Religion and History


All the passages below are taken from the book, ”The Lessons of History”  by Will & Ariel Durant. It was published in 1968 and copyright renewed in 1996.


Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age. To the unhappy, the suffering, the bereaved, the old, it has brought supernatural comforts valued by millions of souls as more precious than any natural aid. It has helped parents and teachers to discipline the young. It has conferred meaning and dignity upon the lowliest existence, and through its sacraments has made for stability by transforming human covenants into solemn relationships with God. It has kept the poor (said Napoleon) from murdering the rich. For since the natural inequality of men dooms many of us to poverty or defeat, some supernatural hope may be the sole alternative to despair. Destroy that hope, and class war is intensified. Heaven and utopia are buckets in a well: when one goes down the other goes up; when religion declines Communism grows.

Religion does noy seem at first to have had any connection with morals. Apparently (for we are merely guessing, or echoing Petronius, who echoed Lucretius) "it was fear that first made the gods" 1---fear of hidden forces in the earth, rivers, oceans, trees, winds, and sky. Religion became the propitiatory worship of these forces through offerings, sacrifice, incantation, and prayer. Only when priests used these fears and rituals to support morality and law did religion become a force vital and rival to the state. It told the people that the local code of morals and laws had been dictated by the gods. It pictured the god Thoth giving laws to Menes for Egypt, the god Shamash giving Hammurabi a code for Babylonia, Yahveh giving the Ten Commandments and 613 precepts to Moses for the Jews, and the divine nymph Egeria giving Numa Pompilius laws for Rome. Pagan cults and Christian creeds proclaimed that earthly rulers were appointed and protected by the gods. Gratefully nearly ever state shared its lands and revenues with the priests.

Some recusants have doubted that religion ever promoted morality, since immorality has flourished even in ages of religious domination. Certainly sensuality, drunkenness, coarseness, greed, dishonesty, robbery, and violence existed in the Middle Ages; but probably the moral disorder born of half a millennium of barbarian invasion, war, economic devastation, and political disorganization would have been much worse without the moderating effect of the Christian ethic, priestly exhortations, saintly exemplars, and a calming, unifying ritual. The Roman Catholic Church labored to reduce slavery, family feuds, and national strife, to extend the intervals of truce and peace, and to replace trial by combat or ordeal with the judgments of established courts. It softened the penalties exacted by Roman or barbarian law, and vastly expanded the scope and organization of charity.

Though the Church served the state, it claimed to stand above all states, as morality should stand above power. It taught men that patriotism unchecked by a higher loyalty can be a tool of greed and crime. Over all the competing governments of Christendom it promulgated one moral law. Claiming divine origin and spiritual hegemony, the Church offered itself as an international court to which all rulers were to be morally responsible. The Emperor Henry IV recognized this claim by submitting to Pope Gregory VII at Canossa (1077); and a century later Innocent III raised the authority and prestige of the papacy to a height where it seemed that Gregory's ideal of a moral superstate had come to fulfillment.

The majestic dream broke under the attacks of nationalism, skepticism, and human frailty. The Church was manned with men, who often proved biased, venal, or extortionate. France grew in wealth and power, and made the papacy her political tool. Kings became strong enough to compel a pope to dissolve that Jesuit order which had so devotedly supported the popes. The Church stooped to fraud, as with pious legends, bogus relics, and dubious miracles; for centuries it profited from a mythical "Donation of Constantine" that had allegedly bequeathed Western Europe to Pope Sylvester I (r. 3I4-35), and from "False Decretals" (c. 842) that forged a series of documents to give a sacred antiquity to papal omnipotence.2 More and more the hierarchy spent its energies in promoting orthodoxy rather than morality, and the Inquisition almost fatally disgraced the Church. Even while preaching peace the Church fomented religious wars in sixteenth-century France and the Thirty Years' War in seventeenth-century Germany. It played only a modest part in the outstanding advance of modern morality---the abolition of slavery. It allowed the philosophers to take the lead in the humanitarian movements that have alleviated the evils of our time.

History has justified the Church in the belief that the masses of mankind desire a religion rich in miracle, mystery, and myth. Some minor modifications have been allowed in ritual, in ecclesiastical costume, and in episcopal authority; but the Church dares not alter the doctrines that reason smiles at, for such changes would offend and disillusion the millions whose hopes have been tied to inspiring and consolatory imaginations. No reconciliation is possible between religion and philosophy except through the philosophers' recognition that they have found no substitute for the moral function of the Church, and the ecclesiastical recognition of religious and intellectual freedom.

