive an ambulance for the Republican forces fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. He was then surprised to find himself, he said, 'profoundly shocked and disturbed' by the fact that they were closing churches and killing priests (H. Carpenter, W.H. Auden: A Biography, Faber & Faber, 2010):
The feeling was far too intense to be the result of a mere liberal dislike of intolerance, the notion that it is wrong to stop people from doing what they like, even when it is something silly like going to church. I could not escape acknowledging that, however I had consciously ignored and rejected the Church for sixteen years, the existence of churches and what went on in them had all the time been very important to me. If that was the case, what then?
For Auden, this was the beginning of his return to the Christian faith. He did the opposite of what John Lennon asks us to do. Rather than imagine there is no heaven, he began to imagine the possibility of heaven and, 'if that was the case, what then?' It's not far off what another Beatle, George Harrison, discovered as a result of his involvement with Hinduism. It was a possibility that brought the value of life into sharper, richer focus.
Time for reflection
So, what is the best way to bring about John Lennon's dream of 'all the people living life in peace . . . all the people sharing all the world . . .'?
Use your imagination!
Open my mind to the possibilities of
peace, forgiveness and active love
revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Older students might like to look at Philip Larkin's famous poem 'Church going', in which he imaginatively explores the possibility of what it will be like when 'churches will fall completely out of use', vaguely admitting that, in the end, 'It pleases me to stand in silence here; a serious house on serious earth it is . . . '
‘Imagine’ by John Lennon