21 Lessons for the 21st Century a critical review
Another astonishing and brilliant book from Yuval Noah Harari. From a lesser public intellectual his title might be considered a touch hubristic. But Harari’s credentials, following the world-wide success of Sapiens and Homo Deus, are such that an academic of his standing can get away with lecturing politicians, statesmen, scientists and world religious leaders on what they are doing wrong.
Is there no end to this polymath’s erudition? Well, fortunately there is – so the rest of us can breathe again and have some self-respect for our lesser but hard-won learning. In the first place (refreshingly) Harari confesses to ignorance of several subjects and secondly, he makes a plea for some intellectual humility among leaders, thinkers and writers which he thinks essential if we are to survive the threats of the coming decades which ‘add up to an unprecedented existential crisis’ (p.122). So, although this is an exciting read, it is hardly an optimistic one about humanity’s prospects long term: ‘Humanity has very little time left…We need to enter rehab today. Not next year or next month, but today’ (p.117).
It would be impossible to do justice here to all twenty-one topics that the author has chosen to explore. He divides the book into five parts: the technological challenge, the political challenge, despair and hope, truth, and resilience. Every section of the book contains touches of great brilliance and it is fair to say that there is not a single chapter that will fail to enthral most readers in some respect. I found the three chapters on Liberty, Equality and Community especially engaging. Ideas burst from every page; many of these are highly controversial so there is never a dull moment.
Adherents to orthodox faiths will probably find his ideas more challenging than those of a more liberal persuasion because this is not only a compendium of academic ideas but a highly personal – even passionate – statement of faith, (albeit a rather bleak faith) in the nature of humanity, the state of the world and our future prospects. At the end of the book he traces his own personal journey in search of faith and meaning, his rejection of any religious viewpoint, and his own reliance on a particular form of meditation which he practises for two hours a day to maintain, if not his sanity, then his clarity of mind.
They say a bad ending ruins a good story and it is tempting to think in that way about this brilliant book because there are many logical weaknesses in this closing credo. But perhaps it is more generous to welcome the chapter as it shows us Harari the man, full of needs and illogicalities like the rest of us, as he seeks to explain ‘how somebody so sceptical can still manage to wake up cheerful in the morning’ (p.309). He was ‘a restless and troubled teenager’ he admits (nothing unusual there) and ‘I got no answers to the big questions I had about life.’ ‘I had no idea how to find truth’ he writes, because he rejected the usual metanarratives about the world and ‘I had enough sense to realise that these were probably all fictions’ (p.309).
Harari reveals that his views are often based on assumptions which he chooses not to examine.
In this way, Harari is self-revelatory in a way that he is not in Sapiens and reveals that his views are often based on assumptions which he chooses not to examine. The terms ‘myth’, ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’ pepper the text and his definitions of these terms, though unspoken, are very particular. For instance, he writes, ‘For at least two hours a day I actually observe reality as it is’ (p.313) which he limits to ‘the sensations that arise and pass’ in his body beginning with his breath entering and leaving it. But it is not clear to the reader why reality should be so constrained save that Buddhism has clearly been a profound influence upon him: ‘Suffering is not an objective condition in the outside world. It is a mental reaction generated by my own mind’ (p.313). This belief, along with its concomitant practices, does seem to provide Harari with a detachment which allows for penetrating thought uncluttered by the emotions which can detract from a purely rational response to both personal and world crises; but I wonder whether it is the solution to a world which needs empathy and compassion as well as reasoned argument. Indeed, Harari reminds us that ‘there is very little chance that world peace and global harmony will come once 8 billion humans start meditating regularly’ (p.306) and also admits that ‘so far we have absolutely no explanation for how the mind emerges from the brain’ (p.313).
