In John Lennon’s legendary song, “Imagine,” he sings about the beauty of a world without religion. By his reasoning, there would be, “Nothing to kill or die for” in a world with no countries and, “no religion too.” This is a rather typical argument from critics of religion, and the interesting part John Lennon is that he was a very spiritual man. Terry Mattingly wrote an article on Patheos where he argued that John Lennon was “’spiritual,’ but not ‘religious’ before that stance became all too common.”
He was not an atheist, but consider his life experiences with both countries and religion. He was born in Britain in the middle of World War II and, according to Robert Hart in an essay he wrote about Lennon, has some extremely early memories of the Nazis bombing Liverpool. That would be enough to be turned off to national conflicts without a doubt. Similarly, he was banned from his Anglican parish because he laughed during a religious service at a bad time according to Mattingly. When the Beatles came to America, they were met by mobs of largely Christian protesters telling them they were basically from the devil because of a quote taken out of context. Again, it is not surprising that someone with these experiences would distrust organized religion.
Out of this experience comes a man who thought that the world would be a better place without countries and religions. Rather than have these things that have historically caused a lot of the conflict we see in the world around us, he apparently believed that the costs outweighed the benefits.
Lennon never said that there is no type of higher power or no spiritual dimension to the world, and that seems to be consistent with his personal journey and experimentation with various types of faith. I would agree with Mattingly that Lennon truly was his generation’s representative of the “spiritual but not religious” community.
This song came to mind for me as I was reading The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau for one of my PhD classes. Rousseau was born in 1712 in Geneva, a Protestant stronghold with very strong Calvinist roots. He met and eventually fell in love with Louise de Warens, a Roman Catholic. As a result of his conversion, he had to forfeit his Genevan citizenship. Although he eventually did convert back to regain his citizenship in his native city, it is not hard to understand how he might not have had great feelings towards organized religion either.
In The Social Contract, Rousseau wrote many controversial things just like John Lennon did in “Imagine.” Among the most controversial, “Now that there is and can be no longer an exclusive national religion, tolerance should be given to all religions that tolerate others, so long as their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of citizenship. But whoever dares to say: Outside the Church is no salvation, ought to be driven from the State, unless the State is the Church, and the prince the pontiff.”
The alternative espoused by Rousseau was not to reject spirituality altogether. As you can tell in this quote, there was a place for religion in the civil state, but it could not be a religion that made any exclusive claims. Almost immediately before this controversial statement, Rousseau wrote, “It is impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned; to love them would be to hate God who punishes them: we positively must either reclaim or torment them.”
This is basically the same ideology of being “spiritual but not religious” a few hundred years earlier. It is okay to have your belief and to have some type of religion, but it better be a religion that doesn’t comment on the beliefs of others. We can agree that we are all spiritual just like Lennon, but we do not want these conflicts to cause any division. Your belief must not claim to be any truer than mine or, by Rousseau’s definition, it is intolerant. Tolerance and intolerance have been used many different ways over the years, but this seems to be the way Rousseau was using it in context, so we ought to understand his work in that way as well. Without this type of tolerance, Rousseau did not believe it was possible for society to survive (a claim that I don’t think is true, but I digress). Consequently, we need to have some kind of watered-down religion that we all can agree to, and that baseline is simply mere spirituality.
Both of these utopia-seeking models have been widely embraced in contemporary society because it does sound very comfortable on the surface. I can believe whatever I want, and you can believe whatever you want. I can seek out whatever spiritual path I want, and you can do the same. Our paths might be different, but mine is no truer than yours. Of course, there is common ground that we can come together on. Almost every religion in the history of the world would affirm that murder or theft is wrong for instance. These big issues are easy to agree on. This seems to be the mantra of those who say they are spiritual but not religious.
