Thoughts on a World With No Religion

The Creation of Adam (1512) by Michelangelo.

In an episode of Family Guy (“Road to the Multiverse”), Stewie and Brian go into a parallel universe where Christianity never existed. Because Christianity and its attending superstitions never existed in this alternate universe, the gag runs, civilization was able to progress more rapidly, so when Stewie and Brian arrive they’re surrounded by the wonders of futuristic technology far beyond the technology of their own time.

We’ll ignore for now the fact that the Catholic Church was the leading institution of medieval Europe in preserving and perpetuating art, science, literature, history, philosophy, technology, etc. The point of the joke in Family Guy is to image what the world would be like without religion. Now, being a silly animated TV show, I give Family Guy the respect it deserves in provoking deep contemplative thought or recapturing historical reality.  But it is interesting to notice that, like John Lennon before him, Seth MacFarlane has, albeit comically, whipped up an imaginary scenario in which religion, or at least Christianity, never existed. Being an atheist, it shouldn’t come as a surprise the direction MacFarlane took this scenario in the episode.

Seth Adam Smith has a blog post on what he thinks would be the negative consequences that would attended a hypothetical world without religion. “If we are to do away with religion,” Seth observes, “we must—out of fairness—erase all of the good which it has inspired.”

Many of the great, classic works of art, inspired the writings of religion, would vanish. Think about it: the religious artwork of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Botticelli, and countless other Masters—gone. Powerful hymns, carols, and moving oratorios would be forever silenced. The writings of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Dickens, Tennyson, Melville, Blake, Milton, Hardy, and Lewis would be gutted—stripped of passages influenced by religion.

This is just one part of Seth’s post, but it’s a point that has been raised before. Here is Dan Peterson writing in 2007.

“The loss of faith,” [Christopher] Hitchens says, “can be compensated by the newer and finer wonders that we have before us, as well as by immersion in the near-­miraculous work of Homer and Shakespeare and Mil­ton and Tolstoy and Proust, all of which was also ‘manmade’ ”. . . . But what is Homer without religion? What do you make of his story of the Trojan War, or of the wanderings of Odysseus, without the gods? You lose about half of the narrative right there. And Tolstoy without religion? He would have been shocked by that. But the one that re­ally gets me is Milton without religion. . . . But imagine Dante without religion! I have tried to imagine Chau­cer’s Canterbury Tales without religion. It is a story about pilgrims; but, absent religion, pilgrimage to what? Where are they going? Imagine a world without Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, without Handel’s Messiah, without Mozart’s Requiem, without Igor Stravinsky, without John Tavener, without John Coltrane—heck, even without Brian Wilson. Without cathedrals. Without the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. I mean, it’s all gone. You cannot imagine that you can just get rid of all the bad parts of religion and you are still going to have all the good things. All of it has to go. What are you left with? Instead of the cathedral of Chartres maybe a Quonset hut, something purely functional.

(Daniel C. Peterson, “Editor’s Introduction: God and Mr. Hitchens,” FARMS Review 19/2 [2007]: xxvi–xxvii. Link here.)

Ironically, this same point is acknowledged in the episode of Family Guy referenced above. When at one point in the episode Stewie and Brian enter the Sistine Chapel, they look up to see Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam replaced with pictures of Jodie Foster.

For this post I’d like to add a few more examples to Dan and Seth’s respective lists.

The writings of Germany’s Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (whom I have blogged about before), are saturated with religious themes and imagery. Now, Goethe was not an orthodox believer by any stretch of the imagination, but he was a believer. Even so, one cannot miss the religious (especially Christian) imagery in his works.

Consider his two masterpieces (and two of my favorite books ever) that bookended his career: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774) and Faust (1808, then revised and completed in 1832). Both works are explicitly religious. Here, for example, are some of Werther’s last words to his beloved Lotte before he takes his life.

Du bist von diesem Augenblicke mein! Mein, o Lotte! Ich gehe voran! Gehe zu meinem Vater, zu deinem Vater. Dem will ich’s klagen, und er wird mich trösten, bis du kommst, und ich fliege dir entgegen und fasse dich und bleibe bei dir vor dem Angesichte des Unendlichen in ewigen Umarmungen. Ich träume nicht, ich wähne nicht! Nahe am Grabe wird mir es heller. Wir werden sein! Wir werden uns wieder sehen!

[You are, from this moment, mine! O Lotte! I’ll go ahead; to my father, and to your father. To him will I petition, and he will comfort me, until you come, and I fly to you and hold you and stay with you before the presence of the Infinite in eternal embrace. I am not dreaming, and I am not crazy! Near the grave is everything clear to me. We will be together! We will see each other again!]

This is just one such example of the explicate (and beautiful) religious themes in Werther. (Don’t miss the allusion to John 20:17.) I could produce more, but this one’s my favorite, and should suffice for my present purposes.

What about Faust? Well, it’d be rather gratuitous of me to reproduce examples of religious imagery from that work, don’t you think? I mean, the prologue, in a explicate nod to the book of Job, takes place in the divine council as God, surrounded by his angels, and Mephistopheles wager over Faust’s fate, and the entire second half of the drama is Faust’s apotheosis and redemption.

But how does Friedrich Schiller, Goethe’s partner-in-crime in the Sturm und Drang movement (and whom I’ve also blogged about), fair if religion wasn’t around to in some way inspire his poetry? Here are the first and last stanzas of his most famous poem “Ode an die Freude.” (You know, the one Beethoven used as the text for the final movement of his 9th Symphony.)

Freude schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

[Joy! Beautiful spark of the Gods!
Daughter of Elysium,
We’re intoxicated with fire,
Heavenly, thy Holiness!
Your magic binds again,
that which custom had terribly severed;
All men will be brothers,
over whom your soft wings flow.]

Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt
Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muß er wohnen.

[Be embraced, ye millions!
This kiss for the entire world!
Brothers, over the starry canopy,
must dwell a loving Father.
Do you fall to worship, ye millions?
Do you recognize your Creator, world?
Search for Him over the starry canopy!
Over the stars he surely dwells!]

Certainly there are those who, unfortunately, have used religion as an excuse to cause suffering and hinder progress. I would not hesitate to decry the bane of such blind (and sometimes dangerous) religious fundamentalism. But to say that the world would inherently be a better place without religion altogether? Well, I remain deeply skeptical of that claim.