Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Ok, this is a pretty wonderful book. Yuval Noah Harari is a professor in history from Oxford and in his book he covers… well everything. His section on religion, like the rest of the book, is pithy and thought provoking. Particularly challenging ideas include: the great world religion is syncretism since monotheistic faiths like Christianity actually contain dualistic faith components such as the devil, polytheist components such as saints, and animist components such as ghosts. (In short we are not very consistent or systematic in our thoughts.)

One thought I find particularly compelling is his description of modern religions. Harari argues that faiths, like Christianity, are on the way out and are being replaced by humanist religions. He identifies three such faiths: 1. Liberal Humanism, 2. Socialist Humanist, 3. Evolutionary Humanism. All of these are faiths because they fit within his definition of religion, “a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a super human order.” For the Humanist religions the super human order is based on the belief that Homo sapiens have a unique and sacred nature that is fundamentally different from the nature of all other beings and phenomena. The supreme good is the good of humanity. Liberal humanists believe the individual is supreme. Socialist humanists believe in equality within the species. Evolutionist humanists encourage humanity’s evolution into superhumans.

Given that he sums up Christianity in under five pages he does a remarkably good job. He captures our belief that spirit and flesh are sacred, that God provides order and goodness to the world, and that despite being a religion based on love and compassion we have inflicted a shocking amount of violence upon the world. One of the few things I would contend with is his statement that we are mystified by evil. Harari believes that is why we turn to the devil, to explain evil. I think we have done a much better job of explaining evil than that. I think Christianity normally puts the blame on humanity. We are disobedient. Knowing the good we choose the bad. Climate change is a great example. We know what must be done to reduce carbon emissions but we are loathe to do it.

But this is a minor quibble given what he has accomplished in this book. This is a page turner and I learn something new on every one. It is published by McClelland and Stewart.