Religion through History

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #10: The Law of Religion

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding. All ideas and examples are by Dr. Harari.)

For Dr Harari, a belief system has to fulfil two criteria for it to be called a religion:

1) Religion must believe in a superhuman (not necessarily supernatural) order
2) Religion establishes norms and values which are derived from the superhuman order

Some religions have argued for a universal order, a set of norms and values which everybody everywhere must follow, but not all religions have made this claim. Universal and missionary religions, in this sense, appeared in the first millennium BC. (It is the third force that contributed to the historical trend towards global unification.)

Most polytheists, while they believed in a multiplicity of gods who have a personal interest in humankind, also believed in a supreme fundamental principle (which may or may not be a god) against which even the gods are helpless. Greeks, for instance, believed in Fate (Moira or Ananke), and Hindus believe in Atman, the eternal soul of the entire universe. The crucial point, however, is that this supreme power of the universe has no concern for the interests of humans. That is why the polytheists did not pray to the supreme power, but instead to the local gods, who could hear their prayers and answer them.

Because polytheists believed in many gods, and therefore many different ways of worship and living, they tended to be much more tolerant. The persecution of Christians by Romans was for political reasons and not because of religious intolerance. Romans did not expect Christians to give up their faith, but they did expect them to respect their gods, in particular to pay reverence to emperor as a god, which to them was a sign of political loyalty. The refusal of Christians to do so was seen as an act of political subversion. Even so, the persecution of Christians by Romans pales in contrast to the persecution of heretical Christians by the Catholic Church in the centuries to follow by several magnitudes.

Monotheism was born by believing that a particular local god is also the supreme power of the universe, while believing that this god has biases and interests in humans, and deals can be made with him. Monotheism first originated in in Egypt but remained a small player in history for the most part. It became significant with the origin of Christianity, when it embraced the ideal of a universal religion offering salvation to all of humankind. Because monotheists believe that their god is the only true God, they have tended to be much more fanatical and missionary, and they have been compelled to discredit all other religions.

Even though monotheism replaced polytheism for the most part in the course of history, polytheism continued to survive within monotheism. The polytheistic practices and beliefs were simply incorporated within the belief system of monotheism, and coloured accordingly. For instance, the pantheon of polytheistic local gods got incorporated into Christianity with the notion of Christian saints. In many cases, the name of a particular local god simply became the name of the local patron saint.

Dualistic religions posed two independent deities, one good and one evil, and the world as the battle between forces of good and evil. Dualistic religions do not face the problem of evil, which poses a great difficulty for monotheism and which most theologians struggle to explain. However, at the same time dualistic religions face what Dr Harari calls the problem of order: if there are two independent gods, then which god determines the rules of the universe (and hence the rules of the battle between good and evil)? The only theology which would solve both problems simultaneously would be a belief in an evil God, but no religion in history has ever believed in such a deity.

Like polytheism, dualism also became an integral part of monotheism in the form of Satan or the devil. In a consistent monotheism, the idea of devil as an evil force subverting the will of an omnipotent God doesn't even make sense, but humans are remarkably capable of believing conflicting things. Similarly, there is no logic of Holy War or Jihad in monotheism where an omnipotent God requires the help of believers to defeat the forces of evil. It's a legacy of dualism. So is the case with Heaven and Hell.

Another category of religions, prominent in the East, are natural law religion. They posit that the supreme order of the universe is a product of natural laws. Gods, if they exist, are subject to these natural laws. One of the prime examples of this is Buddhism, the basic doctrine of which is the law of Dharma: Suffering arises from craving, the only way to be fully liberated from suffering is to be liberated from suffering, and that can be done by training your mind to experience reality as it is. Other examples of the natural law religions are Daoism and Jainism

Dr Harari ends, controversially, by talking about the natural law religions of the modern age. These are the Humanist religions, such as liberalism and socialism. Dr Harari believes they fit his definition of religion because they give superhuman legitimacy (albeit not supernatural) to the norms and values they advocate. Nonetheless, he says that calling them religion is a semantic quibble, and calling them ideologies instead of religion doesn't change the actual reality.

He identifies three main strands of the modern natural law religions:

1) Liberal humanism (or Liberalism): believes the supreme sacred value to be the liberty of individuals, and this is the source of all ethical and political authority. It's commandments are in the form of human rights.

2) Social humanism or (Socialism): considers equality between all humans as the ultimate virtue and inequality as the worst evil.

3) Evolutionary humanism (exemplified by Nazism): Evolutionary humanism holds a different ideal of humanity, based on a certain understanding of Darwinian evolution. Nazism, for instance, wanted to weed out 'unfit and degenerate individuals' for the benefit of humanity. With the death of Nazism, this strand of humanism went into decline as well, but it is expected to resurge in future in a new form which doesn't focus on genocide of lesser individuals, but rather on enhancement of human race by means of biotechnology.

(For prior posts covering this course, see the label A Brief History of Humankind.)