The problem is that theoretically I have the freedom to subscribe to a faith that makes exclusive claims if I am free to be spiritual. Again, spirituality or a belief in the supernatural in general is not frowned upon by really anyone except for the hard-core minority of the atheist community. Most people, atheist or not, seem to say, “If you want to follow a particular faith, no problem.” They might think that the supernatural is entirely made up, but most people believe that you should simply live and let live. Clearly by the spiritual exploration of John Lennon and the doctrine of tolerance espoused by Jean Jacques Rousseau, they have no problem with spirituality whatsoever. You can believe in a higher power without a doubt, but there is a problem with certain higher powers.
Those exclusive claims are the problem though, and one of two things is bound to happen. As argued by Rousseau, you have to drive these people who believe in exclusive truth out because we cannot have any disagreement or else society will fall apart due to these types of divisions. That sounds similar to what Lennon was saying as well. Obviously, he did not literally say to drive people out, but I don’t really know of any other way to have a world without organized religion. At the very least, he advocated for some type of society without religion.
The other, and better, option in my opinion is to have a discussion about what is true. Rather than get rid of religion altogether or create some kind of watered-down, least common denominator religion that everyone can partly affirm, let’s talk about the way the world is. Let’s talk about the claims that various religions make. In fact, let’s dialogue and figure out what worldview corresponds best with reality. If we are really trying to pursue Truth, just ignoring the fact that one religion might be true and automatically assuming that none of them are true or creating our own that everyone somewhat agrees to is not helpful. We’re not going to get any nearer to Truth by either of those two methods.
Perhaps none of them are true, but we are not going to figure that out by automatically assuming none of them are true. We need to do our homework to figure this out just like we do with any other field of knowledge. Scientists should not just assume certain things about the world; they should create an experiment to test a hypothesis. Economists shouldn’t just assume that the free market is good or bad; they should see what has happened in the world when this options has been tried and make conclusions from the evidence.
You all know I am a Christian, and I am convinced that Christianity is true. I believe that the Christian worldview is the worldview that corresponds most accurately with reality. Yes, people might disagree with me, and I know that those disagreements have created problems in the past. People have gotten violent over many religious issues in the history of the world. I would not be intellectually honest if I did not admit that people have done terrible things claiming to do them in the name of Christ, and I think that just about any religion could say the same thing about people who have abused the name of their belief into something it is not really. People who do these evil things and commit atrocities even if they claim to be under the banner of Christianity are actually acting contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ Himself. There’s no denying the fact that people can claim to be Christians and do terrible things, but it is not especially surprising either for those of us who are Christians.
The Christian worldview affirms that we are fallen people living in a fallen world, and as a result, people are going to do bad things. It is simply the reality of the situation because of our sin nature. In fact, the Christian worldview teaches that we are never going to be perfect. We can get rid of religion or create our own religion, but that will not solve the problems of the heart that is deceitfully wicked. People are still people, and the problem is in the people rather than the external system.
The Christian worldview also offers a way to rise above this human tendency to fall into evil. The Christian worldview affirms that the Holy Spirit dwells within the believer and convicts him or her of wrongdoing. The Holy Spirit assists us in our work to become more and more like Jesus Christ. Do we still make mistakes? Obviously we do; if you have met me, the evidence is there. We all do things that are wrong, but there is hope that we can rise above the wrongs that occur in the world every day.
With the Holy Spirit in us, we can continue becoming more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. The Christian worldview doesn't only provide an answer, but it provides an answer that again seems to be consistent with reality. As people become more like Jesus Christ, the change is noticeable. Think about people like Chuck Colson who had such dramatic transformations.
Is a Christian worldview wrong on this point of human sinfulness or the hope of becoming more and more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ? I don’t think so and think the proof is rather obvious, but I want to have a discussion about that. I want to talk about whether or not Jesus Christ rose from the dead. At the end of the day, you and I might disagree, and we may be incredibly passionate about our own perspectives. However, in that situation, I would much prefer to have the opportunity to pursue Truth with you rather than get rid of religion as advocated by Lennon or pretend that we all agree to some type of shallow, insubstantial religion like Rousseau. Let’s talk and keep the discussion going to actually try and pursue truth rather than bail out.
 Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, 2nd ed., Vol. 1, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago; London; New Delhi; Paris; Seoul; Sydney; Taipei; Tokyo: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 439.