To say that Will Durant and his wife, Ariel, were prolific writers of history would be like saying that turkey is eaten on Thanksgiving or people shoot fireworks on the Fourth of July. The Durants are best known for their monumental eleven volume work, The Story of Civilization. The series was written over four decades and has sold millions of copies, been translated into many different languages and one of the volumes, Rousseau and Revolution, won a Pulitzer Prize.
After they had completed ten of the volumes, the Durant’s wrote a brief series of essays called The Lessons of History. As the title suggests, the intent of this little book was to sum up what had been learned in their decades of research and writing. They hoped to “illuminate present affairs, future probabilities, the nature of man, and the conduct of states.” While there is much in the book that is quote worthy, I want to share two passages where they discuss the importance of faith. In a section entitled Religion and History they write:
There is no significant example in history . . . of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion . . . some other nations have divorced their governments from all churches, but they had the help if religion in keeping social order.
In the last section of the book, called Is “Progress Real?,” they return to this theme.
We frolic in our emancipation from theology, but have we developed a natural ethic—a moral code independent of religion—strong enough to keep our instincts of acquisition, pugnacity, and sex from debasing our civilization into a mire of greed, crime, and promiscuity?
If the answer to this question was “No,” in 1968 (the year TLOH was published), 50 plus years have done nothing but reinforce such a conclusion. As our nation has moved away from faith there has been a corresponding rise in social ills.
It’s worth nothing that the Durants were not religious people. Will had plans at one time of entering the priesthood, but he abandoned those when he left during his seminary training. The Durants’ conclusions are not those of people of faith, but rather historians.
We hear much these days about the evils of religion from people like Sam Harris. No one disputes that there have been evil actions, people, and even extremist movements. But that is not the same thing as saying that religion itself is evil. Moreover, such a position fails to account for all of the hospitals, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, children’s’ homes, treatment centers, and other good things that have been built in the name of Christ. When you look at the big picture, Sam Harris is wrong and the Durants are right. Faith is a good thing that benefits not just those who profess it, but all of society.