Does history support a belief in God? If by God we mean not the creative vitality of nature but a supreme being intelligent and benevolent, the answer must be a reluctant negative. Like other departments of biology, history remains at bottom a natural selection of the fittest individuals and groups in a struggle wherein goodness receives no favors, misfortunes abound, and the final test is the ability to survive. Add to the crimes, wars, and cruelties of man the earthquakes, storms, tornadoes, pestilences, tidal waves, and other "acts of God" that periodically desolate human and animal life, and the total evidence suggests either a blind or an impartial fatality, with incidental and apparently haphazard scenes to which we subjectively ascribe order, splendor, beauty, or sublimity. If history supports any theology this would be a dualism like the Zoroastrian or Manichaean: a good spirit and an evil spirit battling for control of the universe and men's souls. These faiths and Christianity (which is essentially Manichaean) assured their followers that the good spirit would win in the end; but of this consummation history offers no guarantee. Nature and history do not agree with our conceptions of good and bad; they define good as that which survives, and bad as that which goes under; and the universe has no prejudice in favor of Christ as against Genghis Khan.

The growing awareness of man's minuscule place in the cosmos has furthered the impairment of religious belief. In Christendom we may date the beginning of the decline from Copernicus (1543). The process was slow, but by 161I John Donne was mourning that the earth had become a mere "suburb" in the world, and that "new philosophy calls all in doubt"; and Francis Bacon, while tipping his hat occasionally to the bishops, was proclaiming science as the religion of modern emancipated man. In that generation began the "death of God" as an external deity.

So great an effect required many causes besides the spread of science and historical knowledge. First, the Protestant Reformation, which originally defended private judgment. Then the multitude of Protestant sects and conflicting theologies, each appealing to both Scriptures and reason. Then the higher criticism of the Bible, displaying that marvelous library as the imperfect work of fallible men. Then the deistic movement in England, reducing religion to a vague belief in a God hardly distinguishable from nature. Then the growing acquaintance with other religions, whose myths, many of them pre-Christian, were distressingly similar to the supposedly factual bases of one's inherited creed. Then the Protestant exposure of Catholic miracles, the deistic exposure of Biblical miracles, the general exposure of frauds, inquisitions, and massacres in the history of religion. Then the replacement of agriculture---which had stirred men to faith by the annual rebirth of life and the mystery of growth with industry, humming daily a litany of machines, and suggesting a world machine. Add meanwhile the bold advance of skeptical scholarship, as in Bayle, and of pantheistic philosophy, as in Spinoza; the massive attack of the French Enlightenment upon Christianity; the revolt of Paris against the Church during the French Revolution. Add, in our own time, the indiscriminate slaughter of civilian populations in modern war. Finally, the awesome triumphs of scientific technology, promising man omnipotence and destruction, and challenging the divine command of the skies.

In one way Christianity lent a hand against itself by developing in many Christians a moral sense that could no longer stomach the vengeful God of the traditional theology. The idea of hell disappeared from educated thought, even from pulpit homilies. Presbyterians became ashamed of the Westminster Confession, which had pledged them to belief in a God who had created billions of men and women despite his foreknowledge that, regardless of their virtues and crimes, they were predestined to everlasting hell. Educated Christians visiting the Sistine Chapel were shocked by Michelangelo's picture of Christ hurling offenders pell-mell into an inferno whose fires were never to be extinguished; was this the "gentle Jesus, meek and mild," who had inspired our youth? Just as the moral development of the Hellenes had weakened their belief in the quarrelsome and adulterous deities of Olympus ("A certain proportion of mankind," wrote Plato, "do not believe at all in the existence of the gods." 3), so the development of the Christian ethic slowly eroded Christian theology. Christ destroyed Jehovah.

The replacement of Christian with secular institutions is the culminating and critical result of the Industrial Revolution. That states should attempt to dispense with theological supports is one of the many crucial experiments that bewilder our brains and unsettle our ways today. Laws which were once presented as the decrees of a god-given king are now frankly the confused commands of fallible men. Education, which was the sacred province of god-inspired priests, becomes the task of men and women shorn of theological robes and awe, and relying on reason and persuasion to civilize young rebels who fear only the policeman and may never learn to reason at all. Colleges once allied to churches have been captured by businessmen and scientists. The propaganda of patriotism, capitalism, or Communism succeeds to the inculcation of a supernatural creed and moral code. Holydays give way to holidays. Theaters are full even on Sundays, and even on Sundays churches are half empty. In Anglo-Saxon families religion has become a social observance and protective coloration; in American Catholic families it flourishes; in upper- and middle-class France and Italy religion is "a secondary sexual characteristic of the female." A thousand signs proclaim that Christianity is undergoing the same decline that fell upon the old Greek religion after the coming of the Sophists and the Greek Enlightenment.

