Authors: Yuval Noah Harari
You will not find the answers to any of these questions in the Qur’an or sharia law, nor in the Bible or in the Confucian
, because nobody in the medieval Middle East or in ancient China knew much about computers, genetics or nanotechnology. Radical Islam may promise an anchor of certainty in a world of technological and economic storms – but in order to navigate a storm, you need a map and a rudder rather than just an anchor. Hence radical Islam may appeal to people born and raised in its fold, but it has precious little to offer unemployed Spanish youths or anxious Chinese billionaires.
True, hundreds of millions may nevertheless go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism. But numbers alone don’t count for much in history. History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by the backward-looking masses. Ten thousand years ago most people were hunter-gatherers and only a few pioneers in the Middle East were farmers. Yet the future belonged to the farmers. In 1850 more than 90 per cent of humans were peasants, and in the small villages along the Ganges, the Nile and the Yangtze nobody knew anything about steam engines, railroads or telegraph lines. Yet the fate of these peasants had already been sealed in Manchester and Birmingham by the handful of engineers, politicians and financiers who spearheaded
the Industrial Revolution. Steam engines, railroads and telegraphs transformed the production of food, textiles, vehicles and weapons, giving industrial powers a decisive edge over traditional agricultural societies.
Even when the Industrial Revolution spread around the world and penetrated up the Ganges, Nile and Yangtze, most people continued to believe in the Vedas, the Bible, the Qur’an and the
more than in the steam engine. As today, so too in the nineteenth century there was no shortage of priests, mystics and gurus who argued that they alone hold the solution to all of humanity’s woes, including to the new problems created by the Industrial Revolution. For example, between the 1820s and 1880s Egypt (backed by Britain) conquered Sudan, and tried to modernise the country and incorporate it into the new international trade network. This destabilised traditional Sudanese society, creating widespread resentment and fostering revolts. In 1881 a local religious leader, Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdallah, declared that he was the Mahdi (the Messiah), sent to establish the law of God on earth. His supporters defeated the Anglo-Egyptian army, and beheaded its commander – General Charles Gordon – in a gesture that shocked Victorian Britain. They then established in Sudan an Islamic theocracy governed by sharia law, which lasted until 1898.
Meanwhile in India, Dayananda Saraswati headed a Hindu revival movement, whose basic principle was that the Vedic scriptures are never wrong. In 1875 he founded the Arya Samaj (Noble Society), dedicated to the spreading of Vedic knowledge – though truth be told, Dayananda often interpreted the Vedas in a surprisingly liberal way, supporting for example equal rights for women long before the idea became popular in the West.
Dayananda’s contemporary, Pope Pius IX, had much more conservative views about women, but shared Dayananda’s admiration for superhuman authority. Pius led a series of reforms in Catholic dogma, and established the novel principle of papal infallibility, according to which the Pope can never err in matters of faith (this seemingly medieval idea became binding Catholic dogma only in
1870, eleven years after Charles Darwin published
On the Origin of Species
Thirty years before the Pope discovered that he is incapable of making mistakes, a failed Chinese scholar called Hong Xiuquan had a succession of religious visions. In these visions, God revealed that Hong was none other than the younger brother of Jesus Christ. God then invested Hong with a divine mission. He told Hong to expel the Manchu ‘demons’ that had ruled China since the seventeenth century, and establish on earth the Great Peaceful Kingdom of Heaven (Taiping Tiānguó). Hong’s message fired the imagination of millions of desperate Chinese, who were shaken by China’s defeats in the Opium Wars and by the coming of modern industry and European imperialism. But Hong did not lead them to a kingdom of peace. Rather, he led them against the Manchu Qing dynasty in the Taiping Rebellion – the deadliest war of the nineteenth century. From 1850 to 1864, at least 20 million people lost their lives; far more than in the Napoleonic Wars or in the American Civil War.
Hundreds of millions clung to the religious dogmas of Hong, Dayananda, Pius and the Mahdi even as industrial factories, railroads and steamships filled the world. Yet most of us don’t think about the nineteenth century as the age of faith. When we think of nineteenth-century visionaries, we are far more likely to recall Marx, Engels and Lenin than the Mahdi, Pius IX or Hong Xiuquan. And rightly so. Though in 1850 socialism was only a fringe movement, it soon gathered momentum, and changed the world in far more profound ways than the self-proclaimed messiahs of China and Sudan. If you count on national health services, pension funds and free schools, you need to thank Marx and Lenin (and Otto von Bismarck) far more than Hong Xiuquan or the Mahdi.
Why did Marx and Lenin succeed where Hong and the Mahdi failed? Not because socialist humanism was philosophically more sophisticated than Islamic and Christian theology, but rather because Marx and Lenin devoted more attention to understanding the technological and economic realities of their time than to perusing ancient texts and prophetic dreams. Steam engines,
railroads, telegraphs and electricity created unheard-of problems as well as unprecedented opportunities. The experiences, needs and hopes of the new class of urban proletariats were simply too different from those of biblical peasants. To answer these needs and hopes, Marx and Lenin studied how a steam engine functions, how a coal mine operates, how railroads shape the economy and how electricity influences politics.
Lenin was once asked to define communism in a single sentence. ‘Communism is power to worker councils,’ he said, ‘plus electrification of the whole country.’ There can be no communism without electricity, without railroads, without radio. You couldn’t establish a communist regime in sixteenth-century Russia, because communism necessitates the concentration of information and resources in one hub. ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ only works when produce can easily be collected and distributed across vast distances, and when activities can be monitored and coordinated over entire countries.
