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Imagine No Religion

Last night, Cee Lo Green sang John Lennon’s “Imagine,” but he changed the words to a single line and incurred the virtual wrath of people who respect the song as it was written. The line he changed was “and no religion too.” Accounts vary on exactly what he changed the lyrics to, but it was something along the lines of “and all religion is true” or “and all religions too.”

I’m biased. I think John Lennon was one of the best songwriters and lyricists in the English language in the 20th Century, and possibly of the history of the English language. You can see growth in his lyrics from the early Beatle days when he played with the multiple meanings of words (“Please Please Me”) in simple—or sometimes not so simple—love songs, to the later Beatle era, when drugs and war and the FBI keeping tabs on him made life not so sweet. You could see a bit of cynicism creep in (“Sexy Sadie”) as well as political activism (“Revolution”). After the Beatles broke up, his lyrics for the most part became more thoughtful and as a result, more powerful.

He wrote “Imagine” early in his solo career. In my opinion, this is about as close to perfect as a pop or rock song can get. Its message of simple peace (or peaceful simplicity?) is set to a simple, clean melody with a simple, sparse arrangement. The lyrics don’t challenge the listener’s vocabulary, but as with the melody and arrangement, that’s where its power lies. Using simple words, he challenges beliefs, and more importantly, acceptance of the status quo. If we can imagine a different world, we can build a different world.

Lennon’s lyrics display an elegant sensibility of positive and negative. There’s also a parallel construction to the lyrics that cannot be accidental. The only significant variation in the structure of the verses occurs in the third and final verse, when instead of imagining the absence of heaven in the sky or of religion, he imagines a “brotherhood of man.” It’s difficult to imagine that Lennon’s choice of words was anything but careful and deliberate.

Which brings us back to Cee Lo Green.

If Lennon’s lyrics had no connection from line to line, that would be one thing, but if one considers the words just prior to altered line, “nothing to kill or die for,” or even the entire second verse, Green’s change renders the song nonsensical. People kill and die for their countries, and they kill and die for religion. As far as I know, no one has killed or died for Scientology, but a) I could be wrong and b) there’s still time.

Green has attempted to explain the change as expressing support for everyone being able to think or believe what they want. There are two problems with this explanation. The first is that religion does not allow its adherents to think whatever they want; religion tries to convert people of other religions, so it isn’t conducive to the freedom of thought that Green says he wanted to convey. I don’t know if Lennon made a distinction between religion and faith, but it seems clear that Green does not. Also, if his altered line was “all religion’s true,” then he’s specifically discouraging non-belief.

The second problem with Green’s explanation is that it reads false. The only reasons to change a line by one of the world’s most (deservedly) respected lyricists is if you don’t believe what the line conveys or if the line offends you. Green obviously does not believe the line, and I think it’s more likely than not that he is also offended by it. That’s fine. That’s his prerogative. And it’s my prerogative to be offended by the unintentional irony he injected into one of my favorite songs.

John Lennon invited us on a journey of imagination, and Cee Lo Green was willing to go on this journey, but not all the way. He’s willing to imagine no heaven, no hell, no countries, no possessions (as he wears a fur coat and what appears to be a half ton of gold), no need for greed or hunger, nothing to kill or die for—but religion? No, Green won’t even imagine no religion. So, how can he imagine nothing to kill or die for? How can he imagine no heaven or hell? And if he imagines that all religion’s true, then how can he imagine no countries?

Green says he meant no disrespect by changing the lyrics. I think he probably thought the largely religious American public would appreciate his pro-religion lyric and the denouncing of his lyric change surprised him. Not that he cares about my opinion, but any respect I had for him, even as an influence on other musicians, has taken a nose-dive, not only for the thoughtlessness of his lyrical alteration, but for the poor reason he gave as an excuse for it.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, Leonard Bernstein changed the lyrics of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony from “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy) to “An die Freiheit” (Ode to Freedom). It was controversial at the time, but he had a good reason for it, and never suggested that there was any problem with the original lyrics. I mention this because Beethoven’s 9th is my favorite Symphony. I’m not completely adverse to changing the lyrics to my favorite music, but I do have to understand the reason and believe that there’s nothing else to it. Bernstein gave a reason I understood, and I believe there was never anything else to it.

I don’t understand Green’s stated reason, and I’m unconvinced that there isn’t more to it.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2012 in atheism, media, music

 

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Lesbian Atheist President

I don’t know if the television ads for the Mormon church have gone national, but I suspect that they have. If so, then you know what I mean: ads that could be selling educational institutions or automobiles or some kind of cleaning product that’s going to save untold hours of household drudgery, but instead are selling the normalcy of the Mormon church and its members. One ad shows an immigrant musician, another shows a former gang member (drug addict?) and his reformed life, another shows a redhead from Texas with her family (including an autistic child). And of course, there’s Norman the Mormon.

We get these ads in Arizona with astonishing frequency. The LDS are a powerful and present minority in Arizona and their numbers and influence are growing. We’re one of the few states in which people don’t really need to be told that Mormons are just like every other religious person (except for the magic underpants, but other religions have their own special idiosyncrasies). When they first started running these ads several years ago, I wondered if they ran in Utah. Surely the citizens of Utah don’t need reminding that they’re not weird. Or maybe they need to be reminded not to act weird around non-Mormons. (Mormonism is one of the religions I have not looked into seriously. I’m sure there are some vestigial stereotypes loitering in my memory banks, but beyond the now frowned-upon polygamy of prior generations, I couldn’t tell you what they are. This is not an invitation for an education in the matter, however.)