Despite this admission, this prodigiously influential and original thinker is a thorough-going determinist: ‘To the best of our scientific understanding, there is no magic behind our choices and creations. They are the product of billions of neurons exchanging biochemical signals’ and all choices are ‘dictated by biochemical algorithms as ruthless as the Inquisition and the KGB…both the “self” and freedom are mythological chimeras borrowed from the fairy tales of ancient times’ (p.299). More specifically he says,
Why does one person aspire to be more religious, while another is perfectly happy to remain an atheist? This may result from any number of cultural and genetic dispositions, but it is never the result of ‘free will’. (p.300)
Much earlier in the book he writes,
Moral feelings such as outrage, guilt or forgiveness derive from neural mechanisms that evolved to enable group cooperation…We don’t feel the millions of neurons in the brain computing probabilities…so we erroneously believe that…our opinions about the European Union are the result of some mysterious ‘free will’. (p.47)
He neglects to tell us that this is an assumption based on a theory, or at least to remind us here that although areas of the brain can be isolated as being connected to each of these emotions, the nature of consciousness means that the source or purpose of these emotions cannot be stated categorically. Any Creator’s design in creating, say, the emotion of guilt, Harari would have to concede, would have to work through some mechanism or other to affect our gut and other sensations in the way it does. Christian theology holds that Heaven has descended into the world of matter enabling God to operate through biochemistry and the whole machinery of matter. Le ciel est tombé par terre (‘the heavens have fallen to earth’) as one French poet put it when speaking of bluebells.
It is surprising that Harari is so categorical about determinism, given the enormous philosophical problems involved.
It is surprising that Harari is so categorical about this area given the enormous philosophical problems involved in asserting that everything in the human mind is determined this way since it leads to the process of infinite regression: ‘You only think that about X because of your genes and cultural environment’ to which the obvious reply is, ‘and you only think those thoughts about my thoughts because your thoughts are equally programmed in the same way’. Stalemate. No advance whatever towards any understanding of reality – however we define it. Moreover, of course, if our wills are not free and our thoughts and actions are determined by our genes then we cannot be held responsible for our behaviour. In which case, locking up ‘criminal’ rapists and murderers is necessary solely because they are socially inconvenient, and not because it is just. Moreover, how and when could such people be released?
But further to this, the argument seems rather tendentious when ‘the best scientific understanding’, despite the author’s assertion to the contrary, does not appear monolithic at all on this issue of the overriding dominance of our genetic disposition in removing freedom of choice from the processes involved in human thinking – whatever we believe about the relation of brain to mind. As Harari concedes, ‘in truth, consciousness is the greatest mystery in the universe’ (p.316) and ‘when it comes to observing our own minds we have barely scratched the surface’ (p.315).
History as story
If Harari’s view of reality is severely circumscribed by his determinism, his view of history is determined by his refusal to accept the possibility of any overarching view or ‘story’ of the way human affairs play out. He is clear that the twentieth century offered three global stories: fascism, communism and liberalism. Each, he believes, has had its day and ‘To be suddenly left without any story is terrifying’ (p.5) for ‘liberalism has no obvious answers to the biggest problems we face’ (p.16). He then continues by asking:
Could traditional religion and nationalism provide the answers that escape the liberals, and could they use ancient wisdom to fashion an up-to-date world view? (p.17).
It is a question that may become increasingly pressing as we face ecological collapse, technological disruption to our sense of self brought on by advances in artificial intelligence, and world-wide unemployment where the masses have become not exploited but merely irrelevant:
Indeed, already today computers and algorithms are beginning to function as clients in addition to producers. In the stock exchange, for example, algorithms are becoming the most important buyers of bonds, shares and commodities. (p.36)
Harari envisages ‘billions of humans out of the job market…social and political upheavals that no existing ideology knows how to handle’ (p.18).
Harari's scepticism about metanarratives prevents him from having the sort of vision that Christians might have.
But of course, his scepticism about any of the metanarratives that describe world history in terms of story, prevents him from having the sort of vision that Christians might have. Namely that in such a situation the Church would have both motive and opportunity as never before both to fill the vacuum with an example that shows how fulfilment comes from service of others rather than self-serving and to tell a compelling story which makes sense of everything from Creation to Armageddon. Christians who are unemployed would have scope for full-time volunteering and could understand that our sense of worth is not to be found mainly in our status as employees but in our redemption from futility through the work of Christ.
If cynics find themselves sneering at the extent or even concept of the voluntary contribution of the Church to society it is worth stating the facts: Church of England parishes alone ‘organise or support more than 32,000 community aid projects including food banks, toddler groups, debt advice services and night shelters’. Very precisely, Harari cannot imagine (p.40) that Americans would agree to their tax revenues being sent to places defined by President Trump as ‘shithole countries’ but perhaps he doesn’t know that the annual charitable giving by religious organizations in the USA has exceeded the entire aid budget of that country. Evangelical Christians in UK alone also give over 200 million hours to voluntary work each year – a contribution worth more than a billion pounds.
