This post is a summary of Chapter 7 of Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus.
Humanism is the dominant religion of the modern age. It underpins how we see the world, the stories we tell and our perceptions of goodness, beauty and truth. Rather than exalting a higher power, humanism places homo sapiens at the centre of the universe. By drawing their own purpose and sense of self, human beings can create meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. This world-view predominates in Western and secular societies today, even among the nominally religious.
In the past, humans believed in a world order governed by deities and spirits. Every man, woman and child had a role to play and laws to follow, but their destiny was not theirs to decide. While lacking in agency and power, humans believed life was worthwhile so long as they played their part. In traditional religious societies, laws and political power came not from people but from above. Reality was objective and priests and kings were its arbiters. The old view claims humans are unique but inherantly flawed therefore requiring guidance in their every action.
The Scientific Revolution uprooted the old belief systems. Discoveries in biology and physics revealed the world was random, and in effect purposeless. While most of the world was nominally religious, by the 1800s, many – in Europe particular – no longer let faith guide their lives as it had before, thus Nietzsche’s proclamation that ‘God is dead’.
Philosophers like Rosseau, Voltaire and Kant believed that human will gives meaning to an otherwise meaningless world. What you choose to do in life should not be God’s decision, or your parent’s, but yours. Our inner world is rich and alive – demons and angels exist not outside us, but within. People should be free to do as they please and love whom they please, so long as they do not harm others. Murder is a crime, not because holy texts say so, but because it infringes on another’s right to live. Art is what people agree it is. Legitimate power comes from the masses, not from above.
The 19th century saw three strains of humanism develop:
- Liberal humanism: individual rights are paramount. History is a gradual progression of scientific knowledge and individual freedoms. Every human is unique. Voters know best. The customer is always right. Beauty is the in the eye of the beholder.
- Socialist humanism: collective rights are paramount. History is a story of different groups oppressing others for their own gain. Humans are products of their environment. Politics, economics and art should serve the greater human good.
- Evolutionary humanism: rights are irrelevant in the march of history. Humans are unique, but not all are equal. Politics, economics and war are engines of natural selection and human destiny is survival of the fittest. Art and beauty are objective.
The 20th century saw humanist ‘wars of religion’ fought worldwide. Socialism came close in the 1970s, but ultimately liberal humanism prevailed, and dominates the modern world.
Today’s world runs on the principles of democracy, human rights, individualism and a free market. Swathes of people may cling to older religions and worldviews, but liberal humanism dominates the world’s institutions. The greatest innovations of the past century, including modern medicine, computer science and feminism, stem from the liberal humanist tradition.
Sources: Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Deus