The phrase makes even non-Americans think of the Declaration of Independence : “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In his analysis of this rock-solid foundation of democracy, Yuval Noah Hariri’s “Sapiens. A Brief History of Mankind” (Penguin Random House, London, 2011) brilliantly shatters this seminal statement in a way he knows will make “outraged” readers “squirm”. He replaces it by the following : “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of pleasure.”
I will leave my readers to discover the incontestable reasoning of the author and the pleasure or pain it will provoke. Suffice it here to quote just one of his statements : “The American Founding Fathers … imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality” (as well as the idea of a “Creator”, “inalienable rights” and even “happiness”) … “Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell each other. These principles have no objective reality.”
The problem is that Harari asserts that without belief in these or other myths, human society could not function. “An imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends on myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them.” This is why, he argues, society is forced to enforce order, sometimes by violence and even war, for the common good and the very survival of the body politic. But, he further points out, coercion, while necessary, is not sufficient : at least some of the society’s authorities must BELIEVE in something, “be it God, honour, motherhood, manhood or money”.
The implications of all this are, to say the least, food for thought in a Blog like this. The principal one, in a word, is that if my original mantra, “Delenda Religio”, ever came to pass, the social order would collapse. I have already said several times that universal atheism is, in any event, a pipe-dream : people will never collectively and entirely give up believing in a God and an after-life. Harari has provided a deeper insight into why atheism MUST NEVER become a universal reality. We know it never will. So why flog the Blog, why pester Believers on the Brink to get them to see how silly religion is ? Because, I contend, if they are brave enough to recognize where their credulity has led them, they deserve the freedom that comes from exchanging their blind illusions for liberating illumination. They will, hopefully, join the Unchosen Few (of whom, thank Whatever, I am one) whom we call atheists. We leave it to others, hardcore believers, to continue to ensure the perpetuity of our human society.
Other myths (for example, Communism) can hardly compete with the promise of an eternal life of bliss after death. So we may as well get used to it : religion is here to stay. But that does not mean that you, dear BOTB, have to remain religious. Opt out, carpe diem, follow your bliss – and leave the survival of society to the credulous with their blindfaithblindfolly.
RIDENDA (NOT delenda) RELIGIO
P.S. As a special treat, a sort of “in cauda, thesaurus” as well as an encouragement to read the book, and because of the exceptional significance, for the central theme of this Blog, of Yuval Harari’s “vaultingly ambitious history of humankind” (Financial Times) and his “fast-paced, witty and challenging romp through 70,000 years of human history” (Literary Review), I am taking the liberty of quoting one of its early pages to share with you an insight into what the author calls the “Cognitive Revolution”. He defines this as “the appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago” and “the ability to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language” :
“The truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.
“Legends, myths, gods and religion appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say ‘Careful ! A lion !’. Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to say ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe’. This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.
“It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo Sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana, by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But why is it important ? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting. People who go to the forest looking for fairies and unicorns would seem to have less chance of survival than people who go looking for mushrooms and deer. And if you spend hours praying to non-existing guardian spirits, aren’t you wasting precious time, time better spent foraging, fighting and fornicating ?
“But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”