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Yuval Noah Harari and ‘humanism’

Yuval Noah Harari has come into the spotlight over the past few years following the release of two books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, which have sold many copies. In these books, Harari uses a somewhat eccentric definition of humanism which many consider to be damaging to the humanist movement. He uses the word ‘humanism’ as a catch-all term to include a variety of worldviews and ideologies, many of which most humanists would see humanism as being opposed to. Defining humanism in his own unique and unusual way, Harari seems unaware of the way the word ‘humanism’ is most commonly used today, which is in many ways the direct opposite of the meaning he gives it.

Harari holds that what he calls ‘humanism’ has been responsible for many of humanity’s greatest catastrophes over the past hundred years: totalitarian regimes (Nazism and communism), the Second World War, and the destruction of the environment. This argument can then be taken by critics of humanism and applied as a stick with which to attack it. Many humanists would agree that the worldview which Harari describes has been responsible for many of humanity’s greatest errors. What they disagree with is that such a worldview is humanism by any conventional understanding of the word.

Click here to learn more about the conventional understanding of humanism.

Because of the popularity of Harari’s books, misconceptions about humanism have increased. A number of teachers and other educators have contacted us to help with this issue. We hope the below will help to clarify the distinction between Harari’s ‘humanism’ and the more mainstream use of the word.

What Yuval Noah Harari says about humanism What humanists say about humanism
Involves the belief that ‘Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature that is fundamentally different from the nature of all other beings and phenomena.’ Recognises that human beings have certain capacities and capabilities that are not shared in the same depth by other living creatures, but acknowledge that any differences between us and other animals is one of degree rather than of kind.
Is a family of religions that ‘worship humanity, or more correctly, homo sapiens.’ Is not a religion. Rejects the worship of anything, including human beings (human beings should seek to take down the pedestal, not climb on top of it). Holds that everything is open to question and that to worship something puts it beyond enquiry and criticism. Whilst rejecting the worship of human beings, humanism holds that all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity.
Seeks to perfect humanity or sees the perfection of humanity as ‘the supreme good.’ Recognises that perfection is an unrealistic goal. Acknowledges the flaws in human nature, and seeks to work within such parameters to improve the wellbeing of human beings in the here and now.
Claims ‘the rest of the world and all other beings exist solely for the benefit of [our] species.’ Argues that the environment should be controlled and manipulated for human needs. Recognises that the natural environment nourishes and sustains not only us, but all other life. Encourages us to extend our circle of moral concern to all sentient creatures capable of suffering (see Jeremy Bentham, Peter Singer).
Can be divided into three groups: ‘liberal humanism’, ‘socialist humanism’, and ‘evolutionary humanism’, each with its ‘supreme commandment’ (freedom of the individual, equality within the species, encouragement of our evolution into superhumans) Often shares liberal or socialist aspirations such as freedom and equality of opportunity; however, acknowledges that no single political goal is of ‘supreme’ importance and that human wellbeing often involves compromise between conflicting values. Does not seek the evolution of human beings into superhumans.
The crimes of Nazism, Stalinism, and environmental destruction can all find their origins in the central tenets of humanism. Humanism is responsible for ‘an age of intense religious fervor, unparalleled missionary efforts, and the bloodiest wars of religion in history (the conflicts of the 20th century).’ Totalitarian ideologies are antithetical to humanism. Humanists reject all forms of ideological rigidity that do not open themselves to question and criticism. Humanists have consistently opposed totalitarian ideologies as such doctrines have dismissed human rights and reduced individual human beings to tools in the pursuit of some ‘greater’ goal.
‘Is founded on monotheistic beliefs.’ Has evolved in parallel to the world’s great religions, with humanist ideas dating back to ancient China, India, and Greece. Both humanist and religious beliefs have influenced each other during their long history.
Worldviews and ideologies covered by Yuval Noah Harari’s definition of humanism: Worldviews and ideologies covered by Humanists’ definition of humanism:

Communism, capitalism, nationalism, Nazism, utopianism, human-sanctification, transhumanism

Harari’s humanism also does not deny the existence of a god and is therefore inclusive of various religious worldviews.

Humanism

 

The above is not a criticism of all the claims or arguments Harari makes in his books. It is a disagreement with how he uses the word ‘humanism’. Ultimately, Harari is just using the word in a different way from previous mainstream usage. Because of the unfortunate popularity of his ideas, this is a problem, but we hope this resource is useful to those with questions.

Read more about Harari’s definition of ‘liberal humanism’.

Harari also uses the word ‘secularism’ in an unconventional manner. He uses the word to describe a worldview similar to the more mainstream understanding of the word ‘humanism’. Read more about Harari’s definition of ‘secularism’.

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