John Lennon was wrong … religion endures and is more important than ever

Rite & Reason: While separation of church and State is desirable and achievable, it would be a travesty to exclude voices of faith from our public square

The secularised, religionless world so memorably envisioned by John Lennon in his song Imagine was, as he himself suspected, just a dream.

It is surely ironic that as indifference to and disengagement from religion grows in Ireland, the need to understand religion — its politico-cultural significance, its enduring appeal for millions around the globe, and its role in society — is being increasingly recognised by academics, diplomats, government advisers and policymakers.

Some of the reasons for this reawakened interest may be negative — a reaction to the rise of radical Islam and, in particular, to the toxic embodiment of it in al-Qaeda, Isis, the Taliban, al-Shabaab and other groups with their cult of death.

There is no doubt that the terrible events of 9/11 brought about a new awareness of the sometimes toxic interplay between religion and politics — the reality of “political religion”.

The decline of religion, which was predicted by the seminal thinkers of the 19th century, has not come to pass. Not only that, but the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon highlighted the dark alliance between religion and violence and the significance of religion as a factor in global affairs.


In the largely secularised Europe, religion has been either pushed out altogether from the public square or largely marginalised where the formation of public policy is concerned. But there is a new urgency — driven largely by incomprehension but also by uncertainty and fear — to get to grips with the phenomenon of a religion-driven ideology.

What is becoming increasingly evident is that we live in a world where religion is very important; nearly every news bulletin is a reminder of this. In his preface to a collection of essays on global religions, Christopher Partridge, Professor of Contemporary Religion at University College Chester, emphasised the importance of religion today.

“In the small, complicated world of the 21st century, there is a widespread and growing awareness of the significance of religions and beliefs. Not only have religions contributed to the foundations of civilisations throughout history, but also they have directly influenced contemporary international relations and significant world events.”

This is true in 2023 to a degree that would have shocked the leading intellectuals of the Enlightenment, who believed they had sounded religion’s death knell. When Marx and Engels came to publish The Communist Manifesto in 1848 they were convinced that God had indeed been banished and religion would soon be redundant. In this respect at least, they couldn’t have been more wrong.

History has given us multiple examples of the role of “political religion”, some good, some morally repugnant. What are we to make, for instance, of a Pope signing a treaty in 1929 with a fascist dictator (Pius XI and Benito Mussolini in Rome) or the head of the Russian Orthodox Church publicly supporting a ruthless autocrat (Kirill I and Vladimir Putin in Moscow), following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?

The findings of the Pew Research Center, published in 2015 in a survey entitled The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections 2010-2050, should have dispelled any doubts about the growth of religion in the 21st century.

Pew is a widely respected non-partisan think tank based in Washington DC. It found in its survey that “over the next four decades Christians will remain the largest group in the world, but Islam will grow faster than any other major religion. If current trends continue, by 2050 the number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world.”

On the other hand, “atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion — though increasing in countries such as the United States and France — will make up a declining share of the world’s total population”.

The significance of this is that the secularised, religionless world so memorably envisioned by John Lennon in his song Imagine was, as he himself suspected, just a dream. Far from disappearing, religion is going to play an increasingly significant role in international relations, and in the decades ahead religion — especially “political religion” — will exercise a potent influence on world affairs.

That said, the great challenge for the future will be to discover how, in the words of the late Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of state, “we can do a better job of using religion to promote global civility”.

Religion at its best can reinforce the core values necessary for people from different cultures to live in some degree of harmony; the task is to find ways to make the most of that possibility.

While separation of church and State is desirable and achievable — the 1905 law in France, for instance — the separation of religion and politics is neither desirable nor achievable. It would be a travesty if religious voices were excluded from the public square.

  • TP O’Mahony’s latest book, The Politics of God: The Rise and Rise of Political Religion is published by Veritas