Smearing Humanism

Tom Flynn

Is it too soon for an editorial that steps back from the perpetual train wreck of Donald J. Trump’s presidency to focus on one of humanism’s more, well, perennial discontents? I call attention to someone in the public eye —someone who ought to know better—who denigrates humanism in ways that are wildly untrue, yet appears not have made the slightest effort to ascertain the facts.

A reader might think that I’m still discussing Trump. But truly, I’m not. I refer to Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli history professor and best-selling author who has presented an extreme and factually untethered critique of humanism in a hugely high-profile book.

If you haven’t heard of Harari, you need to. Think of him as Israel’s answer to Malcolm Gladwell, another polymath who offers big answers to big questions in fast-flowing prose. But while Gladwell is a journalist, Harari is a tenured history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has an enviable academic record, including four well-regarded books of military history. The year 2011 saw the publication in Hebrew of his breakthrough volume, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. A mammoth best-seller in Israel, Sapiens was translated into some twenty-six languages and made best-seller lists in the United Kingdom, Spain, Slovenia, and Taiwan—not to mention the New York Times’s list of best-selling science titles. It won the British Friends of Hebrew University’s Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality and the National Library of China’s Best Book of the Year Award. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made Sapiens a 2015 selection for his online book club, Bill Gates put it on his 2016 list of “Five Books to Read This Summer,” and more than one hundred thousand people have taken Harari’s free online course in English based on themes from the book.

In other words, Sapiens is a phenomenon in intellectual publishing, notwithstanding that an American-
market edition of its English translation did not appear until 2015. (A sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, should reach the American market before you read these words.)

But back to Sapiens. It is nothing if not sweeping. Its daunting subtitle, A Brief History of Humankind, manages to understate the book’s sprawling scope. Chapter 1 actually begins with the words: “About 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang.”

Harari’s goal is nothing less than to explain how everything came to be—the principles that underlie life; how language arose; why H. sapiens came to be the sole surviving representative of the genus Homo; how we got the sciences, economics, and politics—and where we’re headed with them. When filling a canvas this large, there’s always the temptation to spin “just-so stories.” Prominent among those is Harari’s treatment of humanism.

In chapter 12, “The Law of Religion,” Harari devotes nine breathless pages to humanism—or, as he calls it, “The Worship of Man.” (Yes, really.) He begins by introducing a new category, “natural-law religions,” which includes “liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism, and Nazism.” He offers a decent argument for why communism ought to be considered a religion: it teaches “a superhuman order of natural and immutable laws that should guide human actions.” Fair enough. I myself have argued that because it treated dialectical materialism and the “inevitable” outcomes of historical processes as articles of faith, Soviet-style communism (which Harari calls “fanatical and missionary”) merits inclusion among the world religions. “If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order,” Harari writes, “then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than is Islam.” The like could be said of Nazism, with its dogmas of Aryan superiority and the “inevitable” Thousand-Year Reich. Harari’s on thinner ice, in my view, when he also places liberalism, capitalism, and nationalism among the “natural-law religions”; his case for doing so consists mostly of his having plunked them onto the same list with Nazism and communism.

We come now to the main event: Harari’s account of “the humanist religions” (yes, they’re plural). Hold on tight:

Humanist religions worship humanity, or more correctly, Homo sapiens. Humanism is a belief that Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature, which is fundamentally different from the nature of all other animals and of all other phenomena. Humanists believe that the unique nature of Homo sapiens is the most important thing in the world, and it determines the meaning of everything that happens in the universe. The supreme good is the good of Homo sapiens. The rest of the world and all other beings exist solely for the benefit of this species.

I’m gobsmacked. Or is it dumbfounded? From what source or sources does Harari derive this spectacularly inaccurate caricature of humanism? If only because of his stature, let’s take a moment to try to unpack how he might have come by it. Let’s see: I doubt if any secular humanist would call human nature “sacred.” While some contemporary religious Humanists might hold humanity sacred, I know of none who would indulge in the colossal speciesism that Harari describes. Quite the contrary—today humanists of all stripes tend to be exquisitely aware of human interdependence with, and responsibility for, the biosphere. I’ll concede the possibility that Harari might have unearthed some overwrought Rationalist from the Victorian era or the Roaring Twenties who in some obscure tome praised Glorious Humanity to the exclusion of all else. But though I know the freethought of those periods fairly well, I have no idea who it might be or how Harari might have linked this person to a humanist movement that would begin to gel only in the 1930s. Has Harari done the requisite research? I’ll answer that later.

