From the bookshelf of Rabbi Sacks, we filmed his video book reviews of some volumes he read in 2017, and the ideas they sparked.
“I recently re-read Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling book ‘Sapiens’ and finished reading Douglas Murray’s (from The Henry Jackson Society) new, excellent and already bestselling book ‘The Strange Death of Europe’. Both have something very important to say about the state of our world. Here are a few thoughts of my own about the books and the work that needs to be done to protect our society.”
A personal confession: I have to admit I have an addiction – I just love reading books, which is normally an enormous pleasure, but sometimes just plain robs you of your sleep. And in particular, I’ve just been reading two books, both of them bestsellers, which I commend to you. One, which I’m actually reading for the second time is Yuval Harari’s terrific book, Sapiens which has been a bestseller throughout the world. It’s a sweeping history of humanity from the time homo sapiens first set foot on earth until today. The other one, another bestseller – but it’s only just – out is Douglas Murray’s book, The Strange Death of Europe. And the argument of the book, I can probably signal to you just by reading the first two sentences, “Europe is committing suicide, or at least its leaders have decided to commit suicide.” Murray’s argument is that the political leadership of Europe has either been dishonest about or plain denial of various happenings in Europe that are causing us to risk, indeed put in danger the very nature of European civilisation and free societies that we’ve come to enjoy and take as absolutely natural.
Now, these are two very different books on different subjects by two completely different types of author, but this is where it gets interesting because a key point in both of them is exactly the same. Here, for instance, is Douglas Murray’s way of putting it. He says that Europe has been losing its religion, and “instead in its wake there arose a desire to demonstrate that in the 21st century, Europe had a self-supporting structure of rights, laws and institutions which could exist even without the source that had arguably given them life. In the place of religion came the ever-inflating language of human rights itself, a concept of Christian origin. We left unresolved the question as to whether or not our acquired rights were reliant on beliefs that the continent ceased to hold.”
In other words, Europe is losing its religion and once the roots of the tree are severed, the tree itself begins to die. Harari makes pretty much the same point in slightly more general global terms. Here’s how he puts it:
“Even though liberal humanism sanctifies humans, it doesn’t deny the existence of God and is in fact founded on monotheist beliefs. The liberal belief in the free and sacred nature of each individual is a direct legacy of the traditional Christian belief in free and eternal individual selves. Without recourse to individual selves and to Creator God, it becomes embarrassingly difficult for liberals to explain what’s so special about individual sapiens. The end result is that we’ve come to rely instead not on religion, but science.”
Harari himself does just that. But listen to what he says about this. “As far as we can tell from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose. Our actions aren’t part of some divine cosmic plan and if Planet Earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the Universe would probably keep going about its business as usual. As far as we can tell at this point, human subjectivity wouldn’t be missed at all. Hence, any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion.”
And so what happens next? Here is his conclusion: that we’ve developed through science and technology. “The power of gods,” in his words “were more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power.” And this is his closing sentence. “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?” What that might mean, he actually makes much clearer in his later book, which is Homo Deus: A Brief History of the Future.
And this is how he puts it. “Science and technology are showing us that all life, including all human life is just a series of algorithms. And when it comes to algorithms, artificial intelligence is already a lot cleverer than we are. And the end result is that looking back, humanity will turn out to be just a ripple within the cosmic data flow.” Well, that’s pretty heavy stuff actually, because here are two serious thinkers coming from very different starting points telling us that if we lose our religious beliefs specifically, the Judeo-Christian belief set out in the Bible that each of us is in the image of God and therefore sacred and therefore possessed of non-negotiable dignity, then the end result will be, for Douglas Murray the end of Europe, and for Yuval Harari, a little more dramatically, the end of homo sapiens.
And what makes this all the more interesting is that neither of these writers are remotely religious. Yuval Harari actually believes that all religions are in his word, “fictions” or as he puts it, “all meanings are delusional.” And Douglas Murray is much too English and diplomatic to tell us what he believes, but he does not write as a religious thinker but simply as a detached historian.
Now, what makes this even more interesting is that if you step back and take a look at this as a whole, you will discover that from time to time, great thinkers have arisen in the past who have given us a majestic account of what makes civilisations grow, and what leads to their decline and fall. Ibn Khaldun did it in the 14th century. In the 18th century, so did Giambattista Vico. And the most powerful statement in the 20th century was the incredible work of the American historian Will Durant and his multi-volume work, The Story of Civilization.
And here is what Durant himself wrote just about 80 years ago. Every civilisation, he says, eventually goes through a conflict between religion and society or more specifically, between religion and science. And then it reaches the following point when, in his words, “the intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and after some hesitation, the moral code allied with it. Literature and philosophy become anti-clerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason and falls to a paralysing disillusionment with every dogma and idea. Conduct deprived of its religious supports deteriorates into Epicurean chaos and life itself shorn of consoling faith becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end, a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, into a harmonious death.” And the interesting thing about Will Durant is that he began life wanting to be a Catholic Priest and in the end lost his religion too. So here we are with some very serious thinkers, not religious at all, telling us that when a society loses its religious base, its civilisation is about to die.
Now, let me ask you a simple question: change of subject for a moment, just for a moment. Supposing I told you that all this talk about climate change and global warming were a load of absolute nonsense put together by pseudo intellectual’s practising pseudoscience. You’d probably either think me mad, irresponsible, or about to stand as President for some country or other. Now, I want to argue that we are in the same kind of denial about another kind of climate change, namely cultural climate change, civilisational climate change, which is every bit as dangerous to the human future as is straightforward climate change. In which case, I suggest it’s real and it’s dangerous and we’d better start doing something about it now.
Because we are rapidly losing the very culture that gave us the foundations of liberty, namely the sanctity of the individual person, the dignity to which we are each entitled and what the American declaration of independence calls are inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All of which were ideas born in the 17th century that have survived and served us until now, all of which stood on the basis of a foundation in Judeo-Christian faith. As John F. Kennedy famously said in his inaugural address on the 20th of January, 1961, “The same revolutionarily beliefs for which our forebears fought are today at issue throughout the globe. The idea that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” Now, if we lose that belief, none of the other institutions of the contemporary world is going to save us. Not science, not technology, not market economics and not the liberal democratic state, for a pretty simple reason, because science can tell us how, but not why. Technology can give us power, but cannot tell us how to use that power. The market economy gives us choices, but doesn’t tell us which choices lead on to human flourishing and which to self-destruction. And the liberal democratic state gives us freedom, but cannot itself provide the intellectual or moral or spiritual basis of that freedom.
So the end result is, to put it mildly, we are in trouble. And what Yuval Harari and Douglas Murray are telling us is that you don’t have to be religious to recognise all the danger signals and all the early warning signs. And whether Europe dies and hands over to the barbarians, or for Yuval Harari, humanity dies and hands over to the robots, one way or another, we are at serious risk. And therefore my suggestion is really quite simple: all of us, religious and non-religious alike who believe in liberal humanism, who believe in human dignity, who believe in the free society bet better come together soon to work, to protect the human environment with the same passion as we have come together in the past to protect the natural environment. Because if we fail to do so, we will, by forgetting our past, lose, destroy our human future. And if that happens, heaven help us and our grandchildren.