Marx and his followers understood the new technological realities and the new human experiences, so they had relevant answers to the new problems of industrial society, as well as original ideas about how to benefit from the unprecedented opportunities. The socialists created a brave new religion for a brave new world. They promised salvation through technology and economics, thus establishing the first techno-religion in history, and changing the foundations of ideological discourse. Before Marx, people defined and divided themselves according to their views about God, not about production methods. Since Marx, questions of technology and economic structure became far more important and divisive than debates about the soul and the afterlife. In the second half of the twentieth century, humankind almost obliterated itself in an argument about production methods. Even the harshest critics of Marx and Lenin adopted their basic attitude towards history and society, and began thinking about technology and production much more carefully than about God and heaven.
In the mid-nineteenth century, few people were as perceptive as Marx, hence only a few countries underwent rapid industrialisation. These few countries conquered the world. Most societies failed to understand what was happening, and they therefore missed the train of progress. Dayananda’s India and the Mahdi’s Sudan remained far more preoccupied with God than with steam engines, hence they were occupied and exploited by industrial Britain. Only in the last few years has India managed to make significant progress in closing the economic and geopolitical gap separating it from Britain. Sudan is still struggling far behind.
In the early twenty-first century the train of progress is again pulling out of the station – and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called
. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. In order to get a seat on it, you need to understand twenty-first-century technology, and in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms. These powers are far more potent than steam and the telegraph, and they will not be used merely for the production of food, textiles, vehicles and weapons. The main products of the twenty-first century will be bodies, brains and minds, and the gap between those who know how to engineer bodies and brains and those who do not will be far bigger than the gap between Dickens’s Britain and the Mahdi’s Sudan. Indeed, it will be bigger than the gap between Sapiens and Neanderthals. In the twenty-first century, those who ride the train of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will face extinction.
Socialism, which was very up to date a hundred years ago, failed to keep up with the new technology. Leonid Brezhnev and Fidel Castro held on to ideas that Marx and Lenin formulated in the age of steam, and did not understand the power of computers and biotechnology. Liberals, in contrast, adapted far better to the information age. This partly explains why Khrushchev’s 1956 prediction never materialised, and why it was the liberal capitalists who
eventually buried the Marxists. If Marx came back to life today, he would probably urge his few remaining disciples to devote less time to reading
and more time to studying the Internet and the human genome.
Radical Islam is in a far worse position than socialism. It has not yet even come to terms with the Industrial Revolution – no wonder it has little of relevance to say about genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. Islam, Christianity and other traditional religions are still important players in the world. Yet their role is now largely reactive. In the past, they were a creative force. Christianity, for example, spread the hitherto heretical idea that all humans are equal before God, thereby changing human political structures, social hierarchies and even gender relations. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus went further, insisting that the meek and oppressed are God’s favourite people, thus turning the pyramid of power on its head, and providing ammunition for generations of revolutionaries.
In addition to social and ethical reforms, Christianity was responsible for important economic and technological innovations. The Catholic Church established medieval Europe’s most sophisticated administrative system, and pioneered the use of archives, catalogues, timetables and other techniques of data processing. The Vatican was the closest thing twelfth-century Europe had to Silicon Valley. The Church established Europe’s first economic corporations – the monasteries – which for 1,000 years spearheaded the European economy and introduced advanced agricultural and administrative methods. Monasteries were the first institutions to use clocks, and for centuries they and the cathedral schools were the most important learning centres of Europe, helping to found many of Europe’s first universities, such as Bologna, Oxford and Salamanca.
Today the Catholic Church continues to enjoy the loyalties and tithes of hundreds of millions of followers. Yet it and the other theist religions have long since turned from a creative into a reactive force. They are busy with rearguard holding operations more than with pioneering novel technologies, innovative
economic methods or groundbreaking social ideas. They now mostly agonise over the technologies, methods and ideas propagated by other movements. Biologists invent the contraceptive pill – and the Pope doesn’t know what to do about it. Computer scientists develop the Internet – and rabbis argue whether orthodox Jews should be allowed to surf it. Feminist thinkers call upon women to take possession of their bodies – and learned muftis debate how to confront such incendiary ideas.
Ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the twentieth century? That’s a difficult question, because it is hard to choose from a long list of candidates, including scientific discoveries such as antibiotics, technological inventions such as computers, and ideological creations such as feminism. Now ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of traditional religions such as Islam and Christianity in the twentieth century? This too is a very difficult question, because there is so little to choose from. What did priests, rabbis and muftis discover in the twentieth century that can be mentioned in the same breath as antibiotics, computers or feminism? Having mulled over these two questions, from where do you think the big changes of the twenty-first century will emerge: from the Islamic State, or from Google? Yes, the Islamic State knows how to put videos on YouTube; but leaving aside the industry of torture, how many new start-ups have emerged from Syria or Iraq lately?
Billions of people, including many scientists, continue to use religious scriptures as a source of authority, but these texts are no longer a source of creativity. Think, for example, about the acceptance of gay marriage or female clergy by the more progressive branches of Christianity. Where did this acceptance originate? Not from reading the Bible, St Augustine or Martin Luther. Rather, it came from reading texts like Michel Foucault’s
The History of Sexuality
or Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’.
Yet Christian true-believers – however progressive – cannot admit to drawing their ethics from Foucault
and Haraway. So they go back to the Bible, to St Augustine and to Martin Luther, and make a very thorough search. They read page after page and story after story with the utmost attention, until they find what they need: some maxim, parable or ruling that if interpreted creatively enough means that God blesses gay marriages and that women can be ordained to the priesthood. They then pretend the idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault. The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.