I watch these ads, and I wonder whether television ads in which Alethea the Atheist or Edward the Agnostic or Steven the Secular Humanist were featured with similarly high production values and similarly positive messages would ever get the same kind of treatment that the Mormon ads do, and I have to conclude that we wouldn’t. If a simple billboard with a positive message has to be relocated because of complaints, and if a banner flying campaign takes place in only 26 states, god-fearing people whose religious sensibilities tremble at the very idea that non-theists exist certainly won’t tolerate ads brought into their homes that show that atheists are decent, normal people.

At least, not yet.

Perhaps I shouldn’t assume that atheist television ads are an impossibility. Fifteen years ago, I would not have expected the USA to have elected a black President, or that two Mormons would have a legitimate shot at a Presidential nomination. (Do you think it might be too much to hope for a lesbian atheist President?)

Religious privilege still reigns, at least culturally (especially in the US), but it isn’t indestructible.

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2011 in atheism

 

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A Wall of Perfect Separation

I was raised as a Lutheran, and it’s quite possible that if my parents hadn’t sent me to an Episcopalian school, I might have remained Lutheran the remainder of my days. But when I was twelve, the local schools went through some kind of upheaval (details of which are still cloudy to me), and so, religious school it was.

It seemed innocuous enough. Some of the elements of Episcopalian services (daily, with communion on Wednesdays) were outside my experience (Sundays only), while others were more familiar. There were many things about the school that I didn’t like, especially the nun who taught science like it was an art class*. I didn’t complain. My father was very ill with the cancer that would soon kill him, and my problems seemed very small in comparison.

Spring arrived, and at a certain point, all the girls in my grade were gathered together and given a checklist** for confession. At no point were we told that we did not have to participate, and my experience at the school so far had led me to believe that if I didn’t do as they said, they’d give me a “mark,” which was sort of a point against students for bad behavior (five marks led to suspension, and I think two suspensions led to expulsion). So, despite the fact that I was Lutheran, I went to confession. I was put in a situation in which I felt compelled to violate one of the practices of my religion (confess directly to God/deity/FSM/what-have-you) in order to avoid bad behavior marks for not engaging in a practice (confession to a priest) that was not part of my religion.

Again, I didn’t think my problems were worthy of complaint. These were people of God. Surely they meant no harm. Surely they were good people. Surely they had my best interests at heart.

The next year, a Jewish girl started at this same Episcopalian school. She didn’t go to confession. So I didn’t go to confession. I was given a mark against my behavior, but they said it was for something else. But these were people of God. Surely they don’t lie.

They can’t claim ignorance. They taught (probably still do) a class on the history of religion, which is a bit deceptive, as it focused mostly on the many varieties of Christianity and the Judaic traditions that informed Christianity. I don’t recall anything on Islam or any of the Eastern religions. At any rate, the Protestant Reformation was covered, the fact that Lutherans don’t confess to their religious leaders was covered, and Martin Luther and his 95 Theses were covered. And they knew I was Lutheran.

It’s a terrible thing to compel a child violate their religious beliefs/practices. They don’t always understand exactly what’s wrong, especially if their parents teach them, as they themselves have been taught, that people of God are always good and trustworthy. (I guess I’m dating myself a bit here; the controversy surrounding pedophile priests in the Catholic church had not yet made headlines. Even if it had, my parents probably would have been relieved that the school was Episcopalian and not Catholic.)

So, on this 3rd day of July, 2011, I would like to thank that school for unwittingly teaching me the importance of the separation of church and state. While it was a private school, they ensured that I learned the principle of not forcing or compelling children to violate their religious beliefs. They ensured that I learned how important it is that society adhere to secular principles so that everyone’s rights and beliefs are protected, that my rights end where others’ begin and vice versa. They ensured that I learned that failure to mention God is not the same thing as denying God’s existence.

My experiences at that school did not make me an atheist, but they did make my atheism a possibility, even if I didn’t know it at the time. They made it possible for me to recognize my doubts for what they were, even though it took a long time to stop fearing the doubts. They eventually made it possible for me to think critically about what my religious leaders were telling me*** and that I could change my mind about my beliefs. They should be proud of these lessons because they are good and valuable, but if they knew they had set me on the path toward unbelief, they’d stupidly hang their heads in shame.

—–

*Seriously. We used a one of those science coloring books. I had never seen one before, so I read the page titled “How to Use This Book.” I read the lesson, and colored the associated page as the book instructs, so as to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts in the lesson. Sr.ML gave me a C on the basis of my artwork. The next lesson, I didn’t read the lesson at all, and colored a pretty picture. She gave me an A. She’s now running the school.

**Among the possible sins we twelve-year-old girls could confess to were things like murder, adultery, theft, lying, and cheating at games. Being a novice at confession, the only thing I could think to confess to was cheating at games, and that only because I cheated at Solitaire. That’s right: I confessed to cheating at Solitaire. One of my classmates grabbed my checklist out of my hand and started reading it aloud. No one wanted to play games with me after that. Oh, well. It’s their loss. I could have taught them all kinds of ways to fix cards that had been laid down in the wrong order.

***God loves you; Christians are always good people, and if they’re not then they’re not good Christians; and you’ll always find comfort in the Bible. Apparently, they hadn’t read the whole thing either, or they expected me not to notice all the misogyny, which would be kind of like not noticing that you’ve been punched in the face and had your nose broken.

 
 

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