Catholicism survives because it appeals to imagination, hope, and the senses; because its mythology consoles and brightens the lives of the poor; and because the commanded fertility of the faithful slowly regains the lands lost to the Reformation. Catholicism has sacrificed the adherence of the intellectual community, and suffers increasing defections through contact with secular education and literature; but it wins converts from souls wearied with the uncertainty of reason, and from others hopeful that the Church will stem internal disorder and the Communist wave.

If another great war should devastate Western civilization, the resultant destruction of cities, the dissemination of poverty, and the disgrace of science may leave the Church, as in A.D. 476, the sole hope and guide of those who survive the cataclysm.

One lesson of history is that religion has many lives, and a habit of resurrection. How often in the past have God and religion died and been reborn! Ikhnaton used all the powers of a pharaoh to destroy the religion of Amon; within a year of Ikhnaton's death the religion of Amon was restored.4 Atheism ran wild in the India of Buddha's youth, and Buddha himself founded a religion without a god; after his death Buddhism developed a complex theology including gods, saints, and hell.5 Philosophy, science, and education depopulated the Hellenic pantheon, but the vacuum attracted a dozen Oriental faiths rich in resurrection myths. In I793 Hebert and Chaumette, wrongly interpreting Voltaire, established in Paris the atheistic worship of the Goddess of Reason; a year later Robespierre, fearing chaos and inspired by Rousseau, set up the worship of the Supreme Being; in 1801 Napoleon, versed in history, signed a concordat with Plus VII, restoring the Catholic Church in France. The irreligion of eighteenth-century England disappeared under the Victorian compromise with Christianity: the state agreed to support the Anglican Church, and the educated classes would muffle their skepticism, on the tacit understanding that the Church would accept subordination to the state, and the parson would humbly serve the squire. In America the rationalism of the Founding Fathers gave place to a religious revival in the nineteenth century.

Puritanism and paganism---the repression and the expression of the senses and desires---alternate in mutual reaction in history. Generally religion and puritanism prevail in periods when the laws are feeble and morals must bear the burden of maintaining social order; skepticism and paganism (other factors being equal) progress as the rising power of law and government permits the decline of the church, the family, and morality without basically endangering the stability of the state. In our time the strength of the state has united with the several forces listed above to relax faith and morals, and to allow paganism to resume its natural sway. Probably our excesses will bring another reaction; moral disorder may generate a religious revival; atheists may again (as in France after the debacle of 1870) send their children to Catholic schools to give them the discipline of religious belief. Hear the appeal of the agnostic Renan in I866:


Let us enjoy the liberty of the sons of God, but let us take care lest we become accomplices in the diminution of virtue which would menace society if Christianity were to grow weak. What should we do without it? ... If Rationalism wishes to govern the world without regard to the religious needs of the soul, the experience of the French Revolution is there to teach us the consequences of such a blunder.6


Does history warrant Renan's conclusion that religion is necessary to morality---that a natural ethic is too weak to withstand the savagery that lurks under civilization and emerges in our dreams, crimes, and wars? Joseph de Maistre answered: "I do not know what the heart of a rascal may be; I know what is in the heart of an honest man; it is horrible."7 There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion. France, the United States, and some other nations have divorced their governments from all churches, but they have had the help of religion in keeping social order. Only a few Communist states have not merely dissociated themselves from religion but have repudiated its aid; and perhaps the apparent and provisional success of this experiment in Russia owes much to the temporary acceptance of Communism as the religion (or, as skeptics would say, the opium) of the people, replacing the church as the vendor of comfort and hope. If the socialist regime should fail in its efforts to destroy relative poverty among the masses, this new religion may lose its fervor and efficacy, and the state may wink at the restoration of supernatural beliefs as an aid in quieting discontent. "As long as there is poverty there will be gods."8



  1. Caesar and Christ, 296-97
  2. The Age of Faith, 525-26
  3. Plato, Laws, No.948
  4. Our Oriental Heritage, 205-13
  5. Ibid., 416-19, 434, 504
  6. Renan, The Apostles, xxxiii
  7. Lemaitre, Jean Jacques Rousseau, 9
  8. Durant, The Mansions of Philosophy, 568