the plan for the future

Part III: The Unification of Humankind


8. The Direction of History

8.1. The long march towards unity


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 8.1

The different human societies that emerged after the agricultural revolution interacted with each other. People who believed in one kind of imagined order encountered people who believed in very different things. There was war, trade, and sometimes immigration from one society to the other. The number of such different interactions is colossal. One particularly important question is, whether all these interactions had an overall pattern and overall direction, or whether it was just a collection of random forces pushing humankind sometimes in one direction and sometimes in another direction.

The answer is that there is a direction and a destination to history. All these wars, revolutions, trade expeditions and emigration movements in history have a clear general direction towards a global unification of the world and of humankind. Over thousands of years, small and simple cultures gradually combined to form bigger and more complex civilisations, so that over time the world contains fewer and fewer cultures, but each of these few remaining cultures is becoming bigger and more complex. This is a very crude generalisation. It is true, only at the macro-level of history.

When observing history over only a few centuries, it is difficult to say whether history moves in the direction of unity or whether history moves actually in the opposite direction of diversity. From this viewpoint it seems that for every group of cultures that combine to form a bigger culture, there is also a big culture that breaks up into smaller pieces. For example, the Mongol empire expanded in the 13th century to dominate huge parts of Asia and even Europe, but after some time it shattered into fragments. Christianity converted and thus united hundreds of millions of people, but Christianity gradually splintered into different sects.

The same applies to human language. For example, Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, spread over much of Western and Central Europe, but then over time Latin itself split into different dialects that eventually became different languages, such as French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. Over the course of millennia it is very clear that history is moving towards unity. The splintering of Christianity into different sects and the collapse of the Mongol empire are only speed bumps on the highway of history, which is leading humankind inexorably towards global unity.

The best way to appreciate the general direction of history is to count the number of separate human worlds that coexisted at any particular moment on planet Earth. Today the whole planet is a single interconnected unit, but for most of history it was a galaxy of many separated human worlds. 2000 years ago, there were no economic, political or military connections between humans in America, humans in Europe, and humans in Australia. Around 10,000 BC, when the agricultural revolution began, Earth contained many thousands of different human worlds. By about 2,000 BC, there were only hundreds of them.

By 1492, when Columbus was setting sail to America, the number of separate human worlds on planet Earth was even smaller. At that time, 1492, Earth still contained a significant number of small isolated human worlds in remote jungles and islands, which had no connection with the outside world. But, at that point in history, close to 90% of humans already lived in a single mega world, the world of Africa, Europe and Asia. The remaining 10% of humanity was not broken up into thousands of separate worlds, it was concentrated instead in just four worlds of considerable size and complexity.

These worlds were the Meso American world, which encompassed most of Central America and part of North America, the Andean World which contained most of Western South America, the Australian world and the Oceanic World of the Pacific region, which included most of the islands of the Southwestern Pacific Ocean. There were also many very small worlds as people living on remote islands and in jungles were not connected with the outside world. In the subsequent centuries people from the world of Africa, Europe and Asia, spread over the rest of the globe conquering all the remaining independent worlds.

This created the single global world in which we today live. Today almost all humans in the world are part of the same system. They all share the same basic global culture and global outlook on the universe. People, no matter where they live, are influenced by each other's actions. A political conflict in the Middle East could cause oil prices to rise in China or Australia and it may cause unemployment in Mexico or in Japan. People in all these places are also increasingly sharing the same basic understanding of politics, economics, and the natural world.

For example, even though people still have different political views and agendas, the entire world today shares the same basic political model, which is the model of the sovereign nation states. Most people in the world today also believe that political power should come from the people. Most countries have parliaments, political parties, and elections, even though these are not always completely free elections. The same is true in the field of economics. Almost everywhere the same economic structures and ideas of the capitalist system exist, such as stock exchanges, banks, and limited liability companies.

The understanding of the natural world and of the human body also converged. For most of history, people who lived in different parts of the world, had a very different understanding and perspective on the natural world and on issues such as biology and medicine. Today hospitals in Tehran, Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires and New York look basically the same. They are using the same medicines and the same treatments. Medicines often come from the same drug producing companies.

There is still much talk about authentic cultures. But the truth is, that if authentic means something that developed independently and consists only of ancient local traditions free of external global influences, then there are no more any authentic cultures left on planet Earth. Over the last few centuries all cultures were changed almost beyond recognition by a flood of global influences and inventions. One of the most interesting examples in this respect is ethnic cuisine or ethnic food.

For example, the tomato is a central part of the Italian Cuisine. But the tomato is not native to Italy. It originated in Central America. Similarly, Switzerland in the middle ages did not have chocolate bars. Chocolate is made of cocoa, which originated in Central America. The ethnic cuisine of Poland and Ireland are based on potatoes, but potatoes originated in South America. This not only happened in Europe. For example, the Indian cuisine has chilli peppers that also originated in America. Our conceptions of authentic ethnic cuisines reflect the development of the global world of the last few centuries.

What exactly drove forward this process of unification and globalisation that has completely changed the face of the world? We often associate this process of unification with events only of the last few centuries. In particular, we often associate the unification of the world with European Imperialism and the rise of the capitalist economy. It is certainly true that the final stage of unification of humankind happened only in the modern era and was due to the twin forces of imperialism and capitalism. The globalisation of the modern era, however, was only the climax of much older processes that began working thousands of years earlier.

The vision of a united world is not a modern vision. It was more than 2,000 years ago that the revolutionary idea of creating a universal order of all humans together first took root in the minds of sapiens in different parts of the world. This vision is very strange, especially when seen from a biological and evolutionary perspective. Humans evolved to think of people as being divided in to us versus them. Us is the group of people immediately around a person and them is everybody else in the world. This is not unique to Homo Sapiens. No social animal thinks about the interests or the identity of the entire species to which it belongs.

People began to cooperate on a more regular basis with complete strangers whom they never met but who they imagined as being their brothers and friends. Nevertheless this growing brotherhood between people was not universal. People still continued to divide humanity into us versus them. For example, when the first Pharaoh of Egypt, Menos, united the entire lower Nile valley around 3000 BC into a single kingdom, it was clear to the Egyptians that Egypt had borders, and the people beyond the borders were considered barbarians.

In the first millennium BC appeared three potentially universal orders. For the first time people started to imagine the whole world and the whole human race as a single unit, which may be governed by a single set of laws. The first universal order to appear in the world was economic: the monetary order based on the belief in money. The second universal order was political: the vision of a single empire governing the whole world. The third universal order was the order of universal religions, such as Buddhism and Christianity. Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first to transcended the evolutionary division between us and them.

8.2. Money for complex economies


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 8.2

Hunter gatherers had no money. Each band hunted, gathered and manufactured almost everything it needed. Different band members may have specialised in different tasks. They shared their goods and services not for money but by an economy of favours and obligations. For instance if the boots of one band member were torn, and somebody else in the band was the best person in mending boots, he went to her and asked her for a favour. She did it without asking for anything in return, just on the basis of their personal relationship assuming that when one day she would need something from him.

Only a few rare items that could not be found locally, such as some special obsidian rocks or seashells, had to be obtained from strangers. This could usually done by barter. Barter means that if I want seashells from you, I give you something you want in return. This is how people lived for tens of thousands of years. The agricultural revolution in the beginning changed very little in these arrangements. Most people continued to live in small villages that were self-sufficient economic units maintained by mutual favours between the villagers and mutual obligations, plus a little barter with outsiders.

The rise of cities and kingdoms, which began around 3,000 BC, and the improvement in the transport infrastructure with the appearance of carts, waggons and bigger boats, brought about new opportunities for people to specialise in just one thing. In the densely populated cities, there was for the first time in history, enough employment for professional shoemakers to appear, as well as for professional carpenters, doctors, priests and soldiers. In a small village there was not enough employment for somebody to be just a shoemaker. In a city of 10,000 people there are enough people to support professional shoemakers.

Also in the villages peasants began to specialise. Some villages began specialising in producing only one kind of product, for example olive oil, wheat or vegetables. This had advantages. First, because every village could concentrate on the ideal products given its location, climate and topography. For instance, a hilly country is not suited for wheat but good for olive trees. Peasants living there could focus only on growing olive trees and producing olive oil. Second, specialising in only one product made it possible to know it very deeply and to develop all kinds of new techniques.

Specialisation also created new problems. The main problem when different people specialise in different tasks is how exactly to manage the exchange of goods and services between all the different specialists. An economy of favours and obligations does not work well when with large numbers of specialists who are strangers to each other. People can do favours and never receive anything in return. A possible solution is to try barter. The problem with barter is that it is only effective with a limited range of products. Barter can never form the basis for a complex economy.

The first problem is that people need to know the value of the product or service they want to buy in terms of the value of the product or service they want to sell. For each product or service there needs to be an exchange rate with each other product or service. Nobody can know so many different exchange rates especially as they change all the time depending on all kinds of conditions. The second and even bigger problem of barter is that even when people manage to calculate and to agree on the exchange rate, barter is not always possible because each side needs to want what the other has got to offer.

The solution for these problems that most societies found, was the invention and development of money. Money was created many times in many places in history. The development of money required no technological breakthrough. It was a purely mental revolution. The invention of money was simply the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists only in the shared imagination of many people. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services.

Cowry shells
Cowry shells
The value of money depends only on human imagination, not on the actual worth of the material from which money is made. This is apparent from the fact that over the generations there have been many types of money. Today the most familiar types of money are the coin and the bank note. Money existed long before the invention of the first coins. Cultures managed to prosper and to have complex economic systems with other kinds of currency. There were societies whose money was sea shells. Other societies used cattle as money. Others used skin, salt, grain, beans, clothes, and coral sea shells.

Coral seashells were important in the history of money. Cowry shells were used as money for about 4000 years all over Africa, South Asia, East Asia and Oceania. Cowry shells were, were one of the most important types of money in history. Even in the early 20th century, it was still possible pay taxes in cowry shells in Uganda, which was then part of the British Empire. In Chinese script, the initial sign for money was the sign of the cowry shell. Even today many words in Chinese which are related to money and buying and selling have the sign of the cowry shell inside them.

Coins and bank notes have become a rare form of money. Most of the economic activity in the world today is not done with coins and bank notes. In the year 2006, the sum total of money in the world was estimated at about $473 trillion. Today it is somewhere in excess of $500 trillion. Yet, the sum total of all the coins and bank notes in the world was worth only about $50 trillion. More than 90% of all the money in the world, about $450 trillion, is in bank accounts. It exists only on computer servers as bits.

