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Yuval Noah Harari and ‘secularism’

This article follows on from an article on Harari’s definition of ‘humanism’.

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century Harari writes about what he calls ‘secularism’. He devotes a whole chapter to it.

When secularists talk about secularism, they are talking about a political idea, a way of organising society in relation to religion and belief. Secularism is defined by three principles:

  1. separation of religious institutions from the institutions of state
  2. freedom of thought, conscience, and religion for all, with everyone free to change their beliefs, and manifest their beliefs, within the limits of public order and the rights of others
  3. no discrimination against anyone on the grounds of their religion or non-religious worldview, with everyone receiving equal treatment

For more information about secularism see Secularism by Andrew Copson.

Harari’s ‘secularism’ or ‘the secular worldview’ is a much broader concept. He describes an approach to life that is very similar to the mainstream understanding of humanism – much closer to humanism than is his own definition of ‘humanism’ (a term that he unusually does not discuss in this book given the attention he devoted to it in his previous books Sapiens and Homo Deus).

Harari generally writes approvingly about what he calls ‘secularism’ (and what many humanists would call ‘humanism’). This is positive. However, it is a pity that, as he has already committed himself to his own unusual use of the word ‘humanism’, he is forced to choose an alternative word to describe this approach to life. Now using two words, ‘humanism’ and ‘secularism’, uncoventionally, he has furthered the potential to muddy people’s understanding of them.


Harari’s ‘secularism’

Harari describes the core commitments of ‘secularism’ as follows:

‘For [secularists], secularism is a very positive and active worldview, which is defined by a coherent code of values, rather than by opposition to this or that religion. Indeed many of the secular values are shared by various religious traditions.’

‘This ethical code – which is indeed accepted by millions of Muslims, Christians and Hindus, as well as by atheists – enshrines the values of truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage, and responsibility. It forms the foundation of modern scientific and democratic institutions.’

‘What then is the secular ideal? The most important secular commitment is to the truth, which is based on observation and evidence rather than on mere faith.’

‘The other chief commitment of secular people is to compassion. Secular ethics relies not on obeying the edict of this or that God, but rather on a deep appreciation of suffering… When secular people encounter such dilemmas, they do not ask ‘What does God command?’ Rather they weigh carefully the feelings of all concerned parties, examine a wide range of observations and possibilities, and search for a middle path that will cause as little harm as possible… This is the deep reason why secular people cherish scientific truth. Not in order to satisfy their curiosity, but in order to know how best to reduce the suffering in the world. Without the guidance of scientific studies our compassion is often blind.’

‘The twin commitments to truth and compassion result also in a commitment to equality.’

‘We cannot search for the truth and for the way out of suffering without the freedom to think, investigate, and experiment.’

‘It takes a lot of courage to fight biases and oppressive regimes, but it takes even greater courage to admit ignorance and venture into the unknown. Secular education teaches us that if we don’t know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging our ignorance and looking for new evidence. Even if we think we know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of doubting our opinions and checking ourselves again.’

‘Finally secular people cherish responsibility. They don’t believe in any higher power that takes care of the world, punishes the wicked, rewards the just, and protects us from famine, plague, or war. We flesh-and-blood mortals must take full responsibility for whatever we do – or don’t do.’

Truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage, responsibility: many humanists would see much that chimes with their own understanding of ‘humanism’ in the above.

He goes on to describe features of his ‘secularism’ that fit more closely with its conventional definition as a political position:

‘There is no expectation that religious people should deny God or abandon traditional rites and rituals. The secular world judges people on the basis of their behaviour rather than of their favourite clothes and ceremonies. A person can follow the most bizarre sectarian dress code and practice the strangest of religious ceremonies, yet act out of a deep commitment to the core secular values. There are plenty of Jewish scientists, Christian environmentalists, Muslim feminists, and Hindu human rights activists. If they are loyal to scientific truth, to compassion, to equality, and to freedom, they are full members of the secular world, and there is absolutely no reason to demand that they take off their yarmulkes, crosses, hijabs, or tilakas.’

