Wonder believes Lennon’s atheism led to his murder in 1980?

photos of Stevie Wonder and John Lennon
Stevie Wonder and John Lennon

I have wanted to avoid debunking Internet rumors and myths because it is a hard job to do but one I came across this past weekend hit close to home. I felt I needed to say something.

What happens is someone states something and part of the quote is then posted across the Internet without attribution and the average reader might think it is true without reading the complete context.

It’s different than what I do here. I try to get the context and I give the links to the full articles when I can.

Here is the “news” item I read this weekend that came from an interview with R&B singer Stevie Wonder:

“*As Thursday’s anniversary of John Lennon’s death approaches, Stevie Wonder says he was particularly emotional when the former Beatle was murdered on Dec. 8, 1980 by Mark David Chapman, but was not entirely surprised that it happened. Wonder had a bad feeling after hearing Lennon’s opening words in his anthem “Imagine,” which states, “Imagine there’s no heaven.” Contact Music quotes Wonder as saying: “After he died I couldn’t stop crying whenever I heard “Imagine” but I wasn’t surprised that he’d been shot. [Chapman] said he shot him because he said he didn’t believe in Jesus, and I remember when I heard ‘Imagine,’ I thought, ‘Somebody is not going to like that.'”

MUSIC BITS: Miles boxed set; Wonder on Lennon; Ying Yang remix/DVD set

The bit I quoted above is all that appeared in the various headline tools I use to gather info for this blog. There was no attribution and I tried to find where this quote came from if possible. When my first search failed to turn up the source I dismissed the whole bit. That and it wasn’t printed on any mainstream news site led me to dismiss it.

Then tonight I did find the source of the quote. The text appeared in an article on Stevie Wonder published on the Guardian newspaper website, in the UK, on 11/26/05. Here is the quote in context:

And then there is the misappropriation of religion. While Bush talks about having God on his side and Islamicists talk about jihad, Wonder says both take God’s name in vain. “People can’t say this is a holy war. The people suffered, while their leaders made the money from deals. We’re living in a mad world where people do mad crazy things. The God that I believe in doesn’t believe in bombing, and the Allah that I respect for Muslims doesn’t believe in terrorising innocent people.”

He says he was distraught when John Lennon was killed 25 years ago, but not shocked. Imagine, with its plea for a world without religion, always seemed a dangerous song to him. “After he died I couldn’t stop crying whenever I heard Imagine, but I wasn’t surprised that he’d been shot. The guy said he shot him because he said he didn’t believe in Jesus, and I remember when I heard Imagine, I thought, ‘Somebody’s not going to like that.’ ” Which of the great dead pop artists does he miss most? “My God!” He doesn’t know where to begin. “There’s John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Luther Vandross …” He considers Gaye’s despairing What’s Going On one of the greatest albums.

A sense of Wonder

Now that the quote is sourced and Wonder did make the comments, now I can debunk them.

First, John Lennon was not an Atheist. He may not have been a member of a mainstream church or religion but he did have Buddhist leanings and expressed some pantheist ideas about “God”.

“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with 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 and roll or Christianity.”

“I believe in God, but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us. I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It’s just that the translations have gone wrong.”

John Lennon

The song “Imagine” is a favorite song of mine and while the lyrics do talk about having no religion, no heaven, and no hell, the song is more a secular humanist hope for peace. Lennon felt and experienced the divisiveness of religion – the practice and although the song talks about no heaven or hell, it never once says there is no “God”.

As I said Lennon experienced first hand the divisiveness of religion. In 1966 he was quoted in a newspaper article that the Beatles had become more popular than Jesus to the youth of the time.

In its original context, the remark was part of a rather harmless lifestyle piece by Evening Standard reporter Maureen Cleave. She had spent the day Lennon, whom she described as “imperious, … unpredictable, indolent, disorganised, childish, vague, charming and quick-witted.” He took her on a tour of his mansion, talking about books and fame, and the gorilla suit he bought so he could drive around wearing it. When they reached the subject of religion, Lennon said, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. … We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first-rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”

John Lennon Proclaims Beatles “More Popular than Jesus” (March 4, 1966)

In context, his remarks follow his later beliefs including the song “Imagine”. Jesus and God are ok but religion is warped. In the States when his 1966 remarks were printed here, religious conservatives lost their minds. Beatles records were burned, concerts in the South canceled, radio stations in the South and Midwest stopped playing their records, and death threats were made against the band. Lennon and the band had to issue a “clarification” to try and lessen the damage. It was almost the exact same thing we witnessed that happened to the band The Dixie Chicks a couple years ago when the lead singer complained about President Bush being from their home state of Texas.

Some Beatles historians believe the incident was another reason the band stopped touring and stuck to studio albums for the rest of their career.

“Imagine”, while having provocative lyrics, didn’t cause the same storm of controversy when released in 1971. In fact it was the most successful single of Lennon’s solo work and is now a tribute to the man after his untimely murder in 1980. Some music critics believe it is because it is a soft and mellow song and not “in your face”. It could also be because when it was released the power of religious conservatives had waned.

Wonder’s contention that Lennon’s killer killed him because Lennon didn’t believe in Jesus just isn’t supported by the facts. In an interview given to reporter James R. Gaines for People Magazine in 1987, Mark David Chapman said:

“I remember I was praying to God [to keep me from killing Lennon] and I was also praying to the devil to give me the opportunity. ‘Cause I knew I would not have the strength on my own.”

Demons in his head “made” him shoot Lennon on December 8, 1980 outside Lennon’s home in New York. Chapman didn’t even consider killing Lennon until 1980.

He brought home books from the library on one subject after another. One of them was John Lennon: One Day at a Time by Anthony Fawcett. In it he read about Lennon’s life in New York. He was furious.

“He was angry that Lennon would preach love and peace but yet have millions,” Gloria told Gaines. He began to talk of going to New York.

And he began, he would tell Gaines in prison, to pray to Satan. “There were no candles, no incantations,” Gaines writes. “Just Mark, sitting naked, rocking back and forth at the controls of his stereo and tape recorder, splicing together his reasons for killing John Lennon from the lyrics of Beatles songs, the soundtrack of “The Wizard of Oz”, and quotations from The Catcher in the Rye.

Mark David Chapman: The Man Who Killed John Lennon

The song “Imagine” played no part in the reason for the murder.

Stevie Wonder is a great singer and I am a fan of most of his music, but sometimes even great people can say irrational things. John Lennon was murdered by a crazed person for no other reason than the killer happened to read a news story about him.

The lyrics to “Imagine” even seem more beyond reality since Lennon’s been gone and that’s too bad. The final words live with me everyday:

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 live as one.

Doug Written by:

Founder, editor and host of Secular Left - please be gentle

3 Comments

  1. DJB
    December 6, 2005

    Thanks for tracking down the context of the quote. It seemed like a pretty ignorant remark when I heard it. And it reminded me of a song Wonder recorded in the ’80s with Sheena Easton I think in which they sang about someone shooting the Beatles’s “lead guitarist.” I later learned that George better fit that description.

  2. JLR
    April 18, 2011

    "God is a concept by which we measure our pain"
    -John Lennon
    Yes he was an atheist.

  3. Dylan
    August 16, 2011

    I don't think he was an atheist (I am an atheist by the way). He really did have some spiritual leanings. I'd label him as pantheist or agnostic. He did believe in some form of spirit.

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