We still hear a lot in the news about governments printing money over the last few years to deal with the economic crisis, but they do not really print the money. What actually happens is that the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States goes into the computer and modifies a file which previously stated that there was $50 trillion. He deletes the zero and writes two instead so it now says $ 52 trillion and that is it. Hocus pocus, two new trillion dollars appeared out of nowhere, just because the the head of the Federal Reserve Bank wrote this on the computer.

If all the people who have accounts in the banks went to the banks and demanded to get the money that appears to be in their accounts in the form of dollar bills and coins, all the banks would have to close because less than 10% of the money in the world is actually in the form of these banknotes and coins. However, as long as people are willing to trade goods and services in exchange for moving electronic data from this file to that file, it is perfectly good money. For complex commercial systems to function, some kind of money is indispensable. It could be electronic data.

It could be anything but you must have money in order to have complex markets because money enables people to easily determine the relative value of all the goods and services in the market. A shoemaker in a money economy does not need to know the relative price of shoes compared to apples, olive oil, chicken or butter. The only thing he needs to do is to know how much shoes are worth in dollars or euros or shekels. Money also solves the problem of the apple grower who needs to find a shoemaker who likes apples. Once there is money then this problem too is solved because everybody always wants money.

This is perhaps the most basic quality of money. If there is something that people call money but people do not want it, then it is not really money. Everybody always wants money for a simple reason and this is that everybody else also wants money. This means that if you have money you can exchange it for anything you like. Money is a universal medium of exchange that enables people to convert almost anything into almost anything else. For example, a soldier sells his services in exchange for money and then he pays his college tuition. So with money as an in-between he converted violence into education and knowledge.

Ideal types of money enable people not merely to convert one thing into another thing, but also to store and to transport a large amount of wealth. When wealth comes in the form of apples, it is hard to store them because they will rot after some time and it is hard to transport them to another place. But when wealth comes in the shape of cowry shells or gold coins, it is easy to store them indefinitely and to transport them from one place to another place in a small purse or a small box. Because money can convert, store and transport wealth easily and cheaply, it has made a vital contribution to the appearance of complex commercial networks and dynamic markets that united more and more people into the same economic sphere.

8.3. How money works


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 8.3

Why are people willing to exchange a fertile rice field for a handful of useless cowry shells? Why are people willing to work an entire month, doing many times things they do not really like just in order to get a few colourful pieces of paper at the end of the month? People are willing to do such things when they trust the figments of the collective imagination. Trust is the raw material from which all types of money in history have been minted. For example, when a wealthy farmer in ancient China sold all his possessions in exchange for a sack of cowry shells, and then travelled with them to another province, he trusted that when he reached his destination complete strangers who he never had met before, would be willing to sell him rice, a house and fields in exchange for his cowry shells.

Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised by human beings. Creating trust in money is very complicated. It takes a complex and long term network of political, social and economic relations to build trust in money. Why do people believe in the cowry shells, gold coins or dollar bills? That is because their neighbours also believe in them. The crucial role of trust explains why financial systems are tightly bound up with political and ideological systems. And why financial crises are often triggered by political developments and why the stock market can rise and fall depending on the psychological mood of the traders.

The first known money in history was Sumerian barley money. It appeared in ancient Sumer about 3000 BC, roughly at the same time and place and under the same conditions where writing first appeared. Fixed amounts of barley grains were used as a universal measurement for evaluating and exchanging all other goods and services. The most common measurement of barley in ancient Sumer was the selo. One selo was equivalent to roughly one litre of today. Standardised bowls, each of them capable of containing exactly one selo were mass produced in ancient Sumer. They were everywhere, so that whenever people needed to buy or sell something, it was easy to measure the necessary amounts of barley.

Salaries were paid in selos of barley. For example, there is a text stating that the usual salary of a male labourer in ancient Sumer was 60 barley selos a month. A female labourer earned only 30 selos a month. A big important manager could earn between 1,200 and 5,000 selos each month. People did not eat all this barley. They could take their barley to the market and exchange it there for whatever else they wanted. It was somewhat easier to build trust in the barley money than in dollars or cowry shells because barley money has some inherent value. People can actually eat barley.

The fact that the Sumerians used barley grains as money is far from trivial. It was very difficult to do. People do not trust barley as money out of themselves. It was quite an achievement for the Sumerians to build universal trust in barley grains and to convince people to use barley as money for all the different transactions and purchases. There was still a problem with barley money and this is that it was not easy to store and to transport barley.

A major breakthrough in economic history occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked any inherent value but was easier to store and to transport than barley. Such money also appeared for the first time in ancient Mesopotamia around 2500 BC. This first this first money which had no inherent value was the silver shekel. The silver shekel was not a coin but a measurement of about eight grammes of silver. Most monetary expressions used in the Old Testament are given in terms of silver shekels.

Unlike the barley selo, the silver shekel had no inherent value. You can not eat or drink or clothe yourself in silver. Silver is too soft for making useful tools. When people use silver or gold to produce tools or jewellery, they are usually used to create status symbols like rings, crowns and statues. The value of silver and gold is always purely cultural. Set weights of precious metals like silver and afterwards gold eventually gave birth to coins. The first coins in history were struck around 640 BC by King Alyattes of the kingdom of Lydia in what is today western Turkey. These Lydian coins were simply standardised weights of gold and silver which the king imprinted with some kind of identification mark.

The mark on the coin testified to two important things. First of all, it indicated how much precious metal each coin contained. Secondly, it identified the authority which issued the coin and guaranteed its contents. Coins such as these have two important advantages over the unmarked metal ingots like the silver shekel. The first advantage of coins is that their weight is known. The second advantage of coins over metal ingots is that their contents are known. With an ingot you can never be certain, that if it says that it weighs one ounce, there is really one ounce of silver in it. Somebody could be cheating you.

The coins help solve these problems. First of all, the mark imprinted on the coins testifies to the exact value of the coin. So you do not have to weigh it. More importantly, the mark on the coin is the signature of some political or religious authority that guarantees the value of the coin. So you can trust it. The shape and the size of the mark on the coins varied tremendously throughout history, but the message was always the same. The state guaranteed their value and punished counterfeiting. Counterfeiting money has always been considered a much more serious crime than almost any other act of deception or cheating. Counterfeiters impersonate the government and this is an act of subversion against the power and the privileges of the ruler.

Therefore throughout history it has been customary to punish the counterfeiting money by severe torture and death. The political authority helped people gain trust in money. As long as people trusted the power and integrity of the political authority they also tend to trust their money. Total strangers, who never met, and did not know each other personally, could nevertheless agree on the worth of a particular coin, for example the Roman denarius, as long as they trusted the power and integrity of the Roman emperor whose name and sometimes picture appeared on the coin. Today people throughout the world trust the American dollar more than they trust the Mexican Peso because they trust the US government and the US Federal Reserve more than they trust the government or the bank of Mexico.

In turn, the power of rulers also rested on the trust in money. Just think how difficult it would have been to maintain a large empire like the Roman empire without money without coin. Imagine for example that the Roman empire had to pay salaries and raise taxes in barley and wheat because people did not trust gold and silver coin. It would have been impossible to collect taxes in barley from Syria, transport the funds all the way to the central treasury in Rome, and from there transport the barley again to pay soldiers which were posted in Britain or Germany. It would have been impossible.

It would have been equally difficult to maintain the Roman empire if in different parts of the empire people believed in different kinds of money, for example when the inhabitants of the city of Rome believed in gold coins and did business in gold coins, but the Gauls, the Greeks, the Jews and the Syrians rejected the gold coins and trusted other things like cowry shells or ivory beads. Not only gives the government trust in money, but money is needed in order to have a stable government which can control a large area.

Money therefore served a particularly important part in the unification of humankind. Not just because it supported governments, but even more importantly because the trust in money could cross geographical and and even political borders, thereby enabling people from very different cultures, religions and kingdoms to trade with one another and to cooperate, at least in the economic sphere. In the first century AD, Roman coins were an accepted medium of exchange not only in the Roman empire. But also very far from its borders, for instance in the mountains of India.

The Indians had such a strong confidence in the Roman denarius and in the image of the Roman emperor that was imprinted on the denarius, that when local Indian rulers began to struck coins of their own, they tended to imitate the shape of the denarius down even to the portrait of the Roman emperor because people had trust in these coins with this particular picture. The name of the Roman coin, denarius, became a generic name for all kinds of coins. Muslim caliphs Arabicised the name denarius and started to issue dinars. The dinar is still the official name of the currency in many countries around Mediterranean today.

China also developed a monetary system. It was initially based on bronze coins, not silver and gold. But as time went by, Muslim and European merchants and conquerors spread the usage of gold and silver coins, not only in Europe and Asia, but to more and more parts of Africa, and later on to America and Australia. In this way gold and silver became the standard money all over the world. By the late modern era, the entire world was thus united into a single monetary zone, relying first on the trust in gold and silver and later on a few trusted currencies, first the British pound and then the American dollar, which is still dominant today.

This slow process of creating a single transnational and transcultural monetary zone laid the foundation for the unification of the entire world into a single economic and political sphere. People continued to speak many different languages, to obey all kinds of rulers, and to worship different gods, but more and more people all over the world started to believe in the same money, and to use the same money, first gold and silver, and later sterling and dollar. Without this shared belief, global trade networks would have been virtually impossible to create. How could Europeans for example have traded easily with China if the Chinese did not believe in gold and silver and refused to accept payment in gold and silver.

How was this accomplished? If there was not a single religion or empire that ruled the entire world, how did the Chinese, the Indians, the Muslims, and the Spaniards, who belonged to different cultures, and failed to agree about anything, managed to agree on this shared belief in gold and silver? Economists have a convincing answer to this question. According to economic theory, once trade begins to connect separate areas, the forces of supply and demand tend to equalise the prices of all the goods which can be transported from one area to the other. This applies to money as well.

In order to understand why, consider a hypothetical scenario. Assume that when regular trade opened between India and the Mediterranean, Indians were not interested in gold, so gold had little value in India. At the same time in the Mediterranean gold was already a very coveted status symbol and the basis for the currency, hence the value of gold in the Mediterranean was very high. Merchants travelling back and forth between ports of India and the Mediterranean would notice the huge difference in the value of gold in these two places. In order to make a profit, they would buy gold cheaply in India and sell it for a huge profit in the Mediterranean. Over time the demand for gold in India would skyrocket because of all these merchants from the Mediterranean wanting to buy gold.

