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.
If we proceed to eliminate all religiosity beyond Judaism and Christianity as well, we also lose the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán, Beijing's Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven, Angkor Wat, the temples and pyramids of Egypt, the Parthenon, the Pantheon, the Dome of the Rock, the Blue Mosque of Istanbul, the Taj Mahal, the Yungang Grottoes in China, and the Kinkakuji and Kiyomizudera temples of Kyoto. We do without Rumi, the Ramayana, the Bhagavad Gita, the Rig Veda, Hesiod's "Theogony" and the Norse Eddas.
Further specimens could be cited by the thousands. (Feel free to compile your own list.)
Would great art, literature, music and architecture have been created without religious inspiration? Would Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce and other reformers have been impelled to do what they did without religious beliefs?
Maybe.40 comments on this story
The nearly seven decades since the end of World War II have been the most secular in human history. Have they produced exceptional literary, artistic and musical masterpieces?
The jury is still out on that.
What secular event could be more inspiring than the moon landing? What could be more powerfully tragic than the attacks of 9/11? Have they produced great drama, poetry, music or art?
It plainly requires faith, even from an atheist's perspective, to believe that a world without religion would be an unmixed blessing.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of outreach for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org.