A theological subtext
One of the fascinations of this book is the way that it constantly presses towards a theological understanding of the world without the recognition that it is doing so. As we have seen, the author has already asked whether religion might be useful in fashioning a new view of the world, and at the end of chapter two on Work he recognises that even global schemes for Universal Basic Income (UBI) will not provide the satisfaction humans crave. It would need to be ‘supplemented by some meaningful pursuits, ranging from sports to religion’ (p.42).
Harari constantly presses towards a theological understanding of the world without recognising that he is doing so.
He cites the fact that in Israel about 50% of ultra-Orthodox men don’t work but instead study the scriptures and claims this is perhaps ‘the most successful experiment so far in how to live a contented life’ (p.42). He concludes that ‘in the lives of all people, the quest for meaning and community might eclipse the quest for a job’ (p.43). That view is highly compatible with theology and we should not forget that the monastic movement past and present has espoused the ideal laborare et orare – to work meaningfully for the community and to pray. For a thousand years this ideal was aimed at throughout Europe with no little success. Harari refers to Mark Zuckerberg’s present-day attempt through Facebook to prevent the disintegration of human communities and ‘pick up the burden discarded by parish priests’ but the loss of public trust in Facebook as a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal has been considerable. Harari fails even to mention the monasteries. Still, he does see that ‘when it comes to solving social problems, we should still rely on politicians and priests’ (p.88) so the theological subtext continues.
Suffering – but no story to tell?
The penultimate chapter is entitled Meaning, and it is significant that this is, by a large margin, the longest chapter of the book. Pursuing the theological undercurrent Harari, seemingly in contradiction of himself, writes:
When you are confronted by some great story, and you wish to know whether it is real or imaginary, one of the key questions to ask is whether the central hero of the story can suffer. (p.307)
Now this is very interesting to students of literature and of history because suffering does pervade almost every corner of both. No story would be real without it. Even our comedies often rely on the fact that laughter is directed at the discomfiture of one of the characters; our love stories and letters are often anguished and the greatest stories of all are frequently tragic. This applies directly, of course, to the Christian story where there is a tragic fall so near the beginning and redemption is achieved only at the cost of Christ’s great personal suffering. Indeed, it is the only story among the world’s major religions where God himself suffers as a result of man’s tragic flaw but by doing so ultimately achieves The Divine Comedy, as it was put by Dante, the greatest poet of the Middle Ages: a journey with Paradise as its goal.
Despite this, and the fact that Harari ends the chapter with the assertion:
So, if you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, the best place to start is by observing suffering…The answer isn’t a story. (p.308)
He has to say this because he has earlier told us that ‘Any story is wrong, simply for being a story. The universe just does not work like a story’ (p.281). This is rather a large claim which he evidences with the sentence: ‘to the best of our scientific understanding, none of the thousands of stories that different cultures, religions and tribes have invented throughout history is true’ (p.281). When he comes to the Christian story he writes:
It has the flimsiest of foundations. What evidence do we have that the son of the Creator of the entire universe was born as a carbon-based life form somewhere in the Milky Way about 2,000 years ago? (p.282)
For a religion which prides itself on its historicity, Harari's dismissive approach to Christianity is inadequate to his subject.
If we ignore the clever rhetoric which is designed to reduce both the unique nature of humans among all life forms and the reductive reference to this utterly astonishing planet, we can see more clearly that Harari is failing, perhaps refusing, to consider properly those foundations. He mentions only the location of Galilee and the virgin birth as matters for doubt and, surely, this does not constitute an argument worthy of the name. For a religion which prides itself on its historicity – the fact that the whole of Christianity stands or falls on the veracity of the words and deeds of its founder as being actually spoken and acted out and then recorded on an historical stage – and on the weight of the documentary evidence to support this, this dismissive approach is inadequate to his subject.