The value of gold in India would rise and Indians would start wanting gold just in order to sell it to these Mediterranean merchants. At the same time in the Mediterranean, there would be more and more gold coming from India, and therefore the value of gold in the Mediterranean would start to decrease. The value of gold in India would increase and the value of gold in the Mediterranean would decrease until they reach roughly the same value. This would result in a situation in which both in India and in the Mediterranean gold is worth quite a lot and roughly the same.

The mere fact that Mediterranean people believe in gold and want gold is enough to cause Indians to start believing and wanting gold as well, even if Indians still have no real use for gold and they do not really know why Mediterranean people want gold. This is what happens with all kinds of money. The mere fact that other people believe in cowry shells, dollars, or electronic data, is enough to strengthen your belief in them. Whereas religions ask us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something. This is how money works.

Even though for thousands of years philosophers, thinkers, prophets and poets have besmirched money and called money the root of all evil and the reason for all the troubles in the world. In truth, money is the apogee of human tolerance. There is nothing more tolerant it the world than money. Money is far more open-minded than any religion, any state, any cultural code and any social habits. Money is the only trust system that humans created in history that can bridge almost all cultural gaps and it does not discriminate on the basis of religion or gender or race or age or anything else.

Money is based on two universal principles. First, universal convertibility. With money as a go-between, you can turn almost anything into almost anything else, for example land into loyalty, justice into health, and violence into knowledge. The second fundamental principle of money is universal trust. With money as a go-between, any two people can cooperate on any project, even if they do not know each other. Money served for hundreds and thousands of years as a bridge between different kingdoms, religions and cultures. It helped to unify humankind and to create the global world that we live in today.

It would however be a mistake to think that money alone unified human kind. Money is just an imagined reality that is based on trust. In order to have an effective monetary system, there must be the support of an effective political system or at least some shared ethical principals. It would be difficult to manage the United States without dollars but it would be equally difficult to build trust in the dollar without the United States. In order to understand how thousands of isolated cultures combined over time to form the global village today, we must be aware of the important role of gold and silver. But conquerors and empires played a very important part in the unification of humankind alongside merchants and money.

9. Imperial Visions

9.1. What is an empire?


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 9.1

An empire is a political order which has two important characteristics. First of all, an empire rules over a significant number of distinct peoples, each of which possess a different cultural identity and a separate territory. There is no exact answer as to how many different peoples need to be in an empire. The number is higher than two or three, but lower than 20 or 30. The second characteristic of an empire is that it has flexible borders and a potentially unlimited territorial appetite. Empires are systems of government that can swallow and digest more and more nations and territories without altering their basic structure or their basic identity.

These two features give empires not only their unique character, but also give them the very central role in history. These two characteristics made it possible for empires to unite diverse ethnic groups and diverse ecological zones under a single political structure, thereby fusing together larger and larger segments of the human species, and contributing to the unification of humankind.

Empires are not defined by their system of government, so an empire does not need an emperor. The British Empire, for example, was ruled by a democracy. The other democratic or at least republican empires in the modern age, were the Dutch, the French, the Belgian and the American empires. Empires are not defined by size. The Athenian empire, for example, at its height, was much smaller in territorial size and population than modern Greece. The Aztec empire was much smaller than the modern country of Mexico. Athens and the Aztecs are nevertheless considered empires because there was no limit for the potential expansion of the Aztecs or of the Athenians. Modern Greece and modern Mexico rule fewer peoples and they cannot expand a lot without changing their basic character.

How was it possible in the time of ancient Athens to squeeze hundreds of different peoples into a territory that today contains just a small, modern state like Greece? It was possible because in the past there were many more different peoples in the world than there are today. Thousands of years ago, each people had a much smaller population and occupied a much smaller piece of ground than a typical people of today. One of the main reasons for this drastic reduction in human diversity is empires. Like steam rollers, empires gradually obliterated the unique characteristics of numerous tiny peoples and forged them together into larger groups.

The prejudices of modern culture gives empires a bad reputation. The modern objection to empires commonly takes two forms. First of all, people argue that empires are inefficient. It is common today to hear that in the long run, it is not possible to rule effectively over a large number of conquered peoples, and that empires are doomed to failure and to collapse. The second main objection to empires is that they are evil as they corrupt both the conquered peoples and the conquerors. It is common to argue that every people has a right to self determination so there should be as many independent states as there are peoples.

Empires are seen as evil
Empires are seen as evil
From a historical perspective, the statement that empires do not work, is simply nonsense. The second statement, that empires are evil, is a very problematic statement. Empire has been the world's most common form of political organisation for the last 2,500 years. In the last two and a half millennia, most human beings on earth have lived in empires, not in independent states. Empires are relatively stable, compared to other forms of government. Most empires have found it easy to put down all the rebellions of the conquered populations, and to maintain their control of dozens of different peoples.

All empires collapse in the end, but not because of internal revolt by the conquered peoples. This sometimes happened, but it is quite rare. Most empires have collapsed either because of external invasion or because of a split within the ruling elite itself. Most conquered peoples in history never freed themselves from the empires that conquered them. Even if they tried to rebel, the empire managed to break the rebellion. Most conquered peoples remained part of the empire and gradually lost their unique identity and culture, and they simply disappeared. When eventually the empire collapsed, they simply didn't exist anymore. For example, when the western Roman empire fell in the fifth century AD, the tribes and nations whom the Romans conquered earlier had been become Romans.

In many cases the destruction of one empire simply resulted in the formation of a new empire. Nowhere can we see this more clearly than in the history of the middle east, the place where the first empires arose more than 3,000 years ago. The current political situation in the Middle East where there are many independent states with more or less stable borders, is almost without parallel in the history of the Middle East for the last several thousands of years. From the rise of the Assyrian empire in the 8th century BC until the collapse of the British and French empires in the middle of the 20th century, the middle east passed from the hands of one empire into the hands of another empire.

The peoples of the middle east were conquered by the Assyrians but when the Assyrian empire collapsed, they didn't regain their independence. They became subjects of the Babylonian empire, and then the Persian empire, and then Alexander the Great conquered them. Then came the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Ottoman Turks and finally Great Britain. There was nearly always an empire in the Middle East and, and the local peoples hardly ever managed their affairs by themselves. It is therefore a mistake to think that empires do not work. Most people for the last 2,000 years lived in empires. Empires eventually collapsed but in most cases they were replaced by other empires.

The idea that empires are evil is problematic. It is certainly true that building and maintaining an empire usually required slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people and brutally oppressing millions of people. The standard imperial toolkit includes war, enslavement, deportation, and the extermination of entire populations. This does not mean that empires are pure evil and leave nothing of value. Much of human culture, at least over the last two and a half millennia, has been the product of empires. Imperial elites used these profits of conquest, not only to finance armies and fortifications, but also philosophy, justice, law and charity.

Many artistic masterpieces of humankind owe their existence to empires and the exploitation of conquered populations. The profit and prosperity of the Athenian Empire and of the Roman Empire, provided the philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Cicero and Seneca with the ability not to work and just think about the world. The Taj Mahal could not have been built without the wealth that was accumulated by the Mogul emperors from exploiting millions of their Indian subjects. The music of Hayden and Mozart was financed by the Habsburg Empire that exploited its Slavic, Romanian and Hungarian subjects.

Also the cultures of the common people are influenced by imperial legacies. This is most obvious in the field of language. Today most people in the world speak, think, and dream in imperial languages that were forced upon their ancestors by conquest. Most people today in China speak and dream in the language of the Han empire, Han Chinese. Nearly everyone in the American continents communicate in four imperial languages, English, French, Spanish or Portuguese. Present day Egyptians speak Arabic, see themselves as Arabs, and identify themselves with the Arab Empire that conquered Egypt by brute force in the seventh century AD.

Similarly, in South Africa, there are today about ten million people that call themselves Zulu and use the Zulu language. They miss the age of glory of the Zulu nation in the early 19th century. Most of these ten million Zulus descend from tribes who fought against the Zulu empire in the early 19th century and were conquered by the Zulu and incorporated into the Zulu empire through bloody military campaigns.

This course is in English, even though this is not the mother tongue of Professor Harari and many readers. Even those who live in the United States, Canada or Australia, probably descend from ancestors who did not speak English and were forced to start speaking English by their British overlords. The reason for conducting this course in English is simply that English was the language of the biggest empire in history, the British Empire. So empires do work, and they have left behind not only an evil legacy of death and destruction, but also very important and probably positive legacies of art, culture, languages and world views.

9.2. The role of empires in unification


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 9.2

Most humans in the last 2,000 years lived in empires, and much of human culture is the product of empires. Empires were particularly central to the process of uniting the whole world into a single historical unit because of their ability to conquer different peoples and territories and rule them inside a single political system. The first empire about which we have definitive information was the Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great. It was established around 2,250 BC. Sargon began his career as a king of a small city-state called Kish in southern Mesopotamia.

Sargon managed within a few decades to conquer not only all the other Mesopotamian city states and large territories outside Mesopotamia. Sargon boasted that he conquered the entire world. In reality his empire stretched from the Persian Gulf up to the Mediterranean, and it included most of modern Iraq and Syria, along with some chunks from modern Iran and Turkey. This first empire in history, the Akkadian Empire, didn't last very long. Soon after Sargon died, the empire collapsed, but Sargon and this Akkadian Empire left behind, a new idea, the imperial dream of conquering the entire world, and to unite it under a single government.

This dream ignited the imagination of numerous rulers and kings and conquerors and governments for many years after Sargon. Until the middle of the first millennium BC, many Assyrian, Babylonian kings and Hittite kings adopted Sargon as their role model, and they too wanted to conquer the entire world and very often they boasted again, in their writings, that they conquered the whole world. This was a major ideal in Mesopotamian and Middle Eastern political thinking for close to 2,000 years after Sargon.

Then around 500 BC came Kiros the Great of Persia. He had an even more ambitious dream. He had an even more impressive boast than conquering the whole world. He claimed, not merely to have conquered and ruled the whole world, but he also claimed that he was doing it for the sake of all people, not just of the Persians. Kiros did not see himself as a Persian king who is ruling over other peoples, but he saw himself as the king of all humans, not just Persians, who is responsible for the welfare and prosperity of all humans.

This presumption to rule the entire world for the benefit of all humans was a unnatural presumption for somebody to have. Evolution has made Homo Sapiens, like all other social animals, a xenophobic creature. Humans instinctively divide humanity into two parts. There is we and they or everybody else. We are the people like you and me who share the same language and religion and customs. They, on the other hand, are other people, who are hardly even humans.