Harari’s breathtaking, um, explication of humanism continues. “Humanism has split into three rival sects that fight over the exact definition of ‘humanity.’” Something tells me he’s not preparing to chronicle the division among secular humanists, congregational humanists, and religious Humanists. Indeed he isn’t: “Today, the most important sect is liberal humanism, which believes that ‘humanity’ is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of individuals is therefore sacrosanct.” Then, Harari continues, there is “socialist humanism. Socialists believe that ‘humanity’ is collective rather than individualistic.
. . . Whereas liberal humanism seeks as much freedom as possible for individual humans, socialist humanism seeks equality between all humans.” On Harari’s view, both liberal and socialist humanism remain yoked to monotheism, in that they believe (without ever quite saying so) that freedom or equality, respectively, is the ideal divinely ordained for human flourishing. “The only humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism,” declares Harari, “is evolutionary humanism. . . .” Thinking of Richard Dawkins? E. O. Wilson? Even P Z Myers? Think again. Evolutionary humanism’s “most famous representatives”—wait for it—“are the Nazis.” Harari asserts that the “supreme commandment” of evolutionary humanism “is to protect humankind from degenerating into subhumans, and to encourage its evolution into superhumans.” Lest we miss the point, Harari treats his readers to a Nazi racial propaganda poster and a 1933 cartoon of Hitler molding a homoerotic Nietzschean superman from clay.

And who, you might wonder, embodies this Nazi legacy today? Harari is glad you asked. It is technophiles and transhumanists: “No one speaks about exterminating lower races or inferior people, but many contemplate using our increasing knowledge of human biology to create superhumans.”

It almost seems petty to object that while some humanisms are religious, secular humanism, at least, is not (see yours truly, Ronald A. Lindsay, and Nicholas J. Little, “Secular Humanism: Not a Religion!” FI, February/March 2015). On an epic scale, Harari presents a farrago of unfounded speculation, sophomoric political theory, and invective masquerading as an authoritative and oh-so confidently written disparagement of humanism. I’m not the first person to say so. Reviewing Sapiens in the Wall Street Journal, science journalist Charles Mann complained about the book’s “whiff of dorm-room bull sessions” and Harari’s “stimulating but often unsourced assertions.” Writing for the Guardian, philosopher Galen Strawson dismissed Harari’s analysis of humanism in three words: “This is silly.”

If I’d found material like this in some hectoring religious-Right publication or on one of Alex Jones’s conspiracy-theory websites, it might be unremarkable. But no, the passages I quoted inhabit a lavish tome from an estimable American publisher. (Readers are meant to encounter Sapiens as a publishing event; I’m trying to remember the last hardback I’ve handled whose text was printed—in three colors, no less—on such portentously thick and heavy paper. Oh yes: it was a biography of L. Ron Hubbard from the Church of Scientology.)

 

Sapiens is a worldwide best-seller by an academic superstar. Many, many times more people will absorb Harari’s account of humanism and simply file it away among “Stuff They Know” than will ever read Free Inquiry or ponder the Humanist Manifestos. Make no mistake, Yuval Noah Harari is a prolific source of harmful misinformation about our movement.

But hold on a moment. Harari is a distinguished academic. Surely we owe him the elementary respect of reviewing his sources, just in case he has located proof that could justify his counterintuitive interpretation of humanism. So let us turn to the Notes section at the back of his book. Chapter 12 contains all the material I have quoted, as well as a compact but exhaustive account of the development of all human religions.

It has just three notes. Save only for his mostly exhortative chapter 1, it is the most thinly sourced chapter in the book. And what are those three sources?

  • An estimable history of the early Christian church by scholar W. H. C. Frend;
  • A solid chronicle of Renaissance France that apparently informs a single paragraph in the text about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; and
  • A Nazi-era, German-language social-
studies textbook for fifth-grade boys.

As to which bedazzled, human-
worshipping speciesist Harari might have uncovered in some murky freethought tract or from whom he might have drawn his seemingly arbitrary division of humanists into individualists, collectivists, and Nazis succeeded by transhumanists, the notes give no clue. My own suspicion is that the esteemed professor simply made it up.

And apparently, he has stuck to his guns. The Wikipedia page for Harari’s new book Homo Deus lists five key components of its central thesis, and the fourth of them begins: “Humanism is a form of religion that worships humankind instead of God.”

We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.

Author’s Note: I am indebted to Free Inquiry contributor and supporter Gordon Gamm for bringing Harari’s book to my attention.

 


Further Reading

  • Harari, Yuval Noah. 2015. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. U.S. edition. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. See especially pp. 228–36.
  • Mann, Charles C. “How Humankind Conquered the World.” Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2015.
  • Strawson, Galen. “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari—review.” Guardian, September 11, 2014.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


“Yuval Noah Harari … has presented an extreme and factually untethered critique of humanism.”

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