Evaluating the new influential philosophers

Many Christians have been encouraged by the popularity of Canadian academic Jordan Peterson, who while not professing personal faith, is positive about the idea of God and some aspects of biblical teaching. Reportedly he is causing numbers of previously de-churched, cynical young men in particular to reconsider the gospel message.

The increasingly guru-like status of another university professor, Yuval Noah Harari (pictured), should give more cause for concern. The Israeli historian’s first two books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, have now sold more than 12 million copies worldwide; they have been endorsed by Bill Gates and Barack Obama, and have garnered numerous enthusiastic reviews.

While Peterson’s brand of self-help philosophy and critique of lazy ‘echo-chamber’ thought is not to everyone’s taste, some of his ideas are at least compatible with a Christian worldview. Harari, by contrast, puts forward an ideology that is not only explicitly and contemptuously atheist, but ultimately questions the value of human beings, and even the point of our existence in the cosmos.

Why has this become so popular? Perhaps, where Peterson offers a contemporary book of Proverbs, Harari attempts an alternative whole Bible, by answering big, fundamental questions about our origins, our identity and our destiny. According to his account, as Homo Sapiens, we are apes who have achieved global supremacy through accidents of evolution, developing unrivalled capacity for thought, organisation and communication.

In particular, human societies have grown and held together through shared beliefs in “communal fictions” or myths. These include deities, religions and heteronormativity (as one would expect), but also, more controversially, abstract principles considered “self-evident” since the enlightenment: nation states, human rights and the concept of justice; the unique dignity of individual people. Even money and corporations are, for Harari, part of “imagined reality”.

Harari’s appeal also stems from the immense erudition behind his ideas, expressed simply and compellingly enough for his books to sit alongside thrillers and romances in popular bookstores. He dazzles the reader with a range of historical and scientific knowledge, from speculative theories of the evolutionary psychology of prehistoric tribes, through early agrarian societies, ancient Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, 20th century global politics and contemporary economics. Azimov-like, he then issues prophecies of the future, displaying enough technical jargon about cutting-edge research in artificial intelligence to intimidate the layman and bolster the plausibility of his secular eschatological vision.

For Harari, being a humanist in the sense of valuing and preserving who we are now is not good enough. While religion locates authority outside ourselves, in a spiritual realm, with commandments mediated to us through texts and traditions, humanism says we are only answerable to our individual inner being, our “hearts”. But according to the philosophy of Homo Deus (‘Man is God’), because there is no God ‘out there’ and no soul ‘in there’, and we are just cells and synapses, there is no “authentic self”.

In the past, humanity tried to understand itself through theology, or drama and literature, and then most recently through biology and genetics. Now according to Harari, it is computer science, because all organisms are nothing more than algorithms (a philosophy he clunkily calls “dataism”.)

Technology means that we, or at least some of us, will be able to upgrade ourselves; our frail bodies through increasingly sophisticated medicines and nanobots, and our minds as well. “Once we can design and redesign our will,” says Harari, “we would no longer see it as the ultimate source of meaning and authority.”

We wouldn’t have to derive purpose and identity from our desires, or struggle against them, if we can re-shape them artificially. But what is ‘meaning’ anyway? Christianity invites us to see the universe from God’s perspective; humanism in the observation of the conscious individual. Harari betrays his underlying Buddhist sympathies when he concludes that humanity is just “a ripple within the cosmic dataflow”; we are not important.

Many in Western society have rejected a theistic worldview and are increasingly becoming disillusioned with modernist humanism. Harari’s ideas are appealing and even compelling in this vacuum, with their blend of big picture historical perspective and exciting techno-futurist possibilities, deep guilt about human arrogance vis a vis the planet, and an attraction to Eastern ideas of integration with the cosmos.

Christian critics have pointed out Harari’s tendency to caricature and misrepresent other views (especially biblical faith). Others, including atheists, have questioned whether his view of the future of humanity is ridiculously optimistic and callous at the same time (for example the idea that death, disease and war are just “technical challenges”).

These ideas, while not yet mainstream, are gaining increasing support among our governing elites. They are opposed to biblical Christianity, and need to be challenged as we work out ways of telling again the Story that is hopeful, true, and no less difficult to believe.

The Rev Andrew Symes is executive secretary of Anglican Mainstream