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January 21, 2019 7:57 am

Attacking Religion Is Not 21st Century Progress

avatar by Scott A. Shay

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A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Harari joins Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson in proposing lessons to grapple with the challenges of our time. Harari writes with flamboyance and offers many interesting observations and smart details; and his clever writing almost obscures the logical shortcomings of his arguments. Harari’s message is an incoherent polemic that verges on the nihilistic and bizarre. Sadly, not a single one of Harari’s 21 lessons stands up to serious scrutiny.

Harari’s first logical shortcoming is an old fallacy: extrapolating future problems from the present. Had we listened to the predictions of 19th century American business prognosticators, we would fear horse manure accumulation as the biggest obstacle to further urban growth. Similarly, Harari assumes that we will remain on auto-pilot and that the increasing convergence of big data, artificial intelligence (AI), social psychology algorithms, and large networks will lead to unprecedented elite dominance. The problem with this argument is that unanticipated developments have usually disrupted auto-pilot outcomes. The advent of computers, for example, also saw the creation of hackers. Yet Harari seems to be certain that this time we won’t have much choice.

His second logical shortcoming is another cliché of doomsayers: presumed future problems are radically different from anything we have ever faced. Harari argues that AI, cyborgs, bio-engineering (and elite control thereof), climate change, and nuclear war are game changers — and these are indeed profound challenges. But new technologies, elite control, environmental damage, and war are as old as humanity itself. Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian elites jealously guarded know-hows like writing and astronomy as priestly knowledge. Pre-industrial societies such as Easter Island (among others) authored their own ecological collapse. But the elites across human history were never able to stay in control. People sold or stole the patents. They also created laws that stopped such concentration, and even learned from technical mistakes — DDT is now illegal, for example. Harari ignores these realities.

Harari’s third logical shortcoming is his insistence that all ideologies and religions  — except perhaps Buddhism — are useless in addressing our current predicaments. His logic could not be more circular: all contemporary problems are in his view either technical problems, policy problems, or identity problems, and neither religions nor past ideologies have anything to say about technical problems or policies. Ergo they are irrelevant. While Harari simply states his opinion as fact, many historians view the laws and values of major religious traditions and modern ideologies to be the vectors of progress. Take the Bible: it rejects elite power by applying the law to everyone and forbids monopolies. In his most bizarre chapter, Harari argues that we need a new definition of justice because the prohibition of theft does not apply “when the global system is ceaselessly stealing on my behalf without my knowledge.” I simply fail to understand his logic. Why not advocate for carbon taxation, investment in clean technologies, and the application of criminal, environmental, and labor laws in all countries?

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His fourth logical shortcoming is his insistence that all of human civilization consists of stories of equal fictitiousness. He refers to money, corporations, nations, and religions as fictions. Yet fiction is usually defined as “a pretense that does not represent actuality but has been invented.” It is hard to understand Harari’s train of thought. Money is a representation of a bill of payment — and therefore a contract. Liberalism is a set of values, laws, and relationships. Neither are fictions like mermaids or Harry Potter. Moreover, money seems to have originated from barter of usable goods evolving to the exchange of goods for something of enduring value. I worry that if everything is a story unmoored from reality and experience, many will again feel free to create real fictions — like racial superiority, godly birth, or an elite class. It is these dangerous fictions that the major religious traditions — which Harari so despises — are opposed to.

Harari’s wonderful writing style obscures the incoherence, polemical nature, and nihilism of his message. Harari’s’ book has the features of a polemic — mainly directed against religion, though culture gets hit as well. For example, Harari defines secularism as everything that is good: truth, responsibility, compassion. As to whether Stalin was secular Harari writes, “Whether one should view Stalin as a secular leader is therefore a matter of how we define secularism.” When you stack the deck, you usually win. He also makes outrageous and nihilistic generalizations like “to the best of our scientific knowledge none of the thousands of stories that different cultures, religions, and tribes, have invented throughout the ages is true.”

His chapter headings are the most valuable part of the book. We need to talk about equality, post-truth, meaning, justice, work, belief, fiction, and reality. But with his simultaneously incoherent, polemical, and manipulative claims, Harari also does not deliver any real solutions. For thoughtful readers, I would suggest going back to the very traditional texts that Harari dismisses. The Bible’s ten big lessons are a good place to start.

Scott A. Shay is the author of In Good Faith (Post Hill Press, September, 2018) and the chairman and co-founder of Signature Bank of New York.

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