I just finished watching Religulous starring Bill Maher, and I started to consider whether or not the world would be a better place without religion. Bill Maher is pretty adamant that it would, and he cites the violence, intolerance, and ignorance that has been perpetrated and perpetuated by organized religion over the thousands of years it has been in existence. John Lennon asks us that same question by telling us to imagine a world with no religion, citing the same examples of using religion as an excuse to kill or die for.

So let us do exactly that.

I’m going to follow the main complaints by Bill Maher because I just watched the movie and his points are still fresh in my mind. The first of Bill Maher’s gripes is the biggest problem and that is the over-zealousness leading to violence. I don’t believe religion is the cause of people being violent in defense of, or as an attack of, their belief. If you disagree, look at European soccer hooligans, or Guns’n’Roses fans who would riot when Axl Rose doesn’t show up to perform in Vancouver. People will always latch on to something that they hold dear, and lash out irrationally at things that do not coincide with their belief set. Xenophobia, competitiveness, and mob-mentality extend far beyond the realm of religiousness.

One might argue that the scale in which violence accumulated around religious ideologies is vastly greater than a soccer riot or a bar fight over which is the hottest Charlie’s Angel. Well it’s true, but we’re imagining a world without religion, and if that were the case, people would obsess over something else in order to beat up somebody who doesn’t agree with them. It might be nationalism, which even today bears a striking resemblance to religious zealotry in some instances. However, if we are starting right from the beginning of humanity’s existence, then I believe that we, as a species, would have come up with an alternative to divine leadership. Religion is life philosophy with stories to go with it, so perhaps people would, in lieu of following the doctrine given from on high, follow particular philosophers with whom they happen to agree.

Followers of Immanuel Kant might hold their own inquisition over followers of Aristotle, completing forgetting that the Categorical Imperative forbids them from doing exactly that.

One might also argue that religion preaches intolerance and ignorance. Bill Maher argues the treatment of homosexuals as a point against religion. Using the previous example of followers of philosophers in our world without religion, those following Renée Descartes might be seen as monstrous in modern society, based on their views surrounding the treatment of animals as unfeeling machines. People would have to understand that these philosophies were written in different social circumstances, and what may have been permissible in Renée Descartes’ time might not stand against current, presumably more civilized, social standards.

If you don’t believe me that people would pollute the ideals put forth by the Categorical Imperative, or would cling to dated social norms for the sake of tradition, then you simply have to look at modern day religion, where people commit violence in the name of peace, and hinder social progress with a regressive mindset.

If you don’t believe me that people would adopt alternative philosophies in lieu of religious ones, then, if you believe that the world would be a better place without religion, you likely believe religion to be a man-made construct. If that is the case, then why would humanity create religion if people did not require some form of philosophy, spiritual or otherwise, to guide their lifestyles? If you are religious, then it might be tougher to imagine a world without religion, but think of it like this: people would have their faith, but nowhere to place it save for other, non-religious ideologies that they would cling to just as strongly.

People require faith. Americans have faith in America; optimists have faith that the world will get better; atheists have faith that there is no divinity outside of the empirical realm. Faith is believing something when there is no proof. It is completely irrational, making the only reasonable religious outlook agnosticism, but humanity is not a reasonable species, so we as a species would invariably have come up with some way of guiding our lives, be it religious or otherwise. To quote Voltaire, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.”

Another problem Bill Maher had with religion was the “silly” stories that go along with them. I apologize to those who would take offense to having their scripture referred to as silly, but in regards to a virgin birth, a talking burning bush, and various other stories, one can safely say that by today’s standards of sanity, these would not fly as actual events. I’m also sorry for sticking strictly to western traditions, but they are the ones Bill Maher is complaining about and the ones that seem to be in the news all the time, so my mind is somewhat western-centric right now.

Anyway, Bill Maher believed that these stories were somehow dumbing down the population who believed in them, so let’s go back to our world without religion. Let’s look at a completely non-religious story, say the cautionary tale of Hansel and Gretel, two German children who have a penchant for winding up in an oven after trying to eat a house. This teaches us all about not eating candy you find in the woods, and instead of having biblical tales to teach us morality, we might adopt something similar to this one. Let’s presume for a minute that a long time ago, German parents and authoritative figures would tell children that this story was true, in order to keep them from going out into the woods and eating candy they find there, which no good parent would ever allow their child to do. Let’s say that these children were never told that this story was false, and when they grew up, they still believed this story was true, because people in authority would consistently enforce its legitimacy. They would likely continue to believe this story to be true, and would tell their children that it was true, and enforce that belief in them as well. They might think in the back of their minds that it doesn’t quite match up with their logic and reason, but it doesn’t really occur to them because it is a comfortable story they grew up with, everyone else seems to believe it to be true, they are told that it is true, so why would it be false? It’s not that these people are stupid; it’s that they have been taught a certain way, and their beliefs reflect that teaching.

Later on in that family’s genealogical line, someone might believe they have found themselves a witch, and throw her in an oven in order to garner some form of justice for poor Hansel and Gretel. By this point, people would be so indoctrinated into believing the story, that they would forget what it was initially intended for, which was a cautionary tale about not eating candy you find in the woods.

Basically, my point is shut up Bill Maher; your movie was only okay. Preaching intolerance and telling people to rise up against the religious is the same thing as calling for another inquisition. It is turning non-religion into a religion, and adopts all of the wrong things without any of the goodwill or faith. It would be nice if people would stop killing each other over their differing beliefs, sure, but it is difficult to blame the religious catalyst that sparks these battles, for, if religion were non-existent, humanity would simply find another excuse to hate, fear, and kill.