There is, however, a further curious irony. For the most part, Harari avoids the extreme stance of the militant atheists and is refreshingly balanced on many topics. But on the matter of the inadmissibility of any metanarrative that is true to reality he is very one-sided and actually inconsistent. He describes the Zionist story (and by implication every other story) as myopic, but then tells another story which he does believe:
Eternity is at the very least 13.8 billion years…humans have existed for at least 2 million years…Earth will be absorbed by an expanding sun about 7.5 billion years from now. (p.274)
Christians are free to believe this or not (many do) but all can see that this is nothing if not a story, a great narrative spanning all of time. But most people can also see that just because a story takes in a great deal of time and space, that does not, of itself, make it more important or thrilling than another. A short life might be far more influential than a long one and a story enacted on a small stage might change people and history more than some extended and rambling events crossing continents.
There is also a further global story that Harari recognises (although he calls it a ‘tale’ instead). He sees the substantive gap between ‘wonderful ideals and less than ideal behaviour’ which ‘makes the ethical and philosophical history of the world a rather depressing tale’ (p.58). This too shares much with Jewish and Christian theology and raises the question of whether the human concept of the ideal, of moral perfection, is not more than just a product of evolutionary forces. C.S. Lewis argued powerfully that the idea of right and wrong was ‘a clue to the meaning of the universe’ but Harari does not even glance at the idea.
Religion and nationalism
The short chapter on Religion, subtitled ‘God now serves the nation’ is a far cry from the diatribes that we have come to expect from other secular commentators. Harari admits at the start that ‘modern ideologies, scientific experts and national governments have failed to create a viable vision for the future of humanity’ (p.127). He also recognises (unlike the most strident critics) that ‘religious’ conflict is often in reality something quite different, for example in Northern Ireland which ‘was in fact a typical struggle between haves and have-nots’ (p.132). Harari wonders whether religions can help solve the major problems we face and then makes a good case that science has been so successful in improving crop yields and medicines that religion, which used to be used as a protection against pests and diseases, has lost its authority to the scientists. At one level it is hard to quarrel with this, after all, as he says, ‘When things really work, everybody adopts them’ (p.130). But Christians would say that using God as a means of achieving your own ends is to misunderstand the nature of the relationship he created us to enjoy. Aspects of the Old Testament do suggest this is how humanity, or bronze age Hebrews at any rate, sometimes conceived of God – but their prophets frequently warned against it. Likewise, Jesus’ teaching is explicit that God’s purpose for his people is not simply to make them prosperous and successful. His plans are both bigger and more subtle than that. Christ’s injunction, ‘You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48) is not to be achieved by praying for a miracle or carrying out rain dance rituals.
The chapter on Religion is a far cry from the diatribes we have come to expect from other secular commentators.
The chapter’s main conclusion is that though religions don’t bring rain or cure illnesses, ‘they do get to determine who are “us” and who are “them”, who we should cure and who we should bomb’ (p.134). That is a major indictment in our fragile fragmented world, so it is a good counterbalance that Harari can see that religions also ‘fill daily life with beauty, and encourage people to behave more kindly and charitably’ (p. 134). Unfortunately for the planet however he concludes that, in the twenty-first century, religions ‘are used mainly as the handmaid of modern nationalism’ (p.138) and are therefore not much use in solving global issues. But what, we might reply, if a religion were to divest itself of all means of temporal power and any link to any single nation or ethnic grouping, eschew any form of coercive behaviour and proclaim unselfish love of your neighbour (not just toleration) as the supreme divine commandment? Would that not be a major force for good? It is not an idea that the author explores – but it sounds very close up to the teachings of a certain Jewish carpenter.
Surprisingly for a supremely intellectual Jew, Harari devotes only six pages to his chapter entitled ‘God’. But in that space he manages to fit a great deal of common sense as well some ideas many would want to question. It is true that humans have envisaged God variously as ‘cosmic mystery’ and ‘a stern and worldly lawgiver’ and that the one can get fused to the other by those who wish to give divine authority to their ambitions (religious or otherwise) without discussing the grounds for their beliefs. It is also true that ‘religious faith is not a necessary condition for moral behaviour’ (p.200). Sadly, religious people the world over also have to agree with Harari that religiosity creates dangerous two-way traffic for ‘the very same religions that inspire hate and bigotry in some people inspire love and compassion in others’ (p.200). These ideas and many others are reasoned and hard to deny but the chapter, being so short, is necessarily sketchy and especially misleading when it comes to the nature of biblical authority and the separate issue of ethics.