And on ‘secular education’:

‘For similar reasons, secular education does not mean negative indoctrination that teaches kids not to believe in God and not to take part in any religious ceremonies. Rather, secular education teaches children to distinguish truth and belief; to develop their compassion for all suffering beings; to appreciate the wisdom and experiences of all the earth’s denizens; to think freely without fearing the unknown; and to take responsibility for their actions and for the world as a whole.’


Was Stalin a secularist/humanist?

Harari denies that individuals like Stalin, whom he problematically described as ‘humanist’ in Sapiens, were ‘secularists’.

‘Whether one should view Stalin as a secular leader is therefore a matter of how we define secularism. If we use the minimalist negative definition – ‘secular people don’t believe in a god’ – then Stalin was definitely secular. If we use a positive definition – ‘secular people reject all unscientific dogmas and are committed to truth, compassion, and freedom’ – then Marx was a secular luminary, but Stalin was anything but. He was the prophet of the godless but extremely dogmatic religion of Stalinism.’

Given we can now understand Harari’s ‘secularism’ as a close parallel to the mainstream understanding of ‘humanism’, Harari would appear to support the view that Stalin cannot be described as a humanist in any conventional sense of the word.


Criticisms of ‘secularism’

Harari raises some criticisms of ‘secularism’.

‘[It is] groundless to criticize secularism for lacking ethical commitments or social responsibilities. 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, and large societies cannot be run on the basis of the open-ended quest for truth and compassion.’

Many humanists would agree that their goals are not easily achievable. They require work. However, they will typically be more optimistic than Harari.

Harari also argues that secular movements have the capacity to mutate into dogmatic creeds. However, he acknowledges that many of the negative consequences of ‘secularism’ have come about through misinterpretation of the ‘secularist’ ideals.

‘Secularism should not be equated with Stalinist dogmatism or with the bitter fruits of Western imperialism and runaway industrialisation. Yet it cannot shirk all responsibility for them, either. Secular movements and scientific institutions have mesmerised billions with promises to perfect humanity and to utilise the bounty of planet Earth for the benefit of our species… You might well argue that this is all the fault of people misunderstanding and distorting the core secular ideals and the true facts of science. And you are absolutely right. But that is a common problem for all influential movements.’

He also questions the ‘dogma’ of human rights, denying that human beings are naturally endowed with such rights or that their rejection transgresses some law of nature. However, even he admits that human rights can be understood in a non-dogmatic way as a political demand or aspiration: in the sense that ‘everyone should have such rights’.


Other lessons from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

It is also worth noting that at the beginning of the book, Harari writes about the fact that despite his criticisms of the liberal democratic model, he acknowledges that it has achieved great things:

‘Much of the book discusses the shortcomings of the liberal worldview and of the democratic system. I do not do so because I believe liberal democracy is uniquely problematic but rather because I think it is the most successful and most versatile political model humans have so far developed for dealing with the challenges of the modern world.’

We also learn that his understanding of morality fits closely with a humanist approach:

‘Yet though gods can inspire us to act compassionately, religious faith is not a necessary condition for moral behaviour. The idea that we need a supernatural being to make us act morally assumes that there is something unnatural about morality. But why? Morality of some kind is natural. All social mammals from chimpanzees to rats have ethical codes that limit things such as theft and murder.’

‘Morality doesn’t mean ‘following divine commands’. It means ‘reducing suffering’. Hence in order to act morally, you don’t need to believe in any myth or story. You just need to develop a deep appreciation of suffering.’

‘You might object that every human naturally seeks to avoid feeling miserable, but why would a human care about the misery of others, unless some god demands it? One obvious answer is that humans are social animals, therefore their happiness depends to a very large extent on their relations with others.’

In conclusion, Harari appears to find much to praise in the humanist approach to life. The issue remains in his unhelpful choice of terms and definitions.

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