Is faith essential – even if you don’t believe in the supernatural?

The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.
The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind covers an enormous range of topics in 400 plus pages. But one (of many) ideas that got me thinking is his claim that we all believe in things that aren’t objectively real.


Money is a cultural myth.


Take money. Why do we think a green piece of paper is so valuable? By itself it has no practical use (though you can exchange it for things, such as food, that do have a practical use). A dollar is backed by the United States of America, and that’s good enough for us.

But why do we trust the US government? It’s faith.

On page 117 Harari writes that “an objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.” The subjective is dependent on the “beliefs of a single individual.” But the inter-subjective “exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.”

Money is inter-subjective. It’s a cultural myth.

We as a society believe that a little green piece of paper is valuable. But if society lost faith in the backing of the United States then the dollar would become worthless overnight.

Not so with an apple. An apple can provide nutrition even if you don’t believe it can.


Human rights don’t exist objectively.


Harari also argues that human rights don’t exist objectively like an apple does. Human rights are a cultural belief, and a relatively new one at that.

But this doesn’t mean that human rights aren’t real. This mythos is real because it serves not only a practical, but an essential, purpose in human societies.

The “cognitive revolution,” as Harari calls it, occurred when humans evolved the ability for abstract thought. Abstract concepts are mental tools just as spears are physical tools. We need to conceptualize our world, and shared concepts are essential for cooperation and cohesion in a society of more than a hundred or two hundred people.

The gods, and later the one God, are also social constructs. Zeus no longer exists because too few people believe in him. But the God of the Bible does still exist (as a human construct rather than an objective reality) because many people do believe in him.

A lot of people see religious diversity (especially atheism) as a threat to social cohesion because diversity and disbelief mean that society loses the uniting mythos of the one true God.


The faith that science will save us is mistaken.


How does this bode for the atheist quest to rid the human race of faith?

From Harari’s point of view, reason also is a human construct with no objective reality. Though reason has been immensely useful as a cognitive tool.

But the belief – the faith – that science will save us is mistaken. On page 253 Harari states that, “All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods.”

One is to “declare that it [a scientific theory] is a final and absolute truth.” The Nazis did this with biological claims, and Communists did it with economic claims.

The other is to reject science in favor of “a non-scientific absolute truth.” This is what evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists do.

A casual look at the progressive/conservative divide in America today reflects these options. Conservatives deny climate change and want biblical myths taught in science class rather than the theory of evolution. And some progressives (particularly radical left-wing students) insist that their theories about social justice must be believed and not debated.


The 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run.


As such, today’s culture war (like all culture wars) represents a rejection of the established mythos and an attempt to have a new mythos dominate.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the rejection of the 1950s mythos. The 1980s through the early 2000s saw the new mythos’s quest for mainstream acceptance, which was accomplished through cultural relativism. Demanding dominance would have failed, but asking people just to think about the new mythos as one set of beliefs among many gets your foot in the door.

Today we see a demand for ideological dominance among progressive students at private colleges (and some state universities). Where this will go is hard to say.

There are several possibilities. Progressive students might see their mythos dominate within three or four decades. Or, mainstream culture might adopt some ideas that today are considered radical (much like gay marriage was radical twenty years ago) while retaining some traditional ideas. Alternatively, a third as yet undefined mythos could emerge (though that’s highly unlikely).

But the 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, implicitly invoking the 1950s of the Silent Generation’s young adulthood, Baby Boomer’s childhood, and Generations X’s imagination. But even if Trump becomes president the older cohorts that elect him will eventually age out of the political system.

Advertisements

Is Gamergate Conservative or Liberal?

Opponents say GamerGate has a conservative agenda. And though GamerGate supporters often deny that they are conservatives, the conservative media has mostly supported the movement.

Allum Bokhari, however, says his research shows that most GamerGate supporters are liberal.

In brief, GamerGate is the claim by video game enthusiasts that the gaming media is corrupt. But opponents of GamerGate accuse supporters of misogyny and online harassment.

I’m not interested in engaging that debate, and as a non-gamer I know little about it. I’m interested in the question: Might GamerGate be a symptom of a larger issue?

Bokhari’s research finds that GamerGate supporters overwhelmingly favor gay marriage and abortion rights. They endorse women’s rights as well, but disagree that America is a rape culture. But GamerGate supporters also oppose popular social justice activist tactics such as censorship, witch hunts, and “call-out culture.”

Here’s the twist: Although almost three-quarters of GamerGate supporters identify with the left or political center, almost half of those on the left identify as left-libertarian rather than liberal.

The divide, then, is between establishment liberals and libertarian liberals. Libertarianism is usually associated with conservatives, though this is only true with economic issues. Left libertarians are more concerned with social freedom, however, and often are fine with regulated rather than pure free market capitalism.

More importantly, left libertarianism has a different foundational philosophy than establishment liberalism.

Establishment liberalism focuses on oppression as the primary political issue (often called “Cultural Marxism” by critics). This viewpoint not only claims that capitalism is destructive, but it extends this narrative, interpreting most things in terms of this group oppressing that group. As such, the power of dominant groups must be diminished while oppressed groups must be lifted up to create a level playing field. Critics often describe specific measures as social engineering, and allege that it represents a soft, manipulative type of authoritarianism.

But the individual is primary for left libertarians. For example, left libertarians support gay marriage because of individual rights, but are less interested in the oppression narrative. Critics of the libertarian viewpoint say it ignores the suffering of social injustice, fails to acknowledge the moral duty to rectify oppression, and will lead to the atomization of society. For example, left libertarians often oppose affirmative action as coercive and discriminatory, while establishment liberals strongly support affirmative action as necessary to compensate for white, cis-male, heterosexual privilege.

While it’s clear that conservatives have lost the culture wars – Roe v Wade is not going to be overturned, and gay marriage will only gain more states – the war isn’t over because the two main camps on the left, which were united in defeating the common conservative enemy, have now turned on each other.

And those conservatives who accept their defeat are making the best of the situation by allying with liberal individualists and against the so-called “Cultural Marxists.”

Establishment liberals have enormous power on college campuses, and within the Democratic Party and the media. Meanwhile, Republicans are still holding on, but their failure to attract Millennials means their demographic clock is ticking.

Where will this lead? My guess is that this rift will continue, but control of the Democratic Party will remain with establishment liberals. Meanwhile, Republicans will suffer increasing defeats in the 2020s as their aging voter base shrinks. The few young Republicans remaining will be economically conservative but socially libertarian. To survive, Republicans will woo left libertarians who previously voted Democratic, thus making the GOP less socially conservative. The elders in the Republican Party won’t like this, but as 2030 approaches they’ll be too small in number to matter.