Sacred texts and ethics
It is pretty evident that Islam in its more militant forms is the object of much of the author’s specific criticism here, but he spreads the net wider when he says:
In truth, we haven’t got any evidence whatsoever that the Bible or the Quran or the Book of Mormon or the Vedas or any other holy book was composed by the force that determined that energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared, and that protons are 1,837 times more massive than electrons. To the best of our scientific knowledge, all these sacred texts were written by imaginative Homo sapiens. (p.198)
Thus far, most (though not all) Christians would have no quarrel with a careful reading of these two sentences – while recognising that Harari, as a non-scientist, does love using scientific expressions to seemingly debunk religious ideas. However, the author’s next sentence provides us with one of those too frequent leaps in logic which do not quite reach their desired landing-ground. He writes: ‘They are just stories invented by our ancestors in order to legitimise social norms and political structures’ (p.198). To jump from the fact that men wrote the texts to the assertion (with an implied ‘therefore’) that they are ‘just stories’ is a shockingly bad piece of logic and effectively a non-sequitur. Christian theology, for instance, has long taught that although men’s fallible hands held the reed pens and prepared the papyri it was the Spirit of God who inspired the thoughts they penned. This is held to be true even when those thoughts were given as an example to be avoided, and not in keeping with the nature of God as revealed elsewhere in Scripture. The grounds for believing that rest not in blind faith or magic but in the extraordinary and uniquely compelling records of the life, death and resurrection of Christ which have probably been more minutely examined and dissected than any other documents in history.
On the subject of 'Godless ethics', Harari assumes the very thing his argument requires him to prove.
Within this chapter Harari has a very insightful passage on the third of the Ten Commandments which he says we should take more seriously if the world is to be a better place. He sees it as an injunction never to ‘use the name of God to justify our political interests, our economic ambitions or our personal hatreds’ (p.199). Good advice indeed. However, his section on ‘Godless ethics’ makes some questionable assumptions. ‘Morality of some kind is natural’, he says, but follows this up with the statement: ‘All social mammals from chimpanzees to rats have ethical codes that limit things such as theft and murder’ (p.200). But here Harari is assuming the very thing his argument requires him to prove. In philosophy this is known as begging the question. He has begun this section with the straightforward observation that moral behaviour helps to maintain the social order and then assumes that it is therefore merely a product of evolution. Rats protect their social groupings from other ‘thieving’ rats so they therefore have ‘ethical codes’. But whether we accept the Aristotelian or Kantian or Utilitarian view of ethics, these all require a consciousness of self, an ability to reflect upon virtue or duty or happiness (respectively) which even the most doctrinaire theorists could not prove to be normative behaviour among rats. Without these concepts ethics is no longer ethics. Rats’ behaviour may mimic that of humans to some degree, but it could not be said to be caused by the same process of thought as ours or subject to the same difficulties in decision making as to how exactly any offender against a ‘code’ should be dealt with. Indeed, if the processes were the same then we ought to accord rats the same rights as ourselves which I doubt any government in the world would be willing to contemplate.
Covert self-interest, whether for the individual or the group, is not the whole history of ethics. To believe otherwise is not only indistinguishable from extreme cynicism but also not the way humans conceive themselves and it flies in the face of the evidence of experience.
Harari believes that it is an evolutionary ‘natural self-interest’ (p.202) which makes us contain our anger and other negative emotions but if that is the case, evolution is not doing a very good job given the uniquely self-destructive tendencies of the human race.
A code for secularism?
For the first 200 pages of the book, the utility and wisdom of the book outweighs its many irritating flaws but with Chapter 14, ‘Secularism’ the balance shifts. This is a chapter in which Harari seems to have taken leave of his rational detachment and adopted a stance which relies on such special pleading that he is bound to alienate a proportion of his audience – at least all of those who have learned to think critically. He begins by asking ‘What does it mean to be secular?’ and then spends the next twelve pages defining it in such a way as to leave the reader flabbergasted. His claim is that ‘secularism is a very positive and active world view, which is defined by a coherent set of values’ (p.203) and then has the gall to say, ‘Indeed, many of the secular values are shared by various religious traditions’. This is not just putting the cart before the horse but pretending the road they use was built by the horse and cart. It is not just that in reality it is vice versa (Harari’s so-called secular values in fact ape the religious traditions which long precede them) but to suggest that there is a defined secular ethical code (p.204) is demonstrably untrue. Who thought up this code? Which august committee or farsighted government gave rise to it? What longstanding tradition is it the product of? At what date did it first come into practice? The secular ‘code’ exists only in the wishful thinking of Harari’s assertions.
