“As the last few centuries have proved, we don’t need to invoke God’s name in order to live a moral life,” writes big historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari in his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. “Secularism can provide us with all the values we need.”
Secularism, Harari observes, is not a negative worldview devoid of ethical content and moral mattering, “an empty box waiting to be filled with something” (a charge perhaps better suited to atheism than secularism). Instead, secularists, or ‘seculars’, commit to a coherent set of values and believe that morality and wisdom are “the natural legacy of all humans”—i.e. there is nothing ‘unnatural’ about morality. Harari writes:
“Unlike some sects that insist they have a monopoly over all wisdom and goodness, one of the chief characteristics of secular people is that they claim no such monopoly. They don’t think that morality and wisdom came down from heaven in one particular place and time.”
For the religious, morality generally means ‘following divine commands’ (otherwise, on the theist’s account, morality would be merely subjective), but Harari rejects this story of a law-giving God and favours, as a first principle, the reality of suffering in the world; for secularists, morality 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. If you really understand how an action causes unnecessary suffering to yourself or to others, you will naturally abstain from it.”
With morality in mind, Harari outlines six secular commitments that capture what he calls the secular ideal, “an ideal to aspire to rather than a social reality”.
The first and most important secular commitment is to truth. Rather than canonise this or that group’s guru or holy book, seculars embrace the scientific way of thinking by using observation and evidence in their quest for truth (think Carl Sagan: “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge”); they don’t rely on faith (belief without evidence), mere authority, or ancient dogma (because, as history reveals, “some fake news lasts forever”).
“Secular people sanctify the truth wherever it may reveal itself – in ancient fossilised bones, in images of far-off galaxies, in tables of statistical data, or in the writings of various human traditions. This commitment to the truth underlies modern science, which has enabled humankind to split the atom, decipher the genome, track the evolution of life, and understand the history of humanity itself.”
The second chief commitment is to compassion. Secular ethics does not rely on or presuppose the existence of any supernatural agent or agencies. Instead, our ethics are grounded on—or rather coordinated around—“a deep appreciation of suffering”. According to Harari, one reason seculars cherish scientific truth is not simply to satisfy their curiosity (“I personally never cease to wonder about the mystery of existence”), but because reliable models of reality help us effectively calibrate our moral compass as we navigate both onwards and upwards (for Harari’s thoughts on the latter, see Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow). In short, “Without the guidance of scientific studies, our compassion is often blind.”
Equality, the third commitment, natural stems from the first two. Harari writes:
“Though opinions differ regarding questions of economic and political equality, secular people are fundamentally suspicious of all a priori hierarchies. Suffering is suffering, no matter who experiences it; and knowledge is knowledge, no matter who discovers it. Privileging the experiences or the discoveries of a particular national, class or gender is likely to make us both callous and ignorant.
Secular people are certainly proud of the uniqueness of their particular nation, country and culture – but they don’t confuse ‘uniqueness’ with ‘superiority’. Hence though secular people acknowledge their special duties towards their nation and their country, they don’t think these duties are exclusive, and they simultaneously acknowledge their duties towards humanity as a whole.”
An intellectually honest search for truth and a path away from suffering is not possible without Harari’s fourth secular commitment to freedom: freedom “to think, investigate, and experiment.” Critically, humans should also “always retain the freedom to doubt, to check again, to hear a second opinion, to try a different path.” To the secularist, freedom matters:
“Secular people admire Galileo Galilei who dared to question whether the earth really sits motionless at the centre of the universe; they admire the masses of common people who stormed the Bastille in 1789 and brought down the despotic regime of Louis XVI; and they admire Rosa Parks who had the courage to sit down on a bus seat reserved for white passengers only.”
These and other historical figures also embody the fifth commitment. “It takes a lot of courage to fight biases and oppressive regimes,” writes Harari, “but it takes even greater courage to admit ignorance and venture into the unknown.” Instead of being one of Plato’s cave-dwelling slaves who enjoys polishing their chains and apologising for shadows, seculars are curious and free from such self-imposed spiritual fetters.
“Modern history has demonstrated that a society of courageous people willing to admit ignorance and raise difficult questions is usually not just more prosperous but also more peaceful than societies in which everyone must unquestioningly accept a single answer. People afraid of losing their truth tend to be more violent than people who are used to looking at the world from several different viewpoints. Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.”
The secularist, therefore, nurtures a culture of doubt and healthy scepticism. The secular ideals teach humility, an important lesson that comes up again and again in Harari’s thoughtful and timely meditation on the present. “Humans of all creeds would do well to take humility more seriously.”
Finally, secularists value responsibility. They believe in death after life and recognise that no one is coming to save them, echoing Steve Biko’s sober secular observation/reminder that, “God is not in the habit of coming down from heaven to solve people’s problems”. Harari writes:
“We flesh-and-blood mortals must take full responsibility for whatever we do—or don’t do. If the world is full of misery, it is our duty to find solutions. Secular people take pride in the immense achievements of modern societies, such as curing epidemics, feeding the hungry, and bringing peace to large parts of the world. We need not credit any divine protector with these achievements – they resulted from humans developing their own knowledge and compassion.”
Truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage and responsibility: these are Harari’s six secular ideas Homo sapiens can aspire to in the twenty-first century to help us reckon with, as Harari opines, “the most important decisions in the history of life”. But in doing so, Harari concludes, secularists should also acknowledge the movement’s shadow:
“Secular science has at least one big advantage over most traditional religions, namely that it is not terrified of its shadow, and it is in principle willing to admit its mistakes and blind spots. If you believe in an absolute truth revealed by a transcendent power, you cannot allow yourself to admit any error – for that would nullify your whole story. But if you believe in a quest for truth by fallible humans, admitting blunders is an inherent part of the game.”