Saturday, February 27, 2010

Atheist Manifesto

Music and Religion Part 1:
John Lennon and 'God'

The success of the recent wave of atheistic books by writers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens suggests that a vast number of non-believers are mighty tired of having religion stuffed down their throats.

Though the United States remains a Christian nation, it’s estimated that 12% of the American electorate - or 15 million voters - identify themselves as nonbelievers.  As a potential lobby group atheists thus outnumber Latinos (9%), Gays (4%), Jews (2%), and also match the number of African Americans (13%).

I wonder how John Lennon would have reacted to this development. It's more than forty years since he predicted, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink,” igniting uproar among American fundamentalists which led to the burning of Beatles records and death threats which influenced the group’s decision to stop touring.

Throughout the Beatle years Lennon took a keen interest in religion. His fascination with Tibetan Buddhism and esoteric texts inspired fab classics such as Tomorrow Never Knows and - combined with his prodigious intake of LSD and canonization by fans - led to some bewildering episodes such as the famous occasion in 1968 when he called an emergency Apple board meeting to announce to his inner circle that he was Jesus Christ.

Luckily by the end of the sixties Lennon had kicked acid and got his philosophical act together. His new-found clarity inspired him to demolish sacred cows such as religion, celebrity and societal control on his remarkable first solo LP,  John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.

Far and away the best album recorded by any ex-Beatle, it's a complete artistic statement, a self-defining existentialist manifesto which strips away all attachment to leaders, heroes and to god as a coping mechanism.

The centerpiece of the album is the cataclysmic masterpiece God in which Lennon emphatically refutes mysticism and superstition. Partly inspired by the shocking experience of Primal Scream therapy which confronted Lennon with the pain of his own childhood and fame, it shows the star in the process of dissolving what Arthur Janov terms the “God-trip or father figure trip.”

The song's opening declaration, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” describes Lennon's personal revelation and recalls Marx’s assertion that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature.” It’s followed by a stunning disavowal of personal, political and religious icons: “I don't believe in Jesus, Buddha, Kennedy, Zimmerman...”

God had a huge impact on me when I first heard it at the tender age of 14. Indeed, the roots of my own journey toward secular humanism lie in this amazing song. Its presentation of the deity as a concept rather than an entity immediately made sense and contextualized the religious doubts I had been experiencing as a teenager.

Interestingly, just as Lennon was coming out as an atheist, George Harrison was doing the exact opposite, topping the charts worldwide with his devotional ditty My Sweet Lord and donating a fortune to the “elementary penguin” Hare Krishnas.

Though Harrison’s Hinduism was generous and compassionate, he saw the actual world as an illusion and believed in reincarnation as a fact. His literal belief in such matters recalls James Lett’s assertion in his Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook (1977), that “Irrationality is...the defining element in religion.”

I can testify to this since in my daily life I’m constantly meeting individuals - many of them well-educated - who maintain a belief in paranormal phenomena even though such propositions have been convincingly falsified by more than a century of intensive research which is thoroughly documented and freely available to inquiring minds.

Paranormal propositions such as the Judeo-Christian assertion that “God” exists are nonfalsifiable therefore propositionally meaningless. Others - such as the Judeo-Christian proposition that the earth is 6,000 years old or that half a million Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years without leaving any archaeological trace - are falsifiable and indeed have been disproved by objective study.

But believers don’t want to know.  In order to maintain their trust in an inherited set of illogical wish-fulfillment fantasies, they must ignore the mountain of contradictory evidence which stands before them.

To my considerable bemusement, grown men and women believe implicitly in the talking snake, the burning bush and the virgin birth. They pray to an imaginary friend and refuse point blank to accept that creation stories, angels and resurrections are mythological symbols with their roots in the collective unconscious.

The fact that the Bible's anthology of myths and ethnocentrism offers nothing which could not have been written by a patriarchal collective of superstitious Iron Age tribal elders doesn't bother them in the least.

It’s interesting and rather disappointing that, a mere seven years after the release of his atheist manifesto, John Lennon had relapsed into a superstitious mindset.

In 1977 Lennon briefly flirted with born-again Christianity through a series of contacts with televangelist Oral Roberts, who claimed to have had a vision of a 900-foot-tall Jesus telling him to build a research center. He also announced during a TV fundraising drive that unless he raised $8 million, God would "call him home.” Scandals persisted through the 1980s as fraudulent healing practices were exposed in Roberts’ medical centers.

During 'the Dakota years' preceding his assassination in 1980, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono developed a credulous attachment to witches, astrology and numerology which helped them hire domestic staff - including the assistant who stole Lennon's personal diaries - yet failed to predict the murderous insanity of born-again Christian Mark David Chapman.

Such irrationality demonstrates how the rich and talented are as susceptible to kooky nonsense as anyone, but also that we must constantly be on our guard against self-deception and delusional thinking. Our sanity - even our lives - might depend on it.

Listen: John Ono Lennon: 'God'

Friday, February 12, 2010

Inspirational Everyman

Live: Goldie (Drum and bass)
Triangle, Osaka, Japan

During its twenty-year history, no artist has done more to spread the gospel of drum and bass than Goldie. From his beginnings as a talented breakdancer and graffiti artist to his groundbreaking productions - including a drum and bass symphony inspired by Polish modernist composer Gorecki - he is constantly evolving and never less than intriguing. 

Among many collaborations, Goldie has worked with David Bowie, Noel Gallagher and KRS-One. He has even found success as an actor and TV presenter,  including one of my favorite Goldie moments - his hilarious documentary about bacon and eggs!

But tonight we are here for the music, and Osaka’s Triangle Club is packed with the friendly party animals who are typical of the drum and bass crowd, and who respond to its edgy message of emotional release and community.

Goldie comes on at 2.30 and delivers a superbly paced set which blends the usual frenetic beats - perfect for a chaotic melee down the front  - with blissfully chilled out interludes. The audience is appropriately outta control, bouncing and careering all over the place. This is as close to techno nirvana as you are gonna get.

When his set is over Goldie steps into the crowd to receive homage from his groove posse. Famously good-natured, he has endeared himself to his fans through his indomitability, rootsy optimism and enthusiasm. Squealing with excitement, cute Japanese girls kiss and embrace him and even we two grown-up kids get to hug and chat with the great man.

When he finds out we are from Kyoto, he tells us he’ll be dj-ing there tomorrow. In fact he’s been misinformed and he’ll be in Tottori before heading to Tokyo. As we’re talking I’m thinking “Whoah, this guy has dated Bjork and Naomi Campbell.” Nevertheless he’s one of the most likeable, genuine ‘celebrities’ I’ve met and a truly inspirational everyman.

Video: Goldie Interview