Harari's secular 'code' exists only in the wishful thinking of his assertions.
In its current usage, to be ‘secular’ is to be concerned with the affairs of this world not the unseen one, to be profane rather than sacred, to be sceptical of religious truth or even opposed to it. So much the dictionaries will tell us. Many good people have espoused such a position, but the point is, so have countless bad ones and people of every shade of opinion, policy and action. Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin and Mao can of course be balanced by contrastingly humane thinkers such as Hume, Mill, Darwin and Huxley; but in the same group are the murdering Bradys, Fred West and Harold Shipman. All were secular rather than religious and each put their own schemes for aggrandisement or the common good or self-gratification at the centre of their worlds. There was no ‘code’ that united them or historic set of doctrines they followed. So, to combine the best ethics that the religions and philosophies of the world can produce, and then to call that ‘secularism’ is simply an outrageous distortion of history. Harari reveals that he has an agenda here different from his usual professed objective stance.
The values Harari chooses to list as comprising this ‘code’ are: truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage and responsibility. But does he really think that these qualities are those of the individuals listed above or occupied the same place in pre-Christian societies as they did afterwards? Courage, yes, was certainly part of the classical and indeed barbarian worlds but nobody could assert that compassion, equality or freedom were ideals to which Roman law, entertainment or domesticity felt any moral need to aspire to. As so many writers of every shade of religious opinion (and none) have shown, Christian ethics cleansed, abashed and humanised Roman society. Christian leaders throughout history may often have only professed to be custodians of morality, but other world leaders were not even bound to profess it.
The tone of this chapter becomes more strident as it develops and verges on the ridiculous at one point where the author claims that:
It is therefore groundless to criticise secularism for lacking ethical commitments…In fact, the main problem with secularism is just the opposite. It probably sets the ethical bar too high. Most people just cannot live up to such a demanding code. (p.209)
Well, Harari’s code may be demanding but it has no authority other than his own. Indeed, the definition of this code is all his very own: ‘secular people reject all unscientific dogmas and are committed to truth, compassion and freedom’ (p.210). Lovely idea, but absolutely without any basis in history! What, therefore, we have ended up seeing in this chapter is, deeply ironically, a writer who is both highly dogmatic and unscientific in his approach to this issue about dogma and science. But then, as has been noted elsewhere, extreme views are easily bred out of disillusioned moderation – precisely Harari’s background.
Harari’s code may be demanding but it has no authority other than his own.
It is a relief to read his final word in the chapter which reminds us that every worldview that wants to be taken seriously needs to be subjected to the test of answering this question: ‘What was the biggest mistake [it]…committed? What did it get wrong?’ That, in this critic’s view, is a question worth answering – and has been answered for Christians more than once.
Sapiens: a post-truth species?
The section on ‘Truth’ contains some great lines: ‘It is extremely hard to discover the truth when you are ruling the world’ (p.220) and ‘when discussing global issues, I am always in danger of privileging the viewpoint of the global elite over that of various disadvantaged groups’ (p.227). Harari recognises that we suffer from global problems but lack a global community and feels that religion is not ‘anywhere near creating such a community’ (p.230). Yet again, the theological subtext can be felt here for he sees that an international community dedicated to compassion, justice and equality of rights and opportunity for all would be the solution. The present writer would say that the Church must aspire to be that or utterly fail in its mission. Is it too much to claim that with two billion adherents in every nation on earth, the Church has the potential to be that and, indeed, is reaching towards it?
When The Observer chose to draw attention to this book it printed Chapter 17 entitled ‘Post-Truth’ – perhaps because it is so topical, especially in international politics. As with most other chapters there is much to admire here but also much to be wary of.
Harari's suggestion that we’d do better looking among the chimps for ‘a society in which truth reigns’ while comic, is absurd.