For example, the Dinka are people who live in the area of Sudan. Dinka means people in the language of the Dinka people. According to Dinka, Dinka language and culture, people who are not Dinka, are not people. Now the worst enemies of the Dinkas are called the Nuer. Nuer in Nuer language means genuine people. According to the Nuer, people who are not Nuer are not genuine people. In Alaska and northeastern Siberia live the Yupiks. Yupik in the Yupik language means real people. People who are not Yupik, are not real people. This is how most people in history before the rise of the big empires treated other people.

Kiros saw the whole of humankind as a single group. He saw his task as king of the world as to take care of all people. Still, imperial ideology was not always egalitarian. It very often was hierarchical and emphasised the racial and cultural differences between the ruling elite and all the subject conquered people. Still, imperial ideology from Kiros the Great onwards, at least recognised the basic unity of the entire world and its ideal was, or should have been, a single set of principles that will govern all people, everywhere, in all times.

Another central ideal of imperialism since Kiros was that all human beings have mutual responsibilities between them. In imperial ideology, humankind is usually seen as a big family. There are parents and children. The parents, the ruling elite, have all kinds of privileges, but these privileges go hand in hand with responsibility for the welfare of the children, the conquered people. This new imperial vision began in the Middle East with Kiros and the Persians. From there it moved on. It was adopted by Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic kings which conquered the Persian Empire.

It was adopted by the Roman emperors, the Muslim Califs, the rulers of India, and eventually it came down to us in the late modern age where the Soviet empire and the American empire claimed to behave in accordance with this ideal. This benevolent imperial vision has justified the existence of empires for 2,000 years. It not only objected to any attempts by subject people to rebel against the empire, but it also objected to any attempt by independent peoples to resist imperial expansion. If the empire is like parents that take care of all the people in the world then anybody who resists the empire is resisting the good of humankind.

Similar imperial visions developed independently in other parts of the world, for example in China, in central America, in the Andean region of South America, and in several other places in the world. Empires with such universal aspirations have played a decisive part in uniting the many small cultures of humankind into fewer and fewer bigger cultures and eventually into a single global system. Ideas, people, goods, and technology can spread much more easily within an empire then when they have to cross many borders between all kinds of tiny states, city-states, and tribes. This is one of the ways in which the empires helped unite mankind.

Very often the empires not only made it easier but they deliberately spread a single package of ideas and institutions and customs and laws over larger and larger territories in which they ruled. One reason why empires did this, is simply to make it easier for themselves to rule all these territories. It is difficult to rule an empire in which every little district has its own set of laws, language, and money. It is much easier when everybody speaks the same language and use the same norms and values.

A second reason why empires actively spread a common culture over all the territories in which they ruled was in order to gain legitimacy. At least since the days of the Persian Empire of Kiros the Great, empires have justified their actions, whether it was waging wars or building cities and roads, as necessary actions for the spread of a superior culture over the world for the benefit of everybody including the conquered peoples. Most imperial elites earnestly believed that by spreading this imperial culture they were working for the welfare of all the inhabitants of the empire.

Obviously they also gained a lot of power and privileges, but most imperial elites really thought that their country was the best in the world and that they had a mission to spread their culture. For example, the ruling class of the Chinese empire thought that all the neighbours of China and all the conquered people within China, were miserable barbarians and it was the duty of the Han Chinese empire to bring the benefits of the best culture in the world. Their mandate to rule the world was given by the gods to the Chinese emperor, not in order to enjoy himself, and not in order to exploit the world, but in order to educate humanity.

This happened in ancient Rome. The Romans also justified their dominion by arguing that the Romans were bringing the benefits of justice, peace, and good culture, to the barbarians in Gaul, Spain, Britain and Germany. The Muslim Caliphs also argued that they conquered the world but because they received a Divine command to spread the good revelations of Islam to the entire world. They did it because they really believed in it. The same thing applies to the Spanish and Portuguese empires. They claimed that they were conquering America, not to enrich themselves, but to spread Christianity, and they spread Christianity.

In the 19th century the British claimed that their empire was aimed not to enrich Britain, but to spread the twin gospels of liberalism and free trade. They did indeed try to spread the ideas and practises of liberalism and free trade all over the world. In the 20th century the Soviet empire claimed that its mission in history was to spread equality and socialism around the world. Even today there are many Americans who maintain that the government of the United States has a moral imperative to bring the benefits of democracy and human rights, even if this means using cruise missiles and F-16's in order to deliver democracy and human rights.

All these claims that we are conquering you for your benefit, not in order to enrich ourselves, obviously involved a lot of hypocrisies. But in many cases the imperial elite really believed in its mission and in many cases the empire succeeded in imposing its culture and view of the world on the subjected peoples. Sometimes, this led to the breakdown of the separation between the ruling elite and the subjected people. Once the subjected people accepted the culture and the language and the religion and the behaviour patterns of the ruling elite of the empire, there was no longer much difference between them, and they merged with one another.

When this happened, there was no longer conquerors and conquered or an elite and the subject people, but a single people or a single culture. This process is not a quick process as it takes centuries, but when an empire rules for centuries, it can succeed. One famous example of this process is what happened in the Roman Empire. After centuries of Roman rule, most of the people which the empire conquered were granted Roman citizenship, and were considered Romans. They began to speak Latin instead of their old local languages in North Africa, Spain, and France.

People from all over the empire could occupy the top ranks in the Roman military and in the civil bureaucracy. Eventually, even the Roman emperors increasingly came from the provinces, and not from the old Roman elite. There are many examples. Emperor Septimius Severus, one of the most important emperors of Rome, came from Libya. He was from a Punic family which descended from the Carthaginians, against which the Romans fought in the second and third century BC. Emperor Elagabalus was a Syrian. Emperor Philip was nicknamed Philip the Arab because he was from and Arab family.

The Empire's new citizens adopted Roman imperial culture with such zest that for centuries and even millenniums after the Roman Empire collapsed, the subjected people still continued to uphold and to develop the Imperial culture. Take for example Spain. It took Rome centuries of very hard and cruel fighting to conquer Spain and to put down all the rebellions of the local population against Roman rule.

Some 1,500 years since the fall of the Roman empire in Spain, the people in Spain still speak the language of the Roman empire with some modifications. They speak Spanish, which is a Latin dialect that descends from the language of the Roman empire. Similarly the Spanish today use the Latin alphabet, the alphabet of the Roman conquerors. Most Spaniards today are Roman Catholics, the religion of the late Roman empire, which even today conducts much of its business in Latin. Spanish law today is based on Roman law. Spanish art, architecture, and cuisine, all owe a very huge debt to the legacies of the Roman empire.

A similar process occurred in the in the Middle East with the Arab Empire. When the Arab Empire was established in the middle of the seventh century AD, it was at first based on a sharp division between the ruling elite of Arab Muslims and the subjugated populations of Egyptians, Syrians, Iranians and Berbers who were neither Arabs nor Muslim. Over the centuries many of the subjects of the Muslim Empire gradually adopted the Muslim faith, the Arabic language, and the imperial culture of this Arab Empire. At first the old Arab elite was quite hostile to the new converts because it feared losing its unique status and identity in the empire.

Over the centuries, all the new converts to Islam and the Arabic culture demanded to have an equal share within the empire and inside the world of Islam. Eventually they got their way. They were increasingly seen as being Arab just like the original conquerors from the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabs, in their turn, the authentic Arabs from Arabia and the newly created Arabs from Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia, all came to be increasingly dominated by non-Arab Muslims, in particular by Iranians, Turks and Berbers, who adopted the Muslim religion and culture, but not the Arab language.

The Arab imperial project is the one of the most successful imperial projects ever in history. Its success is that the imperial culture that was created back in the 7th to 9th century AD, was adopted to such an extent by so many different people that continued to uphold it and develop it and spread it, that even after the empire collapsed the culture of the empire, the religion of the empire, and the language of the empire just gained more and more strength and continued to spread around the world.

Something similar happened in China. The Chinese empire conquered numerous ethnic and cultural groups which were initially seen as barbarians. They were integrated into the culture of imperial China and eventually became Han Chinese. Han Chinese are named after the Han Empire that ruled China from around 200 BC to around 200 AD. The ultimate achievement of the Chinese empire is that China still exists today. More than 90% of the population of China are Han Chinese. They adopted the identity and the culture of the empire to such an extent that China is no longer an empire ruling over different people.

The process of decolonisation of the last few decades has a similar pattern. Europeans conquered much of planet Earth claiming that they are doing it in order to spread a superior Western culture. The Europeans were so successful in spreading their cultures that today billions of people have adopted significant parts of that culture. Indians, Africans, Arabs, and Chinese learned French, English and Spanish. They began to believe in human rights and self-determination. They began to adopt Western ideologies such as liberalism, capitalism, communism, feminism, and nationalism that emerged in modern Europe.

Today billions of people believe in these European ideologies. Local groups of people that adopted Western values began to claim equality with the European conquerors in the name of the very same values that the Europeans themselves had spread around the world. Many anti-colonial struggles inside India or Africa were waged in the name of principles like self-determination, human rights, and socialism, which are all Western legacies. Indians, Africans, Chinese and Arabs have accepted much of the imperial culture of the former Western conquerors and changed it in accordance with their own needs and traditions.

This is why it is very problematic to argue that empires are purely evil. Empires are responsible, not only for the unification of humankind, but also for much of our culture today all around the world. Indeed, the very values that prompt many people to criticise empires, values like human rights, democracy and self determination, were spread around the word by European empires. On the one hand, empires caused death, war, genocide and exploitation on a gigantic scale. On the other hand, our culture today, even the very values which we use in order to criticise, genocide and enslavement, are all the product of empires.

9.3. Global empire and culture


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 9.3

It is tempting to divide history into good and bad guys and put all empires along with the bad guys, as almost all empires were founded by violence, and maintained their power through oppression, and exploitation, and war. But most of today's cultures are based on imperial legacies. So if empires are by definition evil then what does it say about us and our cultures? Even the very values we use to criticise the empires, are in many cases the legacy of the empires. For instance, today many people criticise empires in the name of self-determination or socialism. But these ideas of self-determination and socialism were spread around the world by the European conquerors.

If you go back 500 years ago to Africa or to India, people didn't speak about self-determination or socialism. They are not some authentic ideas that go back thousands of years in Africa or India. There are schools of thought and political movements that seek to purge human culture from all the imperial legacies, and to leave behind only what they claim is a pure, authentic civilisation untainted by the sins and crimes of imperialism. But this idea is very naive. Perhaps thousands of years ago, you could have found some pure, authentic cultures untouched by any imperial influences. But no such cultures exist today. All human cultures today are at least in part the legacy of empires and of imperial civilisations.

