Without religion, so much beauty would be lost

By Dan Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Sept. 22 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

In this April 16, 2005 file photo, tables and chairs line the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in preparation for the conclave.

Associated Press file photo

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Atheists often tell us how wonderful the world would be without religion. John Lennon advised us to:

Imagine there's no Heaven.

It's easy if you try.

No hell below us,

Above us only sky.

Imagine all the people

Living for today.

Imagine there's no countries.

It isn't hard to do.

Nothing to kill or die for,

And no religion, too.

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace.

You may say that I'm a dreamer,

But I'm not the only one.

I hope someday you'll join us

And the world will be as one.

It's doubtful that even most so-called religious wars have been primarily about religion, and that an entirely faithless society would be a utopia. But if we're supposed to "imagine" all the glorious things awaiting us if we'll just abandon belief in God, perhaps we should also consider for a few moments what would have been lost, or transformed beyond recognition, without religion. Some examples:

In music, we would be without Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," Schubert's "Mass in G," Mozart's "Requiem," Vivaldi's "Gloria," Wagner's "Parzifal" and Handel's "Messiah." We'd have neither the musical compositions of John Tavener and Arvo Part nor the choral music of John Rutter. (For that matter, there wouldn't be many choirs.) Nor would we have gospel music.

Dante's "Divine Comedy"? Erased. Likewise, Milton's "Paradise Lost," Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and Goethe's "Faust" would be gone, as would the Arthurian legends. No psalms, no book of Isaiah, no 1 Corinthians 13, no King James Bible, no Luther Bible. We couldn't read Shusako Endo's "Silence," most poems of T.S. Eliot, the novels of G.K. Chesterton and Dostoevsky, or the writings of C.S. Lewis. There would be no Augustine, no Aquinas, no Kierkegaard. "Les Misérables" would make no sense. Lincoln's majestic "Second Inaugural Address" would be unthinkable.

There would be no Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, or Yale, and, given the history of higher education, perhaps no colleges or universities at all.

Art history would be thoroughly revised. Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling, "David" and "Pieta"? Gone. Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper"? Never painted. Bernini's "St. Teresa in Ecstasy"? Never sculpted. Westminster Abbey? St. Paul's Cathedral? The cathedrals of Chartres, Salisbury and Notre Dame? Norway's stave churches? St. Basil's Cathedral? Istanbul's Hagia Sophia? The Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna? All gone. Makoto Fujimura's "The Four Holy Gospels"? Many of the works of Albrecht Dürer? Invisible. Rio de Janeiro's statue of "Christ the Redeemer"? Vanished.

Landmark films like Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" and "Ordet," Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," Joffé's "The Mission" and even "Ben Hur" would never have been created.

The American civil rights movement, the British anti-slavery campaign and the Underground Railroad would be unrecognizable without their evangelical flavor. Martin Luther King couldn't have given his "I have a dream" speech. There would be no "just war" theory, no concept of "natural law." Florence Nightingale probably wouldn't have founded professional nursing, and hundreds of hospitals wouldn't exist.

And, thus far, we've been considering only the Judeo-Christian tradition.

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