One key statement of Harari’s view in this chapter is: ‘It is the responsibility of all of us to invest time and effort in uncovering our biases and in verifying our sources of information’ (p.243). I totally agree – but more of that later. His major contention is that humans are not very good at dealing with truth. That, despite our rationality as a species, we frequently prefer fiction and that ‘truth was never high on the agenda of Homo sapiens’ (p.238). This is neither particularly original nor shocking but it does seem undeniably true. The profoundly Christian poet, T.S. Eliot, famously said, ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality’.
So Harari is right to draw attention to the fact that Putin, Hitler, Stalin (and many others in search of power through history) have had the policy that if you lie often enough and ‘big’ enough, in the end masses of people will believe you. All the more credit to those brave souls (the likes of Bonhoeffer et al) who gave their lives to oppose the lies. But historians have known for many many years that this has been going on throughout history. In the ancient world, Herodotus, Livy and Julius Caesar, for instance, all made up elements of their histories to serve a particular purpose. Their projected views of Greece’s heroism, Rome’s grandeur or Caesar’s military genius served to create mythologies which benefitted society or themselves.
Harari, however, goes further than this in claiming that ‘Homo sapiens is a post-truth species’ (p.233). This is too large a claim in my view and his suggestion that we’d do better in looking among the chimps for ‘a society in which truth reigns’ (p.242), while comic, is absurd. The fact is that whether it be Harari or Aristotle or Aquinas or Newton or Einstein or Hawking or a million others, humanity is clearly better than any other species we know at attempting rationality. Harari does his case no good by overstating it.
Constructing a new mythology
Like those he is critical of, Harari creates his own mythology and needs to believe it. For example, he writes: ‘Ever since the stone age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives’ (p.233). He then goes on to lump Christianity and Islam together as examples of this, and by implication, all other religions too. As in Sapiens, he is making a false distinction between myth and truth and does not seem to consider that the two need not mutually exclude each other. A truth may well serve as a myth that will benefit society. Harari’s language betrays his bias: ‘Centuries ago millions of Christians locked themselves inside a self-reinforcing mythological bubble, never daring to question the factual veracity of the Bible’ (p.233). The inference we are clearly supposed to draw is that timid and rather risible believers had to believe the patently incredible. Tell that to a professor of Church history and she will remind us there is another side to the story. Namely, that many Christian believers did step outside the ‘bubble’ and became known as Marcionites, Montanists, Ebionites, Cathars – to name a few movements which did ‘dare’ to put other teachings above and in contradiction of the ‘factual veracity’ of Scripture.
Harari makes a false distinction between myth and truth and doesn't seem to consider that they need not mutually exclude each other.
The early and later Church Fathers were also great interpreters of Scripture, realising that true understanding was seldom entirely straightforward. St. Augustine, for example, wrote at some length about how best to interpret the opening chapters of Genesis. Of course, as Harari says, we ‘have zero scientific evidence that Eve was tempted by the serpent’ (p.234)! How could there be any such thing relating to a document, utterly anonymous, deeply poetic and mythical, which dates from such an early moment in the literature of the Middle East? Such a suggestion from Harari makes his argument look silly, and the reader is tempted to dismiss it as a piece of forgivable rhetoric and move on. But underlying it there is a more worrying trait in Harari’s thinking. Throughout the essay he assumes that absence of evidence is evidence of absence – a rather fundamental logical error as, for instance, every archaeologist knows. To say that there is no black cat in the darkness because you can’t see it is not the same as to prove there is no black cat.
Harari is sensible not to try to deny the benevolence of religion in many cases but he finds it impossible to contemplate, or at least to explore, the idea that this benevolence might be the result of the discovery of a truth: that in fact the ‘golden rule’ which to some extent all the major religions share (i.e. ‘do as you would be done by’) is the offspring of a Creator whose intention is for humanity to thrive insofar as it can behave in this way. Such a suggestion is at least as logical as anything Harari suggests.
Occasionally, I feel Harari is less than honest, as well as less than logical. Take this for example:
If you are a scientifically minded Christian, you might explain away all the errors, myths and contradictions in the Bible by arguing that the holy book was never meant to be read as a factual account, but rather as a metaphorical story, containing deep wisdom. But isn’t that true of Harry Potter too? (p.234)
Now at first this seems to cut from under the said Christian’s feet their defence that aspects of Scripture are not matters of ‘factual veracity’ but of wisdom and literature of widely differing kinds (in my opinion the right view).After all, the argument goes, it’s no different from Harry Potter. But, on closer examination, this is simply ridiculous. Just because two incomparably different books both contain metaphorical truth and wisdom does not make them spiritual or moral or historical equivalents. Instead of answering the question raised by Harari’s imagined interlocutor, namely, ‘What if the Bible contains metaphor and story as well as history; does that make it more or less veracious or valuable?’ the author sidesteps the issue by a rather cheap trick: cue, bring on Potter the wizard. He sidesteps it because, if Sapiens is anything to go by, he does not like dealing with it.