For example, modern India look at the complex relationship between India of today and the British Empire. The British conquest and occupation of India cost the lives of millions of Indians. It was responsible for the continuous humiliation and exploitation of hundreds of millions of Indians for more than two centuries. The independent state of India was established only after a long and very bitter struggle against the British conquerors. Yet, independent India is also in many respects the offspring of the British Empire. The British united hundreds of warring kingdoms, principalities and tribes into a single political unit, and in the process created a shared national consciousness among Indians.

The British also laid the foundations for the Indian judicial system. They created the administrative structure which is still in use today in India. The British built the railroad network that was critical for the economic integration of India. Independent India adopted Western democracy in its British form. English is still today one of the chief languages of India, especially because it serves as a neutral tongue that bridges the gaps between the different local languages of India. So very often, when Indians that speak different languages try to communicate, they use English. The national sport of independent India is cricket, which was brought by the British to India in the 19th century.

The national drink of India is tea. But hardly anyone drank or grew tea in India before the British came. It was the British East India Company that began the commercial farming of tea in India in the mid-19th century. And in most parts of India, people began to drink tea because they saw the British masters drinking tea and wanted to imitate them. How many Indians today would be willing to give up democracy, English, the labour networks, the legal system, cricket and drinking tea just because all these are imperial legacies? Even if someone who would like to do that, he or she would be defending a legacy of older empires such as the Mogul Empire or the Sultanate of Delhi.

Before these, India had other empires, like the Gupta Empire, the Kushan Empire, and the Mauryan Empire, that ruled India more than a thousand years ago. They weren't more humane, and they weren't more Indian than the empires of the Moguls or the British. So why sanctify their culture and their legacy and call it authentic Indian culture? Nobody really knows how to solve this thorny question of cultural inheritance and cultural authenticity. Whatever solution you choose, the first step is to acknowledge the complexity of the dilemma and to accept that simply dividing, dividing the past into good guys and bad guys would lead you nowhere.

For the last 2,000 years most humans have lived in empires. It seems likely that in the future most humans will live in a truly global empire. The imperial vision of Cyrus the Great and others, of having a single government ruling over the whole of humankind, might well be fulfilled in our lifetime. During the 20th century, the main political ideal was nationalism. According to the nationalist ideal, the nation or the people, is the sovereign, and hence the source of all political authority. Accordingly, it was accepted wisdom in the 20th century that there should be as many independent states as there are distinct peoples, and that there is no place for empires.

At the beginning of the 21st century nationalism is losing ground fast. More and more people believe that all of humankind, and not as a people of particular nation, is the legitimate source of political authority, and that the principle of politics should be guided towards safeguarding human rights and protecting the interests of the entire human specie. If this is so, then independent states are a hindrance in obtaining the aims of politics. The appearance of global problems, such as global warming, erodes whatever legitimacy remains to independent nation-states. We need a global government, a global empire, in order to solve such problems effectively.

This is why some people think that the colour of the global empire will be green, because the first big project of the global empire would be to save the ecological system. These are still visions for the future. The world is still divided into close to 200 different states. But, these states are fast losing their independence. Fewer and fewer states are able to execute independent economic policies. Fewer and fewer states are able to declare and wage wars as they please. And fewer and fewer states are able to manage their internal affairs as they see fit. This is because states are becoming more and more open to the intervention of global economic forces, corporations, the global public opinion and NGOs.

States are increasingly obliged to conform to global standards of financial behaviour, environmental policy, and justice. There are today in the world immensely powerful currents of capital, labour, and of information that turn and shape the world with a growing disregard for borders and the wishes of the states. We see before our eyes, the formation of a unified political, economic, and social system, which we may call the global empire. What is important to realise about this new, emerging global empire, is that it is not governed by a particular state or ethnic group.

The new global empire, much like the late Roman Empire, will an empire ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, which is held together by an increasingly common culture and common interests among the global elite. The world in the early 21st century is not being governed and run by a particular state or government, but by a global caste of business people, engineers, journalists, people in the academia, and people in the arts. No matter where they live, New York, Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Dubai or Cape Town, these people who run the world, increasingly have the same interests, the same viewpoint about the world, the same culture, and increasingly live a similar lifestyle.

If you belong to this global caste, your life becomes more and more similar to others in this caste. On the other hand, the gap between this global caste and the rest of the population becomes wider. In the 19th and 20th century, the main division of the world was a division into different nations. What was really important was if you are Chinese, Japanese, American or Swedish. But today, increasingly the main divisions of the world are horizontal, into castes or classes. Somebody who belongs to the global caste in New York, is much closer in his or her way of life and outlook to somebody who belongs to the global caste in Delhi or in Singapore than to somebody in a poor neighbourhood in the same city.

The main question which bothers many people today in the world is whether their loyalty should be given to the global empire or to their own country. More and more professors in universities, lawyers, engineers, managers of all kinds of corporations ask themselves, do I owe my chief loyalty to the particular state and nation in which I was born or in which I live now, or does my chief loyalty belong to this global caste and empire and to their interests and values and norms? And more and more people choose the empire. More and more people feel that their chief loyalty is to the global community of knowledge, values, and interests like spreading human rights or stopping global warming.

10. The Law of Religion

10.1. What is religion?


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 10.1

Ever since the Agricultural Revolution the main direction of human history has been towards unity. The unification of humankind was driven forward by three main forces, money, empires, and religions. This lesson will focus on religion. Today, religion is often considered to be a source of a disagreement, but religion has had a vital role in bridging the gaps between different human groups. Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are very fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile its order is. The crucial historical role of religion was to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures and thereby, stabilising them.

Religions assert that the laws of society are not a human invention, but ordained by an absolute and supreme authority. This helps to place at least some fundamental laws of society beyond challenge, and this is what ensures social stability. Religion can therefore be defined as a system of human laws and values, which is founded on a belief in a superhuman order. This definition involves two distinct criteria. The first is belief in a superhuman order, which is not the product of human whims of human agreements. For example, football is not a religion, because everybody knows that the rules and rituals are invented by humans.

The second criterion of a religion is that it also establishes norms and values which are derived from the superhuman order and which are binding for people. For example, the Theory of Relativity is superhuman, because humans cannot change the laws of the Theory of Relativity. You can believe in the Theory of Relativity, but you don't derive any norms and values from the Theory of Relativity, so it's not a religion. So a religion must believe in a superhuman order and must derive from this belief all kinds of rules and norms and values that organise human society. This is how religion gives legitimacy to the social order.

Religion played a crucial role in the unification of humankind because some religions argued that there is a set of norms and values which all people must follow, and which are true everywhere, anytime, for everybody. This is how religion helped create a universal order. Not all religions made such universal claims. The majority of ancient religions were quite local and exclusive. People believed in all kinds of local deities and local spirits. These religions formulated norms and rules for behaviour for the people living in this locality but they had no ambition to make people everywhere follow the same rules and norms and values.

Universal missionary religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam began to appear about 2,500 years ago. The emergence of universal and missionary religions was one of the most important revolutions in history. These religions made a vital contribution to the unification of humankind. Prior to the emergence of universal religions, most people believed in all kinds of local animistic and polytheistic cults and religions.

Animism is the belief that the world is populated, not only by humans, but also by an abundance of other beings, each of them having their own personality, needs and desires. For instance, animists may believe that trees and rocks have needs, personalities, and emotions. If you do something then the rock on the hill next to your house may become angry and punish you for it. Animists believes in all kinds of fairies and ghosts and demons. According to animists, human norms and values must take into consideration the interests and the outlook of this multitude of other beings in the world.

Polytheists also tend to believe in all these holy rocks, holy trees, demons and the fairies, but polytheists also believe in very powerful entities called gods that govern the world, such as the rain god, the sea god, the moon goddess or the earth goddess. 2,000 years of monotheistic brainwashing have caused most people who believe in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and they view polytheism as some kind of ignorant and childish idolatry, like praying to rocks and to all kinds of gods and goddesses, but polytheism has a very strong logic behind it.

The central idea that led polytheists to believe in the existence of many gods or many different powers that rule the world. Polytheism does not necessarily dispute the existence of a single power or of a single law that governs the entire universe, including all the different gods. In fact, most polytheist and even most animist religions recognised the existence of such a supreme power or supreme law that stands behind all the different gods and demons and holy robes. For example, in classical Greek polytheism, all the gods, like Zeus, Hera and Apollo, were subject to an omnipotent and all encompassing power called Fate, Moira, or Ananke.

According to the polytheistic religion of the Yuroba people in West Africa, there are many gods but all the gods were borne of one supreme god called Olodumare and Olodumare still is the real ruler of the world. In the Hindu polytheist religion, there is also a single principle called the Atman, which controls all the different gods and spirits, and also humans, animals, plants and everything else in the world. Atman is considered the eternal essence or the eternal soul of the whole universe, as well as the essence of the soul of every individual and every phenomena. Every individual, every tree, every rock is part of this Atman.

The fundamental insight of polytheism which distinguishes it from the belief in a single god like Christianity or Islam, is that the supreme power governing the world, according to the polytheists, is devoid of biases and interests, and therefore is completely unconcerned with the mundane desires and cares and worries of human beings. It's pointless, according to polytheists, to the supreme power of the universe and ask for his help in war or gaining health or causing rain to fall. From the viewpoint of the supreme power, this makes no difference.

This is why the Greeks, even though they thought that fate is the supreme power of the universe, did not waste any sacrifices or prayers on fate, because fate would not listen to you. Similarly, the Hindus built temples to almost anything you can imagine, but Hindus did not build temples to Atman, the eternal supreme soul of the universe, because this supreme power has no interests, so you can't make deals with it. According to polytheistic religions, the only reason to affront the supreme power of the universe, would be to renounce all desires, and to embrace the bad things that happen in the world alongside the good things.

For example, in Hinduism, the religious elite known as Sadhus or Sannyasi, devote their lives to uniting with the Atman and achieving enlightenment. Enlightenment, according to Hinduism, means to view the world from the viewpoint of this supreme, fundamental principle, and to realise that from its eternal perspective, all the mundane desires, hopes, fears and ambitions of humans are completely meaningless. Most Hindus are not Sadhus and they are very much interested in all kinds of mundane ambitions, and Atman is not going to help them to achieve any of these ambitions.

For assistance in matters like curing a disease or winning a lottery, the Hindus approach the different gods with their various powers. Gods such as Ganesha, Lakshmi or Saraswati have interests and biases, and because of that, humans can approach them and make deals with them. They can rely on their help in order to win wars, or winning the lottery, or recuperate from illness. The fundamental insight of polytheistic religions like Hinduism is that the supreme power of the universe has absolutely no interests and biases. So if we want help with our mundane problems and ambitions, we must approach the partial and biased powers.

One of the implications of this basic polytheistic insight is that polytheists tended to be tolerant towards the religious beliefs of other people, since polytheists believe on the one hand in one supreme but completely disinterested power, and on the other hand, in many partial and biased gods and goddesses. Polytheists have no difficulty to accept the existence and the efficacy of all kinds of gods. Polytheists are therefore inherently open minded and they rarely persecuted heretics or infidels. Even when polytheists conquered huge empires, they almost never tried to convert the conquered people to their own religion.

For example, when the Egyptians, the Romans or the Aztecs, conquered huge empires, they did not try to force all the people they controlled to convert to the Roman or to the Aztec religion. And they also did not send missionaries to foreign lands beyond their control to convince people in other countries to accept their gods. The subject people's in the empire must respect the gods of the empire and the rituals of the empire, because these gave legitimacy to the empire, and it was a sign of loyalty to the empire, but the subject people were not required to give up their own gods and rituals.

In many cases the imperial elite actually adopted the gods and the rituals of the subject people. For example, Roman elites were very happy to add all kinds of Asian goddesses and Egyptian gods to there Pantheon. In the later Roman Empire there were many Romans worshiping the Asiatic goddess Kibela, and the Egyptian goddess Isis. They were particularly popular among the Roman elites.

The only god that the Romans refused to tolerate for a long time was the monotheistic god of the Christians. The Roman empire did not require the Christians to give up their beliefs and rituals, but it did expect the Christians to pay respect to the empire's protector gods and to the divinity of the emperor. This was simply seen as a declaration of political loyalty. When the Christians vehemently refused to accept the gods of the empire and the divinity of the emperor, and rejected all attempts to reach a compromise, only then the Romans reacted by persecuting the Christians, for what they saw as political subversion.

And even this persecution of the Christians was done in a half hearted way by the Romans. In 300 years polytheistic Roman emperors initiated no more than four general persecutions of Christians that lasted a relatively short time. Local governors incited some anti-Christian violence on their own in addition to these general persecutions. In total the Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered millions of Christians to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.

10.2. Polytheism, dualism and monotheism


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 10.2

A basic polytheistic insight is that the supreme power of the universe has no interests and biases. So if people wanted help in their mundane affairs, they addressed one of the subordinate gods rather than the supreme power. And each person could choose whatever god or gods were most suitable for this. With time, followers of certain polytheistic gods became so fond their particular god, that they drifted away from this basic insight. They began to believe that their particular god is not one among many, but is the only god and that he or she is in fact identical to the supreme power of the universe.

Yet, at the same time, they continued to view their god as having interests and biases. They continued to believe, that their god, even though it is the supreme power of the universe, still cares about the mundane affairs of humans and that they can still make all kinds of deals with this god, like doing this sacrifice in exchange for getting victory in the war. This is how monotheistic religions were born. Monotheist religions believe that you can make deals with the supreme power of the universe in order to recover from illness, win the lottery, or gain victory in war.

The first monotheistic religion which we know about for sure appeared in ancient Egypt about 1315 BC when Pharaoh Akhenaten declared that one of the previously minor deities of the Egyptian pantheon, the god Aten, was in fact the supreme power, ruling the entire universe and all the other gods and goddesses. Akhenaten institutionalised the worship of Aten as the state religion and tried to stop the worship of all the other gods and goddesses. His religious revolution was unsuccessful. After he died, the worship of Aten was abandoned, and the Egyptians returned to worshiping the old pantheon of gods and goddesses.

Over the centuries monotheist religions remained marginal, not least because they failed to understand their own universal message. Judaism for example, is a religion that argued that the supreme power of the universe has biases and interests, but his chief interest is in the small Jewish nation in the obscure land of Israel. Judaism had very little to offer to other nations, so it's no wonder that it remained a marginal religion and did not spread very widely. The big breakthrough of monotheism came only with Christianity.

Christianity, at first, was no more than an esoteric Jewish sect that taught Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was their long awaited messiah. However, one of the first leaders of the Christian sect, Paul of Tarsus reasoned that if the supreme power of the universe has interests and biases, and if he had bothered to incarnate himself in the flesh and to die on the cross for the salvation of humankind, then this is something that everybody should hear about, not just the Jews. Paul's arguments fell on fertile ground. Christians began to organise widespread missionary activities, aimed at all human beings, not only Jews.

And in one of the strangest twists ever in human history, this tiny persecuted esoteric Jewish sect managed to take over the mighty Roman Empire, and from this base, it spread later on over greater and greater parts of the world. This amazing success later on served as a model for Islam, another monotheistic religion that appeared on the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century. Like Christianity, Islam too began as a small sect in a remote corner of the world, but in an even stranger and swifter historical surprise, Islam managed to conquer an immense empire, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Henceforth, the monotheistic ideal became a central player in world history. Monotheists tended to be much more fanatical and also much more missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths, implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe or that it received from the one and only god, only part of the universal truth. This is something that polytheists were able to live with, but monotheists could not live with these ideals since they usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only god.

Over the last two millenniums monotheists repeatedly tried to prove the truth of their religion and to strengthen their position by exterminating the competition. Whereas polytheists very rarely waged religious wars and persecutions, monotheists began to wage a lot of them. And it worked. At the beginning of the first century AD, there were hardly any monotheists in the world. Over the last 2,000 years, monotheist religions became the dominant religions of the entire world, with the exception of east and southeast Asia, where Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are still dominant.

Yet polytheism and animism did not completely disappear even though monotheists persecuted the old animist and polytheist religions. In many ways, the animist and polytheist beliefs and practises continued to live on within the monotheist religions because most people have found it difficult to fully accept and digest the monotheist universal ideal that there is only one god and that this one god cares about everybody equally. This was very hard for people to accept because sapiens tend to divide the world into us versus them, and sapiens always wants to be in contact with powerful entities that will help us against them.

So the idea there is only one supreme power in the world that cares about everybody equally was very difficult, even for Christians and Muslims to fully accept and understand. Consequently, Christianity proclaimed publicly that there is only one God and that nobody should worship any other gods, but it simultaneously created an entire new pantheon of saints, and people simply began to worship all kinds of Christian saints, just as they previously worshiped all kinds of different gods. In the middle ages, every Christian kingdom had its own patron saint that helped it to overcome difficulties and win wars.

England was and is protected by Saint George. Scotland is helped by Saint Andrew. Hungary is helped by Saint Stefan and France by Saint Martin. In war, it was believed, that Saint Martin helped the French and Saint George helped the English. It was just like the old gods. Also cities, professions, and even particular diseases, had their own patron saint. For example, the city of Milan in Italy was protected by Saint Ambrose. Saint Elmo protected chimney cleaners. Saint Matthew helped tax collectors. If you suffered from a headache, you prayed to Saint Agathius, but if you suffered from a toothache you prayed to Saint Apollonia.

The Christian saints did not merely resemble the old polytheistic gods, but in many occasions they are exactly the same gods in disguise. For example, in Ireland the chief goddess of Celtic Ireland before the coming of Christianity to the island was Brigid. When Ireland was converted to Christianity, people did not stop worshiping Brigid, they simply changed her name and story. The Celtic goddess Brigid became the Catholic Saint Brigid. And to this very day, the most revered Saint in Catholic Ireland is Saint Brigid.

In this way, polytheism it gave birth to monotheism. And even though monotheism turned against its parent and tried to destroy polytheism, polytheism continued to survive within monotheism, in all kinds of prophecies and beliefs. Polytheism also gave birth to dualistic religions. Dualistic religions believe in the existence of two opposing powers, good and evil, that battle for control of the world. Unlike monotheism, dualism believes that evil is an independent power, which is not created by the good god, and is not subordinate to it. Dualism sees the entire world as a battle ground between these two forces of good and evil.

Dualism is a very attractive world view because it has a short and simple answer to one of the most basic problems of human thought, the problem of evil. The problem of evil is a fundamental philosophical and emotional problem. It asks, why is there evil in the world? Why there is there so much suffering in the world? Why do so many bad things happen, even to good people? Why do good people suffer? For monotheists, the problem of evil is extremely difficult. Monotheists have to perform all kinds of amazing intellectual tricks to explain how an all knowing, all powerful, and perfectly good God, allows so much suffering in the world.

One well known answer that monotheists try to give is that this is God's way of allowing for human free will. If there was no evil in the world, humans could not choose between good and evil, and hence there would be no free will. This immediately raises a number of new questions. Freedom of will, indeed allows humans to choose between good and evil and some of them choose evil. And according to the standard monotheistic account, those people are punished in hell forever.

Now, it can be asked, if God knew in advance that a particular person will use his or her free will to choose evil, and as a result, will be punished for this evil choice by eternal torture in hell, why did God choose to create this miserable person? Monotheistic theologians have written countless books to answer such difficult questions. Some people find the answers convincing, some people don't. What everybody can agree about, is that monotheists have a very hard time with explaining how a perfectly good and all-powerful God allows so much suffering in the world.

For dualists, on the other hand, it's very easy and simple to confront the problem of evil. Bad things, according to dualism, happen to even to good people because the world is not governed by an all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely good god. There is an independent evil power in the world, and this evil power does bad things. This explanation is so simple, and it is so compelling, that even many monotheists tend to adopt it. Countless Christians, Muslims, and Jews over the generations, believed in the existence of a powerful evil force, which the Christians call the devil or Satan.

And this force, according to popular belief, can act independently of God, and even rebel against and fight against God. Countless Christians, Muslims and Jews have gone so far as to imagine that the good God, even though it's all powerful and all-knowing, needs our help in its struggle against Satan. Logically, it's impossible. If you believe in the existence of one single omnipotent God, then you can't believe in the existence of an independent evil power, that works against God. Still, humans have a wonderful capacity to believe in two things which logically contradict each other.

The dualist view also has its things that it finds hard to explain. Dualists offer a very simple solution to the problem of evil, but they have no good answer to the other big problem of human thought, the problem of order. If there are two different and opposing powers in the world, one good and one evil, who made the laws governing the struggle between these two? Two rival states, say India and Pakistan, can fight one another with tanks and bombs and missiles because both India and Pakistan exist in time and space, and both obey the same laws of physics.