A central weakness
So we come to a further central weakness of Harari’s writing when he comes to the discussion of religion. It should be widely realised now by the globally aware that the concept of ‘religion’ is a false universal which is so vague as to be largely useless and often misleading; a term used in the pub rather than in an academic context. How can the Amish and Hezbollah be spoken of meaningfully within the same subset? More particularly, how is it that Harari can treat the Bible as if it were a single document? Creation accounts in Genesis have little in common with Paul’s deeply personal one-page letter to Philemon or those to Titus and Timothy, apart from the fact they are bound between the same covers. What Harari’s imagined respondent would have asked had he been given the chance would have been an emphatic: What parts of the Bible do you consider fiction, and on what grounds have you made that decision? At last, we have reached the point where we started, and need to confront Harari with his own standard, about uncovering our biases and verifying our sources.
We need to confront Harari with his own standard, about uncovering our biases and verifying our sources.
A great deal is made by Harari of the trinity of truth, fiction and power. He is pretty convincing about this. For instance, he believes
Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate ways. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power. (p.241)
Thus far, many key figures in the major world religions would agree with him (though this does not quite fit with what I understand to be true of the founder of Islam). However, his contention that letting people know the truth may be at the price of disunity is a limited truth, not applicable in every instance. Jesus’s understanding of the truth is that it would set people free (John 8:32) and be a force for unity – though he also would agree with Harari that people prefer power to truth.
Among Harari’s concluding remarks in this chapter he passionately writes:
If you think that the scientific community is wrong about something, that’s certainly possible, but at least know the scientific theories you are rejecting, and provide some empirical evidence to support your claim. (p.244)
In the light of his view of us as a post-truth species this seems optimistic, but it’s certainly good advice. It is also advice he himself should take when it comes to theology where he is decidedly weak. If, however, his readers can adopt a more enquiring and less credulous attitude towards some of his own theories, as well as those of others, he will have done us all some good.
In conclusion, Harari’s attractiveness is that he is not militant in his attitudes or frequently intolerant in his opinions. He can see good where it is evident and the width of his reading and research usually prevents him from bigotry. His occasional humility also adds weight to his arguments. But his stance on the virtues of secularism and his absolute inability to give any credence to free will or to any possible meaningful narrative working itself out in history blinds him to some exciting possibilities for creative optimism. As he says in his final section:
By the middle of the twenty-first century… ‘Who am I?’ will be a more urgent and complicated question than ever before. This is likely to involve immense levels of stress. (p.264)
Christians might welcome more of us asking that question for it has a profound and transformational answer supplied by the glimpse of an Incarnation 2,000 years ago and which gloriously invests this small planet and its people with a significance no less than cosmic and eternal.
Yuval Noah Harari. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. (Jonathan Cape, 2018) 368pp.
 See, for instance, D. Alexander, Genes, Determinism and God (Cambridge University Press, 2017), in which he makes clear that there is nothing in genetics that falsifies the reality of free will.
'Church is the higher power behind 32,000 schemes'. The Times, 6 November 2018 p.20
 See my The Evil That Men Do (Sacristy Press, 2016), p.230
 See my The Evil That Men Do (Sacristy Press, 2016), p.230
 For a critical analysis of Facebook’s dubious reputation see 'Is Zuckerberg’s empire facing decline and fall?' In The Times, 29 December 2018 pp.32–33
 See C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Geoffrey Bles, 1952)
 See my The Evil That Men Do (Sacristy Press, 2016), p.2
 My book The Evil That Men Do (Sacristy Press, 2016) answers this question in some detail.
 Yuval Noah Harari extract: ‘Humans are a post-truth species’. The Observer, 5 August 2018
 From T.S. Eliot Burnt Norton, the first of his ‘Four Quartets’.
 See my review of Sapiens for more detail.