A missile which is launched from Pakistani ground can hit targets inside Indian territory because the same laws of physics apply in both countries. These laws were not legislated by the government of India or Pakistan. But, when good and evil fight against each other, what common laws do both of them obey, and who made these laws? Dualists have a very hard time answering these questions. Monotheists, those who believe in one god, are very good at explaining the problem of order. It's easy to explain the order in the world because there is just one God, who made the laws that govern the universe.

Mr. Harari thinks that there is one logical way of solving the problem of order and the problem of evil simultaneously. The logical way to solve it, according to him, is to argue that there is a single omnipotent God that created the entire universe and that it is an evil God, because if it's just one God, this explains the order in the world, and because this god is evil, this explains why there is so much suffering in the world. But this idea, even though it's very logical in the view of Mr. Harari, was something nobody in history wanted to believe. So, no religion espouses this particular belief.

There have been many dualistic religions, such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Gnosticism, which flourished for many centuries, and were the dominant religions in large parts of the Middle East and Central Asia from about 500 BC to about 500 AD Eventually, in the great struggle between monotheism and dualism, monotheism won and dualism almost disappeared. Today, there are only handful of surviving dualistic communities in some pockets in India and the Middle East. Nevertheless, dualism is very important because the same thing that happened with polytheism, happened also with dualism.

Even though dualistic religions as such disappeared, dualistic ideas, practises and beliefs became an integral part of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These monotheistic religions absorbed dualistic beliefs and practises into them and many of the basic ideas today, which we identify with Christianity and Islam, are in fact dualist, both in their origin and in their main message. For example, the dualist belief in the existence of an evil god that fights against the good god, is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. It entered Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the shape of Satan.

It brought with it, the belief that humans ought to help the good god in his fight against his enemies, which Mr Hariri believes, inspired all kinds of crusades and jihads. In a purely monotheistic religion, the call for crusade or jihad is ridiculous. If God is omnipotent, he knows everything, he's all powerful. He can do anything he likes. Why does he need help from us humans in winning these wars? If God's wants the holy land to belong to the Christians, he can just make it so, and that's it. Why go on crusade? So, there is no logic in holy war in monotheism.

There is logic in holy war in dualism, and because monotheism accepted so much baggage from dualism, it also accepted this idea of holy war to help the good god in its fight against the enemies. The last great idea that entered monotheism from dualism, is the belief in heaven and hell. There's no trace of these ideas in the Old Testament. The Old Testament never says that the souls of people continue to live after they die, that they leave the body and reach heaven or hell. It's never written that the soul of Moses, Abraham or Isaac, left the body and reached heaven, or that the soul of evil Pharaoh, left the body and reached hell.

These ideas that make no sense from the monotheistic perspective, but they entered monotheism from dualism, and then became an integral part of what most people consider to be the monotheistic Christian or Muslim view of the world. So monotheism is in fact, a kind of bringing together of all kinds of monotheist, dualist, polytheist and animist legacies, which are influencing each other and changing each other, all coexisting under one big divine umbrella. The average Christian believes in the monotheistic god, but also believes in the devil, in the polytheist sense, and in the animist ghosts and demons.

Polytheism, monotheism, and dualism, have differences between them, but they are also very similar as they all focus on belief in gods, one god, two gods, or many gods. However, the religious history of the world does not boil down to the history of gods. Already, during the first millennium BC, the world began to see the rise of another kind of religions, religions that do not give much importance to gods.

10.3. Godless religions


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 10.3

During the first millennium BC, a new kind of religions emerged such as Jainism and Buddhism in India, Daoism and Confucianism in China, and Stoicism, Cynicism, and Epicurianism in the Mediterranean area. These religions were characterised by their disregard of gods. These religions maintained that the superhuman order governing the world is the product of natural laws, and not the product of divine wills and whims. Some of these natural law religions continued to believe in the existence of gods, but these gods were considered to be subject to the laws of nature just like humans, animals and plants.

A prime example of these new religions natural law religions is Buddhism, which was probably the most important of the ancient natural law religions, and which remains even today one of the major faiths of the world. The central figure of Buddhism is not a god but a human being, Siddhartha Gautama. According to Buddhist tradition Gautama was heir to a small kingdom in the Himalayan mountains in northern India about 500 BC. The young prince was deeply impressed by the suffering which he saw all around him in his kingdom and the world at large.

He saw that men and women, children and old people, all suffer, not just from occasional calamities such as war or plague, but suffer constantly from anxieties, frustrations, and discontent, all of which seemed to be an inseparable part of the human condition. You can end all wars and plagues, but people will still suffer from all these anxieties and discontentment. What Gautama saw was that people pursue wealth and power. They acquire knowledge, they acquire many possessions, they beget sons and daughters, they build houses and palaces, but no matter what humans achieve, they are never satisfied.

Those who live in poverty naturally dream about being rich. Those who have managed to gain a million, now want 2 million. Those who have 2 million, now dream about having 10 million. Even the rich and famous, like his own royal family, were rarely satisfied. They too are haunted by ceaseless scares and worries, which doesn't end until sickness, old age and death put an end to it. And then, everything that one accumulated and pursued throughout his or her life, vanishes just like smoke. Life to Gautama was a pointless rat race, but what other way was there?

When Gautama was 29, according to Buddhist tradition, he decided that answering this question is the most important thing in life. He left in the middle of the night. He slipped away from his palace, he left behind his family his possessions, and his kingdom, and he travelled as a homeless vagabond throughout Northern India, searching for a way out of suffering, not only out of wars and plagues, but out of all anxieties, frustrations and discontent. Gautama spent six years meditating on the essence, the causes, and the potential cures for suffering.

In the end Gautama concluded that suffering is not caused by ill fortune, social injustice or divine whims, rather he discovered suffering is caused by the behavioural patterns of one's own mind. Gautama's big insight was that no matter what the mind experiences, it almost always reacts with craving, and craving always results or involves dissatisfaction. When the mind experiences something unpleasant like pain, you crave to be rid of it. And when the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. And therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless, always craves for something more.

This is very clear when we experience unpleasant things such as pain. Yet, even when we experience pleasant things, according to Gautama's findings, we are never content. We either fear that the pleasure might disappear or we hope that the pleasure will intensify. For example, when people who dream for years about finding love and being in a relationship, finally get what they want, they're rarely completely satisfied. Some people are afraid all the time that they may lose it, whereas other people think that maybe they could get something better. Some people they are torn by both problems simultaneously.

Gautama found that there was one way to escape this vicious circle. When the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it can simply understand and accept things as they are, and then there is no suffering. If you experience sadness without craving, you continue to feel sad but you don't suffer from it. There can actually be much richness and much insight in the sadness. If you experience joy without craving that this joy should linger and intensify then you continue to feel joy but without losing your peace of mind, and you can be completely satisfied with the joy that you have.

To do that Gautama developed meditation techniques that train the mind to experience reality as it is without craving for something different or something more. These meditative practises train the mind to focus on the question "What am I really experiencing right now?" and not on the question "What would I rather be experiencing instead?" It is very difficult to achieve this state of mind but it is not impossible. Gautama also grounded these meditation techniques in a set of ethical rules which are meant to make it easier for people to focus on the actual experience of the present while avoiding all kinds of fantasies, cravings and fears.

Gautama instructed his followers to avoid killing, promiscuous sex, and theft, not because some great god forbade it, but because such acts increase the fires of craving for power, sensual pleasure and wealth. So they make the mind less and less satisfied. When the flames of craving are completely extinguished, craving is replaced by a state of perfect contentment and serenity, which is known in Buddhism as nirvana. The literal meaning of the word nirvana is the extinguishing of the fire. Extinguishing the fire of craving that all the time burns in the mind and creates dissatisfaction and misery.

According to Buddhism those who have managed to obtain nirvana are fully liberated from all suffering. They experience reality with the utmost clarity without any fantasies or delusions. They might still encounter a lot of unpleasantness or pain in their lives. But such experiences do not cause them misery because they have no craving for the pain or unpleasantness to go away. According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama himself managed to attain nirvana and was fully liberated from all suffering, and henceforth he was known as Buddha. The meaning of the word Buddha is the enlightened one.

Buddha, after freeing himself from all suffering, spent the rest of his life explaining his discoveries to others so that everyone could also be free from suffering. Buddha encapsulated all of his teaching in a single law which says that suffering arises from craving. The only way to be fully liberated from suffering is to be fully liberated from craving. And the only way to be liberated from craving is to train the mind to experience reality as it is without craving for reality to be something else.

This law, which is known in Buddhism as dharma or dhamma, is seen by Buddhists as a universal law of nature, states that suffering always arises from craving and that this is true everywhere for everybody. This is a law of nature. Buddhists believe in this particular law of nature and make it the centre of all their activities. Belief in gods is of minor importance to Buddhism. The first principle of monotheist religions is, God exists, what does He want from me? The first principle of Buddhism says, suffering exists, how do I get out of it? Gods have little influence on this.

Buddhism does not deny the existence of gods, and they are often described in Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist stories as powerful beings who can do such things as bring rain or bring victory in war. But gods, according to Buddhism, have no influence on the law of nature. Suffering and happiness are an outcome of a natural law which works in complete independence of the gods. If the mind of a particular person is free of all craving, no god in the universe can make this person miserable. Conversely, once craving arises in the mind of a person all the gods combined cannot save this person from suffering.

Much like the monotheist religions, pre-modern natural law religions such as Buddhism never really managed to rid themselves completely of the worship of various gods. Buddhism acknowledged the existence of gods and their efficacy in bringing rain, victory or cure for diseases. Buddhism taught people that they should aim for the ultimate goal of complete liberation from suffering. But 99% of Buddhists did not obtain nirvana, and even if they hope someday to be completely liberated from suffering, they devote most of their present life to the pursuit of mundane achievements, like economic prosperity or political power.

Therefore most Buddhists continued to worship various gods such as the Hindu gods in India, the bone gods in Tibet, the Shinto gods in Japan, and all kinds of new Buddhist gods and saints. This characterised all the traditional natural law religions, not just Buddhism, but also Daoism and Jainism. Even though in theory, they gave little importance to gods, in practise the worship of different gods continued to be of considerable importance to Buddhists, Daoists and Jains. The gods finally lost their power and importance with the coming of the modern age.

The weakening of the gods did not mean the disappearance of religion because religion and gods are very different things. When the gods became weak and less important, natural law religions that believe in laws of nature people should, should obey, were finally freed from all these worship of gods, and they became even more important than ever before, not the old natural law religions, like Buddhism and Daoism, but a number of new natural law religions that emerged over the last 300 years, and became extremely important in the modern world.

The last 300 years are often depicted as an age of growing secularism in which religion increasingly lost its importance. If we are talking about religions that focus on the worship of gods then this is largely correct. Gods have become less important over the last few centuries. But, if we take into consideration natural law religions, then the modern age turns out to be an age of intense religious fervour, unparalleled missionary efforts, and the bloodiest wars of religion in history, because the modern age has witnessed the rise of natural law religions such as liberalism, communism, capitalism, nationalism, and nazism.

These creeds do not like to be called religions and prefer to call themselves ideologies but this is just a semantic exercise. If a religion is a system of human norms and values, which is founded on belief in a superhuman order then communism is no less of a religion than Islam. Islam sees the laws of the universal order as emanating from a great creator God, whereas communism does not believe in any gods. But the belief in gods is not essential for religion. Buddhism too, at least in it's pure forms, gives very little importance to gods and we classify Buddhism as a religion.

Like Buddhists, communists believe in a superhuman order of natural and immutable laws that govern the world, which should guide human actions. Whereas Buddhists believe that the law of nature was discovered by Siddhartha Gautama, communists believe that the law of nature was discovered by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. And the similarities do not end there. Like other religions, Communism too had its holy scriptures and prophetic books such as Karl Marx's Das Kapital, which prophesied that history would soon end with the inevitable victory of the proletariat over the capitalist system.

Communism had holidays and festivals, such as the 1st of May. Communism had theologians adept at Marxist dialectics. Every unit in the Soviet red army had a chaplain called the commissar who monitored the piety and beliefs of the soldiers and officers. Communism also had heresies such as Trotskyism. In the Soviet Union Trotskyism was considered a horrible heresy. Communism was a fanatical and missionary religion. According to communist ideology, a devout communist could not at the same time believe in Christianity or Buddhism, and was expected to spread the gospel of Marx and Lenin, even at the cost of his or her own life.

Diagram explaining religion
Diagram explaining religion
In order to understand the logic of calling communism a religion, let's take a look at a diagram which explains what a religion is. A religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order. Not every belief in a superhuman order is a religion. For example, the theory of relativity is a belief in a superhuman order, which is an order that humans did not invent and cannot change at will. Yet, it is not a religion because there are no human norms and values founded on it. Nobody says that it is wrong to murder or to steal because it violates the Theory of Relativity.

Conversely, not every system of human norms and values is a religion. Football is not a religion because nobody argues that the rules of football reflect superhuman edicts or a superhuman order. Islam, Buddhism and communism are all religions because they are all systems of human norms and values that are founded on a belief in a superhuman order. There is a difference between superhuman and supernatural. The Buddhist law of nature and the Marxist laws of history are superhuman since they were not legislated by humans, and humans cannot change them, but they are not supernatural.

It is possible to divide creeds into religions that are centred on belief in gods and ideologies that claim to be based on natural laws. Like traditional religions, modern ideologies give superhuman legitimacy to human norms and values. Many new ideologies or religions emerged in the modern era. The most important ones are the humanist ideologies or humanist religions. These ideologies or religions have switched from worshipping gods to worshipping humankind itself. These humanist religions are the dominant religions in the world today.

10.4. Humanist religions


A Brief History of Humankind: Lecture 10.4

Numerous new religions have appeared over the last 300 years and they had immense influence on the course of history. These religions mostly do not like the title religions and prefer to call themselves ideologies, but they play a similar part in human society and history as the old religions as they give superhuman legitimacy to human norms and values. Of all the new modern religions perhaps the most important are the humanist religions. Humanist religions are religions that worship humanity or Homo Sapiens.

Humanism is the belief that Homo Sapiens has a unique and sacred nature which is fundamentally different from the nature of all the other animals and all other phenomena in the universe. Humanists believe that the unique nature of Homo Sapiens is the most important thing in the world and it determines the meaning of everything that happens in the universe. The supreme good, according to humanists, is the good of Homo Sapiens. The rest of the world and all other beings exist solely for the benefit of this one species. All Humanists worship humanity, but they do not agree on the definition of humanity.

Humanism has a split into three main rival sects that fight over the exact definition of humanity just as rival Christian sects fight over the exact definition of God. Today, the most important Humanist sect is Liberal Humanism which believes that humanity is a quality of individual humans. According to Liberals, the sacred nature of humanity resides within each and every individual Homo Sapiens, and therefore the supreme value of the world is the liberty of individuals. The inner core of individual humans, according to Liberalism, is what gives meaning to the world and is the source of all ethical and political authority.

The chief commandments of Liberal Humanism are meant to protect the freedom and sanctity of the inner voice of each individual. These commandments are collectively known as human rights. Even though Liberal Humanism sanctifies humans, it does not deny the existence of God. It is, in fact, founded on traditional monotheist beliefs. The liberal belief in the free and sacred nature of each individual human is a direct legacy of the traditional Christian belief in free and eternal individual souls. If you don't believe in eternal souls and a creator God, it becomes difficult for liberals to explain what is so special about individual sapiens.

The second important sect of Humanism is Socialist Humanism or Socialism. Socialists believe that humanity is collective and not individualistic. Socialists hold as sacred not the inner voice of each individual, but the species Homo Sapiens as a whole. Whereas Liberal Humanism seeks as much liberty as possible for individual humans, Socialist Humanism seeks equality between all humans. According to Socialism, inequality is the worst blasphemy against the sanctity of humanity, because inequality privileges peripheral qualities of humans over their common universal essence.

For example, when the rich are given privileges which are withheld from the poor, it means that we value money more than we value the universal essence of all humans, which is similar for everybody. Like Liberal Humanism, Socialist Humanism too is built on monotheist foundations. The idea that all humans are equal is a legacy of the monotheist conviction that all souls are equal before God. The only Humanist sect that managed to break loose from traditional monotheism is the third main sect of Humanism, Evolutionary Humanism. The most famous representatives of Evolutionary Humanism were the Nazis.

The Nazis too believed in the sanctity of humanity. They had a different definition of humanity than the Liberals and the Socialists. The Nazis were deeply influenced by the theory of evolution. In contrast to other Humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal and unchanging, but rather a specie of animals which can evolve or degenerate in accordance with the theory of evolution. The main ambition of the Nazis was to protect humankind from extinction, and encourage humankind to become supermen.

This is why the Nazis said that the Aryan race, the most advanced form of humanity according to them, had to be nourished and fostered and protected, while degenerate kinds of Homo Sapiens like Jews, homosexuals and the mentally ill, had to be quarantined and even exterminated. The Nazis explained that Homo Sapiens itself appeared when one superior population of ancient humans evolved and other inferior populations, such as Neanderthals, became extinct. These different populations were at first no more than different races, but they develop independently along their own evolutionary path.

This might happen again, according to the Nazis. Homo sapiens had already divided into several distinct races each with its own unique qualities. One of these races, according to the Nazis, the Aryan race, had the finest qualities rationalism, beauty, diligence, integrity, and so forth. The Aryan race therefore had the potential to turn men into supermen. Other races such as Jews and blacks were, according to the Nazis, the Neanderthals of today, possessing inferior qualities.

Biologists, over the last few decades, have proven that the Nazi racial theory is nonsense. In particular, genetic research conducted after 1945 has demonstrated the differences between different human lineages in populations are far smaller than what the Nazis postulated. But these conclusions are relatively new. Given the state of scientific knowledge in the 1930s, the Nazi beliefs sounded far more reasonable for many people, not only in Germany, but all over the world.

The existence of different human races, the superiority of the white race over all the other races, and the need to protect and cultivate this superior white race, were widely held beliefs among the elite in all western countries. In the 1920s and 1930s, scholars in the most prestigious western universities, using common orthodox scientific methods, published studies that allegedly proved that members of the white race were indeed more intelligent, ethical, and skilled than Africans or Indians.

Politicians in Washington, London, and Canberra saw that it was their job to prevent the degeneration of the white race, for example by restricting immigration to the USA or Australia of people from inferior countries like China or even Italy. So, the Nazis did not hate humanity. They fought Liberal Humanism and Socialism and human rights precisely because they admired humanity and thought it was the most important thing in the world. The Nazis believed in the great potential of the human specie to evolve further into supermen.

Following the logic of the venial evolution, they argue that natural selection must be allowed to weed out unfit individuals and leave only the fittest to survive and to reproduce. According to Nazism, by helping the weak and the unfit, Liberalism and Socialism undermine natural selection. They not only allowed unfit individuals to survive, they actually gave them equal opportunity to reproduce. In such a Liberal or Socialist world, the fittest humans will inevitably drown in a sea of unfit degenerates. Humankind would become less and less fit with each passing generation and this could lead to its extinction.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the future of evolutionary Humanism is unclear. For the 60 years after the end of World War II and the defeat of Nazism, it became taboo to link Humanism with evolution and to advocate using biological methods to upgrade Homo sapiens into some kind of supermen. Today such biological projects of creating supermen are becoming popular again. No one speaks today about exterminating lower races or killing inferior people as the Nazis did, but more and more people today contemplate using our increasing knowledge of human biology and genetics to create superhumans.

At the same time, while evolutionary Humanism is getting favour, a huge gulf is opening between the beliefs of liberal Humanism and the latest findings of the scientists. Liberal politics and the liberal judicial system are founded on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature, indivisible and immutable, which gives meaning to the whole world, and which is the source of all ethical and political authority. This idea is a reincarnation of the traditional Christian belief in a free and eternal soul that resides supposedly within each of us.

Over the last 200 years the life sciences have thoroughly undermined this Christian belief. Scientists who were studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul among all the organs and cells. Human behaviour, according to the life sciences, is determined by hormones and genes and synopsis, not by a soul possessing free will. The human kind, Homo Sapiens, is basically similar to other animals like chimpanzees and wolves and ants in the ways that it behaves.

Our judicial and political systems have a hard time with this idea. Most of the time, they simply try to sweep these ideas under the carpet, so we won't notice them in court or in politics. But how long can we go on maintaining this wall separating the department of biology from the department of law and political science? How long can we keep ignoring the findings of the biological sciences about Homo Sapiens when we come to the field of politics and in law? In order to understand these technological revolutions, we first have to understand the immense changes that occurred in the world over the last 500 years due to the scientific revolution.